Bennington

by Susan Abbott
Vermont was born in a hotel. The Green Mountain Tavern in Bennington, known as Catamount Inn, had as a sign a stuffed catamount lion grinning toward New York. Here the Green Mountain Boys gathered. Here New York sympathizers were delivered for the high chair treatment--hoisting in a chair of ignominy from the porch roof. Here Ethan Allen planned the taking of Ticonderoga. Here the pioneers drank, not only with their eyes, but lustlily with rum to the new republic, as is evidenced by Allen's tap-room bill, still preserved...Charles Edward Crane


I'm happy to say I'm back on the Vermont road again, after a summer and fall of painting deadlines and travels far from my home state. Thank you, dear readers, for a long, patient wait! Let's take up where we left off, on Route 7 heading north into Bennington near the New York border.

Bennington is large enough to have sections with distinct personalities and histories ("Old", "North" and "Downtown"), and venerable enough to have played an important role in the drama of the founding of both the "Republic" of Vermont and the independent United States. A walk in Old Bennington takes you past buildings haunted by righteously angry ghosts--from the Old First Church (the original Protestant congregation in Vermont), to the site of the Catamount Tavern (in the 1770's the favorite watering hole of revolutionary conspirators against the powers of New York and England) and finally up to the heights of the Battle Monument obelisk.




The Battle of Bennington actually took place right across the border in New York, but it was fought by area farmers and woodsmen. British and Prussian troops (worn out by fanatical Monty Python-style precision drilling) were sure they would have no problem raiding Vermont for stores and ammunition on their march south to finish business with the rebellious colonies. Instead the royal army was defeated in a rout, and Bennington went down in history as one of the few battles where improvised troops beat trained contingents. As captured General Burgoyne wrote to his rulers in England, Vermont was a place "that abounds with the most active and rebellious race on the continent, and hangs, like a gathering storm, on my left." (Enter, 230 years later, Senator Bernie Sanders.)


You'll leave the ghosts of our political revolution and encounter remnants of the Industrial Revolution as you drive east into downtown Bennington. Textile and paper mills, iron furnaces and grist mills all provided jobs and fed the local economy until Vermont manufacturers could no longer compete with cheaper products.

This loss of industry was widespread--but one manufacturer from the 19th century that has survived and flourished to the present day is Bennington Pottery--an example of the importance of artistry as well as functionality in a product. Another survivor from the past is artsy Bennington College, founded in 1932 as an experiment in "self-dependence" for its mostly female student body. (All the Bennington graduates I know, including a guy, are smart and creative people, so the experiment must have worked.)

Driving out of town, I kept pulling the car over to the curb to get a closer, slower look at Bennington's old architecture. Some of these mills, stables, factories and homes look lovingly restored, some are reinvigorated and put to new uses, and some are decaying and seem forgotten in time. Each of these glimpses down an old sidewalk or back street evokes this town's long lost past, and seems to hold some meaning (even if I can't quite grasp it) for our future.