Dreaming of Vermont: Consider Essex County, Wild, Unspoiled and Tourist-Free

800px-Map_of_Vermont_highlighting_Essex_County.svgDo you dream of a move to Vermont, or dream of owning a second home here?  Are you interested, however,  in a more authentic and untouched part of the state?  Is there really such a place left in Vermont?  This post is dedicated to you then, the ones who’d prefer to avoid the stereotypes, the tourists, and the mass marketing.

In part, this is a sales pitch, both for our home for sale in Guildhall, but more broadly, for my beloved corner of Vermont, which very few people know exists.  But this is also my reflection  on the nature of Vermont, what we think we know about it, and how to experience the real Vermont, rather than the myths and the marketing.

For many, Vermont is a romantic idea, a destination involving ski resorts, maple syrup, Vermont teddy bears, well-groomed bike paths, leaf-peeping and venues for Vermont crafts, in places like Stowe, Killington, Brattleboro, Putney, or Burlington.  But is this the real Vermont?  Is there any place left in my beloved state that’s relatively untouched and not mass-marketed?  Places where some authenticity remains?

I think such a place does exist and we live it.  We are full-time residents of  Essex County, an area tucked into the northeastern corner of the state between Quebec and New Hampshire.  Few (including many Vermonters!)  have ever heard of our county, which is home to about 6,000 people.  Still fewer have heard of Guildhall, the county’s beautiful shire town.  After all, Guildhall’s population is only 263.  Yes, you heard me correctly.  Not 2,630.  Just 263.     Although Essex County has a few bigger towns (the biggest is Lunenburg, population about 1,300), the majority of our towns are similarly tiny.

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Our house, known as the Benton Cottage, is an eight room Colonial Revival built in 1915 by Everett C. Benton.  Generations of the Benton family had lived in Guildhall, but in the late 19th century, Everett moved to the Boston area.  He and his family retained their ties to the area, designing and building a summer cottage, and acting generally as a town benefactor, including the finance, design and building of the town library,  town offices, and several public monuments.   When the Benton family visited Guildhall during the summers of the early 20th century, they weren’t tourists.  They had real connections here, with real family and friends.

The Benton Cottage sits on the banks of the majestic Connecticut River, with a spectacular view  of the northern White Mountains.   Click here to see the online Benton Cottage photo album

We’ve had our house on the market numerous times, periodically over the last six years.  Exactly two people have even come to look at it. (They made no offers).  If no one comes to look, there is no way they will fall hopelessly in love with this property like we did back in 2004 when we moved here from Boston.  We were so smitten (and looking for a change) that we pulled up roots from the city we loved and moved to this hyper-rural area.  We simply could not resist.

But our town is remote.  As you might imagine with 263 people, there is no supermarket, no restaurant, no coffee shop, no bank, no pharmacy.  We don’t have a single gas station. (For these amenities, we drive about 15 minutes, to Lancaster, NH).

IMG_20170719_083211970.jpgWhat was so irresistible about this little town and county where not much happens?  Where to start?  The house with its graceful, stately fence facing the most charming New England green I think I’ve ever seen, with a public library, courthouse, sheriff’s office, church, and town office where you can pick wild strawberries on the common in June and July.    The three fireplaces, in the living room, dining room, and study.  The glorious wrap-around porch where we have sat many an hour watching the Connecticut River and the flood plain full of birds and wildlife.  The spacious lawn where I’ve since installed raised beds and grow herbs, flowers and vegetables.    Where every house, including ours, is listed on the historic registry maintained by the U.S. Department of the Interior.

The landscape surrounding us is wild and virtually untouched by tourism.  Bicyclists come through town occasionally in the summer and some adventurous auto leaf-peepers in the fall.  But they don’t congregate; there is no place to stop, no stores hawking goods, no hotels and only a handful of bed and breakfasts throughout the county. (Only three that I can think of).    The drive north (and south) on Route 102 is one of the most beautiful river byways in the state, and few are aware of it, even tourist officials.   The extraordinary Silvio O. Conte Wildlife Refuge, on Route 105 on the way to Island Pond is a protected working landscape with endless opportunities for hiking, fishing, and biking.  Maidstone Lake, about seven miles north of the Benton Cottage, is one of Vermont’s most beautiful state parks.

UPDATE:  My friend Linnzi Furman, who homesteads down the road here in Guildhall, has pointed out, rightfully so, the other advantages of our region, including the town being equidistant to St Johnsbury, Colebrook and Littleton, important cultural centers.  And then there’s our relative close proximity to ski areas like Bretton Woods and Burke Mountain.  Plus, Lancaster, New Hampshire, our go-to town is flourishing these days, with a new bakery, natural foods store, and brewery.

When a house goes unsold for long periods of time, it’s tempting to think surely there must be something wrong with the property.  Not in this case.  No, the Benton Cottage is in great shape,  lovingly preserved and maintained over the last hundred years.  No, sadly, it’s the location.  I suspect that this historic house, with all its features and its riverfront location with  stunning view of the White Mountains, would be worth a cool million or more if it were located even an hour south of here.

Here in Guildhall, we even have excellent broadband, which means that earning a living via telecommute is perfectly viable.  (And it takes less time than you might think to get here from Boston, usually 3.5 hours on the interstate)   But location is location.  Ironically, what we love about our  region, its sleepiness, its wild beauty, its lack of tourist madness, are the very things that keep our region a secret beauty, and prevent and inhibit population growth and much-needed economic development.

So those with the Vermont dream, I invite you to expand your notion of what Vermont means.  Come to Essex County. Come to Guildhall.  Have a glass of wine on our porch.  Experience the real Vermont.

One thought on “Dreaming of Vermont: Consider Essex County, Wild, Unspoiled and Tourist-Free

  1. Pam Cameron October 21, 2018 / 7:43 pm

    You are so right, Laura — Guildhall, and your “cottage”, are absolutely beautiful, and the village is one of the last places one can find peace and serenity — and still be close to doctors, hospital, stores and restaurants — either in Lancaster, NH or in St. Johnsbury, VT. The views are lovely with the river and the mountains … so many pretty drives from there! I hope you have success in selling your place — it deserves owners who treasure it and its place in history as you and Edward have done.

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