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Vermont Magazine Island Pond Article - Mobile Friendly

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Description: Vermont Magazine Island Pond Article - Mobile Friendly

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Story by C.J. King/Photos by C.J. King and Philip R. Jordan Comeback in the Kingdom Island Pond, once a bustling railroad center whose fortunes declined over the past several decades, is now enjoying a much-welcomed renaissance. LYING IN A SMALL PLANE OVER THE NORTH- cluded ponds, scrubby fields, and swampy bogs—wild treasures east Kingdom village of Island Pond, you get a good to be explored. Fpicture for why this place is called “the gateway to the Island Pond is the perfect place for launching an outdoor ad- northern forest.” As the plane banks and heads north, the venture, a place where you could forget about the rest of the village’s tiny cluster of buildings quickly disappears, dwarfed world for a while. Within minutes of the village center, you could by a vast rolling landscape of forested hills—white pine, spruce be hiking to the top of Bluff Mountain, binoculars or camera in and fir, and mixed hardwoods in abundance. Hidden down hand, in search of rare birds or ready to enjoy a long view of the there by all of the trees is a world of meandering streams, se- scenery. Or you could be pulling trout from an icy stream, or canoeing one of the town’s riv- PHILIP R. JORDAN in the Nulhegan Basin. The ers, or following a moose trail National Geographic Society has ranked this region of the state among the best geotour- ism destinations in the world. Yes, nature is certainly one of Island Pond’s crown jewels. But you would be miss- ing something if you took to the woods without getting to know some of the folks who make this such a friendly hu- man community. Among them are Betty Gilfillan and Clifford Biron, two longtime residents and mainstays of the Island Pond Historical Society, presi- dent and curator respectively. Both proud of their town, they love to share its heritage. Dur- ing a tour of the local museum, Island Pond’s attractive-looking welcome center stands close beside Lightning Brook, which leads to the pond itself. The they point out pictures of the center is a good starting point for any exploration of the surrounding area. VERMONT JUL 8 8 JULY / AUGUST 201 7Y / AUGUST 201 7 VERMONT M AGA ZINE 9 M AGA ZINE 9

C.J. KING old high school and hotels, shirts and shoes made here in days gone by, soldiers’ uniforms, model railroad cars, and a wide variety of ephemera, including the poster documenting Rudy Vallee’s nos- talgic visit, to give a concert in the town where he was born. The two historians tell a few stories. Recalling her youth, Betty describes the spruce gum her father gave her to chew as a child—delicious, she said. Cliff provides details about the local lumber industry. And above all, they both talk about the importance of the railroad. In the beginning, this little town near the Canadian border was named Ran- dom—not very attractive, but descriptive of its remote location. It was hard to get here, so, although the land was granted in 1781, no one came to settle until 1820. By 1830, it had 105 residents, and two years later, its forward-thinking citizens peti- tioned the legislature for a name change, to something more attractive. Thus, the town became Brighton, with Island Pond as its most prominent village and com- mercial center. People did come, mostly loggers at first. By the mid-1850s, sawmills dotted the countryside. All that lumber required transport. Around the same time, Canadian producers were actively pursuing ways to get their wares to an ice- free port on the Atlantic coast. When the Grand Trunk Railroad built its Montreal to Portland, Maine line, Island Pond was fortunate to be halfway between these two, and close to the international border. Melinda Gervais-Lamoureux and her husband David Lamoureux bought and re-opened Essex House & Tavern last winter and were photographed there last fall when renovations were still underway and a knight in armor The railroad boosted the economy and stood guard at the door. Just up the street, another type of armor, a World War II Sherman army tank, today the population. Sixteen sets of tracks car- stands guard outside the American Legion’s Brighton Post number 80. PHILIP R. JORDAN ried dozens of trains daily. Island Pond went from 190 residents in 1850 to more than 1,500 in 1870. The railroad station housed a busy customs office, and the whole village catered to the railroad, with hotels, stores, restaurants, liveries, facto- ries, and other businesses serving the in- creasing demand. The Stewart Hotel up the hill from the tracks could feed 200 in its dining room and could accommodate 100 visitors overnight. During the sum- mer of 1865, General Ulysses S. Grant came to town on a special train. This was Island Pond’s heyday. For several decades, Island Pond en- joyed its prominence, but then the De- pression started the railroad’s slow but 8 8 JUL VERMONT M AGA ZINE 9 M AGA ZINE 9 VERMONT JULY / AUGUST 201 7Y / AUGUST 201 7

PHILIP R. JORDAN The pond itself, with its downtown park (above) assumes the perspective of a donut shape with the island as its center when viewed from the air, when the writer and pilot Mark Biron flew over the pond after taking off from the John H. Boylan State Airport C.J. KING steady decline. Passenger service ended in 1963, and the customs office moved to Norton, the actual border, in 1973. These changes were devastating, both emotionally and eco- nomically. Older residents still speak longingly of their rail- road days, and some even hold out hope that some kind of passenger service might be revived through Island Pond. Hard times have continued as a recurring refrain in recent years. In 2001, the town suffered another economic setback when its largest employer, the Ethan Allen furniture factory, closed local production. Over the last decade, the village cen- ter has been blighted with empty storefronts, sometimes half a dozen at a time. These days, though, there are signs of a renaissance. Take, for example, Essex House & Tavern. Built in 1866, it has lodged everyone from railroad workers to hunters to snow- C.J. KING mobilers during its rich history. Over the past several years, it was open only sporadically, and it changed hands several times. Today, it has a new lease on life. Last summer, when the purchase price dropped, a local couple took a leap of faith and bought the historic structure, and since then, they have put countless hours into restoring and insulating, moving and rebuilding walls, renovating the upstairs guestrooms and the restaurant, and developing a family-friendly menu. When they re-opened Essex House & Tavern last winter, there was palpable enthusiasm. “It was sad to see this grand old building abandoned,” says Melinda Gervais-Lamoureux, one of the inn’s proprietors. “We’ve been overwhelmed by local support. Everyone wants us to succeed.” Community spirit is in Melinda’s blood, and both she and 10 VERMONT M AGA ZINE 11 M AGA ZINE 11 VERMONT 10 JULY / AUGUST 2 01 7 JULY / AUGUST 2 01 7

her husband, Dave Lamoureux, have deep local roots. He grew up in nearby Newport, and she was raised here in Is- land Pond. Melinda has served on the town’s select board, several years as chair. She currently runs the Meals on Wheels program and hosts a three-times-a-week PHOTO COURTESY OF THE ISLAND POND HISTORICAL SOCIETY senior luncheon at Sunrise Manor, the elderly living facility that she owns and operates. Dave brings his 15 years’ expe- rience as an accountant to their new ven- ture. “Between us, we have a pretty good business sense,” he says. “Long-term residents take pride in this community,” adds Melinda. “They see the potential, and they want Island Pond to grow and prosper. I hope we’ve started a trend.” Perhaps they have. Not long after they bought Essex House & Tavern, another The heyday of the railroad: track workers pose, circa 1920, for a photo in the extensive Island Pond railroad shuttered building just up the street also yards, once a major point of local employment. Today, only two tracks, a siding, and small railroad office build- took on a new life, when Mike Strait ing remain. and Tom Obar brought their Hearth & Home Country Store down into the vil- lage from their home up the hill, taking over the old Common Sense restaurant and Yellow Deli storefront. In their first several months, they did a brisk business selling specialty foods, gifts, and deco- PHOTO COURTESY OF THE ISLAND POND HISTORICAL SOCIETY rative home goods. Ted’s Market, next door to The Essex and closed since 2015, was recently purchased by the owners of Lakefront Inn & Motel. And Sweet Tree (also known as The Maple Guild) recently bought the old Ethan Allen factory. They are developing a new line of maple prod- ucts, with the aim of distributing their products worldwide. Other Island Pond businesses remain Island Pond was once a division point for the Grand Trunk Railroad’s line between Portland, Maine and Mon- steady as they have for decades. The shop- treal, Quebec. A huge coaling tower and 20-stall roundhouse to service steam locomotives once stood here. The keepers at Kingdom Market and Simon tracks (later operated by St. Lawrence and Atlantic) are now owned by shortline operator Genessee & Wyoming. the Tanner happily welcome visitors and answer questions about their wares and their little village. The Market provides PHILIP R. JORDAN all of the grocery basics, plus a deli, lo- cal newspapers, and gas. Simon the Tan- ner offers a wide selection of sturdy and reasonably priced clothes and outdoor gear, with a don’t-miss bargain basement downstairs. Other signs of renaissance include renovations to the historic train depot and the old Opera Building, where the town offices, a bank, and the library are located. The town’s welcome center and its park pavilion are new, the pedestrian bridge over the railroad tracks has been redone, and there is a lakeshore walking path, all thanks to the infusion of various grants in recent years. 10 VERMONT M AGA ZINE 11 M AGA ZINE 11 VERMONT 10 JULY / AUGUST 201 7 JULY / AUGUST 201 7

PHILIP R. JORDAN Yes, folks in Island Pond are rightly proud of their little town, and it shows up not only in their warm and friendly at- titude, but also in the level of their civic engagement. No Vermonter would be surprised to see a crowd entering the town hall on the first Tuesday of March. Town Meeting Day is a long-held tradition, a true ex- ercise in direct democracy. But the sight of dozens of people at a town-planning meeting is a bit more unusual. When the local select board announced a commu- nity forum on the town’s future last Octo- ber, they didn’t know what kind of atten- dance to expect, and they were pleased by the turnout. Well more than 100 people attended this midweek, daylong event, a A vintage Cadillac, dating from the last decade of steam locomotive use on the railroad and the division point full 10 percent of the town’s population. itself, passes by the historic depot, now converted to other uses. Imagine if 850,000 New Yorkers spent a C.J. KING whole day on city planning! Organized by the Vermont Council on Rural Development (VCRD), the Com- munity Visit forum brought together local, state, and federal agencies and a large cross-section of townsfolk to cata- log Brighton’s assets and to consider how they could be used to build a better future. The process started with brain- storming sessions, then a second day to choose priorities, and a third day to set up task forces to lead the work forward. Town residents continued to participate throughout this four-month process. After the event, Brighton Select Board Chair Doug Niles declared that, “I believe we can make great things happen.” A fall 2016 community forum at the town hall on Island Pond’s future was well attended and began with this three-day session. Island Pond’s librarian, John Zuppa, echoed that enthusiasm, saying, “There’s PHILIP R. JORDAN ness, a fire in the belly. People want to more than hope here. There’s earnest- take action.” In the months ahead, townsfolk will focus on new ways to grow the economy, to revitalize the downtown, and to de- velop recreational programming, with a special interest in expanding the local network of ATV trails, marketing their summer concert series, and sprucing up the village center. While all of these plans are good news for Island Pond’s future, there is already plenty to enjoy right now. Summer folk, leaf peepers, hikers and hunters, and snowmobilers and ATVers all find it easy to fall in love with this beautiful place. Hikers can take on the 1.7-mile Bluff Mountain Lookout Trail to its 1,080-foot Among the finest old buildings in the village dating from the glory days of the railroad is this one, the old elevation. Ambitious paddlers can start at Maples inn, now in use as a center for the Twelve Tribes community. 12 JULY / AUGUST 2 01 7

Island Pond and float their way along the Northern Forest Canoe Trail, which con- nects Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine, PHOTOS BY PHILIP R. JORDAN New York, and Quebec. Cyclists can spin along the 67-mile “Mostly Moose Trail” that begins and ends at the village. And for those with a more leisurely vacation in mind, there is the village namesake, a beautiful 600-acre pond with an island in the center, with camping, kayaking, mo- tor boating, sailing, fishing, and swim- ming all available. The Friday Night Live series, an eight-week program of concerts in the park, is scheduled for June 16 to August 25 this year. We always love to visit for the Fourth of July fireworks. We claim our spot ear- ly, putting down our blanket on a bit of shoreline, then sit back to enjoy a pizza Two local landmarks are Saint James the Greater Roman Catholic Church, which overlooks the town from a lofty spot on Mountain Street, and Goulet’s full-service garage on Cross Street. from one of the local vendors while we wait for the show to begin. Usually, we are treated to a few warm-up acts, as little gatherings around the lake set off their own festive explosions. After dark, the town shoots off its display over the lake, and no one can rival this scenic setting. Tomorrow, we’ll head into Nulhegan Basin for a hike, looking for moose tracks to follow. After that, we may go fishing and, depending on how that turns out, maybe we’ll have supper at Essex House & Tavern. Then we’ll enjoy a restful sleep in our cabin, hoping for an appearance of moose in the morning. Yes, it is easy to fall in love with this picturesque, unpretentious place. I know that some people define the perfect vaca- tion as bright lights and big city. Me? I prefer hiking boots to heels. I’ll take Is- Across the way, Tim O’Bar (below) together with Mike Strait recently renovated a stately old building, now land Pond. home to their Hearth & Home Country Store that offers a variety of goods; they plan to add a bakery soon. C.J. King lives and writes in Jamaica, VT. JUST THE FACTS Island Pond Chamber of Commerce P.O. Box 255 Island Pond, VT 05846 Call (802) 673-1854 or visit Island Pond Northeast Kingdom Travel and Tourism Association John H. Boylan State Airport VERMONT M AGA ZINE 13

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