By Mike Dunphy | November 07, 2011
As a kid, a trip to Montpelier always compelled another thrilling game of “I Spy” between my siblings and me, with the gold, capitol dome of the statehouse as the ultimate prize.
Such adulation is perhaps fitting, since I owe a portion of my existence to this diminutive capital in the central foothills of the Vermont. It was there one evening in 1934 that my grandparents met at a dance sponsored by the Civilian Conservation Corps. I don’t know what she saw in him, but no doubt the crisp, white navel uniform had something to do with it. Happily, many of the downtown buildings they must have passed during his escort home still stand today and are perhaps more alive than ever.
For Vermonters and flatlanders alike, the city of 7,855 has never been considered a top tourist destination—most definitely below the largest city Burlington, the resort towns of Stowe and Killington, or the quirky, quaint art conclaves of Woodstock and Brattleboro. But frankly, none of these places could do without Montpelier.
Chartered on August 14, 1781, the first permanent settlers arrived a few years later. One of them, Revolutionary War veteran Colonel Jacob Davis, quickly set about clearing the thick forests, a feat that somehow earned him the right to name the settlement after the French city of Montpelier—a far more patriotic act at the time than taking a British name. No doubt, the Marquis de Lafayette was given the royal treatment during his visit in 1825.
Yet, despite its active engagement in the revolution, Vermont was not yet a state and mired in highly acrimonious disputes with both New York and New Hampshire over land claims. Declaring itself an independent republic in 1777, a government was set up in Windsor. With tensions increasing with the federal government as well, a compromise was eventually reached in 1791, and the fourteenth star was added to the flag. This was greatly helped by a warning from George Washington that Vermonters are “a hardy race, composed of that kind of people who are best calculated for soldiers.”
The new status meant the need for a new, permanent capital. Montpelier’s central location, proximity to transportation routes, nearby granite, marble, and slate quarries, and mill sites were major factors in winning it the capital seat in 1805 (although perhaps not as much as the generous contributions of money and land from its residents). Business quickly followed and boomed with the steam whistles of the railroad.
Hurricane Irene was by no means the first natural disaster to hit the city. In fact, flooding is a danger every spring as the snow melt fills the rivers.
The most significant occurred in 1927, when hard rains sent twelve feet of water into the city. Heading west on Route 2 toward the creamie stand, my parents would often point to the marker indicating the crest on the left side of the road.
The strong steel truss bridges that now knit the downtown river banks together were a direct response and have stood their ground through the Great Hurricane of 1938, and five tornadoes, two ice storms, 377 hail storms, and thousands of inches of snow and ice since 1950.
Like so many Vermont towns and cities struggling to find their twenty-first century footing, Montpelier has fully embraced the arts as a means for revitalization.
The downtown area is full of quaint mom-and-pop shops selling paintings, jewelry, handicrafts, clothing, and culinary treats made by local residents. There’s a new sculpture garden and public art trails. The theaters are sold out, and the farmers market thrives throughout the winter. The crown came in 2008 with the establishment of the Vermont College of Fine Arts in the nineteenth-century former Methodist seminary.
Surviving the long Vermont winters also takes a generous helping of spunk, and the best evidence can be found in Montpelier. Residents are proud of many things, but none perhaps more than the city’s status as the only state capitol in the United States with no McDonald’s. It’s not because it’s too small or unimportant. It’s because residents refuse to let it in their community—and that is Montpelier.
In the following months, ONE will be exploring Montpelier further in a series of articles focusing on shopping, attractions, lodging, and cuisine. Even better than reading about it, is to plan your own visit to this wonderful city.
Montpelier can be easily reached from exit 8 on Interstate 89 in Vermont.