A Town for All Seasons

Grafton, Vt., is as alluring today as it was two centuries ago. But for one family’s vision, it might have disappeared.

Grafton’s classic New England townscape

Credit: Matt Teuten

It's early December in the foothills of Vermont's Green Mountains, and with the maples shorn of their autumnal color, I am walking along a wintry backcountry road, heading to the town of Grafton. Long gone are the seasonal tour buses, the bumper-to-bumper leaf peepers. And except for the gentle sound of the Saxtons River winding beside me, I am immersed in silence, trekking under a canopy of gently falling snow.

As I make my way into town, down Main Street past the country store, I swear I have just stepped into a Currier & Ives lithograph. To my right is the former town hall, a redbrick building dating to around 1816 that is home to the post office. Farther up the road, past the white clapboard houses spewing smoke from their chimneys, is a church steeple, almost obligatory in these parts. Across the street is The Old Tavern, a country inn that opened in 1801, once a stagecoach stop on the route from Boston to Montreal. Ulysses S. Grant spent at least one night here while campaigning for the presidency, and Rudyard Kipling liked Grafton so much, he honeymooned at the hotel in 1892 (and soon took up residence nearby).

It's all so wonderfully preserved that I half expect Kipling or Ralph Waldo Emerson to join me for a cup of tea at The Old Tavern, quill and ink in hand. But standing alone on the veranda, invigorated by the crisp mountain air, I know that this scene wasn't always so pristine. The inn and most of Grafton had fallen into disrepair by the middle of the 20th century. Indeed, if it hadn't been for one family that summered here, Grafton might have gone to pasture, remembered only in the pages of a few dusty history books.

Eli Prouty is the long-time curator of the Grafton Historical Society, housed in a white clapboard structure on Main Street. In some ways, nothing in the collections here is more telling of the town's past than the large piece of gray stone resting in my hands. "Soapstone was quite malleable," Prouty tells me. "It was used for grave markers, sinks, tubs, griddles, foot warmers. Heck, I even used it to warm my beds when I owned a B&B."

I step outside and look southward. There in the distance is Bear Mountain, once home to the largest soapstone quarry in the East. The thriving industry—along with sheep farming (the town had 10,000 sheep at one point), sawmills, cider mills, and wool mills along the Saxtons River—led to a minor boom, with the population swelling to almost 1,500 just prior to the Civil War.

But by the end of the 19th century, the quarry "just plum dried out," says Prouty. The mills shut down, and farmers headed west to find new land. By the time of the Great Depression, when Pauline Dean Fiske and her nephew Dean Mathey, an investment banker from Princeton, N.J., arrived to buy summer homes at dirt cheap prices, fewer than 400 people remained in the historic hamlet.

Mathey appreciated Grafton's pastoral setting as well as its architecture. Within a few decades, he would become one of Vermont's most noted philanthropists. In the early 1960s, with several buildings, including the country store and The Old Tavern, on the brink of closing, Mathey persuaded his Aunt Pauline to invest more than $1 million in the nonprofit Windham Foundation, an endowment he created to completely restore the town (and to support other organizations devoted to improving life in Vermont). In 1964, the foundation purchased The Old Tavern and rehabbed the structure, adding modern plumbing and heating to make it a four-season destination. Historic plaques and tree plantings went up, while the power lines went below ground. The rooms were furnished with period antiques.

The foundation then purchased the former blacksmith shop, painted it red, and created four ponds out of the rolling lawn. Mathey's group also transformed a farmhouse into its headquarters and moved to purchase many of the unoccupied houses around the village, converting them to rental properties.

At first, Eli Prouty notes, the old-timers who lived here year-round weren't too pleased. "The town was falling apart, but the locals didn't see it that way," he says. "They thought Mathey was going to create another Colonial Williamsburg, with folks running around in period costume."

In those early years, the Windham Foundation did seem to go overboard in beautifying the town, painting houses white and shutters black—at a time when many locals couldn't afford to even buy paint. But Mathey also practiced restraint, something evident all over town. A blacksmith still uses original equipment to forge materials in the old shop, but she's a professional artist, and she isn't wearing a costume. While I'm in the shop, I hear loud voices coming from the neighboring elementary school; this isn't some Disneyesque version of Vermont but a genuine town of 600 people, where people work, study, and play.

Another shrewd maneuver by Mathey was to reopen the Grafton Village Cheese Co. just up the road from The Old Tavern. Founded in 1892, the business was formed to convert surplus milk from local dairy farms into cheese. Though the original building burned in 1912, Mathey relaunched the business 53 years later, with cheesemaker Scott Fletcher at the helm; he's still in charge. Fletcher's award-winning cheddar, now found in Whole Foods and other supermarkets around the country, has turned Grafton into the second biggest cheese producer in Vermont (behind the much larger Cabot). Indeed, demand for the creamy cheddar is so high that the Windham Foundation just opened a second facility 30 miles away in Brattleboro.

"For her 90th birthday, all Julia Child wanted was a hamburger topped with Grafton cheddar," Fletcher says, inside the cozy confines of the small plant and store. Together, we watch workers stir each batch of curd by hand in a giant vat, the way the cheese has always been made. The company buys from 50 to 60 local farms, relying primarily on milk from Jersey cows to give the cheese its supple tenderness and rich taste. Grafton's two-year-old cheddar wins numerous awards, but Fletcher is equally keen about his latest offering, a clothbound cheddar that's been aged 10 to 12 months in caves in northern Vermont and has a more complex flavor, with hints of mushroom and meat.

"Dean Mathey recognized that the inn and cheese company were the economic links that would bring back this community. He had that foresight," says Kevin O'Donnell, innkeeper at The Old Tavern. Now, with Grafton Cheese a national success and the Windham endowment at $50 million, Grafton is most certainly back—a fact that's obvious to anyone who visits.

Though he appreciates their business, O'Donnell seems to enjoy Grafton most when the 30 rooms at The Old Tavern are vacant. "During the hustle and bustle of fall foliage, I need more staff to handle the 100 extra people in town," says O'Donnell, adding that "the simplicity and feel of Grafton go away when this happens."

I'm lucky to be in the village after the crowds have gone. I stop in at the historical society museum and the blacksmith shop, before making my way through the Kidder Hill covered bridge and on to the Grafton Public Library, once the home of soapstone magnate John L. Butterfield. The library is open most afternoons (and a few mornings, too) and is popular with preschoolers, who flock to the children's book section for story time, and elementary school students. The library also attracts its share of adults; during my visit, a local Lincoln scholar stands at the front desk, asking librarian Michelle Dufort for advice. Dufort, who hands the man a copy of Doris Kearns Goodwin's Team of Rivals, then tells me that she knows the tastes of each of her readers extremely well.

"I'm a personal buyer for all the folks in town," Dufort says.

Another social hub is the Grafton ­Grocery Market on Main Street. Locals come in for sandwiches, soup, and the morning paper. This being Vermont, you can also find Ben & Jerry's ice cream, Lake Champlain Chocolates, and Long Trail Ale.

I grab a homemade peanut butter cookie and stroll back over to that attractive front porch at The Old Tavern. With no televisions in the rooms and cell phone service barely registering one bar, you can leave modern life behind and enjoy the simple pleasures of yesteryear. So I stretch my legs, take deep breaths of that Vermont air, bite into my soft cookie, and imagine a warmer day, when I might settle into one of the rocking chairs on the veranda. Then I head inside with a paperback copy of Rudyard Kipling's Kim, which I checked out of the library, and, with cup of tea in hand, sink into a lengthy late-afternoon read.

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