A previous version of this article gave an incorrect name for a row of buildings in Bellows Falls that houses galleries and studios. The row is called Exner Block.
Searching for Spooks in the Folklore of Bellows Falls, Vt.
Sunday, July 5, 2009
Beautiful Victorian wood-frame houses. A wide, brilliant-blue canal. A town square presided over by a Florentine-style clock tower. On this spring day: sunshine, folks outside the ice cream spot, the local man behind the burgeoning arts scene pedaling sedately by on his bicycle. But the horror writer H.P. Lovecraft saw this benign scene differently. Here he is on the surrounding countryside, sensing what evil lies in the heart of green, pleasant and highly domesticated Vermont:
"The dense, unvisited woods on those inaccessible slopes seemed to harbor alien and incredible things, and I felt that the very outline of the hills themselves held some strange and aeon-forgotten meaning as if they were vast hieroglyphs left by a rumored . . . race whose glories live only in rare, deep dreams."
Okay, not hieroglyphs, exactly. But petroglyphs, carved in massive chunks of fallen granite that lie along the banks of the Connecticut just where the town's first bridge was cut across the river in 1785. Not something easy to find on the East Coast. They're a little hard to spot initially, though you can get right next to them if you're willing to scramble down into a 40-foot gorge, clambering over trees that have fallen across what didn't rightly qualify as a path in the first place. I personally do not recommend this.
The easier, more sensible and just as satisfying choice is to walk out on the right side of the Vilas Bridge, just past the bronze plaque explaining its history, and look over. Almost directly below, someone has helpfully painted a couple of slashes of pale yellow paint just above the incised heads so you can locate them and gaze to your heart's content on the little round countenances, their skulls more circular than oval, their eyes dots, their tiny mouths little O's, as if they were startled to see you looking down at them. Some of them have two stick-like appendages extending from their heads. Could these be . . . antennae? Or could they be primitive antlers, indicating deer? One face has a stick protruding below it. Could it be . . . a lollipop? You won't get any answer from the faces.
Or from guidebooks, which helpfully inform the curious that the carvings are anywhere from 300 to 2,000 years old. Kind of a wide gap. They might conceivably have been carved by the Pennacook tribe in the 17th century as some sort of objection to/magic against the white settlers. Or they might not. There they lie, gazing skyward with a look of surprise, more children's drawings than mystical, menacing, ancient art.
Well, all right, maybe the petroglyphs aren't all that eerie. But what about the Hraefnwood Coffee House, its name a tribute to Lovecraft's master, Edgar Allan Poe, which promises "Great Coffee . . . Evermore!" This stands at the end of the Exner Block, a row of buildings fronted with pressed tin, now housing galleries and studios, as well as the Hraefnwood. Once again, no spookiness here, just a comfortable, sophisticated brown and teal interior with windows looking over the canal and excellent cappuccino. You could while away the afternoon over that view, that coffee and a novel, maybe the 1997 "Bellows Falls" by Newfane, Vt., mystery writer Archer Mayor. Bellows Falls was on its uppers then, only 12 years ago, as Mayor bluntly states, calling it "a village . . . developmentally stalled since the Great Depression."
Bellows Falls has indeed known some hard times. Powered by the eponymous falls, its mills and factories once turned out woolens and paper and a wide range of farm equipment. All that has been gone a long time. But, as Mayor implies at the novel's end, change was afoot:
In 1995, Robert McBride, an expat New York City abstract painter started the Rockingham (County) Arts and Museum Project, an organization devoted to proving not only the artistic but also the social and economic value of the arts to his adopted community. To RAMP is owed those Exner Block studios and galleries sitting -- defiantly, you might say -- right across from a burned-out building. Ask people involved in the state's small-town civic life, including Jay Hathaway of the Manchester Chamber of Commerce and Deborah Murphy of the Vermont Railway System, and they mention McBride as the force behind rejuvenation in Bellows Falls.
It was, in fact, Murphy who pointed McBride out to me as he whizzed by on his bicycle. She was taking me to see another of the town's fascinating bits of history, the Bellows Falls Depot, a restored 1850s building with a mostly mahogany interior, old high-backed wooden benches and a huge railroad clock. Though Amtrak passes through here twice a day, it's also where the Green Mountain Flyer pulls in and out of the rail yard almost every day from May 30 through mid-October. And before or after your ride, you can visit the Miss Bellows Falls Diner, a barrel-roofed 1920s beauty, moved here from Massachusetts in 1942. For the lover of indigenous American architecture, it's a feast for the eyes with its wood booths, red tabletops, tiled floor, chrome counter.
Lovecraft was writing mostly in the 1920s, but clearly this isn't the Vermont he saw or imagined he saw. Let's give it one more try and visit the grave of Bellows Falls's witch. Admittedly not the black-magicky kind, but scary enough in her own way and an appropriate fiend for our times: Hetty Green, the Witch of Wall Street, infamous millionaire of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
A financial genius, she was also a miser. To save doctors' fees, she treated her young son's broken leg herself and he ended up losing it. She is buried here in Bellows Falls, in an oak- and evergreen-shaded Episcopal graveyard, beneath the obelisk of the Green family. Nothing adorns the side bearing her and her husband's names, but beneath the names of Edward H.R. Green (son Ned) and her daughter Sylvia sits one of those oddities you sometimes find in country graveyards: two 10-inch plaster statuettes, one of a shepherdess and one of a gallant, worn away by the New England winters almost to their skeletal iron cores. Little ghosts, indeed.