Rich History, Thriving Culture
Downtown Brattleboro, undated photograph. Collection of Brattleboro Historical Society.
Chartered in 1753, Brattleboro is one of Vermont's largest towns. Known as the site of Vermont's first Anglo-Saxon settlement (Fort Dummer, 1724), this town holds a commanding position on the banks of the Connecticut River and has been a transportation center ever since. The town was named for William Brattle, a Boston minister and scholar, who was the original shareholder of the land grant containing the lands now known as Brattleboro.
Brattleboro is still a major junction for travelers. Here the Molly Stark Byway converges with the Connecticut River Byway, which wends its way north along Route 5. Brattleboro is a vibrant artistic and activist community with a thriving downtown area that intersperses traditional stores and restaurants with artists' studios, owner-operated bookstores, boutiques, and counterculture shops. Every June, Brattleboro hosts the Strolling of the Heifers, a popular and exuberant parade of cows, schoolchildren, musicians, and performance artists.
Estey Organ Company—J. Estey & Co., manufacturers of parlor or "cottage" organs, was Brattleboro's largest employer while in operation between 1846-1960. Thousands of Estey organs were manu-factured yearly and carried as far as Australia and New Zealand. The Estey Organ Museum (founded in 2002), housed in a former engine house, traces the history of organs with examples of reed organs from the 1860s and the intricately carved parlor organs found in many Victorian houses.
A Printing Town
From 1790 to the late 20th century, one of Brattleboro's most important industries was the printing trade, which produced books, posters, newspapers, stationary, magazines, and other periodicals, as well as nationally favored typesetting and other composition services.
The Vermont Asylum (now the Brattleboro Retreat), 1892. Collection of Brattleboro Historical Society.
One of the first hospitals in America designed for the scientific treatment of mental illness, the Brattleboro Retreat was first known as the Vermont Lunatic Asylum when founded in 1834. The 1,000-acre comprehensive mental health treatment center consists of landscaped grounds, open meadows, woods and fields, and 58 buildings and sites, 38 of which are historic structures that date from 1838 to 1938 with architecture that ranges from Federal, Greek Revival, Italianate, and Colonial Revival to suburban residential.
Brattleboro Hydropathic Institution. Collection of Brattleboro Historical Society.
The most famous and socially accepted water cure in America was the Brattleboro Hydropathic Institution, an establishment run by Dr. Robert Wesselhoeft that opened its doors in 1845. Offering a refined convalescence for the well-to-do, many other attractions were offered, including every conceivable type of bath, pleasant walks and gardens, picnics, archery, simple games, and dances. The fee of $10 weekly ($11 in summer) made Wesselhoeft's America's most expensive water cure. Many famous people came to Brattleboro for treatment, including Harriet Beecher Stowe, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and William Dean Howells. Some boarders complained about the frequent ice-cold "plunges;" others about the food where two out of three meals consisted primarily of stale bread.
Frieze, Latchis Theater interior
Latchis Theater and Hotel
A rare Vermont Art Deco building, the historic 900-seat movie house with 3 screens was designed with a Greek mythology theme. This 4-story landmark structure is on the National Register of Historic Places.
The Latchis Memorial Building was built by the Latchis Family as a testament to the life and work of Demetrius P. Latchis, who emigrated to the U.S. from Greece in 1901. Starting with a push cart from which he sold fruit, his business holdings grew to include a chain of 14 theaters throughout New England. In 1938, his sons opened and dedicated the Latchis Memorial Building to his memory. Billed as "A Town Within a Town—All Under One Roof," the 60-room hotel, ballroom, 1,200-seat motion picture palace, coffee shop, dining room, and gift shop were touchstones in the lives of many area residents. Today, the building is still very much a part of the economic and artistic vitality of downtown Brattleboro.
Brattleboro train station, now Brattleboro Arts Center.
- Train Station to Arts Center
The first train arrived in Brattleboro at Union Station from Boston in February 1849 on the tracks of the newly constructed Vermont and Massachusetts Railroad. The railroad served as the town's link to the outside world, and the station was the busiest place in town where as many as 18 trains stopped daily. In 1966, regular passenger service was terminated and the Union Station was closed, ending the era of the railroad. The station that symbolized that era was threatened with demolition until it was saved and reopened as the Brattleboro Museum and Art Center in 1972, featuring changing exhibits with an emphasis on local and contemporary art.
- Thunderbolt: A Reformed Scottish Highwayman?
Known to Brattleboro residents as Dr. John Wilson, legend has it that this colorful physician, designer, and teacher was really a former notorious Scottish highway robber who had immigrated to Vermont where he lived until his death in 1847.
- Snow Angel
In December 1856, a local art instructor, Larkin G. Mead Jr., decided to "close the record of the year" by creating overnight a snow image, a "Recording Angel," out of a snowdrift at the junction of Main and Linden Streets. So impressed were the townspeople of Brattleboro with the sophistication and detail of the snow sculpture, he was later commissioned to sculpt a real Snow Angel out of marble, now on exhibit at Brooks Memorial Library in Brattleboro.
It is July 18, 1849. You are eleven years old. After a day that includes some early chores and lots of swimming in the nearby West River (where you and your friends have set up a long rope swing from which to plunge into the cool water), your job is to drive the cows down dusty Main Street from their day pasture to your barn. You are late, having lost track of time in the summer heat, and the cows are mooing at the gate for milking relief.
Cows, pigs, and chickens were kept in barns in the rear of many of the finest houses in Brattleboro, and the cows were driven to pasture on Main Street in the morning and home again at dusk. In that time, great elms, overshadowing the streets, encroached on the graveled sidewalk which made it necessary to walk around their massive trunks. No telephone poles marred the landscape.