Wilmington VT is a town that seems perpetually on the brink of either decline or rebirth, and it’s not entirely clear which way it will eventually go. The devastation of Tropical Storm Irene in 2011 was a major setback for a town whose main industry is tourism. That said, the amount of restoration and build-back has been incredible and major kudos go to those whose efforts have made this happen.

The setting couldn’t be lovelier, sitting at the southeastern edge of the Green Mountain National Forest, at the crossroads of two iconic scenic roads – Route 9 (known as the Molly Stark trail) spanning the state east-west, and picturesque Route 100 spanning north-south. As a side note, I was amused to find the north-south and east-west roads intersecting in town all named Main Street: East Main Street, West Main Street, North Main Street and South Main Street. Good old New England practicality at its best.

The two Deerfield River branches converge here from north of town, flowing into lovely Lake Whitingham (Harriman Reservoir), which provides swimming, boating and fishing opportunities. Along with fall’s foliage and winter’s ski seasons, that makes this a year-round destination.

Wilmington’s cozy downtown radiates out from its central intersection, and there are currently enough compelling shops and eateries in town to warrant a couple hours of pleasant browsing and lingering over a meal or cup of coffee. An excellent brewery rounds out the appealing offerings. There are also several inns, two notables right in the center (Crafts Inn and Vermont House) and others scattered beyond.

The downtown buildings are mostly 19th and early 20th century buildings, remarkably undisturbed by the modern tear-down-and-replace attitude that has impaired the aesthetics of many downtown areas. There are more than 60 historic buildings spanning multiple architectural periods, each with its story to tell.

But strolling around makes clear that there are still worn and even empty buildings interspersed among the active businesses. Many were decimated by the 2011 flooding, which raised the river 25 feet and caused $13 million in damage. With climate change, the threat of future flooding and snowless winters are worrisome.

Nevertheless, the town has endured setbacks before, including the flood of 1938 and the closure of nearby Hogback Mountain Ski Area in 1986. The town has much going for it and may just be waiting for some industry to kick it back into high gear. It calls out for more entrepreneurs to make this pretty little village a mecca for boutique shops carrying local artisan wares, clothing, ski gear and gourmet goods.

With the Molly Stark Trail and Route 100 running through it, the draw of Harriman Reservoir, and easy excursion distance to all that southern Vermont and north-western Massachusetts have to offer, Wilmington can be a star attraction, effectively competing with the likes of Stowe and Woodstock.

Named for Spencer Compton, the first Earl of Wilmington in England, Wilmington has an interesting, if confusing beginning. It was first chartered in 1751 by Benning Wentworth, the governor of the colony of New Hampshire. There were a good number of grantees in that charter, who surveyed the town and divided it up among themselves. However, only two of them are known to have actually shown up to settle here.

A second charter was granted in 1764 to different grantees, and though no settlement came of it, disputes naturally ensued. The first charter eventually prevailed, and more settlers slowly arrived, with fourteen families established by 1771. Lest you think that this was an easy trek, keep in mind that there were no roads to speak of. These intrepid souls had to find their way to this very wild and remote place mostly along footpaths.

Nevertheless, they managed to form a community centered on Lisle Hill, eking out their living with mills and farms. Like so many early settlers in the remote wilds of New England, they were necessarily a hardy bunch. A legendary story is of one Mrs. Titus who, tired of hearing a lodger in her house bragging that no man could throw him, left her weaving loom long enough to throw him to the ground, declaring that there was one woman who could do it.

The community established its tiny local government, and through the remaining years of the 18th century, voted on various important matters, including electing a representative to the General Assembly, establishing a treasury, raising funds for highways, procuring a minister to tend to their souls, and sending off soldiers to fight with General Stark in Bennington in 1777, and to fight in the War of 1812.

With the building of the “Great Road” from Brattleboro to Bennington in 1828, it became clear that the village center belonged closer to the road and the river, and so it was done around 1833. This was quite the endeavor, with eight buildings moved by ox-drawn carts. Four of those still remain, including Norton House (the oldest), which sits beside the 1836 Lyman House, which currently houses an eatery and the 1836 Country Store.

Life went on, with a diversity of farming and mills. But in 1885, a harbinger of change occurred. The Hoosac Tunnel & Wilmington Railroad - otherwise known colloquially as the Hoot, Toot & Whistle railroad - was built to connect Readsboro, Vermont to Rowe, Massachusetts. The eleven mile narrow gauge railroad moved lumber from the various mills along the river.

Naturally, the good people of Wilmington wondered why it shouldn’t extend another 14 miles to reach Wilmington, and so it was done, with the new stretch mostly servicing passengers who wished to enjoy the fresh air of Wilmington. The ensuing economic boon carried Wilmington into a new era. Visitors invested in seasonal properties and others decided to stay permanently. Winter activities blossomed, with sledding down mile long routes, a hint of the well-known Vermont ski industry to come.

In 1924, the construction of the Harriman Dam flooded the valley of Mountain Mills, drowning the village and a good many fertile farms. But Wilmington was already leaning more towards tourism, and the newly formed lake added to its appeal.

This is pretty much where Wilmington is today - supported by its tenuous hold on tourism. Its economic plan focuses on a well maintained and attractive downtown, including expansion outside the flood hazard area and making the town more flood resilient, creating incentive and promotional plans for new and existing businesses, and attracting new and younger permanent residents.

Time will tell if these efforts pay off with a strengthening of tourism. The establishment of a major business that could employ a good number of well-paid employees wouldn’t hurt, either.

The Deerfield River headwaters are north of Wilmington, with the north and west branches converging at the northern end of Harriman Reservoir, then onward through the dam to eventually empty into the Connecticut River, descending almost 1,100 feet along the way. This made the river great for mills in the 19th century, and hydropower beginning in the early 20th century. There are a total of ten licensed dams along the river.

But lest you think that this has resulted in a sad situation for the river, be assured that it has not. Despite there being 36 towns within its basin (the areas draining into the river), the total population of those towns is less than 50,000, and 80% of the basin is forested. Nine major tributaries empty into this clean, scenic river, and it’s a favorite for fishing, white water rafting and other water recreation, particularly on the reservoirs created by the dam, Harriman being the largest. (Check out this wonderful article on the Deerfield River in Estuary Magazine).

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