Story by Leon Thompson
Vergennes carries the unique title of being both Vermont’s oldest and smallest city (only a whopping one square mile large). A pleasant chemistry rules the city’s 2,500 residents. They are natives and flatlanders, working together in harmony on Route 22A, more quaintly known here as Main Street. “The sense of community here is really what makes Vergennes unique to Vermont,” said Masha Harris, who moved to Vergennes in June 2018 to become director of the historic Bixby Library, which opened in 1912. “It’s a welcoming place. People are happy I’m here. I feel included.”
Route 22A is commonly known as midwestern Vermont’s bypass to New York, just off Route 7 between Burlington and Middlebury. In the 1970s and 1980s, Vergennes was still struggling to grow, but now, it is a destination for people who want to spend a day where they can fill an entire itinerary with one walk up and down Main Street. Cafes, stores, and restaurants—some old, some new—fill Main Street alongside historic homes and inns.
A hill in the center of town seems to make Vergennes slope toward New York, a slant that’s not without charm. At the bottom, seven miles from its outlet into Lake Champlain, is Otter Creek. The beautiful falls in Vergennes are a boon to local commerce; boaters can tie their boats at the bay dock and walk downtown for food, shopping, and more—a rarity in Vermont, outside of Burlington. “The docking is free. So is the water,” said Renny Perry, mayor of Vergennes from 2017 to 2019, while standing inside the magnificent Vergennes Opera House that shares a building with city hall.
Otter Creek is why Vergennes exists. Donald McIntosh was the first resident on Comfort Hill in 1766, but most local dwellers left the area between 1766 and 1783 because the Revolutionary War and boundary disputes with New York caused many challenges for settlers. By the late 1780s, though, Otter Creek Falls was booming with shipping and milling businesses, in contrast to the agricultural work happening in bordering communities. In 1788, residents of three bordering towns agreed to surrender their land to establish a separate village on the falls. Vergennes was incorporated as a city on September 19, 1788. Ethan Allen, himself, suggested the name to honor the Comte de Vergennes, French minister of foreign affairs and negotiator of the Treaty of Paris.
The Vergennes Opera House was built in 1897 and is often considered the city’s centerpiece and gem. The opera house closed in the 1970s, but was restored with historic integrity for the modern age in the late 1990s through the formation of the Friends of the Vergennes Opera House (VOH). In 1998, Vergennes received a specific designation from the state’s downtown revitalization program, which sparked the creation of the Vergennes Partnership, a nonprofit downtown
organization charged with recharging Main Street and boosting economic growth. (Vergennes is one of 24 “designated downtowns” in Vermont.) Renny Perry is vice president of the Vergennes Partnership and a former board member of the VOH—which is run entirely by volunteers.
Renny and his wife, Lynne, have lived in Vergennes for about 21 years. They met in New Hampshire and lived there while traveling back and forth to a lakeside property in Vermont that they co-owned with relatives. While in Vergennes one day, they saw a house they wanted, so they bought it and moved there.
“I love the sense of community here,” said Lynne Perry, also a former board member of the VOH. Vergennes operates under a seven-member city council: six alderpersons and the mayor. By ordinance, the city prohibits chain stores and chain restaurants.
The city has parks, trails, and a municipal pool that serves hundreds of children all summer long. Younger families are moving to Vergennes because they can live in a tight-knit community with a walkable downtown and still easily commute to their jobs in Burlington and Middlebury. The Vergennes Recreation Committee has seen a rise in participation from high school students, according to Matt Chabot, the current city manager. “That bodes well for our future,” he said.
Like many of Vermont’s “designated downtowns,” Vergennes helped rebuild its economy by developing an amazing scene for foodies. The 3 Squares Cafe is part of a tough-to-choose-from mix that includes Bar Antidote, Black Sheep Bistro, and Park Squeeze. Vergennes provides uncommon experiences for shoppers, too. Take, for example, Women of Wisdom, a nonprofit shop that sells “pre-loved” goods and donates half of its money from sales to local hospice efforts and half to organizations geared toward women and children.
“We are doing such great work in this little community,” said Martha Redpath, Women of Wisdom co-president. Martha and her husband, Gary Lang, moved to Vergennes from Burlington in 1987 and raised their three children there because they sought life in a smaller town.
The sight of the iconic, redbrick Kennedy Brothers building greets visitors to Vergennes who enter the city from Route 7’s southern access. In 1909, Sheffield Farms, the largest dairy center in New York City, developed the site as one of several creameries throughout New England that the company used to collect, process, and ship milk. Hood bought the facility and later closed it in the 1950s. Kennedy Brothers bought the property in 1960 and made furniture—until it closed in the 1980s. Since then, the building has been reinvented as a marketplace.
In 2013, Robert Feuerstein and his wife, Lillian Kennedy, bought the Kennedy Brothers building. At the time, the only tenants were Vermont Sun and steam-heat fixtures—minus the original, photo-worthy boiler that still stands tall in the complex—and in came a new heating system. Robert and Lillian also invested in a new roof and insulation, and built a new entrance and offices. Today, the Kennedy Brothers building has 13 tenants, including the local school district offices and Shacksbury Cider. There is also a co- working center—shared workspace for people not yet ready to fully rent office space.
Bianca Dwy grew up in Vergennes and graduated from Vergennes Union High School in 2007. She has been assistant manager at 3 Squares Cafe on Main Street since 2014. “This community offers more than it used to,” Bianca said, just prior to delivering a pair of popular Buttermilk Fried Chicken Sandwiches to a table for two. “Lots of younger families have moved in. It’s awesome! Everyone really takes care of each other around here and gets to know each other. It’s a great, caring place.”