Like the book, a place where fact, fiction, optimism mix

Email|Print| Text size + By Diane E. Foulds
Globe Correspondent / January 16, 2005

BELLOWS FALLS -- ''Seamy." ''Troubled." ''Developmentally stalled." In using these words to describe this town, author Archer Mayor could not have made himself a lot of friends. Yet there they were in his 1997 novel, with the village's name slapped across the cover: ''Bellows Falls." On the back, the words fairly leapt from the page: ''hard times, easy death."

Looking for a good weekend read, I had picked it up. Soon I was immersed in a delectably sordid brew of sexual debauchery, corruption, and murder -- classic detective-novel stuff. The hero, Lieutenant Joe Gunther, is brought in to sort things out, yet the deeper he digs, the grimier it gets.

So when I drove into real-life Bellows Falls recently, I wondered: What was I getting myself into?

Yet where empty storefronts should have been, there were art galleries and cafes. Handsome brick facades lined the main square. I noticed a pair of double-arched bridges, an Italian-style terra-cotta roof on the Post Office, and an elaborate six-story clock tower over town hall that looked as if it had been airlifted from Florence. Narrow side streets sloped intriguingly down to the Connecticut River, and I passed a slew of smiling faces. A shopper climbed a public stairway curving Roman-style up a hill.

This was no slum; it was enchantment. Granted, the hulks of abandoned paper mills loomed large in the distance, but instead of casting a pall, they gave the place character. So where were the squalid homes and seedy flophouses Mayor evokes? Why would he dub this vital little town ''a statewide joke, solely equated with failure"?

Thinking the local Chamber of Commerce might have some answers, I strolled over to the Waypoint Center, that has brochures and a film about local history. I knew a community with so many European flourishes had to have its own drama, one I wasn't getting in Mayor's book. It did.

''The story here is water, gravity, and time," said Richard Ewald, the town's director of community development. ''If you have those three, you have Bellows Falls."

He pointed to a panorama on the wall. Being one of the Connecticut's narrowest points, the site was once a prized Indian fishing spot. Ancient petroglyphs that Abenakis still hold sacred are carved on the rocks. In 1785, settlers built the first bridge over the 410-mile-long river, followed by one of the country's first canals. The paper age ensued. By 1870, 24 mills were chugging away, bathing the town in the smell of rotten eggs. In 1898, they were consolidated into the International Paper Co., one of the world's largest, supplying Boston with newsprint until the 1930s. Company executives erected mansions on the hill and spent their leisure time in the seven theaters and 12 bowling alleys, all but a few of which have vanished. With the Great Depression, the mills closed, and Bellows Falls fell into a slump.

In his novel, Mayor describes the aftermath. ''Over time," he writes, ''bikers, dopers, and train-delivered New York homosexuals had all had their turns at stamping the town with their identities."

Many taunted it, twisting its name into a spoonerism. It was a place to hide out, drop out, go on the dole. Then one day in 1996, the town clock stopped. Each of its four faces showed a different time. It was as if the town itself had halted. Residents pleaded with the selectmen to repair it, but they demurred.

''So they [townspeople] banded together, raised the money, and fixed it," Ewald said. ''Then it snow-balled."

A handful of enthusiasts launched a project to restore the theater in town hall. It's back in business now, selling movie tickets for $2 on Tuesday nights, $3.50 the rest of the week. They did theatrical skits on one another's porches, dubbing themselves ''the front porch capital of the world." Renovations surged. Now the whole town is at work refurbishing one thing or another.

''This town has changed a lot since Archer [Mayor] wrote that book," said Ewald.

To Mayor's credit, many of his observations were right on the mark. The town's setting, for example. The novel calls the place ''strikingly photogenic," and it's true. To the east is the river, crashing over rocks and swirling into the distance. Above it looms Fall Mountain on the New Hampshire side, its dramatic rock exterior looking too harsh for human habitation. On the other side is the hill, with its rows of Victorian mansions. One of the biggest belonged to the notorious Hetty Green, whose cupidity and stock-market prowess made her one of the richest woman in the world in the Victorian era. Ironically, a bank now occupies the place where her mansion stood, a corner called Hetty Green Park.

I had booked a room nearby at the Readmore Inn, whose owners Dot and Stewart Read are antiquarian book dealers. I sat down to finish ''Bellows Falls." Would misery prevail? In the final chapter, it seemed to lift. One passage summed it up:

''I turned away from the river and walked toward the village, my reborn optimism attracted by the repair work being done on that old building. Ignoring the clearly written sign not to do so, I crossed the canal using the short railroad trestle, and cut left along the opposite bank until I was standing at water's edge, in the grass, looking up at the imposing structure. From this side, it reached four stories to the sky -- stained, rusting, disfigured by an ugly fire escape, and yet oddly regal. Beneath the grime were ornate cornices and fancy moldings -- details of an ancient attention to care and pride -- the murmurings of the old Bellows Falls."

So the novel was about hope.

''This book was to be written, in one way at least, a little like an opera," Mayor said in an e-mail from his home in Newfane, Vt., ''where a dramatically dark and gloomy opening would naturally give birth in the reader to a subconscious hope for some eventual salvation. Thus, I laid it on thick in the opening chapters, intending that, by the end, the tale could be appreciated as a story of redemption and hope. . . . I have no clue if I was successful with this notion, of course, but that was the idea."

He did succeed, though. So did the town. I could feel it, just by walking the streets.

Diane Foulds is a freelance writer in Vermont. She can be reached at

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