Close up on St. Johnsbury , Vt.

A living museum

Old industrial wealth and victorian buildings give town a timeless grace

St. J
Light shines through the mezzanine at the Fairbanks Museum & Planetarium in St. Johnsbury. (Bill Regan for The Boston Globe)
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June 11, 2008




ODD FACT: In the early 20th century a company here sold maple sugar to flavor chewing tobacco and cigarettes.

On the Passumpsic River, "St. Jay" is a town of high-style Victorian buildings and high-minded institutions built by a local philanthropic family. That legacy makes the Main Street historic district nearly a museum unto itself, with an athenaeum and gallery, a natural-history museum, and a private academy, which residents can attend as their public school. St. Johnsbury came of age in the Industrial Revolution, and Yankee ingenuity, with a boost from the railroads, soon made it a shipping hub for locally produced maple sugar, wood products, and, most famously, platform scales. First used to measure the heft of wagons laden with agricultural goods, platform scales now weigh everything from letters to tractor-trailers. It was a product that made its inventor, Thaddeus Fairbanks, and his family very wealthy. The Fairbankses created many of the town's most important cultural institutions, gifts that to this day lend the town a sense of timeless grace. And as in the old days, some institutions and businesses close on Sunday, so weekenders should plan to arrive on Friday evening.

Dip into the historic district, where the highlights are Fairbanks institutions. At the south end of town, St. Johnsbury Academy (1000 Main St., 802-748-8171, stjohnsburyacade, founded in 1842, isn't a tourist destination, but its global influence is reflected in the many foreign students attending - representing 20 countries - as well as the school's international programs. (Please don't go on campus when school is in session.) The St. Johnsbury Athenaeum and Art Gallery (1171 Main St., 802-748-8291, stj, closed Sundays), a National Historic Landmark, is a Second Empire-style building housing richly decorated rooms and a gallery of distinguished American paintings. The knockout is Albert Bierstadt's vast "Domes of Yosemite," which helped persuade Congress to establish the country's second national park. The other must-see is the Fairbanks Museum & Planetarium (1302 Main St., 802-748-2372, fairbanksmuseum .org). This expanded "cabinet of curiosities" is packed with expertly mounted fauna from musk lorikeets to polar bears intended to inspire interest in the natural world. For a taste of Vermont tradition, drive across the Passumpsic River to the Maple Grove Museum (1052 Portland St., 802-748-5141, where a $1 tour takes in a sugarhouse and factory that make maple candies, maple syrup, and salad dressings.

Though not peppered with dining spots, St. Jay offers a variety of choices. Two family restaurants, serving breakfast, lunch, and dinner, are especially noted for breakfast: Anthony's Diner (50 Railroad St., 802-748-3613, about $6-$8) and JD's Family Restaurant (264 Portland St., 802-748-5412, about $5-$7). For more cosmopolitan fare, try lunch at Dylan's Cafe (378 Railroad St., 802-748-6748, soups, salads, sandwiches $2.50-$9), housed in a renovated storefront space, and/or dinner at Elements Food and Spirit (98 Mill St., 802-748-8400,, main courses $14-$22). Occupying an 1850s woodworking mill on a scenic stretch of the Passumpsic, Elements features a regularly changing menu of different-sized plates, so diners can go whole hog or small potatoes, depending on budget and appetite. For between meals, feast on luscious Vermont-made ice cream at the Downtown Market & Creamery (378 Railroad St., ice cream $1.50-$3.50) or Milkhouse Ice Cream (292 Portland St., 802-748-5640, $1.50-$6).

Right in the middle of town, Estabrook House Bed and Breakfast (1596 Main St., 802-751-8261,, $90-$105) recently opened in a renovated Victorian house. Locally known as the "Taj Mahal," the Comfort Inn & Suites (703 US Route 5 South, 866-464-2408, vermont, double occupancy rates for suites $290, $200, $150) is indeed a shining link in the chain, with indoor heated pool, fitness center, hot tub, sauna, and free HBO and high-speed Internet.

Moose River Lake & Lodge (370 Railroad St., 802-748-2423, $5-$10,000), specializes in all things antler, and a grab bag of other stuff. Folks can paw through a pile of moose and deer antlers on the sidewalk outside or ogle the whimsical antler chandelier inside. Take home a mounted moose head ($2,500) or the wooden Indian ($10,000) guarding the clerk's counter. Browse clothing, bags, jewelry, soap, candles, and random objects, all united by a keen eye for rustic style. The place to tap into the Net is the Boxcar & Caboose Bookstore Cafe (394 Railroad St., 802-748-3551, espresso drinks, coffee, tea $1-$4.50, cookies $1.25-$2), which serves bracing coffee in a serenely bookish oasis. Podo Shoes (418 Railroad St., 802-748-4500, $90-$280) sports stylish, high-end comfort brands - Ecco, Dansko, Keen, Mephisto, Arche, and the like. High-quality Vermont crafts of all kinds are on display at the Northeast Kingdom Artisans Guild & Gallery (430 Railroad St., 802-748-0158,, $5-$1,500). Forget your hiking pole or paddle? Get to Kingdom Outdoors (452 Railroad St., 802-748-3433,, $12-$2,745) for camping gear and clothing, with a new adjoining skate and snowboard shop, Indigenous (446 Railroad St., same phone, $1-$500).

The Northeast Kingdom draws cyclists, hikers, and paddlers in three seasons. Mountain biking is especially big in these parts, and single-track heaven lies at Kingdom Trails in East Burke, about 20 minutes away by car (Route 114, East Burke, 802-626-0737,, adult $10, youth 8-15 $5, 7 and younger free). Trails leave from the village and wind through Darling Hill Ridge and Burke Mountain ski area. Other outdoors activities can be plumbed in depth at traveltheking A favorite local sport takes place in downtown St. Jay, at Gold Crown Lanes (212 Hastings Hill, 802-748-2205, $3.25 per game, $1.50 shoe rental). Traveling with a pooch? Take a scenic drive to one of the town's runaway success stories, the Stephen Huneck Gallery and Dog Chapel (143 Parks Road, 800-449-2580,, free admission, art $7.95-$12,000). Sculptor and illustrator Stephen Huneck has transformed a hilltop farm into hallowed ground. Dog-headed railings mark both buildings, and busts of noble breeds top columns on the lawn. Outside the chapel, a sign announces "All creeds, all breeds, no dogmas allowed." Inside, the walls are papered with colored index cards and snapshots memorializing hundreds of canine companions. Don't expect to leave the chapel without shedding a few tears (and a few bucks in the gallery).

The bar at Elements (see Fuel, cocktails $6-$9, draft beer $4.50) draws locals and visitors who like an arty ambience and river views. The Front Row Sports Tavern (397 Railroad St., 802-748-1133, $4.25-$7.50,, live bands Saturday night with $3-$7 cover) is an earthier local alternative.

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