Bordered by two undulating mountain ranges, the Route 7A Shires of Vermont Byway between Pownal and Manchester beckons the visitor to enjoy scenery, hospitality, recreation, and cultural heritage.
Mohawks and Iroquois traced this path as long ago as 5,000 BC, as evidenced by projectile points, but Vermont was not settled by those of European origin until the 1760s. This Byway, then a crude path marked by occasional slashes on trees, became a principal route of migrating pioneers and their cattle trudging northward from Litchfield and Berkshire counties seeking life in wilderness newly opened to settlement.
Bennington County is known as the Valley of Vermont, framed by the two unspoiled mountain ranges, Greens on the east and Taconics on the west. These mountains provide ever-changing vistas – white with snow in winter, briefly chartreuse in early spring, forest green all summer and spectacularly colorful for a few weeks each autumn. They appeal to the hidden Thoreau in each of us to get out there and explore.
The Shires Byway designation honors the fact that Bennington is Vermont’s only county with two “shire” towns, Bennington and Manchester, each with its own county courthouse. Thus the name links the North Shire and South Shire, terms in common usage today.
Paralleling the Byway are the tracks of the Rutland Railroad, a once-vital transportation line first built in the 1850s. Another parallel route is the Long Trail, a hiker’s “footpath in the wilderness” that follows the mountainous length of Vermont from Massachusetts to Canada. The section from the Massachusetts line to Killington is also part of the Appalachian Trail that meanders from Georgia to Maine.
Each town along the Byway has special character. Pownal, population 3,500, is a scenic town of back roads, bicycle trails, and organic farms against a backdrop of dramatic mountains. Settled early by Dutch families who found fertile soils along the Hoosic River, Pownal settlers used the river to power cotton and woolen mills. Host for a few years in the 1960s to Vermont’s only horse-racing track, Pownal now supports a large solar-power facility in its place.
Bennington, the first town chartered (in 1749) by Governor Benning Wentworth of New Hampshire – who named it for himself – is saturated in history. Its population of 16,000 is about half that of Bennington County. Settled by Congregational Separatists in 1761, Bennington quickly attracted newcomers from southern New England who learned that land they had purchased and cleared in good faith was challenged by New Yorkers. New York may have had the better legal claim but Governor Wentworth was quicker to act. Wentworth chartered about 130 towns in today’s Vermont and gave them names that are mostly still used today.
Upstart Ethan Allen organized militia units, which became known as the Green Mountain Boys, to secure rights to their farms. They succeeded, but the effort took nearly thirty years until Vermont statehood in 1791.
A larger challenge was posed in the summer of 1777 when British troops under General Johnny Burgoyne sought to capture food and horses stored at Bennington. The resulting Battle of Bennington proved to be a major victory for the cause of American independence. As the most important event in the town’s history, the battle has been memorialized by a 306-foot obelisk, visible for miles. It is now Vermont’s most visited State Historic Site.
Bennington is also known for its pottery, its nineteenth-century knitting mills, a diversified economy based on manufacturing, friendly retailing and tourism, a modern regional hospital, and five colleges.
Two villages within the town have developed special character. North Bennington boasts the historic Park-McCullough house museum and is generally enlivened by the innovative Bennington College. Old Bennington, dominated by the battle monument, presents a more quintessential picture of a New England settlement of traditional homes.
Shaftsbury, population 3,600, was an early Baptist town. Today residents are found in rural-agricultural homes along about 85 miles of scenic gravel roads. Robert Frost lived here from 1920 to 1938 and his Stone House is now a museum. Starting in the 1820s the Eagle Square Company developed the steel carpenter’s square into a major industry, now phased out. Today’s major employer specializes in pre-cast concrete products.
Arlington finds its 2,400 residents clustered in three villages. A road called Tory Lane recalls the town’s reputation as a place of divided loyalties during the Revolution. Vermont’s first governor, Thomas Chittenden, lived here long enough to justify the claim as Vermont’s first capital. In a legendary episode, Green Mountain Boy Remember Baker was captured as a “rioter” by marauding Yorkers in 1772 but was rescued by his comrades. Prominent twentieth-century residents included writer-educator Dorothy Canfield Fisher and artist-composer Carl Ruggles. Saturday Evening Post illustrator Norman Rockwell lived next to the scenic West Arlington covered bridge over the Battenkill, famed for its trout. Today Mack Molding, an injection molding facility, provides employment.
Sunderland, population 850, lacks a central village but offers history as home of Ethan and Ira Allen and others active in the early dispute with New York over land rights. About 85 percent of Sunderland is in the Green Mountain National Forest. For explorers, an access point is the picturesque Kelly Stand Road, which climbs in elevation and crosses the Green Mountains on its way toward Stratton. A more dramatic access to mountain scenery is the 5.2-mile Mt. Equinox Skyline Drive, longest private paved toll road in the country. After driving 3,200 vertical feet to the highest point in the Taconic range, one finds panoramic vistas and a visitor center operated by the Carthusian Foundation.
Manchester, a four-season destination, nestled between impressive mountain ranges, is known today for golf, fishing, skiing, the arts, and retailing. Its population of 4,100 includes second-home residents attracted either by nearby ski slopes or retirement living.
Manchester’s thriving tourism industry began before the Civil War when railroads arrived and Franklin Orvis formed his Equinox House. Mary Todd Lincoln and her sons Tad and Robert stayed there in 1863 and 1864 and hoped to return with President Lincoln the next year. In1904 Robert did return to build his ancestral Hildene, now a major cultural attraction. After the Civil War, “summer” became a verb for an elite crowd.
Manchester’s vigorous retailing climate is anchored by the Orvis Company, founded by Charles F. Orvis in 1856. Related is the American Fly Fishing Museum, an outgrowth of the Orvis fly rods. One early twentieth-century industry finished and polished huge chunks of marble that were drawn out of Dorset’s quarries by short-line railroad. Another was the Rich Lumber Company, which hauled logs from the eastern mountainside by another temporary rail line. Hidden away there is the beautiful Lye Brook waterfall, a worthy destination for hikers.
For all these towns, the Green Mountain National Forest to the east is a source of aesthetic inspiration, fresh water supply, timber, wildlife habitat, hunting, fishing, hiking, and exploration.