In the 19th century, the economy of St. Johnsbury (pop. 7,581) was based on maple products and the manufacture of platform scales. Fairbanks Scales, founded by the inventor of platform scales, still operates a plant here. Today it is the pleasantly peaceful commercial center of Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom, at the junction of the US-2 and US-5 highways, the I-91 and I-93 freeways, and the Canadian Pacific and old Maine Central railroad tracks. The economy never regained its Victorian-era prosperity, so the town’s extensive stock of historic landmark architecture has been preserved almost totally unchanged. Elegant (and often empty) four- and five-story brick buildings line the riverfront and railroad line along US-2 and US-5. On the hill above the riverfront, a more genteel commercial district surrounded by massive trees and dozens of grand Victorian homes is highlighted by two of the most fascinating institutions in the state, both funded by the largess of the Fairbanks family.
At the center of town stands the St. Johnsbury Athenaeum, Art Gallery, and Public Library (1171 Main St., Mon.-Sat., free) in a red brick 1871 building. The building houses a surprising collection of 19th-century paintings, the jewel of which is Albert Bierstadt’s monumental Domes of Yosemite.
A block east down Main Street, you’ll find my very favorite museum in all New England: the Fairbanks Museum and Planetarium (1302 Main St., 802/748-2372, daily, $8), a charmingly quirky Victorian-era center of knowledge established by Franklin Fairbanks in 1889. Two menacing stuffed bears greet visitors inside the entrance, followed by a seemingly endless display of taxidermied wildlife—a veritable Noah’s Ark of North American fauna. Climb the spiral stairs to the mezzanine of the main gallery, a grand Richardsonian Romanesque space topped by a coffered barrel vault and furnished with fireplaces and other homey touches. You’ll find more fascinating oddities: arrowheads and other anthropological artifacts, rocks and fossils, and art made out of bugs (including a portrait of George Washington made out of dried insects!). View exhibits on local history, a set of dollhouse furniture made by author Mark Twain, and a very funny letter written by Robert Louis Stevenson in which he gifts his birthday (which he said he was too old to need anymore) to a family friend of the Fairbanks named Annie Ide (whose own birth fell on Christmas, meaning she effectively missed out).
St. Johnsbury’s eating options include Hilltopper Restaurant (1214 Main St., 802/748-8964), a lunch spot, across the street from the Athenaeum, run by students at the St. Johnsbury Academy, and the excellent Anthony’s Diner (50 Railroad St., 802/748-3613) at the US-5/US-2 junction. There’s also a good pizza place: the House of Pizza (287 Portland St., 802/748-5144).
For motels, try the Fairbanks Inn (401 Western Ave., 802/748-5666, $120 and up) on US-2.