BENNINGTON -- Bennington businesses praised this year's Columbus Day weekend as one of the best for business in years.
"I've been here for 13 years, and this is the best Columbus Day weekend since," said Judy Pennock, office manager of Evans' News, 434 Main St. Evans' News, founded in 1897, sells all sorts of Vermont-related souvenirs as well as office supplies and many other local products. When asked what the best sellers this weekend had been, Pennock said, "Maple syrup and Vermont shirts." Evans' sells syrup from the Corse Family Farm in Whitingham and the Horst Maple Farm in Bennington, whose maple syrup comes in old fashioned tins.
Pennock described leaf tourists as "the best; they're always relaxed, happy, on vacation."
The Bennington Battle Monument, perhaps Bennington's prime tourist attraction, saw near-record numbers of people this weekend. In a September Banner article, Anne Bugbee, who works in the gift shop at the monument, predicted around 300 people per day during the peak of leaf season. Elevator operator Mike Chapman confirmed the actual numbers were much higher. "We had 728 people on Saturday, Sunday was around 624," said Chapman on Monday, "Today its slowed down a little bit, but we'll probably have around 400."
The Grace Christian School's Class of 2014 was at the monument on Monday, selling baked goods to raise money for their March mission trip to an orphanage in Guatemala. The students, who have been raising money since their freshman year, hoped to raise about $800. "We're pretty close," said one of the seniors.
The tourists have visited from all over the United States. While many are from Massachusetts and New York, Chapman said he had seen people from as far away as Cape Town, South Africa and Brussells, Belgium this weekend.
"We came for the leaves, but a lot of them seem to be gone already," said a couple from Pennsylvania. One man from Kansas had spent the last four days in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., where "a lot of the leaves had fallen. So, we came over to Vermont, and its been much more picturesque."
A family from Albany had just finished up a meal at the Madison Brewing Company when stopped by a reporter Monday as they were about to head over to see the monument.
Natasha Garder, owner of Crazy Russian Girls bakery, said, "I don't have the numbers in front of me, but this is the best Columbus Day we've had since we opened, and we needed it."
According to Garder, the Better Bennington Corp. encouraged her to open up her bakery downtown, so as to attract more tourists to the downtown area. The strategy has apparently worked as, one woman said to an employee behind the counter, "I asked a local where the best place to eat was, and they sent me here."
Similarly, Ken Monte of the Village Chocolate Shoppe, 471 Main St., said of this weekend, "It's actually been really good. It's helped to have the Welcome Center."
The Welcome Center, which opened on Friday, has been criticized by many citizens of Bennington, but Monte, who is the son of Village Chocolate Shoppe owner Nick Monte, said he is happy its there. "You have a counter staffed by knowledgeable, local people who can bring tourists into downtown Bennington who might not have stopped here."
Monte acknowledged, business at the Arlington location, the Village Peddler, has also been good. According to Monte, one tour bus driver had seen news coverage of the Shoppe's World's Largest Peanut Butter Cup attempt in early October, and had called to ask if he could bring his bus to the Arlington location this weekend.
Joann Erenhouse, executive director of the Bennington Area Chamber of Commerce, said that of the 17 welcome centers in Vermont, Bennington's was the sixth most visited this weekend, with more than 3,000 visitors.
"People come in and say, where can we do this or that, or that they're hungry, and we send them to local businesses," said Erenhouse, who also noted that, "People are driving around, they don't even know they need help, then they see the building, and stop."
Erenhouse also praised the location of the welcome center, as its very easy to direct people to the downtown area. "The view is spectacular up there, especially the monument, with Mount Anthony in the background. It's enticing."
Derek Carson can be reached for comment at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @DerekCarsonBB.