BENNINGTON -- Every day, from April through October, the parking lot of the Bennington Battle Monument is filled with tourists from all over the country, come to see one of the more prominent historical monuments that Southern Vermont has to offer.
At no time of year is this more true than in the fall, especially between the end of September and the middle of October, when the leaves are at their most colorful.
Though the foliage season is just beginning, on Tuesday the monument’s parking lot was filled with cars from as far away as Delaware, Michigan, Ohio, and Georgia, as well as a smattering of cars from Massachusetts and New York and a bus from Canada.
"The monument is a big tourist draw all year long, but more so during leaf season," said Anne Bugbee, who works at the monument, which is open from April 1-Oct. 31 every year. The monument, which was completed in 1887 to honor the Battle of Bennington during the American Revolution, gets between 30,000 and 40,000 visitors every year, peaking on or around Oct. 12, at the very height of leaf season. The monument gets well over 300 people a day, including two to three busloads, during the peak, and has been getting around 250 people most days for the past week. A ride to the top in the elevator costs $3 for adults and $1 for children, what Bugbee calls "the best value in Vermont." One pair of women had travelled from central New York to see the monument. "We’ve always seen it from a distance," they said "We figured it was finally time to come check it out."
"Tourism has dropped with the economy," said Bugbee, "But we’re still doing very well here." The same can be said for most of Bennington, according to Joann Erenhouse, executive director of the Bennington Area Chamber of Commerce. Part of the reason why can be attributed to Bennington itself. "Number one, Bennington has more historic sites than any town in Vermont," said Erenhouse, going on to note that the Bennington Monument is one of the only historic sites in the state that operates in the black.
While Bennington is often overlooked during the winter for ski areas further north, the wide variety of landmarks the town features are an excellent draw during leaf season. According to Erenhouse, Bennington businesses are "well prepared, geared up, and ready to welcome the tourist season."
One way the Chamber of Commerce is preparing for tourist season is with the Bennington Welcome Center, which will show tourists everything that Bennington has to offer. The center was scheduled to open this summer, but a series of delays pushed the opening date to Oct. 1, and then to mid-October. "We’re currently training people and getting ready to open," said Erenhouse. "This building is going to be open for many years, so the most important thing is that we want to make it right."
Another local fall tourist attraction is the Equinox Mountain Skyline Drive in Arlington. The Skyline Drive, which opened in 1947, is the longest privately owned paved toll road in America, winding up 5. 2 miles to the summit of Equinox Mountain, which stands 3,848 feet above sea level.
Much like the Bennington Monument, they see greatly increased numbers during leaf season, and for good reason, according to Maureen Maroney. "Southern Vermont is really it for the fall foliage," said Maroney, who noted that they see about 300 people per day during the peak season, down from 150 a day during other times of year. The Skyline Drive is open from May 1-Oct. 31 every year, and costs $15 per vehicle (including the driver) and $5 per passenger.
During the ‘80s, according to Bugbee, it was common for radio stations to advertise area residents who had free bedrooms in their homes during peak leaf season, as all the inns were completely full. That’s less common today, with many new inns, motels and bed and breakfasts popping up all over Bennington County. Those lodging establishments played a major role in balancing Vermont’s budget last year, according to Erenhouse, as the state would have been over budget, if not for a hike in revenue from the tax on lodging. Vermont operates its own tourism website, VermontVacation.com, which recommends that anyone visiting Vermont make reservations well in advance during leaf season.
Mike Chapman, who operates the elevator at the Bennington Monument, has seen people from Belgium, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, and New Zealand, all within the past few weeks. "I tell people, I’ve seen people from all seven continents." said Chapman. "I used to say all six, until one day, a couple told me they did research in Antarctica for nine months a year. I’d say that’s about as close as you can get to indigenous."
Contact Derek Carson at email@example.com; Follow him on Twitter @DerekCarsonBB