I met my friend Marylou in Claremont, New Hampshire about three years ago. It was my first visit to the city, and I was just walking around and exploring. Marylou was planting tulips in her front yard, and we got into a lovely conversation. You can read about it in my story called “Planting Tulips.”
Since that serendipitous meeting, I have made a yearly 90-minute trip to Claremont in the spring to see Marylou’s tulips and catch up on what is happening in what has become one of my favorite small cities in New England. An April visit brought more of its share of surprises.
Route 91 rolls over spectacular sweeping valleys along the Connecticut River, especially north of the Bellows Falls exit, so the trip was delightful on this sunny, but misty morning. I left around six o’clock so I could get to the Tumble Inn Diner in time for breakfast. Five miles off exit 8, the historic 1941 Worcester diner winks at visitors when they enter the downtown square.
You can’t get a better simple breakfast anywhere. The home fries, sliced like my mother’s scalloped potatoes, are worth a double order. The odd location, backed dead against the huge former Moody Hotel, blocks the sun, creating a dark, film noir look to the interior. But a nice chat with Debbie, the friendly proprietor, brightened the experience.
“So what’s going on in town lately?” I asked. “Plenty,” Debbie said, and did a 10-minute monologue about the pending sale of the long row of empty factory buildings along the Sugar River. I learned that private developers are planning to renovate the mills and retrofit them for condos, offices, retail, even a restaurant.
As soon as I left, I got my camera. The bright sun offered a less-than-ideal opportunity for picture taking, but it took the chill out of the air. The weird corner building just across from the diner commanded my attention. I captured a few shots, and then a man came out of the diner and asked me what I was doing. When I told him, he said, “They don’t build buildings like that anymore. Probably a good thing.”
I was tempted to go back into the diner and ask Debbie about the building, but she was busy making more home fries, so I walked up to the square and noticed a new coffee shop in the Moody block. There were two 20-something women sipping coffee in the lobby when I entered the building, and one of them looked up and said, “Wanna try a fresh cup of coffee?” I politely declined, and then she asked, “What are you doing with that camera?” “Taking pictures,” I answered, trying not to be sarcastic. “Of what?” she replied incredulously. When I explained that I visit Claremont often to take pictures, she repeated her two-word question, “Of what?”
So I gave her some examples, like the “RUSSES” sign on a downtown building. I explained that it used to be “TRUSSES,” until the “T” disappeared. “Did you know that people used to wear trusses when they had a hernia? That means that there was a drugstore in that building at some point.” “Oh yea, I’ve seen that word on the wall,” the other woman said suddenly. “Always wondered about that.”
“So, what else?” both of them asked. I told them about the big Bourdon’s Furniture sign that covers one whole side of a building on one of the side streets. “You don’t see those kinds of signs very often anymore, except in old cities and towns like Claremont. I like to photograph things that are interesting, but not necessarily beautiful.”
“Yea, well I guess there’s a lot of old buildings around here. At least, we got that,” one of them said, and then I waved goodbye, my camera still dangling from the strap around my neck.
I set out for the Claremont Visitors Center, where the City Planning and Development office is located. I figured they’d have more details about the redevelopment of the mills. In order to get there, I have to walk through the square, cross the road bridge over the Sugar River, and then make a steep climb up North Street, which is on a high ridge overlooking the river and the mills. The view from the bridge is amazing.
I discovered that the old vacant brick building near the bridge, once the Monadnock Mills bleach house, is about to open as a fancy brick oven pizza place called Ramunto’s. That’s good news, and I’ll have to check it out next time I’m in town.
Just before I turned up North Street, I walked down a commercial driveway that ends by the river near the falls. An empty brick building nearby looks like it’s about to fall down. I got out my camera and took a couple of shots, one of a chair sitting by itself inside. No prospects for a restaurant here!
I chatted with a nice woman in the development office. She showed me plans for a pedestrian bridge over the river, and talked about the likelihood that the large empty parcel along the river – now covered with a weed-infested, cracked concrete foundation – would eventually be turned into a park and riverwalk. More good news.
On my way out, I was stunned to see Marylou coming through the door (What were the chances of that happening?). She was visiting on another matter. I had called her and told her I was planning to drop by in the afternoon, so we hugged, and I said, “See you after lunch.”
And so a couple of hours later, we were standing in her front yard admiring the tulips. With wide eyes, she exclaimed, “I’m so excited about what’s happening in the city. I’ve been living here for about a dozen years, and I’ve been praying for the day when there would be hope again. And now it’s here. I’m always telling people that Claremont is a great place, and now I think they are beginning to believe me.”