Marblehead, Massachusetts: America’s best preserved historic town?

marblehead massachusetts Tourism boards across the country have long struggled to find innovative ways to market destinations large and small, inviting and mundane. We have “historic districts” that have been turned into vast parking lots; towns that play up tenuous connections to living and deceased celebrities; states that promote Amish tourism even though the Amish simply want to be left alone; hokey festivals; and any number of other contrived gimmicks to try to get you to come visit.

West Virginia is Wild and Wonderful. Pennsylvania promises that You’ve Got a Friend There. New Mexico is The Land of Enchantment. In Kansas, There’s no Place Like Home. Louisiana is a Sportsman’s Paradise. Virginia is for Lovers (and pathological drivers, in my estimation).

Massachusetts likes to call itself The Spirit of America. That might sound a bit grandiose but there is a town on Boston’s North Shore that I think is the best-preserved historic town in America. The American landscape gets more homogenous by the day, but Marblehead, perched on a dramatic finger of land on the Atlantic Ocean just thirty minutes north of Boston, was founded in 1629 and has improbably managed to retain many of its historic homes, cemeteries and churches.

Tourists descend on Colonial Williamsburg like packs of hungry hyenas on the trail of a fresh carcass, but somehow, Marblehead’s atmospheric streets remain largely tourist free. The town is the birthplace of the U.S. Navy and remains one of the east coast’s premier yachting centers, with three yacht clubs and a host of regattas. It isn’t close to a highway or train station and that’s probably why it has managed to avoid the strip mall scourge that’s plagued so many old towns around the country.

On the edge of Marblehead you’ll find a Starbucks, a CVS and some other chain stores, and there are big box retailers ten miles away, but Marblehead’s historic core is filled with independent shops and restaurants with nary a national chain in sight. Everything is pretty much Wicked Local. But the town’s biggest draws are the colorful 18th and 19th century homes, many with nameplates showing the name and occupation of their original inhabitants, and its spectacular natural setting on the Atlantic Ocean.

Marblehead is an undeniably upscale place with its fair share of millionaires but unlike other cutesy historic enclaves, it also has its share of lower income residents and budget friendly dining and drinking options. I have family members who live in Marblehead, so I’ve been visiting this town for more than twenty years and I never get tired of it. Aside from the beauty and the charm, it’s a real community where people know each other well and wouldn’t dream of living anywhere else.

Here’s what to do in Marblehead.The Muffin ShopIn a town filled with history, you might wonder why I’m sending you to a muffin shop. Well, for the muffins, obviously, but this place is more than just a damn good place to add to your waistline with homemade muffins or lobster rolls made fresh each morning. It’s the heart and soul of the town and if you want to meet locals, you’ll find them lingering here in groups over breakfast every morning. But come early because they never seem to bake enough to keep up with demand.

old town marblehead massachusettsOld Town – Get lost on the backstreets of Marblehead’s Old Town. There is no single neighborhood in the country that gives one a better flavor of what life was like in Colonial America.

Shops along Washington Street – There are a host of interesting, if pricey, shops here including the new Atlantis & Cloudveil outdoor specialty shop.

Crocker Park – A great place to sit and watch the boats go by.

The Driftwood – One reviewer on Yelp called this hole-in-the-wall eatery “Swamp Yankee territory,” and I couldn’t agree more. Another great spot to meet locals.

Devereux BeachThis great little beach is dramatically situated at the foot of a little body of land referred to as Marblehead’s Neck.

marbleheadHit the Neck – Take a drive or bike ride out to the very end of the Neck and enjoy the unbelievable view from the benches in Chandler Hovey Park next to the Marblehead Lighthouse. On the way back to town check out the Old Corinthian Yacht Club. Just try to look like you belong and you probably won’t be asked to leave.

Old Burial Hill Cemetery – One of the most atmospheric old cemeteries in New England and it offers a spectacular view to boot.

Fort Sewall – This was an armed fort used to defend against British invaders in the War of 1812. If you have kids, they’ll enjoy sitting on top of the cannons and looking out onto the Atlantic.

Dark and Stormy on the Waterfront – Have a tall 16-ounce dark & stormy, rum and ginger beer, cocktail at Maddi’s Sail Loft and visit the Barnacle for an early, harbor-side dinner.

old tombstone marbleheadGetting there – You can take Express Bus 441 or 442 from Haymarket downtown right to Marblehead’s Old Town but it takes a good hour. If you drive, follow route 1A, which isn’t quite as straightforward as it sounds. Signs on this twisting road can be elusive.

Images by Dave Seminara, Rick Harris and Garden State Hiker on Flickr.

A brief history of Telluride and its surrounding ghost towns

telluride ghost townsTelluride. The name alone conjures a variety of associations, from the debaucherous (Glenn Frey’s “Smuggler’s Blues”) to the elite (Tom Cruise is the other inevitable mention). But this isolated little town in Southwestern Colorado’s craggy San Juan range has a truly wild past and a lot to offer. It’s not the only mining-town-turned-ski-resort in the Rockies, but I think it’s the most well-preserved, photogenic, and in touch with its history. Apparently I’m not alone, because the town core (all three blocks of it) was designated a National Historic Landmark District in 1964.

Located in a remote box canyon (waterfall included) at 8,750 feet, Telluride and its “down valley” population totals just over 2,000 people. I’ve lived in Telluride off-and-on since 2005, and there’s something to be said about a place where dogs outnumber residents, and you can’t leave home without running into people you know. Longtime residents burn out on the small town thing, but I still get a kick out of it after years of city living.

Today the former brothels of “Popcorn Alley” are ski shanties, but they’re still painted eye-catching, Crayola-bright colors, and the old ice house is a much-loved French country restaurant. Early fall is a great time to visit because the weather is usually mild, the aspens are turning, and there’s the acclaimed Telluride Film Fest, brutal Imogene Pass Run (Sept. 10) and Blues & Brews Festival (Sept. 16-18) to look forward to. The summer hordes are gone, but the deathly quiet of the October/early-November off-season hasn’t begun.

According to the Telluride Historical Museum, the town was established in 1878. It was originally called Columbia, and had a reputation as a rough-and-tumble mining town following the opening of the Sheridan Mine in the mid-1870’s. The mine proved to be rich in gold, silver, zinc, lead, copper, and iron, and with the 1890 arrival of the Rio Grande Southern railroad, Telluride grew into a full-fledged boomtown of 5,000. Immigrants–primarily from Scandinavia, Italy, France, Germany, Cornwall, and China–arrived in droves to seek their fortunes. Many succumbed to disease or occupational mishaps; the tombstones in the beautiful Lone Tree Cemetery on the east end of town bear homage to lots of Svens, Lars’, and Giovannis.

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[Photo credit: Flickr user hubs]

telluride ghost townsThe mining resulted in 350 miles of tunnels that run beneath the mountains at the east end of the valley; you can see remnants of mine shafts and flumes throughout the region. If paddling is your thing, you’ll see gold dredges runnning on the San Miguel, San Juan, and Dolores Rivers.

Telluride’s wealth attracted the attention of Butch Cassidy and his Wild Bunch, who famously robbed the town’s San Miguel National Bank in 1889 (trivia: I used to live in an upstairs apartment in that very building). But in 1893, the silver crash burst the money bubble, and almost overnight Telluride’s population plummeted. By the end of World War II, only 600 people remained.

Telluride is a part of the 223-mile San Juan Scenic Highway, which connects to the historic towns of Durango, Ouray, and Silverton. There’s only one paved road in and out of Telluride, and that’s Hwy. 145. The only other options are two high, extremely rugged mountain passes (which require 4WD and experienced drivers). There are also a handful of ghost towns in the area. Some, like Alta (11,800 feet) make for a great, not too-strenuous hike; you’ll see the trailhead four miles south on Hwy 145. There are a number of buildings still standing, and two miles up the road lie the turquoise Alta Lakes.
telluride ghost towns
If you want to check out the ghost town of Tomboy, it’s five miles up Imogene Pass (13,114 feet). Don’t underestimate just how tough it is if you’re hiking; you’ll gain 2,650 feet in altitude; otherwise it’s an hour’s drive. The trail begins on the north end of Oak Street; hang a right onto Tomboy Road. Unless you’re physically fit and acclimated to the altitude, the best way to see these ghost towns is by 4WD tour with an outfitter like Telluride Outside. Another bit of trivia: every July, the “Lunar Cup” ski race is held on a slope up on Imogene Pass, clothing optional.

How to get there
Telluride is a six-and-a-half-hour drive from Denver, but it also boasts the world’s second highest commercial airport (9,078 feet) with daily non-stop connections from Denver and Phoenix. It’s closed in sketchy weather (if you’re flight phobic, just say “hell, no”), and it’s often easier and usually cheaper to fly into Montrose Regional Airport, 70 miles away. From there, take Telluride Express airport shuttle; you don’t need a car in town. Go to VisitTelluride.com for all trip-planning details. For more information on the region’s numerous ghost towns, click here.

When to go
Telluride is beautiful any time of year, but avoid mid-April through mid-May and October through before Thanksgiving, as those are off-season and most businesses are closed. Spring is also mud season, and that’s no fun. Late spring, summer, and early fall mean gorgeous foliage, and more temperate weather, but be aware it can snow as late as early July. August is monsoon season, so expect brief, daily thunderstorms. July and winter are the most reliably sunny times; that said, Telluride averages 300 days of sunshine a year. If you want to explore either pass, you’ll need to visit in summer.
telluride ghost towns
Telluride tips
The air is thin up there. Drink lots of water, and then drink some more. Go easy on the alcohol, too. Take aspirin if you’re suffering altitude-related symptoms like headache or insomnia, and go easy for a couple of days until you acclimate. Wear broad-spectrum, high SPF sunblock, and reapply often on any exposed skin or under t-shirts. Wear a hat and sunglasses, as well.

[Photo credits: Tomboy, Flickr user Rob Lee; Mahr building, Laurel Miller; winter, Flickr user rtadlock]

Top North American rodeos to check out this summer

North American rodeosIn honor of the approaching National Day of the American Cowboy, which I wrote about earlier in the week, I wanted to highlight some of the best rodeos North America has to offer.

Even city slickers can enjoy a rodeo; it is, after all, a sporting event. With a lot of beer. And grilled meat. And a lack of giant foam fingers and face-painting (not a bad thing, I might add).

In all seriousness, rodeos are great family fare. There are usually parades and drill team exhibitions, down-to-earth people, great camaraderie, and you can watch some truly amazing human, equine, and bovine athletes perform in independent and team events. At day’s end, you can always count on a big barbecue, live music, and a dance. The below rodeos are all located in places of great historic interest if you love the Old West or Americana. Git boot-scootin’.

Calgary Stampede
It may be surprising to learn that Canada has a cowboy culture, but Alberta does, and is home to this world-famous event, which is an integral part of the community. Critter lovers should note that the Stampede places extreme emphasis on animal welfare, which you can read about here (FYI, the PRCA (Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association) also has strict animal welfare regulations in place, so contrary to belief, livestock are not being tortured for the sake of entertainment). Events ranging from steer wrestling and women’s barrel racing to junior steer riding will be happening July eighth through the 17th.

[Photo credit: bronc, Flicker user Bill Gracey;North American rodeosSheridan WYO Rodeo
Located in the heart of Yellowstone Country at the foot of the Bighorn Mountains, Sheridan has no shortage of pastoral pleasures to go with its Western heritage. Rodeo Week–July eighth through the 17th–kicks off with a parade, and night rodeos are held the 13-16th. Part of the Wrangler Million Dollar Tour, Sheridan WYO also features events like the Indian Relay Races (Those of you who are offended by the non-PC-ness of the name…remember we are not in Berkeley, and there’s a $25,000 payout prize), and a public Boot Kick-off event featuring live music, food vendors, and more.

Cheyenne Frontier Days
Know as the “Daddy of Em All,” the world’s largest outdoor rodeo has celebrated the American West since 1897. From July 23rd to the 31st, crowds from all over the world gather to watch arena events. You can also visit Cheyenne’s excellent Old West Museum, tour historic homes and “Behind the Chutes(don’t miss if you want to see what goes on before that gate swings open and bulls and broncs cut loose),” and attend Western Art Shows, concerts (Kid Rock and Sheryl Crow headline this year), a carnival midway, an Indian Village handicraft/historic recreation, and more.

Days of ’76 Rodeo

Held in one of the Old West’s most historic and notorious towns, this Deadwood, South Dakota event has been named Best PRCA Small Outdoor Rodeo four times, as well as PRCA Midsize Rodeo of the Year since 2004. This, the 89th year, runs from July 26-30th, and features two parades and lots of local Native American culture. The entire city of Deadwood is a national historic landmark located in the Black Hills Territory, so be sure to plan on an extra day or two for exploring.

Pendleton Roundup
Eastern Oregon is at the heart of the state’s cowboy country, and Pendleton is one of the ten largest rodeos in the world. Have a last-days-of-summer trip September 14-17th, when the weather is hot and sunny (it does happen in the Pacific Northwest, really). Bareback and saddle bronc riding, team roping, bull riding, Indian relay races, wild cow milking, children’s rodeo, and parade: it’s all here. Trivia: Pendleton is one of the first rodeos to have women officially compete. In 1914, Bertha Blanchett came within 12 points of winning the All-Around title.

[Photo credit: team roping, Flickr user Al_HikesAZ]

Great American road trip: Choteau, Montana, Letterman’s hangout is a gem of a town

Choteau, Montana where David Letterman married last week at the county courthouse is a gem of a town–the type of off-the beaten-track that beckons people who might be passing through to pull into a parking lot and stay awhile.

When we were on our Great American Road Trip to Montana and back last summer, we pulled into the parking lot of the Old Trail Museum for just “45 minutes” and stuck around for three hours with thoughts of returning some day. This was after staying with friends who live near the base of the Rockies twenty miles from town.

The Old Trail Museum is one of those types that tell unusual tales of western life. There’s the noose that was used for the last hanging in Choteau, for example. I hadn’t seen an actual noose used in an actual hanging before. It catches your attention. The noose is in a display with other artifacts and details about the murder that sent the guy to the gallows.

There are also exhibits about Native Americans, cattle ranching, medical care and whatever else you can think of that has to do with life in the west. One gallery is dedicated to the dinosaurs that once roamed the region.

Along with the main museum are other buildings with a variety of themes. There’s the taxidermy grizzly bear, the cabin dedicated to a Danish pioneer family and an art studio of a prominent Montana artist. I could have spent hours here poking around.

The museum also a great place to pick up books with a Montana theme. Fiction, non-fiction and kids’ fare fill shelves in the gift shop. Here you can buy items made by Blackfoot Indians who live in the state. I went a little nuts with the buying–a problem of mine. But, then again, anything one can do to keep the economy following.

We also helped the economy flow at Alpine Touch, across the street from the museum. Alpine Touch is a brand of specialty spices made in Choteau. While we were buying bottles of the Lite All-Purpose Seasoning, we tossed in several bottles of huckleberry body lotion and huckleberry jelly–also Montana-made.

Chances are, you won’t run into Letterman if you head to Choteau, although people have seen him there. The saucy older woman who is a volunteer at the visitor center mentioned giving him a chuckle when she let Letterman know that he is on too late for her to really know who he is. Who cares who Letterman is was her take, although she did offer that he has been very kind and generous to Choteau.

The great thing about places like Choteau is that it doesn’t matter who you are, you can have the same great glorious time whether you don’t have more than a few nickels to rub together, or you’re a millionaire.

That’s one of the things I thought of when we spent an afternoon wandering around in Sun River Canyon located in the Lewis and Clark National Forest with the brilliant blue sky overhead. Hiking along the trails is free. You can pick up trail maps at the Rocky Mountain Ranger District Trail office in town. We were lucky enough to come across a beaver just as it ducked into a stream to head to its dam.

Before we left Choteau, we would have shopped more, although we did have just enough time to grab some ice cream at the ice-cream shop that’s part of the museum complex. It cost more than a nickel, but it didn’t break the bank.

For anyone looking for a low key fun place to go with families, consider here. It’s only 50 miles from Great Falls, another Montana destination I’d like to have more time for one of these days. One place you might consider staying is the JJJ Wilderness Ranch. We walked around the grounds hoping to snag a horseback ride, but you have to be a paying guest. Next time we’re in Choteau, I’m finding a horse.

Politics in Rabbit Hash, Kentucky: Last day to vote for a jackass for mayor–literally

Residents of Rabbit Hash, Kentucky, even people who don’t live there can vote for mayor. Following the tradition of the U.S. presidential elections, today is the last day to vote. The candidates are like no others. Up until this year, all mayoral candidates have been dogs, but the canines have competition. These days, the effort to vote in a town mayor have heated up. Travis the cat is a fierce competitor, the first time a feline has been in the race.

Then there is Higgins, the miniature donkey that is also a contender, although people can’t help resist making connections between politics and a jackass. I don’t know if that will hurt or help his chances. As of October 30, he was in 3rd place with Travis in 5th.

You can vote more than once, by clicking here. A vote costs a dollar and all proceeds go towards the Rabbit Hash Historical Society–a worthy cause, let me tell you.

Rabbit Hash, Kentucky, about 30 minutes from Cincinnati, is one of those American oddball kind of treasures on the banks of the Ohio River. The Rabbit Hash General Store has been around since 1831 and doesn’t look much different than it did then, although the goods have been updated.

The town got its name from a joke by one of the town’s people after a flood one year. All that seemed to be left to eat were rabbits and he quipped there would be no shortage of rabbit hash. Rabbit Hash. Get it?

As a bonus, when you visit here, if you follow Kentucky SR 58, guess where you’ll end up? Big Bone Lick, the place Meg recently wrote about in this post.

**I heard about this story on CBS Sunday Morning Show and had to watch. I’ve been to Rabbit Hash a few times. If you do go here, check out the Bybee Pottery if there is any in stock. It’s Kentucky pottery perfection, in my opinion.

Here is a clip about the election that was on CNN.