Tucked securely in the heart of Essex County, high in the northeastern corner of Vermont, rests the unincorporated town of Lewis, population zero.
Uninhabited since sometime prior to 1910, Lewis is, nonetheless, one of the most-coveted destinations among the 4,500 active members of The 251 Club of Vermont. And fall is one of the most popular times to try to get there, not just because the colors are popping, but because, well, Lewis isn’t exactly easy to get to no matter where you’re trying to get there from.
“You can’t get there … at least in the winter if you’re traveling by car,” wrote 251 Club member Melanie Considine in her blog, “Vermont 251 in 365.” She tried once in the winter, only to discover the Stone Dam Road entrance she sought was impossible to find, completely covered in snow.
“The difficulty checking off Lewis is a common refrain among members of The Vermont 251 Club,” explains Stephanie Young, who took over as executive director in January, 2020.
The club challenges members to visit each of the state’s 246 “organized” towns and cities, as well as its five “unorganized” towns. It was formed in 1954, after Dr. Arthur W. Peach suggested in a Vermont Life Magazine article that it would be a great way for people to discover Vermont and the unique characteristics of each town.
Matt and Ann Parsons made it to Lewis last September during a much-needed vacation from the stresses brought about by the global pandemic. They paddled out to Lewis Pond, well protected within the massive Silvio O. Conte National Fish & Wildlife Refuge network, and even made a couple of fast friends on their journey. It’s one of many stories they tell in their blog, “The Adventurers.”
“When we realized that we had located such a difficult ‘town,’ we decided to join the 251 Club and go after a few more hard-to-find towns,” they wrote. “We joined the 251 Club and made it our mission to pick off towns in the most Northeastern part of Vermont. For us, a simple drive through the back woods of Vermont helps us to reconnect and unwind from the stresses of life.”
There are no rules about how members — who come from all over the country — structure their 251 journeys. “It’s a challenge to visit all 251 towns and cities, but a challenge that is doable since Vermont is a compact state,” said Young, who oversees the club’s day-to-day operations. “You can take as long as you want. We have had some members who have visited all 251 towns and cities in less than a year, and some who have taken 34 years. There is also sometimes a misconception that you have to submit photos to us to prove that you have visited all 251 towns and cities, but we work on the honor system.”
Young and her family became members in summer 2019 after seeing it advertised in Vermont Life. “As soon as we received the 251 Club of Vermont welcome packet that is sent to new members in the mail, my family and I were off,” she said. “After our first 251 adventure, we quickly realized how much we enjoyed being part of the club and started to plan our 251 trips for the rest of that year.”
A membership, which includes everyone in the household, costs $22 for the first year with a $12 renewal in subsequent years (or $48 for five years). They represent all different ages and walks of life. Many families tackle the challenge together. Members receive the club’s newsletter, “The Wayfarer,” three times a year and get access to their own personal 251 Club of Vermont personal page where they can track progress, as well as upload photos and notes.
“Hearing from members about their 251 stories is one of the best parts of my job,” Young said. “Members love to share what they discovered along the way. They are very passionate, not only about The 251 Club of Vermont, but about Vermont as well.”
Once adventurers complete their 251 quests, they become “Plus” members and receive a congratulatory letter and decal. For most, though, it’s the journey that is the true reward.
Ron Thompson, a native Vermonter who lives in Williston, completed all 251 in just 15 days. “Yes, this was a little aggressive, but once I started checking off the towns I visited, the more I wanted to do,” he wrote. “What I enjoyed the most was seeing so many old buildings and learning more about the history of Vermont, particularly the history of Ethan Allen’s family. It was an awesome adventure.”
Anne and Ben Linehan of Tunbridge celebrated their 251 completion by releasing a craft brew; 251 Golden IPA. The beer, along with a detailed map of their journey, is prominently featured in the tasting room of their nanobrewery, Brocklebank.
“There is a couple who completed their 251 quest by putting a canoe down in a body of water in every town,” Young said. “This meant that sometimes they had to get creative since not every town has an easy-to-find body of water. So, for a few towns they had to canoe in farm ponds and beaver ponds.”
Themed journeys like that are a common approach to tackling the 251 challenge. Young cited members who focus on visiting all post offices, town halls or libraries — or prefer a certain mode of transportation to visit towns, such as walking to each town or biking. “We have not yet, as far as I know, had anyone attempt to cross-country ski or snowshoe through all 251 towns,” she said.
“Some members, like myself, do not have a specific theme in visiting all towns and cities but rather set out to see what they can find,” Young said. “My family and I usually have a certain point of interest we want to see — like a historic site, general store, state park or museum — and then go from there checking off surrounding towns. And this applies to all seasons, including winter.”
Last January, they went to Stratton Mountain Resort for nordic skiing and snow tubing. “We were able to visit seven towns along the journey, including getting great food at MKT in Grafton,” she said. “We also checked off Rockingham and Weston by visiting the Vermont Country Store — they have locations in both towns.”
They’ve also checked off towns by snow tubing at Killington, finding a new sledding hill in St. George, and cross-country skiing in Bolton, at Bolton Valley, and in Goshen, at Blueberry Hill Outdoor Center.
Visual artist Susan Abbott, a northern Vermonter, has memorialized many of her 251 adventures by painting the towns she’s visited. The series includes 8×10-inch color images in mixed media, black-and-white photographs hand-painted with oils, and sketches done with Faber Castell Pitt sanguine and black pen.
The club helps support local economies by encouraging visitors to explore all that each has to offer. “Club members frequently visit general stores, local restaurants, bookstores and other businesses as they complete their 251 journeys,” Young said. “We encourage appreciation for all Vermont has to offer, including outdoor recreation during all seasons such as skiing in the winter, and hiking and boating during the warmer months.”
The club offers members numerous suggested itineraries, recommending interesting destinations in several different towns — places like museums, outdoor recreation opportunities, restaurants and general stores. These points of interest are continually evolving with member feedback.
Even with the challenges of COVID-19, the 251 Club saw its in-state membership increase in 2020 as Vermonters embraced the opportunity to explore the state while adhering to public health guidelines.
“We heard from many members who were grateful to have the challenge during COVID-19 since it provided them an opportunity to work toward a goal,” Young said. “We had members who would picnic near a lake, allowing them to visit a new town while social distancing. We also saw the increase in members because of Gov. Phil Scott’s ‘staycations’ promotion.”
Now that travel restrictions have relaxed, Young is happy to welcome back out-of-state visitors to resume their quests. She also looks forward to returning the club’s annual meeting to in-person, as the event is a great opportunity for members to meet and “compare notes.”
The annual meeting, held virtually in 2020, featured guest speakers who shared valuable perspectives on the history of Vermont. At last year’s 65th, Lydia Clemmons from Clemmons Family Farm in Charlotte was the featured guest. The farm is one of 22 sites on Vermont’s African-American Heritage Trail. For the 66th annual meeting this year in Montpelier, the guest speaker was Molly Veysey from Old Stone House Museum and Historic Village in the Northeast Kingdom. The museum tells the story of Alexander Twilight, the first African-American college graduate and state legislator in the United States.
“We would like to continue to offer both Vermonters and out-of-state visitors a platform to discover our great state,” Young said. “We hope to continue to provide useful resources to members of how they can discover, or rediscover, Vermont in all seasons.”
Be warned, though. Completing the 251 challenge might leave a nostalgic void. Fortunately, there are no rules about completing the challenge over and over again.
Board member Mike Leonard produced a film about his 251 Club journey called “One Town At A Time,” and wrote about his adventures as a guest columnist for The Vermont Standard. Leonard expressed his bittersweet thoughts about concluding his 251 journey by writing: “… like the fallen leaves of a summer well traveled or the birds flying south for their winter solace. Our travels may be over, but with lingering images of Vermont’s varied landscape, I realize the importance of seeing it first-hand.”