A Tale of Two Towns: Chester PA & Chester VT

By Sandy Stiassni

Sandy Stiassni/Photo by Lou Delgado

While I have childhood memories of Chester, VT as an exceptionally fine place to live, set apart from banal Big-Box retail communities that have come to comprise so much of small town and suburban life in America, I’ve known another Chester, in a different locale and with a different character.

As a young college graduate, I accepted a job with Scott Paper Co. in Philadelphia.  As part of its training program, destined to take me into the world of sales and marketing, I began at the bottom, as quality control inspector in the world’s largest paper towel and tissue plant, located on the banks of Delaware River in Chester, PA.

Few same-named places could have less in common.  Founded in 17th century by Swedes — who called it Finlandia — Chester, PA was  renamed by William Penn, after a prosperous English coastal town.

Chester, PA’s 19th and mid-20th centuries were marked by booming growth as a maritime center and an industrial and civic hub.  In 1950, 65,000 residents called that Chester their home.  Companies like Pennsylvania Shipyard & Dry Dock Co., Eddystone Ammunition Corp., Ford Motor Co. and my alma mater, Scott Paper, fortified its slogan: What Chester makes, makes Chester.

But, as we have seen in Springfield, VT,  national trends hit industrial cities like Chester, PA hard. In time, manufacturing left the state and then the country.  By the time I arrived in 1978, Chester, PA was a hard-scrabble collection of tired Victorian residences, grimy, prison-like apartments and an eerie downtown virtually deserted by dusk. Today, its population is less than half its 1950s peak.

By 2010,  Chester had become a shadow of its former self. The population had dropped to less than 34,000 inhabitants with median family income of $29,436 and the highest murder rate in Pennsylvania.

Chester, VT bears scant resemblance to its cousin.  Chartered first in 1754 by the Province of New Hampshire under the name of Flamstead, Chester’s 1771 census revealed 152 souls, 30 households tucked into a frontier outpost.

Slow but steady increase yielded a 1900 population of 2,784, which, by the 2010 Census, was only up by 7% in 110 years. Median family income is $47,083, on par with state and national indices.  People don’t appear to live in Chester, VT because it’s a great place to make money.  Likewise, 258 years of consistent, unspectacular growth ensure peaceful existence, quiet enjoyment and freedom from many plagues that have decimated cities like Chester, PA .

But assuming validity of slogans, what does Chester, VT make, and does that make Chester?  What fortifies Chester?

Far more than jobs, valuable real estate, goods and services, to this outsider’s unpracticed eye, Chester, VT makes a statement.  Warm community fellowship amid stubborn self-reliance, strong family connections, environmental stewardship to past and future generations are implicitly imbedded in this Chester.

Generations of residents have invested their lives, love and hope for a better tomorrow. This simple social contract can be seen through Chester’s iconic architecture.

A walk nearby through Chester Depot, we come upon the historic Stone Village, a testament to sturdy homes and a past rich in granite craftsmanship. Lisai’s Market, Town Hall, Cummings Hardware and the striking Yosemite Fire House each whisper, “What Chester makes, makes Chester. ”

Along Main Street, we pass Whiting Library, an incredible dollop of Romanesque Revival design, lovingly restored and appended by Chester’s citizens in 1999. We now reach Chester’s sublime Green, lined with shops, restaurants and inns, many still owner-occupied.

ChesterVermont.orgCapstone to the Chester Green is the Fullerton Inn, built in 1840s as the Ingraham House.  In my childhood, it was known as Chester Inn. We finish this brief tour at 397 Main St., where legendary publisher and co-founder of the Modern Library Albert Boni established Readex Microprint Corp., and revolutionized document retrieval worldwide.

Venture three stone-throws from these wonderful buildings to the site of a proposed Dollar General store.  Is this what makes Chester, Chester?  I think not.  A contravening message might be, “This will be the place to make Dollar General richer and Chester poorer.”

As a tale of two towns indicates, there’s more than one Chester. The first favored rampant industrial, consumerist growth over local sustainability.  The second, seen in a different history and apotheosis, showcases a more supportable path that can yield equivalent, if not greater, riches.  But going forward, which Chester will Chester, VT’s citizens choose?

Sandy Stiassni spent childhood summers in Chester on his grandparents’ farm.  These days, in Irvine , CA , the largest master-planned community in the U.S. , he collects rent, unstops clogged toilets, does grassroots advocacy and makes prophesies about a better world, soon to come.  Stiassni is founding member of Transition Irvine, part of the global Transition Town movement, to help local citizens prepare for a Post-Peak Oil world full of uncertainty.  He can be reached at DADCAB@sbcglobal.net.

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  1. Irene says:

    Thank you for the insightful article, Sandy. I couldn’t agree more.

  2. Karen says:

    Great article. There have to be places left on this Earth where citizens can live free of regional and global chains. If folks need or want those “things” there are plenty of other places to go and get them.