by Olivia Wilson, of the Community News Service
Olivia Wilson reported this story on assignment for the Vermont Community News Group. The Community News Service is a program in which University of Vermont students work with professional editors to provide content for local news outlets at no cost.
Ariel Mondlak and Abbie Waite first embarked on their journey to visit every town in the state 12 years ago, when the two friends were college students joined by a love of their home state’s history.
“You kind of look at things a little bit differently when you go there with the intention of playing tourist and exploring,” said Mondlak.
Their travels became more official after they discovered the 251 Club, a nonprofit for Vermont enthusiasts that challenges people to visit all 251 (now 252 with the addition of Essex Junction last year municipalities in the state). The club officially got its start in 1954 when founder Arthur W. Peach, noted scholar and poet, decided more people needed to discover Vermont.
Since 2011, when the club started keeping digital records, 1,200 members have completed the challenge, and some have even done it more than once. The group’s 68th annual member meeting took place in South Burlington on Oct. 1 at the Delta Hotel by Marriot, where Olympic gold medalist and club member Barbra Ann Cochran spoke.
Mondlak and Waite had already been to most communities in Vermont, but for the challenge the two only check places off the list if they visited together and can recall a specific memory or photo from the trip. Both foodies, the two have found enough hole-in-the-wall restaurants to keep them from ever going hungry. Their favorite so far? The Jericho Tavern.
“Go where the journey takes you, and it will all be fun in the end,” said Mondlak. “Finding the different places that you never would have found otherwise.”
The group currently has more than 5,000 members, both in and out of state, native and migrant. Among them is club executive director Stephanie Young, who grew up in Connecticut but upon moving to Vermont immersed herself, and her family, in the state’s history.
Since Young became the organization’s executive director in 2020, she, her two sons (9 and 13) and her husband have visited 198 towns. You don’t have to have completed the 251 to be a part of the fun. There is no timeline, no right or wrong way: The club is a choose-your-own-adventure extravaganza.
“Some people do it in a couple months. I’ve talked to some people who took 30 years to do it,” said Tom Clavelle, a Winooski native now living in Shelburne with his wife, Wendy.
A few years ago, Clavelle decided to take up a new retirement activity: biking through every town in the state. Since 2020, he said, he has ridden through about 70% of Vermont.
“Every wrong turn is a new experience,” he said.
He’s shared about two-thirds of his rides with other people, either his wife or friends, and on those trips he has taken almost 2,000 pictures, he said. Combining his passion for cycling with the 251 Club was a way to create relationships and experiences. He contemplated attempting the whole state in one ride, but realized the point of the challenge is the journey and the experiences you collect along the way, rather than the destination.
Couple Warren Irish and Christianna Raiche, of Jericho and Williston, have decided the club’s goal is not quite enough of a challenge. They’ve made it their goal to visit every village on top of every town and city, which evens out to 293 destinations.
Irish is a 9th generation Vermonter, so it seems right to him that he sees everything the state has to offer. He and Raiche began their official journey in 2020 but had both known about it their whole lives.
Raiche had visited many towns with her parents as a child. She was homeschooled, and a key part of her education was Vermont history. She visited the towns after reading “The Gazetteer of Vermont Heritage,” an old chronicle of each community’s history that she still uses to augment adventures. The two make sure to capture a memory from each town, taking a picture in front of every post office.
Due to the flooding this summer, the annual meeting was moved from the Capitol Plaza in Montpelier to South Burlington. In addition to the yearly meetings, the group also hosts spring get-togethers throughout the state.
“These events provide members with a chance to meet other Club members, share stories and discover or rediscover a new place in Vermont,” said Young, the club executive director, in an email.
The Clavelles were at first a little wary attending a club meeting, unsure if they would know anyone or if it would be any fun. But when they pulled into the parking lot outside the meeting venue, they ran face-to-face into their neighbors. “Who were the last people we would have expected to be there,” said Clavelle.
It’s proof, he said, that the club can bring together residents from the furthest stretches of Vermont but also reconnect you with those closest to you.
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