BENNINGTON — The future of one of the most recognizable and historic structures in Southern Vermont — the Walloomsac Inn in Old Bennington — is up in the air.
Pending changes for the iconic building have prompted concern and hope for its preservation among members of the town Historical Society, who met this week to discuss how to support any effort to restore what is considered the earliest hostelry in Vermont.
“It is one of the most historic buildings in the area and relates to the early days of Bennington,” said Historical Society member Donald Miller. “That’s why we are interested in helping, to do anything we can to help.”
The inn was established as a tavern during the early 1770s by Elijah Dewey, who later served as a captain in the Bennington militia in the Revolutionary War’s Battle of Bennington. The inn is located across Monument Avenue from the historic Old First Congregational Church.
The 306-foot Bennington Battle Monument obelisk stands nearby at the center of Monument Circle.
THE BERRY FAMILY
The recent deaths of two sisters from the Berry family, which has owned the inn since it was acquired by their grandfather, Walter Berry Sr., in the early 1900s, has prompted concern about the building’s future.
“This situation opens up the possibility of restoring Vermont’s first hotel, built in 1771, which hosted Thomas Jefferson and James Madison in 1791,” said historian Tyler Resch, who has served as a research librarian at the Bennington Museum. “I hope and trust that the Bennington Historical Society and the museum can play a helpful role toward that goal.”
The two sisters had overseen the rambling, partly dilapidated structure for decades before Arlene E. Berry, died Aug. 18, and Donna Berry Maroney, who also served for nearly 50 years as village clerk in Old Bennington, died on Nov. 24.
The Walloomsac Inn has not been operated as an inn since the 1990s, serving later as a private residence.
A third sister, Kathleen Kaiser, resides elsewhere in Bennington.
Kaiser, who could not be reached Friday, filed a petition in Probate Court in November, seeking to become administrator of Arlene Berry’s estate. According to the petition, there was no will.
It was not specified in the paperwork whether the inn would be included in that process. However, the property was deeded solely to Arlene Berry by their mother’s estate in 2006, according to Bennington assessor records, and Arlene had declared the property as her homestead each year, including 2021.
The inn sits north of an elbow created by the connection of West Main Street and West Road (Route 9) — the road to New York state. Over the years, visitors coming from that direction have passed by the inn coming into Bennington.
The address is listed as 67 Monument Ave., and the inn sits on 1.1 acres. It is assessed for taxes at $344,600, Bennington Assessor John Antognioni said.
The inn has hosted a number of famous visitors over the years, including Jefferson and Madison. They were in town to help mark acceptance of the independent republic of Vermont into the union.
President Rutherford B. Hayes stayed at the inn and attended a celebratory event there during the dedication of the Battle Monument in 1877.
And President Benjamin Harrison held a reception at the Walloomsac Inn in 1891 to celebrate the state’s centennial.
Discussing some of the famous visitors, Bennington Historical Society President Robert Tegart said he and his wife — who were living elsewhere at the time — stayed at the inn on their honeymoon in 1973, “because we knew it was historic.”
“Hopefully, something can be done,” Tegart said. “This is a focal point at the center of Old Bennington.”
According to information on the Bennington Museum website and compiled by Resch, Elijah Dewey built a tavern on the site in 1771. Dewey’s tavern was among locations used by the legislature of the republic of Vermont, which lasted from 1777 until statehood in 1791.
After Dewey’s death in 1818, the tavern was acquired by James and Maria Hicks. James Hicks had been employed as a driver in the family stagecoach business.
In 1823, according to the museum website, a third story and two-story porch were added, and Hicks added a ballroom on the second floor.
Hicks sold the building to George Wadsworth Robinson in 1848, and Robinson changed the name from Hick’s Tavern to the Walloomsac House.
Experiencing financial troubles, he sold the inn to Mary Sanford Robinson and her brother Samuel Sanford. In 1891, Sanford hired a new proprietor, Walter Berry Sr., who later purchased and enlarged the inn once more in 1903.
Berry was the grandfather of the sisters who recently died. Their father was the late Walter Berry Jr.