Nineteenth-century inns are flourishing on Main Street. Upscale restaurants and galleries are sprouting in once-abandoned storefronts like the Queen Anne’s lace and other wildflowers that bloom alongside the main street. Even the 210-year-old grist mill has been refurbished and is back in business. Don’t believe it? Go to the Depression-era Littleton Diner (an authentic diner car) and chow down on a huge stack of pancakes — made from buckwheat stone-ground right in town.
“The town has a lot of attractions, some old, some new, some off the wall,” says Brian Walker, the Beach-Boys style Californian who became proprietor of the Beale House Inn last November.
A surprise awaits at nearly every step on Main Street, starting at the top of the hill where an opera house overlooks the shimmering Ammonoosuc River. Children still swim there in the summer like so many Tom Sawyers and Becky Thatchers.
The whole village looks like the Hollywood version of an old New England town, and in fact old Hollywood has touched down in Littleton in the form of none other than Jezebel herself — Bette Davis — who summered in Littleton and premiered in the 1941‘s “The Great Lie” here on her 33rd birthday. The Premiere Theater later burned down and is now the site of Jax Jr. Cinema.
The modern cinema is just part of the renaissance that was sparked, by all things, the arrival of Wal-Mart, situated on a former pasture west of downtown, according to some residents, including Mike Dickerman, a longtime columnist for the Littleton Courier.
“The opening of Wal-Mart about five or six years ago sparked the resurgence of Main Street. Rather than run in fear, the locals joined with the New Hampshire Main Street Program to revitalize downtown,” he says.
Dickerman says as recently as the mid-1990s, there were about 20 empty storefronts on Main Street. Now there appears to be few, if any. He added that new life has been breathed into the town by a surge in the second-home market, which he says has soared since 9-11.
A focal point of the downtown renaissance is the Littleton Grist Mill on the river, which was built in 1797 and operated to varying degrees of success until it closed in the 1930s and fell into disrepair. In 1997 the historic wooden structure was purchased with local funds. In the can-do Pollyanna spirit, the facility was restored and reopened as a working mill and museum, although the mill is now powered by electricity, not hydropower, so it can be used year-round. You can take a stroll through the mill and buy cloth sacks of organically-grown stone-ground flour, hand-crafted items and the pancake mix used at the Littleton Diner up the street.
After a visit to the mill take a few steps next door to Miller’s Café and Bakery, which rightfully boasts that it has “The Best Lunch in Littleton.” Not only are the homemade soups, sandwiches and pastries (the watermelon gazpacho we sampled was to die for) out of this world, but the ambience is even better. The self-service eatery is situated next to the Riverwalk Covered Bridge, which was built a few years ago in true vintage form. The river whooshes past the windows of the exposed beams and creaky wooden floor boards worn smooth by centuries of mill workers’ boots. And if the weather is nice enough, there are two outdoor decks with spectacular views. Don’t miss Muffin Happy Hour, Monday through Friday, 8:30 a.m.-11 a.m., when coffee or tea and a muffin is just $1.99.
Bolstered by the hearty meal and the soothing sounds of the river, it’s time to climb up the hill back to Main Street for some retail therapy.
One of the main draws to Littleton, especially if you have children, is Chutter’s General store, which claims to have the longest candy counter (measuring 112 feet) in America. There really is penny candy including gumballs, Swedish Fish and Root Beer Barrels and every other confection you can think of. And if you don’t want Junior bouncing off the walls or grandma’s blood sugar to swell, there’s an impressive sugar-free candy section as well.
Kids will also love the Village Book Store that has one of the most impressive Harry Potter displays this side of London Bridge. Not only are there the books but also Sorting Hats, stuffed Hedwigs and an impressive looking Golden Snitch. Like a magic portal in Hogwart’s you can enter the New Hampshire League of Craftsmen shop that is literally steps away on the bottom level. There stained glass is backlit by the gleaming Ammonoosuc.
Bondcliff Books is a smaller used and new bookstore on 4 Eames Way. It is headquarters of Mike Dickerman’s independent publishing company, which specializes in local guide books and White Mountain literature like “This Grand and Magnificent Place” by Christopher Johnson. It’s open Wednesdays 10 a.m.-5 p.m. and by appointment.
But downtown Littleton is not just a shopping haven for bookworms. There is also Rae’s Smoke Shop, which is not just a cigar store but also a kind of mini museum of cigar memorabilia and ornate cigar boxes which you can buy for a small price.
The Tannery Marketplace, on Saranac Street on the river’s edge, is another example of how the town (with the cleverly punned motto “Littleton — A Notch Above”) is dedicated to stay vibrant without obliterating the historical fingerprints that make it so special.
The complex is situated in the renovated 1898 post-and-beam Saranac Glove Company building, which was in business until the late 1970s. Today the Industrial Revolution building is used to house an antiques store, an architectural salvage business, a psychologist’s office and small art galleries.
One of the artists in the galleries is former Boston television meteorologist Bob Copeland, who gave up his weather maps for a paintbrush and easel at the gallery when he built a home in Littleton three years ago.
Copeland describes Littleton as “a typical small town with a lot of amenities. It has Wal-Mart and the big box stores, but also a main street with a lot of surprises.”
He’s right about that. This is an eminently walkable town. The Main Street area has pretty much anything you can use. There’s history everywhere you look from the Pollyanna homage in front of the library (its author, Eleanor Porter, was born in town ) to the local historical society and authentic 18th-, 19th- and 20th-century architecture existing in harmony with the picturesque mountain and river vistas.
But people can’t live on culture and history alone. There’s also shopping. Downtown has a music store with a stellar collection of guitars, several funky women’s boutiques, antique shops, art galleries, fine dining restaurants, cafés and food markets like The Healthy Rhino, which offers natural foods and organic produce. And if you’re worn out from shopping for Macanudos and granola, you can get reenergized by a massage therapist at the nearby Ancient Healing Arts Center.
There’s also a Reiki practitioner, who also happens to be certified in “equine acupressure.” Why not?
After exploring the town, it might be nice to check out Littleton’s lodgings, which offer something comfortable for people from all financial walks of life.
If your idea of heaven is an antique inn and any kind of weird martini you can think of, head to the 1833 Beal House Inn on West Main Street where ambience is authentic 19th-century but you can still get a room with a Jacuzzi. And did we mention the martinis? The inn’s restaurant menu lists more than 250 of them (they’re going for their own “Guinness” record).
Brian and Lynn Walker bought the inn on the Internet a year ago after moving from San Diego. With his long gray hair, Kramer-style Hawaiian shirts and cowboy boots, Brian Walker looks like a cross between Jimmy Buffet and Lucius Malfoy, with the laid-back joie de vivre of the former. He makes sure to go around to each table and chat up the customers. He says he refuses to make the shrimp and oyster martinis that were listed on the martini menu that came with the inn deal. “I just can’t bring myself to do it,” he says. “It’s just wrong.”
Thayers Inn, right in the center of downtown, is a true leftover of the robber baron era. Built in 1850, the railroad hotel with its Doric columns and spectacular cupola has seen the likes of presidents including Ulysses S. Grant, Franklin Pierce, Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter, as well as Horace Greeley, P.T. Barnum and Tom Thumb and, of course, Bette Davis. And because the building’s historical integrity has been preserved, it doesn’t take much of an imagination to picture them sitting on the shaded verandas that look out onto Main Street. Look downstairs for a new fun restaurant, Bailiwicks.
But if historic inns aren’t your thing, there are plenty of clean, inexpensive motels, like the 1950s-style Country Squire Motel, less than a mile from downtown, which offers clean beds, a small, clean swimming pool and free wi-fi and morning coffee for less than $60. Hey, we only spent 24 hours in Littleton and we already know why Pollyanna looked so darn happy. NH
111 Saranac Street
Glass Goddess Stained Glass Studio
21 Main Street
Chutter’s General Store
43 Main Street
Chutters (pictured above) is certified as the “World’s Longest Candy Counter.”
Abeille Home, formerly Blossoms Forever
73 Main Street
Carol Hartnet offers interior design service and a retail outlet for homegoods.
106 Main Street
Kitchen accessories, cookbooks
34 Union Street
Unique gift shop housed in the 1884 Victorian home of Felipe Evans
Elephant’s Trunk Ltd.
106 Main Street
Ladies’ collection of sportswear, dresses, lingerie, jewelry and accessories. Vera Bradley, Crabtree & Evelyn.
Littleton Grist Mill
18 Mill Street
Fresh, organic stone-ground flours and grain mixes
League of N.H. Craftsmen Retail Gallery
81 Main Street
The newest of the League of N.H. Craftsmen’s seven retail galleries showcases the work of nearly 150 state-juried
17 Main Street
A full-service florist, café and art gallery in one storefront. Serves fresh organic fair trade coffee from Costa Rica and has open house artist receptions every six weeks with live music and refreshments.
7 Main Street
Chef-owned restaurant located in the Littleton historic district. Serving a changing weekly menu in an intimate casual atmosphere.
111 Main Street
Lower level of Thayer Inn
This new restaurant with its
intimate setting and reasonably-priced food has become a favorite spot for locals (more info on page 94).
Beal House Inn
2 West Main Street
New ownership but the popular copper-topped martini and “RumBa” bar with 252 martinis and more than 30 rums lives on.
Bin 42 Bistro & Wine Bar
42 Main Street
Located above Deacon’s Bench
Artisan flatbread pizza with unique toppings
Miller’s Café & Bakery
16 Mill Street
Riverside deck overlooking cascading waterfalls along the Ammonoosuc River, featuring the “best lunch in Littleton”
Bishop’s Homemade Ice Cream
183 Cottage Street
Open through October
This article appears in the March 2010 issue of New Hampshire Magazine