This article by Robert F. Smith was first published by The Commons on May 31.
BELLOWS FALLS — After being closed for the last three years, the historic Miss Bellows Falls Diner appears to be headed for new ownership under a community nonprofit, a thorough restoration, and a reopening in 2025.
Rockingham for Progress, Inc. signed a purchase-and-sale agreement in January with owner Brian McAllister, with plans to close in mid-June on the sale of the 1941 Worcester Lunch Car.
In December, Jeff Dunbar, a local resident and a village trustee, broached “the idea that something has to be done to reopen the diner” — a central fixture downtown since 1942 — with Charlie Hunter, an artist and community activist.
Dunbar called the diner a vital link between the village’s past and its future and said that it should not be left idle and decaying. Hunter agreed, noting that many similar diners in recent years had been sold and moved.
Not wanting the same fate for the Miss Bellows Falls, the two began pulling together a team whose members possessed the skills, contacts, and will to make the project happen.
The project came under the auspices of Rockingham for Progress, established in 2016 during a controversial short-lived proposal by Keith Clark, then the sheriff of Windham County, to establish a detention center in the former Chemco building at 203 Papermill Rd.
The group, dormant since the detention facility’s demise, “formed to promote progressive economic development, an appreciation of the historic value and natural beauty of our town, and the general enlivening of citizen participation in our local democratic processes,” according to a letter posted on its website.
Hunter, a board member, referred to Dunbar, now Rockingham for Progress’s vice president, as the catalyst who got this project moving.
“I was a catalyst,” he agreed, “but Charlie Hunter was the engine that got it done.”
Bonnie North, the organization’s president, and Susan MacNeil helped with grant writing and much more. Rockingham For Progress began the process of getting funding for buying and completely restoring the diner.
Hunter said that using the nonprofit organization is key to restoring the diner, as it makes the project eligible for grants it would not otherwise qualify for. He noted that the cost of a full restoration will probably exceed $500,000, “more money to renovate than the diner could make.”
“When a nonprofit purchases the property,” Hunter said, “it really unlocks grant money. The nonprofit oversees the renovation and restoration, then leases the diner out to an operator. It gives the diner and the operator a fresh start without debt.”
Rockingham for Progress will apply for more funding and oversee the full, professional restoration of the diner. Once that is done, getting the structure leased to an operator, staffed and open, back on the tax rolls, and resuming its historic place as a community meeting center will happen quickly, they believe.
“We want to get the Miss Bellows Falls Diner all set for its next 80 years,” Hunter said.
The nonprofit initially applied for and received a $100,000 grant from the Preservation Trust of Vermont. The grant is enough to purchase the diner and get the project moving ahead.
“More money needs to be raised,” MacNeil said. “Some seed money has been raised, enough so that we have a foothold to make the project real. Other grants will be sought going ahead.”
MacNeil said that the group received a $100,000 Paul Bruhn Historic Revitalization Grant from the Preservation Trust, which applies directly to restoring the original diner space, is especially poignant.
General stores were becoming endangered because of the pressures and expenses involved with owning old Vermont buildings. Bruhn, the Preservation Trust’s founder and longtime executive director, pioneered a model of preserving Vermont’s general stores and other iconic community gathering places and keeping them viable and sustainable.
The model calls for the nonprofits to seek tenants — who own and operate the businesses — to lease the spaces, lowering overhead for civic-minded entrepreneurs.
MacNeil said Bruhn, who died unexpectedly in 2019, was intimately involved in some of Bellows Falls’ earliest historic preservation projects over the last few decades — in particular, the Exner Block.
“The Exner Block was the first time here that we took a building in disrepair and turned it into something useful for the community for decades to come,” MacNeil said.
“Bringing the diner back to its former glory is a way of honoring Paul Bruhn and a wonderful legacy to him and how much he did for this community,” she said. “And it keeps the historic nature of the village intact.”
Restoring the diner
In the early 1940s, when the diner was brought to town, it replaced a smaller diner that sat on the same spot. In 1983, after 40 years of operation, it became the second diner named to the National Register by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
From that milestone, the diner operated more or less continuously until 2020, when the Covid pandemic put a hold on indoor dining, and it closed.
During its 80 year history, the diner saw limited changes, but also only limited maintenance — a combination that has both good and bad consequences for the restoration project.
The good side is that the barrel-roofed diner is virtually unchanged inside and out from how it looked 80 years ago when built by the Worcester Lunch Car Company in Massachusetts. It retains the original porcelain enamel exterior façade, complete with the Miss Bellows Falls name painted on the side, along with promotion of “Booth Service” — an upgrade over the diner it replaced, which had only counter service.
It seems likely that the diner was originally built for another town, as part of a painted sign saying “Frank and Johnnie’s” can still be seen on the diner’s back exterior. It never became Frank and Johnnie’s, but was brought to Bellows Falls instead. The new name “Miss Bellows Falls” was simply painted on the opposite side and the diner was turned so that side faced the street.
Inside are the original oak ceiling, oak trim, and oak booths, seating four customers per booth. The original Formica counter and table tops are still there. Nearly all of the original counter stools are also still in operation. Together, the booths and counter can seat 32.
But 80 years has taken a toll.
The original diner was several feet narrower, so the original basement and foundation are only under part of the diner now. Most of the additions to its sides and rear aren’t set on proper foundations but rather on the ground.
Putting the diner on the old diner’s foundation also meant that the building’s front wall was moved several feet closer to the street. A narrow sidewalk is all that separates the front of the building from Bellows Falls’ busy Rockingham Street and winter snowplows. Eighty winters have taken a toll, and the front wall is showing a bulge.
Dunbar said that a project manager for the diner restoration will come on board in July.
The first order of business, he said, will be “to peel off everything not original and start from there.”
“There are some parts of the structure that don’t have a foundation,” Dunbar said. “Right now, we’re trying to figure out what’s possible, what’s affordable, and what’s the best way to do it.”
Importance to the community
Everyone who discussed this project emphasized the thought that the diner holds an importance to the Bellows Falls community greater than its 32 seats would indicate.
“Lots of families going back four generations have memories there,” said Dunbar. “It’s so authentic.”
He said he felt that there was a “good energy” in Bellows Falls, with lots of little projects — and a few not-so- little ones — “starting to snowball.” Getting the diner restored and operating is a priority, Dunbar said.
Hunter said that the project would be working with architects “to make sure this is as economically sustainable as possible. The goal of this project is to have a functioning diner at the center of this community, just as it historically has been.”