From the early 1800s this town in Worcester County became a hub for the lumber and furniture industries. Gardner was known in particular for its chair making, gaining the nickname, The Chair City.
The market leader here was the Heywood-Wakefield Company, which was integral to town life for 150 years until moving out in the 1970s.
The company’s repurposed factory complex can still be seen downtown, while the informative Gardner Museum is in a library donated by the Heywood family in the 1880s, and has a strong collection of 19th-century furniture.
For visitors Gardner can be a real food experience, taking in multi-generation businesses like a treasured downtown candy shop, a creamery making award-winning cheese, and an orchard growing more than 30 apple varieties.
1. Dunn State Park
In 1915 one of Gardner’s furniture makers, John Ainsworth Dunn (1831-1915) bequeathed this valuable property, just east of the center to the town.
Around a pristine 20-acre pond, Dunn State Park is now managed by the DCR, and is a real recreation hotspot, for hiking, fishing, boating, paddling, swimming in summer and cross-country skiing in winter.
The trails wind through the woods on the eastern part of the property, while the beach area on the pond’s north shore is complemented by a quaint pavilion, picnic tables, grills and a wooden dock with benches for you to sit and marvel at the scenery.
When it comes to fishing, Dunn Pond is known for its plentiful yellow perch, and brown trout in deeper areas.
2. West Gardner Square Historic District
From the mid-19th century, Gardner’s town center gradually made its way westwards, down the hill to be closer to the furniture mills along the streams.
The municipal functions were eventually shifted in the 1920s to complete that move. The solemn industrial, civic and commercial buildings of that “new” center can be appreciated at the sprawling, 340-acre West Gardner Square Historic District.
This has three surviving mill complexes, including the sizable Heywood-Wakefield Company Complex (1863), as well as an assortment of stately commercial blocks like the Garbose Building, at 4-12 Pleasant Street, built in 1883.
West Gardner Square is still a thriving commercial district with endearing local shops for artisanal candy, fabrics, health food, jewelry, clothing, home design, and much more.
For a satisfying breakfast in a timewarp, make for the Blue Moon Diner, built by the Worcester Lunch Car Company in 1949, with a marble counter, 14 stools and a set of window booths.
3. Gardner Museum
One of the finest sights up the slope in the Gardner Uptown Historic District is the town’s old library from 1886. Built in memory of Levi Heywood (1800-1882), this is a blend of the Romanesque Revival and Queen Anne styles.
The library was initially funded by an endowment from the Heywood family, and was housed in this building until 1976. Now the Levi Heywood Memorial Library Building is the home of the Gardner Museum, which shines a light on the town’s history.
As you might expect, chairs and furniture are a central thread. The museum preserves the memory of this once dominant industry, and in its collection is a large array of 19th-century Gardner furniture, including a chair manufactured by James Comee in the early 1800s.
The collections also represent other aspects of Gardner’s past, such as firefighting, silversmithing, stovemaking, fine art, and the manufacture of time recorders by the Simplex Recorder Company (est. 1902)
4. Gardner Bicentennial Chair
To honor its furniture-making heritage, Gardner has erected a succession of oversized novelty chairs, the first of which was made in 1905 and claimed to be the largest chair in the world.
The Heywood-Wakefield Company built the next one in 1922, standing more than 13 feet. This survived for much longer, but needed to be pulled down in the 1970s after half a century exposed to the elements.
Standing on the lawn in front of the Helen Mae Sauter School building (1898), the current 20-foot Bicentennial Chair went up in 1976 and briefly reclaimed the record of world’s largest chair. This monument was restored in the 1990s after a case of rot, and a cherished landmark in the town.
5. Mount Wachusett Community College (Theatre at the Mount)
On a verdant rural campus sprinkled with modern architecture, Mount Wachusett Community College is a stone’s throw from Gardner Center and was founded in 1963.
The campus is celebrated for its use of renewable energy, provided by photovoltaic panels, a biomass plant and wind turbines.
Another claim to fame is the newly renovated Fine Arts Center, completed in 1976 and containing a 554-capacity auditorium.
This is the seat of Theatre at the Mount, a highly-regarded community theatre program that has presented more than 300 plays since the 1970s.
A few recent productions include The Play that Goes Wrong, Escape to Margaritaville, The Drowsy Chaperone, Don’t Dress for Dinner and Winter Wonderettes.
6. Priscilla Candy Shop
Another of the veteran businesses in downtown Gardner is this third-generation candy shop at 4 Main St. Priscilla Candy Shop was founded in the town in 1936 by Charlie “Grampie” Stephano, remembered for introducing Gardner to his signature French Roll, which is still one of the shop’s best-sellers.
This decadent treat consists of a soft chocolate center, similar to ganache, dipped in milk chocolate and then rolled in pieces of roasted cashew.
The French Roll is one specialty from a vast range of handmade chocolates, running the gamut from soft centers to caramels, truffles, creams, chocolate-dipped fruit, nut-filled chocolates and luxurious fudge.
7. Smith’s Country Cheese
Renowned for its award-winning Gouda, Cheddar and Havarti, this dairy farm and creamery is within a ten-minute drive of Gardner Center.
Smith’s Country Cheese was founded in 1985 by David Smith, who started farming this land in 1969. Since that time, Smith has become a regional authority on farmstead cheesemaking and has mentored numerous new makers across New England.
Smith retired in 2016 and passed the torch to new owners, but the recipes are the same, and you’re welcome to visit the country shop Tuesday through Sunday.
As well as that delicious cheese, there’s a wide selection of locally sourced gourmet food items, as well as home decor and organic cosmetics and candles.
If you come at the right time you may also get to see the cheese being made through viewing windows, and you can wander down to the farm to admire the cows and their calves.
8. Lake Wampanoag Wildlife Sanctuary
In the north of Gardner is an unfrequented area of grasslands and red spruce and balsam fir forest, managed by the Massachusetts Audubon Society. Spread across 377 acres, Lake Wampanoag has an abundance of wildlife.
Savanna sparrows and bobolinks nest in the meadows in the summer, and on the trails you stand a good chance of sighting deer, bears, moose, coyotes and bobcats.
The sanctuary is easy to experience on foot along the main Moosewood Trail, which has a couple of loops, off into the woodland, and across the meadow alive with butterflies and dragonflies in summer and fall.
9. Brian’s Bowlaway
The game of candlepin bowling was invented not far away in Worcester, just over 140 years ago and is mainly played in New England and Canada’s Maritimes.
If you’re new to this variation, it has a small, handheld ball and ten long and narrow pins. These are difficult to knock down, to the point where some people spend their whole lives playing candlepin bowling without ever making a strike.
There’s a charming old candlepin alley in Gardner Center, at Brian’s Bowlaway, which has 14 lanes and has been around since the 1930s. Many of the interior details date back to that time, and the proprietor, Brian, is on hand to offer tips and help you with scoring.
10. Gardner Cinemas
A refreshing change from corporate movie theaters, Gardner’s multiplex is locally owned, and is so well-known for its service, cleanliness and affordability that it attracts moviegoers from miles around.
There are eight screens here showing the latest first-run movies, often at a fraction of the price of other theaters.
When we made this list, all seats were $6.50 for screenings before 5 pm every day (except Tuesday), while Tuesdays were $6 all day long.
The concession stand is also reasonably priced, with popcorn always made fresh, and a range of other treats from hot dogs to ice cream.
11. Red Apple Farm
A little further afield, this fourth-generation orchard in Phillipston is just over ten minutes away, give or take.
Red Apple Farm offers a wide range of pick-your-own crops July through October, kicking off with blueberries and ramping up to an extended apple season, with more than 30 varieties available from the end of July to the end of October.
Throughout the season the farm holds festivals to mark each harvest, so there’s a Blueberry Jamboree in July and a Sunflower Festival in August.
But the biggest of these is the Appleseed Country Fair over Labor Day weekend, with dozens of vendors, live music, a brew and wine barn, a North American sanctioned fiddle contest and tons more.
Aside from these events there’s plenty to enjoy on a typical day, whether you’re grabbing fresh apple cider donuts from the country store, or visiting the Brew Barn & Cidery, open all year, serving delicious BBQ and hosting live music performances almost daily.
12. North Central Pathway
First planned in the 1990s, a 16-mile bike trail is gradually taking shape between the centers of Gardner and Winchendon.
At the time of writing, 11 miles had been completed. In Gardner you can pick up the North Central Pathway at the Gardner Veterans Arena, on the southeastern shore of Crystal Lake, taking you north between the lakeshore and Heywood Hospital where there’s a picturesque wellness loop.
Further north on Green Street there’s a parking area and trailhead for a long section, following an old railroad right-of-way through remote woodlands to Old Gardner Road on the southeastern Edge of Winchendon.
Close by the trail begins once more at N Ashburnham Road, leading into Winchendon Center.
13. Monument Park
Sloping down towards Cottage Street, this public park in Gardner Center is a perfect natural amphitheater for summer events.
There’s a bandstand at the bottom of the slope, hosting weekly concerts mid-June through August.
These shows normally take place on Saturday evenings, and there are performers to suit all tastes, whether you’re up for some classic rock, blues, folk, country or traditional Polish music.
On occasional Friday nights in summer families can catch outdoor movie shows, beginning at dusk and organized by the town’s youth commission.
14. Gardner Municipal Golf Course
The local muni also happens to be one of the best publicly accessible courses in the area. Dating back to 1936, this 18-hole course is in superb condition all season, and players of all calibers will find something to enjoy.
As a challenge, Gardner Municipal Golf Course is pretty straightforward, so beginners and high handicappers can build some confidence here.
There are four sets of tees, and a slight difference between the flat and open front nine and the tighter hillier back nine.
There’s a driving range and putting green if you want to warm up or just visit to work on your game, and the restaurant at the clubhouse has a second-story deck with a dreamy view of the last few holes.
15. Gardner Food Truck Festival
One annual event that has really taken off in Gardner is the food truck festival, held on the second Saturday in July.
This culinary extravaganza has grown to the point where the trucks sit bumper to bumper for several hundred feet, in front of City Hall on Pleasant Street and then along a stretch of City Hall Avenue.
One of many things to love about the festival is that you’ll be supporting small businesses with the chance to sample a huge variety of cuisines, from Cuban fusion to hot dogs, Italian street food, Korean bites, cheesesteaks, BBQ, hot dogs, subs, grilled cheese and a slew of sweet treats.