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Posted on Sun, May 16, 2010 : 7:18 p.m.

Chelsea blends cosmopolitan flair with small-town charm

By Ronald Ahrens


The historic Clocktower building is Chelsea's most famous landmark.

Angela Cesere |

In an area of just 3.34 square miles, Chelsea offers what its top booster calls “small-town life remixed.”

This thriving town has managed to blend small-town charm with big-city flair. About 5,000 people live here now, and in the pedestrian-friendly downtown, the storefronts — only a couple of spaces are empty — reflect not only the faces of satisfied shoppers but also the passion of proud owners. Just about every specialty is offered.

“You really don’t have to leave this area,” says Bob Pierce, executive director of the Chelsea Area Chamber of Commerce. “You feel a kind of small-town cosmopolitanism.”

A charming specialty cafe like Zou-Zou’s serves as an interesting counterpart to the straightforward satisfactions of Cleary’s Pub. Graceful old houses complement Chelsea’s signature architectural feature: the clock tower of the old Glazier complex by the railroad tracks. The Glazier concern made stoves more than 100 years ago and practiced the type of paternalism toward its employees that was then in vogue, putting up a recreation building for their use not long before the company went bust.

Across Main Street, Chelsea Milling Company is a bastion of the community. The leading brand, Jiffy Mix, places cornbread and muffin mixes, among other boxed baking products, on supermarket shelves in nearly every state. Yet the company avoids national advertising.

Company president Howdy Holmes had a career as a racing driver and was rookie of the year in the 1979 Indianapolis 500. Another Chelsea native, the actor Jeff Daniels, has starred in numerous Hollywood films and New York plays. A playwright and musician, Daniels founded the Purple Rose Theatre in 1991.

Also that year, Craig Common, one-time corporate chef for the C.A. Muer Corporation, opened the Common Grill in the building formerly occupied by Dancer’s Department Store. The restaurant quickly became established as one of the area’s finest. Common, who is still to be found there almost every day, has set aside time to produce two cookbooks.

“Chelsea is a destination town,” says Pat Cleary, leader of the Chelsea First steering committee. The Chelsea First effort aims to coordinate the marketing of small businesses and further the Chelsea brand.

On March 22, Chelsea was indeed the destination for National Endowment for the Arts Chairman Rocco Landesman. He came here for an overview and roundtable discussion during his 13-stop national Art Works tour and concluded that Chelsea has “a thriving art scene,” the Washington Post reported.

“It was the only city of under 30,000 on the tour and showed the positive economic impact of art in the community,” says Pierce.

Working to develop that art scene is the Chelsea Center for the Arts, which offers classes, exhibits and programs and sponsors the popular summer series, Sounds and Sights on Thursday nights.

Even the Chelsea District Library is a national leader, having won the Best Small Library in America award in 2008 from the editors of Library Journal.