By Richard J. Ewald
from Proud to Live Here
From the days of barter to our cash-and-credit economy, the marketplaces of the northern valley have energized villages and urban commercial centers. These centers first took shape around small, water-powered sawmills and gristmills at waterfalls and cascades. Steam and electricity powered the rise of factories that manufactured machine tools, guns, paper, textiles, and farm equipment. These industries spawned nearby Main Streets whose thriving heydays are being rekindled by a new generation. It is important to strengthen local businesses and traditional commercial centers for the sake of our regional economy and sense of belonging.
The Basic Story
Early European immigrants to the upper Connecticut River Valley weren’t exactly looking for a “job” the way we think of it today. but most were motivated by the same desires as ours. They sought to earn a living, own and develop property, sell a product, get ahead, be a member of a community, leave something for the children.
Since then more than two centuries doing business—certain kinds of businesses, conducted in a certain way—have shaped our communities. The character of our cultural landscape is itself a product of the work of generations of entrepreneurs, business barons, bankers, investors, production managers, factory workers and laborers, shop keepers, clerks, and customers, too.
They left their mark. There are old stone foundations of early hilltop settlements in southern Vermont, and similar traces left by ephemeral logging camps in remote northern New Hampshire. All over the watershed there are small villages gathered at water-powered mill sites, and a few larger urban centers that coalesced around industries that rode successive waves of invention and technical innovation. Connecticut River communities excelled at “precision Manufacturing” in the machine tool industry, at making paper and textiles, and at forging a variety of equipment essential to farming. Commercial centers grew, first based on river locations and then railroad lines. They took shape during the years when the consumer economy came into being and the classic American Main Street was invented.
A number of modern tools and trends—automobiles, trucks, interstate highways, international free trade, the Internet—have now dispersed commercial activity throughout the countryside. Industrial “parks” and the occasional shopping mall are symbolic of the evolution of doing business in the northern valley.
Beginning thousands of years ago with the mining and fashioning of tools by indigenous people, residents of the upper Connecticut River Valley have drawn on its natural resources for manufacturing. Early subsistence settlers scratched out a living through agriculture and extraction industries, which are a response to place and natural resources. Settlers located mills to take advantage of hydro power opportunities presented by waterfalls, cascades and gorges, and used their power to cut wood and process food. Later, water supplies were instrumental in developing large industries based on wool and paper, as they were for local industries based on such operations as tanning and soapstone cutting.
Products of the forest formed the valley’s first industry. Before 1800, the only crop harvested in appreciable amounts in the Connecticut River Valley in New Hampshire and Vermont was timber. Logs were sent to sawmills in England and Southern New England, including tall pines for Royal Navy masts.
The British Royal Navy claimed for masts the tallest and straightest pines found in the wilderness—all trees greater than 24 inches in width—and floated them down the Connecticut as early as the 1730s. The King’s arrow-shaped blaze on the best trees was a source of insult and irritation to settlers. The region’s forests offered the basis for logging, its first major industry. Waterways provided the means to float logs to mills, as well as the hydro power to saw the logs. Abundant local wood products were utilized in building construction, firewood, furniture and farm machinery, and a variety of household and commercial goods. In the second half of the 19th century, as erosion and deteriorating soil and water quality made clear the consequences of indiscriminate clear-cutting, new concepts and practices evolved for the conservation of natural resources.
Logging boomed in the last quarter of the 19th century when wood pulp replaced cotton fibers in the making of paper. From 1880 on, steam-driven and gasoline-powered portable sawmills replaced the small water-powered mills that had straddled streams for a hundred years. Logs were floated down the river and its tributaries to saw and pulp mills. The men who lived in remote logging camps and felled the trees, and then took on the job of running them down the rivers, left a host of colorful, true life stories and tall tales. The last large log run on the Connecticut, 65 million board feet, mostly spruce, took place in 1915, and provided an occasion for a reunion of old-time log drivers.
Early builders hewed and sawed trees for building frames, quarried stone for foundations and walls made bricks from deposits of clay, and mixed mot tar with local sand. Trees felled to clear land for farming were burned to produce potash and charcoal. Potash was employed in making glass, fertilizer, mortar, bleaches, dyes and soap.
Mineral resources throughout the region are scattered and small in volume, typically enough to provide only brief boom periods for local economies. Among the region’s many small mining industries, the one which attained the greatest stature was copper. Small communities grew up around deposits of granite, limestone, marble, iron, talc, soapstone, and asbestos. A few lime kilns survive as archaeological sites. Today the region’s most important extraction industries are the mining of sand and the production of gravel by crushing stone and aggregate.
The arrival of railroads in the valley about 1850 improved the transportation of raw materials and finished goods. The new network was much faster than previous flat boats on waterways or wagons over primitive roads. It spurred the growth of industries tied to the regions agricultural economy such as farm equipment makers, cooperative creameries and cheese manufacturers, and wool processing and textile mills. Railroads provided the region with access to iron products previously unavailable due to a lack of ore deposits in the region. The creation of electricity distribution systems—and the construction of major hydro power dams on the Connecticut River in the first half of the 20th century—liberated manufacturers from riverside locations, and dispersed manufacturing throughout the region.
Another advance around 1850 expanded the valley’s industries beyond what was local and small in scale—the revolutionary invention and development of “precision manufacturing” of interchangeable parts for weapons and later, machine tools. Precision manufacturing brought economic success and international renown to Windsor and Springfield, Vermont, just as it did to Springfield, Massachusetts, and Windsor, Connecticut.
Many industries were responsible for the growth of small villages and large towns that became residential and commercial centers. Industry owners and managers provided leadership and financial resources for political, civic, religious, and cultural institutions remains outside the Connecticut watershed in Barre, of their communities, and workers—many of them recent immigrants from other countries—contributed their labor and lively participation in the activities and institutions of their day.
These population centers in the northern valley participated in the evolution of a nationwide consumer economy and the creation of “Main Street” commercial centers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Dozens of these are now historic districts listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The narrative histories compiled during the registration process describe how residential and commercial areas of towns grew in relationship to the industries that spawned their creation.
The economic vigor of many of our communities now turns on the revitalization of these traditional commercial centers in the face of modern sprawl development that invites investment and business activity elsewhere. Today communities are adapting to a changing world, not by adopting the generic face of the commercial strip that scars much of America, but by rebuilding their identities and economies around their historic downtowns with the distinctive flavor of northern New England.
Resources & Revelations
Scattered archaeological sites throughout the northern valley attest to widespread, small-scale mineral extraction during the settlement period. Clues to their existence survive in place names such as Lime Kiln Road in Haverhill, New Hampshire. One of the largest concentrations of early industries may be found in Tyson village, in the town of Plymouth, Vermont. The village grew up around an early iron foundry as well as small mining operations of gold, iron, talc, soapstone, marble, asbestos and granite. In another part of Plymouth there are nine lime kilns, one adjacent to the Crown Point Military Road.
While the center of granite quarrying in Vermont remains outside the Connecticut watershed in Barre, Vermont, at one time many small granite quarries were active. These enterprises produced building stone for local projects and, after the railroads improved transportation, then shipped all over the nation and world Among these small communities was South Ryegate, Vermont, whose small historic district embodies the history of Scottish immigrant families who provided skilled labor for the mining and shaping of stone.
Soapstone quarries were active about 1800-1835 on Cottonstone Mountain in Orford, New Hampshire shire, and in Grafton, Vermont. Soapstone and talc are still mined in Chester, Vermont. Lisbon, New Hampshire’s Old Coal Kiln produced coal around 1860 for use in nearby iron smelters.
Abandoned gold and silver mines and prospects survive in Littleton, Monroe, Lyman, Bath, an Pittsburg, New Hampshire. Prospectors there tapped the Gardner Mountain mineral belt that run generally perpendicular to the Connecticut River.
A vein of copper running through Vershire Stafford and Corinth, Vermont, was the basis for the most significant mineral businesses in the northern valley. These mines helped make Vermont on of the nation’s largest producers of copper for a shop period of time in the late 19th century, second only to operations around Lake Superior.
Vershire witnessed a boom-and-bust cycle in operations at a village called Copperfield. The Vermont Copper Mining Company, begun in 1853, was later taken over by the Ely family and culminated in an 1883 shut-down accompanied by a miner revolt that drew the intervention of the Vermont Nation Guard. What remains today is a virtual ghost tow where one can still find substantial remains, including flues, mining shafts, refuse piles, and form roasting beds. The mansion of owner Ely Goddard still stands at the north end of Lake Fairlee. The small rail depot in Ely once hummed with activity from the mines.
Copper mines in South Strafford yielded more as minerals over a longer period of time. Operations were focused on what became known as the Elizabeth Mine. This, the oldest copper mine in the United States, opened in the Ompompanoosuc River watershed in Strafford and Thetford, Vermont in 1809, after copper was discovered there in 1793. The site quickly became so important that President James Monroe paid a visit during his 1817 tour of New England. First a source of copperas, an iron-sulfur substance used in making dyes and inks, a wood preservative, and disinfectant for privies, in the 1830s the mine added smelting for copper in eight furnaces. Eventually, miners worked in shafts 1,000 feet below the surface.
Activity peaked in the 1950s when the mine employed 250 workers and used a ton of dynamite a day. After producing go million tons of copper in 15 years, the mine closed in 1958. The century and a half of mining left their mark in the moonscape of mountainous tailings piles left behind, where copper, other heavy metals, and acid leached into tiny Copperas Brook and then into the West Branch of the Ompompanoosuc, a major tributary of the Connecticut. By the late 1990s, it became clear that the result was the near biological death of the nearby waterway, and concerned citizens decided to take action. In 2001, EPA added the Elizabeth Mine to the Superfund List, after carefully developed cooperation between the federal, state, and local governments and citizens.
The earliest power source employed for industrial work in the northern valley was falling water. Water impounded into millponds above falls and cascades dropped through mills to generate power for turning machinery to saw wood, process wool, and grind grain. Stone-walled and timber-framed mills constructed in the first half of the 19th century survive throughout the northern Connecticut River Valley. An 1828 woolen mill in Bridgewater, Vermont, has been rehabilitated for retail use, as was an 1847 mill in Bradford, Vermont, just downstream from falls on the Waits River. The 1830 Adams Grist Mill in Bellows Falls, Vermont, constructed adjacent to the Bellows Falls Canal, drew its waters to grind food for people and farm animals. Ben Thresher’s mill in Barnet, Vermont, that once made sled runners, ox yokes, wagons and other custom wood items for the surrounding agricultural community, was the subject of a documentary film and is now a local preservation effort.
The forests of northern New Hampshire once supported many water-powered saw mills in the 19th century. Ironically, many were washed out by freshets made more catastrophic by the clear-cutting of forests in the watersheds above. By the 185os when three-quarters of the landscape stood deforested, the resulting hydrology forced the focus of manufacturing to shift from small streams which tended to flood and then dry up between storms, to rivers with larger watersheds which could provide a more dependable supply of water power.
Such a mill that survives is the Garland Mill on Garland Brook in Lancaster, listed on the National Register of Historic Places. First built about 1860 and reconstructed in 1877 after a fire, it was at the time one of five water-powered sawmills in Lancaster and about two hundred in Coös and Grafton Counties. When a logging railroad reached the headwaters of Garland Brook and quickly depleted the area’s timber supply, this and many such mills were abandoned. Today the Garland Mill is back in operation.
Many of the mill ponds on our rivers and streams are picturesque but now often functionally obsolete and full of sediments. Their dams impede the passage of fish, and reduce water quality by capturing and storing pollutants and allowing water to warm up and become more inhospitable to native fish. In both states there is support for removing or breaching some of these “deadbeat dams” while preserving historically significant portions of early mills and their stone foundations. In a number of communities, dams may have outlived their usefulness, yet the millpond is a much loved and scenic fixture of the village center. In those cases, it may be preferable to add a fish ladder and restore the dam rather than remove it.
A hydro dam built at Lyman Falls between Bloomfield, Vermont, and Stratford, New Hampshire, in 1903 (breached in the early 1960s) may have been small, but it played a big role in local history bringing the first electric power to Bloomfield the rural hamlets on both sides of the river. Log drives moved through this stretch using a boom which caught the timber just upstream from the dam, siding the wood until it could be funneled through a narrow path of booms leading to a sluiceway on of the dam.
New England’s largest river naturally attracted attention of those who would capture its power. “Speed bumps” in the river, in place as early as 1792 at Turner’s Falls, Massachusetts, have proliferated over the last two centuries, with eleven dams now harnessing its power on the mainstream in New Hampshire and Vermont and impounding 144 miles, or slightly over half the river between the two states.
Several, such as the Wyoming Valley Dam between Guildhall and Northumberland, have evolved full circle from an early timber crib structure, later reinforced with concrete and a powerhouse, reverting once more to a falls as the river crushed the dam in the 1980s and slowly rediscovered its old riverbed. Others, such as the massive 78-foot Moors Dam between Waterford and Littleton, have barred the river only since 1957. The impoundment behind it amounts to the fourth largest lake in New Hampshire. Beyond these behemoths, many of their smaller brethren are at work on tributaries large and small, some directly powering industry, others producing electricity to run one household or a hundred.
Some dams are “run of river,” and simply pass water through a turbine as it moves downstream, and others are “peaking” facilities, which capture and store water to generate power at a later time. Unlike other power sources, which need a spark or other electrical stimulus to initiate generation, a tannin river is ready to deliver power whether the switches are on or off. A hydroelectric dam is able to supply power instantaneously at times of high demand, and even to provide a “cold start” to a dead electrical grid. During the widespread blackout in the North eastern U.S. in 1965, Wilder Dam started the process that turned the lights back on throughout this darkened corner of the nation.
Fifteen Mile Falls, which consists of the Moore, Comerford, and McIndoe Falls hydroelectric generating stations on the Connecticut River between Littleton/Monroe, New Hampshire and Waterford Barnet, Vermont, is the site of a former series of powerful and legendary waterfalls. Nova buried beneath towering dams and miles of captured river, the biggest hydroelectric site in all of New England is critical source of power for the region.
The federal government issues long-term licenses for such dams which control their operation. Understanding the need to balance the competing values and uses of the river, the owner of Fifteen Mile Falls worked with the governors, state and federal agencies, local interests, and non-governmental organizations to negotiate a Settlement Agreement for the license issued by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in 2002. The Agreement set out general standards for the protection of the public values of water quality, fisheries, wildlife, recreation, land use, and aesthetic and cultural resources.
LOGGING AND PAPER MANUFACTURING
Logging in the northern forests of Vermont and New Hampshire in the 19th and 20th centuries is the stuff of legends. The men who spent the winter months felling and gathering trees, and the spring season running logs down the rivers, were larger than life. And the companies they worked for were larger in influence than the governments that failed to anticipate the consequences of their practices.
Downstream from vast forest tracts, the village of Bellows Falls, in Rockingham, Vermont was the primary destination of logs first floated down the Connecticut and later carried on railroad cars. In 1869, William A. Russel, born upriver in Wells River, Vermont, established a company that became one of the first to manufacture paper from wood pulp on a commercial basis.
By the 1890s, his company and several others made Bellows Falls one of the world’s leading paper manufacturers. In 1898, Russel was an early president of the International Paper Company, whose consolidated holdings included pulp and paper mills in Bellows Falls a Wilder, Vermont, sawmills Hinsdale and Lancaster, New Hampshire, and a paper and pulp mill Montague, Massachusetts, all in the Connecticut River watershed. International Paper pulled out of Bellows Falls in the mid-1920S, and paper manufacturing there lasted only it the 195os. Only a few of Bellows Falls paper mill buildings have survived. While some buildings have been adapted for other uses, others lie in ruins.
Stratford and Lisbon, New Hampshire also grew thanks to the paper industry. Paper mills have been vitally important to the economies of Ryegate and Gilman, Vermont, and Groveton, New Hampshire, among others. As the contemporary embodiment of a way of life that goes back to the settlement period, they are a vivid expression of the culture of the northern region. The viability of manufacturing paper and finished wood products locally has been undercut by the global timber economy and cheap imports from Southeast Asia and elsewhere, raising questions about the future of the once-thriving industry in the northern valley.
U.S. Ambassador to Spain William Jarvis introduced Merino sheep to the Connecticut River Valley—and all of New England—when he brought them to his farm on the banks of the Connecticut in Weathersfield, Vermont, in 1808.
Two decades later, the Monadnock Mills were established just across the river, the first and soon the largest textile manufacturer in the upper Connecticut River Valley. Beginning with one factory building and associated boarding houses on the Sugar River in Claremont, New Hampshire, it grew into a large complex with the arrival of the railroad.
As did the paper industry in Bellows Falls, the textile industry in Claremont transformed a rural village into an urban industrial town. As a major employer in the region, it gave young Connecticut River Valley women a local alternative to attractive jobs in the textile mills along the Merrimack River in eastern New Hampshire. Monadnock Mills owners adopted the enlightened philosophy that pleasant working conditions maximize production, and built housing for workers within a well-defined urban district.
Inventors and manufacturers in our region had a hand in some of the major advances in the Industrial Revolution. A 1994 National Park Service study noted that “precision manufacturing” is a significant regional historic theme in the four state watershed. The foremost representative of that theme in the northern valley is the American Precision Museum in Windsor, Vermont. A National Historic Landmark, the museum occupies the former 1846 Robbins and Lawrence Armory and Machine Shop on Mill Brook, and houses the fines collection of precision machine tools in the nation.
The inventive genius of three men, primarily RIchard S. Lawrence, produced significant improvements in the design and production of precision machine tools in the 1840s. In their first big job, for the Federal government, they mass-produced rifles with interchangeable parts, employing for the first time this simple concept that would revolutionize industry worldwide. Later, they invented machine tools such as a profiling machine, a milling machine, and a universal milling machine. After seeing Robbins and Lawrence machinery at the Crystal Palace Industrial Exhibition in London in 18512, a British parliamentary commission cam to Windsor to study the details of the “American system” and ordered machines for shipment to British arsenals.
Springfield’s first machine shop was built about 1810 near four other mills in what was then the village of Lockwood’s Mills, where the Black River drops 110 feet in one eight of a a mile. For the next 80 years, businesses manufacturing machinery to create products in wood, iron and textiles formed Springfield’s inventive machine shop tradition.
The 1880s and 1890s witnessed the launching of three companies that drew on the creative and influential leadership of James Hartness, a governor of Vermont: the Jones and Lamson Machine Company, the Fellows Gear Shaper Company, and the Lovejoy Tool Company. Springfield’s machine tool industry shaped the town’s growth in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, resulting in the National Register district enjoyed today. Harness started his career at Jones and Lamson in 1889 at the age of 16, becoming its president in 1900. Among his inventions were the flat turret lathe, automatic die, and double-spindle lathe.
In St. Johnsbury, Vermont, the E. & T. Fairbanks Scale Works stimulated the growth of a substantial industrial and cultural center astride terraced hillsides above the Passumpsic RIver, high up in hill country. Erastus and Thaddeus Fairbanks established their iron foundry in 1823. Thaddeus’ invention of the platform scale in 1830 launched a company that became on of the region’s foremost iron-working industries as well as the world’s largest producer of platform scales for a century, and revolutionized standards fro the accurate commercial measure of goods throughout the United States. Although the original scale works was destroyed by fire in 1972, the philanthropic Fairbanks family, which appreciated art and architecture, donated many public institutions to St. Johnsbury, including the Fairbanks Museum and the Athenaeum.
SCIENCE & INVENTIONS
The northern valley’s general absence of light pollution from urban centers made it a favorable location for early 20th century residents interested in astronomy. Stellafane Observatory in Springfield Vermont had its origins in the genius and inventiveness of one man and a local group of amateur astronomers. The two-building complex, now a National Historic Landmark, was designed and built in 1924 and 1930 by Russell W. Porter, arctic explorer, artist, astronomer, architect and engineer. It consists of an observatory with a 16-inch, reflecting turret telescope, and the clubhouse of Springfield Telescope Makers, Inc. The Club, founded in 1923, was the first organized group of amateur telescope makers in the country. Porter, who left Springfield for California to work on the giant Palomar telescope, is considered the Founder of the amateur telescope making movement.
A related Springfield landmark is the Hartness House. The impressive c. 1904 Shingle-Style residence of James Hartness (listed on the National Register) is unusual in Vermont and includes five underground rooms and an underground passage to an observatory containing a Russell Porter telescope.
Bradford, Vermont, was the birthplace and home of Admiral Clark James Wilson, a farmer and selftaught engraver. In the early 1800s, Wilson made and sold the first geographical globes in the united States. Halifax, Vermont, is the birthplace of Elisha Graves Otis, inventor of the “safety elevator,” founder of Otis Elevator Company.
The Littleton, New Hampshire, factory building still stands in which, from 1867 to 1909, tile world famous Kilburn brothers, Benjamin and Edward, produced and distributed the world’s largest assortment of stereoscopic views. Their collection provided popular parlor entertainment for generations.
Some local industries employed natural resources distinctive to particular locations. For example, clay deposits in Keene, New Hampshire, and four surrounding towns provided the raw material for nearly a million bricks for local use. The Spaulding brickyard in Woodstock, Vermont, supplied bricks for the Windsor County Courthouse, Gov. Billings’s house in Woodstock, Gates Opera House in White River Junction, and many other structures. Fine sands around Keene and Stoddard, New Hampshire were employed in glass-making in the mid 19th century.
Other industries were based on the inventions or innovations of individual entrepreneurs, related industries, or a pool of trained workers. The Estey Organ complex in Brattleboro, Vermont, was the largest organ manufacturer in the world in 1880, employing 500 men and women, turning out more than 250,000 reed organs before pianos eclipsed their popularity. In Bellows Falls, a railroad junction stimulated the growth of the Vermont Farm Machinery Company and the Bellows Falls Cooperative Creamery.
THE GENERAL STORE
While industrial manufacturing created lively commercial centers in tows up and down the Connecticut River Valley, the general store functioned as the entire commercial center for small villages. It sold groceries, hardware, dry goods, clothing, building materials, animal feed, farming equipment, candy, newspapers, and anything else that had a local market. Among the early general stores that survive in much their original setting is the Brick Store in Bath, New Hampshire, listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Build in 1824, the Brick Store is one of the earliest commercial buildings in New Hampshire and is said to be the oldest continually operating country store in America. The front of the store features a Doric portico and second floor porch. Its exterior rear wall served as a billboard directed toward passengers on passing trains.
General stores still anchor many a village in the Connecticut River Valley, holding tight against the growing tide of multi-national corporations seeping into northern New England. Chapman’s in Fairlee, Dan & Whit’s in Norwich (“if we don’t have it, you don’t need it”) and many others like them keep dollars at home and provide informal community gathering places.
The northern valley’s commercial downtowns are remarkable intact examples of classic American “Main Streets” that were created in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. They are compact streetscapes composed of commercial buildings constructed over that period in a variety of historic architectural styles. Through the 1950s, these traditional commercial centers fulfilled the role of regional market towns, transportation centers, and social gathering places. The arrival of interstate highways in the 1960s dispersed commercial activity more widely throughout previously rural areas.
The strength of our traditional downtowns has been sapped by a variety of events and trends over the past half century. Among them was the concept that “urban renewal” required the bulldozing of older buildings and the redesign of downtowns to support automobile use. Such policies instead resulted in places that lost connection to their pasts and became degraded environments in which to do business.
A number of northern valley communities have Adopted the “Four-Point Approach” to downtown revitalization created by the National Main Street Center of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. The New Hampshire Main Street Center and the Vermont Downtown Program assist these communities, which are among more than 1,200 communities nationwide which follow the Four-Point Approach.
The four points: Organization, Economic Restructuring, Design, and Promotion, encompass a variety of activities that chart a path to revitalization appropriate to each community. Northern valley communities with downtown programs include Claremont, Lancaster, and Littleton, New Hampshire, and Brattleboro, Bellows Falls, Springfield, Windsor, and St. Johnsbury, Vermont. For more about this approach, see FYI below.
Throughout our history, the rural farmstead has been both home and workplace. Even off the farm, cottage industries and home occupations have provided income for people working at home as well as goods and services for the local economy. Today, most of the companies in our region are small businesses, employing less than 30 people, and many of these operate in or near the home of their originators. Improved communications technology, such as personal computers and the Internet, now permits self-employed “knowledge workers” to conduct more business in home offices and gives employees the opportunity to “telecommute” from home to their employers’ workplaces.
The above chapter is quoted from Ewald, Richard J. with Adair D. Mulligan, Proud to Live Here, © 2003 by the Connecticut River Joint Commissions.