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The History of Montpelier As Told by Others

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by Paul Gillies

Everyone likes history. Oh, not the boring stuff, but the good stories. They’re worth reading and repeating. The history of the world is overwhelming, taken as a whole. The history of the United States is interesting, but it too is often beyond our scope. Even the history of Vermont has elusive properties in its entanglements. But the history of a place is embraceable, and the history of a home place even more so, as it comes with a sense of love and appreciation.

Portrait of Daniel Pierce Thompson. Courtesy of Vermont History Center
Portrait of Daniel Pierce Thompson. Courtesy of Vermont History Center

The town of Montpelier has had four great histories written about her. The earliest in 1860, when Daniel Pierce Thompson’s History of Montpelier was published. This is the motherlode, containing essential information about the formation of the town and its early leaders. Thompson, the author of  “The Green Mountain Boys,” (1840) was raised at his father’s farm on what is now Barre-Montpelier Road, originally part of Berlin, but annexed by Montpelier in 1899. Thompson spent his life in Montpelier, where he acted as a lawyer, served in various public offices, wrote novels, helped to found the Vermont Historical Society and edited the Green Mountain Freeman, an anti-slavery newspaper. He also made Ethan Allen world famous.

Then there’s the history that E.P. Walton wrote for Volume IV of Abby Maria Hemenway’s Vermont Historical Gazetteer (1882), which includes details not covered by Thompson.

“Across the Onion: A History of East Montpelier, Vermont 1781-1981” was written by Ellen C. Hill and Marilyn S. Blackwell and published in 1983. You may ask: Does East Montpelier count when talking about Montpelier history? Well, yes; East Montpelier was part of the Town of Montpelier until 1848.

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Then there’s Events of This Day, compiled by Michael R. Doyle and published in 2005. This is a compilation of columns by Dorman Kent from the Montpelier Evening News, which ran from June 1933 to June 1934.

These books are all wonderful sources of Vermont stories.

In the southwest corner of the town, there was a stand of about 19 acres of White Pine trees — tall, straight, and healthy. Each proprietor owned a share. There were 70 parcels, each a quarter of an acre. Col. Jacob Davis bought them all up, then proceeded to cut down all by himself, reportedly at a rate of one acre per day.

Thompson’s History of Montpelier celebrated the “natural site of this village, comprising a level plain of nearly two hundred acres of the richest alluvial land to be found anywhere in Vermont, and being everywhere sheltered from the winds, so as to make it comparatively warm and comfortable … ”

Thompson remembers hearing someone ask in 1807 about those stakes in the field along the river. “Why they are to show where we are to have a new handsome street from the new State House right across the Branch, with a fine, new elegant bridge.” This was State Street. Another boy declared, “A street! Well, I wonder where they expect to find houses to put upon it? It appears to me you village folks are trying to grow grand all at once. When you get the new State House up I expect we shan’t be able to touch you with a rod pole.”

Rev. John Gridley delivered a Thanksgiving discourse on the history of Montpelier in 1843. He described an 1808 attempt to move the Capitol from Montpelier, the same year it first met at the new State House. Frustrated, the leaders of the attempt declared, “That the ladies of Montpelier made their Plum Puddings too good, to induce the members to withdraw their patronage.” Gridley also mentions the town’s “exemption from high winds.”

There is a letter attached to the discourse from Parley Davis, who remembers the first trial held in the town. A young man had stolen something. After the jury found the man guilty, Col. Davis, the first Justice of the Peace, imposed a fine. But the man had no money, so an alternative was chosen. He would have to run from the tavern house on what is now Elm Street to the Berlin bridge, driven by another man with a whip snapping at his back. The thief was also told he could never return to Montpelier again.

There isn’t space enough to celebrate the various histories of Montpelier, but a special mention should be given to the delights of Doyle’s “Events of the Day,” which covers details of life in Montpelier over decades, leading up to 1933. When lightning hit Berlin Pond at the beginning of the twentieth century and caused a waterspout that killed scores of fish, one citizen of Berlin Corners remarked, “the Montpelier aldermen are not on to the job to allow such a thing.” We love to blame our leaders.

History is here, everywhere. Sitting on the porch at Sarducci’s, you overlook the point where popular sleigh races run from the Pioneer Street bridge in winter, came to the finish line. In the layout of the streets, and the historic buildings that line them, you can feel the past.

Town history isn’t just about the beginnings of a place. It should travel through the years to the present, but alas, Montpelier has no modern history, but it deserves it. Towns surrounding the Capital city have recent histories, but not here. This void should be filled. Someday people will want to look back at the way we live today. They will call our times history, and wonder, as much as we do, how people lived in that distant past.