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Early Barre: Welcome to Wildersburgh, Vermont

FIRST FAMILY — Descendents of John and Rebeckah Gouldsbury commemorate the spot of their family home on Richardson Road in 1969. Photo from the Times Argus.

by Carla Occaso

WILDERSBURGH (BARRE)  — The story of early settlers evokes images of a grand frontier adventure and hardscrabble gumption.

First named ‘Wildersburgh,’ land that is now Barre was granted in 1780 to William Williams — a signer of the Declaration of Independence — and 60 other men. Most of those men lived in other states and would never see an inch of the 19,900 acres of land. But one by one, various people traveled in family groups to the untamed land to form a settlement.

“This area of primeval forests, granite hills and green valleys was not inhabited except by roving bands of Indians until 1788,” said historian Carroll Fenwick, Jr. in an address given at the location of the first frame house to be built in Barre (on Richardson Road).

The Bridge spent some time in the Vermont History Center and the vault at the Barre city clerk’s office to piece together a story on the first settlers — before Barre was ‘Barre.’

One of the original men to lay claim to a land parcel was John Gouldsbury, originally from Massachusetts. Evidence of Gouldsbury’s family and descendents abound —  in land records, town meeting notes, diaries, letters, bibles, newspaper stories and military records —  so a glimpse into their life is accessible. Diving into their story gives an idea of what life may have been like for settlers in general.

Gouldsbury had married Rebeckah Hastings in Massachusetts in 1759. This was the same year Gouldsbury was also an active soldier in the French and Indian War, fighting under British Major General James Wolfe in the Battle of Quebec. Several records of Gouldsbury’s military service survive. This service may have caused him to travel from Massachusetts to Quebec through Vermont, thereby introducing him to his future home. But soon after marriage, children came along and the Gouldsburys stayed in Massachusetts.

The Gouldsburys had nine children before they bushwhacked up to their wilderness homestead. John and Rebeckah had moved from Massachusetts to Hartland, Vermont, to stay with Gouldsbury’s mother and other relatives before heading into the great unknown.

Diary from the Gouldsbury family collection

Gouldsbury and family then made the big move to Wildersburgh in 1788. The children would have ranged in age from 11 to 28, so it is possible at least a couple of spouses, even babies, joined the group.

How they got there, whether on foot or horseback is not known, but according to William J. Wilgus in his “Transportation in the Development of Vermont,” travel in this area was rough. “Wind, current and the tides, domestic animals and man himself were the only means by which persons and property were moved from place to place.”

According to an entry in The Gazetteer, a historic collection of documents collated and published by Abby Maria Hemenway, “The settlers traveled by marked trees, carried corn on their backs, or, more frequently drove an ox with a bag of grain balanced across his neck…” Several maps of New England are kept in the History Center making records of the routes used by Native Americans and European military.

Conveyances at that time would include, “drag stoneboat sledge, cart on wooden disks called ‘wheels,’ raft, dugout and canoe.” And, in one of these manners, the family traveled on “pathways and unruly streams,” according to Wilgus.

A map in the Gouldsbury Family collection has this note: “The Goldsbury’s (SIC) and other early Barre settlers came by the Old Blaze Trail up through Brookfield, and along the Old Coos Road into Barre.”

This trail goes along Berlin Pond, which records state are how the Gouldsburys traveled part of the way.

The story goes that the family camped by Berlin Pond near a stream. They had scooped water out with a bucket the night before, and when they looked at it in daylight it was full of fish. This must have been an encouraging sign if they wavered on whether the area would be able to support them.

Then it was time to set up house. Whether the Gouldsburys camped out and built the log cabin upon first arrival after a long trip, or whether some of them went in previous years to ready the land and build the shelter is not known.  However, it was customary for the “husband and father” to go to the claim a few years before bringing the whole family. This was called “the pitch”. They would often first clear a few acres and build an old-fashioned log cabin.

Then more people joined them. By 1790, 16 families had set up housekeeping according to the 1790 U.S. Census, and, by 1793, citizens had their first recorded selectboard meeting in the town that included a warrant article to rename the town.

Changing The Name To ‘Barre’

Two stories, both historically authentic, exist about how Barre got its name. One is from the signed meeting minutes of the very first meeting of the board of selectmen. The town clerk recording the minutes was a man named Joseph Dwight. The other is from an eyewitness account by the town’s first doctor to a contributor to The Gazetteer. Both sources are considered authentic. So the question is, did the board of selectmen make up a story in their minutes? Or did the town’s first doctor make up a story? Both? Neither? In any case, here are both stories on who won the privilege of changing the name from Wildersburgh to Barre.

Photo by Rick McMahan

Dr. Robert Paddock’s Version — The Fight

According to the Gazetteer of Vermont, the name Wildersburgh was “unpopular with the inhabitants,” so townspeople took up the topic at a town meeting held at Calvin Smith’s house in 1793. “The meeting being opened, freedom was given for anyone to present the name he chose, and the choice was to be decided by a vote of the town.” So what happened is, after several names were suggested, two men emerged as contenders. Captain Joseph Thompson of Holden and Jonathon Sherman of Barre — both from Massachusetts, wanted to name the town after their former towns. “As the matter seemed to lie chiefly between these two, it was proposed that it should be decided between them by boxing,” the Gazetteer states. The two men eagerly agreed.

The terms were set that “they should fight across a pole; but if one should knock the other down, they might then choose their own mode of warfare.” So the whole town meeting reconvened to Smith’s barn (located on the site of the former Bond Auto that is now O’Reilly’s) to duke it out. The floors were made of newly laid rough hewn hemlock planks. There, “the combatants advanced upon each other, and soon Thompson, by a well-directed blow, brought his antagonist to the floor, and, springing upon him, at full length, began to aim his heavy blows at his head and face; but Sherman, being more supple, avoided them, and they generally fell harmless on the floor, except peeling his own knuckles. During this process, Sherman was dexterously plying his ribs from beneath, when Thompson was soon heard to groan, and his blows became palsied and without effect. Sherman then rolled him off, and, springing upon his feet, exultingly exclaimed — ‘There, the name is Barre, by God’!”

The next day Sherman went to Dr. Robert Paddock, the town’s first doctor. Sherman asked the doctor to remove hemlock splinters from his “ back and posterior” he got during the  fight. Paddock was an eyewitness and gave this account to a writer for The Gazetteer while still living.

The Town Clerk’s Version — Highest Bidder

In the very first town meeting minutes, written in eighteenth century script and kept safely in a vault in the Barre City town clerk’s office, the account is as follows: On September 3, 1793, “the inhabitants of the town of Wildersburgh qualified by law to vote” met at Calvin Smith’s house. There they voted in Asaph Sherman to be moderator. They also “voted to petition the general assembly to alter the name of the town of Wildersburgh”. The person who would choose that name is “the man that will give the most toward building a meeting house in town”. That man was named as Ezekiel Dodge Wheeler, who, the minutes state, offered 64 pounds lawful money. He named it ‘Barre’.

The next year, after the first town meeting, John Gouldsbury’s son William Gouldsbury married Bathsheba Walker. Bathsheba made quite an impression because she arrived on horseback with the town’s only glass window pane among her belongings. She dressed in a scarlet cloak and wore a stovetop hat. The window pane survived, and is housed in the Vermont History Center. 

William then built the first frame construction house. This home survived until it burnt to the ground in 1966. A Barre-Montpelier Times Argus story of the time states, “It was a refuge for tramps and derelicts for a number of years until the windows were all broken.” A few years later, in 1969, the Barre Historical Society and Rebeckah Hastings chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution organized a formal event commemorating the Gouldsbury family and one of the first settlements in Barre. They had a granite marker made and placed near the original homestead.

Marjorie Strong, descended from a branch of the Gouldsbury family,

Cora B. Hawes organized the event, which was a grand affair with Governor Deane C. Davis greeting the crowd and historian Carroll Fenwick offering an address. Many Gouldsbury descendents from all over attended. A granite marker was placed near the spot.

The Barre we have today — now celebrating its deep and storied heritage — started off on a very interesting foot and never veered from that winding path.

Thank you to Marjorie Strong, assistant librarian at the Vermont History Center in Barre, and to Carol Dawes, town clerk for the city of Barre, for invaluable assistance in researching this story.