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History Corner: Montpelier’s First Town Meeting
With Town Meeting Day approaching, thoughts turn toward the earliest days of this hallowed event. It was once one of the biggest social gatherings following the long, cold winter. Before the adoption of Australian ballot by many towns — which eliminated or decreased the importance of in-person meetings — and way before COVID-19 forced meetings to become virtual — citizens gathered in homes, barns, schools, town halls, or meeting houses to approve the upcoming year’s budget, set the tax rate, and elect town officers, among other things. Montpelier’s first town meeting was held at the home of Col. Jacob Davis, who is considered to be Montpelier’s first white settler along with his family, associates, and hired hands. Of course Indigenous people lived in the area long before, but they had apparently not set up a permanent encampment in the area around the time the Davis family arrived in the 1780s. The Montpelier town meeting was warned for and held at Col. Davis’s dwelling place on March 29, 1791, according to Daniel Thompson’s “History of the Town of Montpelier from the time it was chartered in 1781 to 1860.” By that time Davis, his family, and other workers had cleared acres of land, began cultivating crops, and built a grist mill. Davis’s home became a de facto inn/hotel/flophouse for travelers as well, as Thompson tells it. During that first meeting, 27 men attended. They raised 50 pounds to repair roads and bridges and to collect money for Town Clerk Ziba Woodworth to buy record books. They also elected a moderator, a justice of the peace, a town treasurer, and selectmen. Parley Davis was elected constable and collector. Col. Davis was elected fence viewer. And, in an odd bit of governance, they also put in the record a list of what they call “marks” for livestock owners. What this meant was that they created a list of physical ways to identify and distinguish each other’s animals. This included David Wing’s mark, a slit on the right ear; Parley Davis’s, a slit on the left ear; Ziba Woodworth’s, a hole in the left ear; Daniel Woodworth’s, a square crop on the right ear, etc. During the first meeting at Col. Davis’s house, they voted to hold all future meetings at the home of Parley Davis, in a location that was then considered the geographic center of Montpelier — on what is now called “Center Road” in East Montpelier. Meetings were then held at the Old Meeting House after it was built in 1823–26. Montpelier became a village in its own right in 1848, breaking off from the rest of town, including the center, which became part of East Montpelier. If you go to the center today, Parley Davis’s house is still standing behind a tall hedgerow of evergreens largely blocking it from view.