Duxbury History
Now and Then

by Alice DeLong

On June 7, 1763, the area now known as Duxbury, Vermont, was chartered in the name of King George III by Governor Benning Wentworth of New Hampshire. Sixty-five persons, one of whom was a woman, were named proprietors in that charter. None ever visited Duxbury; they were all land speculators.

However, 1763 was a difficult year to attract settlers to a new township. Although the French and Indian War had just ended, neighboring New York had laid claim to Duxbury and the other "New Hampshire grants." In addition, serious trouble was brewing between England and her increasingly rebellious American colonies.

So it wasn't until 1786, twenty-three years after the charter was granted, that Walter Avery and Stephen Tilden settled in Duxbury. By 1790, when the first U.S. Census was taken, Duxbury had 39 inhabitants. Ten years later the census of 1800 counted a population of 153, 77 of whom were less than sixteen years old. From this, one may infer that the adults in the town at that time were relatively young and strong.

In 1791, Vermont became the fourteenth state to join the Union, and Duxbury recorded its first birth, that of Lucy Bryant. In March of 1792 the first Town Meeting, held at the home of Walter Avery, elected Benjamin Davis as its representative to the Legislature.

The early settlers came to Duxbury from the "lower colonies" of Connecticut and Massachusetts as well as from New Hampshire. Some were younger sons who migrated northward because there was no family land left for them to inherit. Some had fought in the Revolutionary War and had seen the land along the Onion River (as the Winooski was then called) and had liked the look of it. Some came because the soil in the "lower colonies" was already wearing out. And some must have come for the sheer adventure of it.

Whatever their reasons for moving to a virgin land, they found a bleak situation: hilly, stony land that had to be cleared, no home, no crops, a short growing season, none of the comforts of "back home." There were even property disputes arising from the fact that surveyors were unaware of the deviation of magnetic north from true north. As a result, several surveys, the last one in 1798, had to be made to sort things out.

Life was hard and labor-filled. Illnesses were treated at home with plants and roots as medicine; deaths were frequent from accident, disease and primitive methods of treatment. Food, too, had to be produced at home, whether hunted, fished or grown on the limited space cleared of trees. Footwear was made from skins, though a precious pair of shoes might have been brought from "home." One settler arrived in the Dowsville section of Duxbury in the late fall with no boots at all; to cut firewood in the snow, he tied wood chips to his feet.

Though the forests were at first a burden, they proved to be of untold value to Duxbury's early settlers. The woods provided them with logs for their cabins, with wood for their dishes, furniture and tools, and with ashes for fertilizer. Ashes also provided the first cash crop for the early settlers in the form of potash, which was used in the manufacture of soap, gunpowder, and bleach. Firewood also came from the forest, as did the settlers' only sweetening: honey from the hives of wild bees and maple sugar. Wild animals abounded and were easily trapped or hunted, providing such essentials as food, blankets, rugs and clothing.

As more land was cleared, flax could be raised for clothing, and sheep could be brought in for wool and food. It was a gala day when a cow could be added to the "farm" and even more so when a yoke of oxen could relieve some of the man's work.

From its beginnings, Duxbury was divided by its topography into small communities. Almost without exception, cemeteries and schools mark the sites of these hamlets. The nearby cemetery was essential since coffins were carried by family or friends to the grave. Often those who died of a contagious disease were buried at night so as not to cause panic among the neighbors. The schoolhouse in each little community served as learning center, a place of entertainment, and the site of church services. The early schools were run by the residents of each community, not by the town. By 1850 there were nine school districts, each having its own school with a "necessary" out back. The teacher had probably completed only the eighth grade herself and might have been only slightly older than some of the "big boys" she was supposed to teach. There were few frills in these schools; as late as 1905 the total cost of operating each district school was less than $236.50 per year!

Throughout the nineteenth century the forest continued to play a central role in the life of Duxbury as the phrase "summer farmer, winter woodsman" described the life most men lived. Two forest products of importance were charcoal and bark. Charcoal was produced by slowly and carefully burning stacks of small logs; the resulting charcoal was then sold to blacksmiths and foundries in Waterbury. Bark, too, was taken to Waterbury, where it was processed for tanning leather and then sent to the shoe factories in Massachusetts. By 1858 at least seven water-powered sawmills were in operation, turning out planed lumber, shingles and clapboards. Still later, sawmills produced barrel staves, wooden boxes, chair stock and dimension lumber. At one time, over fifty workers were employed in Duxbury sawmills, with many more working in the woods to supply the logs.

For a few decades after 1820 Vermont was the largest sheep-raising state in the country and had more than 100 woolen mills in operation. Increasing competition from the western states and the repeal of the tariff on imported wool, however, led Vermont farmers to switch to dairy farming. The invention of the iron plowshare and other farm implements made a farmer's life less difficult. The railroad which came through Waterbury in 1849 meant that products from Duxbury farms could be quickly and economically shipped to markets in Boston or even New York. (Before the railroad came, drovers made the long trip to Boston, driving the farmers' cows, turkeys and pigs before them.) In 1850, one farmer made 1,000 pounds of cheese, the total Duxbury yield being over two tons! Over 19 tons of butter were made in Duxbury farmhouses that year, both the butter and the cheese being mainly Boston-bound, though some was used locally for barter.

The years 1850-1860 marked a high point for the town of Duxbury; the 1860 population of one thousand residents would not be reached again until the 1990's. There was a variety of reasons for the decline of towns like Duxbury. Most important, perhaps, was the Homestead Act of 1862, which granted 160 fertile acres in the Midwest to anyone who would homestead for a certain number of years. Veterans returning from the Civil War were especially attracted to the generous provisions of the Homestead Act and often encouraged relatives and former neighbors to join them in Iowa or Kansas. Other factors that contributed to the decline of small New England towns were the thin and worn-out soils on the hill farms, as well as more opportunities to work for wages in the larger towns and cities, which were increasingly viewed as offering an easier and more "modern" style of life.

Duxbury has had its share of natural disasters as well. There have been droughts and blights and the year 1816, known as "eighteen-hundred-and-froze-to-death," when there was a hard freeze every month of the year, causing great suffering. Easily the worst disaster within memories was the 1927 flood, which swept away many homes in Duxbury Corner and along River Road, sawmills and railroad tracks, and every bridge in town (as well as both bridges from Duxbury into Waterbury). Twenty lives were lost in Duxbury and Waterbury Village. For some time after the flood, a hastily-built flat-bottomed barge ferrying passengers across the Winooski near Smith's Store was the only link to the outside world.

The Great Depression in the 1930's is still remembered as a time when jobs were practically nil, markets were non-existent, and there was little or no money for clothing, seeds or the bare necessities. "Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without" describes these hard years. Many abandoned hill farms in Duxbury were bought at this time by the Ward Lumber Company of Moretown, which converted the former fields to pine or spruce plantations, leaving only stone walls and lilac bushes to mark the former farms but providing badly-needed tax revenues and job opportunities.

In 1950 the population of Duxbury hit a low of 489, and as late as 1970 the population was still less than it had been in 1920. Nonetheless, during the twenty years from 1950 to 1970 changes took place which shaped the modern history of town. First of all, one by one the district elementary schools were closed and their few remaining students were transported to the school at Duxbury Corner. In a similar manner, students who in earlier years would have attended high schools in Waterbury, Waitsfield, Montpelier or Northfield were consolidated at Harwood Union High School, built in South Duxbury in 1966. Route 100 from South Duxbury to Duxbury Corner was converted from a dirt road to a paved state highway in 1961, making the trip "over the hill" to Waterbury possible even in mud season. The construction of Interstate 89 increased job and educational opportunities for people living in Duxbury as even Burlington or White River Junction came within commuting range. The final change during this period was the appearance of seasonal residents: teachers and ministers who fixed up old farmhouses on the back roads and so preserved an important part of the architectural heritage; skiers, attracted to the nearby ski areas in Stowe and the Mad River Valley; and retired people, who enjoy their summers in Vermont and winters in a warmer climate.

Hamlets Within the Town of Duxbury

Because of its strategic location on the Winooski River across from Waterbury Village, Duxbury Corner was the first part of town to be thickly settled. Down through the years, several stores, a cooper's shop (which made barrels), a blacksmith, a shoemaker, and a hotel have been located here. The hotel prospered as long as it was a stagecoach stop; when the railroad bypassed Duxbury Corner, the hotel went out of business. However, in the Town Clerk's office is a handsome oil painting of the hotel with the Winooski River and the Bolton ridgeline clearly recognizable. In 1915 an elementary school was built on the site of the hotel.

North Duxbury, at the junction of Ridley Brook and the River Road, had its own school and cemetery, sawmills, a railroad station, and a post office (the only post office ever located in Duxbury). The railroad station was a refueling stop for the train, so huge piles of firewood were piled there to "stoke the cars," as the saying went. Once, in 1867, a spark from a passing locomotive ignited the woodpile, and about 500 cords went up in flames! It was here that Samuel Ridley built a hotel, from which he lured tourists into taking his carriage road partway up Camels Hump. The more energetic tourists could then climb or go by horseback to the summit, where once again Mr. Ridley had rustic overnight accommodations waiting for them. The old North Duxbury schoolhouse on the Ridley Brook road is now a private home.

Another hamlet, with its own school and steam-run sawmill, was Durkeeville, farther north on the Ridley Brook road. This hamlet's cemetery, however, was a private one for Professor Monroe, his sister, and his dogs. Professor Monroe was instrumental in laying out the Monroe Skyline Trail on Camels Hump.

The Scrabble Hill community also had its own school and cemetery. An unusually fine view of Camels Hump can be enjoyed from Scrabble Hill, especially from the cemetery.

In South Duxbury the old schoolhouse, just south of Harwood Union High School, is now a private home, but the Old South Duxbury cemetery is still there. At one time South Duxbury had a fulling mill (for shrinking wool cloth), a combined sawmill and apple cider mill, and a carriage shop. In 1855 Samuel Turner contracted to build the first church in town, which was shared by six denominations, "each...to have the number of Sabbaths to occupy the church in relation to the amount of money paid by that denomination." Under this arrangement the Congregationalists got to use the church half the Sundays of the year, while the Methodists got only two Sundays! The nearby Jehovah's Witnesses Church built in 1986 is only the second church in town. Two marble quarries operated in South Duxbury in the late 1920's, employing some fifty workmen. Thirty years later, when quantities of gravel were needed to build the interstate highway system, the great piles of abandoned South Duxbury marble were crushed and trucked to Interstate 89. Among the bridges lost in the 1927 flood was the covered bridge over Dowsville Brook.

Smaller and less defined communities also arose, such as the one near the north end of the Dowsville road, at the junction of the Boyden and Dowsville brooks, where a family of shingle shavers settled along with some farming families. In the days of sheep raising, two farmers in this hamlet raised different breeds of sheep, but the rams didn't recognize man-made boundaries, and mixed breeds were the result. Thereupon, one farmer built a stone wall eight feet high. Still standing today, it is referred to as the "spite fence."

Parallel to the Dowsville road is the Ward Hill Road. In the late 1880's the Ward Hill area had the most acreage under tillage, the largest number of sugar maples and apple trees, and the most farm animals. Six of the original farmhouses on the Ward Hill-Dowsville loop still stand. A spectacular view of Camels Hump and the Dowsville basin can be seen from the old Corliss farmhouse.

The section of town at the intersection of the south arm of Crossett Hill and Route 100 was called the Red School area. At one time there was a building here with such an overhang that teamsters could get their teams out of the storm while hauling lumber from the sawmill in Dowsville to the railroad in Waterbury.

Crossett Hill, named for the Crossetts who came from Ireland via New York State, formed another community with its own school and cemetery. For almost fifty years the Crossett Hill Association sponsored a reunion each summer for residents and former residents, their descendants and teachers who had taught at the Crossett Hill school. In 1989 the Association donated its picnic pavilion to the Town.

In addition to the various hamlets in Duxbury, there was also a geographical division of the town, the informal dividing line being about at the intersection of the northern end of the Turner Hill road with Route 100. People living north of this invisible line depended more on Waterbury for its stores, churches, doctors and library. From this part of Duxbury potatoes went to the starch factory in Waterbury, charcoal to its iron works, milk to its creamery and vegetables to its cannery. The Seminary in Waterbury Center and, later, Waterbury High School educated generations of Duxbury students.

People living south of this dividing line were more likely to do their business in Moretown, where until the 1950's there were grocery and hardware stores, a blacksmith and a garage with gas pumps. The Ward Lumber Company mills at either end of Moretown village provided many jobs for Duxbury men and later, women, too. Students from the southern part of Duxbury usually attended Waitsfield High School.

In many ways this historic division of town still holds: those who live north of the line depend on Waterbury for their telephone service, mail delivery, ambulance service and fire protection; those people south of the line get their mail and fire protection from Moretown, while their telephone exchange and cable television and ambulance services are in Waitsfield.

This history has attempted to give you a glimpse of where our town has been and where it is going.

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