Washington History

by Robert C. Lagor

Washington is a twice chartered town. The original charter, granted in 1770 by the royal governor of New York, was for Kingsland in the County of Gloucester. Although there is no record of any residents during this period, Kingsland was designated as one of two county seats and a log jail was constructed close to what is now the geographical center of Washington, at the head of a stream named Jail Branch.

During the period when Vermont was an independent nation, a charter was issued naming the town as Washington. Although the exact date of this charter is not clear, most historians agree that the year was 1781. The fist record of any settler in Washingto wais in 1785 when one Daniel Morse received title to 100 acres. By 1792 Washington was organized and the records show that in 1794 there were 32 freemen on the checklist.

For the next 45 years the population grew rapidly until it reached a peak of 1400 in 1840. The town's population was dispersed about on numerous small farms with wool production being the main cash crop. In 1840 there were 7500 sheep and 840 cows on Washington farms. Between 1820 and 1829 there were two fulling mills and one carding mill in operation processing the wool and homespun wool cloth. Sheep raising peaked around 1830 and after 1840 there was a steady decline due to tariffs and increasing cheaper competition. After 1840 there was also a steady decline in the human population due to the westward movement. The numerous cellar holes and stone wall remnants that one can find on the hillside forests are mute testimony to the numerous farms that existed here in the 19th century.

With the arrival of railroads in Vermont in the 1850's, the dairy industry began to take over because new urban markets were now accessible. By 1895 Washington had a creamery to process its milk production. During this period the railroads were expanding with subsequent industrial development in some nearby towns. Both the railroads and industry bypassed Washington and it remained a rural community with an agriculture based economy.

In the twentieth century the dairy business became increasingly competitive and by mid-century many small farms could not continue. By 1960 the population of Washington had declined to 565, its lowest since early in the 19th century. As these marginally productive farms were closed, land prices fell and much of this land was quickly purchased by non-residents. Those farmers who were able to retain some of their property were forced to seek work in nearby localities. Although Washington remains a rural community, it is no longer predominately agricultural but rather a bedroom community whose members commute for their livelihood.

The census of 1970 showed that approximately 20% of Washington residents were not native Vermonters. This percentage continues to grow as more and more people seek escape from urban life-style. For better or for worse this trend will increasingly influence decisions that will determine the future of the town.

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