The history of Shelburne

by the 1963 Shelburne Bicentennial Committee

The town of Shelburne was chartered on Aug. 18, 1763. In that year, Governor Benning Wentworth of the New Hampshire Colony granted charters to 37 towns. Controversy had developed between the New Hampshire and New York colonies over sovereignty of the Vermont territory, and the outcome was in doubt. Since Wentworth stood to lose a great deal financially if it were decided that the lands were not his domain, he quickly disposed of much of his land in 1763.

Charles Maurice Petty-Fitzmaurice The ninth Earl of Shelburne. The 23-year-old Earl of Shelburne, or Charley as he became known to residents, was the guest of honor at Shelburne’s three-day bicentennial celebration in 1963.

Charles Maurice Petty-Fitzmaurice
The ninth Earl of Shelburne.
The 23-year-old Earl of Shelburne, or Charley as he became known to residents, was the guest of honor at Shelburne’s three-day bicentennial celebration in 1963.

The town of Shelburne was named for the Earl of Shelburne, a member of British Parliament who had championed the claim of New Hampshire to lands between the Connecticut River and Lake Champlain.

The town was originally granted a total of 23,500 acres. However, when a survey was completed, a large portion of this land was found to overlap land claimed by Burlington. Since Burlington’s charter was a month older than Shelburne’s, its claim took precedence. Burlington’s claim originally included part of Shelburne Point, but in 1794, the State Legislature returned that land to Shelburne. In 1848, an additional portion of land was given to the town of St. George, reducing Shelburne’s size to roughly 60 percent of the size of the original grant.

Early Settlement

Of Shelburne’s 65 original proprietors, only John Potter actually lived in the town. Potter settled at Shelburne Point in 1768 with Thomas Logan, and the two became associated in transporting oak timber rafts to the Quebec market. On returning from a delivery to Quebec in 1775, they were murdered by two escorts assigned to provide them protection. Potter and Logan, however, are credited with opening the lumber trade with Canada during the preceding seven years.

Although Potter and Logan were Shelburne’s first known settlers, Lyman Thayer, the nineteenth-century town historian, has stated that an Indian village and burying ground were located at the head of Shelburne Bay, near where the LaPlatte River and McCabes Brook, formerly known as Cogman’s Brook, converge.

By the time of the American Revolution, about 10 families had settled in Shelburne near the lake. However, the unrest caused them to leave for points south. The town did not begin to see resettlement until 1783. By the time the first town meeting was called in March of 1789, 24 families resided in Shelburne. By 1791, the United States Census recorded a town population of 389 people.

Early Economic Activities

The earliest settlers were farmers. Eventually, as support services developed, more concentrated patterns of human settlement emerged. Lazel Hatch constructed the town’s first sawmill east of the present Shelburne Inn in 1784, in the area now known as Shelburne village. However, with the construction of a log bridge across the LaPlatte River in 1785, Shelburne Falls became the town’s first major activity center. A dam was soon built and a sawmill was located on the south side of the river. In 1786, a dam was constructed on the lower side of the falls, which was followed by the construction of a grist mill in 1789.

In 1789, the public road from Middlebury to Burlington (now U.S. Route 7) was opened by Captain Benjamin Harrington. The access provided by this road created a locational advantage for the village area which ultimately became the dominant village center. In the 1790s, the settlement pattern was less clear. There were two distinct settlements — one taking advantage of water power at the Falls, and one capitalizing on the convergence of two main roads. In 1796, Benjamin Harrington built a hotel just north of the potash factory, and this helped to establish the pattern of the Falls as the manufacturing center and the Village as the center of commerce.

Shelburne’s farmers were active in a variety of agricultural endeavors. In general, the western part of Town, which enjoyed the moderating influence of Lake Champlain, was known for its fruit orchards, while the eastern part of Town specialized in grain production. This period marked the height of the Merino Sheep raising in Vermont. Shelburne’s location on Lake Champlain and its connections to outside markets helped the Town shift from self-sufficient family farming to commercially-oriented farming.

The last sidewheeler of its kind, the SS Ticonderoga, was moved to the Shelburne Museum overland from Shelburne Bay. The Ti was towed to the Bay in late fall. A dike was built to form a basin, flooded and the boat floated overland during the winter when the ground was frozen and could hold the weight of the boat until it arrived at the Museum in the spring. An engineering feat unprecedented in the 1950s.

The last sidewheeler of its kind, the SS Ticonderoga, was moved to the Shelburne Museum overland from Shelburne Bay. The Ti was towed to the Bay in late fall. A dike was built to form a basin, flooded and the boat floated overland during the winter when the ground was frozen and could hold the weight of the boat until it arrived at the Museum in the spring. An engineering feat unprecedented in the 1950s.

Railroad Era

In 1849, the Rutland Railroad began to stop in the Village. In turn, the railroad opened a far greater market for the town’s farming community. The farms gradually changed to dairy farming, producing cheese and butter for export. A very successful cheese factory was constructed as early as 1871 south of the village on Falls Road.

The manufacture of steamboats continued, as it had since the 1820s, at the Shelburne Shipyard on the eastern shore of Shelburne Point.

The Shelburne Shipyard. Photo courtesy of Peter Martell.

The Shelburne Shipyard. Photo courtesy of Peter Martell.

Although the town’s population declined between 1870 and 1880, the number of dwellings in the Falls and Village areas seems to have doubled. Each area contained about 30 dwellings. This suggests that fewer people were working on the farms and opting instead to work in Shelburne’s manufactories and shops. This is borne out by an examination of houses in the Village and Falls. The dominant architectural style dates from the late 1870s and 1880s. On the other hand, most existing farmsteads appear to date from the 1810 to 1850 period.

During the period 1880 to 1890, Shelburne’s population increased from 1,096 to 1,300. This increase reflects the impact of Shelburne Farms. In 1866, Dr. and Mrs. W.S. Webb began purchasing farms on the western side of town, eventually acquiring a total of 3,800 acres. On this estate, the Webbs constructed an impressive array of farm and residential buildings. The high point of construction activities was reached in about 1890, and accounts for the increase in population (even though most of the previous owners of the farms left Shelburne). When construction was completed (at about the turn of the century) the Shelburne Farms operation provided less employment than did the construction period, and the town’s population dropped to 1,202 in 1900.

The establishment of Shelburne Farms considerably altered the agricultural base of Shelburne. Dairying and fruit production were of less importance on the large estate than they had been on the smaller family farms. In a sense, over one-fourth of Shelburne’s prime land was removed from what had been conventional agricultural production.

Twentieth Century

With the increased industrialization of America in the twentieth century came the ready availability of mass produced goods. Many of the support services previously found in small farming communities were no longer needed. Burlington developed as a regional center for Chittenden County, meeting many of Shelburne’s needs. Much of Shelburne’s local manufacturing and commerce disappeared.

In light of Shelburne’s changed farming status and its inability to foster commercial growth, it is easy to understand why its population remained small. From a figure of 1,202 in 1900, it dropped to 997 in 1920, and hovered around 1,000 until the 1940s. During that time Shelburne continued to be primarily an agricultural town with its population limited by the available farmland. The post-World War II economic growth in Chittenden County, and the increased popularity of suburban or country living, placed the town in a markedly different context. Shelburne’s growth became more and more related to that of the Burlington region and less and less tied to its original agricultural activities.

In 1947, Mr. J. Watson Webb and his wife, Electra Havemeyer Webb, combined his interest in architecture and her interest in collecting Americana to found the Shelburne Museum which has become world famous for its collections and as the final home of the steamer “Ticonderoga.” Suburban life brought with it a greater variety of land uses and complications of a fast-growing population and its increased demands for services. Since the mid-20th century, the town has grown to a population of over 6,900 and, with that, the infrastructure and services to accommodate the population. Shelburne residents experience a high quality of life as one of the communities on the outskirts of Burlington.

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