A Chapter of Its Early History.
Where the Early Inhabitants Lived - Where the Roads Ran -
Some of the First Industries, Stores, etc.
The earliest history of the village of Brattleboro may interest some readers. When the town was chartered by Gov. Benning Wentworth in 1753 he reserved to himself a tract of the land on the river extending from the lower end of the depot yard up to Harris place and westward far enough to include 800 acres. This covered the valley of Whetstone brook beyond Centreville, which stream was laid down on a map in the old Indian chronicle as Wheatstone river. Nothing was done upon this track till 1762, when Governor Wentworth had a small grist mill built on the brook just above the bridge to encourage settlers. There was no miller to the mill, but the settlers could go and grine, themselves, as they might have occasion. Before that there had been two or three settlers about Fort Dummer, and in that year John Arms came and settled where the Retreat farmhouse is, Samuel Wells where the women's retreat is; and John and Thomas Sargent went from Fort Dummer and settled above West river. In 1764 the west bank of the river was made the boundary between New Hampshire and New York; in 1766 Wells got the New York title to the whole township and in 1767 built a saw mill on the brook by the grist mill. He sold this tract of 800 acres, in 1771 to Esquire Stephen Greenleaf, who had come from Boston the year before, and lived near the southwest corner of the fair ground. He divided the tract into two parts by a line running from about the east side of Mr. Crowell's park near the north end of the reservoir, across Whipple street, School street and Elm street to Central street, which cut off 200 acres next to the river, and included the saw and grist mills and their privileges.
In 1772 Samuel Knight, who had lived northwest of Wells, and had just been admitted to the bar of the New York court, bought 26 and three-quarters acres of the north end of this 200 acres, which came down to the lower end of High street, and built a house just north of the library, and lived there. This was the first house in the populous part of the village, and he was the first lawyer of the town. At about the same time Nathaniel Church came and lived on the west side of the road at the Retreat. In 1778 Matthew Martin of Townshend bought the remaining 173 and one-fourth acres of the 200 acres, moved to where the American House is, and built a very good grist mill where the machine shop is, and a saw mill with two saws below. In 1779 Aaron Whitney, a merchant at Northfield, bought of Knight and Martin the land on both sides of the road from the Baptist meeting-house to the American House, and Gardner Chandler, who lived in a house on the garden north of Col. Hunt's, had it and afterward in 1784 had a house and barn where the Brooks House stands, built before and occupied by John Humphrey, and a shop where the stone block is, which soon became, if it was not then, a store, and was the first one in the place. In 1781 Joseph Clark came and lived where Stebbins's carriage shop is at the corner of Canal and South Main streets, and had a fulling mill on the brook above the bridge.
In 1782 those living along the road running through now Main street were Benjamin Gorton at the upper end of the West river meadow, Samuel Wells at the women's retreat, Josiah Arms at the Retreat farm, Nathaniel Church at the Retreat on the west side, Samuel Knight north of the library, Matthew Martin at the American House, Joseph Clark at Stebbins's shop, Elnathan Allen, Oliver Evans, and Asa Putnam beyond on Cemetery hill, Elisha Pierce at the Wood farm, Gardner Chandler at Col. Hunt's, and Nathan Willard at Fort Dummer. A schoolhouse was built soon after where the Chase street schoolhouse now stands. When Mr. Martin bought of Esquire Greenleaf he morgaged the land back to secure £2106, 13s, 4d, and the mortgage was assigned to Samuel Elliot, jr., of Boston, and in 1784 remained unpaid. A land tax of 10 shillings on each 100 acres of land was said to have been paid by Martin on his land to Richard Prouty, the collector, and repaid to have land sold for the tax, which was done Aug. 16, 1784. The mode of sale was for the bidders to say for how little of the land he would pay the tax and costs. Lieut. Oliver Waters, "gentleman," of Halifax, was the lowest bidder for an acre and a quarter beginning at the southeast corner of Aaron Whitney's land and running thence easterly four rods, thence southerly, westerly and northerly to Whitney's line, so as to include an acre and a quarter in precisely square form. This included the house where the American House is and the mills and the land on both sides of the brook at its mouth. The tax amounted to £1, 1s, 3d, and the time of redemption expired. Mr. Elliot died and his widow applied to the legislature for relief by extension of the time of redemption, or by declaring the sale void, setting forth these facts and that the principal value consisted in the mills and buildings, the soil of the land being but indifferent, and "that from the Idea she entertains of the Legislative Body of the State of Vermont she has the most unshaken confidence that they will not be less disposed to grant her relief because this request comes from a widow and a stranger, and on behalf of several helpless orphan children who without justice being done in this matter must be reduced to the most extreme penury." Her petition was referred to a committee but no definite action appears to have been taken upon it. The collector deeded the part sold to Waters, who, in 1787, sold it to Elnathan Allen, who took possession.
Jonathan Church built, before 1787 a saw mill above Joseph Clark's fulling mill, where the paper mill is, and in that year leased to Samuel Dickinson of Petersham land between for a shop, with the privilege of taking water from the dam sufficient to run a trip-hammer. Mr. Dickinson moved here and lived on the east side of the road north of the American House. In 1790 John W. Blake, a lawyer and the second one in town, bought out Samuel Knight, who had become a judge of the supreme court, and moved to where D. S. Pratt lives; and Hiram Houghton bought, and built a house, on the east side of the road, now Linden street. In 1792, Lemuel Whitney bought and built where Mr. Dowley lives, and had a shop beside the road towards Hiram Houghton's; and Elnathan Allen sold the land where Mrs. Van Doorn's house stands below the blacksmith shop to Edward Houghton, merchant of Guilford, who built and kept a store there.
The road through here called the great river road, and the country road, at first came by the Wood place, and down Cemetery hill, and across the brook about where it now does, and went on across West river at the upper end of the meadow towards Dummerston. In 1795 a toll bridge was built where West river bridge now is, and county commissioners laid a road across the Wood plain, and around the brow of the hill on the east side of the cemetery and across the field into the other where the houses are on the east side of the street above Mr. Ryders; and from the other road at Dr. Holton's, about where it now runs, to the new West river bridge. The south bank of the brook from the bridge down was very rocky and steep, and no road was built there till about the time the Connecticut river bridge was built in 1804, but a road ran from Joseph Clark's about where the road is now, back of the Brattleboro House, and round down to the island in the river then called Little Spruce island. The road down the hill past the machine shop to the electric light station was the road to the mill yards and to Barrett's ferry, and the boat landing, where the arch now is. The road down High street came down Green street to Oliver Wells's at the foot of the first steep hill near where Mrs. Estey lives, then across to the top of the hill by Mrs. Rice's, and then along the side hill in Mr. Sherman's grounds to the other road where the north end of the Brooks House stands.
John Arms, who became Major Arms, always kept tavern while he lived, at the Retreat farm, and after he died in 1770 his widow, Susanna Arms, and after her their son Josiah kept it. Joseph Clark kept tavern a part of the time, and Samuel Dickinson also. In a list of taverns from Bennington to Boston in 1802 Dickinson's is given. Till 1786 the people went to meeting on meeting-house hill, and to get there they would go by Major Arms's and up that way over roads not now open; after that they went to West Brattleboro.
The state of Vermont recognized the New Hampshire titles to the land as valid, but repudiated the New York titles. Many of the people here were Yorkers and strove against the new state, and in favor of New York, with all their might, but they gave up in 1784. This left those who had bought this governor's right of Esquire Greenleaf without good title. Governor Wentworth, who had reserved it to himself, had married Martha Hilton, his handsome servant girl, willed all his property to her and died. This left her the owner of this and many similar reservations, so many that she did not know much about them all, and she had been married to Col. Michael Wentworth. Joseph Clark went over to Portsmouth and got a deed from her and her husband of the whole tract, and put it on record in the town clerk's office. He deeded to those who had bought here under Greenleaf and this quieted their titles.
Vermont Phoenix, December 4, 1896.
Article by Hon. Hoyt Henry Wheeler.