The Village Tour: Mill Street and Park Street

Looking northwest down Mill Street. Source

Mill Street

Turning down Mill Street, one enters the once vital world of Middlebury manufacturing. The area at one time was crowded with industrial buildings of all sorts and range of permanence, from workers’ tenements and flimsy drying sheds to solid stone structures; however, it experienced almost as many fires, rebuildings, and remodelings as did Main Street. The few structures that still remain invoke the town’s industrial past.

This is the area claimed by Daniel Foot in competition with Gamaliel Painter and the site of Foot’s saw and grist mills of 1784 (located approximately where the stone mill building now stands). Foot eventually divided his property between his sons Appleton and Stillman. Both brothers operated saw and grist mills, in time selling them and their land to the men who really developed this side of Middlebury Village.

41 1 Mill Street On the site of Stillman Foot’s sawmill, which burned in 1831, this frame building was constructed in 1870 as a paper mill. Since then it has burned and been rebuilt six times. In the 1880s and 90s it housed Smith and Allen’s woodworking shop, where were produced many of the Victorian architectural details to be found in this region.

Subsequently, from about 1900 it was the woodworking mill of Rogers and Wells until its renovation in 1971 as the Frog Hollow Craft Center, a privately sponsored educational and marketing center for a wide range of arts and crafts. In 1975, it was named Vermont State Center for the Crafts, the first state craft center in the country. Featuring a stable of Vermont’s leading artists and artisans, it opened branches in Manchester and Burlington. In 2009 the center consolidated its operations in Burlington and sold its Middlebury building. 1 Mill Street continues life, however, as a gallery.

42 Old Stone Mill On the approximate site of Daniel Foot’s first mill. Here Stillman Foot built a grist mill, which was purchased in 1801 by John Warren and converted about 1813 into a cotton factory with the addition of a large stone structure. A description of 1821 proves the latter to have been virtually identical to the present building. Under Warren it housed 600 spindles and eight looms. Adjacent to the mill on the south was a frame tenement for the workers. Damaged by fire and weak foundations in 1825 and 1836, the stone building was reconstructed about 1840 in its present form by the Middlebury Manufacturing Company for the production of woolens. The conversion from cotton to wool was in reaction to local circumstances. Merino sheep had been imported into Addison County from Spain early in the century and proved to do very well in Vermont’s rocky pastures. By 1840 the County had more sheep per acre and was producing more wool than any other in the country. It followed quite logically, then, that this wool should be turned into finished goods in Middlebury. Unfortunately the farmers of Addison County began to concentrate on raising and selling breeding stock, helping to develop the great western herds that eventually put them out of business. By 1890 wool had been displaced as an industry by electricity in the old mill, as the Middlebury Electric Company used the power of the falls to generate the current that enabled converting the village from kerosene to electric street lights. Along with its multiple uses, the mill has suffered from a number of fires since its 1840 rebuilding, but it is still essentially intact. Beginning at the time of the national bicentennial, it was restored and adapted for a sequence of gallery and commercial uses.

43 Star Grist Mill Another adaptive reuse of a building from Middlebury’s industrial past can be found across the street from the Old Stone Mill. It was built in 1837 as a woolen mill for Moses Leonard, with great stone foundations set against the steep side of the Hollow and a two-story frame structure above. It was damaged by fire in 1875 and rebuilt as the Star Grist Mill using the original timbers. Water from a branch of the huge penstock serving the Old Stone Mill turned turbines in the basement (still operative in the 1930s) and then was discharged into the Hollow.

Frog Hollow, Mill Street Farther into the Hollow were to be found other industries significant to Middlebury’s livelihood, though their buildings have passed from the scene. Here, beginning in 1794, could be found forges and gun smithies. In 1796 Ebenezer Markham opened the first nail factory in Vermont. In Jonathan Nichols’ shop in 1799–1800 was discovered a subsequently patented (1802) and widely-used process for welding cast steel. In Benjamin Lawrence’s shop between 1821–1825, John Deere served his apprenticeship before moving westward to Illinois. An archaeological dig in the spring and summer of 1975 located the foundations of Lawrence’s shop and turned up many interesting tools and artifacts from the site (now in the Sheldon Museum).

It was in the Hollow, too, that Vermont’s marble industry was born. In 1802 Eben Judd (with the apparent collaboration of the then ten-year-old Isaac Markham) developed a machine for the sawing of marble. Judd built a small test operation that year in the Hollow adjacent to a ready supply of marble. In 1806 the mill was expanded to hold sixty of the soft iron saws, and in 1808 it was made still larger. Much of the marble used was quarried in the Hollow and from the bed of the creek above the falls, though other varieties were brought from neighboring towns (especially Shoreham, where a vein of pure black marble was discovered at Larrabee’s Point in 1826). Between 1808 and 1837, Judd’s mill sawed between five and ten thousand feet of marble slabs a year, which was then turned into tombstones, carrier’s tables, jambs, mantelpieces, hearths, window and door caps and sills, sideboards, tables, sinks, etc. and shipped to markets from Quebec to Georgia. In 1810 Dr. Timothy Dwight of Yale wrote of the marble works:

“A quarry of marble has been discovered in the bank of the river just below the bridge, a continuation of the ledge which forms the falls. It is both white and dove-colored, elegantly variegated, and of finer texture than any other, which has been wrought hitherto in the United States. It is sawn, ground and polished by water machinery, and is cut and carved with an elegance not surpassed on this side of the Atlantic.”

The operation essentially halted in 1837 with the deaths of both Judd and his son-in-law and partner Lebbeus Harris. The marble deposit at the falls, riddled with fractures and weak layers, was originally considered economically attractive because it could be easily quarried by primitive hand tools. With the later development of steam-powered quarrying machinery, other sites with sounder deposits became popular and quarrying at the falls was never resumed. In 1851 N. H. Hand opened a wooden pail factory in the Judd building, turning out up to 600 pails, butter tubs, and the like a day.

As it rises on the far side of the Hollow, Mill Street passes the Sheldon Tenement House (1868) 43a, the last extant example of housing built in the Hollow for the workers in the local mills. Many of the mill workers (e.g. in 1828 the Page Mill alone employed 110 hands, of whom 75 were women and 10 were children) were drawn to town from regional farms by the prospect of industrial wages. In the 1830s the average mill girl earned $3.15 a week, from which $1.25 was removed to cover room and board — either in a mill boarding house or with a family in the village.

Park Street

Park Street showing the Sheldon Art Museum (now the Henry Sheldon Museum of Vermont History) on the left, the Hotel Logan at 2 Park Street, and a private residence at 3 Park Street, around 1915. Source

Beginning in front of the Star Mill and running southward to Main Street is Park Street. Here at number 3 43b is the house that Stillman Foot built for the superintendent of his grist mill in 1799. Originally a story-and-a-half, it was remodeled and enlarged in 1923. It retains its fine old sidelighted doorway, simple but with pretensions to being more than just a door. The small building across the street housed the woolen mill offices. It burned and was rebuilt in 1875 and probably again in 1903. Number 2 43c was built as a two-story house in 1801 and expanded and remodeled as the Logan House Hotel in 1891.

44 Henry Sheldon Museum of Vermont History This grand house was built in 1829 by Eben Judd and his son-in-law Lebbeus Harris with the profits and some of the products from their marble works in Frog Hollow (including a porch carried on marble ionic columns, a series of showy black Shoreham marble fireplaces, and the first rectangular, as opposed to trapezoidal, marble lintels in town — indicative of a changing taste for Greek Revival rather than Federal forms).

It was purchased in 1875 by Henry Sheldon, who had a penchant for local history and for collecting things. His house became something of a repository for objects of local significance, and in 1882 it was opened to the public as the Sheldon Art Museum, Archaeological and Historical Society, the first incorporated village museum in the United States. By the time of Sheldon’s death in 1907 all but two rooms (in which he lived) had been turned over to the museum’s collections.

In recent decades the house has been organized to present glimpses of 19th-century life — from formal front parlor to bedrooms and a spacious kitchen (with its large, utensil-hung hearth and bake oven) and to tell the community’s stories. Most of the items on display have connections with the history of the town and county: furniture by local cabinet-makers, Dyar clocks and silver, Lake Dunmore Glass, Wainwright stoves, tools brought from Connecticut to build the first buildings in town, student chairs from the College, portraits of prominent early citizens (including numerous works of itinerant artist Benjamin Franklin Mason). In the research wing are housed the documents of Middlebury’s local history: maps, notebooks, letters, newspapers, photographs. The Fletcher Community History Center (1990) houses changing art and local history exhibits. All told, the museum conserves a remarkably comprehensive history of the community, to the point that one visiting scholar was led to declare that it may well be “the missing link in New England culture.” Scholars and more casual visitors alike can find much of fascination in Henry Sheldon’s house.

Sheldon Art Museum, Archaeological and Historical Society (now the Henry Sheldon Museum) in 1900. Founder Henry Sheldon is standing on the porch. Source

Just south of the museum was a reservoir (a forty-gallon barrel under a canopy) fed with spring water brought through log pipes. It was placed there by the Middlebury Aqueduct Company (chartered 1804) as a public water source for the west side of the village and continued to serve in that capacity until 1893–1894. An 1888 barn, reputedly built for Henry Sheldon to house his collection overflow, stands near the rear of the property. This carriage-barn-style structure, painted in its original colors of yellow ochre and red oxide (both produced locally from regional iron ore deposits) and featuring a stylish gothic window in its gable end, is part of the museum.

45 Cannon Green Between Park and Main Streets is the small triangle known as Cannon Green, a bit of Foot land that in time became public property. In it is set a Civil War cannon with a Vermont marble base, presented to the town in 1910. The cannon, a 10-inch “Rodman,” (named after Thomas J. Rodman, U. S. Army Chief of Ordnance), weighs 15,140 pounds, and was manufactured by Cyrus Alger & Co. of Boston in 1866. Cyrus Alger was a long-time gun founder from as early as the 1830s. These big guns, that ranged in size from 10 to 20 inches, were sometimes referred to as “Columbiads,” and intended for seacoast fortifications. This one came to Middlebury from Bucksport, Maine. The intials “JGB” that appear on the muzzle refer to James Gilchrist Benton, an inspector between 1842 and 1881. The monument was completely disassembled, cleaned, repaired and reassembled in 1996.

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