A Look at the Town…
The first known inhabitants in the area were the Abenaki Indians who planted corn and built temporary villages along the banks of the Winooski River and up its Kingsbury Branch. Hamilton Child’s Washington County Gazetteer indicates that the remnant of an Indian village was found on the banks of the Winooski opposite the mouth of the Kingsbury Branch.
The land that now comprises both Montpelier and East Montpelier was originally chartered to Timothy Bigelow and his associates in 1781. The fledgling legislature of what was then the Independent Republic of Vermont took the following action:
“In General Assembly” this committee reported, “Saturday, October 21, 1780.” “That, in our opinion the following tract, viz.: Lying east of and adjoining Middlesex, on Onion River, and partly north of Berlin, containing 23,040 acres, be granted by the Assembly, unto Col. Timothy Bigelow and Company by the name of Montpelier. Signed, Paul Spooner, Chairman.”
The same date as above the Assembly concurred with the recommendation of the report, and requested the governor and council to fix the price of compensation and issue a charter. This they at once complied with, and “stated the fees at four hundred and eighty pounds for the s’d land,” to be paid by Col. Bigelow or his attorney, in hard money, or its equivalent in Continental currency, on the execution of the charter of incorporation on before the 20th day of January next. Probably because the fees were not paid the first charter was not issued until August 14, 1781. This was the first grant recommended by the committee, and the first authorized by the General Assembly of Vermont.
—Washington County Gazetteer, Hamilton Child, 188
Parley Davis, one of the first white settlers in the area, as part of a team of three headed by his uncle Col. Jacob Davis, began the survey the town in 1787. Parley built a house that is still standing in East Montpelier Center.
The first half of the nineteenth century saw rapid growth as the population increased from 890 residents in 1800 to 3,725 in 1840 (figures include the population of Montpelier, of which East Montpelier was a part). The first white settlers established farms on the high fertile plains. Three major settlements, Montpelier Village, East Montpelier Village and North Montpelier Village, developed along the Winooski River and its tributary, taking advantage of water power to operate gristmills, saw mills, and other small industries.
In 1848, residents of the Village of Montpelier became concerned that the subordination of village affairs to rural town government would curtail development in the commercial center and seat of state government. As a result, a group of village residents petitioned the legislature to set off the village and adjoining area into a new town, effectively splitting the town into what is now the City of Montpelier and the Town of East Montpelier. On November 9, 1848, sixteen days after they introduced a bill into the legislature, the Town of East Montpelier was officially created, without the consent of the people who would become East Montpelier residents.
By the late 1840s, there were more than 150 small farms in town with over 3,500 sheep and 1,100 milk cows. A large woolen mill was built in North Montpelier in 1838. By the middle of the 1800’s, the villages hosted tan yards (for processing animal skins into leather), brickyards, blacksmith shops, and shoe shops. East Village even boasted a distillery and a starch factory. From the late 1890’s until around 1930 there was a granite plant here, processing granite from the quarry in Adamant.
In the early 1870s, the Montpelier and Wells River Railroad began to operate passenger and freight trains with a stop at Fairmont Station in East Montpelier. The advent of railroads in the region considerably changed the lives of the town’s inhabitants. Farmers could ship their products farther, people could more easily travel to distant cities, and local merchants could expand their stock with exotic commodities from distant markets.
The area that was to become East Montpelier contained eleven school districts, each with its own one- room or two-room school and school board.
Farming dominated the town’s economic activity. Subsistence farming during early settlement gradually gave way to commercial farming, as farmers specialized first in sheep and then in dairy cows. By the 1880s the town’s landscape was dotted with substantial frame farmhouses, dairy barns, and a variety of outbuildings. With increasing specialization in the dairy industry and rail transportation available near the East Village, farmers built larger dairy barns and creamery operations opened in both East and North Villages. Although most of the town’s farmhouses date from 1820 to 1880, a new round of barn building began at the end of the nineteenth century and lasted until about 1912.
As western frontiers expanded, more Vermonters left their native state, while others moved to local cities to find better employment. In the period from 1850 to 1890, the population of East Montpelier declined by 34 percent. East Montpelier retained some industries, most notably the woolen mill in North Montpelier Village. In the 1890s, there was a modest upturn in population as western migration slowed and the mills in North Montpelier experienced a period of prosperity.
The population downtrend resumed after the turn of the century, reaching a low point of 918 in 1920. The Great Depression of the 1930s slowed this exodus by boosting the relative attractiveness of rural life. The population experienced modest growth throughout the 1930s and 1940s. After World War II, growth began to accelerate; the population doubled from 1,128 in 1950 to 2,205 in 1980, as new residents, most of whom worked outside of town, sought a rural lifestyle. From 1980 to 1990, growth slowed to two percent for the decade. Moderate growth increased the population by another 15 percent in the 1990s, but has slowed to no overall growth in the decade between 2000 and 2010.
During the latter half of the twentieth century, development occurred largely outside the village areas, as former farms were divided to accommodate new residences. Mills that had been the focal point of the village areas were all closed by 1970. Although a few stores and businesses remained, most commercial and industrial development occurred outside the village areas on US Route 2 and VT Route 14.