A SHORT HISTORY OF CABOT, VERMONT
by R.D. Eno
THE EARLY YEARS – THE BAYLEY-HAZEN ROAD
Until the coming of the Europeans, it appears no humans permanently occupied what’s now the township of Cabot at the southwest corner of the Northeast Kingdom. Abenakis and Micmacs and the occasional Mohawk visited the area as a sort of hunting preserve, marking trails through the lush hardwoods, moving from camp to camp. The Winooski River (Abenaki for “wild onion”, which once flourished along its banks), whose bed is among the oldest in North America, rises in Cabot from Coits Pond in the northeast, joins with springs and creeks and runs 94 miles to Lake Champlain. If you stand on the Cabot Plain ridgeline, the highest point in town, you can see both the Green Mountains and the Presidential Range of the White Mountains over in New Hampshire and nearly into Canada. On a clear day, Vermont offers few prospects more spectacular.
The history of European settlement in Cabot begins with the construction of the Bayley-Hazen Road that crossed Cabot Plain during the American Revolution. Made of felled trees rolled together like railroad ties to form a “corduroy road”, this ambitious project was conceived by Col. (later Gen.) Jacob Bayley, commander of the Vermont militia, as a military highway following a narrow trail already scouted and marked from the Connecticut River at Newbury, VT, west through Peacham and Cabot and on to St. John’s, Quebec, at the top of Lake Champlain. Bayley pitched his plan to George Washington as shortcut by which Continental troops and supplies could reach Canada during the Siege of Quebec; and, though Bayley owned land in Newbury along the road line, he assured Washington his project concealed “no selfish Views”. Whatever Washington thought of Bayley’s disavowal, he authorized construction in 1776, and work began with the aid of a Micmac scout, Joseph Sussap, from St. Francis, Quebec, for whom Joe’s Pond, in Cabot’s northeast corner, was named.
Bayley got as far as Peacham when he encountered soldiers fleeing east along the trail with word that the Canadian invasion had ended in disaster for the Americans. Washington, realizing the road could as easily be used by British raiders as American troops, halted construction. But he revived the project in 1779 and deployed Col. Moses Hazen, another Newbury proprietor – quarrelsome, sentimental and an indefatigable agitator for war in Canada – to take up the job. Hazen assumed that Washington had decided on another invasion, but the general secretly intended to distract British attention while he mobilized for a campaign in New York. Hazen’s crews hacked out the Cabot stretch, from Joe’s Pond to the Plain, thence in a dog-leg north to the Walden line, a mile and a half away. The site of Hazen’s Cabot encampment and blockhouse, once known as “Fortification Hill,” is now marked by a memorial stone east of the Plain Cemetery. Sections of the Bayley-Hazen remain part of Cabot’s road system to this day, and the whole thoroughfare, identified by signs along the way and pretty rough in places, can still be traveled along its entire length – though sometimes only by two wheels or four hooves.
Washington finally ordered the project terminated far from its original goal, at what is now Hazen’s Notch in Westfield. Left behind was an intra-state highway that, as Bayley knew it would, boosted the value of the land it passed through and opened the northeast to another kind of invasion – by land speculators and pioneers.
THE FIRST SETTLEMENT
In 1780, a colonel who had served under Bayley, Jesse Leavenworth – Ft. Leavenworth in Kansas is named for his son – assembled a consortium of investors and obtained a charter from the newly constituted Republic of Vermont. The township, 6 miles on each side, would be called Cabot, after Sophia Cabot, bride of one of the proprietors, Maj. Lyman Hitchcock. (The charter essentially voided a 1774 grant from the Province of New York, in which Cabot was part of a much larger township called Syndey.)
Sophia’s father, Marston, a minister, had dropped dead in the pulpit, and her brother, Marston, Jr., had become her legal guardian. According to legend, he thought a soldier would make an unsuitable match for his sister but relented when Lyman bought into the Cabot development for which Marston, Jr. was one of the surveyors. When the lots were laid – 72 of them to account for 20 new shareholders – Lyman received one lot and Sophia got a lot of her own. Did Lyman use his investment as leverage to get Sophia’s name written into the grant? Did he ply Marston with the promise of the Cabot name preserved in history? Did the grantees name the town as a wedding present to the Hitchcocks? Good questions. What would make the best story?
Before the chartered town had even been lotted, Lieut. John Whittier arrived to open the first clearing on what is now Whittier Hill in 1780. Three years later, when the Treaty of Paris sealed the American victory and ended any danger of British sorties along the Bayley-Hazen Road, Benjamin Webster, an original proprietor and uncle of Daniel Webster, decided to put his allotted asset to use. He built a log cabin on the Plain beside the road near the Walden line; that winter Webster brought his family from New Hampshire by ox-drawn sledge over the snow-covered ridges and trails – far less arduous than hauling a wagon over corduroy roads in summer.
Hilltops, despite their exposure to every sort of weather, offered the most viable locations for homesteading because the river valleys flooded and turned to mosquito-infested swamps before the trappers removed the beavers and their troublesome dams. Other settlers followed Webster to the Plain, and Fortification Hill became the town’s business and social hub, with a store, a schoolhouse and, after 1808, regular mail service from carrier Henry Denny, who rode on horseback from Montpelier to the Canadian border and back every ten days, announcing himself at each stop with a blast on his post horn.
THE FIRST TOWN CENTER
By the turn of the 19th century, the Bayley-Hazen Road had become a major commercial thooughfare, with six-horse coaches and wagons freighted with salt pork, potatoes, grain and whiskey thundering over Cabot Plain, as many as 60 a day. An inn on Fortification Hill, known as the Yellow House, catered to teamsters and travelers and, during the War of 1812, to a gang of smugglers, who would store their barrels of potato whiskey – that is, vodka – at the inn before running the contraband over the border to sell to British troops in Canada. “If thine enemy thirst, give him drink!” became their motto. When a customs officer attempted to thwart their racket, they dumped him in a nearby mudhole, forever after known as Smuggler’s Pond.
But Cabot’s geographic center lay two miles to the south of the Plain, on Danville Hill where, in 1794, some grantees leased to the town eight acres, to be put to public use, for a term of 999 years. A new Town Center was established, to the outrage of residents and businesses on the Plain, who threatened to secede! The Center came to consist of a school, a church, a common, a pound to hold stray livestock and a whipping post (used only once on Ben Parker, who had broken into a store). The Center Road was laid, straight as a ruler, north to south, bisecting the town and connecting the Center to the Plain. Most of it has disappeared, but one surviving section, just off Danville Hill Road, features a parking and picnic area and a path to the remains of the Town Center and the adjacent Center Cemetery, the first in Cabot, dating from 1799, where several veterans of the Revolution lie buried.
Now here’s a tale: During World War II, legend has it, when the government was paying agricultural subsidies, a local farmer (who shall remain nameless) pulled up the tombstones in the Center Cemetery and ploughed up the graveyard to plant extra potatoes. The outraged townsfolk dispatched a committee to restore the cemetery, which they did, though a few stones had been damaged beyond repair, but there were no records of where each stone belonged. Eventually, all the useable stones were replaced, but no one knew or knows to this day whether they stand on the right graves.
THE STORY OF MATH PRODIGY ZERAH COLBURN
Not far from the old Town Center lay the farm of Abia Colburn where, in 1804, the sixth of his children, Zerah, was born. At the age of six, while playing among the wood chips below the bench where his father was working, Zerah, who had only attended school for a few weeks the previous summer, began murmuring the multiplication table to himself. His astonished father, assuming the child had simply memorized what he had heard the older students reciting, put him to the test, but the boy had his math facts down perfectly. Abia pressed him further; could he multiply numbers of more than one digit? What was 13 x 97? “1,261,” Zerah replied instantaneously.
Word of the lightning calculator spread rapidly through Cabot, and before long Abia was exhibiting him on stage in larger towns, then Boston and, eventually abroad. In Paris, Zerah met Washington Irving, saw Napoleon, whom he idolized, in the flesh after his triumphant return from exile on Elba, and briefly enrolled, at the intervention of the emperor himself, in the Lycée Napoleon, where he learned French and German. In England, thanks to the patronage of the Earl of Bristol, Zerah finally received a more systematic education – his father, greedy for commercial possibilities, had once declined Dartmouth College’s offer to admit Zerah at no charge. The lad seems to have been one of those effortless learners to whom knowledge clings like iron filings to a magnet. We have two images of him as a faun-like eight year-old from his British sojourn; in one, he is dressed for badminton and holds a racquet and a shuttlecock; in the other, a head portrait, he looks like an infant Orson Welles.
Zerah returned to Vermont, married, and ended his days as a Professor of Latin, Greek, French, Spanish and English Literature at Norwich College. But his mathematical facility had deserted him after an access of religious excitement in his 20s led to his becoming, briefly, a Methodist preacher. He wrote his memoir in 1833. It is a remarkable, Dickensian document, cluttered with colorful detail, but emotionally clouded. Zerah writes of himself in the third person, as if it hadn’t been his life at all. He died in 1839 of tuberculosis. He was 35 years old.
DOWN IN THE VALLEY
The Town Center would shift once more. In 1789, Thomas Lyford built the first water-powered sawmill in the Winooski valley and a residence five years later. As Lyford cleared the land, more settlers arrived, creating Cabot village, which grew to include a store, a tavern and, by 1817, a distillery, turning grain into a value-added product. A second village sprang up in Lower Cabot, where the river had been dammed to provide power to a gristmill and another sawmill, the remains of which can still be seen. A fulling mill built in 1803 became a textile manufactory in 1833, and the valley thrummed with commercial activity. Freight traffic deserted the Plain; population deserted the Center. In 1855, the Yellow House was demolished; a small stone inscribed: Smuggler’s Inn, across Cabot Plains Road (a Bayley-Hazen section) from the Plain Cemetery, marks the site. The town’s business would henceforth be conducted in the village.
But in relocating itself to the valley, Cabot’s municipal center sacrificed its arterial connection to the rest of the state. Traffic lost along the Bayley-Hazen Road was not detoured to the new village. Businesses thee served a home-based economy of subsistence farming with little to export but potash (made from burning timber not needed for construction), hard cider and potato whiskey (at one time there were 12 distilleries in town). Cash was hard to come by, and barter was the rule, hardly a recipe for prosperity. What’s more, Cabot farmers found themselves on shallow, unproductive soil best suited for raising livestock. And the stock of choice became sheep, easy to feed, easy to herd, easy to shear – if you knew how – for a profitable export.
For nearly half a century, Vermont seethed with Marino fever, a craze for the fine-wool breed stolen from Spain during the Napoleonic wars. Wool was a cash crop, Marino wool brought a premium and everyone with any land wanted to get in on this burgeoning market. At the height of the Marino mania there were over a million sheep in Vermont, and 5,234 were counted in Cabot in 1836. “Improved” (i.e., cleared) land in Cabot grew from 411 acres in 1801 to 739 in 1812, about 30 acres a year; but between 1812 and 1830, with Marino fever raging, the figure jumps to 5,104, an average increase of 243 acres a year. Wool growers shaved the hills to create or enlarge pastures for their flocks, often buying out their neighbors to do so. Cabot’s sheep population doubled between 1830 and 1836, while between 1810 and 1830 its human population only grew by about 20 souls a year, far below the expected rate of increase. People were leaving, heading west. Sheep proliferated.
By 1836, Vermont was nearly 80% deforested; Cabot was as bald as the rest. Sheep were grazing everywhere in the state, folded between fieldstone walls. Marinos were well-adapted to Vermont’s rocky soil – they have split lips that enable them to eat around any obstacle – and their fine fleece brought high returns at auction in New York, where it got spun up into the international textile trade. And the wool growers would plough back their profits, buying more sheep, buying more land.
It was a bubble, like tulips and dot.coms. Around 1840, jarred by new tariffs and avalanches of wool from the midwestern farms to which those displaced Vermonters had fled, where the cost of raising sheep was a fraction of Vermont’s, the bubble burst. The price of wool plummeted; many wool growers went bankrupt, flocks went under the knife, and a large part of Vermont went out of business. Cabot was slower to give up its sheep, but cattle began to show up on town records, and by 1850, they outnumber all other stock. But the shift to cattle farming returned Cabot to a subsistence economy of domestic production and bartering, hardly attractive to young people alert to the lure of the west. Cabot could not seem to catch a break.
In 1830, the Selectboard fought vigorously against the siting of a road from Marshfield to Danville along Molly Brook (named for Joseph Sussap’s wife) on Cabot’s lightly settled eastern border, to no avail. The road, which became Route 2, would bypass Cabot’s business center. The railroads came to Vermont, to Marshfield and Danville and even to the Woodbury granite quarries, but not to Cabot. And the temperance movement, gathering steam and culminating in statewide prohibition in 1850, spelled the end of Cabot’s whiskey industry. The population continued its decline. By 1950, Cabot would have fewer people than it had in 1810. Not until the interstate highway, like the Bayley-Hazen Road before it, brought new consumers and back-to-the-land pastoralists to Vermont did Cabot begin its demographic recovery.
THE CABOT FARMERS CO-OPERATIVE CREAMERY
Where sheep had failed, cattle took over. Cabot farmers had little choice but to pasture cattle where their sheep had been, and Cabot reverted to subsistence farming, with small dairy surpluses, chiefly butter, produced at home, stored outdoors over the winter, and taken to market in spring and summer. Milk that stood long enough for the cream to separate usually soured and went to the pigs. When the Cabot Creamery opened in 1893 as a private concern, farmers at last had a facility near at hand where they could bring their milk for sale, where mechanical separators would spin off the cream, churn and package the butter and haul it to the railroad for shipment. In 1919, ninety-four dairy families combined to form the Cabot Co-operative Creamery and purchased the whole operation; every member became a shareholder. Ten years later, the Creamery built its first cheese room and expanded its product line. In the teeth of the Depression, when the Creamery found itself without cash to pay out milk checks, five members pledged their farms to underwrite a bank loan so their fellow members could get paid, but insolvency loomed until Tom Orne, the manager, embarked on an aggressive marketing campaign in Boston and Rhode Island that boosted and polished the Cabot brand of butter and cheese. That brand has become world-famous. And though the number of dairy farms in Cabot has declined precipitously, the Creamery, now part of the Agri-Mark Co-operative, gathers raw milk from a multi-state catchment area and continues to underpin the Cabot economy.
CABOT IN THE CIVIL WAR
Vermont regiments participated in most of the important battles in the Union’s eastern campaigns, from Lewinsville on September 11, 1861 to Petersburg on April 2, 1864 and suffered, by some measures, the greatest loss of life of any state; of 34,238 who wore the Union blue, 5,237 Vermonters died in action, of disease, in prison or by accident, 15 percent of those in service. The whole Union Army lost 17 percent of its soldiers. Cabot, with a military-age population of 267, sent 145 to war. 37 were killed – at Wilderness, Winchester, Cold Harbor and Cedar Creek. Their names are inscribed on the obelisk on the Common.
That’s more than 25 per cent of those who went to war and does not account for the men who returned alive but too injured to work. Not state sacrificed more than Vermont, and no town gave more than Cabot to the anti-slavery cause.
MOLLY’S FALLS POND, aka THE MARSHFIELD RESERVOIR
Throughout the 19th century, new settlement communities sprang up in all the habitable parts of Cabot. The town was divided into 15 separate one-room school districts, one of which included Petersville, a village alongside Molly Brook, that flowed from Joe’s Pond, down Molly’s Falls and joined the Winooski in Marshfield. At the dawn of the 1920s, the appetite for electrical power became voracious, and it was decided to build a dam across Molly Brook and a power station nearby. Ingeniously, the water captured behind the dam would be pumped uphill to a tower from which it would drop to drive the turbine, an artificial Niagara that would generate the power to drive the pump. But the creation of Molly’s Falls Pond would drown poor Petersville, whose inhabitants had to be relocated. The dam was finished in the fall of 1927, just in time to be the only power station in the area that operated during the catastrophic flood that November. Long popular with swimmers, boaters and ice fishers (and, in 1978, with ice skaters when no snow fell until February and the pond froze over from end to end), Molly’s Falls Pond recently became a Vermont State Park.
THE WILLEY MEMORIAL BUILDING aka TOWN HALL
At the end of Clough Lane across Main Street from the Creamery and down in the Winooski hollow, the water-powered Cabot Carriage Company was doing business at the time of the Civil War, building two models, a buggy and a single-seat sleigh, apparently all that anyone in Cabot would ever need in the way of vehicles. The paint shop was staffed by two old hands named Clark and Heath. When they weren’t spreading enamel on sleighs and buggies, Clark and Heath would turn their hands to finer art, painting scenic or dramatic pictures on enormous canvas theater drops, a popular art form into the 20th century. One of their collaborations from 1869, a frontier image of an ox-drawn covered wagon and men in buckskin called “Emigrants on the Plains”, was based on an etching by the famous illustrator F. O. C. Darley and hung in the Cabot School. Sometime around 1878, they got a helper, a young man in his twenties named Charles Willey, who himself had emigrated with his family from Quebec.
Willey eventually moved to New York City and in 1890 founded his own business, named after himself, C. A. Willey, manufacturing carriage paint – “specialities in fine coach colors,” including Agostein Red and Coach-Body Blues – and offering as well “priming and roughstuff” for both carriages and automobiles. Located in Hunter’s Point, Queens, the business thrived, but Willey maintained his connection to Cabot, spending many summers here where three of his siblings lay buried. Returning during Old Home Week in 1916, he encountered the Judith Lyford Women’s Club selling popcorn to raise funds for a town library. Willey was so impressed that he vowed to match donations twice over. The Women’s Club soon collected $3,517.15, and Willey kept his pledge and gave then $7,646.36, about $170,000 today.
The Willey Building was designed for mixed public use as a Town Hall, Library and social center by Frank Walker of Montpelier. B. L. Bruce of Cabot was the general contractor, and all the lumber for the project was supplied by local sawmills. Construction had to wait for World War I but finally got underway in 1920 and was completed the following year. Thanks to the delay, the building fund had appreciated considerably; the books were closed with a small surplus. By that time, the Women’s Club had accumulated about 2,500 volumes, rotating them among the houses of its members, and the new quarters were sorely needed. Mahogany furniture, including the librarian’s desk, were donated by Cabot native Will D. Gould, a former school superintendent who had gone on to a law career and moved to Los Angeles. In 1938, when a new school was built on the Common, Clark and Heath’s “Emigrants on the Plains” was moved to the Willey Building auditorium stage, where it now hangs. The Judith Lyford Women’s Club became the Cabot Public Library, which deeded the building to the Town in 1971.
Charles Willey was present for neither the grand opening his generosity had made possible nor the installation of the drop whose creators he had worked beside in his youth; Willey had moved to California to live with his daughter and died in 1919, before ground had been broken for the building that bears his name.