Wednesday, March 16, 2011


As towns were created, it placed more demands for food and related products on the nearby farmers.  What the farmers did not need for their families was transported to nearby markets as well as those further away.  Local stores often bartered with the farmer for staples such as salt, coffee, tea, and other products. The storeowners then took those excess supplies and bartered for those their store supplies that could not be purchased nearby.  Home spinning and weaving still took place with home grown flax and wool.  It is documented that "grain, potatoes and livestock were transported to markets in Montreal, Quebec, Troy, Albany, and Boston."  Significant exports between 1800-1804 were potash, pearlash, whiskey, pork, beef, wheat flour, grain, butter, cheese, lumber and horses.  Prior to 1830, dairy was still only a small portion of farm income and production was very rudimentary with cheese and butter being made in the house. 

It is said that farming in the "West section of Vermont became specialized before that in the Eastern side of the State." This was due to the lay of the land, the fertility of the soil, and the proximity to the markets. The growing of grains in the Champlain Valley was a very important industry before 1820 and the grains were either distilled locally or hauled to markets in Albany and Troy.

During this time and up until the railroads, "drover" drives of livestock to markets were very common.  Professor James Dean of The University of Vermont in the Atlas of Vermont for 1808 wrote "12,000 to 15,000 head of beef cattle were driven from the state to the Boston market."  Other documentation also indicates the importance of these drives.  "Prior to 1850 and the maturing of railroad transportation, southeast Vermont and southwest New Hampshire benefited from being major transit zones.  Every autumn, many tens of thousands of sheep and cattle, horses and pigs, turkeys and geese would be driven to market.  Many followed the Connecticut River Valley to Greenfield, Springfield, and Hartford.  Even more would continue across Cheshire and Hillsborough Counties in New Hampshire to Worcester, Lowell and Boston.  As many as a hundred thousand animals a year would pass through Keene, New Hampshire in herds of 200 to 400 animals.  Moving ten to fifteen miles at best per day, it might take three or more weeks to make it to Brighton Market outside of Boston.  Many drives also went through the Champlain Valley to New York either on foot or via the Champlain Canal down the Hudson." 


As towns became established, industry that supported agriculture began to spring up across the state.  These industries included blacksmiths, tanneries, gristmills, carting mills, saw mills, foundries, starch mills, and other establishments. Histories of local towns, found in historical society collections as well as local libraries, give us information on these early industries.  Water from rivers and dams were a major source of power and so most of these industries were located close to water sources.   In the Gazetteer and Business Directory of Chittenden County Vermont for 1882-83, one can find the history of some of these mills for each Chittenden County town.  For example, in Jericho, Horatio B. Barney's carding-mill was built in 1819;  Shelburne Falls with durable waterpower had one flourmill, one sawmill, one shingle-mill and a blacksmith shop.  Every settlement had at least one mill. These support industries contributed to the further commercial development of agriculture within the State of Vermont.


Transportation networks, both roads and water, became essential for the further development of agriculture as well as the development of industry and trade.  Road building is said to have begun in the late 1700's with private turnpikes chartered by the Vermont legislature.  One such example was the Windham Turnpike Company.   The company was incorporated in 1799 and built a road for travel between Brattleboro and Bennington.  They were permitted to erect five tollgates. Private turnpikes, such as this, were in use for approximately forty years at which time they became part of the highway system.  These turnpikes eased the way for stagecoaches that took travelers and commerce to distant markets.  Many towns prospered along these routes.

The growth of commerce grew rapidly between 1790 and 1814.  During these years canal and water travel became as important as overland means.  In Bellows Falls a canal was begun in 1792 that "was built with English Capital".  It is said that by means of flat-bottomed boats on this canal, a large freight business was done for many years between Hartford, Connecticut and Bellows Falls, Vermont.  "These boats were 72 feet long and 11 1/2 feet wide and when loaded carried 30 tons and had a draw of 2-3 feet of water.  It took approximately 3 days to get to Hartford."  Also important to the western side of Vermont was the commerce that took place on Lake Champlain. “Before 1792 Burlington was largely a forest. There were no wharves, and goods brought in sloops were landed in scows, with the exception of casks of liquor and molasses, which were floated ashore."  Because of its position on the lake, Burlington soon became a flourishing center important to the state’s economic growth. With the completion of the 64-mile Champlain Canal in 1823 Burlington’s commercial importance was enhanced greatly.  This waterway connected the Hudson River to Lake Champlain and provided a means for travel as well as commerce. Other canals were proposed across Vermont and so this time became known as the "canal craze period”. 

References and Sources for Information:

* “Studies in Vermont, History, Geography and Government”, by Robert M. Carter, St. Johnsbury, 1937
* Vermont Genealogy at
* Agricultural Policies in Vermont, 1860-1945 by Edwin C. Rozwenc, Vt. Historical Society, 1981
* History of Vermont by Walter Hill Crockett, Vol. 2, 1921
* Gazetteer and Business Directory of Chittenden Country, Vt. For 1882-83 by Hamilton Child
* Rural Vermont, A Program for the Future, The Vermont Commission on Country Life, Burlington, 1931
* Atlas of Vermont for 1808 by Professor James Dean, UVM
* “The Road Less Traveled by: Rural Northern New England in Global Perspective, 1815-1960”.  A dissertation presented by Christopher Harris to the Dept. of History in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy in the field of History, Northeastern University, Boston, May 2007
* Fifth Report of the State Board of Agriculture, 1878
* A Stitch in Time: Townshend, Vermont: 1753-2003
* Canals of the Connecticut River, Vermont History at
* Rhymes of Vermont Rural Life, Second Series, Daniel L. Cady, 1922, The Tuttle Company, Rutland, Vt. 1922  (see Rhyme on "A Vermont Drove of Cattle." Page 100)

Comment by Blogger:  The early settlers and farmers understood the importance of local and regional markets.  Improved methods of transportation allowed better access to these markets, through roads and river, lake and canal traffic.  This was before the west had opened up and before railroads were established.  In the next blog I will focus on the man William Jarvis whose import of prized Merino sheep transformed Vermont’s regional agriculture and supporting industries.  Who was this leader and what did he do to help transform agriculture in Vermont and the region? What led to the economic collapse of this important agricultural enterprise?  What can be learned from this period that might apply today?

Trivia Question:  Which Governor from Southern Vermont was President of the Vermont Agricultural Society and a farm implement inventor?



  1. "the grains were either distilled locally or hauled to markets in Albany and Troy"

    Roger, I surprised by the word "distilled" above. Is there any data available on how much of Vermont's early grain production was used to make alcohol vs. being ground into flour? A knowledgeable friend of mine once told me that a lot of the potato production in Vermont's early years was used to make vodka, and that surprised me, too. Maybe alcohol production was more significant than I realized. I think on that over a beer sometime...

    What kind of alcohol can be made from wheat?

  2. re: trivia question: Was it Gov. George Aiken? I know he was a governor from southern Vermont. I don't know for sure if he was president of the Vermont Agricultural Society, but it would be entirely in character. I don't know if he was a farm implement inventor, but he was creative, and I believe he was awarded a patent for a type of strawberry plant.

  3. and notice today how popular the winerys and breweries are... and there are even several local distilleries... maybe alcohol really IS important... even if not that nutritional... heh heh...