Marshfield, Vermont


Marshfield History

Early History
The independent Republic of Vermont chartered the Town of Marshfield in 1790 and named it for Isaac Marsh, one year before Vermont became the 14th state to join the United States of America. Located in the northeast part of Washington County, the 44 square mile town of Marshfield is bisected by the fertile valley of the Winooski River on its 88-mile run to Lake Champlain.

The Abenaki were the aboriginal inhabitants of the land that came to be known as Marshfield. From their seasonal camps, small family bands hunted game, fished, and gathered food in the Winooski River Valley and the surrounding hills. The forced northern retreat of the Abenaki opened the area to settlement by English families from southern New England.

Colonial land controversies between New Hampshire and New York, the French and Indian War, and the onset of the American Revolution had kept the number of actual settlers coming into Vermont low. While their numbers were few, the first Yankee settlers from Connecticut, New Hampshire and Massachusetts traveled upcountry to this northern frontier to develop small farms in the 1790s. There were only 172 people in 20 families when the first Marshfield town meeting was organized in 1800. Initially trees were the land’s primary resource, and the old-growth rock-laden forests were cleared for four interrelated purposes: farmland, fuelwood, potash and lumber. Today’s roads in Marshfield generally follow the same migration trails that were cut from the mountains during the settlement period.

The River and the Village
The Winooski River has always been an important factor in the development of Marshfield. The name Winooski derives from the Abenaki word meaning ‘onion place’, and the river was known in the earliest days of settlement as the Onion River. Several small streams join the winding Winooski River as it flows southwest through the township in a fertile and picturesque valley. Today the course of the river, the floodplain and the natural communities are resources protected by the Marshfield Town Plan.

A village center evolved where the stagecoach roads to Cabot, Danville, and Montpelier converged with the small industries along the falls of the Winooski River. A network of roads linked the widely dispersed farms to water-powered grist, saw and wool mills in the village center. Farmsteads prospered throughout the town early in the 19th century, and by 1830 the population had increased to 1271. Marshfield, like the majority of Vermont towns, suffered rural de-population beginning in the 1830s, and by 1950 the population had declined to only 830.

The development of Marshfield into a rural agricultural community in the 19th century was fostered by a terrain, climate and geographic location that favored small family farms. The topography of the land established the historical pattern of growth in a landscape where agriculture was the predominant occupation throughout the century. In 1836, during Vermont’s sheep boom, there were over 5,000 sheep on Marshfield farms. In the 1840s farms produced bushels of wheat, barley, oats, rye, buckwheat, corn, and potatoes, as well as hay, wool and maple sugar. A typical livestock inventory in the1850s included sheep, cattle, dairy cows, hogs, oxen, horses and hens. Additional farm products included cheese, apples and honey. Many significant barns were built for livestock and several have survived into the 21st century.

Agriculture in the area went through three general periods: semi-self-sufficiency, commercial agriculture and decline. In the second half of the 19th century the dairy business emerged as the most viable enterprise within agriculture and evolved through three phases: butter, cheese, and fluid milk. When the cooperative creamery association was organized in 1896, the town boasted 39 dairy cows per square mile. With the decline in farming, the forested landscape surrounded many of the original farm roads, house and barn foundations, wells and stonewalls, fields and pastures, apple orchards and cemeteries.

Buildings and Bridges
The log houses of the first settlers soon gave way to more sophisticated dwellings. Houses of wood frame or brick were built in a variety of architectural styles including Federal, Greek Revival, and French Second Empire. Marshfield Village still has a concentration of historic houses, stores and churches that retain their historic architectural character. Of the many wooden covered bridges that once served travelers, only one covered bridge remains: the 1890 privately-built Martin Bridge that once allowed farm animals to pasture on the east side of the Winooski River. This historic Queenpost truss bridge is now owned by the town and is the focus of a restoration project.

Culture and Education
In the 19th century residents organized churches, civic and fraternal organizations, as well as a town band and orchestra. A bandstand was a focus of community pride on the small town common near the Marshfield Village Store. A circulating library that began shortly before the Civil War moved to the new Jaquith Library near the town common in 1899. As the population grew, public one-room schoolhouses were built in eleven districts throughout the township. Gradual consolidation led to the building of a single village high school in 1929. This former school building was renamed the Old Schoolhouse Common in 1993 and now provides offices for the Town Clerk, the Jaquith Library, the Marshfield Historical Society and several small businesses.

The Railroad
The Montpelier and Wells River Railroad came up the Winooski Valley in 1873 and a station was built on Depot Road near the village. All of the commercial and political activities in the state’s capitol were now only a short train ride away, and two years later a telegraph line was set along the route of the railroad. The railroad continued east to the small community of Lanesboro, organized in 1883 around a very large sawmill.

The Twentieth Century
In the early twentieth century Marshfield experienced changes in business, communication, industry and transportation. The first telephone and electric service arrived in the village about 1900 and Rural Free Delivery of mail began about 1907. Marshfield Village was incorporated in 1911 where residents constructed a sewage system, street lighting, and a fire station with an organized volunteer fire department.

By 1920 the town’s professions included an auctioneer, a beekeeper, a blacksmith, four carpenters, a coal dealer, three horse dealers, a jeweler, two lumber dealers, a milk dealer, two painters and paperhangers, and a shoe repairer. Other occupations included a clergyman, five justices of the peace, and two physicians. Local businesses included agricultural implements, a drug store, two fertilizer dealers, a grain merchant, five general stores, a boarding house, two saw mills, a stables and a stove salesman. The railroad station had an express company and a telegraph company. The town also boasted its own hydroelectric power plant and a large stone dam that contained the Marshfield Reservoir.

The Groton State Forest, established in 1919, is located along the town’s eastern border. From 1933 until 1941 the Civilian Conservation Corps built park shelters and hiking trails to provide year-round recreational opportunities. The CCC also worked on forestry projects and constructed a permanent road through the forest to the town of Groton.

The old stagecoach road along the Winooski River, known as the River Road, was paved in 1932 between Plainfield and Marshfield and given the designation U. S. Route 2. Automobile travelers vacationed overnight at five private tourist cabin locations along the highway. Electric lines reached local houses and barns in the late 1930s, and in the early 1950s bulk milk tanks were introduced to the dairy farms. The bulk tanks, milking machines and pasteurizing equipment led to the demise of many marginal farms that could not afford the new technologies.

The fires of 1905 and 1909 destroyed many buildings in the village, the devastating flood of the Winooski River in 1927 and the national depression of the 1930s made it difficult for the town to recover economically. Later in the 1960s, the population began to increase with a back-to-the-land movement that attracted new residents from urban and suburban living to Marshfield’s countryside.

Marshfield Now
In 1970 the town population grew to 1033 and Marshfield joined the neighboring town of Plainfield in building a public school. The mission of the Twinfield Union School community is to educate all students to become responsible, productive, critical-thinking, life-long learning citizens in a safe, nurturing environment of mutual respect, high standards, creativity and academic excellence.

The Marshfield landscape represents the accumulated results of the decisions and compromises made by generations over time. Houses, roads and hills all have their stories. Today’s landscape was created by a decline in agriculture, the return of the forests, a growth in population and the introduction of conservation zoning and land-protection programs. Also significant has been the increasing conversion of the town into a bedroom community of residents who commute to employment opportunities in larger towns. This has led to the building of houses in forests and fields, fragmenting the landscape for agriculture, forestry and wildlife.

Marshfield has evolved over time from an almost self-sufficient agricultural and small manufacturing economy to a more complex mixture of economic activity. In the 2000 Census there were 1496 people in Marshfield. The town introduced zoning and planning to encourage responsible growth while maintaining the historic rural character of the community. Our Town Plan recognizes that Marshfield is, and through the planning process can remain, a small, rural, primarily residential community characterized by a population that is both economically and demographically diverse.

Living in the hills that form the watershed of the Winooski River provides an opportunity to build a healthy and sustainable community where a diverse group of people live together in ways that create a sense of common interest in a common landscape. The economic, scenic and wildlife values of the natural environment, in combination with the historic values of the built environment, provide a distinctive ‘sense of place’ and a duty of stewardship in the Town of Marshfield. This ‘sense of place’ is preserved and enhanced when concerned citizens take action locally to protect and conserve the heritage and natural resources of our rural community.

  ã “A Sense of Place in Marshfield”, researched and written by John P. Johnson, President of the Marshfield Historical Society, January 1, 2005.