A BRIEF HISTORY OF
3, 1781, Vermont granted the 21,961 acres that were to become Vershire to Capt.
Abner Seelye and 64 others. This is rather late in Vermont history, just ten
years before the Republic of Vermont merged with its larger neighbor to the
South. One Lenox Titus had settled in the town in 1779 as its first permanent
The town was originally named Malden, but quickly became
Vershire as an amalgam of Vermont and New HampSHIRE, being as the town offers
the first views of the latter when coming from the west. In the 1791 census,
there were 439 people (nine more than in 1980). The town center was located
where the Mountain School is now found, which is why this is Vershire Center
Road. This was a typical placement in the late eighteenth century, when it was
much easier to make roads along ridge lines than in valleys. The population
centers did not descend to the valleys until communication lines (railroads and
roads) were complete. A congregational church was built there in 1802 and
Maltby's Tavern served the area.
Trees were felled to clear the land and
provided lumber, fuel, and were used to make potash, a valuable export as
fertilizer to England. The principal crops were corn, wheat, oats, barley, flax,
buckwheat, and potatoes. Plowing power and transportation was supplied by oxen
Along the major watercourses, mills were set up from grinding
the grain crops and sawing lumber. One such mill was located just down the hill
where Eastman's Cross Road meets
South Vershire Road. Vershire seems to have
been fairly typical of Vermont in its population patterns. It grew to 1311 in
the 1810 census, but dropped for the next twenty years as the opening of the
Erie Canal opened the prime agricultural lands of the Midwest. The sheep boom
seems to have kept down emigration in 1840, when the population shot up to 1998.
But by 1860, Vershire was down to just over a thousand inhabitants.
Vershire men, over ten percent of the population, fought in the Civil War and 13
lost their lives. The twenty years after the war brought the copper boom. The
Vermont Copper Mining Company opened in 1854, with ownership by New York
speculators, including Smith Ely. The first manager was Thomas Pollard, a
38-year-old Cornish miner, who had immigrated in 1842 and worked mines in
Pennsylvania and other states. The Vershire mine, located on Copper Fields Road,
which leads down from here to West Fairlee, became a significant operation
during and after the Civil War. It was mined primarily by Cornish and Irish
immigrants, who had previously worked British mines.
After the war,
Smith Ely took control of the company and moved to West Fairlee to direct the
mine. The operation continued to grow until it was the largest copper mine in
the country, reaching a peak employment of 851 workers in November 1881, of whom
205 were Cornish, with Ireland, Germany, France, Armenia, Italy, and Canada also
supplying miners. Miners included children as young as 10.
More than 100
buildings were erected in the village that sprang up around the mine. There was
a tailor, a photography studio, confectionary, meat market, livery stable,
doctor's office, barber, millenary shop, library, and blacksmith. There were
also Catholic and Methodist churches.
But the fumes and slag that
resulted from the operation devastated the local environment. The ore was mined
from adits that went deep into the mountains. It was roasted for 2-3 months in
beds, giving off sulfur fumes, and was then taken to the smelters, huge furnaces
lined with brick. A chimney flue ran up the side of the hill to take away the
worst of the smelter emissions, but not far away. A contemporary description
says that "the country around the village is ... completely destitute of
vegetation....For some distance around, all vegetable growth is sparse and
stunted. And pervading everything is a most beastly odor from the roasting
beds." (To this day, a century after the mine was closed, nothing grows around
the smelter site.)
In 1876, Smith Ely's grandson, Ely Goddard, took over
the operation, changing his surname to Ely- Goddard in honor of his patron. Ely
Ely-Goddard built a mansion called Elysium in the mining village, wore fancy
clothing, and invited friends from New York, Paris, and Newport to parties,
picnics, dinners, and dances. A private theatre put on shows and orchestra were
imported form the cities. (The mansion was later moved to overlook Lake Fairlee
and now can easily be seen from VT 244.)
The Elys also became a political
force in Vermont. Goddard was elected to the House of Representatives in 1878
and 1880 and the company lawyer, Roswell Farnum, became Governor in 1880. In
1878, the citizens of Vershire voted to change the town name to Ely, a vote
reversed four years later. But Ely Depot, where the copper was loaded onto
trains after the drive down from the mine, has retained the name. It is located
at the intersection of VT 144 and US 5.
Meanwhile, the company was
struggling. In 1881, Smith Ely sold his shares in the mine to Goddard and
Francis Cazin, a German engineer. They poured money into the operation, but it
did not regain its profitability. Goddard fired Cazin, who then sued the
company. By 1883, lawsuits, poor investments, and the falling price of copper as
western mines opened brought the company to a crisis. On June 29, 1883, the day
before pay day, the directors posted a sign that the mine would be closed unless
the miners would take a pay cut. The men, who had gone two months without pay,
revolted in what is called the Ely War. They went on strike, raided the company
store, and marched on Smith Ely's home in West Fairlee, chanting "Bread or
Blood!" Ely met with the workers, blamed the mess on Cazin, and promised they
would be paid. The miners, doubting this, seized the company gunpowder and
stated that they would destroy all company property if pay were not forthcoming.
Acting on the request of the Sheriff, the Governor called out the
National Guard, sending 184 soldiers into town at dawn on Saturday July 6th.
Expecting to meet an unruly mob, they found instead a quiet village, whose
awakening inhabitants soon told of their greivances. The soldiers, disturbed by
what had happened, gave their food to the miners and their families and marched
back to the train.
This was the most important instance of labor unrest
in Vermont history. The workers, naturally, received almost nothing. The company
was declared bankrupt and was sold at auction in 1888. The Cornish Methodist
church was moved first to South Vershire and, in 1978, to Vershire Village,
where it is now the community center and symbol of the town. The Catholic church
became a laundry in West Fairlee.
Following the collapse, the mine
changed hands many times and there were attempts to reopen it, to no avail. It
is now owned by a British pension fund, which has offered to donate it to the
state, which has refused the "gift." The mine is a Superfund site under the EPA,
which tries to prevent it from contaminating Copper Creek and the groundwater
that reaches into West Fairlee.
With the closure of the mine, Vershire
shortly lost two-thirds of its population. Its soil was played out, the mine was
closed, and it was far from transportation corridors. By 1920, it held fewer
people than it had in 1791 and the numbers continued to drop until only there
were only 236 inhabitants in 1960.
Since 1960, Vershire has grown slowly,
to 560 people in the 1990 census. It is now the smallest town in Orange County,
having wrested that title from West Fairlee in recent years.
Center has been transformed into the Mountain School, a project of the Lawrence
School and the Milton Academy, joined by many other preparatory schools across
the nation. It teaches young rich kids about sustainable agriculture and rural
life. There was, for a time, another school, the Vershire School, which
reportedly taught sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll at Vershire Heights. Taking that
School's property has been the Vershire Riding School, a summer camp focused on
horsecraft. The only other commercial establishments in the town are Ward's
Garage in the Heights and a part-time chain saw store on VT113. Snowfields Farm
has offered a wide variety of apples from the orchard on Moody Hill Road, but
Phil Johnson has indicated to me that he and Carol will not renew their lease,
so the future of the orchard is now in question.
Vershire has one active
church, the fundamentalist Vershire Bible Church. The Vershire Elementary School
takes children through the sixth grade, after which they have a wide range of
options from schools in surrounding communities. There is a post office and a
town office. All of those establishments are in Vershire Village.
only active farms in Vershire seem to be the dairy farms of Roland & Rita
French on South Vershire Road and Charlie Orr on Brown Road, a horse farm on
Taylor Valley Road, and maybe one on Eagle Hollow Road.
Beyond that, the
only employment in Vershire is in lumbering and a variety of cottage industries,
including weaving, writing, and such like. Vershire received publicity in the
mid-nineties when North Road resident Annie Proulx won the Pullitzer Prize for
her novel, The Shipping News, which remained on the best-seller list for about a
year. Flush with money, however, Proulx moved to Wyoming.