Brief History of Vershire
On August 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 settler.
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
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 and horses.
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.
One hundred and thirteen (113)
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 grievances. 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.
Vershire 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
horse craft. 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.
The 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 Pulitzer 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.
One of our Vershire researchers commented: "Your brief
history of Vershire where I grew up is very interesting, you might
want to note that the church which is presently located in Vershire
Ctr. was manually moved from So. Vershire Rd, So. Vershire VT leaving behind
a very old cemetery that may be of interest to future genealogists
and gravestone preservationists. It would be a shame to have these
grave sites lost to history. There is also a REALLY old unkempt cemetery
located above the Ely Copper mines that is suppose to contain victims
of the black plague. True or False? Who knows?"