Big birthday in store for 10 towns

ADDISON COUNTY — Ten Addison County towns will soon mark an auspicious birthday that will require a lot of candles and the collective breath of many residents to blow out.
The towns of Shoreham, Bridport, Addison, Leicester, Middlebury, New Haven, Cornwall, Panton, Salisbury and Weybridge will this year all commemorate the 250th anniversary of receiving charters from Benning Wentworth, the first royal governor of New Hampshire, in 1761.
The Henry Sheldon Museum of Vermont History and local historical societies are already discussing potential individual and countywide festivities to mark the occasion.
“We are happy to be a clearinghouse for people’s ideas,” said Jan Albers, executive director of the Sheldon Museum, who gathered with other state and local historians in Middlebury last Saturday to begin planning 250th celebration activities.
Some communities have already set aside funds in their town budgets for activities; others are considering more permanent tributes, such as markers. Meanwhile, the town of Addison has already decided to celebrate its 250th in conjunction with the scheduled October opening of the new Champlain Bridge that will once again link the community to Crown Point, N.Y.
Groundwork for the birthday bashes was laid during the early 1760s by Wentworth, whom many historians describe as a colorful yet rapacious man who governed New Hampshire from 1741 to 1767.
Wentworth granted — sold, really — large tracts of what is now Vermont land to speculators during a time when the British crown’s representatives in New York were also claiming rights to grant the property.
The speculators had the land surveyed and then sold lots to settlers who would start building the communities we see today. Wentworth sold the charters with the caveat that the settlers set aside land for churches, schools and key municipal services.
In this fashion, Albers noted, Wentworth granted charters for 129 future Vermont towns between 1749 and 1764. She said 113 of those grants remain towns, including the 10 in Addison County that will mark their 250th birthdays later this year. Monkton, Ferrisburgh and Bristol will celebrate similar birthdays next year, while Whiting and Orwell will touch off their 250 candles in 2013.
All other Addison County towns were chartered after Wentworth’s inglorious departure from office in 1767. Wentworth lost favor with his constituents when he supported the Stamp Act of 1765 and prohibited a legislative delegation from going to New York to protest these new taxes. He was also associated with nepotism, lining his pockets with proceeds from the land grants, and misrepresenting the quality of land to some of the real estate speculators.
In 1790, the soon-to-be state of Vermont paid a settlement of $30,000 to ensure that all of Wentworth’s grants were affirmed, Albers noted. Vermont gained formal statehood the following year.
Some towns already floating celebration ideas include:
• Bridport, a two-day celebration that would coincide with Father’s Day weekend and include dancing, a fair and a barbecue.
• Salisbury, a summertime community gathering to include the display of vintage photos and tours of some of the town’s older homes.
• Shoreham, a special event to coincide with the annual Shoreham Day celebration during Labor Day Weekend.
• New Haven, a special gathering on a date to be determined.
Middlebury will likely organize a special tribute, though details have yet to be fleshed out. The town does not have a formal historical society, Albers noted, as many in Middlebury have considered the Sheldon Museum to serve that function.
“I would love to see the re-establishment of a Middlebury Historical Society,” Albers said. “We want it to be an independent group.”
In the meantime, museum officials hope to organize a 250th charter celebration that would include a walking or driving tour of Middlebury’s earliest places. Albers also hopes to organize community readings of early settler anecdotes compiled by the Vermont historian Abby Hemenway (1828-1890).
“She was the greatest Vermont historian of her generation,” Albers noted.
Anyone with ideas on how to celebrate their town’s 250th birthday can contact their local historical society, or Susan Peden at speden@henrysheldonmuseum.org or Albers at albers@henrysheldonmuseum.org.
Reporter John Flowers is at johnf@addisonindependent.com.

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