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by Sen. Bill Doyle
The charter of Waitsfield was granted by the state of Vermont in February 1782 and was signed by our fist governor, Thomas Chittenden, during the time when Vermont was an independent republic. Nine years later, Vermont became the first state to join the union. The grant included the following public uses: a college within the state, a grammar school, the first settled minister, the support of the ministry and support of a school. Under the charter, each proprietor was required to cultivate five acres of land and build a house 18 feet square. Failure to do this would mean the land would revert back to the state.
From 1782 to 1810, Waitsfield was located in Chittenden County. From 1810 to 1814, by act of the legislature, it was transferred to Jefferson County. In 1814, Vermonters were so upset by the adverse economic impact of President Jefferson’s Embargo and the War of 1812 that the name was changed to Washington County.
The town was named for Benjamin Wait, who at one time owned half the town of Waitsfield. Wait served in the French and Indian War under General Jeffery Amhurst. He was taken captive by the French and was later involved in the capture of Lewisburg. In 1767, he settled in Windsor, Vermont and in 1775, was with Ethan Allen when Fort Ticonderoga was captured. In 1782 he moved to Waitsfield when it received its charter from the state. He was in his 50s when he fought in the Revolutionary War and became a general. Wait played an active role in town affairs for over three decades. He lived until the age of 85 and is buried in the cemetery very close to where he built his first home. The home was bought by Ervin Joslin in 1900. In 1995, Waitsfield bought the home, which was subsequently restored.
Eleven of the thirteen settlers of Waitsfield were minutemen at Lexington and Concord. In 1802, Waitsfield had 201 students in four school districts. Twenty years later, Waitsfield had 316 pupils in seven school districts. For the next several decades, the number of pupils declined because thousands of acres in Waitsfield were transferred to Northfield. In 1870, the legislature passed a law which enabled towns to abolish the school districts and bring all the schools under the supervision of the town. In 1871, Waitsfield vowed to adopt the town system of schools. Twenty years later, the Vermont General Assembly mandated the town system.
During its history, Waitsfield was overrun by many floods. In July 1830, “the rivers overflowed the whole valley, sweeping away every bridge in town and doing incalculable damage to the crops, and not a little to the mills.” Floods of this nature occurred in July 1850, in July 1858, October 1869, and again in 1998 and 2011.
The people of Waitsfield were very much opposed to the institution of slavery and opposed the admission of any state that supported slavery. On August 7, 1837, many residents of Waitsfield passed a resolution opposing the annexation of Texas from the United States and asking that the Congressional delegation oppose every attempt to annex Texas from the United States. The families in attendance on August 7 included members of the Bragg, Jones and Joslin families.
In the early days, many freight trips were run from Waitsfield to Boston by horse teams. Some citizens wanted to build a railroad through the Mad River Valley, but the idea was turned down because of lack of finances.
Waitsfield can be very proud of its military record through the years. Thirty-two soldiers from Waitsfield fought in the American Revolution. Many of them were friends of General Wait, who was the town’s first selectman and the town’s first representative to the Vermont Legislature. During the War of 1812, a local militia was organized, but the War of 1812 was not very popular in Waitsfield or in New England. During the Civil War, one tenth of the Waitsfield population served. During World War I, 39 residents served. In World War II, 91 served. In the Korean War, 28 served. And in Vietnam, 53 served.
On August 9, 1989, Waitsfield celebrated its Bicentennial. Fletcher Joslin, who wrote a brief history of Waitsfield and whose family first settled in 1797, wrote:
“In August of 1989, Waitsfield celebrated its Bicentennial with a parade, and Senator Patrick Leahy as the speaker of the day, a restoration concert at the Round Barn, a commemoration service at the Federation Church, a house and garden tour and exhibit on the Town’s history at the Valley Players theater, which drew over 600 visitors. New granite post and link fences were installed at the Irasville Cemetery and the Congregational Cemetery at the top of Mill Hill. Our characteristic New England Congregational Church (home of the Federated Church of Waitsfield) had restored the pew numbers, and a framed legend appears on the back wall of the sanctuary, showing the names of the original pew holders. A Bicentennial souvenir book was printed, and two new signs at the entrances to the Village were installed.
As this area continues to grow, may we always be mindful of the proud tradition of our heritage and the quality of life we enjoy here. 1989 marked the memorable occasion of Waitsfield’s Bicentennial celebration. From one Grand Old Lady to another, Happy Birthday Vermont!”
Prominent leaders who were born in Waitsfield include: Henry Rice, Senator from Minnesota; Charles Waterman, Senator from Colorado; Edmond Rice, a railroad president, mayor of St. Paul and Congressman from Minnesota; Boswell Hoar, Congressman from Michigan, and Matt B. Jones, President of the New England Telegraph and Telephone Company.
Senator Bill Doyle serves on the Senate Education Committee and Senate Economic Affairs Committee, and is the Senate Minority Leader. He teaches government history at Johnson State College. He can be reached at 186 Murray Road, Montpelier, VT 05602; e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org; or call 223-2851.
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