In 1790, when the United States government established its first census, it recorded forty-four persons (fifteen adults and twenty-nine children) living in the tiny and isolated Town of Northfield. Amos Robinson, the first to arrive, was a proprietor of the town chartered in 1781, and was actually the only original proprietor to make his home here.
Elijah Paine, son of an influential family, Harvard graduate, Revolutionary soldier, lawyer, friend of George Washington and a proprietor of Northfield and nearby Williamstown, had cleared land on Northfield's Mill Hill. He built a grist and saw mill which soon became the center of business and social activity for the settlement.
On March 12, 1794, the first town meeting was held at Dr. Nathaniel Robinson's home on East Hill. As more settlers came to town, they abandoned the hilltops and built their homes westward down Mill Hill, until by the early 19th century, a small hamlet (today's South Village) had grown up along Sunny Brook and the Dog River. The village, known as Slab City because of the saw mills established there, also contained potash and grist mills.
In 1799 Elijah Paine built the famous Paine Turnpike which ran from Brookfield, through northern Northfield, to Montpelier, opening up trade and travel on this Boston-Montreal route.
By the 1840s the settlement had crept northward from South Village to land along the Dog River, known then and now as the Center. What is today's "downtown" was originally a heavily forested swampy area. In the early 1800s Elijah Paine acquired this land, cleared it, built a dam on the Dog River and erected a woolen mill. The last to be settled was the "Falls," north of Factory Village, which was, and still is, a small closely knit settlement.
In 1848 these four small villages began to flourish, thanks to their leading citizen, Charles Paine. Like his father Elijah, Charles was well educated, shrewd and personable. He was governor of Vermont from 1841 to 1843, and in 1845 became president of the newly chartered Vermont Central Railroad. He built the headquarters in Northfield, much to the disappointment of Barre and Montpelier. In its extensive yard, the railroad built and repaired engines and cars. The many Irish who poured into town to work on the railroad became permanent residents.
In 1853 the Vermont Central Railroad went into bankruptcy due to over expansion and, in some cases, mismanagement, and bit by bit hard times came to Northfield. The railroad, placed under receivership and renamed the Central Vermont Railroad, had its headquarters moved to St. Albans.
In the 1870s, the slate industry, although short-lived, eased Northfield's economic depression. Welsh workmen, skilled in cutting and splitting slate, arrived in town and contributed to its development.
The granite industry, particularly under the business acumen of five Cross brothers, brought new life to the town in the 1890s and early 1900s. Their stone sheds, plus those of the Ellis Company, the Pelaggi Company, Phillips & Slack Inc., and others, employed hundreds of workers, many of them newly arrived Italians, Spaniards and Scots. Gradually the Northfield granite industry drifted to the great granite center in nearby Barre.
By the 1950s and 1960s, other industry rejuvenated Northfield. The old Nantanna Mill under Bernard Goldfine's ownership produced fine woolen goods. The Rabbit hollow Knitting Mill; the Wood Products Co.; the Northfield Telephone Co. and its later outgrowth, Trans-Video Cable Television; Cetrangolo's granite finishing works; and a new shopping center brought much-needed employment.
The largest industry in town is unquestionably Norwich University which was started in 1869 and remained a small college for several decades. This venerable military university employs hundreds of people, adds property support to the town, and spends millions of dollars each year in supplies and services in Central Vermont. In 1950, Major General Ernest Harmon became President of Norwich where he spent fifteen years and brought enrollment from 300 cadets to well over 1,300.
In spite of many changes, Northfield still retains many characteristics of its old-time four villages - the South Village with its Red Mill; the Center, home of Norwich University; Northfield Village, the business center of the town; and Northfield Falls, once called Gouldsville in honor of Gould Mill, now a small community.
This is a condensed version of the article appearing in Central Vermont Magazine Winter 1981 issue. For information on where to locate these magazines contact the chamber at 229-5711.
Thanks are extended to Earline Marsh, Alan Noyes, Elizabeth Ralph, Sally Finn and Jack Belding for their time selecting and editing Central Vermont Magazine articles for publication on the Web.
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