Northfield Town History
From 1785 through the 1820s, largely Yankees from Connecticut, Massachusetts, and the older Vermont towns settled Northfield. Next to arrive were the Irish, attracted in the 1840’s by jobs on the railroad. The Welsh arrived after the Irish to work in the slate quarries in the 1850’s and 1860’s. Stonework also brought the next wave. Starting about 1890, Italians, Spaniards, and Scots joined the workforce in the granite sheds. From the 1880’s onward, Canadians of French descent came seeking opportunity, many buying up hill farms abandoned in the decades after the Civil War.
The years from 1785 to 1825 saw the development of Northfield’s four villages. The first settlement was on East Hill (now Mill Hill), close by Elijah Paine’s grist and sawmills. As the population grew, boundaries crept up the hill and northward along Route 12. Clusters of houses became villages, each with its own personality and name: South Village, Center Village, Factory Village, and the Falls.
First to have a distinct identity was South Village, which had numerous small businesses and manufacturing operations through the nineteenth century. Next was Center Village, where the first post office, town clerk’s office, and churches were established, and which for many years was the social and political center of town. After the Center came Factory Village (the present Village of Northfield) named for the woolen mill located there. Last to develop was Northfield Falls, and by the late 1820’s it, too, was a thriving community.
With the arrival of the railroad in the 1840’s, Factory Village and Depot Square increasingly became the hub of local activity. Residents there began to demand lighted streets, sidewalks, fire and police protection, and they then petitioned the legislature to establish a separate Village of Northfield. The Village of Northfield was incorporated November 14, 1855.
Over the next fifty years, village residents voted taxes on themselves for a variety of services. Sidewalks were laid down, the water department was established and the first electric plant was built (both in 1895), and the first sewer lines were laid (1901-1904). Around 1900 the police department was set up, and the two independent fire companies, which existed from the 1860’s, came under village control.
The price of such amenities was high; consequently, as they were increasingly needed outside the village, police, and fire services were taken over by the town. The town and village highway departments were supported by taxes levied separately on the grand lists of the village and town.
Once settlements were established, people turned their attention to making a living. Of necessity, almost everyone was a farmer first, and most lived by barter (goods and services were paid for with other goods and services). Eventually people needed hard cash, and it was this quest for individual and collective economic security that has been the paramount concern in Northfield for two centuries.
Until about 1814, residents made potash on their farms and sent it to mills in America and abroad which used it for everything from finishing wool cloth to making glass. About 1812, as the demand for potash was waning, Elijah Paine built a huge woolen mill on the site of the now closed Cetrangolo Finishing works (which closed in 1999). Paine’s woolen mill employed between 175 and 200 workers and was for years the town’s largest employer.
When wool prices declined in the 1840’s, Elijah Paine’s son Charles came to the rescue. As President of the Vermont Central Railroad, Charles Paine pushed the line from Windsor, Vermont to Burlington, finishing construction on the last day of 1849, and locating the railroad’s headquarters in Northfield. For fifteen years the Vermont Central Railroad meant prestige for Northfield and prosperity for its citizens – hundreds worked for the line.
In 1852, Paine lost control of his railroad. Over the next decade the new owners gradually moved operations to St. Albans. John Gregory Smith, the new president, said he would “make the grass grow in the streets of Northfield.” He very nearly succeeded. The town’s population, one of the largest in Vermont at the time, dropped precipitously and over fifty houses stood vacant. It took 25 years to recover from the loss.
Slate quarrying and finishing, which started early in the nineteenth century, provided some respite. In the 1860’s and 1870’s some two hundred men worked for the slate companies, but by the 1880’s this industry too was in decline.
The next savior was granite. In 1889 investors built a spur line and a small finishing shed on railroad land and arranged to have granite brought down from the Barre quarries. Several more sheds were eventually constructed, and by the outbreak of World War I, over 525 people were employed in the sheds.
Times changed, and by 1954 only the Rock of Ages plant was left, and that too was closed when the head office decided it was too expensive to ship the rough stone here. In 1999 Cetrangolo Finishing Works, founded in 1955, was the last to close. As of August 2000, the Cetrangolo Finishing Works building has been demolished and the site is vacant.
In the end, economic rejuvenation came from what at first might have seemed an unpromising source. Late in 1886, the faculty and student body of Norwich University arrived in town. Their arrival followed acceptance by Norwich trustees of a bid by a group of citizens to have the college relocated here. It is doubtful that anyone seeing the four teachers and fourteen students arrive imagined that the college would become the town’s largest employer.
Beside the large industries, small-scale manufacturing operations and retail businesses of many kinds flourished here in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This diversity was common in Vermont, and Northfield was no exception. Collectively these stores and manufacturers gave employment to many, and economic health to the community for decades.
The Great Depression hastened the end of many businesses. Henry Ford and his competitors made the demise of other businesses certain. Mass production of the automobile and a revived national economy after 1945 put Vermonters on wheels and took them out of town to work and shop. The importance of the automobile as a bringer of change cannot be overstated. In Northfield, as elsewhere, it meant workers no longer had to depend on local businesses for jobs and shopping opportunities; they could drive anywhere employment was available and goods were for sale.
As manufacturing jobs declined, the importance of Norwich University increased. About 1950, Norwich, Rock of Ages, and the Nantanna textile mill each employed approximately 140 people. By 1963, Rock of Ages went out of business. Though the college has seen ups and downs over the past 125 years, its presence has been an economic force for the community and a social and cultural life Northfield probably would not otherwise have seen.
Since World War II, population growth has been slow but steady. The town has seen none of the large-scale tourism that has brought mixed blessings to other Vermont towns. While no large industry has come to town, a number of small businesses have sprung up. Slihtly more than half of the Northfield labor force worked out of town. Over two centuries, Northfield evolved from farming to manufacturing to a mix of small businesses and a college town economy.
McIntire, Julia. (1981 Fall). “History of Northfield.” Central Vermont Views, 3, No. 1, 28-33.
McIntire, J. W., and Cleveland, R.L. (1985). Picture Northfield: A Photographic Study.
The Northfield Town Committee (1974). Green Mountain Heritage: The Chronicle of Northfield, Vermont.
The above text is from the Northfield Municipal Plan.