The Rise of the Village and Downtown Poultney

Poultney is a town that evolved from the frontier into a trading center…a town shaped by farming and quarrying, by tourism and teaching.

More than three-quarters of the buildings in the Downtown Historic District are considered historically intact – they’ve stood through the eras that define this town. And each era brought a new wave of immigrants, who mixed their home culture with the community already here.

The Poultney Turnpike

Poultney Village’s growth began as a function of geography. Its location was a strategic halfway point in the two-day journey between Burlington to the north and the Hudson River near Albany to the south and proved to be a welcome break in a long journey. As early as 1800, an inn and tavern operated at the crossroads where passengers could rest overnight and stagecoaches would stop to change horses.

Then in 1806 some enterprising investors formed the Poultney Turnpike Company to create a toll road. One hundred man labor parties and ox-drawn ploughs smoothed the rough and twisting trail. At the end of one Fourth of July work party, the townspeople celebrated with a community dinner and 16 toasts – to the “Patriotic Diggers” and to the “Ladies Who Got the Meal.”

By 1811, the new, privately owned Poultney Turnpike (now Route 30) was completed, connecting the town to other turnpikes and toll roads. Until the canals and then the railroads were built, this turnpike was the best route for stagecoaches and wagons, which brought regular mail to the frontier. Local farmers could transport their produce to markets in Albany. Cattle prodders – herding their stock to the markets of Boston — would pause here for the night.

Tollgates soon dotted the Turnpike and while the 10-cent toll was collected from those passing through, locals living within 8 miles had their tolls waived – which raised some controversy, as everyone was soon claiming they lived that close.

Up the slope, there was often a detour over rougher terrain – what was then called a “shun-pike” – that allowed travelers to skip out on the toll.

During this turnpike era, Poultney farmers relied on their cash crops of grain and dairy. One of early settler William Ward’s recorded shipments hauled  “1,714 pounds of cheese and whiskey” to market.

The 10-cent toll was only one cost of shipping, in addition to the cost of the wagon, draft horses, and labor. For instance, when Ward hauled his goods along the turnpikes some eighty miles to the port near Albany, his account books noted that shipping costs accounted for 37 percent of the salt and 23 percent of the whisky.

The cost of maintaining and staffing the turnpikes was not cheap. While the tolls added expense to the many costs of transportation, one toll syndicate only reported an annual profit of $30. In 1823, the completion of the Champlain Canal substantially reduced the profits of the turnpike, and in 1831 it became a public highway.

But the Turnpike had secured Poultney Village’s role as a prosperous transportation center from the 1800s and into the 1840s.

The Two Villages

The two villages – west and east — grew up side-by-side, 2 miles apart. A rivalry between the villages centered on the location of the Post Office for the entire township. East Poultney argued that the post office should be located in the east, where all the churches were. West Poultney countered by hauling limestone by oxcart, at great expense, to build a grand stone Methodist church on a hill, completed in 1822. But the Post Office controversy would not be settled for another 30 years.

Mills and foundries operated up and down the Poultney River, which connected the two villages. Around 1845, industrialist Henry Ruggles built the water-powered machine shop and foundry that he had purchased from Henry Stanley, where the famous Stanley Stoves were fabricated. Ruggles, of course, renamed the business the Ruggles Foundry.

Reacting to the shift in population and prestige, religious congregations in the East village moved to join the Methodists in the West village. In 1866, both the Episcopalians and the Baptists began holding services on alternate Sundays in Poultney village.

Troy Conference Academy (Green Mountain College)

In the 1830s, as the Methodist movement grew, the regional Troy Conference was formed to support more than 60 churches in upstate New York and Vermont. It was the Troy Conference in 1834 that formed the Troy Conference Academy, now known as Green Mountain College.

The college might not have been located in Poultney, though, if it hadn’t been for the foresight of its townspeople. The Conference noted the “beauty, healthfulness, temperance, good order, and freedom from influences baneful to a school, of Poultney.” But the gift of some $6000 from the townspeople clinched the deal.

This new population in town – the students and faculty of Troy Conference Academy – were required to attend Church services daily and twice on Sunday. So the local Methodist society built the United Methodist Church in 1841 as a replacement for the Stone Church to the east in a more central part of the town – which allowed enough time for the students to walk back to the Academy for the mid-day meal and return in time for the second service.

In 1863 the school’s name changed to Ripley Female College, in part due to the lack of male students, who were fighting in what the locals at the time called the War of 1861. The college became an innovator in the women’s educational movement and was the first college in Vermont to graduate a woman.

Today, the college has a curriculum focused on the environmental liberal arts and has become a leader in the sustainability education movement on college campuses.

The Railroad Arrives

Soon after much of Poultney’s toll-road traffic had been taken away by the canal system to the west, two rival railroad syndicates made plans to connect Rutland County to Albany.

Only one of the routes, the “Rutland and Washington Railroad,” planned to run through Poultney. Its proponents included Amos Bliss, the storekeeper and newspaper owner who’d given Horace Greeley his start, the industrialist Henry Stanley, and the banker Merritt Clark. Public opinion was against it, as it was regarded as “visionary.” There was even a rumor that, that to bolster support, the proponents collected signatures from convicts and from soldiers serving in the Mexican War.

The tracks reached Poultney in 1851, at a cost of 1 million dollars, and the arrival of train service cemented the ascendancy of West Poultney over East. People moved west, and so did the businesses, churches, post office, and schools.

By 1857 the shift became official: the West Poultney Post Office was renamed the Poultney Post Office.

In this same year, during the Panic of 1857, the stock prices of the Rutland and Washington Railroad plummeted, and a 21-year-old man named Jay Gould bought up the stock. He inflated its value and sold out in a year, beginning a pattern that would make him one of the richest and most infamous “robber barons” of the era.

A Commercial Center

The first slate quarry in the area opened in 1845. The range of slate colors – black, green, red, even purple — makes our region unique, and our slate a key element to the town’s economic growth.  With the launch of the slate industry, this farming community, populated mostly by New England “Yankees,” was transformed into an industrialized town enriched by a diverse group of immigrants.

To read more about slate in Poultney, click here.

Downtown owed its bustle to the industries and quarries, which in turn depended on local and immigrant workers. Workers from slate quarries in Wales launched the first wave of immigration in 1850. The Welsh were soon joined by subsequent waves of immigrants — skilled quarrymen or miners — from Poland, Austria, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, Italy, Ireland, Hungary and Canada. This immigration continued through the 1890s and into the early 1900s.

Before the “automobile economy,” every town had to provide its own commercial center. Poultney had 5 department stores, dry goods stores, restaurants, stables, and several photographic studios. The downtown served local residents and more than a thousand quarrymen who worked in some 250 quarries in the area.

The advertisements in the paper might tempt you to spend your wages on a range of goods — oysters, potatoes, sirloin and porterhouse steak, silk and brocades. Here you could find the variety and competitive prices unavailable from the company store run by the quarry.

The Gilded Age homes

By the turn of the 20th Century, those who had arrived as immigrants 50 years earlier to work in the slate quarries had been assimilated. By now, they’d built fine homes, and their children and grandchildren were working in the trades and professions.

Throughout downtown Poultney and particularly along Bentley Avenue, are the homes built by Poultney’s “new wealth” in the Gilded Age, from the 1880s to the 1900s.

These so-called “painted ladies,” are typical of the grander Victorian-era homes. Gaudy, colorful, and irregular describe the Queen Anne style, and include decorative qualities and intricate designs — unpredictable window spacing, asymmetrical designs with offset towers, various and ornate colors, and woodwork that features turned columns and geometric patterns made possible in part by the introduction of machine lathes.