A Brief History of Chester, Vermont

Located around the confluences of three branches of the Williams River, the area that is now Chester, Vermont offered Native American and later English settlers an oasis of fertile farmland in the midst of the rugged terrain of Northern New England. Archeological evidence shows that Native Americans have occupied northern New England for at least 10,000 years. 
The native Americans at the time of European settlement of new England called themselves the Sokoki, an Abenaki term meaning "those who were separated." The Abenaki were a loosly associated, linguistically similar group of Native Americans who dwelt across what is now Northern new England. Unlike the Iroquois to the west of them the Abenaki had very little political structure between communities.
The Sokoki were separated by the Connecticut river and New Hampshire's rugged White Mountains. There is no evidence either way whether the Abenaki were descendants of the original settlers of the area ten millennia ago. They relied on agriculture, growing mostly beans, corn and  squash. For this reason Abenaki villages tended to be located on the fertile floodplains of rivers. Chester is one such floodplain, therefore a likely Abenaki settlement area. Like other woodland native Americans, the Abenaki supplemented their agriculture by hunting, fishing, and the gathering of wild fruits and grains. 

 

For most of the year, the Abenaki lived in scattered bands of extended families, each of which used separate hunting territories inherited through the father. Unlike the Iroquois, the Abenaki (and most New England Algonquin) were patrilineal. 
In spring and summer, related bands would gather near rivers or the seacoast, for planting and fishing. These summer villages were fortified as necessitated by any warfare in the area. Compared with Iroquois settlements, most Abenaki villages were fairly small, averaging about 100 persons, but there were exceptions. The western Abenaki in what is now called Vermont tended to have larger settlements. 
The most popular Abenaki dwelling was the dome-shaped, bark-covered wigwam during the warmer months. In winter the Abenaki separated into smaller groups and lived in sturdier, more energy efficient, but crowded conical, bark-covered wigwams reminiscent of the buffalo-hide tepee of the plains.
European settlers brought with them new diseases, such as smallpox for which the Abenaki, like other native Americans had little or no natural immunity. Within a century of the voyage of Sebastian Cabot in 1497, the Abenaki had lost over half of their population to small pox, influenza, measles, diptheria and several unidentified epidemics that may or may not be European imports. in the next century they would lose a further half of the surviving population.
Disease was only the beginning of the toll European settlement would have on the Abenaki's. French exploration led to tthe discovery not of the fabled rich and powerful native kingdom of Norumbega, but of the abundance of furs, coveted by Europe's aristocracy and growing middle class.
The fur trade with the French in the sixteent,  seventeenth and eighteenth centuries led to bloody conflicts between various Ananaki groups and their neighbors, both Native and European. The discover of even more abundant , and easily accessed furs in the St. Laurence Valley, and the outcome of several armend conflictws with the English caused the French to abandon their settlements in New England.
By the 1750's the Sokoki had either died of disease or war or were displaced by European settlers and hostile Native American groups allied with Europeans. For an in-depth retelling of the fate of the  Abanaki please click here
What we now call Chester was chartered in 1761 by the Governor of New Hampshire, under the name "New Flamstead." The first wave of farmers arrived in 1764 and chartered the settlement. In 1766 the town's name was changed to Chester. The town of Chester and the rest of Vermont was forward thinking and adopted its own Declaration of Independence in November 1774 -- twenty months before the Continental Congress in Philadelphia.
Vermonters fought unexpectedly well during the American Revolution. The Green Mountain Boys caused General Johhny Burgoynne's Hessian expedition under Lt. Col. Baum, sent to collect stored arms, pacify the area, and recruit Tories, to virtually disappear from the face of the earth during the battle of Bennington. At Bennington, the British lost 200 dead and 700 captured in the battle compared to only 70 total American casualties.  Shortly thereafter, at Saratoga, the British were forced to surrender to the Colonials.  Bennington was the first indication that Burgoyne was in deep trouble, and his surrender two months later made American independence possible. Thus a small group of Vermonters set the stage for one of the major turning points in human history.
Having caught the spirit of independence, Vermonters  demanded statehood of their own.  At the time the area was a territorial dispute between New Hampshire or New York. Vermonter's settled the dispute by declaring and then maintaining an independent republic until 1789. That republic's constitution is still in effect and is the oldest such constitution in the world.
stoneschool.jpg (335511 bytes) One thing that sets Chester apart from other places is its "Stone Village",  consisting of 10 buildings, including a church, former schoolhouse, and several private residences. Built in the 1830's and 1840's by itinerant masons with stone from the nearby hills, these buildings are beautiful example of 'snecked ashlar' or glimmer stone veneer sheathed rubblestone masonry. Ten out of the original ten stone buildings originally built on North Street are still occupied and in beautiful condition.  There are dozens of additional examples of these stone houses in and around Chester.                                    
In the middle of the nineteenth century the railroad linking Boston and Burlington came to town, and Chester became a transportation hub for surrounding area. As in other areas the railroad brought with it  a new prosperity, which is still evident. All you have to do is walk or drive through town and you will see many fine examples of various styles of elegantly adorned Victorian homes. These late-19th century homes and buildings on Main Street are now part of a historic district in the National Register of Historic Places, while the older stone houses along North Street comprise the unique "Stone Village."
In the middle of the 1800's the town set up the Town Farm on what is now Vt. Rte. 10 on the edge of the township, midway between Chester, Ludlow, and Springfield. In the nineteenth and well into the twentieth century, the Town Farm served many different functions. It was a working farm that offered property owners in economic hard times an alternative way to pay their air share of the town's tax burden. Itinerant or migrant people could always find work, bed and board at the farm. And the farm served as an alternative to incarceration for petty offenders. Today, the Town Farm is sadly no longer a working farm, like so many other Vermont farms the bulk of the land having been sold off by short sighted former owners.
By the middle of the twentieth century, the industrial revolution had taken over most of the north eastern United States. As the the twentieth century opened, turmoil in Europe plunged the world into war, local factories and shops worked around the clock and night to meet wartime demands. Yet even through wartime economic booms and economic depressions, Chester managed to retained the elegance and charm of Victorian village and rural countryside. This ambiance today draws visitors from around the world.
Perhaps what separates Vermont in general, and Chester in particular from the rest of the country is  a sense of community. Chester is more than where people reside, it is where they live, in a community of truly human proportions. With little intrusion by the influences of corporate America. Our schools are excellent with tremendous community involvement and support.  Missing in town are the strip malls and general sprawl that afflict most of the country. People know one another, talk to one another and friendships in Chester span generations.