Organized with twenty-two towns in October 1785, Addison County added the City of Vergennes in 1788 and the town of Orwell, from neighboring Rutland County, in 1847. Today its two dozen towns are home to 35,000 residents scattered primarily in the Champlain Valley between the Green Mountains and Lake Champlain. Middlebury village, centrally located on Otter Creek, which flows north to the lake, is the county seat and principal population center with about 8,000 inhabitants.
Military operations dominated early settlement in the county. In 1690 the English built a stone hut at a strategic narrows of Lake Champlain (now Chimney Point). The French built Fort St. Frederic on the New York side of the narrows in 1731, and made land grants on both sides of the lake, where farmers soon settled. In 1759 the British captured the area and soon began building the Crown Point Military Road as an overland supply route from Charlestown, New Hampshire. At the start of the American Revolution in 1775, the Colonials established Fort Mount Independence in Orwell, across the lake from Fort Ticonderoga, and in 1776 more than 10,000 soldiers encamped at what is now Mount Independence State Historic Site. Although by the time of the Revolution many new settlers occupied farms along the lakeshore and Otter Creek, most were abandoned and destroyed after the fall of the forts in 1777.
At the war's conclusion in 1783, Lake Champlain and Otter Creek became highways of settlement. By 1791 there were 6,996 county residents, and such lake landings as Chipman's Point and Larrabee's Point and the inland port of Vergennes prospered as commercial centers. After the legislature selected Middlebury as the permanent seat of Addison County in 1792, this mill village began to grow. In 1800 its prominent citizens gained a charter to found Middlebury College. Although many of the county's residents, particularly in the mill villages, most likely had frame dwellings and barns by this date, few eighteenth-century buildings remain.
As the county reached full agricultural settlement, industrial development commenced, including marble quarrying in Middlebury and the Monkton Iron Works in Vergennes. When the Champlain Branch of the Erie Canal connected the lake with Albany and New York City in 1823, increased maritime commerce renewed the importance of the lake landings and the City of Vergennes. With the introduction of national tariffs on manufactured goods, particularly woolens, in 1824 and 1828, the county entered an “age of the golden fleece,” with more Merino sheep per acre than anywhere else in the United States. Architecturally, the first half of the nineteenth century produced outstanding Federal buildings, especially in Middlebury, followed by notable Greek and Gothic Revival farmhouses and churches throughout the county. The majority of the county's farmhouses and barns date from this period.
The Rutland and Burlington Railroad arrived in Middlebury and Vergennes in 1849, a branch from Leicester to Shoreham and across Lake Champlain was built in 1872, and a spur from New Haven Junction to Bristol was completed in 1892. Downtown Middlebury, and Vergennes to a lesser degree, boomed with commercial development. As great swaths of the mountain forests became profitable to harvest, Bristol's casket factories and new rail depot made the town a portal and market for much Addison County timber, and wood-products mills thrived in Middlebury and Vergennes. Agriculture, however, remained central to the state's economy, and Addison farmers generally raised breeding stock, increased their emphasis on dairying, added larger barns, and in the 1890s some began orcharding and building apple barns, bee houses, and other specialized structures. Although overall county population declined to about 22,000 by the end of the nineteenth century, the vigor of Addison County's commerce is evident in the eclectic commercial and domestic work of architect-builders such as Clinton G. Smith of Middlebury and Falardo and LeBoeuf in Vergennes.
In the early twentieth century, summer recreation, which began after the Civil War on Lake Dunmore and Lake Champlain, became an important part of the local economy. This period saw the construction of many light wood-frame lakeside camps, some considerably rustic in character. Hydroelectric power was developed on Otter Creek and the Leicester River, and marble quarrying and milling revived in New Haven and Middlebury. Apart from apple cultivation, most farmers relied increasingly on dairying. The advent of the automobile had few immediate architectural effects in the county; dairy barns outnumbered gas stations and car dealerships. In the villages, new building was confined to libraries and schools and a street or two of new homes in Middlebury and Bristol. During the Great Depression, the marble industry shut down, commerce declined, and the county population reached a low of 17,900.
The second half of the twentieth century witnessed a doubling of the county population, mostly since 1970. Middlebury College, the county court, and Porter Hospital sustain Middlebury village. The northern towns adjacent to Chittenden County developed into a rural suburb as large-lot subdivisions occupied former farms; Vergennes is even considered to be a nice place “outside of Burlington,” thirty miles to the north. Despite an auto-oriented commercial strip that has developed south of Middlebury, Addison County remains a late-nineteenth-century landscape of village centers amid farms. All three principal villages, Middlebury, Bristol, and Vergennes, retain their historic commercial centers and residential neighborhoods, and most of the smaller villages off U.S. 7 appear much as they did at the turn of the nineteenth century. The lake towns along VT 22A in the Champlain Valley are especially evocative of that era, as they retain many working farms with well-preserved houses and barns and the small central villages of their original town plans.
If SAH Archipedia has been useful to you, please consider supporting it.
SAH Archipedia tells the story of the United States through its buildings, landscapes, and cities. This freely available resource empowers the public with authoritative knowledge that deepens their understanding and appreciation of the built environment. But the Society of Architectural Historians, which created SAH Archipedia with University of Virginia Press, needs your support to maintain the high-caliber research, writing, photography, cartography, editing, design, and programming that make SAH Archipedia a trusted online resource available to all who value the history of place, heritage tourism, and learning.