Grand Isle County is one-quarter the size of most counties in Vermont. It consists of five towns on four islands and the Alburg peninsula in northern Lake Champlain and on the border of Canada. Though the county currently has the fastest-growing population in the state, Grand Isle's residents still only number 6,230. They are evenly scattered through the towns connected by U.S. 2, which crosses the lake via the Sand Bar Bridge into South Hero and runs north to Alburg, where it crosses to New York State. The ferry between Grand Isle and New York State, which began operating in 1796, departs from the west side of the island, and VT 78 crosses from Swanton to Alburg. North Hero is the county shire but it looks no different from the small village centers on each of the other islands, set in a landscape dominated by farms, lakeshore seasonal camps, and recently built year-round houses.
Native Americans occupied and farmed the islands until the seventeenth century when Algonquian–Iroquois and then French–British struggles made that untenable. In 1665 Captain La Motte established Fort Ste. Anne for France on the island that now bears his name. Though it only lasted a few years, it was the first European settlement in what would become Vermont. In 1802 the county was organized in its present form with its towns originally named for, and largely owned by, “the two heroes,” Samuel Herrick and Ethan Allen. Ethan's brother Ira Allen also figured into the naming: Alburg is short for Allenburgh. Incidents with British border troops in the 1790s and the War of 1812 kept the county at the center of international relations, but this did not retard full agricultural settlement as the county reached 3,445 residents in 1810. By 1840, though Grand Isle had added only 400 more residents, three hundred county farms outproduced all those in Essex or Lamoille counties. These isolated early years, when farms and ferries dominated county life, produced architecture unique in the state. Log building continued here much longer than elsewhere in the state, much as in the interior of Ontario to the north. At the same time, with plentiful and accessible quarries, cut-stone masonry reached a degree of sophistication and use unparalleled in Vermont during this period. By the mid-nineteenth century a pattern of curving north–south shore roads, straight east–west roads, and farms organized in long lakefront lots was established.
The county largely lost its isolation during the second half of the nineteenth century. The first bridge from South Hero to Milton was erected in 1850 and, in 1886, North Hero and Alburg were bridged. In 1897 the Canada and Atlantic Railroad established a depot in East Alburg on its way to Swan-ton, and in 1900 the Rutland Railroad Island Line crossed from Colchester to South Hero and ran north through Alburg to cross to New York State. County farms remained small but continued successful diversified agriculture, producing hay, corn, root crops, cattle, wool, and milk. Unlike the types of massive bank barns that developed elsewhere in the state, Grand Isle County barns remained smaller ground-stable designs, influenced by the level topography, smaller farm size, and the earlier physical isolation of the islands. Many were simply based on additions to an English barn, often with a number of smaller outbuildings joined to it. With rail access, the lakeshore began to attract sportsmen, summer visitors, and seasonal residents. Lake hotels and colonies of fishing camps and cottages gradually populated the island coastlines.
During most of the twentieth century, the county continued much as before, though farmers relied increasingly on dairying and many sold small lakeshore lots for use as summer camps to make additional income. By the early 1950s cars and trucks along U.S. 2 replaced the rail lines for bringing seasonal visitors here and shipping milk out. Village stores added gas pumps and enterprising landowners added tourist cabins to serve travelers. As in most Vermont farm areas, the bulk tank requirements for shipping milk enacted in the mid-1950s, along with more recent economic pressures in the industry, have led many farmers to stop dairying. The number of county farms dropped from 345 to 225 between 1950 and 1960, and today stands at about 100. At the same time, conversion of seasonal camps to year-round occupation and construction of large lakeshore houses has greatly increased, particularly in “the Heroes,” which are considered within commuting distance of Burlington and Essex. Although some Grand Isle residents are distressed about how “busy” U.S. 2 has become, visitors to the county still find a landscape of lakeshore and farms and a pace of life markedly slower than that in the interstate corridors of Franklin and Chittenden counties.
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