Franklin County is the land of the Missisquoi River, which drains twelve of its fourteen towns. Beginning in Orleans County, the river enters Richford from Canada and then flows west through a broad valley and into Lake Champlain at Swanton. St. Albans City (population 7,200) is the county seat, and Swanton is the next-largest town, with 6,300 residents. The Town of St. Albans, which surrounds St. Albans City, and Highgate are the next largest with 6,300 and 3,700 residents, respectively.
Several times early in the eighteenth century, the French established a mission at an Abenaki village along the river in Highgate. Permanent European settlement only began after the American Revolution and then mostly near the lake. By 1810 the county had 16,427 residents, and contained several fine wood-frame Federal buildings of the sort most often associated with southern Vermont. St. Albans Bay, with several brick Federal buildings, best represents the lake ports of this period.
Between 1820 and 1840 most of the upland towns between the Missisquoi and Lamoille rivers neared full settlement, boosting county population to 24,000. As in much of Vermont, Franklin farmers raised sheep during these years but by 1850 they had taken the lead in dairying, a ranking the county has retained ever since. Falls on the Missisquoi River in Richford, Enosburgh, Sheldon, Highgate, and Swanton provided mill sites for sawing, flour, and other industries the maturing agricultural society required. Swanton, with the best mill site among the lake towns and the islands, emerged as the industrial center of both Franklin and Grand Isle counties. Today, the village of Highgate Center, with its long narrow green, and such agricultural crossroads as Fairfield, Highgate, Enosburgh, and Berkshire centers retain their original scale and many buildings from the mid-nineteenth century.
The Vermont and Canada Railroad reached St. Albans in 1850, but relocation of the Vermont Central Railroad headquarters from Northfield to St. Albans in 1861, along with the 360 jobs it created, had a much bigger impact. The town's population rose from 1,800 in 1850 to more than 7,000 residents in 1870, and St. Albans became the center of county commerce. Farms, already counting nearly 26,000 milk cows in 1860, continued their prodigious production of milk, maple sugar, and hay, shipping this last to urban markets that needed it to fuel horse-powered conveyances. The importance of the hay crop may account for Franklin County's distinctive bank barns, characterized by eave-side covered bridges into their haymows.
Construction in 1873 of the Missisquoi Valley Railroad and in 1877 of the St. Johnsbury and Lamoille County Railroad transported the abundant farm products and timber resources of the county's interior. Thanks to B. J. Kendall's Spavin Cure, Enosburg Falls became a manufacturing center for horse products. Richford village emerged as a wood-products shipping and furniture manufacturing center, with portable steam-and sawmills harvesting the nearby Green Mountains. Both villages took their present form between 1880 and 1910.
Despite other developments, Swanton remained an agricultural milling and supply center. Between 1896 and the end of World War I, munitions manufacturing provided more than two hundred and fifty new jobs, leading to the construction of many new houses as the village took on its current shape. In 1894 the Missisquoi Pulp and Paper mill began operation in Sheldon Springs, creating a dispersed village with rows of distinct company housing scattered along a triangle of roads near the mill.
St. Albans incorporated as a city in 1896 with some 6,500 residents. As the commercial center of the primary agricultural county in the state, it boasted a four-block downtown of brick multistory commercial buildings between the railroad and Taylor Park. On the east side of the park rose the most impressive row of public buildings in the state, comparable to the green at the University of Vermont, but here composed of churches and the county courthouse. The city chose architect Arthur H. Smith of Rutland to design three Romanesque Revival buildings—the city hall (FR38) and twin grade schools (FR28)—built of the local red rock. Around the same time, city residents joined out-of-state visitors in building summer camps on nearby St. Albans Bay.
After World War I, while St. Albans remained the railroad and commercial center, many villages in the county went into decline. Automobiles rendered the horse-care industry in Enosburgh obsolete, and the munitions plants in Swanton closed. More Vermont farms came to rely on dairying. Populations in valley farm towns like Highgate, Fairfield, and Fairfax changed little, with French Canadian immigrants replacing emigrants. But as was happening elsewhere in the state, the populations of the mountain towns halved between 1890 and 1960. In the 1960s, though, the opening of the Jay Peak ski area pumped in new life and brought new residents. And the completion of I-89 to the Canadian border in 1970 spurred the suburbanization of Georgia, St. Albans, and Swanton, as all came within commuting distance of Burlington and Essex Junction.
Today Franklin County remains the principal agricultural county in the state, while also experiencing the largest population growth outside Chittenden County, due in part to its proximity to this southern neighbor. With three hundred and fifty farms still shipping milk, Franklin County is the leader in dairying, and, usually, in maple production as well. Fairfield and the border towns of Highgate, Franklin, and Berkshire are some of the best places in the state to view working farm landscapes of the twentieth century, including a mix of farmhouses and barns that date from all periods. St. Albans remains the county's center of commerce and employment, and a visit to green and leafy Taylor Park, between its commercial blocks and row of public buildings, is a pleasant journey back to c. 1900. A landscape of farms and farm villages with a thriving small city for its shire, Franklin County is becoming the decisive battleground between twenty-first-century sprawl and the traditional agricultural landscape of Vermont.
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