With a western Green Mountain boundary crowned by the distinctive point of Jay Peak, Orleans County looks toward Canada, as the Black, Willoughby, Clyde, and Barton rivers flow north into Lake Memphremagog, shared with Quebec. Where the rivers join the lake is the City of Newport, the county shire. With neighboring Derby, it forms the county's largest population center with 9,000 residents. Outside the larger villages, the seventeen towns of the county have some 14,000 residents in small village centers and on farms amid forests and brilliant, deep lakes.
Following the route of the 1779 Bayley-Hazen Military Road, the earliest settlers made their way to Greensboro and Craftsbury after the Revolution. Although organized in 1792, by 1800 the county had only 1,479 residents. In 1812, the county shire moved from the half shires of Craftsbury and Brownington to Irasburg. Agricultural settlement slowly progressed and by 1850 the population numbered more than 15,000 residents. The landmarks of these early years are a scattering of Cape, Georgian, and Classic Cottage farmhouses, mostly in a Greek Revival vernacular, and the villages of Craftsbury, Irasburg, Burke, and Brownington Center.
The Connecticut and Passumpsic Rivers Railroad reached Barton in 1859, Newport in 1863, and Derby in 1867, and the Missisquoi and Clyde Rivers Railroad connected Newport and North Troy with Richford and Swanton in 1873. Newport village, which had only eleven buildings in 1854, grew to 1,730 residents in 1890, including many French Canadian immigrants working in this busy lumber manufacturing and lake shipping center, which became the county shire in 1886. As the Green Mountains and eastern towns yielded their forests to portable sawmills, North Troy village, with 793 residents in 1890, became a wood-products manufacturing village, as did Barton and Orleans villages. Derby Line thrived as an overland port of entry and commercial center that also included a buggy whip factory. The town's population reached a peak of more than 3,600 residents in 1900. Turn-of-the-twentieth-century Newport produced a number of architecturally distinguished civic buildings by prominent architects, and each manufacturing village has mansard-roofed houses, late-nineteenth-century vernacular housing stock, notable wood-frame commercial blocks, and perhaps a unique civic landmark, typified by the Haskell Free Library and Opera House (OL6) in Derby Line.
Outside the industrial villages, agricultural settlement reached maturity slowly, quite a bit later than much of the state. In 1870 county farms still harvested mostly wheat and staples for local consumption. Between 1880 and 1910, however, they became preeminent in Vermont dairying, with more than 15 million pounds of fluid milk coaxed from 27,000 cows on 2,800 farms. Large dairy bank barns with elaborate cupolas and a number of round barns are perched atop the rolling hills or rest along a river and provide tangible evidence of Orleans's rise to dairy prominence. The county's lakes also began attracting visitors from urban areas, who built vernacular fishing camps and more elaborate seasonal homes along the shorelines of the larger lakes.
Prohibition (1919–1933) and attendant smuggling play a significant role in the local lore of Newport and the border towns, but the county as a whole was supported by a vibrant mix of dairying, lumbering, manufacturing, and commerce. Newport received its city charter in 1917, counting almost 5,000 residents, and it continued to prosper as the county's center of population, government, commerce, and lumber products. Orleans with a furniture factory and Barton with a gristmill, chair factory, and shirt factory both reached populations of more than 1,100 residents and flourished with many new buildings. The county farmers who patronized these commercial centers remained state leaders in dairy production and erected many of the long ground-stable dairy barns then promoted as efficient and sanitary. Seasonal residents attracted to the county's many deepwater lakes supplemented the local tax base and the economy of many towns.
In the latter half of the twentieth century, Newport City suffered the demise of its lake and lumber trade and most of its manufacturing, although recent public investment has redeveloped its waterfront for public use. Barton village relied upon its mills until the end of rail service in 1958 led to their decline, while the furniture factory in Orleans sustained the area through the end of the twentieth century. In 1978, I-91 was completed from St. Johnsbury to Newport and the Canadian border, and since then in-migration has raised county population to a new high, but outside Derby and Newport the county remains lightly populated. Though the number of farms declined from 2,300 in 1945 to about 570 in 2000, the county remained number three in state agriculture, producing more milk than ever. The farms on the rolling ridges of the county create picturesque vistas, often set against the expansive deep-water lakes scattered in the south and east. This dramatic landscape and the architectural landmarks scattered across it are Orleans County's greatest contribution to Vermont's “Northeast Kingdom.”
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