The first settled village in the oldest township in Orleans County, Craftsbury Common is one of the most beautiful villages in Vermont. The forces that created it were not untypical. Strategically located on the Revolutionary-era Bayley-Hazen Military Road, the township was chartered in 1781 and named for Ebenezer Crafts from Sturbridge, Massachusetts. Crafts and his associates divided the typical six-mile-square tract into one hundred and forty-four lots. They reserved two lots for churches, six for schools, and one for a meetinghouse and common, which became the focal point for the settlement formed in 1791. As occurred in many towns, commercial activity soon moved away from the hill village to a more strategic location near the major mills at Craftsbury village (1818), Mill Village (1820s), and East Craftsbury (1820s). Unlike many of its counterparts elsewhere, however, the common was never abandoned as a community center and remains a rare and lovely survivor.
On a gentle ridge with views in all directions, the common is organized about a large rectangular green cleared of trees in 1797 that provided a focus for the village's life, especially during its period of half-shire status (1799– 1815). Here, the county militia trained, the meetinghouse accommodated county and town purposes, one of the county's two academies was established, and the first shops in the county served the regional agricultural base. Development was facilitated by town decisions to subdivide lots along the western side of the green in 1803 and at its northern and southern ends in the 1830s. The sequence can be read in the character of the buildings.
The earliest house (c. 1796) is a Cape built for Crafts's daughter Augusta at N. Craftsbury Road and Dustan Road. South of the green, N. Craftsbury Road is lined with Federal houses with some fine Asher Benjamin–derived doorways indicative of early shire-town prosperity. Greek Revival buildings occur at the green's north and south borders. On its east side at 1422 N. Craftsbury Road, on the site of the original meetinghouse, stands the prominent Craftsbury Academy, chartered in 1812. Its central block, rebuilt after an 1879 fire by school principal George Washington Henderson, an African American and former slave, is a Stick Style building with an elaborate porch and a two-stage belfry that projects on brackets. The academy's two-story wings added in 1929 and all-white paint coloration are symptomatic of a later phase in the village's history.
As milling centers in town drew off commerce and then the railroad bypassed the town, Craftsbury remained largely agricultural in character, exporting to markets in Boston and Montreal. As a result, the common largely retained its original size and early-nineteenth-century form until its discovery by wealthy urbanites seeking seasonal retreats in a place of rural charm and historical authenticity. They meticulously preserved many early-nineteenth-century buildings, expanding some and adding new, and, frequently, more elaborate Colonial Revival versions in between. They also painted all buildings, new and old, white. The Congregational Church (1819–1820) was remodeled with a Colonial Revival facade in 1897. In 1912 New York lawyer and local patron John Woodruff Simpson purchased the defunct East Craftsbury Covenanters' Church (see OL25), moved it to the common, added a Colonial Revival portico, and gave it to the academy as a gymnasium. A Des Moines, Iowa, transplant, innkeeper Grace Rawson founded the Village Improvement Society in 1928 to maintain the village's picturesque image. In the late 1970s the environmentally focused Sterling College established itself on the south end of the common, occupying a series of houses supplemented by new buildings in a similar style. The result is a pristine New England village so iconic that Alfred Hitchcock chose it as the perfect setting for his film The Trouble with Harry (1955).
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