Caledonia County, with a population of 31,227, is formed by seventeen towns, mostly occupying the lands drained by the Passumpsic River and its tributaries and those of the smaller Stevens and Wells rivers, all of which drain into the Connecticut River. Located in the broad valley formed by the confluence of the Passumpsic River with the Moose and Sleepers rivers is St. Johnsbury. With a population of about 7,000 it is the county shire and the county's principal commercial center. To the north and on the Passumpsic River and I-91 is the next-largest town, Lyndon, with a population of 5,647. Hardwick, on the upper Lamoille River with a population of 3,182, is the only other large village.
New Hampshire chartered towns along the Connecticut River in what would become this county in 1763, and organized groups of Scottish immigrants settled the towns of Barnet, Ryegate, Groton, and Peacham in the 1770s and 1780s. When the county was organized in 1792 it was named Caledonia in honor of these pioneers. Danville became the county seat almost by default: with 570 residents it was the most populated town in a county of only 2,300. The hill farms founded in these years became known for their hay, potatoes, and butter during the nineteenth century. They also established what remains the dominant landscape pattern through much of the rural portions of the county today—small Cape Cod farmhouses; a variety of nineteenth-century barns, often in a connected arrangement; and farm family neighborhoods, all on a network of roads that follow the streams, brooks, and rivers to the Connecticut.
In 1824 brothers Thaddeus and Erastus Fairbanks established an ironworks in the village of St. Johnsbury. In 1830 Thaddeus invented the modern platform scale, and soon afterward the brothers adapted their business to manufacturing them. Thaddeus's son Erastus became president of the Connecticut and Passumpsic Rivers Railroad, which was completed to St. Johnsbury in 1853. Consequently, the population of “St. J.” quickly outpaced Danville, and in 1855 it was voted the seat of a county of, by then, more than 23,000 residents. By 1890 Fairbanks Scale employed more than 500 people, and St. Johnsbury expanded to more than 6,000, including several thousand Canadian immigrants. There was an explosion of residential, commercial, and public building, typified by the work of Lambert Packard, a St. Johnsbury architect favored by the Fairbanks family. After a fire in 1866, the railroad moved its yards to a new terminus and laid out Lyndonville village.
With construction of the Vermont section of the Portland and Ogdensburg Railroad up the Lamoille Valley in 1877, the small mill village of Hardwick emerged as an agricultural, shipping, and commercial center. In 1897, when the Hardwick and Woodbury Railroad connected Hardwick to quarries in Woodbury, large granite works were established in the village. By 1910 the village population had more than doubled to more than 3,000 residents; wood-frame residential construction to house the expanded workforce and their families soon followed.
During these railroad and industrial boom years, although the hill farm population began an overall decline, the more successful farmers added bank barns of the New England type, which have become county landmarks. As elsewhere in Vermont, successful big-city businessmen established stock and show farms, making a welcome contribution to the local farm economy. In the mountainous towns, railroad spurs, portable steam sawmills, and lumber camps appeared and disappeared between 1880 and 1920, leaving only debris for archaeologists.
In the early twentieth century, employment and patronage of Fairbanks-Morse and other industries allowed St. Johnsbury to grow to its peak of 9,696 residents in 1930. Similarly, wood-products manufactories fueled by lumbering in northern counties sustained a number of small industrial villages along the rivers and railroads. But overall, rural towns halved their populations: Peacham and Waterford, with populations of 1,377 and 1,412 in 1850, had 543 and 498 residents, respectively, in 1940. Not surprisingly, twentieth-century gambrel-roofed barns are relatively rare along the back roads of the county, but small vernacular village houses and multifamily housing in the larger villages abound. During the Great Depression, Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) units camped and worked in the Willoughby State Forest in Sutton, Burke Mountain State Park, and on other state lands, laying the foundation for a growing recreation industry during the last half of the twentieth century.
Despite further rural decline, an erosion of the industrial base of St. Johnsbury and ups and downs in the vitality of the ski area on Burke Mountain and related commerce, in-migration from 1970 has increased the county population to more than 29,000. More than one hundred and twenty active dairy farms keep large portions of the Scottish-settled towns' farm landscape intact, and the county's picturesque beauty has become so iconic that it regularly represents Vermont as a whole in the state magazine and other publications. Fairbanks-Morse Scale still manufactures industrial scales in St. Johnsbury, and the city's Main Street—lined with churches, civic buildings, wooden commercial blocks, and prominent homes at each end—is one of the most architecturally distinguished streets in the state. Also rating statewide notice are four commercial blocks down the hill on Eastern Avenue, with their three- or more-story brick buildings. Upriver, the nineteenth-century agricultural school has evolved into Lyndon State College, which together with the Lyndon Institute makes an important economic and cultural contribution to the area. The railroad village of Lyndonville retains its late-nineteenth-century feel with its railroad row, main street, and ample green. Granite sheds no longer line the Lamoille River in Hardwick, but the town otherwise appears much as it did more than a century ago. From nineteenth-century hill farms to civic monuments in St. Johnsbury, Caledonia County is truly a distinguished gateway to Vermont's “Northeast Kingdom.”
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