One family of enlightened industrialists, the Fairbanks, largely shaped the dignified late-nineteenth-century townscape of St. Johnsbury. Founded in 1786, it was named, on the suggestion of Ethan Allen, after French American author Hector St. John de Crevecoeur. The town began in typical rural fashion with dispersed farmsteads, scattered small pockets of settlement along transportation routes and mill sites, and an isolated hilltop meetinghouse at its geographic center. The principal village developed on the land of charter settler Jonathan Arnold. This site was a pair of glacial terraces above the Passumpsic River near its confluences with the Moose River, where Arnold established saw- and gristmills in 1787, and the Sleepers River, where Joseph Fairbanks and his four sons built their counterparts in 1815. In between the rivers, and crossed by roads from the converging river valleys, the elevated “plain” became the locus for a linear village with increasingly prosperous homes and commerce, its flat terrain permitting its eventual expansion into a small grid.
The prosperity and evolution of this community were tied to the fortunes of the Fairbanks family. In 1824 brothers Erastus and Thaddeus Fairbanks established an ironworks in the village. Around 1830 Thaddeus, who also managed the St. Johnsbury Hemp Company, invented and patented a device to facilitate the weighing of undressed hemp arriving at his mill. For more than a century, the resulting E. and T. Fairbanks and Co. was the world's preeminent manufacturer of platform scales. To enhance their industrial complex along the Sleepers River, the Fairbanks were instrumental in bringing the north– south Connecticut and Passumpsic Rivers Railroad to town in 1850 and the east–west Vermont section of the Portland and Ogdensburg Railroad in the 1870s. The arrival of the railroads, in turn, brought St. Johnsbury new status as the shire town of Caledonia County (1855) and new commerce along Main Street, including at number 44 the one-hundred-and-fifty-room St. Johnsbury House (1850; 1913 remodeled) and on the lower, rail-level terrace of Railroad Street. The railroad also brought new industries, including granite and wood products, and waves of Irish and French immigrants drawn here from eastern Canada to work on construction projects and in the mills.
Gradually, the village took on a distinctive form. Main Street and the neighborhoods on the elevated plain remained the area for large houses and governmental, religious, and cultural institutions. Here the urban tone was set by projects built by two generations of the Fairbanks family in a progressive, paternalistic spirit to serve the aesthetic, educational, religious, and social needs of their workers and community. Many of these projects were designed by Fairbanks's employees. Company carpenter Horace Carpenter erected houses and Fairbanks-supported civic projects, including work on the Greek Revival South Congregational Church (CA12), the Italianate courthouse (1856), and, probably, the Summer Street School (CA19). Carpenter was succeeded by company architect Lambert Packard, who designed some sixteen houses and public buildings on the plain in showy Richardsonian Romanesque and Queen Anne styles. The lower terrace, reached via new roads (Eastern Avenue and Maple Street), was dominated by industry and commerce, with large-scale business blocks along Railroad Street and around the square in front of the substantial brick depot of 1883. Following a catastrophic fire along the east side of the street in 1892, Packard established the scale and the decorative quality of the district with his four-story Richardsonian Romanesque brick Citizens and Merchants bank blocks (364 and 370 Railroad Street). These are echoed opposite at Railroad Street and Eastern Avenue with the rebuilding in 1896 of the New Avenue Hotel (now Depot Square Apartments) with its distinctive cylindrical corner. The slope between the terraces filled with housing for the workers.
Prosperity reigned from the 1850s through the early decades of the twentieth century. As a result, and despite fires that have ravaged the Fairbanks factory complex and commercial blocks on Main and Railroad streets, the village preserves a fine set of primarily Italianate through Colonial Revival houses, a veritable catalog of nineteenth-century multifamily residential buildings, and a remarkable body of late-nineteenth-century religious, cultural, and commercial architecture.
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