Orange is perhaps the most thoroughly rural county in Vermont. The small population of 29,000 residents is scattered among its seventeen hilly towns located between the Connecticut River and the upper branches of the White River. Within its borders are the watersheds of the Waits and Ompompanoosuc rivers, which flow into the Connecticut at Bradford village and just below Thetford town. Chelsea on the upper First Branch of the White River is the county shire, with just 1,480 residents. Randolph on the Second and Third branches of the White River is the largest town, with 5,108 residents.
Early explorers along this section of the Connecticut River recorded that the Coos Abenaki had one of their great villages and many fields of corn in the oxbow at present-day Newbury. Although New Englanders began settling along the river in the 1760s, substantial immigration commenced in 1781 after the county was organized following the American Revolution. The county's population had risen to 10,000 by the 1790 census, and between 1790 and 1810 swelled to more than 25,000 as farms covered the hillsides throughout its narrow valleys. Small mill villages and centers began to develop in every town, and notable Georgian farmhouses from Thetford to the Newbury oxbow and the dramatic greens of Chelsea, Newbury, and Strafford villages are some of the charming results.
During the next forty years, the county population leveled off at 27,000, and the many farms, town centers, and other small villages matured on an economy of sheep raising and diversified small-scale farming. Typically each village added a store, church, parsonage, and houses in late Federal and Greek Revival styles. At a good mill site at the delta of the Waits River, Bradford village became an industrial and commercial center and gained a wide range of handsome Federal buildings. Elsewhere, a landscape of Cape and Georgian-plan farmhouses with ells connecting to English-type barns evolved on hundreds of county farms. Randolph and Newbury remained the wealthiest agricultural towns, as reflected in their sophisticated Federal houses. And as most towns reached peak development, many interesting local architectural variations appeared, such as the five-bay gable front, “Bradford doorways,” and the “Connecticut River Valley” balcony porch.
In 1849 the Central Vermont Railroad was constructed from White River Junction through Randolph on its way to Montpelier, spurring the growth of Randolph village. With its related foundries and farm implement manufactory, it rapidly became the industrial and commercial center of the upper White River Valley. In 1850, the Connecticut and Passumpsic Rivers Railroad laid tracks through all of the towns along the Connecticut, passing close to, but not through, the established river villages. These villages changed little, although Bradford, which added a large paper mill to its other industry, continued to grow and became the largest village between White River and St. Johnsbury. Wells River in Newbury, which in 1877 became the terminus of the Montpelier and Wells River Railroad, was another exception.
Although the railroads broadened markets for agricultural products, they also aided mobility, such that after the Civil War the county population dropped to 23,000 as immigrants failed to replace emigrants who rode the rails to war and the West. In the 1870s the Ely Copper Mine boomed, but after mismanagement and a bitter strike in 1886, the mine went bust, and by 1890 the number of county residents dropped to 19,500. Still, the number of farms remained constant at 3,500, proportionately more farms of smaller size than in other counties, and their dairy production tended to be made into butter for longer overland transport. Although owners of large farms in Randolph and along the Connecticut River built great bank barns like those elsewhere in the state, in the Ompompanoosuc and Waits river country a moderate-sized bank barn, often added to a connected farmhouse and barn arrangement, generally sufficed. Apart from the many civic, commercial, and residential buildings built in Randolph, Bradford, and Wells River villages, elsewhere there was little new construction in the late nineteenth century, save for porch additions and the occasional Queen Anne church or school or Romanesque Revival library. The preponderance of traditional house forms and smaller barns gives many Orange County villages and farm landscapes a distinctive early-nineteenth-century feeling. One exception was the turn-of-the-twentieth-century recreational development around Lakes Morey and Fairlee.
By World War I, county population hovered around 17,000 residents, where it would remain for most of the century, and the number of farms plummeted to 1,000 by 1960. Industry in Randolph survived in a cannery and a furniture factory, and in Bradford a plywood factory replaced the paper mill. Once again, most new construction occurred in these villages, and elsewhere in the county there might be a new school or a farmstead rebuilt after a fire. Only with the construction of I-89 and I-91 in the early 1970s did the county's population begin to grow through in-migration, reaching almost 29,000 in 2010. Suburban growth from Barre has spread into Williamstown and Orange, and more recently expansion at Dartmouth College and Hitchcock Medical Center in nearby Hanover, New Hampshire, has led to many small new houses scattered among the old hill farms in the Connecticut River towns and Strafford and Corinth.
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