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Woodstock

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Woodstock has a reputation for privilege and self-conscious attractiveness that sometimes overshadows its significance as a locus of design, conservation, planning, and preservation in Vermont. Although the town was chartered in 1761, only in the 1770s did its focus evolve on the present village, where Kedron Brook joined the Ottauquechee River, surrounded by Mounts Tom and Peg and Blake Hill. Here, where the track from South Woodstock (VT 106) reached the Ottauquechee, were a fording spot and opportunities for mill sites nearby on the Ottauquechee and Kedron rivers.

The green began as a small triangle of land donated by the first store owner, Israel Richardson, in a 1787 effort to wrest shire-town status from Windsor. The legislature bestowed this honor to the more centrally located Woodstock, and it became effective as soon as a courthouse was completed in 1788. When that building burned in 1791 and was replaced across the green in 1793, Charles Marsh, who was an agent for the work, negotiated the donation of additional land that brought the green to its present size. In 1830 a village committee laid out the area with its famous “boat” shape and filled it with trees transplanted from the surrounding hills. The green was soon surrounded by fine houses, churches, offices, shops, an inn, and in 1806 one of two branches of the Vermont State Bank.

As a private venture, Charles Marsh and Jesse Williams laid out Elm Street (VT 12) in 1797, lining it with elms from the east end of the green, northward across a bridge on the Ottauquechee, to Marsh's homestead on the slopes of Mount Tom. At its midpoint Marsh located his law office. In 1806, where Pleasant Street intersects Elm, he donated land for the Congregational church. Nathaniel Smith, who built Marsh's house (WS29), also built the frame church as a faithful copy of plate 27 in Asher Benjamin's The Country Builder's Assistant (1797). Henry Hudson Holly remodeled the church in 1880, and W. J. McPherson of Boston added Romanesque decoration at a later date. The commercial corridor of Central Street, laid out in 1800 by the Windsor and Woodstock Turnpike Co., made a triangle with Elm and Pleasant streets. Its Victorian character is a product of changing tastes and a major fire in 1867.

Woodstock's largely self-sufficient shire-town mix of agriculture, manufacturing, commerce, and professions began to change after the Civil War. Farming and industry were waning, and the population, which peaked at 3,000 residents in 1870, began to decline. Native son George Perkins Marsh, having witnessed the devastation to the landscape brought by his hometown's conventional clearing and grazing practices, wrote Man and Nature in 1864 as a wake-up call for a new relationship with the environment. He inspired Frederick Billings, who had amassed a railroad fortune in the West and then returned to his roots. Billings bought the Marsh homestead and began a model farming operation and a major reforestation project on Mount Tom. In doing so, he set a pattern for the town's moneyed residents to acquire and renovate historic houses and to develop gentlemen's farms throughout Woodstock.

By the time the town got a rail connection in 1875, it was transporting seasonal visitors from Boston, New York City, and Montreal and summer residents from Chicago, Detroit, and Philadelphia as much as it was moving local industrial and agricultural products. Woodstock had entered its aristocratic phase. In 1892 local investors intent on developing the potential of their town as a tourist destination replaced the old inn on the green with a grand Shingle Style hotel (demolished 1969). In 1901, the famous winter parties it hosted for out-of-town visitors, as well as the installation of central heating to all of the inn's one hundred rooms, transformed Woodstock into Vermont's first winter sports center. It became a destination for snowshoeing, skating, sleighing, and tobogganing. Skiing followed, enhanced by the construction in 1934 of the first rope tow in the United States (powered by a Model T engine) on the slopes of nearby Gilbert's Hill and then the opening of ski areas on Mount Tom and Suicide Six.

Recognizing the community's quality and resisting pressure for change from the modern world, a group of visionary community leaders turned this lovely shire into a model for historical and environmental preservation in the second half of the twentieth century. As a crossroads of three highways, the historic village has been constantly challenged by increasing traffic volume. This became evident in 1944 when the covered bridge at Woodstock's west end was removed to accommodate U.S. 4, and when the wrought-iron bowstring Elm Street Bridge of 1869 on VT 12 was threatened in 1975. In compensation for the former, in 1969 Milton Graton of Ashland, New Hampshire, was commissioned to rebuild the previously demolished Middle Bridge as a pedestrian covered bridge. In 1980, following a five-year battle, the iron bowstring bridge was remodeled with the preservation of its historic trusses. The bridge debates catalyzed a remarkable team of patrons and planners. Laurance Rockefeller, a leading citizen conservationist, developed the Billings Farm Museum and was responsible for establishing the Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Historic Park, dedicated to preserving the legacy of George Perkins Marsh. Douglas Ross spearheaded town and regional planning and a historical inventory of the entire Ottauquechee basin. Robert Sincerbeaux directed the resources of the Eva Gebhard-Gourgaud Foundation and the Cecil Howard Charitable Trust to answer preservation challenges in Woodstock and throughout the state and was instrumental in the organization of the Preservation Trust of Vermont. Edmund Kellogg of the Vermont Law School helped develop pioneering design review regulations. Their efforts, and the work of many others, resulted in pattern-setting zoning ordinances (1966), formation of the Ottauquechee Regional Planning Commission (1969), establishment of the Ottauquechee Natural Resources Conservation District (1970), nomination of Woodstock to the National Register (1971), a village master plan (1974), formation of the Ottauquechee Land Trust (1977), and a design review ordinance (1983). By exercising the responsibility that comes with privilege, Woodstock has been in the vanguard of the state, launching programs that have been embraced elsewhere in Vermont because they embody important values for the state in the twenty-first century.

Writing Credits

Author: 
Glenn M. Andres and Curtis B. Johnson

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