Stories from the Lake: Towns Establish

06/15/09 5:20PM Neal Charnoff, Lynne McCrea
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VPR/Lynne McCrea
The Ethan Allen Homestead

(Charnoff)  It's All Things Considered on Vermont Public Radio, I'm Neal Charnoff.

Next month marks the quadricentennial of Samuel de Champlain's arrival on the lake that bears his name.

Today, our series "Stories From the Lake" looks at how Lake Champlain contributed to Vermont's rapid growth in the late 1700's. 

(lake sounds... water lapping

With the end of the Revolutionary war, Lake Champlain was well suited for trade, and the region's lush landscape was ripe for farming.

(Willard Sterne Randall)  "It was the quintessential frontier in America...

Willard Sterne Randall is a professor of history at Champlain College.   Randall says that before there was a Western frontier, settlers were beckoned to the north.

 (Randall)  "It was the frontier of New England before it was possible to go into the interior of the country, around the great lakes, across the great plains." 

(Charnoff) Elsa Gilbertson runs the historic site at Chimney Point in Addison.   She says that American independence re-opened the door to settlers. 

(Gilbertson)  "That meant it was safe for the original settlers to come back here and for new ones to come in and more towns were chartered in this area but the lake is still the important transportation route." 

(Charnoff) Historian Will Randall says that from the beginning, Vermont was an inviting place for people to re-start their lives.  Massachusetts and Connecticut were overflowing, Vermont land was cheap, and there was plenty of hardwood for lumber. 

And of course, there was Lake Champlain.

(Randal)  "The lake was crucial because you had free transportation.  Other places couldn't be opened up until you had highways or railroads." 

(Charnoff) Chris Fox is curator of Fort Ticonderoga, on the western shore of Lake Champlain. 

Fox says that the Vermont landscape along the lake had more to offer settlers than the shores of New York. 

(Fox)  "The west side of Lake Champlain, at least down here is fairly mountainous, the mountains tend to go right down into place the shoreline, whereas on the Vermont side, it's fairly flat ground that was good farmland."

(Charnoff) It was also during this time that Vermont's reputation for independence was born.

And if anyone embodied the Vermont spirit, it was Ethan Allen.

Allen, along with Benedict Arnold and the Green Mountain Boys, had been a crucial figure in the battle for independence.

According to historian Will Randall, Ethan Allen had always been a rebel who rejected authority. 

Allen had been expelled from Connecticut for defying the clergy, and for not tempering his penchant for profanity. 

Randall says that Allen's reputation as a leader (during the war) carried over into his strengths as a businessman after the war. 

(Randall) "He became a leader through his personal courage, I think, the frontiersman, but also always considering the little man who had nothing and they followed him into Vermont." 

(Charnoff) Settlement began along the southern shores of Lake Champlain. Towns started to appear, following the Lake's flow north.  They chose sites similar to this stretch of the Winooski River falls, near where Ethan Allen established a mill.

(Randall)  "What the Allens did was build sawmills, and grist mills where rivers emptied into Lake Champlain, and wherever there were those rivers, that's where the settlements sprang up."

(Charnoff)  Ethan Allen settled in Burlington in the 1780s, and built a home in what is now the Burlington intervale.

The homestead still stands.   Dana Mann of Burlington is one of the tour guides who give visitors a slice of 18th century life.    

(Guide) "The original fireplace was this size but was taken down and was made smaller, because the house was lived in all these years, after Ethan lived here...."

(Charnoff) Tours are also given by amateur historian Tom McHugh.     

McHugh says that when Allen and his brothers set up their business in Burlington, the growth that had started in southern areas of Lake Champlain had not yet reached north. 

(McHugh)  "When Ethan moved here it was really the start of Burlington growing.    When Ethan's house was built here in the 1780s there were just three frame houses in Burlington." 

(Charnoff) The city did begin to grow following Allen's arrival, in part because of The Onion River Land Company, a real estate business run by Allen and his brothers.

(McHugh)  "The thing that strikes me most about the influence of the Allen brothers is the amount of work they put into developing the state through real estate.  They did a lot to establish the state of Vermont." 

(Charnoff) And thanks to the Allen brothers' sawmills, it all started at the lake. 

Tom McHugh says that one reason for Vermont's rapid growth was that most of its war debts had been paid, thanks in no small part to the richness of Lake Champlain. 

McHugh points out that many of Ethan Allen's own Green Mountain Boys settled in the northern towns, and in the Champlain Islands. 

(McHugh)  "This is why they're called the Heroes, because Vermont used the lands on the islands as payment to the Revolutionary War soldiers for their fighting in the war." 

(Charnoff) According to historian Will Randall, one of Ethan Allen's major contributions was to make Vermont the first place to host free trade; Allen began a trading partnership with Canada that continues to this day.

(Randall)   "He worked sort of both sides of the street trying to keep friendly relations with the original 13 states, which didn't work very well, because he was up there with his family trading with the British. But it meant a cash market for Vermonters.  It wasn't until the steamboat was developed in the early 1800s that you could come to New York with your harvest, so naturally you were a trading partner with the Canadians."  

(Charnoff) Vermont's wilderness was harvested to make potash, a wood-ash compound used in agriculture.  This was a major cash crop that could be sold to the English in Canada. 

And Lake Champlain was also becoming a haven for smugglers.

(Randall)  "You have towns with names like Smuggler's Notch because it's what you did for a living.  About a third of Vermonters were smugglers." 

(Charnoff)  Vermont was also developing a reputation for its beautiful farmland. 

Randall says that Thomas Jefferson called Vermont "Champagne Country," to describe the wheat fields. 

(Randall)  "The trees had been cut down, and between Lake Champlain and the mountains, you had fields of waving golden wheat. The houses were substantial, made of hardwoods.  There was nothing like it. This was the most prosperous place in early America." 

(Charnoff) In fact, Vermont had the highest crop yield of wheat in 1790, and sheafs of wheat were added to the state crest. 

According to Homestead guide Tom McHugh, EthanAllen spent his final years working to see Vermont become a state. 

(McHugh) "Probably about the only thing he'd be doing when he was here is trying to get Vermont to become a state.  Vermont became independent in 1777 and finally became a state in 1791, two years after Ethan died.  He would have been very pleased to see it happen."

(Charnoff) Will Randall says that by the early 19th century, Vermont had become a promised land for New Englanders, many of whom quickly adopted the state's rebel spirit. 

And Randall says Lake Champlain played a crucial role in the region's development. 

(Randall) "Lake Champlain being wide open and surrounded by good land, attracted self-sufficient communities, had a good labor supply, skilled labor, enough capital coming to build factories.  So it was a thriving workshop for the new American way of life." 

(Charnoff) That way of life would soon be affected by the coming of the Industrial Revolution. 

We'll here more about that next Monday, when our series "Stories from The Lake" continues. 

Our entire series and all of VPR's Champlain 400 programming can be found at

For VPR news, I'm Neal Charnoff.

Our historical consultant has been Willard Sterne Randall, professor of history at Champlain College. 


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