The LaPlatte River’s falls were the engine that powered industry at Shelburne Falls

The power of the LaPlatte River falls was critical Shelburne’s early growth.
The power of the LaPlatte River falls was critical to Shelburne’s early growth.

By Judy Frazer,
Shelburne Historical Society

Ira Allen, the youngest brother of Colonel Ethan Allen, was a lieutenant in the Green Mountain Boys but his primary career was surveying and purchasing land ideal for manufacturing and business. In 1775, Ira sent Silas Hathway to survey Shelburne including the LaPlatte River which flowed 15 miles from its source in southeastern Hinesburg to Shelburne Bay. He recognized that the potential for harnessing the water power from the Shelburne Falls made it a highly suitable site for an industrial settlement.

Ira assumed ownership of large tracts of Shelburne land especially land in the area of the Falls. No town records show Ira purchasing the land from the original owners listed in the charter but they do show sales from Ira to early settlers.

When the Revolutionary War was over in 1783, the first development in the township began at the Falls, not the Village. Ira sent James Hawley, his millwright, to Shelburne. In 1785, a dam was constructed and a saw mill was built on the south west side of the river. In 1786, another dam, north of the falls, was built and a grist mill to grind grain was put into operation in 1787. A forge to make iron parts was built on the south side of the river.

A rudely constructed log bridge was built to provide easy access to Hinesburg, Charlotte, and Burlington via the old stage road (now Thompson Road) and Spear Street. It was replaced with a covered bridge in 1848 and a cement one in 1927.

Sheep farmers would take their sheep to the south end of Shelburne Pond to be scrubbed before shearing. In 1789, David Fisk built a woolen mill for carding (combing and disentangling wool fibers for spinning) and fulling (removing grease from the wool) between the grist mill and the saw mill. He sold it to Samuel Fletcher in 1805.

Lemon Judson started a tannery and shoe shop. Henry Fuller opened a blacksmith and trip hammer shop. Ira Andrews started a wheelwright shop manufacturing ox cars, wooden axles, sleighs, buggies and coffins.

As settlers cleared their land they made potash from the trees that were burned by letting water filter through the ashes. Thaddeus Tuttle built the “Old Red Store” selling goods from the lower story of his home. He profited from potash that was used to make soap, glass and finishing woolen cloth. In exchange the farmers could buy goods they could not make or grow. This store served as a meeting place where folks could exchange news and gossip. He sold it to Joshua Isham in 1793.

Most farmers raised dairy cattle and sold their milk to James White the owner of a cheese factory on the road to the village.

In 1839, Dr. Jonathan Taylor came from Georgia, Vermont and started his practice which lasted many years. It is told by patients that he gave pills “as big as your thumbs.” To pull a tooth, he would sit the patient on the doorstep below him and apply the forceps.

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