Exploring Shelburne’s farming history

One of the earliest maps of Shelburne shows the property plots along Shelburne Bay and Lake Champlain. The map is housed at the Town office. Photo by Boston Neary

By Odale Cress

Farming was, undoubtedly, one of the best reasons non-Native American settlers came to the town of Shelburne in the early years and has played an important part in the economy and culture of the town throughout its history. The Shelburne Historical Society plans to focus on this interesting subject, and its evolution, in a series of articles for the Shelburne News as well as several lectures and events in coming months.

Although the town of Shelburne was chartered on Aug. 18, 1763, its first town meeting was not called to order until March of 1789. At that time, 24 families lived in the village. Within a handful of years, the population of settlers grew to nearly 400 people, most of them farmers.

As the town’s population grew, its industry expanded from a few small subsistence farms to several larger commercial ventures, employing many local workers. Tens of thousands of sheep roamed Shelburne’s green hillsides and produced wool, much of it highly valued Merino wool. The timber industry fed the sawmill and a thriving grain industry (wheat, buckwheat, barley, rye, and oats) kept the flouring and grist mills running strong on the La Platte River, along Falls Road.

Near the shores of Lake Champlain flourished dozens of fruit orchards, boasting some 17,000 trees by the mid-1800s. Shelburne farmers also produced sugar, hay, and potatoes in abundance. When a wave of farmers switched to dairy farms, cheese factories sprouted up around the area. By 1879, the first butter creamery in New England opened its doors, here in Shelburne.

As farmers sold their land and took up other occupations, and as other commercial industries developed that were not land-based, Shelburne’s population grew, while the number of its farms diminished. In the mid-1900s, the farming industry across the nation began to see the number of farms decrease, while the size of farms increased. Initially, Vermont followed that pattern, too, but according to a recent Census on Agriculture conducted by the USDA, small farms began making a comeback in Vermont in the early 2000s, and continue to do so.

Although the size of farms is decreasing, the total amount of land dedicated to farming is on a steady rise. Today, local farmers such as the Bread and Butter Farm, Gardenside Nursery, Shelburne Vineyard, and Shelburne Orchard are among the small farms supplying produce and a wide variety of goods for our community, our lively farmers markets, and local supermarkets.

Over the next few months, the local Shelburne Historical Society will host a number of speakers and activities aimed at exploring the dynamic history of farming in Shelburne as well as the current status, challenges, and successes of our local farming industry. We hope you will join us.

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