Shelburne Falls research unveils colorful characters: Knight gives rich historical portrait of district

By JOEY WALDINGER
Correspondent

For almost nine months, historian and American preservationist Brian Knight has been compiling the story behind every one of Shelburne’s earliest residents, and the houses in which they lived.

This is all part of an effort to list Shelburne Falls, the earliest developed district in the city, on the National Register of Historic Places, a designation that would help keep the neighborhood’s historic character intact.

“It says this neighborhood is something special, something that needs consideration,” said Dorothea Penar, president of the Shelburne Historical Society.

And while Knight is busy with his research, the Historical Society has made strides of its own toward ensuring that Shelburne citizens can celebrate their town’s history for years to come.

The society was recently awarded a $3,400 grant it is using to furnish a permanent space on the first floor of the town office complex, Penar said. The grant, which comes from the Champlain Valley National Heritage Partnership, will be used to buy equipment such as scanners to duplicate documents and furniture to house discussion groups, she said.

On Monday, Feb. 11, Knight delivered a presentation to a packed audience in the Shelburne Town Office complex detailing what his research has found so far.

Listing house by house the inhabitants who lived there, the professions they had and transactions they made, Knight strung together a story of early Americana, a time when self-sufficiency was a fact of life, and people’s houses were never just homes, but businesses as well.

Knight spoke of characters like Thaddeus Tuttle, a lumber merchant in the mid-1800s who amassed an incredible fortune, building the elegant mansion on Main Street in Burlington now owned by the University of Vermont, only to be crippled by his generosity and carefree spending, dying destitute and leaving nothing to his children.

He spoke of Jonathan Taylor, a doctor who, “when he found his patients’ ailments imaginary, bluntly told them so,” said Knight, quoting historical documents. Taylor also prescribed “pills as big as your two thumbs” and when pulling out a tooth, would sit “on the doorstep alone and then apply the forceps. A large powerful man, one could picture the results.”

Shelburne Falls was also home to clever entrepreneur named John Grisham, who apart from purchasing a mill in 1889 also ran a store in the Falls district, and John Digry, who used his expansive plots of land to raise livestock, which he sold for profit in the 1860s.

Since beginning the project, Knight has been working to create a manuscript that describes not only who lived in Shelburne Falls and where, and what their house looked, whether it had large windows or faced the street, for instance.

However, to get Shelburne Falls listed on the National Register, Knight must do more than reconstruct how the neighborhood looked during its earliest days. He must make clear that the development of Shelburne Falls tells a story mirroring that of early Vermont itself.

“If someone read (the manuscript) 200 years from now, they’d have a good idea of what the house looked like,” he said.

Knight has been working closely with city officials, as well as the Vermont Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, and they must all clear his research before he can present it to the National Park Service, where he will describe in as much detail as possible his findings.

Being listed on the National Register wouldn’t block future construction in the district, but it would require that any person or company planning to alter the infrastructure would have to seek extra regulatory approval, and a review is issued anytime federal money is used for a project in a Historic District, Penar said.

Embedded in the tales of these colorful characters is the story of a town that sprouted from Ira Allen’s purchase of land and construction of nearby mills in the 1700s, and has since grown into one of the state’s most revered municipalities.

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