Town Grew Up On River Banks
Many residents don't know it, but Jericho sits atop a fault line, which is why the Browns River plummets so dramatically as it passes through town. Thanks to this geology, the Chittenden Mill that towers over the Browns River Gorge flourished as a regional flour producer in the latter half of the 19th century.
The mill remains one of the most striking views to greet a visitor passing through town. It also highlights the link between Jericho's rich natural and cultural histories.
Cultural geographer Jane Dorney presented a slideshow tracing these interwoven histories on the landscape of modern Jericho to an audience of about 80 at Jericho Elementary School on April 9. The lecture was part of a series on Jericho offered by the PLACE program, a joint project of the University of Vermont’s Natural Areas Center and Shelburne Farms. UVM's Walter Poleman, who designed and coordinates the program, said PLACE's goal is to deepen people's connection to the places where they live through explorations of local natural and cultural histories.
Dorney, who lives in Richmond, said many of the Jericho residents in the audience had contributed to her research. "This is my chance to give it back to you," she told them.
Jericho has been the site of human settlement for a long time. At the Rogers Farm near the banks of the Winooski, 16,000 artifacts were found, revealing intermittent American Indian settlement going back perhaps 3,000 years and hunting use going back perhaps 6,000 years, Dorney said.
In 1764, Col. Thomas Chittenden camped beside the Winooski River at what is now the Williston/Jericho border. "It is a paradise," he said, according to town histories. "If the time comes when I can get a title, this upland and interval shall be mine."
The following decade, the man who was to become Vermont's first governor did acquire the land and build his home on the Williston side, overlooking Jericho. He encouraged others to join him in settling and farming the area, giving rise to colonial Jericho.
In Chittenden’s time, Jericho was mostly forested; trees were huge; and subsistence farming was the way of life. By 1815, the area had more than 100 farmsteads, but the landscape was only 12 percent cleared, Dorney said. Most people lived in small log houses, although Chittenden built for himself and each of his sons large, distinctive checkerboard-patterned homes of imported English brick. Several of these still stand, including former Gov. Martin Chittenden’s home at the foot of Barber Farm Road.
Between 1820 and 1850, a Merino wool farming boom transformed the Jericho landscape, so much so that by 1850, 65 percent of Jericho’s woods had been cleared to pasture 3,600 Spanish sheep, Dorney said. With less timber available, a brick factory opened in 1834, taking advantage of a 12,000-year-old glacial clay deposit in the area of Fitzsimonds Road. The architecture that remains from this time includes small, cape-style houses, many created of local brick, and English-style barns, she said.
The wool market crashed in 1850, just after a rail line up the Winooski Valley was completed. Swiftly, cows replaced the sheep, and a pros-perous five decades of butter production ensued, benefiting from this cheap new outlet to Boston. The old sheep barns were expanded to accommodate cows, cupolas were added for ventilation, and the old cape houses became side-halls to much larger new additions. By 1900, there were 150 well-built farmsteads, Dorney said. Many stone walls went up as fields were cleared for hay and other crops. The stone, she noted, is glacial till that occurs mainly above 700 feet in elevation. The legacy of this era is readily visible in Jericho today.
About 1900, dairy production switched to milk; barn styles changed to gambrel roofs and silos; and the new houses built were four-square. Farms consolidated or were sold off due to market pressures, including the mass conversion of 59 farms into the Ethan Allen Firing Range, which occupies 22 percent of the town.
Today, two working dairy farms remain. Many hay fields are once again woods, and nonfarm residences proliferate as a result of growth in Chittenden County's nonfarm economy.