By some accounts, the arrival of French and English explorers in Vermont in the early 17th century marked the end of a way of life that had persisted for nearly 11,000 years. Warfare, competition for land, and deadly diseases like smallpox led to the decimation of great numbers of Abenaki, and a mass migration of native peoples north to Canada. By the middle of the 18th century, New York and New Hampshire, both English colonies, were vying for the land that is now Vermont. In 1753, under the authority of King George II, New Hampshire colonial governor Benning Wentworth granted a charter allowing the townships of Brattleboro, Fulham (later Dummerston), and Putney to be laid out in the “equivalent lands” – an area that had been ceded in 1716 in what was then Massachusetts territory. Not long afterward, in 1766, Governor Moore of New York also issued a charter on the same lands, this time under King George III, which resulted in great conflict among the colonists for decades to come.
In the centuries since Putney received its original land charter, properties have been bought, sold, and passed down through generations of landowners. The name of the game in those days was land speculation, and most of the town’s original 50 and 100 acre lots were granted to wealthy southern New England proprietors who turned a profit by selling them to willing homesteaders who would do the hard work necessary to turn forest into field. The first colonial settlers in Putney were subsistence farmers who lived a rugged life, carving a home out of the forest. Colonists saw New England as both a dangerous wilderness and as a wellspring of limitless resources. Therefore, with an ethic of survival and self-sufficiency, they set to work felling the forests. It was no mistake either that Putney’s villages grew up along Sacketts and East Putney Brooks; the natural contours of the land provided excellent opportunities for water powered mills.
The settlers built their homes by hand-hewing trees from the forest and constructing log cabins. To cook and keep warm in the cold of winter they burned wood in a large fireplace. Among the crops they grew were corn, potatoes, beans, wheat, oats, pumpkins and turnips, and livestock included chickens, a few goats, maybe a pig, and a cow for milk and butter. Like the natives, the colonists hunted for game and fished the streams for salmon and shad. Life was certainly hard, and the most common way to sweeten it was with maple syrup, and rum. Industrial Growth & Sheep
Within a few decades following initial settlement Putney had grown considerably in both number of inhabitants and infrastructure. The twenty years between 1771 and 1791 saw the town’s census jump dramatically to a peak of 1848 people. The upshot was that the face of Putney, and indeed all of Vermont, changed dramatically. Great tracts of forest were cut for cattle pastureland and crops, to provide wood for heating and cooking and a growing logging industry, as well as masts for ships. Furs of beaver, otter, mink, fisher, bear and other mammals were trapped and hunted by the tens of thousands to meet the desires of a European market. By the early part of the 19th century, America’s economy was mushrooming with industrial growth.
Then in 1809, something happened that changed the economy and the face of the landscape for decades to come: merino sheep were introduced to Vermont. Unlike crop cultivation, sheep could be easily raised on many of the steep and rocky slopes that characterize southern Vermont’s terrain. Accordingly, whole hillsides, like that of Bear Hill, were cleared of trees to create pastureland. In fact, the original spelling of Bear Hill reflects this legacy; older maps of town record the ridge’s name as “Bare Hill.” It didn’t take long for mechanized woolen factories to spur economic prosperity in town. The wool that was sheared was brought to the fulling and carding mills located along Sacketts Brook for cleaning and manufacture into cloth. Physical remnants of this sheep farming history still remain on properties throughout town: many stone walls that today zig-zag quietly through mature forests were probably erected on cleared fields to keep sheep from grazing food crops.
Such rapid extraction and consumption of natural resources could not carry on for long. By the 1850s, so much vegetation had been stripped away that there was nothing to hold onto the precious soil, and great quantities of it washed away. Extensive over-hunting and fishing had devastated wildlife populations. Moreover, when the wool import tariff was eliminated in 1846 Vermont lost its market advantage. This was compounded by the drain of human resources imposed by the Civil War. Soon afterward, the advent of the railroad opened up access to cheap, virgin lands towards the West, drawing people out of the forests and off of the farms into unexploited territories, and facilitating transportation of goods back east. All of these factors together led to a downturn in Vermont’s farm economy.
Small-scale agriculture was still the dominant way of life, though. With the collapse of the sheep industry, Putney farmers slowly switched to dairy cattle, which were confined largely to the flatter valley areas. The absence of persistent disturbance on the upper hillsides allowed many of the cleared forests to return. In the early days of Vermont dairy, the focus was on butter and cheese, largely due to the fact that transportation was still rugged in rural areas. As more efficient transportation became pervasive, particularly with the advent of the automobile, it became feasible for farmers to drive their milk to town and have it processed at a commercial factory like the one in Brattleboro, and the industry shifted toward production of liquid products. By the late 1930s and 40s, new sanitation regulations and mechanization in the dairy industry led to the installation of cement barn floors and large, expensive “bulk” tanks to cool and hold the milk. While improving the efficiency and health of the dairy industry, these developments made it difficult for the smaller, non-mechanized farms up in the hills to compete with the larger farms thriving in the valley. Ultimately these economic forces helped lead to the demise of smaller dairy operations in Putney.