First Congregational Church,

Orwell, Vermont


The Orwell Congregational Church, built in 1842 by Frederick Bostwick and Fobes, is one of the finest examples of the Greek Revival style in Vermont. It is a large two story three-by-four-bay building with an imposing distyle in antis front facade with fluted Doric columns. A magnificent belfry displays anthemion motif panels, a denticulated entablature, Ionic colums and corner pilasters. The structure possesses a large pediment, pilasters and a full Tuscan entablature. The monumental style of its construction was a result of the great prosperity enjoyed by Orwell due to the great financial rewards of sheep farming at the time the church was constructed. The church has served the community throughout its history. It contains a notable Hook tracker organ purchased by subscription to honor returning Civil War veterans. Since 1882 the church has housed the town clock. There is a high potential for significant subsurface remains of horsesheds that provided carriage and stabling facilities within the current property boundaries. A considerable portion of the foundation stones of these structures is still visible on the surface. These structures, which were once common in Vermont, are now extremely rare. The church continues to the present day as an active Congregational church.

On August 18th of 1763 sixty-four men obtained control of the land that is now Orwell, Vermont. The "plantation" was named in honor of Lord Orwell, a minister of the board of Trade and Plantations. It was not until 1771 that settlement of Orwell was begun. The Charter was issued by Benning Wentworth, then Governor of New Hampshire. Of the original sixty-four proprietors only three are mentioned as ever having come to Orwell. The three, Benjamin Underhill, Reed Ferris and Benjamin Ferris, were New York Quakers from Duchess County. They did not reside in Orwell but only made yearly visits to collect their rent in cattle. The original charter still hangs in the town clerk's office in Orwell, Vermont.

The original grant encompassed approximately 27,640 acres in a roughly oblong six-by-seven mile square. Originally included within the bounds of Rutland County, the area was slightly increased and the township was annexed to Addison County in 1847.

The first major habitation within the bounds of Orwell was a result of the Revolutionary War. Mount Independence received its name on July 18th of 1776 when word was received of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. The Mount was the scene of considerable military activity until July of 1777 when it was determined that the Mount could not be held in the face of Burgoyne's advancing army. Some of the soldiers who served there returned after the war to settle in Orwell. Among them were John Pepper, Lieutenant Jonas Rice, Colonel Azel Abell and Ephraim Blood.

Some seventy to eighty dwellings had been built by the time the town of Orwell was formally organized on December 12,1787. Seventy-one men took the Freeman's Oath and the Oath of Allegiance. By 1790 the population of Orwell was listed as 778 in the census of that year.

In 1789 the motion was made by some of the townspeople to establish a church in the center of town. A new church was organized whose charter members were Mr. and Mrs. Ebenezer Hulburd, Mr. and Mrs. Stephen Spaulding, David Leonard, James Benedict and Shadrach Hathaway. In 1795 the first church was built. Rev. Sylvanus Chapin was its pastor throughout its existence. It was shaped like a barn and had simple slab seats. It was located near the front of the former Methodist church which is now the Community Hall.

Ten years later a second larger structure was built. This one was located to the southeast of the previous one and lasted forty years. Four pastors served it: Rev. Mason Knapen (1808-1819), Rev. Ira Ingraham (1820-1822), Rev. Sherman Kellogg (1826-1832) and Rev. Henry Morris (1834-1832). When the second church had become too dilapidated for further use, the establishment of a third church was undertaken. The construction of this church caused considerable local friction and represented a break with the past tradition of one meeting house for all denominations.

The 1830s and 1840s were a time of considerable religious ferment. Wilbur Miller who was from Poultney, Vermont, had achieved national fame. Millerism was at the height of its popularity just as the movement to build a new church in Orwell got under way. The Congregationalists proposed to pay for the new church but felt that they should have control over who would preach there. This led to a schism. There began a building race and the ousted Methodists were the first to erect a new church on the village green. This led to the establishment of two rival churches on the town green where previously one church had served the entire community.

The Orwell Congregational Church is an exceptionally fine example of Greek Revival church architecture. Built in1842 by Frederick Bostwick of Orwell and a Mr. Fobes of Crown point New York at a cost of $6,418.96, the Church was dedicated in January of 1843. The design of the building is drawn from the work of Asher Benjamin. In the minutes of the church building committee, dated March 30, 1842, reference is made to plan "L9." In Benjamin's The Builder's Guide of 1839 Plan LIX is that of a Greek revival church which is clearly the archetype of the First Congregational Church.

While several sources state that the building is believed to be the work of James Lamb, the only evidence to support this supposition is circumstantial. Although Lamb worked in Orwell in 1842 and 1843, there is no evidence of his involvement with the First Congregational Church. The records of the building committee are fairly extensive and Bostwick and Fobes are mentioned by name both in construction and financial discussions. Lamb's name does not appear anywhere in the church records or in the other contemporary sources. Lamb is known to have been responsible for two prominent Greek Revival style structures in Orwell in 1842 and 1843 and may have been too busy to undertake a work of this scope. There appears little deviation from Asher Benjamin's plans and little evidence to cause this building to be ascribed to Lamb's body of work save that is an imposing edifice in the Greek Revival style.

Shortly after the church was built carriage barns were added for the convenience of the parishoners. These structures appear in a painting dating from 1860 which currently hangs in the Orwell town library.

The barns were demolished in 1929. A significant quantity of the foundation material is still visible on the surface within the property boundaries. There is high potential for archaeologically significant subsurface deposits.

The grandness of the First Congregational Church of Orwell is a direct result of the economic climate of Addison County, Vermont in the first half of the nineteenth century. A monumental brick church with fluted wooden Doric columns in antis, the building is an expression of the economic prosperity of the community of Orwell and the religious trends active at the time of its construction. Built in 1842 the Church was particularily imposing because many of the parishioners were profiting from the boom in merino sheep raising. Merino sheep were introduced in Vermont in 1809 and quickly became a major factor in the agricultural economy of the state. In Addison county sheep raising was especially popular and successful. Merino sheep arrived in Orwell in 1815 and by the 1840s virtually every farm of substance had a flock. In 1840 Addison County produced more wool and had a greater number of sheep than any other county in the United States, in proportion to either territory or population. Sheep raising brought considerable wealth. In one instance the proceeds from the sale of one breeding ram were enough to pay for the construction of an entire barn. At the close of the Civil War the citizens of Orwell chose to honor the returning veterans by installing a Hook tracker action organ in the upper balcony. This organ is listed in the register of historic organs and is still in use. Recent concerts featuring this instrument have had audiences of over a thousand. In 1882 a Clock, that is still in operation, was added. Orwell was connected by rail in 1880 to Albany and Boston, and exact time keeping was becoming a community concern. The modern desire for accurate time keeping was reflected in the most prominent religious building in the community. In 1891 six large stained glass windows were installed.

The town of Orwell is located on the east side of the south end of Lake Champlain. The opening of the Champlain Canal in 1823 inaugurated a period of intense growth. The town experienced a economic boom from sheep farming in the 1830s and 1840s. This boom is represented in the large number of imposing Greek Revival dwellings and religious structures still to be found in Orwell. The town has always relied largely on agriculture and has thrived or declined as a result of market forces. With the collapse of the sheep ranching market, Orwell went into decline until the advent of the railroads combined with the dairy industry brought economic prosperity to Orwell once again.

Yet more history...