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Town History

Town-History-1-235x150Royalton, our hometown, is very fortunate to have two excellent town histories. In 1911 the Town and the Royalton Woman’s Club published The History of Royalton, by Evelyn Lovejoy. This 1146 plus page history has been recognized as one of the best local histories in Vermont because of the depth of research and the extent of material Mrs. Lovejoy gathered for the book. In 1975 the Town of Royalton, the South Royalton Woman’s Club, and the Royalton Historical Society published Hope Nash’s Royalton Vermont. It too has been recognized as one of the better town histories and updates Lovejoy’s history. Both histories place Royalton in a broad historical context and are available for reading or for purchase at the Royalton Memorial Library. They are highly recommended for those wishing to know more about the town in which they live and pay taxes.

Royalton was originally chartered (also known as patented) on November 23, 1769, by King George III through the Royal Lieutenant Governor of New York. This Royal New York Charter granted 30,000 acres of unclaimed land to 30 Partitioners who had the land surveyed three years prior to the charter. The New York Charter included restrictions: all mines of silver and gold were to remain the property of the King and all large pine trees fit for ship masts were reserved for the Royal Navy.

The town was re-chartered by the Independent Republic of Vermont on December 20, 1781. Vermont did not become a part of the United States until March 4, 1791. This Vermont Charter had more restrictions on the land than the original New York Charter and was granted to some 58 people known as Proprietors. It is interesting to note there are still families in town descended from these proprietors. The Vermont Charter reserved five lots of land: one each to support a seminary or college, a County Grammer School, the settlement of a Minister of the Gospel, churches in town, and town schools. It stated that each of the 58 Proprietors had to plant and cultivate five acres of land and construct a house of at least Eighteen feet square on each share of land or the land would revert to the Freemen of the State. It also reserved, for the benefit of the state, all pine timber suitable for a navy.

The earliest public record in Royalton is in the Proprietors’ Records and is dated February 1781. Records dating prior to 1780 were destroyed in the October 16, 1780, Royalton Raid. Fortunately the Royal Charter remained in New York and was brought to Royalton following the Raid. This original Charter, on parchment, is now carefully preserved at the Vermont State Archives. The British-led Indian Raid was the last and one of the most savage Indian raids in New England; it can be considered an act of the Revolutionary War as an attempt by the British to use their Indian allies to terrorize the frontier settlements. Royalton has always been very conscious of its history and following the Raid the setters attempted to document all official action by the Town. Dedicated town clerks and other elected officials have maintained this tradition of detailed record keeping and have carefully preserved these public records. As a result, Royalton has very complete town records.

Public records, manuscripts, cemeteries, and oral tradition help document the history of our town. Even today, in the year 2003, surveyors turn to the survey records of 1769 to trace property ownership and boundary lines in Royalton. The system of land division and settlement developed and recorded in eighteenth century town records is one that still needs to be traced and used for land transactions in the twenty-first century.

A more visual documentation of our town’s history can be found in its land use patterns and architecture. Royalton had no village center until after the 1780 Raid. Originally the Town Center was proposed for the property now owned by Warren Williams on Route 14 and Happy Hollow Road. This site was never developed because in April 1781 Captain Ebenezer Brewster made a donation to the Town of the land that is now the Royalton Common in the center of Royalton Village. The busiest place in town, however, was at the mills on the First Branch in an area known as Mill Village. Frontier towns needed a grist mill and saw mill in order to grow and the First Branch was an ideal location in Royalton for these water powered businesses. The oldest remaining building in Royalton stands here. The Mill House, built in 1780 around the charred remains of a house burned in the Raid, was carefully restored by the late Edmund Kellogg in 1981. The Mill House, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, retains its central chimney with three fireplaces. It is known as a Cape Cod style house and was the most common dwelling type built in the early settlement years and remains popular today. Cape Cods are 1-1/2 stories tall with a centrally located door flanked by two windows and a massive central chimney containing fireplaces.

A larger house of the basic floor plan, but two stories tall and with a hipped roof, is the Zebulon Lyon House in Royalton village. This house was built in 1798 by Captain Lyon, one of the primary boosters in the early development of Royalton. Many of Royalton’s early buildings, both private and public, were constructed by Captain Lyon. Next to the Lyon House is one built before 1797 by Jacob Smith, Royalton’s first lawyer. This is the second oldest house in town and retains its original fireplaces and many original details.

Representing the next architectural period is the Fessenden-Hanks House on the corner of Bridge Street in Royalton village. This house, owned by Richard McGovern, is Georgian style, which is typified by its bold symmetrical massing. Note the windows on the second floor and how evenly they are spaced – much like King George’s soldiers would have marched. Built just at the end of the eighteenth century, the house retains its two massive chimneys – each containing five fireplaces, and a remarkable amount of interior and exterior original detail. This house is one of Vermont’s architectural landmarks, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and especially noteworthy for the back porch with its Chippendale style railing.

The Federal style Old Denison House, also in Royalton village, was built circa 1805 with its light and delicate detailing derived from the classical architecture of ancient Rome. The fluted corner pilasters support the full Doric entablature just below the roof line. The Denison family were prominent doctors and lawyers. Rachel Chase Denison’s nephew and future Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, Salmon P. Chase, lived here while attending Royalton Academy.  The Fox Stand, built as a stagecoach stop in 1818 for Jacob Fox, is another excellent example of the Federal style. Prominent Federal features are the leaded glass fanlight over the front door and the splayed lintels over the windows.

The most popular architectural style in Vermont is the Greek Revival which was inspired by the architecture of ancient Greece. The most notable examples in Royalton are the First Congregational Church in Royalton village built in 1840; the Preston-Waterman House in Royalton village built circa 1840; the South Royalton House built in 1850; and the Bingham House on Dairy Hill built in 1855. In Royalton the style is typified by emphasis on heavy corner pilasters resembling columns supporting a decorative entablature just below the roofline. The doorway often repeats these architectural features.

A style popular just before the Civil War was the Gothic Revival. With steeply pitched roofs edged with decorative bargeboards and an irregular building mass, the style borrowed its architectural detail from Medieval Europe. An excellent example is the Gingerbread House, on North Street across the railroad tracks and behind the business block in South Royalton, was built circa 1855. It is also listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

Following the Civil War the Italianate style became popular. The architectural detail reflects features borrowed from Italian villas. The houses have shallow pitched roofs with wide eaves supported by paired brackets. Windows are often paired, or grouped together, with small brackets supporting the windowsill. The corners of the buildings often have chamfered corner posts or other detail. Outstanding examples of this style in Royalton are the Curtiss-Hastings house on South Windsor Street built in 1869; the front of the Denison-Davidson house in Royalton village built circa 1870 for Dudley Chase Denison (U.S. Congressman 1875-79); and the Henry-Vesper House near the North Royalton railroad overpass built circa 1869.

The next architectural style to appear in Royalton is the fanciful Queen Anne style. The more variety a builder could incorporate into a building to highlight texture and material, the more stylish the building became. South Royalton village, founded when the railroad came up the White River Valley in 1849, features some of Vermont’s best examples of the Queen Anne style. The Queen Anne 1886 business block, the 1886 Railroad Station, the 1890 Bandstand, the 1893 Schoolhouse at Vermont Law School, the former Catholic Church – originally built as a Methodist Church in 1889, the 1890 Martin-Crawford Castle, the 1900 Abbott House at VLS, and the 1905 Marvin Hazen-Gadway House are nationally recognized. South Royalton village, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, is the quintessential late nineteenth century Vermont village centered around a village green – an ideal that many seek out.

Dr. Munsell’s Bungalow, on the Green in South Royalton, was constructed in 1914. This style, originally from India, became very popular in California during the Arts and Crafts Movement. The typical features are the low and broad gable roof sheltering a deep porch, wide overhanging eaves for shade, and many windows to provide light and ventilation.

The Colonial Revival style, popular in Royalton following World War I and even today, borrowed classical details from the earlier styles but used those details in a grander manner.

It is best represented in Royalton by the Royalton Memorial Library, built in 1920 on Alexander Place in South Royalton. The Wendall Eaton House across the White River from South Royalton and located on Route 14, is another excellent example of this style.

Only a few of the outstanding buildings in Royalton have been mentioned here. There are many more and if you look at what’s around you as you walk or drive through town, you may be able to identify other structures of equal interest and note. Royalton has never been a wealthy town, with an economy based primarily on agriculture and some light manufacturing, but it is a town with a proud heritage recorded in its written record and reflected by its buildings and landscape. Royalton has a bright and promising future made even brighter by our appreciation of its past. We look back but we move forward as we head into the twenty-first century.