Glastenbury: The History of a Vermont Ghost Town

Glastenbury: The History of a Vermont Ghost Town

by Tyler Resch


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Founded by a famously scheming New Hampshire governor, Glastenbury struggled for over a century to break triple digits in population. A small charcoal-making industry briefly flourished after the Civil War, yet by 1920 Glastenbury counted fewer than twenty inhabitants. The end came officially in 1937, when the state, following a spirited debate, formally disincorporated the town. Yet Glastenbury’s legacy lives on in Tyler Resch’s lively and amusing history. Follow Resch as he chronicles the community’s compelling, if always precarious, existence. From mysterious murders and curious development schemes to the township’s eventual annexation by the U.S. Forest Service, Glastenbury narrates the ultimately redemptive tale of a community that lost its political status, only to gain a national forest.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781596293373
Publisher: History Press, The
Publication date: 01/11/2008
Pages: 128
Sales rank: 263,518
Product dimensions: 6.77(w) x 9.77(h) x 0.36(d)

About the Author

Tyler Resch, who holds a bachelor’s degree in American Studies from Amherst College as well a master’s degree in journalism from Northwestern University, worked in communications and journalism for many years. Formerly a reporter and photographer for the Providence Journal, he also edited the Bennington Banner for over a decade, and edited the Country Journal magazine as well. Currently the director of the Bennington Museum’s history-genealogy library, Resch has served as a director of long-time Vermont Congressman Bernie Sanders’ regional offices, and has been a trustee for several southern Vermont historical organizations as well.

Read an Excerpt




The fact that the town of Glastenbury in southern Vermont, throughout its more than thirty-six square miles of northern pines and hardwoods, contains a dozen mountain peaks exceeding three thousand feet in elevation starkly conveys its best-known characteristic: uninhabited, wild northern deciduous forest that comprises several vertebrae, so to speak, of the spine of the Green Mountains. Especially in today's overpopulated and overscheduled North American civilization, there is an undeniable fascination with Glastenbury — a place that is definitely low-key and nontechnological. Many find that just the knowledge that Glastenbury exists offers respite and even perhaps a touch of fantasy, even to those who have never actually been there.

Having a single-digit population doesn't mean there is little to be said about Glastenbury. On the contrary, this Vermont municipality has a colorful history of significance, depth and intrigue. As vast woodland with a large official Wilderness component (thanks to an act of Congress in 2006), it plays an important role today in offering outdoor recreational opportunities and providing bountiful supplies of fresh water to surrounding towns.

To start at the beginning and describe the creation, or chartering, of Glastenbury by Governor Benning Wentworth of New Hampshire on August 21, 1761 — who was, shall we say, filling a vacuum in jurisdiction — thrusts us into an amazing story. This is the saga of the very founding of the independent Republic of Vermont, which in 1791 became the State of Vermont, first to join the union of the original thirteen American colonies.

One shorthand way of thinking about the Vermont story is to imagine the first two acts of a play, each focused on an important person. First comes Benning Wentworth, who challenged New York by creating many new towns in mostly uninhabited territory that actually belonged to New York. Next comes Ethan Allen who, with his Green Mountain Boys, defended those who purchased land in good faith and settled the towns Wentworth had created. Glastenbury was one of those towns.

The main reason Vermont was the last of the six New England states to be settled was that until the early 1760s this was dangerous land because the French and Indian Wars were still going on. Another reason was that this territory, which really didn't have an acknowledged name other than "the wilderness," belonged to New York, which neglected for a long time to exercise its jurisdiction or to create towns — until Benning Wentworth of New Hampshire did so. The royal province of New York had been established in 1664 by edict of King Charles II, who named it for his brother James, the Duke of York, (hence New York) and who drew its eastern boundary at the "west bank of Connecticut River." Look at a map and envision New York State going as far eastward as the Connecticut River and you get a picture of what the early Vermonters were up against.

One might ask what business it was of the royally appointed governor of New Hampshire to start chartering towns west of the Connecticut River. Good question. That's the basic scenario of "the Vermont story." This story, which has amusing as well as geopolitical aspects, focuses on Benning Wentworth, an early American politician about whom the adjectives greedy, manipulative and duplicitous would be no exaggeration. He especially relished jumping into schemes that involved patriotism, religion, expanded jurisdiction, monetary gain and a heavy dash of risk.

Benning Wentworth was born in 1696 to a wealthy family, prominent in New England and old England. His father, John, a merchant in Boston and Portsmouth, then the capital of colonial New Hampshire, was also lieutenant governor of New Hampshire at a time when Massachusetts, Maine and New Hampshire shared the same governor, appointed by the king.

Benning graduated in the class of 1715 at Harvard, where according to his university biographer, Clifton K. Shipton, he set new records for paying fines and breaking windows. Benning then joined the family business, which was involved in a profitable lumber trade with Spain — an arrangement where timber from New England went to Spain in exchange for Spanish wine and British credit. His adversaries would accuse him of selling to Spain the tall trees that were to be reserved as masts for the British navy. That was probably true. He made frequent voyages to Spain and behind his back was called "Don Diego" because he affected the haughty mannerisms of Spanish autocracy.

After his father died in 1730, Benning at age thirty-four soon depleted the sizeable estate he had inherited, and by 1735 influential creditors were hounding him for payment. They came up with a scheme to bail him out financially and to help themselves too. The idea was to have Benning appointed the first royal governor of New Hampshire. In his defense, it must be said that in those days a royally appointed governor often used his office for personal gain.

Benning's predecessor as governor (of both Massachusetts and New Hampshire) was Joseph Belcher, who held him in low regard, calling him "that contemptible simpleton Wentworth," who possessed "pertness" and "insolence and ill manners." Nonetheless, the creditors' scheme worked and Benning was appointed governor of New Hampshire in 1741. He dealt with political adversaries by tossing them plums and created so many local justices that one critic wrote this doggerel:

This was the happy silver age When magistrates, profoundly sage,
O'erspread the land, and made, it seems,
Justice run down the street in streams.

In 1745, the border between Massachusetts and New Hampshire was adjusted so that several new towns came into Governor Wentworth's jurisdiction, and he sought to arrange for elections in those towns. He had to wait for instructions from the Board of Trade in London, and this led to a political deadlock of several years, so he took advantage of the delay to expand his influence and monetary gain. He chose to presume that the 1731 settlement of the New York–Connecticut boundary, twenty miles east of the Hudson, extended farther north than anyone else had envisioned. He also chose to ignore a confirmatory grant from the king in 1674 following the restoration of the New York province to the English from the Dutch — a grant that gave to New York "all the land[s] from the west side of Connecticut River to the east side of Delaware Bay."

Consequently, in 1749 Benning chartered a town on the twenty- mile line and named it for himself: Bennington. He corresponded with various governors of New York (none of them lasted very long) for the next dozen years, first telling them fairly clearly what he was doing. They disputed him, but New York was not aggressive about exerting its jurisdiction in this region. The office of the governor of New York was a kind of political plum in which numerous governors and lieutenant governors had to be brought up to speed on issues, and the matter of this territory between the twenty-mile line and the Connecticut River had low priority.

Benning chartered more towns, violating royal instructions that favored the settlement of more townships, but decreed that they should be no more than six miles squared and not chartered until fifty families were ready to settle.

After Bennington, the next town he created was Halifax on May 11, 1750. He waited a year and chartered Wilmington and Marlboro on the same day, April 29, 1751. Then he gradually locked up the boundary along the Connecticut River and Massachusetts border with Westminster on November 9, 1752; Rockingham on December 28, 1752; and Stamford and Woodford both on March 6, 1753. He kept going, with Townshend and New Fane on June 20, 1753; then three in a day: Brattleboro, Fulham (later called Dummerston) and Putney on December 26, 1753; followed by Chester, Guilford and Tomlinson (later known as Grafton) in 1754. Though "chartered," these towns remained essentially unsettled.

Then followed a long delay while war broke out with France in 1754, a condition that enabled thousands of troops to pass through what was then called the Hampshire Grants so they could sense its attractiveness for settlement. By 1760 and the end of hostilities with the fall of Montreal, Benning lost no time resuming the chartering of towns west of the Connecticut River. But now he let the New York authorities find out by normal channels of communication — for example, slow boats to London and back.

He discovered the advantages of mass production, and in a single day, August 20, 1761, chartered 6 towns: Glastenbury, Shaftsbury, Dorset, Rupert, Springfield and Weathersfield. (The name was spelled "Glossenburry" on the charter, the way it was pronounced in England, and the way some old-time Vermonters still say it.) By the spring of 1764 he had chartered 128 more towns in what today is Vermont. But a governor who signed a sheepskin charter created neither population nor settlement. The charter meant there were "proprietors" or friends of the governor who purchased rights to start selling the land — first links in the chains of title.

When he chartered those towns, Benning had no idea what their topography was like. All he did was draw lines on paper, give names to the resulting squares (mostly of six miles per side) and sign documents he hoped would be taken seriously. They almost weren't.

By issuing plural grants to speculators, Benning had violated royal restrictions on individual grants, to wit: 766 individuals received grants in two townships; 306 individuals received grants in either three or four townships; 151 persons got grants in five or more townships. Samuel Robinson, who in 1761 became the first settler of Bennington, had grants in ten townships. Samuel Avery, who spent his entire life in Connecticut and never settled in Vermont, held grants in twenty townships.

Each town set aside land for religious purposes, the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, the first minister, a school and of course for Benning Wentworth himself. He artfully named each town for a person of prominence or influence in London. For example, Rupert was named for Prince Rupert who, though deceased, was a national hero beloved by all Englishmen. Shaftsbury was named for the Fourth Earl of Shaftesbury (sic), a member of the Privy Council.

Why Benning chose the name Glastenbury is open to speculation. Perhaps it was for Glastonbury in Somerset, England. The Vermont Glastenbury (note difference in spelling) in Bennington County adjoins the town in Windham County that Benning named Somerset, which he chartered three weeks later. Because he named many towns for prestigious persons with whom he wished to gain favor, it is often assumed that Glastenbury was selected to honor the British Baron Glastonbury. But Esther M. Swift's Vermont Place-Names says that this gentleman's name was not associated with peerage until 1797. A possibility is that the town was named for Glastonbury, Connecticut, a Hartford suburb whence Benning hoped to lure settlers. In any case, Vermonters, an independent lot, managed to change one letter in spelling it.

He finally secured the attention of New York officials, who now wanted to establish some new towns of their own in this territory. Some historic maps show a confused overlap of towns created from both sides, New Hampshire and New York. It became clear that what Benning Wentworth had done, in the larger picture, was to create a dispute between two royally appointed governors that could be resolved only by the king, who had more important issues with which to concern himself. Benning, by invoking religion, education and political prominence, had sought to make it difficult for the king to reject his handiwork.

The powers in London first blew the whistle on Governor Wentworth when on July 20, 1764, the Privy Council issued a famously ambiguous decision of the king that declared the west bank of the Connecticut River to be the boundary between New York and New Hampshire. But this decision seemed to mean, to many in the Hampshire Grants, that their titles were to be transferred to New York; and if that had happened, perhaps all would have been smoothed over. But the wording also offered the opportunity for New Yorkers to make settlers pay new fees, an appalling prospect to speculators who owned thousands of acres. In any case, the edict did not reach Governor Wentworth in Portsmouth or officials in Albany for another ten months. By that time, April 1765, there were 128 towns established in the Hampshire Grants, most with settled landowners who were working farmers.

Bennington's pioneer settler Samuel Robinson, also a major land speculator, sought to resolve the stalemate by sailing to London in 1767 to seek the personal attention of the king. But when Robinson contracted smallpox in London and died, resolution was delayed again. Meanwhile, in 1765 the home government in London had caught up with the foibles of Governor Wentworth of New Hampshire and issued a five-point bill of complaint against his: one, neglect of correspondence; two, failure to submit acts for royal approval; three, failure to protect the mast reservations for the royal navy; four, venial land grants; and five, simony (the illicit buying and selling of ecclesiastical favors).

Luck was with him once again. Nephew John Wentworth, in London at the time of this awful development, prevailed upon the king's councilors to allow Benning to resign in dignity rather than face those accusations. Benning got the message and resigned in favor of the nephew, who became the second colonial governor of New Hampshire. Back in Portsmouth, Benning's Assembly, in amusing contrast to earlier disputes with him, issued a praiseworthy resolution upon his retirement after twenty-five years of service — the longest continuous administration in American colonial history!

A couple of personal details about Benning Wentworth, who was predeceased by his wife and all five children (one son, also named Benning, attended Harvard in the class of 1741 and died young): In 1760 the governor, age sixty-four, suddenly announced at a dinner party in his mansion that he and his housekeeper, Martha Hilton, age twenty-four, were to be married. A dinner guest who was an Episcopal priest obliged and married them on the spot. On Benning's death in 1770 he shunned expectant relatives and left his estate to the young widow. She remarried, was widowed again and the fortune was ultimately dispersed.

Soon after Benning's death, amid confusion over land titles and jurisdictions, a new force to be reckoned with arrived on the scene in the form of several brothers from Connecticut, the eldest and loudest being the intrepid Ethan Allen, and the youngest and perhaps most influential being Ira. They took full advantage of the crisis, offered leadership to the cause of the Green Mountain settlers and speculators against the Yorkers. The Allens helped to harass the New Yorkers out of the Grants. Ethan Allen was bombastic, profane, fond of camaraderie and strong drink — a man who rushed heedlessly to serve a cause in which he believed. Shortly after the American Revolution broke out at Lexington and Concord in April 1775, Ethan Allen and a cadre of his Green Mountain Boys captured Fort Ticonderoga and gained the attention of the embryonic nation.

So influential was this act that New York authorities and settlers of the Hampshire Grants buried the hatchet, so to speak, in the interest of unity against the larger enemy, Great Britain. And the official Green Mountain Boys regiment was created, ironically, by New York. But instead of Ethan Allen as commander, the boys elected Seth Warner.

The memorable local event of the American Revolution was the Battle of Bennington, which took place on August 16, 1777, just over the New York border and became known as "the turning point of the turning point" of the Patriots' victory. Militia units from Vermont, New Hampshire and Massachusetts, commanded by General John Stark of New Hampshire, defeated the mostly German mercenary forces of British General John Burgoyne. Seth Warner commanded a unit that won a second phase of that battle. Ethan Allen was not there, having been captured by the British in Canada. Burgoyne surrendered two months later after the battles of Saratoga.


Excerpted from "Glastenbury"
by .
Copyright © 2008 Tyler Resch.
Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Chapter 1 In the Beginning: Duplicitous Politics,
Chapter 2 Haphazard Recordkeeping,
Chapter 3 "A Pretty Safe Place of Retreat for Bears and Other Wild Animals",
Chapter 4 Opening Up "New Country": The Glastenbury Plank Road,
Chapter 5 Charcoal Fueled Industry before Petroleum,
Chapter 6 Two Murders Intrude upon the Serenity,
Chapter 7 The Brief Flowering of a South Glastenbury Summer Resort,
Chapter 8 Decline, Disincorporation and Disappearance,
Chapter 9 A Parcel Collector and the Viennese Equestrian Influence,
Chapter 10 Glastenbury, Recreational Mecca, in the News,
Chapter 11 New Zoning Law Foils Unwise Development,
Chapter 12 A Twenty-first-century Tour of the Old Ghost Town,
"Side Hill Farm," by Stephen Sandy,

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