History of Montpelier
Before European settlement in the region, the Abenaki and their ancestors were the stewards of the valley and hills that today correspond to the city of Montpelier. Few Native archaeological sites have been identified in Montpelier to date due to the development of the valley bottom and because few archaeological investigations have been conducted in the city. Nevertheless, Montpelier’s location along the Winooski River near the mouths of the Dog River and the North Branch meant that it likely served as a travel corridor for Native people for at least 11,000 years. Beginning about 1,000 A.D., Native people began to practice intensive agriculture in Vermont. The Winooski River floodplains became important areas upon which to grow crops. Although no archaeological sites directly attest to maize cultivation in Montpelier, early historic chronicles mention Native corn fields and cleared lands in the general area. As European and then American settlers moved into Vermont’s interior in the 18th century, many Abenaki, dispossessed of their lands, fled, moved, or hid their identities and outwardly integrated into the dominant American cultural milieu. Surviving Abenaki descendants have emerged from hiding in recent decades to reclaim their culture and history. Today, there are four State-recognized Abenaki tribes.
(Research and Essay by Jess Robinson, State Archaeologist, Vermont Division for Historic Preservation)
European Settlement and State Capital
By 1791, the year that Vermont became a state, there were 113 people recorded living here. Nine years later, the recorded population of the town was 890. In addition to the settlement at the confluence of the Winooski (Abenaki for “onion”) and North Branch Rivers, villages had been established in the center, east, and north sections of the town. The 2020 census counted 7,477 residents in Montpelier, making it the least populous state capital in the U.S.
In 1805, after fourteen years with an itinerant government and much bickering among delegates to the General Assembly, Montpelier was chosen as the capital of the young state because it was not associated with either the eastern or western sides of the Green Mountains. Additional incentive was provided by Thomas Davis, son of Jacob, who donated land for the first of three successive statehouses to stand on that site, and the citizens of the town, who contributed funds for its construction.
The same rivers that had attracted indigenous peoples to this area facilitated economic growth in the capital city. Small tradesmen’s shops and mills were located along the North Branch even before the railroad came to Montpelier in 1849, fueling development of industry and tourism.
Jacob Davis’s first mill on the North Branch became the location of the very successful Lane Manufacturing Company, while the Colton Manufacturing Company’s operations were on the south bank of the Winooski (in what was then part of Berlin) and a large grain elevator was on the north bank. Several clothespin manufacturing companies operated along the Winooski as well. The flat land along the Winooski that hosted two rail lines attracted numerous sheds for finishing granite brought in from neighboring Barre.
As business grew around the rivers, the interests of the residents in the valley began to diverge from those in the agricultural areas. In 1894 the legislature chartered the City of Montpelier (which was organized at Town Meeting day on March 5, 1895) and created the Town of East Montpelier. Four years later the city annexed a portion of Berlin on the south side of the Winooski River that contained mills and residences.
Business attracted immigrants. In 1895, local census takers identified 46 percent of Montpelier’s population as being other than “American.” Twenty years later, that number had grown to 53 percent. The largest ethnic groups in Montpelier in 1915 were French Canadian, Irish, and Italian with significant representation of Spanish, Scotch, English, “Hebrews”, and Swedes. Montpelier’s Italian population clustered around the east end of Barre Street where the granite sheds were located. Other immigrant groups lived in the vicinity of the Lane shops and the Pioneer Mills along the Winooski River at the eastern end of the city.
The density of development in Montpelier’s downtown and its location along two rivers has exposed the city to fires and floods. Two fires in 1875 destroyed 38 buildings on Main, State, and Barre Streets. The commercial center of the city was rebuilt with brick to avoid future conflagrations. Later fires destroyed individual blocks but didn’t spread widely. Montpelier has experienced many floods over the years, but the worst was in November 1927 when 17 of the city’s 24 bridges were destroyed and property losses averaged $400 for every resident. Although not as serious as the 1927 flood, an ice jam on the Winooski in March 1992 caused significant property damage and attracted national attention as boats plied the streets of Montpelier.
Montpelier has been home to a private educational institution located on the eastern hill outside of the downtown since 1868 when the Newbury Seminary bought the former Civil War hospital there. For many years the school was known as the Vermont Methodist Seminary, then Montpelier Seminary, and later Vermont Junior College and Vermont College for Women. In 1972 Norwich University in nearby Northfield, Vermont, operated the campus as the co-ed Vermont College. In 2001 the campus and some of its educational programs were sold to Union Institute and University, which in turn sold the campus to a new institution, Vermont College of Fine Arts, in 2008. This section of town, known as Seminary Hill, also hosted the state arsenal built during the Civil War (one building of which remains) and the Heaton Hospital, built in 1898 and still in use as a nursing home. A slate quarry operated on the eastern side of this hill for about ten years at the end of the nineteenth century.
From 1975 to 2008 Montpelier was home to Woodbury College, which trained students to be paralegals and mediators from their school in the renovated town farm building (also known as the “Poor Farm”) on Elm Street. When Woodbury merged with Champlain College and relocated to Burlington in 2008, it sold its Montpelier facilities to the Community College of Vermont.
In 1899, John E. Hubbard gave the city 134 acres of land behind the State House for use as a park. Twelve years later Hubbard donated additional land where the present Hubbard Park tower now stands. The park has grown since then to almost 300 acres. The Kellogg-Hubbard Library opened in 1896 with funds from the estate of Martin and Fanny Kellogg and their nephew John E. Hubbard.
Thomas Waterman Wood, a nationally acclaimed portrait and genre painter, was born in Montpelier and bestowed on his hometown his art collection in 1895. The T.W. Wood Gallery has been housed in several locations in the city, before moving to the Center for the Arts and Learning on Barre Street in 2012.
The Montpelier arts scene has been enhanced by several visual and performing arts organizations, including the Lost Nation Theater, a professional theater company performing in City Hall since 1977; Artisan’s Hand, a cooperative crafts gallery since 1978; the Monteverdi Music School and the Summit School of Traditional Music and Culture (both located at the Center for Arts and Learning); Capital City Concerts presenting chamber music since 2000; and Art Walk, a bi-monthly evening of pop-up galleries and performances in local businesses.
The state’s historical society museum has been located in the city since 1851 when the “state cabinet” opened on the first floor of the State House.
Montpelier’s dining scene and economic climate were greatly influenced by the creation of the New England Culinary Institute, a private, for-profit culinary school in 1980. At the pinnacle of its success the school had three venues in Montpelier and two in Chittenden County; it closed in 2020. Many of its graduates owned or operated restaurants in the region. Montpelier’s reputation as a good food haven was sealed in 1996 when the city’s planning commission turned down an application from McDonald’s to open a downtown restaurant on State Street. The city is the only state capital without a McDonald’s, although there is one nearby in Berlin.
PoliticsLike much of Vermont, Montpelier was conservative and Republican until the last quarter of the twentieth century, with heavy involvement of insurance company employees in civic affairs, and several chief executives elected as mayors. The first Democrat elected from Montpelier to the state legislature was Kirtland J. Keve, a retired counsel for National Life, in 1974. The Democrats had not even fielded candidates in the previous six elections, but Keve was re-elected in 1976. The next Democrat to represent Montpelier in the State House was elected in 1982 when Francis Brooks, a popular Black teacher at Montpelier High School, defeated the Republican incumbent, a retired banker. Republicans have not sent a representative from the city to the Vermont House since long-serving legislator Peter Giuliani retired two years later. Sally Rice, the first female mayor of Montpelier, was elected in 1986. Although city races are non-partisan, Rice began working as executive director of the Republican party while in office and lost her bid for re-election. Two of the next three women mayors were later elected to the state legislature as Democrats.
Although Montpelier is among the smallest urban areas in Vermont and in the U.S., it faces many of the same economic, social, and environmental challenges of larger urban areas. Some recent projects related to these are new affordable housing in the downtown area; a wood chip district heating plant (built and operated in cooperation with the State of Vermont to serve the “capitol complex” and several public and private properties in the city’s downtown); and a combined transit center/housing complex near the Vermont State House and the commercial area. And while the city adapts to global changes and local concerns, it tries to retain the advantages, opportunities, and pleasures of small-scale living.
(Research and Essay by Paul A. Carnahan, Librarian, Vermont Historical Society)
Thank you to Jess Robinson, Paul Carnahan, Michael Sherman, the Vermont Division for Historic Preservation, the Vermont Historical Society, and the City’s Social and Economic Justice Advisory Committee for this December 2021 update to our History Page.