News for Newfane

Three villages, three rivers, a rich legacy, and a community effort to boost local news

WILLIAMSVILLE — The first European to settle in what is now Newfane did so in error. In 1761, John Hazelton was looking for Townshend and, since one tree looked much like another, mistook those on top of Newfane Hill for those he was looking for.

According to A New Fane in the Second Century, a local history, within five years of his arrival, Hazelton was joined by Jonathan Park, Nathaniel Stedman, and Ebenezer Dyer.

Fane, as the town was called, was settled on top of Newfane Hill, where it became the county seat in 1787. The village thrived. By 1790, it consisted of a courthouse, jail, meetinghouse, academy, three stores, two hotels, several shops, and about 20 homes.

When curious visitors visit the old town, they'll find a map at the site of the former village center, which indicates the location of these early buildings, some marked by numbered stones. A half mile down the hill, the cemetery of that first settlement remains intact.

But in the winter of 1825, the residents put their houses and public buildings on runners and slid them downhill to Fayetteville, now called Newfane. A few of the buildings that were reconstructed after being relocated can still be found.

The new location gave residents of the three main settlements access to better transportation along the river valley and to power from the streams: Smith Brook in Newfane, the Rock River in Williamsville, and the South Branch (a.k.a. the Marlboro Branch) in what was once called Pondville and is now known as South Newfane.

These streams powered local industry in each of the town's three villages.

Newfane had a grist mill, a sawmill, two blacksmiths, two carriage factories, and approximately 50 dwellings. Williamsville had about 30 homes, two sawmills, a flouring mill, a tannery, two blacksmith shops, a bobbin factory, a carriage factory, a carding machine, a fulling and cloth dressing mill, a planning mill, and a pail factory. South Newfane was home to two sawmills, one flouring mill, one carding machine, and 20 dwellings.

All told, the three villages hosted two churches and two meeting houses, three hotels, five stores, a courthouse, and a jail. Newfane residents who didn't live in any of the three villages generally lived on farms. By 1820, Newfane's population peaked at 1,506.

* * *

It's taken almost 200 years for the town's population to recover. According to the 2010 census, 1,726 people now live in town, but there's little, if any, industrial manufacturing in Newfane these days.

What we do have is a bank, a gift shop, a general store and a couple of places to eat. One could argue that Newfane has become little more than a bedroom community to Brattleboro. But it wouldn't be true.

Even though the manufacturing enterprises that once dammed and polluted the town's streams are gone, Newfane is home to a 21st-century economy of solo-preneurs, many of whom are part of Vermont's robust creative economy. But there are also business consultants, service providers, localvore farmers, healers, educators, and international telecommuters.

Apart from how we earn our livings, and regardless of which village we live in or near, what we all have in common is that we are all Newfane residents. We all fund our schools and roads; we depend on our two fire departments. We borrow books and media from the Moore Free Library, where we also attend programs, including monthly art exhibitions.

And we congregate in our three fabulous meeting halls: the Union Hall, owned by the Incorporated Village of Newfane; the Williamsville Hall, owned by the town; and the South Newfane Schoolhouse, owned by the South Newfane Village Association. These community meeting spaces allow us to meet and greet one another face-to-face, activities that are old-fashioned and even quaint - and essential to our sense of community and place.

Newfane is also home to the Historical Society of Windham County and its museum. We have both a farm market and a garden center. We have more talent than I know about, let alone can name.

And even though it sometimes seems as if we all live in the privacy of our isolated houses, we know that when the floodwaters wash through, community counts.

Life in a small town, it turns out, means lending a helping hand to the same neighbor with whom you disagree about politics, religion, education, or zoning. Nevertheless, when push comes to shove, there simply aren't enough of us to hold grudges or ignore pleas for help for a neighbor in need.

But sadly, there's also currently no single, reliable place to find out what's going on in town. This is why we have created the effort to work, on a community level, with The Commons to create a special Newfane news section, which should run the third week of every month in the paper's Town & Village section.

News stories, press releases, and ideas for features and announcements of recent achievements and upcoming events can be emailed to n[email protected]. Newfane-related letters to the editor or commentary are, as always, welcomed; those should be sent to [email protected]. All mail will be read.

Announcements will be posted on The Commons' website and Facebook page, and stories researched and written according to the paper's editorial standards.

It is my hope that being able to find Newfane news, both online and in print, will provide the glue that will keep Newfane distinct and strong well into its third century - and beyond.

Subscribe to the newsletter for weekly updates