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Tuesday September 2, 2008 Edition
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Sharing Memories of Vergennes with the Steven's House

All photographs are courtesy of the Ferrisburgh Historical Society and the Otter Creek Basin Student History Club.
photo provided
All photographs are courtesy of the Ferrisburgh Historical Society and the Otter Creek Basin Student History Club.
All photographs are courtesy of the Ferrisburgh Historical Society and the Otter Creek Basin Student History Club.
photo provided
All photographs are courtesy of the Ferrisburgh Historical Society and the Otter Creek Basin Student History Club.
All photographs are courtesy of the Ferrisburgh Historical Society and the Otter Creek Basin Student History Club.
photo provided
All photographs are courtesy of the Ferrisburgh Historical Society and the Otter Creek Basin Student History Club.

Tuesday September 2, 2008

By Cookie Steponaitis

   Now, before you get all excited and concerned that a building can not talk, this building begs to differ. Since 1796 when six men were licensed to keep “houses of public entertainment on the easterly corner of Main and Green Street,” thousands of people have crossed my path, stayed in my rooms, gazed at the streets of Vergennes from my windows, stabled their horses in my livery, and taken the stage, train or steamships after leaving my porch to destinations around the world. Presidents have eaten in my restaurants and notorious individuals from American history have made their last trip in caskets that have stopped and rested on my porch.  Several people through time have recorded first hand accounts of parties, meetings and special events in my rooms. Over fifty images exist of my changing façade and current business owners still call my three stories home. Since 1796 history has unfolded in front of and in my rooms. Like the town of Vergennes, I have changed with it so I feel that as the Steven's House I am uniquely qualified to share thoughts about the changes in Vergennes, given that I have been a part of them for so long.
    Like many things of late, the price of my purchase has continued to go up. The Herrick Notes and Sherill Diary housed at the Bixby Library show that in March of 1795 I was sold for $ 120.00 and by July of 1799 my price had risen to $840.00 when I was sold to Jesse Hollister. I was involved in the “changing of hands” again in 1800 when Azariah Painter bought me for $3,000. I finally passed into the hands of the Steven's family where I stayed from 1816-1874.

           When Mr. Painter took over my running the name of the establishment was changed to Painter's Tavern. The Herrick Notes once more tell of the numerous social gatherings and parties held in my main room between 1805-1815. Many of the guests wore homespun dresses, but the “well to do” could be seen dancing the night away in calico dresses. Attending one of these events was Ann, the young wife of then Lt. Thomas McDonough. She and her children had joined her husband for the summer and winter of 1813 during the time the fleet that would fight the British later in the year was being built at the Falls. In a letter to her mother she wrote, “I have told you that the people here seem very clever; you will also think they are very queer. There is a universal dread of officers amount the enlightened inhabitants of Vergennes. They are so domestic that they have not as yet invited us to drink tea with them, but say that they intend to. However, the mud is so much worse than in Hartford that it is almost an impossibility to get out of the house.” McDonough's wife came to many a function at my main room that winter and she a startling figure to the locals in her calico dresses.

    Outside in the streets of the town four handsome coaches with four good horses would pull up to my doors bringing the mail and the passengers. The mail route was established in 1793 and continued until the railroad began carrying it in 1844. Two horse drawn stages came into town each day. One started in Boston and the other came from Montreal. Both runs changed horses and stabled their spent horses in my livery stable. The most photographed of all the carriages was donated to the Shelburne Museum by Mrs. Charles Swift in 1950. A good picture of my front porch, the carriage and the team was posted in the Vergennes paper that year.

    Now, I am not one to drop the names of the famous, but my walls have seen and entertained United States Presidents. The Herrick Notes tell that President Monroe came to Vergennes by water and was received at the Steven's House, “…by City fathers in a good old fashioned way.” The president went on to the Falls to tour the Monkton Iron Works, which was at that time one of the most important in the United States. A banquet was held in his honor at the hotel. Another visitor recorded in several journals was John Brown of Harper's Ferry fame. He came to the Steven's House many times and on his last trip through town, legend records that he purchased seventy feet of rope at the hardware store. It is said to be the rope with which he was hanged on December 5, 1859.

    While history may debate the rope, no one debates that his body passed through Vergennes on its way to burial in New York state and that the party stopped in Vergennes and his coffin rested on my porch while the team of horses was changed. One of the men who were accompanying the body worked for Frank Leslie's Illustrated Weekly and created drawings of the event. Sitting at a table on the porch he drew a special sketch that was printed with the caption, “Drawn by our special artist who was on the spot.”

    I will share with you more of the changes, renovations and different looks that I have experienced during my time as a hotel, hardware store, bank and stagecoach stop among others. People learned in a 1915 newspaper article about my changes to steam heat, electric lights, plate glass fronts, a new coat of paint and a promise from my proprietor at the time that there were more changes to come.

    I am really excited to be again on center stage this weekend for the Vergennes Day celebrations and the people who will walk on my floors, climb my stairs, pausing to reflect on the history of the special town I am a part of. For those of you a bit put off by the assumption that a building can talk, I direct you to the vertical files located in the Bixby Library where you will find page after page of people writing and recording the passing of time and events that occurred in my space and witnessed with my “own sight.”

    The proprietor Mr. Daniels, in 1915 remarked to the reporter of the day that, “…by reason of its geographical location, and the wonderfully attractive scenery hereabouts, Vergennes has always been a popular stopping place for tourists.” Mr. Daniels went on to stress the type of welcome that would make them feel glad to return to the Steven's House which was also considered to be a success for the city as well.

    There are so many more stories I could tell you, but that would ruin the surprise of discovery. So, I leave you with some images of Vergennes and me, the Steven's House through time. In some the cavalry has come, and in others the automobile has replaced the horse. In some the famed Memorial Day parade has people packing my balconies and in others you can just add yourself into the picture by coming and seeing what I am all about. I am in downtown, at the traffic light, just to the west of the green and in the heart of the Little City.

   (Article resources include: Sherill Diary, Herrick Diary, Newspaper articles 1915, 1920, Paper read by Mrs. CS. Dana at DAR Meeting 1935, and assorted articles in the Bixby Library Vertical files.  Historic images compliments of the Ferrisburgh Historical Society.)     


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