Manchester history lesson

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(Host) Commentator Mary Hard Bort takes the long view when contemplating change in her community.

(Bort) I grew up in Manchester, left to go to college and did not live here again for more than 30 years. People often ask me if I don’t find the changes in Manchester startling. But Manchester has been changing ever since it was settled.

Those first settlers found a completely forested land that they had to clear in order to build houses and grow crops. These settlers were mostly young men who had left crowded Connecticut for new land and adventure. They used what was available to them – wood and water power – to provide for their needs. They built sawmills and gristmills, used water power to work marble quarried in Dorset, and made potash from felled trees to trade for things they needed and for cash.

In 1853 the railroad came, and it brought change. Goods could be shipped out – marble, lumber, butter, cheese, manufactured goods – and goods and people could be transported in. Franklin Orvis opened his Equinox House in Manchester Village, counting on the railroad to bring people from New York City to the pleasant climate of Manchester for summer vacations, and they came to fish in the Battenkill using rods and flies produced by Charles F. Orvis. Both these businesses survive today.

About the turn of the century, summer visitors began building their own summer cottages in the Village and the newly popular sport of golf produced major changes. The Ekwanok Country Club opened in 1900 and the social climate of the village was forever changed. Today this town of about 4,000 people has three championship 18-hole golf courses.

In the depths of the Depression, the ski industry was born and by the end of World War II it was just waiting to explode. And it did explode and brought with it a second home industry which has brought thousands of part-time residents to the area. Manchester Center has always been the commercial hub of the town and in the 1980s a new phenomenon – “recreational shopping”- made its appearance as dozens of upscale discount shops opened.

Cultural life in Manchester is rich. The Southern Vermont Arts Center is nationally known for the quality of its exhibits and special activities. Hildene, the summer home of Robert Todd Lincoln, is host to over 50,000 visitors a year.

Manchester has done well in maintaining its commercial core, and in preserving its buildings, its land and its water through careful planning and zoning. We face the same problems of housing for our young families, and jobs for our young people, that other Vermont towns face. With the same persistence that has solved the challenges of “sprawl” and traffic and parking, most of us are confident that we can also solve these problems.

I’m Mary Hard Bort in Manchester.

Mary Hard Bort is curator of the Manchester Historical Society and free lance writer about Manchester history.

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VPR’s series, Southwest Corner includes interviews, news stories and commentaries on issues that face the southwestern part of the state.

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