Glastenbury has been a “ghost town” since the late 1930s. At it’s peak the official census of 1880 showed a population of 241. Glastenbury had an official municipal history of 103 years; in existence from 1834 to 1937. Glastenbury was first chartered by New Hampshire Governor Benning Wentworth as part of the New Hampshire Grants on August 20,1761.
When Vermont achieved it’s statehood in 1791 and the first census was taken, a total of 34 people were already settled in the town. Roads were created from the head waters of the Deerfield river in Somerset to Shaftsbury, Bennington and Woodford.
By 1840, 53 people lived in Glastenbury. They grew wheat, rye, corn, potatoes, oats, and buckwheat. They raised sheep and tapped maples for sugar, often yielding as much as 600 lbs. of maple sugar each year.
Life was harder in Glastenbury than in most surrounding towns because of it’s high altitude and rough terrain. Glastenbury has an extremely short growing season with very cold and long winters.
In Shaftsbury, Henry Burden, a great iron master, desperately needed charcoal, because charcoal gave a high and even heat that was necessary to melt iron ore. His blast furnace and produced horseshoes, railroad irons, and nails primarily for shipment to Troy. He looked to neighboring Glastenbury as a potential source of the charcoal.
Glastenbury had a mountain of wood to burn, so charcoals pits were set up. most of the charring was done in the winter months in charcoal pits where the air flow could be sufficiently controlled so full combustion would not take place – an essential part of the charcoal making process. Later the pits were replaced by more advanced kilns. They were cylindrical in shape measuring about thirty-five feet across, with a dome on top, and made of red brick. They were then held together with large iron rings in concentric circles around the kilns.
Charcoal burning turned into a big business for Glastenbury for many years. The kilns were maintained by The Burden Iron Company who shipped the charcoal to their South Shaftsbury furnace by wagons.
The Glastenbury-Woodford-Bennington railroad was completed in 1872. Nine miles of rail line was created, with an elevation of 1200 feet within the first eight miles from Bennington. Trains of twelve to fourteen cars traveled to and from Glastenbury and Bennington every day carrying lumber, charcoal, alcohol and a few passengers.
By the late 1880’s the mountains were stripped of their trees leaving nothing bigger than a sapling. That combined with the introduction of commercial coke wiped out the charcoal business. The Glastenbury Railroad eventually went out of business, leaving fern picking as Glastenbury’s only surviving industry.
In 1894 the old railroad was revived as the Bennington & Woodford Railroad. It carried sportsmen, fern pickers and picnickers up into the mountains. Later that year a devastating flood wiped out the track and put it out of business forever.
The population dwindled to 17 in 1920, and then down to 7 in 1930, of which only three were permanent residents. In 1937, the town was officially declared “unorganized” along with the town of Somerset where a similar situation had developed – the first such declaration by special act by the state of Vermont.
Source: Ordinary Heroes by Ruth Levin, edited by Tyler Resch
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