In the neighboring village of Chester, in the section known as “Factoryville, ” stands a small stone marker near the residence of F. P. Burbank, which indicates the location of the first courthouse and jail erected in what in later years became the State of Vermont. The circumstances of its being built, and its use, form a most interesting story of the primitive conditions surrounding the lives of the earliest settlers in this region. The spot was not marked until 1909, but the location of the building has always been a matter of record.
Previous to 1765, the few straggling settlers that had come to this section of New England had been obliged to go to Albany, N. Y., about 150 miles distant, for all court matters, which, with the lack of roads, was a serious matter. Early in that year, a petition was made to Governor Colden of New York for the establishment of counties in the territory between the provinces of New York and New Hampshire. In 1766, the Provincial Legislature of New York erected a county comprising nearly the same territory now contained in the counties of Windham and Orange. They named it Cumberland County, and it was the first county to be formed in the territory that afterward became the State of Vermont. It was probably named for Prince William, the Duke of Cumberland, who, in 1746, met with distinguished success in opposing the rebels in Scotland. The shire town of this new county was located at New Flamstead, the name later changed to Chester.
One of the principal reasons for the location of the shire at Chester was that Thomas Chandler, who was a man of large means in those early days, and resided there, made the offer that he would “at his own expense build a good and sufficient court house and jail.” Four years later, in 1770, it was described as being in the corner of a dwelling house, built of small poles notched together at the corners similar to log houses. The corner considered as the jail, was built as a palisade with upright poles six inches in diameter resting on the lower floor and reaching to the chamber floor, pegged up with wooden pegs. The whole side could be easily thrown over and the prisoners freed. In this early jail at Chester, there is record of but one prisoner being confined for any length of time, and he stayed there of his own volition because the man who had brought suit against him, and thus caused his confinement, “had used him with great tenderness and should not be made blamable for his escape.”
In 1770, the inhabitants of Chester raised money by subscription, the unique document reading as follows: “June 16th-To Encourage the finishing of the goal now begun in Chester, we the subscribers will pay to such person or persons as Thomas Chandler, Thomas Chandler, Jr., Esquires, and Mr. John Grout, who shall employ labor, or provide materials, the sums against our names written,-witness our hands,-Joseph Wood, one bushel of corn. William Dean two Bushels of wheat delivered at Rockingham at the last day of August.” Judge Chandler then began the erection of a second building to be used for both courthouse and jail. The next year, he complained that no one had paid in anything on his subscription, but he had built the second jail. This second jail was built of hemlock logs 20 inches
in diameter. Owing to the scarcity of nails, which were not manufactured by the colonies, the roof could not be completed, and the new jail was left unfinished. In the meantime, the old jail had been accepted by the court, although it was questioned whether it would hold a prisoner who really wanted to get his liberty. Judge Chandler had the old jail repaired, the sides strengthened, and, at right angles with the logs that formed the main body of the house, other logs were pinned.
Early in 1771, the inhabitants of Cumberland County, especially those on the Connecticut River, began a strong movement to get the shire removed to Westminster as being a locality more accessible. To prevent this, Judge Chandler proceeded to build a courthouse and jail at his own expense. It was “thirty feet long, sixteen feet wide and eleven feet posts.” Besides the court room, there was recorded a “sufficient lobby, or room fit for a jury, with a fire place in it.” Judge Chandler leased this building to the county for a period of ten years, and as much longer as the county might want it.
In spite of having the use of these “commodious” quarters, the people continued the effort to get the shire removed to Westminster, and these efforts were successful. Supervisors were elected in each town in the county, who met in Chester on May 26, 1772, and selected Westminster as the shire town, designating the exact location for the courthouse and jail, which were built and first occupied in 1773. Its cost was limited to two hundred and fifty pounds, raised by tax upon the whole county.
This Westminster courthouse and jail were destined to become the scenes of many of the important events that occurred during the Revolution and the formation of the State of Vermont.
Based on: The Connecticut River Valley in southern Vermont and New Hampshire: historical sketches, Rutland, Vt.: Tuttle Co., Marble City Press, 1929.