The Town's Rich History

Richford has a rich and unique history. From the early settlers to the hey day of the railroads, Richford's history has been shaped by its proximity to the Canadian border.

The Settlers

Hugh Miller is given credit for being the first settler. He visited Richford and picked out land, but returned home to Bradford Vermont to bring his family over. In March 1795, Hugh, his wife Mary, and their children Daniel, Jacob, Mary Ann and Ruth arrived. Hugh and Mary had married children who also settled in Richford. They were Theophilus and Hannah Miller Hastings, Robert and Catherine Miller Kennedy with their five children, Captain Benjamin and Amy Miller Barnet with their five children, and James Miller with his wife and two children.

Between the time Hugh scouted Richford and returned with his family, Joseph Stanhope arrived. Joseph staked out a claim on the same land that Hugh Miller had his eye on, and started to develop it. When Hugh Miller returned with his family to find that Joseph Stanhope had staked out his claim in the interim, the Millers settled next to Stanhope's claim. During early 1796, Joseph went to Guilford, Vermont to get his wife, Ruth, and their six children. The trip to Richford took them 36 days.

Daniel Loveland was next to arrive in 1796, and he was followed by Stephen Blaisdell and Jonathan Janes, Rowland Powell, Stephen Carpenter and Daniel Janes.

These families staked out claims along the Missisquoi River and Brooks running into it. They were interested in the river bottom land for farming and water to power water wheels.

The Madam

Queen Lil, Lillian Miner, was born on a farm at Steven's MillsĀ  in 1866. She married a man named A. G. Shipley and they traveled the country, staging medicine shows. Shipley had a reputation for grave-robbing, horse stealing and worse. His wife Lil was an enterprising woman, and ended up in Boston working as a madam in a Boston brothel. At a certain point, arrest was imminent as the Boston police closed in. Lil escaped in the night and made her way back to Richford.

In 1911 she purchased land which sat on both the U.S. and Canadian sides of the border. There she constructed a building which stood three stories high. The lot had once held a hotel, which had burned to the ground. The federal government passed a law making it unlawful to build on a international boundary, but Queen Lil contested the government's correctness in this case. The ensuing court proceedings ended in her favor when she was able to argue that she had not built a new structure, but had simply repaired an existing structure.

The structure itself had a bar downstairs, and two upper floors of rooms where the girls, most from Boston and Montreal, could entertain privately. It did not take long for the word to get out, producing many visitors, among them railroad men, woodsmen, and local gents. Lillian's place was particularly popular during prohibition. Queen Lil ran her place with a sharp eye for business, and she and her workers fared well .

The Railroads

Montreal businessmen wanted access to a year round ocean port since their closest current port option was in Boston. They hired engineers to study possible alternative routes, of which three were later proposed. The Richford route was selected as the other routes would entail the positioning of track through the mountains, which would not be a cost effective option. The Southeastern Railroad was formed and railroad track was laid from West Farnham, Quebec to Newport, Vermont. At Newport, connections could be established onward towards the Boston ports.

Recognizing the benefits associated with being tied into this new railroad line, the Central Vermont Railroad laid track east from St. Albans to Richford, and named it the Missisquoi Railroad. (The interested citizens of Richford bonded $19,000 for each "Short Line" to be built.)

By 1873, both railroads were running. At the time, a railroad could economically make a community and Richford now had two. The future was predictably bright for Richford and things began to boom.

Most of Richford was still covered by ancient forests, and with the new railroads, lumbermen now had a way to cut the trees, process the logs into lumber, and transport the lumber to markets. Businessmen saw an opportunity to turn the lumber into finished goods and thus industry in Richford began.

The movement into Town included merchants, doctors, lawyers and a bank. The 1870 census showed a population of 1,481. By 1880 the population had grown to 1,818, and by 1890 to 2,196. The population peaked at about 2,900 in the 1930s and 1940s.

The Flood

The flood of 1927 was the greatest natural disaster to happen in Vermont and it devastated Richford. Two tropical storm systems met over the green mountains and dropped in excess of eight inches of rain in just a few hours. Needless to say, Vermont's natural river system could not begin to handle the volume of water the storms produced without flooding.

People living along the Missisquoi River awoke during the night of November 3rd to the sound of roaring water. Efforts were made to save personal property, but the water rose so fast that people were lucky to escape to higher ground with their lives, only to watch their personal property washed away.

McElroy's garage was washed into the river with the building lodging against the Main Street bridge and sweeping both structures away down the raging river. The water carried the bridge through Bashaw's new dairy barn on the island, and totally destroyed it with a loss of 30 cows and two draft horses which either drowned or were crushed.

Two houses along River Street were swept away, and a third was washed off its foundation along with most of River Street itself! Water raged between the two Sweat-Comings buildings, with the right front corner of the larger Sweat-Comings building carried away along with a lot of finished wood products. The Atlas Plywood's yard was full of piles of sawed lumber until the raging river swept these piles away slamming many of them into nearby buildings.

In typical Yankee fashion, Richford pulled together and started turning things around as soon as the flood waters subsided. A ferry service was soon crossing the mill pond, a footbridge was built where the Main Street bridge had been, and a temporary vehicle bridge was built by Herm Smith at Ayer's rock. Damage was massive and the loss was estimated at $500,000.00 (1927 dollars) in the village alone!

Committees were formed to deal with problems like destroyed streets and welfare issues. Citizens were dedicated to not only restoring Richford, but to improving it as well. The one bright spot in all of this is that there was no loss of human life.

The Industries

Richford and industry have a long history together. People first settled in Richford to farm the river bottom land and for the raw water power to run the mills. At the time, mills were powered by water wheels and the Missisquoi River provided adequate places for the wheels, as did the brooks running into the river.

The best place for the mills to locate was in the area of the falls located just above the Main Street bridge. Richford was first settled in 1795 and a dam, grist mill and saw mill were in operation by 1797. During 1800 a bridge, blacksmith shop, trip-hammer shop, and a distillery were built. All this activity took place near the falls, and that area turned into the village of Richford.

Two railroads came through Richford during the early 1870's. Lumber barons soon moved in and put crews in the woods cutting the ancient stands of timber. Several sawmills were located around town and the lumber was loaded aboard trains and sent to market. It was not long before businessmen started factories to manufacture the lumber into a variety of products including butter tubs, windows, furniture, and the many houses needed to house Richford's growing population.

The Canadian Pacific Railway built a large grain elevator in 1890, which the Quaker Oats Company later purchased and operated for several decades. During the 1940's, the H.K. Webster Company purchased the plant and started making a variety of animal feeds. The plant is currently owned, and operated by the Blue Seal Feed Company.

Two furniture manufacturers also made quality furniture in Richford for many years. The Richford Manufacturing Company and the Sweat-Comings Company.

Many industries have come and gone over Richford's 200 year history. Atlas Plywood, Ayer's Blacking, Baker & Son, Brainard's Mill, a brick factory, broom factory, Clyde River Power Corp., Globe Mfg., O.L. Hinds Co., Lawyer's Horse Tonic and Family Liniment, Richford Copper Mining, Nelson & Hall, Steven's Mills and so on. Richford companies have manufactured a variety of products including blacking, boxes, bricks, clothing, animal feeds, flour, medicine, furniture and violins.

Blue Seal Feeds, Kaytec, Stairs Unlimited and Vermont Creative Software are Richford's current industries. They produce a variety of products including animal feeds, vinyl siding, steel for construction projects, and computer software.

Sweat-Commings Company

Excerpts from "Richford Vermont: Frontier Town" by Jack C. Salisbury:

In the late 1890's the newly formed Sweat-Commings Company was a busy enterprise.

The Sweat-Commings Company had thrived under the management of H. C. Commings, or H. C., as he became known to his peers. The year 1905 had been the company's most prosperous one to date , with a 12 percent dividend, making dividends over the previous five years 55 percent, a locally unprecedented rate of all earnings.

The 1907 fire had wiped out the company's entire plant, and the winter which lay ahead afforded opportunity to determine the company's future plans. The company had purchased the last of the water rights at the falls and had been doing a rushing business, reaching into Quebec to purchase large quantities of logs which were brought in by rail and hauled to the yards on wagons. The sawmill had run day and night to keep up with the demands of the factory.

Thus geared to the successful business of furniture manufacture, the future course of action quickly became clear, and with H. C. at the helm, construction of a modern $200,000.00 furniture plant and a power plant with a capacity of 500 horsepower began. The buildings would be the first to be constructed of ornate molded cement blocks. By the following May the new gristmill was completed, and in June water was let into the new flume, and waterwheels were tested and put into operation.

Not only was Sweat-Commings back in business, but the following year found it building a second block adjacent to the new plant.

The timber reserves east of Stevens Mills had been mostly exhausted by four decades of extensive lumbering. Lumbering operations continued, however, for in the spring of 1916 the Sweat-Commings Company drove 5 million board-feet of softwood logs downriver to its mill to meet the demands of the building trade.

With so many men away at World War I, the Sweat-Commings Company was desperate for workers. The company imported more than forty men from the New York area to work in its logging camps.

In 1923 a new firm, the Clyde River Power Corporation, purchased all the assets of the Sweat-Commings Company relating to the generation and transmission of electrical power.

In 1923 the Sweat-Commings Company built a large three-story modern furniture factory along Powell Street. Equipped with the most modern machinery, the plant was devoted exclusively to the production of fine maple dining-room furniture, and including the new dryhouse, it represented an investment of about $150,000.00. Two thousand guests attended the dedication ball on September 30.

The Sweat-Commings Company found it took most of the year following the Flood of 1927 to rebuild and repair its plant which had suffered $100,000.00 in losses. Back in production in 1929, the year was a prosperous one for the company. It was employing 225 workers in its operations. Because of the depletion of timber stands in town, Sweat-Commings was purchasing maple sugar stands from farmers and cutting them off. When this was not possible, it would often purchase the entire farm, cut off the timber, and resell the farm.

Following the extensive and costly repairs to damage from the Flood of 1927, the Sweat-Commings company had a banner year in 1929 but lost money every year during the Great Depression.

At the height of the Depression, the Sweat-Commings Company had employed only 30 to 40 men on a part-time basis, but by 1935, it was employing 200 men full-time.

After World War II maple furniture for civilian use replaced the production of furniture for the U.S. Navy.

In the late 1980's the Sweat-Commings Company was still a slowly-going concern employing perhaps 20 people. It was owned and operated by the Commings sisters who were extremely conservative. When they finally closed the company in the mid-1990's some of the office equipment they sold was probably purchased when the company was founded. The buildings were in bad shape and all but one had to be torn down despite extensive attempts to salvage them.