Prominent families feud over Canal Street controversy
BRATTLEBORO — One hundred years ago Brattleboro was embroiled in a Canal Street controversy. Two of the most prominent families in town found themselves on opposite sides of the dispute. Many residents of Canal Street wanted to change the name of the road. The Estey family supported the name change and the Crosby family opposed the proposal. On April 9, 1919, two thirds of the attendees at a Canal Street School meeting voted to change the name of Canal Street. They weren't sure what they wanted to change the name to, but they were clear that the present name was unsatisfactory.
John DeWitt was quoted in the Reformer as saying, "A canal is water over which canal boats are drawn, and usually a dirty, squalid place, but the Brattleboro canal is not a canal in that sense, but rather an aqueduct of clear, clean water." Some of the Canal Street residents were concerned about their property values declining because of the seedy nature of Canal Streets found in other communities. About 20 other street names were proposed by those at the meeting. The most popular names were Fuller Avenue, Fuller Road and Thompson Avenue. The name Thompson was proposed as Thomas and Elizabeth Thompson had donated money that began the Thompson Trust. Money from the trust supported the hospital located off from Canal Street, and some thought naming a street after the Thompsons would be appropriate.
W.F. Root was quoted at the meeting as saying, "Governor Fuller was one of the best executives the state ever had. Fuller Avenue or Fuller Road would be an appropriate memorial to his many contributions." Levi and Abby Fuller had built a mansion they called "Pine Heights" at the top of Canal Street. Levi Fuller had been one of the top three executives at Estey Organ, had become Vermont governor and had done much for the Brattleboro community. Governor Fuller had passed away in 1896 but his wife, Abby Fuller, (Jacob Estey's daughter), remained in the fanciest house on Canal Street. People living on Canal Street seemed to favor the name change.
Much of the present route for Canal Street originated as an Abenaki trail and pre-dates European settlement in the area. The street was first known as Guilford Road as it basically followed the same route it does today - Route 5 into Guilford. In 1811, a paper mill was established along the Whetstone Brook near where the Brattleboro Food Co-op is today. The owners built a canal, which began around present day Brook Street. The water for the canal was diverted from the Whetstone Brook. The canal ran parallel with the Whetstone Brook and Guilford road towards the Connecticut River and finished as a man-made pond where the parking lot for the Brattleboro Food Co-op is now located. The pond became known as Vinton's Pond, named after the owners of the paper mill. The water from the pond was used as a steady source of energy to power the mill. As time went on, Guilford Road became better known as Canal Street.
The Water Cure Baths were located along the canal as well. A path from the Lawrence Water Cure to the baths is clearly shown on an 1852 map of Brattleboro. That foot path would later become present day Elm Street.
By 1919, the paper mill was using electricity from the Vernon Dam, the Water Cures were long gone, and the canal was falling into disrepair. While people living on Canal Street wanted to change the name of the road, a petition to keep the Canal Street name was also begun. There seemed to be a rift between those who liked the town the way it was and those who wanted to change perceptions of the town through street name changes.
On April 20, a petition was submitted to the select board, signed by 50 Canal Street property owners. It requested that Canal Street be re-named Fuller Avenue. Abby Fuller also sent a personal letter to the board in support of the name change. The board did not feel like it was within their jurisdiction to change street names so a village meeting was called in May to settle the question.
On May 6, about 200 residents filed into Festival Hall on Main Street to determine whether Canal Street should be re-named. By that time, business owners on Flat and Frost streets had also proposed changing those street names. Canal Street resident, W.F. Root, spoke first and explained that 50 of the 65 property owners on Canal Street wanted to change the name of the road to Fuller Avenue. He thought the majority should rule and wished the matter to be quickly decided. He saw no harm in such a course and thought possibly some good might result. Edward C. Crosby, owner of the street trolley company, the Brooks House and a wealthy railroad investor, moved that the proposal be dismissed. There was a great deal of debate about which political body should be able to change street names: the select board, village government or town government.
After the debate subsided and it was determined that the village should act on the matter, Charles E. Crosby, owner of Crosby Milling, (and brother to Edward C. Crosby), moved to dismiss the motion to change Canal Street's name. According to the Reformer, Mr. Root and his supporters objected, but the proposal was rejected by a large voice-vote majority.
For at least 30 years the Esteys and Crosbys had been feuding over various aspects of town governance and commerce. An early manifestation of the feud began when the Crosbys supported electricity as a power source within the downtown commercial district, while the Esteys continued to advocate for steam power. Another conflict was the local trolley system. The Crosbys were in favor, while the Esteys were opposed. The Canal Street naming controversy was just the latest in many dust-ups between the two clans.
As time went on, the canal continued its slow decline. In 1946, Brattleboro's Recreation Department decided to make use of the pond for community ice skating. A warming hut was built, lights were erected, and the narrowing canal was cleaned out so enough water could pass through its channel. A community ice skating pond was established.
In 1961, the canal and pond property were sold to a small group of investors who built a modern shopping plaza, with a grocery store and 120 parking spaces, in the area where the canal, pond and
paper mill were created back in 1811. The canal has been dry ever since, but Canal Street endures.
Much of this information was first researched by Lee Ha, editor of the Brattleboro Historical Society newsletter. Members receive the newsletter twice a year.
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