Robert Torrance’s House

In 1883, Henry Sheldon left his home in downtown Middlebury and traveled approximately five miles southeast along Route 7 to retrieve a sample of wood from the first brick house built in Middlebury. (1) The house, built on lot 33 in present-day East Middlebury(2) was constructed by Robert Torrance in 1774 (3). According to Torrance’s daughter, Olive, Robert Torrance emigrated from Ireland to Woodsbury, Connecticut in 1754, at the age of eighteen. He arrived in Middlebury with other original settlers in 1774, descended Otter Creek on a raft, and purchased lot 33 from a man named Joseph Hyde, along with lot 32.(4) Soon thereafter, Torrance built a log cabin on the land, before building the brick house later that year.(5) Torrance served on Middlebury’s grand jury in its early days alongside a fellow resident by the name of Abraham Kirby.(6)

Map drawn by Middlebury College President, Ezra Brainerd in 1886. Red rectangle denotes Robert Torrance’s plots in East Middlebury; blue circle denotes location of Henry Sheldon’s house.

There are several reasons why Henry Sheldon may have regarded a scrap of wood from Robert Torrance’s house as relic-worthy. While Robert Torrance himself was not as significant a figure in early Middlebury as John Chipman, for example, his house was notable for several reasons. First, as mentioned previously, it was the first brick house to be built in Middlebury. Eighteenth-century Vermont was virtually inhospitable for white settlers due to harsh winters and the threat of attacks by the Abenaki Tribe. Most settlers built wood houses, but Robert Torrance’s decision to construct a sturdier brick house would have signified an intention to remain in Middlebury despite the potential complications associated with doing so. Torrance was one of the first permanent residents of Middlebury (others, such as Joseph Hyde had lived in Middlebury temporarily but could not brave the winter in its entirety),(7) and the presence of his brick house would have attracted other settlers to the town. Second, Torrance’s house was one of only four buildings to survive the Revolutionary War after British troops invaded and sacked the town, forcing all residents to flee. The other buildings to survive were Joshua Hyde and Bill Thayer’s houses, which like Torrance’s, were built in East Middlebury, along with a barn built by John Chipman which could not be burnt on account of the wood being wet. (8) Third, the house functioned as one of the first schoolhouses in Middlebury, with Robert Torrance’s daughter, Olive, serving as one of the teachers. (11) It is possible that Henry Sheldon himself was schooled in the house during his early years.

Lot 33 as it appears today

From the significance of Robert Torrance’s house we can deduce that Henry Sheldon’s definition of what constitutes a “relic” encompasses many factors. Included in his chair are relics notable for their national historical significance (USS Constitution, Declaration House, Charter Oak, Andrew Johnson’s Tailor Shop, etc.), or association with a prominent member of the town of Middlebury (Moses Sheldon’s house, Samuel Sheldon’s barn). Robert Torrance’s house seems unique in its “relic-ness” in that its significance isn’t based on its association with a person or event, but rather for its existence: the simple fact that it was the first brick structure to be built in Middlebury, signifying the growth of the town.

Robert Torrance lived on lot 33 in the brick house he had constructed in 1774 until his death in 1816. (10). His family continued to live in the house until its destruction around the time Henry Sheldon procured his wooden specimen in 1883. Although relatively little is known about his life, Robert Torrance almost certainly played an integral role in the early development of the town of Middlebury.

 

-Noah Fine ’20

Footnotes:

1.Henry Sheldon Papers vol. 19, Collections of Henry Sheldon Museum of Vermont History, Middlebury, Vermont
2. Ezra Brainerd, “The Early Settlements of Middlebury, Vermont” [Map], 1886. Collections of Henry Sheldon Museum of Vermont History, Middlebury, Vermont.
3.Samuel Swift, History of the Town of Middlebury in the Town of Addison, Vermont, a Statistical and Historical Account of the County (Rutland, VT: Charles E. Tuttle Company , 1859), 169.
4. Swift, 170; 5. H.P. Smith, ed., History of Addison County, Vermont with Illustrations and Biographical Sketches of Some of its Prominent Men and Pioneers (Syracuse, NY: D. Mason & Co. Publishers, 1886), 245.
5. Swift, 182.
6.Smith, 266.
7. Swift, 170.
8. Swift, 186.
9. Frederick Hall’s Statistical Account of the Town of Middlebury, 1821, Collections of Henry Sheldon Museum of Vermont History, Middlebury, Vermont.
10. Smith, 245.

Neshobe Island

Lake Bomoseen with Neshobe Island, circa 1905. Detroit Publishing Company photography collection, The Library of Congress.

The 19th spindle on Henry Sheldon’s relic chair, a sample of white birch taken from Neshobe Island (Lake Bomoseen, Castleton, Vermont), was sent to Sheldon by John M. Currier of Castleton on July 2nd, 1884.(1) With the birch sample, Currier included a letter, in which he notes himself as the “originator” of the wood, but not the “author” and states that he prefers to keep that author’s identity a secret. This elusiveness is not unusual given Neshobe Island’s almost mythical propensity to be the site of secret societies and other organizations, to be discussed below. Furthermore, in this letter, Currier noted that his intention, in donating this relic, was to “establish the name of Neshobe on the island.” Neshobe was known by many different names until July 4th 1881, when the Rutland Historical Society staged a celebration on Lake Bomoseen’s banks attended by over ten thousand people. The island was named after a Native American man who, during the Civil War, informed Union soldiers of enemy movements.(2) The island was christened “Neshobe Island” by breaking a bottle of milk on a rock.(3) This practice may have been intended to imitate the breaking of champagne to christen a new ship, but with a twist to honor Vermont’s dairy farms.

Prospect Point and Bay of Lake Bomoseen, with Neshobe Island. Special Collections, Bailey/Howe Library, University of Vermont.

From John Currier’s earlier correspondences with Henry Sheldon, we can uncover a detailed history of the wood itself. According to Currier, on July 20th 1882, about a year after the naming of Neshobe, the Rutland County Historical Society had a picnic on the shores of Lake Bomoseen for which they formed a committee tasked with building a tripod, the purpose of which was to hold a kettle of coffee, from three Castleton sites. One leg of the tripod was from Mason’s Point (where the picnic was held), another from Neshobe Island, and a third from the site of the old Castleton military fort.(4) After this picnic, the tripod was broken apart, and Currier saved the white birch from Neshobe as well as maple wood from the Fort, presumably in the tradition of relic keeping, as he found both Neshobe and the Fort to be of historical significance.(4) It is worth mentioning that, while Neshobe Island is referenced before the historic ten-thousand-person gathering and christening in 1881, it does not seem to have been a significant landmark. There was a steamboat, the Naomi, that ferried passengers to and from the island from 1877 to 1889, but it is safe to assume that it was the 1881 gathering in-itself that brought Neshobe its historical significance.*

In order to better understand John Currier’s assignment of historical values to the white birch from Neshobe Island, it is important to understand the man himself. In a publication from 1903 that compiled the biographies of hundreds of Vermonters, Currier, who was born in 1836 in North Troy, Vermont, is described as the “embodiment of a sturdy New England race, bred and matured in the healthful wholesome, bracing atmosphere of the same state in which he was born”.(5) While most of this biography details his military career and political accomplishments, it also makes note of his “engrainment” in the lumber business, which had reached great proportions since he had entered it in 1871. It is likely that Currier’s involvement in the lumber business, managing a mill with the capacity to produce over 100 barrels a day led to an appreciation of wood associated with historical events and places, which explains his decision to hold onto the white birch from Neshobe and maple from the old Castleton Fort.(5)

Alexander Woolcott

While Neshobe Island may not have been historically significant before the ten-thousand-person gathering on the day it was officially named in July of 1881, it did gain national notoriety over forty years later as the summer home of Alexander Woollcott, a member of the mysterious Algonquin Round Table’s. Woollcott purchased the seven-acre island in 1924 and erected a small house on the land.(6) The island became well known over the following decades for its exclusive parties and eccentric guests, including Vivien Leigh, Harpo Marx, and Ben Hecht, who often walked around the grounds naked. Woollcott would yell “new man on island” when outsiders were in view of the beach, to alert his guests to be clothed, while other times he would strip naked, cake his body in mud, and place a red wig on his head as he ran out of the woods screaming and chanting.(7)

Woollcott remained the owner of Neshobe Island until his death in 1943, and the island remained uninhabited until 1999 at which point it was sold to Jerry Brown of Argyle, New York. Since then, the Brown family has completed restorations on Woollcott’s house, and the island remained in their ownership as of 2009.(8)

-Noah Fine ’20

*An account of the gathering on Mason’s Point compiled by John Currier himself is available online:  https://archive.org/details/accountofcelebra1881curr

Footnotes:

1.   Letter from John M. Currier to Henry Sheldon with wood from Neshobe Island, 2 July 1884. Collections of Henry Sheldon Museum of Vermont History, Middlebury, Vermont.
2.   John Currier, An Account of the Celebration of the Fourth of July, 1881, at Mason’s Point, Lake Bomoseen (Rutland County Historical Society, 1881), 42. Also available online: https://archive.org/details/accountofcelebra1881curr
3.   Esther M. Swift, Vermont Place-Names: Footprints of History, 1977 (Camden, ME: Picton Press, 1996), 385. For more on this tradition, see “Who, what, why: Why is champagne traditional for smashing on ships?” BBC News. July 04, 2014. Accessed February 02, 2018. http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-28158790.
4.   Letter sent from John M. Currier to Henry Sheldon, 31 March 1884. Collections of Henry Sheldon Museum of Vermont History, Middlebury, Vermont. See also Proceedings of the Rutland County Historical Society, vol. 2 (1882-1887); this “tripod” is discussed on pages 33 and 38: https://archive.org/stream/proceedingsofrutv2rutl#page/n61/

5.   Hiram Carleton, Genealogical and Family History of the State of Vermont (New York: The Lewis Publishing Company, 1903), vol. 2, 514.
6.   Leslie Landrigan, “Neshobe Island, The Algonquin Round Table Summer Home in Vermont,” New England Historical Society, 29 Sept. 2017: http://www.newenglandhistoricalsociety.com/neshobe-island-algonquin-round-table-summer-home/. See also Brett C. Millier, “New York Summers in Vermont: The Round Table at Neshobe Island,” Historic Roots: A Magazine of Vermont History 3, no. 2 (Aug. 1998): 18-24.
7.   Donald H. Thompson, Castleton Vermont: Its Industries, Enterprises, and Eateries (The History Press, 2010), 131-134.
8.   Steve McNulty, “The curious history of Lake Bomoseen’s hidden heart,” Castleton Spartan, 25March 2009: http://www.castletonspartan.com/news/view.php/32987/The-curious-history-of-Lake-Bomoseens-hi.

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