Middlebury Old Courthouse

“This is a part of the seat used by the criminals and prisoners in Middlebury Court House, driving their trial for the last fifty years, taken out by myself in 1883 when the new Court House was built. – Henry L. Sheldon
Christmas, 1884.”[1]

In 1883, Henry Sheldon removed the seat of the defendant’s chair in the Addison County Courthouse and made it a part of his own Relic Chair. According to Henry Sheldon’s record on the bottom of this piece of wood, the chair had previously been in the courthouse for prisoners and criminals for at least 50 years before its removal.

The history of the first Addison County Courthouse is fascinating and complex (involving relocation of the courthouse; building prisons; and renovating the courthouse). However, it all started when the construction of the First Addison County Courthouse began, when Middlebury became the shire town.

Middlebury as the Shire Town

Addison, located eleven miles northwest of Middlebury, had been the first shire town (1785-1792) but had never had a courthouse.[2] Before Middlebury became the shire town in October 1791, the citizens of Middlebury had to travel to Addison to consult legislation. After Middlebury became the shire town, since there were no courthouses built at that time in Middlebury, the court held its cases at various public and private houses of people who lived in Middlebury.[3]

The First Courthouse

First Addison County Courthouse (1796) on Court Square, ca. 1860s. Henry Sheldon Scrapbook #169, Stewart-Swift Research Center at the Henry Sheldon Museum of Vermont History.

By 1796, the first courthouse in Middlebury had finished its construction. It was built by subscription of the citizens of Middlebury and vicinity.[4] The Courthouse was located at Court Square. It was a two-story wooden structure, painted white on the exterior, that had an a taller three-story tower facing Main street. “One high room arched overhead, with long windows, and seats rising towards the rear, and a gallery over the entrance at the west end, constituted the whole interior of the building.”[5]

The land on which the courthouse was built belonged to Gamaliel Painter, one of two chief founders of Middlebury College. On the 22nd of May 1794, Gamaliel Painter deeded the land that the courthouse rested upon to “Jabez Rogers, Joseph Cook and Eleazer Claghorn, together with all the inhabitants of the County of Addison ‘for the express use and purpose of erecting a courthouse and a jail […], and as a common, never to be divided or put to any other use.’”[7]

After its construction, the courthouse was used for several different purposes. “The General Assembly held its sessions in it in the years 1800 and 1806. The inhabitants of the town having contributed towards its erection, it was used also as a town room. And until the completion of the new church, in 1809, it was occupied by the Congregational Society as a place of worship, and for all meetings of the society.” Since there were no other “suitable rooms in the village, it was used for public meetings of every character.” And lastly, of course, it was used for trials.[8]

View of the First Addison County Courthouse (1796) serving as a harness shop after it was moved to the fairgrounds on Court Street in 1882. Collection, Stewart-Swift Research Center at the Henry Sheldon Museum of Vermont History.

By 1882, plans were afoot to build a new courthouse, and Henry Sheldon eagerly set about documenting the original one, recording plans in his diary for photographing it (12 Feb. 1883) and for removing the prisoner’s seat to form the base for his Relic Chair (8 April 1884). The original courthouse was moved to Court Street and repurposed, serving for a time as a harness shop, as seen above. Ultimately, the historic building was torn down in 1939.

View of the Masonic Hall (1823) at 3 Court Street on the left and the “new” 1883 Courthouse by Clinton Smith on the right, ca. 1910. Gipson Collection, Stewart-Swift Research Center at the Henry Sheldon Museum of Vermont History.

– Eric Sun ’20

Footnotes

[1] “Henry Sheldon Chair” Collection of the Henry Sheldon Museum, Middlebury, Vermont
[2] Spencer Pope, “The First Courthouse Of Addison County In Middlebury, Vermont.” Unpublished manuscript (1996), Collection of the Henry Sheldon Museum, Middlebury, Vermont.
[3] Samuel Swift, History of the Town of Middlebury, in the County of Addison, Vermont (Middlebury, VT: A.H. Copeland, 1859).
[4] Ibid., 22.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Ibid., 23.
[7] Ibid., 22.
[8] Ibid., 23.

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