By Luke Baynes
As Williston looks forward to its 250th anniversary on June 7, it is also a time to look back at the history of the town named for Samuel Willis, a prosperous Long Island merchant who was one of the 65 grantees of the township as chartered in 1763.
Despite lending his namesake, Willis never set foot in Williston and is more of a historical footnote today. Of far greater prominence in the early history of Williston is a man who went on to become Vermont’s first governor: Thomas Chittenden.
Chittenden, the principal founder of Vermont, was also Williston’s founding father. Born in Connecticut, Chittenden settled in Williston in 1774, three years before the establishment of Vermont as an independent republic.
In recognition of Chittenden’s distinguished place in Williston history, the town has two landmarks constructed in his honor.
The first, located near Chittenden’s grave in the cemetery that bears his name, is known as the Thomas Chittenden Monument and is identifiable by the deer statue that sits atop its granite base.
The monument was commissioned on Nov. 14, 1894 by an act of the state legislature, which approved a sum of $3,000 for its construction. The land was donated by San Francisco resident Henry Root, a Williston native, who had purchased it from George and Emma Bombard for $550. Construction was completed by Marr & Gordon of Barre for $2,942.
The dedication of the monument on Aug. 19, 1896, was a gala event, attended by what was then the largest group of people ever assembled in Williston. Gov. Urban A. Woodbury said in a speech at the dedication of the monument that “to no one more than to Gov. Chittenden are we indebted for the goodly heritage that we possess today.”
Thomas Chittenden also occupies a prominent place on the Village Green near Williston Central School in the form of a statue made in 1998 by Barre sculptor Frank Gaylord, best known for sculpting the column of soldiers at the Korean War Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C.
Gaylord’s sculpture is strikingly realistic, though it is uncertain how accurate a likeness it is, as no portrait of Chittenden was commissioned during his lifetime. His official state portrait was drawn after his death, based on descriptions from his children.
The statue was unveiled at a Fourth of July ceremony attended by Gov. Howard Dean. As reported in the Williston Whistle, Dean remarked at the ceremony: “Thomas Chittenden was the first and longest-running governor of Vermont, serving 17 years, a record I safely say will never be broken.”
Sources: “The Williston Story,” F. Kennon Moody and Floyd D. Putnam, 1961; “Thomas Chittenden’s Town: A Story of Williston, Vermont,” Willard Sterne Randall and Nancy Nahra, 1998; “Exercises at the Dedication of the Monument, Erected by the State to Thomas Chittenden, First Governor of Vermont, at Williston, Vt., August 19, 1896,” published by order of the legislature; Williston Whistle (July 9, 1998).