Exploring the history of North Williston (5/20/10)

May 20, 2010

By Greg Duggan

Observer staff

Nowadays, it’s not difficult to pinpoint Williston’s economic base as the areas around Taft Corners and Maple Tree Place. What many residents may not know, however, is that more than a century ago most of the town’s business was located in now sleepy North Williston.

This weekend, with support from the Williston Historical Society, Richard Allen will lead residents on a photographic and walking tour of North Williston’s past.

Allen, a history buff, drives through North Williston twice a day as he travels between his home in Essex and his job as an enrichment teacher in the Williston School District.

“North Williston caught my eye because there’s such a unique history,” Allen said. “It’s sort of a separate part of town. It still is, geographically separate. You go down the hill … and there’s a feeling of being out of suburban Williston.”

Allen said he was at a Historical Society meeting in 1990 when residents shared memories of North Williston. The stories intrigued him, and in recent years he began doing more thorough research about the history of North Williston with the thought of writing a book on the area. On Saturday, he will share the results of his research with the public in a presentation called “Smith Wright, Williston Businessman, and the Development of North Williston.”

“North Williston, basically, from when the railroad came through in 1849 through the latter half of the 1800s, was the economic engine of Williston,” Allen said.

A two-lane covered bridge over the Winooski River opened in 1860, Allen said, connecting North Williston to Essex and Jericho and further stimulating economic growth.

Though North Williston never supported a large population, in the second half of the 1800s it served as a commercial hub, with a woodworking plant, blacksmith shop, a cold storage plant and other businesses.

A man named Smith Wright, along with his sons, owned the cold storage plant. Allen said Wright had branches in Minnesota and Iowa, and shipped to Boston, New York and other locations in the Northeast.

“The first half of the slideshow zeroes in on him and his life,” Allen said.

Allen found much of his information from documents stored at the home of Jim McCullough, a native Willistonian and great-grandson of Wright. McCullough, who admitted, “My family never throws anything away,” still lives in the house once occupied by Wright. The attic of the home is full of thousands of pages of historical documents, McCullough said, including a few trunks containing business records from Wright’s business.

“Dick (Allen) came, we’d hump a box out of the attic, he’d take it home and go through it,” McCullough said. “He’d bring it back and we’d hump another box out.”

While Allen’s presentation will focus on the Williston of more than a century ago, he still sees similarities to today’s community. In the 1800s, Williston’s economic base centered on the railway and a link to towns north of the Winooski River; today, many of the town’s businesses sit just off Interstate 89.

As Allen said, “The industrial growth, the commercial growth is reflective of the changing transportation modes.”

Richard Allen’s presentation, “Smith Wright, Williston Businessman, and the Development of North Williston,” is scheduled for 1:30 p.m. at May 22 at the Old Brick Church in Williston Village. For more information, call Allen at 878-3853.