WILLISTON’S 250TH: Giles Chittenden House a ‘gift,’ a ‘burden’

By Richard H. Allen

Special to the Observer

The residence of Jim and Lucy McCullough on Governor Chittenden Road in Williston is a house with a long and interesting history. The oldest building on record in town, it was constructed in 1796 by Gov. Thomas Chittenden for his eighth child, Giles, who was born in Connecticut in 1768. At one time, Giles was a prosperous Williston farmer and landowner. In 1804, he held about 803 acres in town.

In 1873, the house and property, then 166 acres, was purchased by Jim McCullough’s maternal great grandfather, Smith Wright, from his cousin for $9,700. Wright was a savvy and very successful Williston businessman who operated a cold storage facility on the farm and one near the tracks in North Williston. He made use of the railroad to ship poultry, butter, and eggs in and out of town.

Wright was also a farmer. The 1880 agricultural census revealed that he had increased the value of his farm to $17,000 and enlarged the acreage. The estimated value of all the farm production in 1879 was $3,251.

Wright died in 1899 and his twin sons, Clayton and Clinton, took over the farm and, along with brother Homer, the cold storage business. By 1941, the farm was owned by McCullough’s mother, Julia (Wright) McCullough, the only child of Clinton Smith Wright and Abbie Fay Wright.

Julia Fifield spent some of her early years in North Williston in the first two decades of the 1900s and her family was very close to the Wrights. In a Dec. 19, 2009 letter to this writer, Fifield remembered a favorite part of the farm: “Of course I knew of the refrigerator rooms at the Wright farm—Julia and I used to play in them. The walls were thick and the doors very heavy. We liked that area because, even though the farm buildings were all attached, the refrigerator building was far from the cows. The building was used for grain and was very clean and consisted of three rooms each about eight feet by ten feet.”

A 1945 article in the Suburban List claimed the farm was “only equaled by the manors at Mount Vernon and Monticello” and the scenic views of Green Mountains were outstanding. Jim McCullough’s father, James D. McCullough, was farming about 520 acres, including 250 wooded acres and 270 acres that were a combination of cultivated and pasture land.

The sale of the 130 cows in 1954 was an upsetting blow to third grader Jim McCullough, who said in a 2010 Vermont Life article that he was “traumatized” by the transition to a farm without dairy cows.

The February 1964 fire that destroyed seventeen barns and outbuildings that were on their last legs was another momentous incident in the history of the farm.

“The fire started in the electrical entrance located at the west end of the barn complex,” Jim recalled in an email last month. “There was a very strong wind from the west which whipped the fire into a frenzy, carrying ashes as far as the now Pine Ridge School property… There were two beautiful and significant structures, one was the carriage house and attached horse barn complete with cupola and slate roof. The other was the two story ice house with twelve inch thick sawdust filled walls which served Smith Wright and Sons cold storage business… Frank and Delia Degree and their son Paul and wife Arlene Degree…had about 40 head of dairy cows in the…barn at the time. Paul and I got them all out safely; it turns out, at great risk to [us]. We did not realize it at the time, but the heat was so intense that it melted the red plastic end of my flashlight. Our horses were outside at the time and were therefore spared. We lost a few sheep and about twenty laying hens. The only surviving barn was a structure original to the property, cited in our National Historic Register as an ‘excellent example of an old English Sheep Barn.’”

In 1978, Jim and Lucy McCullough took over ownership of the land and since 1990 they have operated the Catamount Outdoor Family Center.

In 1996, the McCulloughs celebrated the bicentennial of the homestead on Governor Chittenden Road with an open house. Mary Tuthill wrote an article for the occasion describing the interior layout, the historic portraits of Ira Allen and Smith Wright on the walls, and how the house “was originally built in the Georgian Plan with a formal central hallway flanked by parlors.” The front entrance of the house initially faced east on what was a north-south town road but has since become a farm path.

Jim McCullough reflects on his home this way: “Being born to, and living in, this significant and historic home is concurrently a precious gift and ponderous burden. I have a deep sense of place developed throughout my lifelong residence. This being enhanced by my ancestors’ continuous occupancy dating to 1814. Additionally, my ancestors’ spirits, and perhaps those of others before them, previously occupying the house, provide an additional persona and depth of love that is often palpable.”

Local historian Richard Allen will present a slide show, “Stories from Williston’s Past,” on Saturday, May 11 at 11 a.m. in the Dorothy Alling Memorial Library as part of the town’s 250th anniversary celebration. Free and open to the public.