Barstow Memorial School in Chittenden is, according to many, one of the finest in the state. For a rural town buried in the hills of Green Mountain National Forest, this seems a little surprising. But the fact that this school is just one part of a legacy left by a family of philanthropists, headed by a man of whom it was said, “To know (him) was to admire him; to know him well was to love him,” may help explain why Chittenden is rich in offerings as well as beauty.
When two Rutland entrepreneurs financed a small dam on East Creek in Pittsford in 1896 to power a hydroelectric station for their own use, they sold the surplus power to Marble City Electric. Backed by the Vermont Marble Company, one of these businessmen then formed the Chittenden Power Company. In 1900, construction on the Chittenden Dam began.
But when the New York investor who acquired the company in 1901, as well all the trolley, gas and electric properties in Rutland, found he had bit off more than he could chew, construction stalled.
However, the misfortune of this particular investor became the fortune of one William S. Barstow, who in 1906 through one of his companies, Rutland Railway Light & Power Co. — predecessor of Central Vermont Public Service, now part of Green Mountain Power — purchased Chittenden Power. Construction resumed and the dam and reservoir were completed in 1909.
When Barstow, who already had a summer home in Manchester, visited the dam, he and his wife fell in love with Chittenden. And, as they say, the rest is history.
William Slocum Barstow was, according to Chittenden Historical Society’s publication, “Chittenden, Vermont: A Town History,” one of the nation’s first electrical engineers. Originally a chemistry major at Columbia University, from where he graduated in 1887, he became fascinated with the new field of electricity.
Against the advice of his professors, who told him there was no future in electricity, he followed his hunch straight into an apprenticeship with Thomas Edison. Starting at $8 per week with the Edison Machine Works in Schenectady, N.Y. (predecessor to General Electric), he was eventually hand-picked by Edison, with whom he would share a lifelong friendship, to supervise the installation of a new laboratory in New Jersey. By 1889, at only 23, Barstow found himself the electrical engineer of Edison Illuminating Company, then general superintendent, and eventually general manager.
The inventor of many products in his own right — including the first electrical refrigerator, various electric railway systems and a central street lighting system — Barstow decided to strike out on his own to become a consulting engineer in 1901. While continuing to work on the improvement of railways, he also branched out to become an expert in the fields of hydroelectric and steam power, as well as their financing and management.
Barstow consequently formed the firms of W.S. Barstow & Co. and General Gas & Electrical Corporation, which financed and managed utility companies throughout the eastern U.S. Through these corporations, Barstow was president of 30 light, power and gas companies, and director of 50 more.
It was through one of these companies that he and his wife, Francoise M. Duclos Barstow, first visited Vermont, with the Rutland Railway Power & Light Company (which ran the Rutland trolley system) bringing them to Chittenden. They also had friends who summered at Lefferts Pond in Chittenden. However, it was their son who may have ultimately secured their attachment to Chittenden.
Frederic, born in Barstow’s native New York City, was William and Francoise’s only child. After being exposed to toxic gas in France while serving in the Army during World War I, he suffered irreversible lung damage. Upon doctors’ recommendations, he left the city for cleaner mountain air, settling in Chittenden where he built a home above East Creek.
In 1919, on land his father had purchased, he formed the Vermont Silver Fox Company. The fox farm — which also housed a mountain lion and other animals — employed local residents until its liquidation and sale upon Frederic’s death in 1931.
In addition to their summer home in Manchester, William Barstow purchased a farmhouse in Chittenden on his son’s property to serve as a hunting camp. It was here — at what is now Fox Creek Inn on Dam Road — that he entertained the likes of Edison, Henry Ford and Harvey Firestone.
And in 1939, Francoise Barstow bought the Henry Long Turnip farm, which overlooked the Chittenden Reservoir, renovating the barn as an additional place to entertain her many friends. However, she eventually decided to return to Manchester because, according to “A Town History,” she was “fed up” with Chittenden’s “insistence of remaining a dry town.” She sold the property to the Wolfe family who developed what is now Mountain Top Inn.
When Barstow, who already had a summer home in Manchester, visited the dam, he and his wife fell in love with Chittenden.
By 1929, the stock market had crashed, and many a wealthy family lost everything. Somehow the Barstows managed to survive it without a scratch. As William Barstow’s foresight landed him his fortune, it also saved it. Exactly two months before the crash, Barstow had sold his two companies for $50 million.
This enabled Barstow, at age 63, to retire and, until his death in 1942, become a professional philanthropist. Among many other tributes he organized for his friend, he built the Edison Tower in Menlo, N.J., and formed a trust that funded charitable and educational causes.
Like his mother, who donated to many children’s charities, Frederic was a strong supporter of education, helping a number of local boys through high school and college, and taking some on his travels. It was for this reason, upon his death at age 35 due to complications from pneumonia, that his parents built the Barstow School in his memory.
Besides the school, they endowed various churches, hospitals, as well a school in American Somoa, which had been one of Frederic’s favorite places to visit.
In Chittenden, Mrs. Barstow also financed the building of a home (as part of shop classes at the school) and various buildings at the reservoir, donated to the Church of the Wildwood and purchased land to create a town green and veteran’s memorial. She actively supported the school until her death in 1958, when a second trust was established, which continues to support the school today.
Reggi Dubin, in “A Town History,” states, “While townspeople’s relationship with the Barstow was somewhat ambivalent, in the way that locals often resent outsiders with extreme wealth, there is no questioning either the benefits the Barstows bequeathed or the stamp they left on the town.”
Information for this story was found in “Chittenden, Vermont: A Town History;” “William S. Barstow: 1866-1942,” a pamphlet from the New York Community Trust; the National Register of Historic Places: Hydroelectrc Generating Facilities in Vermont; and “The Electrical Record,” January, 1916.
Originally published 3/5/14 Rutland Reader | (c) Joanna Tebbs Young