The pioneers began to settle in Plainfield in the 1790’s. Two of those first settlers were Seth Freeman and Isaac Washburn. They had heard fabulous stories about the fertile land in Vermont, and in the fall of 1791 they set out on foot from New Hampshire to investigate. They had heard from Jacob Davis, Ira’s Allen’s agent, that there were lands for sale in St. Andrew’s. This new wilderness had not yet been divided into lots and no one was living there. The two young men liked the land and each selected a piece to buy and settle on. This was called making a “pitch”. The settlers’ first task was to make a clearing in the woods. Trees were cut down, and the stumps were burned to prepare the ground for crops. They felled trees and used the logs for building houses, fences and bridges. They made furniture, kitchen utensils and farm tools, and put up a supply of firewood necessary for cooking and heating. They stayed through the fall, living in simple shanties that they had built, returning to New Hampshire when cold weather set in. They returned to St. Andrew’s with their families in winter by sleighs loaded with their belongings. Winter was best time for traveling with families as the sleighs glided easily over the snow. They relied on hunting moose, deer, partridge and rabbits, and when spring arrived they planted gardens for their survival.
In 1793 there were three more pitches made by Joseph Batchelder, Theodore Perkins, and Joshua Lawrence. These first settlers were to abide by the charter granted to the town, which stated that each grantee was to plant five acres of land, erect one house at least eighty feet square on the ground floor, and have one family on each share of land. These first houses were log cabins. By 1797 there were thirty families in this new settlement, and by 1800 double that number.
There was a special additional use for the hardwood trees. They could be felled and burned, and the ashes made into potash, called salts of lye. The ashes were collected and water was poured through them, a process known as leaching. The liquid was boiled in large iron kettles until a thick crust formed on the bottom. This crust was the potash. These salts were used to make fertilizer, glass, soap, gunpowder and for dyeing fabrics.
During the early years, the pioneers had relatively few domesticated animals. On the newly cleared land they planted corn averaging better than 40 bushels per acre. During this time the farmers ground their own corn. A bowl-like shape was cut in a tree stump, and a sapling was bent over it having a heavy stone attached. The dry corn kernels were placed into the bowl and the counter weighted stone was lifted and dropped to pound the corn. They grew all of their own wheat, averaging over 20 bushels an acre.
It wasn’t long before a dam was built on the Winooski and the water harnessed to turn the water wheel and millstones to grind grains for the town’s people. Charles McCloud erected the first sawmill in Plainfield, with a wooden dam on the Winooski River in 1798. At that time in history, what would soon become the village site was a mud slab known by the names, Mill Privilege and Mud Hollow. It was also called “Slab Holler” because of the fact that the first buildings were made of wood slabs.
Grass was the great natural crop that fed the sheep dotting the hill pastures. Horses were needed to work the farms, and for travel. Cows became numerous, along with chickens, eggs and crops of potatoes. Plainfield farmers produced milk, butter and cheese. Most village homes had apple trees. Every farm had an apple orchard.
There were plenty of old Maple trees. In the early years boys and girls of Plainfield grew up drinking sap from the tap buckets. Mothers would show them how to boil it down to little cakes or gummy syrup that they could pour over snow for a sweet treat. When gathering the sap, pails were yoked over the shoulders or dumped into a tub-topped sled, which was hauled by oxen to the sugarhouse.
As late as 1804, some folks didn’t have chimneys on their houses. Stones were laid up only a few feet inside the house forming a very short chimney and the smoke was allowed to go out, if it would, through a hole in the roof. The roofs were made of large pieces of elm bark tied on with handmade cord made from the elm bark. Sometimes a storm would blow these bark slabs off in the night and they would have to tie them back. This chimneyless smoke-hole arrangement would often catch fire and houses did burn down occasionally.
By 1800 there were church services and town meetings. A blacksmith shop sprang up, as well as a tavern. These pioneer families began thinking about community projects such as building roads and laying out a Common. They thought that they should elect officers just like other towns. But when they looked up the town charter, they discovered that St. Andrew’s had never been legally named or incorporated as a town.
One of the inhabitants at that time suggested that the name be changed to Plainfield after his hometown in New Hampshire. He made his suggestion attractive by offering to provide the town with its first set of leather-bound record books. The townspeople drew up a petition asking the legislature to incorporate the town as Plainfield. The petition was granted in November 1797, but for reasons unclear the village was not incorporated until 1867. John Chapman kept his promise and bought two leather-bound books and gave them to the town to record all of the earliest land sales and town meetings.
Around that time most country stores began to operate potash works so farmers could bring their ashes to the store and have the leaching and boiling done for them. Philip Sparrow started the earliest potash works in Plainfield in 1804. He also opened the second general store and a lumberyard in Plainfield. When Mount Tambora, in Indonesia, erupted in 1815, ash clouds blocking the sun made the summer of 1816 very cold, causing widespread crop and business failures, including that of Mr. Sparrow’s who decided to pack up and try his luck out west.
Amasa Bancroft built a blacksmith shop on what was then called “the island”, which adjoined a millpond near the junction of the Winooski River and the Great Brook. A blacksmith shop in those days was a center of trade and gossip. Farmers would drop in to see the latest new tools, or get an old cooking pot or wagon part repaired. They would bring in oxen to be shod. It was an exciting spectacle to see Amasa hoist the balky beast up on an ox-frame and make its feet fast in preparation for nailing on the new metal shoes.
During the days of horse and buggies, going from Plainfield to Cabot and back would be an overnight trip. A person could travel twelve miles one day, spend the night in Cabot, and if it were wintertime, there would be a hot rock placed in the bed to warm the traveler’s feet. Then, the next day after their business was done they would hurry back to Plainfield.
In about 1801, Amasa Bancroft, his wife and infant son Tyler, rode horseback to visit a farm family off East Hill Road. The farmer gave them a slab of fresh meat. On their way home the wolves began to assemble to the rear of the travelers. The wolves were coming nearer and nearer—so near in fact that the Bancrofts threw the wolves the fresh meat. The family got home safely, but very soon the wolves came howling around their village house.
The Catamount (Mountain Lion) was known as the most fierce and ravenous animal in the state. It was never abundant but occasionally they would attack a man on horseback and kill the horse but not the man. In addition there were abundant black bear, rabbits, hares, fox, hedgehogs, skunks, raccoons, woodchuck, otter, mink, sable, ermine, muskrat and ruffed grouse (known as partridge). There were also bobcat, lynx and beavers.