The Church on the Plain
To understand the first heartbeat of Norwich, the real beginning of its history, it’s essential to tramp around the grounds of the first meeting house. For the first Norwich settlers, the building of a meeting house was a major achievement. “More than any other event of the time,” proclaimed the 1905 History of Norwich, Vermont, “with the possible exception of the accomplishment of the national independence, this was an undertaking that enlisted the energies and taxed the resources of our forefathers.” The building where the first town meeting and the earliest church services were held was located near the intersection of today’s Union Village Road and Maple Hill Road, about a mile out of town.
Throughout Vermont, the meeting house was constructed at the proposed ‘center’ of a village where the town business and church services would be conducted. This was a critical decision, and the location of the first meeting house and the Norwich town center was “sharply agitated.” In October 1773, a committee of settlers decided to build the meeting house “a little North of West from Capt. (Peter) Olcott’s dwelling house, on the north side of the highway.” Olcott, who had only lived in town for a year, donated the land for the meeting house lot and the public burial ground. Because there was “considerable dissatisfaction” with the choice of the Olcott land for the meeting house, the area became known as Judgement Hill, a name it kept for many years.
Sketch of the Old Norwich Academy Buildings, 1820
Some of the first Norwich settlers had been members of the Congregational Church in Connecticut and with the help of Reverend Peter Powers, a traveling minister from Newbury, Vermont, a dozen citizens gathered together and established a Norwich congregation in the summer of 1770. The Reverend Lyman Potter was ordained the first minister on August 31, 1775, “...in the open air, upon the spot chosen for the future temple, but then a primitive forest.” But until the meeting house was built, families often hiked three to six miles to attend similar services in Hanover. They also met in homes or in Peter Olcott’s barn or out in the open air if the weather was agreeable.
Construction of the meeting house was a slow process. Building materials along with labor were donated by the townspeople, and the foundation wasn’t laid until July 9, 1778. Finally, in the spring of 1785, after seven years, the meeting house was fully completed. “It was reputed at that time to be the best meeting house in the State.” In June of that year, Norwich was honored when the Vermont Legislature met at the meeting house for 16 days. Among those in attendance was Ira Allen, the first treasurer of the state and the brother of Ethan Allen.
By 1817, Norwich’s population had doubled and the town had grown prosperous. So a larger, second meeting house was built near the old one. On Christmas Eve of 1817, the 40-year-old building, where “pious aspirations of two generations of worshippers had found a voice, and where the fathers of the town had so often formulated their ideas of civil policy in town and state – a building that to Norwich stood for all that Faneuil Hall and the Old South Church together stood to Boston – was sold to Constant Murdock, the highest bidder, for $100.”
In 1817, a third meeting house was built down the hill on the Plain where the village was in reality developing. The church on the Plain had the financial support of eleven Norwich families who raised $2,125 for its construction. Building began on May 5, 1817 and was finished six months later. The new church stood on the green and faced west across Main Street up Elm Street. Captain Partridge’s American Literary, Scientific and Military Academy (later Norwich University) was built east of the church in 1819. The steeple clock was crafted by Stephen Hasham, a well-known clockmaker from Charlestown, NH. Thomas Emerson purchased a bell for the church when it was completed. It was Vermont’s earliest bell and was inscribed ‘Revere and Son, Boston 1817.’ Of the six Revere bells in Vermont, this is the only one that was cast during his lifetime. Revere died in 1818. The bell was guaranteed for only one year, but has continued to ring for 200 years. It cost 45¢ a pound and weighed 647 pounds.
Cadets on the Green across the road from the Church in the 1850s
The split between the North Church (at the center) and the South Church (on the Plain) lasted for more than three decades. It was not a peaceful division. Families used to the old meeting house at the center did not want to shift to another church. And families at the Plain felt the town church should be down the hill at the center of the growing village.
Squabbles arose over money, taxes, and which folks could or could not use the North House. In October 1826, tensions erupted when “Deacon Cyrus Partridge (a member of the South Church) complained that Hezekiah Goodrich cheated Samuel Johnson out of part of the value of his farm.” The charge was not supported by the rest of the congregation, so Partridge, who was also upset that the South Church “approved dancing schools,” renounced his membership and joined the North Church. Citizens in both churches were distressed and a council was organized to discuss the issues. It took a few years for tempers to cool, but in May of 1831, Partridge apologized and “was restored to membership in good standing, in South Church.”
Maintaining the South Church and keeping it comfortable for its congregation was a difficult task in the 19th century. In 1837, they paid $75 for two stoves to heat it. “The stoves were in the vestibule, and the stove pipe ran the length of the church, under the galleries... up through the ceiling into the chimney.” A custodian “rang the bell for all services, deaths and funerals,” and kept up with “sawing the wood, making and tending fires at all times... filling, trimming and lighting lamps, sweeping the vestry... clearing away the snow... tending the doors, see that windows and blinds are kept shut when not necessary for them to be open and winding the town clock.”
In the summer of 1850, an appeal was made by the Ladies Sewing Circle to increase the size of the South Church, and even move it to another location “which would add much to the convenience and comfort of all the worshipers in said house, and the beauty of the village.” In addition, many villagers were annoyed by the late-night shenanigans of the cadets at the neighboring academy who enjoyed ringing the church bell and then racing back to bed before they could be caught. A committee was formed and it was agreed that the church on the Plain should be moved to its present location where it could be enlarged by twenty pews. Remarkably, very little is written about the relocation of the church, which happened in 1852 and must have been a massive undertaking.
By 1853, with a dwindling congregation, the North Church meeting house was sold and razed. It was a bitter departure for many. “I have been to meeting to the Plain,” wrote a young woman in August of 1854. “Oh, it seems so strange to go there... you will never feel at home to go to a meeting on the Plain... and you will mourn that Old House is lost... the place where we have always been accustomed to worship from childhood, and that burying ground where so many dear ones lie, will never be visited now except by the passing traveler.” With the closing of the North Church sixty members reluctantly moved to the church on the Norwich Plain.
Throughout its history the members of the South Church tackled the social issues of the day. In May of 1827, a committee began to promote temperance. By 1854, a resolution was passed that declared “...no person shall be admitted as a member of the Church who shall not engage to abstain from making, selling or using ardent spirits.”
Sylvester Morris, a long-time deacon at the church, was appalled by the drinking and carousing that occurred at Norwich University, especially after the Fourth of July parade. Morris finally saw that student drinking was halted, but suffered the ire of the cadets who tore up his garden and burned him in effigy in Hanover. Mr. Morris’s wife, Susanna, and their daughters had founded the Norwich Female Abolition Society in 1843. For seven years they supported and sent supplies to people who were helping fugitive slaves.
From the start the meeting house, services were blessed with music. In 1814, Israel Newton, a Revolutionary War veteran, button maker, and a member of the church, built what is believed to be “Vermont’s first pipe organ in their Congregational Church and meeting house.” This organ did not travel to the South Church. In 1856, a new organ was purchased for the Church on the Plain and placed in its balcony. In 1908, the organ was moved downstairs to the front of the church.
Enter Fred Metcalf. In 1915, Fred, who worked on his family’s Dutton Hill farm, was hired to play the organ at St. Barnabas Episcopal Church in Norwich. In 1919, he began to play at the Congregational Church as well. “It was an extraordinary scene each Sunday morning. About 10:30 a.m., carrying his ever-present briefcase, coat flying out behind... Fred hurried across the school campus from St. Barnabas to the White Church.” The organ was powered “by bellows pumped by a lever coming out of the case side.” Fred hired “bellow boys” to pump the bellows on Sunday. After an hour of pumping, each boy received a new quarter for his labors. Fred was devoted to music. “He knew how to end things and how to begin in a church service,” wrote a member of the church. Along with his musical responsibilities, which lasted for nearly 60 years, Fred often taught Sunday school, organized a Boys’ Choir and served as a deacon.
By the start of 20th century, church members realized they needed more space for the “various organizations in our Church.” To raise the initial funds for construction, the first Norwich Fair was held on the green in July of 1949. According to a newsletter sent out in June of that year, the fair “...will commence with a dance at the Town [Tracy] Hall on the 15th of July, and on Saturday the Midway on the Campus [Green] will be open to all.” All proceeds from the fair would be placed in a building fund for the church. “We are in hopes of building a parish house,” the newsletter concluded, “to meet the needs of an ever expanding town. Many, many new homes are being built in the village, and the church must serve its people, its youth and its elders, as it has done in the past.”
The fair was a huge success and included a parade with the Grant and Nichols Fife and Drum Corps from Concord, NH; participants on horses and floats; kids on bicycles; and Comrey Cook with his wife Mattie in a 1903 Cadillac. After the parade, everyone gathered on the green to hear Vermont Senator Ralph Flanders – who would later gain fame in 1954 by speaking out against Joseph McCarthy – and watch the ox pulls. The Church raised $1,419.12 for the new Parish House which was built by the Trumbull-Nelson construction company and opened on July 9, 1950.
Beginning high in the woods at the center of Norwich and then shifting to the Plain in 1817, the Congregational Church has been an integral part of the Norwich community for over 200 years. Generations of families worshipped in the first two meeting houses and then at the South Church. Sadly, the first two meeting houses have vanished into history, but the cemetery established at the same time is still there along with a marker commemorating the structures. Happy 200th Birthday to the Congregational Church!
Unless otherwise noted, quoted material came from The Congregational Heritage 1770-1961 in Norwich, Vermont by Louise C. Johnson, and Goddard and Partridge’s History of Norwich.