Strafford was granted its charter on August 12, 1761 by Benning Wentworth, royal Governor of the Province of New Hampshire. The town was named in honor of one of the Earls of Strafford, a title first held in Wentworth’s family in 1640.
Prior to 1761, the land was a sparsely inhabited wilderness in which Native Americans, the Abenakis, had been present for many thousands of years. Not until the early 1600s did Europeans arrive in the area, principally French fur trappers based in Montreal.
As in the other Upper Valley town charters of 1761, Strafford was to be six miles square, consisting of 23,040 acres. Meeting in Hebron, Connecticut, the proprietors created parcel maps of 100-acre lots to be divided among the sixty-four men, through a lottery system in a series of four land divisions Of the original sixty-four proprietors, only three actually came to live in Strafford, and at least two settled in nearby Thetford. Many of the rest appear to have been mainly interested in land speculation.
The first known permanent settlers in Strafford arrived about 1767, establishing what is now called the “Old City” settlement. By 1771, there were nine households in town and more began to arrive from Massachusetts and New Hampshire as well as Connecticut. Strafford’s Grand List had grown to 64 names in the early 1780s. When Vermont became the fourteenth state in 1791, Strafford had 844 inhabitants in 148 households.
The discovery of copperas and copper ore at Strafford in the 1790s led to the creation of the Elizabeth Mine Company and the Vermont Mineral Company. During the last period of its operation the Elizabeth Mine was the largest in New England. Rapid population growth followed, and by 1799 there were eight public schools in Strafford. That same year, the town finally built its famous meeting house to serve all the different religious denominations as well as Strafford’s town meetings. The meeting house is said to be the most photographed building in Vermont, and Town Meeting has been held there every year since 1801. The meeting house was located in the upper village, across from an established inn, tavern and store, where a blacksmith’s shop, carding mill and tannery would soon create a bustling town center. This was hastened by the advent of the Strafford section of the “Chelsea Turnpike,” laid out from Norwich to Chelsea, beginning in 1806 and going through Strafford in 1809. By 1810, school enrollment numbered 835 pupils, the highest seen in the town, before or since. President James Monroe’s 1817 visit to Strafford’s copperas works caused a sensation locally.
A post office eluded Strafford until 1819, when one was located in the upper village. In 1830, a post office was established in the lower village and called “South Strafford,” the name soon in general use.
In 1849, Justin Smith Morrill, a native of Strafford, constructed his Gothic Revival “cottage” nearby, where he would vacation during his forty-three-year tenure as Representative and Senator in Washington D.C. It is, today, a national historic site. Justin Smith Morrill is best remembered as the member of Congress who sponsored the legislation that created what became the nation’s system of Land Grant Colleges. Twenty-five years later he was to make a gift to Strafford of a library building, which today houses Strafford’s municipal offices.
Strafford’s population had been gradually declining since the 1830s as fewer people moved into town and more went west. By 1883, only 180 pupils were enrolled in the schools. Nevertheless, Strafford kept building. In 1885, the current Coburns’ Store structure was erected. A public meeting enthusiastically endorsed the idea of constructing a creamery between the villages to encourage local dairy farming, and the creamery operated there from 1893 to 1938. Curtis S. Barrett built Barrett Hall in 1897 in South Strafford as a gift to the Town in memory of his parents. In the upper village, the Morrill Memorial Library was constructed in 1929, bequeathed in the will of Louise Swan, to honor Justin Smith Morrill and his son, James Swan Morrill. It was not until 1930 that electric company lines made their way through both villages, creating one of the greatest changes ever witnessed in town.
The 1900 census recorded 1,000 Strafford residents, a little more than half the population of 1830, and similar to that of today. South Strafford acquired its newest schoolhouse, the Newton School, built in 1932. It was destined to play an increasingly important role in the education of all Strafford children. Meantime, however, the Depression had caused the copper mine to close and it remained inactive until World War II created a demand for copper which allowed it to reopen in 1943 for fifteen more years.
Over the years, various organizations have arisen in Strafford which have contributed to the many opportunities and benefits our citizens now enjoy. The Lions Club, the Strafford Athletic Association, the Recreation Board, the Strafford Conservation Commission, the Friends of the Morrill Homestead, the Friends of the Morrill Memorial and Harris Library, the Strafford Historical Society, and others provide valued programs including the recycling center, a ski hill and lessons, swimming pond, recreation and sport facilities, nature preserve, hiking trails, entertainment, educational talks and exhibits, conservation and preservation projects, and historical collections. Besides the active volunteers who keep town organizations going, many residents donate important materials and funds for the good works of those groups, thus joining the many benefactors, named and unnamed, who have helped make Strafford a special place in which to live.