Soldiers paraded on it; cattle grazed on it; generations lived their lives on it. In providing open space and historic continuity, the village green in Vermont still has a functional place today. And it adds a special esthetic value to any community lucky enough to have a pleasing common.
The colonists' idea of laying out settlements around a green originated in the ancient Egyptian temple courtyard and worked its way down through the Greek agora to the Renaissance city square. At each step its form changed, with New Englanders finally fashioning it to their own needs.
I have traveled the arboreal highways of New England for two decades in pursuit of the perfect common. I look for three things in a green. The most important is scale -- how the space relates to the height of surrounding structures. Then there should be a cadenced enclosure to contain the green -- formed by buildings, fences or trees. Finally, these elements themselves should be noteworthy.
The green was conceived as a civic center with meeting house, tavern, town hall, grange, library and academy (in addition to dwellings). If public institutions migrate to another part of the community, the green becomes just a park.
Thus, all greens are not created equal. Here are the ones I like best.
Near the Connecticut River separating Vermont and New Hampshire, about half-way up the state, lies Thetford Hill. Its green on Rte. 113 is a see-through one, with white clapboard structures creating a near enclosure, and mountains in the distance. It is a place to walk across, to play in, to hold fairs on (100 booths materialize during the August fair). It is punctuated by an unexpectedly healthy American elm, with a perfect wine-glass form. A private school, Openfields, gives onto the green. (The academy itself moved beyond the common after it burned in the 19th century.)
The term "meeting house" probably came from the English expression for dissenting churches. The Puritans used these buildings for religious assembly and for other public gatherings. The 1783 Georgian meeting house in Thetford is the oldest church in continuous use in Vermont. It was a peripatetic building, moved from the valley to the common, then across the green in 1830. The last move was from town land to church land, when church/state separation pressure forced the church to purchase the building from the town for $125.
The term "meeting house" probably came from the English expression for dissenting churches. The Puritans used these buildings for religious assembly and for other public gatherings. For some, the term implied the conjunction of God and their neighbors. Congregationalists were not as dominant in Vermont as in the rest of New England. They had to compete with Baptists, Methodists, Universalists and, later on, Catholics.
Rev. Asa Burton, who presided over the church's affairs for over more than 50 years, said had this to say about his flock toward the end of the 18th century: "The inhabitants were poor, vulgar in their manners, far from neatness in their appearance within doors or without, and their lives were immoral and disgusting. Young people were fond of balls, had them very frequent. Between midnight and daybreak, they would return home hallooing through the streets which made me think of howling of wolves."
In southern Vermont on Rte. 30 is the second of my five favorite greens. Texture is the word for the Newfane common: Clapboards, columns and brackets are the motif, and bright sunshine is the catalyst that brings out light and shadow.
With these details unifying the courthouse, the church, the inns, the dwellings and even the general store, Newfane's green can't miss. For novelty, the green still has a barn and an ex-jail plus almost enough sugar maples to constitute a commons sugarbush.
The 1825 courthouse in the middle of the green is the dominant structure. Its style is partly late Georgian -- symmetry and round-headed windows -- and partly Greek revival -- Doric fluted columns and shallow roof. Don't miss the campy, renaissance, three-tiered fountain in front of the building.
The Brattleboro and Whitehall Railroad brought its first train to Newfane on a narrow-gauge track in 1878. Since most of the line had a standard 56-inch track, freight out of Newfane had to be reloaded in Brattleboro. But this was only the beginning of its problems. Washouts, derailments and other delays prompted Newfane wags to note, "The only reason for our two inns is to accommodate stranded railroad passengers."
Vermont is a rural state with mostly rural greens. But there are a few urban squares, and Middlebury has one of them. Located near Lake Champlain at the confluence of Rtes. 125 and 30, it is a finely scaled, hilly common. It is enclosed by many attached buildings plus a few dwellings.
Brick polychrome Victorian structures make up the south side of the common. The Old Town Hall on the east is Romanesque while the west side features the uncommonly elegant Horatio Seymour house.
On the north is the outsized Middlebury Inn, one of few still functioning on a Vermont green; its fan-lighted doorway has been greeting guests since 1827. It was at the inn around the turn of the century that Joseph Battell, a conservationist, announced that he would buy all the land he could see from there.
In accumulating 30,000 acres, including several mountains, he became the largest landowner in Vermont. Much of it he left to Middlebury College, and the Green Mountain National Forest was formed in 1932 with a great part of it.
By 1806, Middlebury was one of Vermont's most important towns, with many mills and inns, a courthouse and a college, but no meeting house. Citizens had to worship in various barns, a tavern, a courthouse. Two of Middlebury's leading Congregationalists, Daniel Foot and Gamaliel Painter, wanted to build the church, but each on a different site. After some years, Foot lost the fight, left town and became a Baptist. Painter then hired Lavius Fillmore to design the church.
It was worth waiting for. Fillmore had built three other houses of worship, stressing a style derived from the great English architect, Christopher Wren. The Middlebury church's outstanding feature is the steeple, a successful solution to one of church architecture's main challenges -- the graceful transition from square base to round spire.
In this case, the metamorphosis starts with the steeple's quoined base (interlocking corner blocks), then leads upward through increasingly delicate stories as it blends the solid base into two elaborate square levels. This melds into two open, eight-sided tiers and finally an octagonal spire at the top. This fine assembly contributes to the church's claim as Vermont's handsomest.
Next on the list is the Woodstock green in central Vermont, where Rtes. 106 and 4 meet. It is a tad too narrow; its shops are a might too posh; its new inn (1969) is set so far back it leaves a gap in the common's continuity. But Woodstock green has such class in its enclosing structures it must be counted among the top.
They say the green's shape is based on a ship's plan. Its array of architectural detail assaults the senses -- Greek orders, lyre-shaped iron railings, blind arches, elaborate balustrades, multi-dormers, paneled brick fac,ades, all done and maintained exquisitely.
Woodstock started to grow in the late 1700s, when it became a shire town (county seat) and the site of the newly established state bank, encouraging local business and its attendant prosperity.
And local business there was. Around the green, settlers made saddles, beaverskin hats, flat silver and pearlash -- a variant of potash. There was a tinshop and a tannery. Although these activities are long gone, the flourishing area has continued to attract wealth, merchants, tourists and retirees.
In 1810, Lombardy poplars were planted on the green only to be uprooted and thrown into the Ottauquechee River when word got around that they harbored worms. In 1830, maples were dug from surrounding hillsides and marked so their south sides would again face south upon replanting on the green. Abuse and neglect has left few trees on the green today.
The green's iron fence was installed in 1878. The handsome covered bridge leading off the west side of the green is the only one built in Vermont in this century; its ingenious truss design was patented by 19th-century architect, Ithiel Town, and it made him rich.
Craftsbury Common, off Rte. 14 in northern Vermont, is another fine Vermont green. Ebenezer Crafts gave it his name and selected the site so carefully back in 1789 that the Smithsonian found it perfect for the filming of its "History of Flight." This is a country green delineated by a three-tiered wooden fence. It is treeless and occupied only by a small bandstand and soccer goal.
When Craftsbury Academy lets out, the green is filled with youngsters kicking soccer balls. The clapboard academy building holds sway over the green. It is a strong design, with a gabled tower and an eight-columned portico.
Across the green from the academy stands the United Church (once the Congregational Church), surveying the green in front and the valley behind. With corn planted in its side yard, this is a simple, nicely scaled building with hooded windows and tracery. On top is a nifty fish vane.
Craftsbury's early settlers had to bear extreme isolation and loneliness. According to one survey, the incidence of suicide was cut in half when the telephone came and by half again with the radio.
Because of the high cost of transporting lumber, one of the first things Ebenezer Crafts did in Craftsbury was to build a sawmill. Then came grist mills and hulling mills for grinding meal and oatmeal. Craftsbury people soon learned it was easier to grind grain at the local grist mill than to pound it at home with mortar and pestle. Craftsbury's mills were some of the earliest, because rugged terrain spawned harnessable water courses.
In addition to these five, there are other agreeable greens in Vermont, including Bristol, with its mountainous setting; Windsor, with its Richardsonian town hall; and Weston, with its ellipse shape. There are greens like Shelburne's that have been intruded upon by busy roads and greens whose lost traditions leave them poorer -- for example, Lyndonville and its horse-drawn sleigh races. There are greens that have disappeared altogether -- Checkerberry Village -- and there are many lovely towns like Peacham that have no greens to speak of.
Early Vermonters who worked around the green gave it their own character -- solid as if hammered by the smithy, gritty as if ground by the miller, practical as if formed by the cooper. For this reason, many greens have survived with their dignity intact. And latter-day greenskeepers are standing at their watchtowers to keep it so.