Mad River Valley Rural Historic District
Photograph by CB Johnson

  Typical farms of the Mad River Valley Rural Historic District
Photographs courtesy of the Mad River Valley Planning District and the Vermont Division for Historic Preservation

The Mad River Valley Rural Historic District is a gently-sloped stretch of fertile land lying along both sides of the river between Moretown and Waitsfield Villages. The heart of the district is the Mad River, which snakes through the length of the valley, and is paralleled by Vermont Routes 100 and 100B. The landscape and buildings of the district still retain the character of a rural farming community, reflecting over two centuries of cultivation of the flat farmland along the river, contrasting with the heavily wooded hills bordering the valley.

Historic buildings in the district are found in farmstead clusters. Most are vernacular, wooden, gable-roofed barns and farm structures from the late 1700s to the early 1900s, some with features from the Greek and Gothic Revival styles. There are examples within the district of the typical New England building practices, such as the process of additive architecture in which a small structure is expanded through more stylish additions. Another New England tradition found in the valley is the continuous architecture of connected barns and living spaces, a building type accurately termed Big House, Little House, Back House, Barn.

When the area was first farmed by white settlers in the 1790s, grains and meats were the staples, until the opening of the Erie Canal caused their market price to plumet. Sheep farming replaced these, bolstered by a wool-import tariff in 1828. When the tariff was eliminated in 1846, wool prices fell, and sheep were subsequently raised for mutton. After 1846, a majority of Vermonters shifted to diversified farming, the chief products being butter, cheese, maple sugar, livestock and market gardening. These were stable products on which Vermont farmers could depend because of their advantageous proximity to local markets. The heavily wooden hills, primarily maple and spruce trees, provided wood for the secondary lumber industry as well as firewood and sap for maple syrup. Today most residents of the Mad River Valley commute to jobs in Montpelier, Barre or Burlington, or are employed by the local recreation industry. In 1980, just eight percent of Waitsfield's population and one percent of Fayston's were employed in agriculture. Despite this, the well-preserved landscape and farmsteads continue to provide a vital historical record of Vermont's agricultural past.

The Mad River Valley Rural Historic District is comprised of the rural farmlands surrounding the Mad River as it winds from Moretown to Waitsfield. Most of the buildings within the district, especially the farmsteads, are privately owned and not open to the public. Further information can be obtained from the Visitors Center, Sugarbush Chamber of Commerce and the Waitsfield Historical Society, all located in The General Wait House, Rt. 100, Waitsfield, open 9:00am to 5:00pm, Monday-Friday, 802-496-3409.

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