Saxtons River’s New Park

Saxtons River's New Park

Mary Wallace, Staff Writer

On Tuesday, October 22, a crowd gathered at the new Saxtons River Village Park, awaiting its grand opening.  The land, as most people remember it, sat barren for around 8 years – overgrown and marked “Future Park Site”.  The true history of the area, however, is far more interesting.

Located at the corner of Westminster St. and Main, the small plot of land had been home to various mills since the 1700’s.  The village of Saxtons River was developed around these riverside mills which produced bread, lumber, and other necessities locally, due to the nonexistence of the global market.  Most settlements bordered rivers, because early machinery was powered by running water. The village was officially mapped in 1885; the Sanborn Fire Insurance Map, but there have been previous records. In Zadock Thompson’s Gazetteer of Vermont, he states; “The village (of Saxtons River) contains an elegant meeting house, a post office, two carding machines, one grist, two saw, and two fulling mills, one tannery, one forge, one furnace, one distillery, two woolen factories, one tavern, two stores, one law office, and forty-five dwelling houses.”  His geographical index was published in 1828.  The small factories of Saxtons River changed production based on consumer needs and trends. At one point in time, Saxtons River was home to a basket factory, and during prohibition, workers brewed illegal cider brandy.

In fact, a lot happened in 1920’s Saxtons River; most of it followed the invention of the motor vehicle.  At the site of the park, a blacksmith shop made wheels and

metal, but with the rising use of the automobile, selling gas became a more profitable practice.  The blacksmith shop morphed into gas station around 1925, with two pumps, a small repair shop, a store, and a quaint garden for curb-appeal. The station was passed through various owners over time, one of which being the O’Conners.  One owner entered a challenge for Sunoco; a free trip to Bermuda for the most attractive facade. They won, giving Saxtons River the forgettable title of “prettiest gas station.” Unfortunately, as time went on, a series of economic changes were cause to a loss of customers, and station owners couldn’t sell enough gasoline to pay rent.  The owner abandoned the building, and what was once the “prettiest gas station in America” became a collapsing building with a tree growing through it, abandoned and overgrown.

The land on which the park was to be built composed of two properties; one bordering the river, and one bordering the road; where the gas station stood.  In 1979, the riverside property was given to the village. The idea for a park was introduced in 2000; a pleasant solution to the rotting eyesore the station had become.  However, the station created a bigger problem than was visible to the human eye. The woman living next door discovered gasoline had seeped into the groundwater supply; her tap water smelled of gasoline.  The area was declared an environmental brownfield, causing development of the park to be delayed. Ten years later, the town received permission to demolish the gas station. The Property wasn’t given to the town until 2011, when it was donated by the gas station company Sandri.  Hurricane Irene that same year caused for plans to be changed, as, due to safety reasons, the park couldn’t be developed anywhere that had been declared a floodplain (the majority of the property near the river).   The village Board of Trustees also had to receive an EPA grant to clean up brownfields, and meet with the Windham Regional Commission, ANC, and designers. They needed permission to develop, but the main reason for the near-20-year delay was environmental.  The area needed to be safe. In fall of 2018, park construction finally began.

Now, the area is perfect for weddings, concerts, and town events.  Nestled at the center of town, the quaint village green fills the promise of small town Vermont, and it’s history dates back to the Revolutionary war.  In the words of Louise Luring, chair of the board of trustees; “It’s our face. It’s our front door.”