This Vermont town’s name was settled in a fistfight

BARRE – This town in central Vermont can trace a major part of its history to a barn on Morrison Road, where the community’s name was settled in a fistfight.

Paul Heller, who writes about the history of Barre, stands Nov. 12, 2020 at the site where a fistfight in 1793 settled the town's name.

“It’s a great Barre legend,” said Paul Heller, whose writings about the town’s history have been collected in books including “Granite City Tales.”

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Heller stood Thursday at the site of the barn where two men in 1793 settled the town’s name in a manner that sounds more like the Wild West than the Northeast.

“Vermont was on the frontier then,” Heller said. “It seems a perfectly appropriate way to settle a disagreement on the frontier.”

A drawing of the Calvin Smith farm from the Barre Souvenir, a published history of Barre, shows the site where a fistfight settled the town name in 1793.

‘The name is Barre, by God’

The Gazetteer of Vermont, published in 1842, provides a florid account of how the battle went down. The town was known as Wildersburgh, but residents didn’t care for that mouthful of a moniker. They called a town meeting Sept. 3, 1793, at the home of Calvin Smith to agree on a new name.

Several names were proposed, including Paris and Newburn. The two leading candidates came from Capt. Joseph Thompson, who wanted to name the town after his place of origin, Holden, Massachusetts, and Jonathan Sherman, who favored the name of his Bay State hometown, Barre.

Paul Heller, who writes about the history of Barre, stands Nov. 12, 2020 at the site where a fistfight in 1793 settled the town's name.

“(A)s the matter seemed to lie chiefly between these two, it was proposed that it should be decided between them, by boxing,” according to the Gazetteer. The meeting adjourned to a new barn constructed by Smith, which had a fresh floor of rough hemlock plank.

“Agreeably to this arrangement, the combatants advanced upon each other,” the Gazetteer reports, “and soon Thompson, by a well directed blow, brought his antagonist to the floor, and, springing upon him at full length, began to aim his heavy blows at his head and face; but Sherman, being more supple, avoided them, and they generally fell harmless on the floor, except peeling his own knuckles.”

“During this process,” the Gazetteer says, “Sherman was dexterously plying his ribs from beneath, when Thompson was soon heard to groan, and his blows became palsied and without effect. Sherman then rolled him off, and, springing upon his feet, exultingly exclaimed – “There, the name is Barre, by God!

A plaque on Morrison Road marks the spot in 1793 where a fistfight settled the naming of the town of Barre.

Disputed account

Heller said the story has come into dispute over the years. The battle has been termed more of a wrestling match than a fistfight – the Gazetteer certainly seems to describe a hybrid of the two. Heller said another story claims the name was determined in a church fundraiser, a possible effort to put a more-pious face on the town’s image.

“One doesn’t necessarily disqualify the other,” Heller said. He believes the fistfight story, in large part because the town’s first physician, Dr. Robert Paddock, gave an eyewitness account.

“Not only did (Paddock) watch the Thompson-Sherman scrap, which took place on a new hemlock barn floor,” according to the website www.findagrave.com, quoting from “Early Barre History: Somber, Sensational and Otherwise” by Richard Bottamini, “but after the fight, he removed hemlock splinters from the back and buttocks of Sherman, the winner.”

A scene from Barre City on Sept. 24, 2020.

Both Barre Town and Barre City, incorporated in the late 19th century, have a scrappy, blue-collar reputation, thanks to early days built around agriculture and later renown for world-class granite quarries.

“As a myth,” Heller said of the fistfight tale, “it may be well-suited to Barre.”

Contact Brent Hallenbeck at bhallenbeck@freepressmedia.com. Follow Brent on Twitter at www.twitter.com/BrentHallenbeck.