1825 - Elijah Cleveland
Coventry History

Elijah Cleveland (1)
Of all the men of vision who came to Coventry to engage in mercantile pursuits it was the Honorable Elijah Cleveland who succeeded most spectacularly. It was Cleveland who built on the early successes of the Harmon brothers and established at Coventry village a thriving industrial and agricultural economy during the 1820's and 30's. In the following decades he went on to establish himself in the railroad and financial sectors bringing the benefits of expanded commercial trade to Coventry.

Elijah Cleveland was born in Hanover, N.H. on June 29, 1795. His father Elijah Philips was a poor farmer renting land and trying to raise a family. Evidently seeking better prospects Elijah Sr. bought a tract of wild land in Waterford, Vt. in March of 1800. He made a clearing and built a house which the family moved into in the fall of that year. Elijah's sister Mary was born in that small house in the clearing that December.

Elijah began his education when he was 7, attending a school kept in a neighbors barn, learning spelling, grammar and arithmetic. During his early years Elijah spent his time helping his father in clearing land and the various farm chores. But he subsequently showed an aptitude for mechanical labor.

One fall and winter he began manufacturing and selling birch brooms. Later he worked at basket making, spending his days gathering stock in the swamps and his evenings preparing it for weaving. His father opposed Elijah's various attempts at this new line of work as he was of the opinion that a lad of such varied talents never could succeed at any one thing. Eventually however he relented to Elijah's entreaties to enter yet a new endeavor and purchased for him a few shoemaker's tools. Elijah set to work mending shoes for the family and occasionally doing jobs for the neighbors. While others discouraged him from entering such a poor trade, Elijah had a hero in Billy Gray, the master shoemaker of Lynn Massachusetts who was widely known at the time to be the wealthiest man in all of New England, if not the entire United States.(2)

In 1810, Elijah got permission from his father to apprentice with Mr. Rowell of Littleton, N.H. In return for board, lodging and instruction in the trade, Elijah worked for 3 months each autumn for the next 2 years while he continued to work with his father on the farm in the summers. In March of 1813 with 3 months to go before his 18th birthday he purchased from his father the remaining time for $36 and began to look around for a place to begin business on his own. Settling on Passumpsic village in the town of Barnet, he moved there on May 15 and began work as a shoemaker setting up his own shop.

Blacking Advertisement
An advertising card for Cleveland's blacking (3)

After making himself a pair of wedding shoes and then riding on horseback for 8 miles he married Maria Farrington on October 10, 1816. They crammed themselves into a two- room home, one of which was Elijah's workshop. Elijah became successful and expanded his trade to include the manufacture of harness, trunks, weaver's rods and shoe blacking. He was successful enough after 2 years to move into a more comfortable house and shop.

Trunk Plaque
Bronze Plaque from a Cleveland Trunk (4)

In December of 1824 Cleveland's business affairs took a serious turn when he connected with L.P. Parks of Passumpsic. Mr. Parks offered to finance a mercantile business for Cleveland to run along with John and Luther Clark of St. Johnsbury, all three very prominent business men themselves. Cleveland accepted the offer and in February of 1825 he moved to Coventry to commence business. With the money extended by Parks, Cleveland purchased the Harmon brothers store in the village. He purchased the stock of goods and commenced operations with an expanded and more varied assortment of items then had previously been offered and at lower prices.

Molasses was sold at a dollar per gallon, bohea tea at fifty-eight cents a pound and young hyson at a dollar and a half, loaf sugar at twenty-eight cents, brown sugar at fourteen cents, allspice at fifty cents, cinnamon at ten cents an ounce, salt at two dollars and a quarter per bushel, nails at fourteen cents a pound, cast iron at 10 cents a pound, pins at twenty-five cents a paper, shirting at twenty-five cents a yard, calico at prices varying from twenty-five to fifty cents a yard, and all other goods at proportionate prices.

Pliny White, History of Coventry,Vt,

Having had scant experience in mercantile pursuits, Cleveland found the going rough at first. While there was a quick demand for his goods, the lack of hard cash in the hands of the residents put the whole operation at a disadvantage. He soon found however that by introducing a barter and credit system he could trade in his goods by taking payment in the produce of Coventry's farmers. Invariably the terms would be that credit would be given for goods and payment made in produce such as wheat the following January. Failing this the customer would be given another year to pay in cash with interest. Learning the ins and outs of the mercantile trade, Cleveland prospered and ran the business in Coventry for 25 years.

Elijah Cleveland's Store
Clevelands's Store in the late 1800's - his son Henry C. on the right (5)

Once Cleveland had the store operation off the ground he immediately expanded his interests into the manufacturing of pearlash, building an ashery just behind the store to the east in December of 1825. The building burnt down a few years later but was immediately rebuilt. In 1827 Cleveland got into the gristmill business although there are some historical discrepancies which make it unclear exactly how he began the business. According to Pliny White Cleveland built the first true gristmill in town in 1827. It sat where the remnants of the last mill are still standing right on the river and began grinding in January of 1828. But there are legal documents which show that Cleveland purchased the gristmill from the Harmon brothers on Aug 26, 1827.

After 4 fruitful years in Coventry, Cleveland was able to begin living his life as a successful businessman. He began construction of a proper framed dwelling-house in 1829. The frame was raised in October, and in August 1830 he moved in. The house is still standing on Main street in the village and is still owned by descendants of the family. He also contributed several hundred dollars in those years to the construction of the Congregational Church down the street. In this period Cleveland also began to take an active part in community affairs in Coventry. He was elected Town Clerk and Treasurer in 1827 and held those position through 1834. In 1834 he was appointed Assistant Judge for Orleans County where he served for 2 years, and then he was elected to the Coventry selectboard as well as to the Vermont State Senate in 1836.

Bank of Orleans Bill

While he spent much of his time now in public service he also was making plans to expand yet again his commercial pursuits. In 1832 the Bank of Orleans in Irasburg was chartered and Cleveland was one of the original members named in the charter and organization of the bank. He became a director and eventually president of the bank in later years. In 1835 he became one of the original incorporators of the Connecticut & Passumpsic River Railroad Co. which over the next 30 years would build a railroad from White River Junction all the way through Coventry to the Canadian border at Derby Line. Over the years he became secretary and then a director of the railroad.

Railroad Stock Certificate
Connecticut & Passumpsic River Railroad Co Stock Certificate (6)

In the summer of 1837 he began construction of a starch factory across the river from his gristmill. Then sometime after the starch factory became operational Cleveland took a contract to build a road from Coventry, 6 miles through unbroken wilderness to Newport. Meanwhile his political career continued to blossom. He was elected to the state legislature in the years 1839 through 1841 and again in 1843. He was a presidential elector for Zachary Taylor in 1849. He was Orleans county road commissioner in the years 1844 through 1846. As Cleveland became more active in county and state political and economic affairs, he began to curtail his original mercantile activities in town. He sold his stock in the general goods store in 1850 and in 1854 he sold the starch factory to Samuel Burbank.

He spent his later years concentrating on the railroad and banking business and was there to see the final leg of track laid to the Canadian border. He was the Coventry delegate to the Vermont Constitutional Convention in 1867, a director of the Vermont State Agricultural Society in 1872, and was invited to the unveiling of the Ethan Allen statue in Burlington in 1873.

He died in Coventry in July of 1883 and is buried in the village cemetery.

1. Engraving by J.C. Buttre from a Daguerrotype] Source: Gazetteer of Lamoille and Orleans Counties, VT; 1883-1884, by Hamilton Child, July, 1883, page 236.
2. Horace Gray: Father of the Boston Public Garden, Brighton Allston Historical Society - http://www.bahistory.org/HoraceGray.html
3. Old Stone House Museum - Coventry room collection, Brownington, VT
4. Private collection.
5. Bits And Pieces Of Coventry's History, Coventry Bicentenial Committee, Coventry, VT, 1977
6. Clintonhollins.com
- Gazetteer of Lamoille and Orleans Counties, VT; 1883-1884, by Hamilton Child, July, 1883, page 236.
- A History Of Coventry, Vt., Pliny White,
- Portraits of Eminent Americans Now Living: with Biographical and Historical Memoirs of Their Lives and Actions John Livingston, New York, Cornish, Lamport & Co, 1853