1841-46: The Dream Of The Shiretown
Coventry History

In September 1839, Elijah Cleveland was elected to his first term as a representative from Coventry to the Vermont Legislature. He remained in the House for three years and his main legislative project began in November 1841 when he tried to remove the Orleans County seat from Irasburg and make Coventry the county shire town. The shire town had been moved only once since Orleans County was organized in 1799. Brownington and Craftsbury were the original half-shire towns, alternating county court sessions between them. In 1816, Irasburgh was offered the shiretown when it agreed to build a new courthouse building.

Coventry to Orleans Map
Coventry in October, Orleans in November 1841

At least twice a year, dozens of lawyers and their clients would converge on Irasburgh for the Orleans County Court sessions. Prestige, business and trade came with being a shire town and Cleveland wanted it for Coventry. Part of his strategy was to rename the town of Coventry to ‘Orleans’, and on October 18,1841 he introduced House bill H.14 “an act altering the name of the town of Coventry”. The House passed the bill the following Monday and sent it on to the Senate where it passed by a single vote on October 30. The governor signed the bill on November 3 and Coventry was now officially known as the town of Orleans. Perhaps to show that Coventry was serious about becoming the county seat of Orleans, Cleveland spent $260 of his own money to purchase a public clock which was installed in the tower of the Congregational Church. No other building in the county had a clock like this one. Coventry (Orleans) was now ready to take on the responsibilities of a shire town.

But Elijah Cleveland was not elected to the legislature in 1842, and his shire town plans were put on hold. When a petition was submitted to the legislature in October 1843 by Peleg Redfield and 63 other Coventry residents to restore the town name to Coventry, Cleveland organized and submitted a counter petition against it. By the end of the legislative session both the House and Senate had voted for restoration. Coventry was once again Coventry, and Irasburg remained the county seat.

The Clock in the church belfry
The only building in the county with a clock, the Coventry Congregational Church

Five years later in 1846 Elijah Cleveland was reelected to the Vermont Legislature. During the first week of the October session he created a legislative blitz in an attempt to once more make Coventry the shire town. Starting with a petition from Phineas Page and others of Newport praying for the “removal of Orleans County Buildings from Irasburgh to Coventry”, he spent the next four days presenting petition after petition from northern county towns and residents, all wanting to have Coventry made the shire town of the county. Nine hundred county residents from the northern towns in and around Coventry signed petitions, and Cleveland laid them out one by one, day by day.

His motion was sent to a select committee of Orleans County representatives. Cleveland was the chair of this committee which included representatives from only 12 of the 19 county towns. Of the 7 missing representatives, 5 of them were from towns towards the south which would favor keeping Irasburg as the county seat. The committee released its report, with a 9 to 3 majority in favor of making the shire town change. Cleveland’s bill was H.93 “An act changing the Shire Town of Orleans County” and it was the first order of business on the morning of Tuesday October 27. As the House prepared to consider the bill it would seem that Cleveland had played his hand well.

The majority report concluded that it would be too expensive to build a new Court House in Coventry. Presumably with the idea of physically moving the County buildings, the bill included the condition that, not only would the County hand over all its rights to the public buildings, but also all the land under the buildings would revert to the town of Coventry. Opponents amended the bill to remove Coventry’s right to the public lands and buildings in Irasburg. After more debate Cleveland moved to adjourn the session without any further action on the bill. The bill was tabled for the next two days and on Friday it was refused a second reading. On Saturday Cleveland finally offered his own amendment, proposing to erect the courthouse and jail in Coventry at no expense to the county and to put the entire removal decision up to the voters at the next town meetings in March. But his amendment was defeated and he was faced with a final opposing amendment which would direct the Vermont Supreme Court to appoint a committee of three persons to decide if the removal should be made, and if so where.

Perhaps knowing that he had allies in the Senate, Cleveland made a tactical retreat and accepted the amendment. Elijah Cleveland was a man of few public words, but the newspaper accounts have him accepting the opposing amendment with an admonishment to his opponents saying that “he had once taken the opponents of the removal on their own ground, and now he would do it again”. The bill was passed by the House and was sent on to the Senate. And indeed Cleveland’s allies were ready for the bill. Orange County Senator Levi Villas of Chelsea promptly amended the House bill to strike out all the previous amendments and inserted eight sections providing for the location of the courthouse and jail in Coventry. The bill was approved by a narrow one vote margin, but last minute political maneuvering doomed it to failure. When it was brought up again for reconsideration it lost by two votes. Cleveland carried the House but he couldn’t take the Senate. He came back to Coventry that fall without his prize. It was his last stint in the Vermont House as he was not re-elected the next year. It was the end of his dreams of the shire town.
Irasbugh Courthouse
The courthouse and jail still in Irasburgh circa 1880

- Elijah Cleveland: Strongman Of Orleans County, Mark Mohrmann, Potato Starch Press, Coventry,Vt., 2014