Business boomed in Burrville

Now quaint village was once a center of commerce

By Lenka Walldroff
Jefferson County Historical Society

The village of Burrville is located just east of Watertown on Route 12 and is best known for the fresh cider and hot doughnuts made by the Burrville Cider Mill every fall. What many don’t know about the village is that during the first half of the nineteenth century, Burrville was a bustling commerce center, rivaling and even eclipsing Watertown in social and economic prominence.

The Burrville Market was a landmark in the hamlet for many years. This view of the general store was taken around 1900. the facility was in many ways the center of life in Burrville. The landmark was razed in 1959. The owner of the general store in 1959, Larkin J. Mosher, had a new store constructed. The building that housed the general store was for years the Fredenburg Hotel during the 1800s before it was converted into a hardware store and then the general store. Among the operators of the store was Bill Hayes for 35 years. This picture was for years part of a collection owned by Mrs. Rosamond Hardy Croew, who was born and raised in Burrville. Alex T. Duffy made the photo available to the Watertown Daily Times.

The area that would be called Burrville began to be settled just before 1800. What attracted the early settlers to the area was the north fork of Sandy Creek that flowed through the area and dropped precipitously to form a waterfall. The waterfall provided enough power for the settlers’ needs without being strong enough to overwhelm their primitively built dams. As immigration began to increase, the proprietor of the tract, Nicholas Stowe, invested in the construction of a saw mill and a grist mill to provide lumber and flour to the settlers. The mills, powered by the waterfall and constructed in 1801, were purchased by a Revolutionary War veteran named Capt. John Burr in 1802. Thus the settlement was named “Burr’s Mills” and eventually “Burrville.” The mills remained in use throughout the 19th century and the saw mill serves as the present location of the Burrville Cider Mill.

As the mills were being constructed, a general store was simultaneously built by Jabez Foster, who later became a Watertown judge. The store was staffed by Orville Hungerford, a citizen also destined for prominence. Subsequently, a blacksmith shop was constructed that manufactured all of the farming tools for the area and, for a time, an iron foundry operated in the area as well.

One of the earliest known distilleries was established in Burrville around 1802 by, oddly enough, a missionary and minister. The Rev. Ebenezer Lazelle was the first minister and one of the earliest missionaries in the county. In the early days of the 19th century pure liquors were of general household and medicinal use. The good reverend saw the need in the area and availed himself to spiritual work of two kinds — saving and distilling.

By 1806 a large tannery was set up in Burrville that employed approximately 15 men. The tannery produced boots and shoes for the local townspeople. The power of the Sandy Creek was harnessed to run a wheel that ground bark for the leather dying process.

Burrville also had a school that served as a combination church and village hall when not in use by pupils. At one time there were 107 pupils enrolled in the village school. It later became a tavern.

The list of businesses that flourished in Burrville during the first half of the 19th century is quite lengthy, indeed: There was a cabinet maker who also made coffins, a wool carder and a dress maker who used recycled home linens for the manufacture of clothes. There was a match factory, a sash and blind manufacturer, an axe maker and a physician who practiced for more than 60 years. Last, but certainly not least, what would become the Burrville Congregation Church, which was formed there in 1803 by Puritans who had settled the area from New England. The church celebrated its bicentennial in 2003.

The historical sketch of a bustling and industrial Burrville is very different from the quaint community that we know today. Many readers may wonder about the circumstances that precipitated the change. In 1805, due to its central location, Watertown was chosen as the Jefferson County seat. Watertown prevailed over both Brownville and Champion who also vied for the honor. Subsequently a bridge was built in Watertown spanning the Black River. Shortly thereafter a dam, paper and saw mills were also constructed. These improvements created employment opportunities and attracted banks that lent money for further industrial development. The improvements also attracted settlers at a rapid pace. A number of these settlers were from Burrville, where they had sold their businesses and relocated to what was quickly becoming a bustling town. By 1869, Watertown was officially incorporated as a city and Burrville was well on its way to becoming the subdued farming village that exists today.

While it may be a shadow of its former industrial past, Burrville is still full of rich history. The village boasts many beautiful limestone homes and farms that are still inhabited and worked by the relatives of the first settlers — a continuity that is rarely seen in more industrial cities.

Lenka P. Walldroff is curator of collections for the Jefferson County Historical Museum. She is a former museum specialist and conservator at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.