One night, I was scanning Colchester’s Wikipedia page when a statistic in the side bar made my eyes big.
It was Census data for the town (later confirmed by other sources), and it showed that between 1920 and 1930, Colchester’s population dropped 60.2 percent. This was especially out-of-place considering every other 10-year increment showed an increase in population, however slight.
I jotted a note down to look into it later.
A week or two passed, and I called the historical society to look for answers. I was put in touch with its director, Carol Reichard, who, upon hearing about the mysterious population drop, drew the same initial conclusion.
But even this seemed a little odd. Wouldn’t we have heard about an epidemic so severe it wiped out over half the town? Not that this is going to help the tourism economy or anything, but I can imagine having an entire portion of a history class in middle school devoted to “Colchester’s Great Die-Off of the 1920s” or something.
A few days later, I met Reichard at the historical society, and she started digging through annual reports from a big filing cabinet on the second floor. She had most of the reports for the years between 1920 and 1930, and a lot of them even included a “doctor’s report,” but nothing notable turned up.
There was disease, sure – typhoid, influenza, small pox – but nothing on that scale. And there were plenty of deaths, the causes of which were avoidable and rarely seen or heard of today, but again, nothing in the 50-plus percent range.
We did find one unexplained oddity: The 1922 annual report was the 59th on record. And the 1923 annual report was, instead of being the 60th, the “First Annual Report.” There was no mention in the 1922 or 1923 report of anything significant changing with the town, although they typically didn’t include a thorough preamble.
When I was standing by the door getting ready to leave, Reichard suddenly became animated and put her hands together. She said something along the lines of “I bet that’s the year that Colchester and Winooski split.”
She was spot on.
We took out Ruth Wright’s “Colchester Vermont from Ice Cap to Interstate,” the so-called bible on the town of Colchester. Despite having no index, we found this passage on page 132:
“Winooski village … was incorporated a city by No. 314 of the Acts of the 1921 legislature. The rest of Colchester on the first Tuesday of March 1922 became the new town of Colchester.”
Inge Schaefer, local history guru and author of two books on the town, including “Chronicles of Colchester,” described details of the split.
“Industrial Winooski, with all its mills right on the river, felt the taxes they were paying to Colchester for their roads, and the many one-room schoolhouses spread across the agricultural part of the town, would be better spent in a community of their own,” she said.
Schaefer said the split was initiated by a legislator representing Winooski and was “not particularly sanctioned by the Town of Colchester,” happening quite quickly and under controversial circumstances.
But, she cautioned, “I favor the Colchester side when it comes to the split. If you talk to somebody on the Winooski side, they’re going to look at it from their point of view.”
And there you have it.
This explained the drop in population in the 1930 census – Colchester “losing” the bulk of its inhabitants to Winooski in the split.