Waterville was chartered as Coit’s Gore on October 26, 1788 to James Whitlaw, James Savage and William Coit. In 1795, there were seven families in the Gore. Early settlers squatted on Native American lands, eventually building houses on the hills, leaving the Kelley River and its valley to the Native Americans. The Town of Waterville was chartered on November 16, 1824 and held its first town meeting the same year. The village is not incorporated.
Initial settlement of the Town of Waterville was scattered throughout the region without a specific focal point of development. In the 1830s, development began to cluster in the southern end of the town near the waterfalls of the North Branch of the Lamoille River. Soon a village developed at this location, and many of the early settlers (or their descendants) moved from their homes in the rural landscape to homes in the growing commercial and industrial center of the village. The name “Waterville” was most likely selected in recognition of the most important geographical feature in the region, the North Branch of the Lamoille River.
Waterville’s first saw and gristmills were built in 1796-97. Although the location of these first mills is no longer known, they are significant for having been designed by the well-known surveyor, millwright, builder, architect and civil engineer John Johnson (1771-1842). These early mills may have been constructed by Barnard Carpenter and were powered by what was later known as Peck’s Mill Dam.
Waterville’s population reached its peak in 1850 with 753 people. During the days of Waterville prosperity (1840s-1850s), many businesses flourished. Among these were: a friction match shop; a shop which made wooden rakes, grain cradles and various wood handles; a legging and belt lace factory; a knife and blade factory; a shingle and gristmill; sawmills; a boot factory which made 500 pairs of boots a year; a flannel mill which produced approximately 374,400 yards of flannel annually and employed 51 people; a starch factory which used 5,600 bushels of potatoes to produce 44,000 pounds of starch annually; a carding mill; a tannery which used 300 calf skins, 35,000 sheep skins and 250 cords of bark annually; a sash factory which produced 50,000 window sashes per year; two cabinet shops; several blacksmiths; and two hotels. Waterville also had the Mountain Spring House, the Union House and four stores.
There were three schoolhouses, a post office, and a cemetery. Waterville had two mines, which produced soapstone, talc and asbestos. Mining was done on a small scale and in 1936 Selectmen were instructed to sell the rights for delinquent taxes. Gold and silver veins have been discovered in Waterville, but not in sufficient quantity to mine.
Early church societies in Waterville consisted of the Methodists, Congregationalists, Baptists and Universalists. The Congregational and Methodist societies joined together in 1839 and in the same year built and dedicated the Union Meeting House. In 1870, the Universalist denomination joined with the United Church and built a meetinghouse. The Union Church building was apparently donated to the village by Moses McFarland about 1889, and converted to use as the town hall (Coit’s Gore, pg. 39). One of Waterville’s Baptist ministers was the Reverend William Arthur, father of Chester A. Arthur, the 21st President of the United States. In 1910, Chester A. Austin formed the Nazarene Society. The Catholic population attended church in Cambridge.
Several disastrous fires in the 1850s, combined with depressed business conditions, changed Waterville from a thriving manufacturing community to an agricultural hamlet. At the turn of the century, the population was down to 529 and by 1930 Waterville had 370 residents. In 1930, Waterville had a few businesses: a grain dealer; a lumber mill; a garage; a boat oar and canoe paddle manufacturer, four stores; and five gas pumps. It was mainly an agricultural town with farms dotting the hillsides. Waterville was known at that time for its apple trees that produced hundreds of barrels of cider. Fred McFarland ran an expert nursery where he developed a species of high bush blueberries that attracted attention from horticulturists and farmers around the state.
Material largely taken from Log Cabin Days of Coits Gore and Waterville by Mary Wilbur Wescot, printed 1975.