Justin Smith Morrill: The Courtly Shopkeeper Who Changed America
Justin Smith Morrill (pronounced moral and not morel like a mushroom or fungus) was the son of a blacksmith born in 1810 in Strafford. Justin Morrill completed his elementary education in Strafford and then attended Thetford Academy, 10 miles from Strafford. He then completed a three-month term at Randolph Academy, some 25 miles from Strafford. Academies were similar to today’s high schools.
Justin, with his passion for learning, wanted to go to college but his father could not afford to send all his sons through college and felt it unfair to only send Justin. So at the age of 15 he accepted a clerkship in the store of Royal Hatch (today this building is home to the “Stone Soup Restaurant” in the upper village of Strafford). After six months working for Royal Hatch he began working in the store owned by Judge Jedediah Harris which today is the Post Office in the upper village. Judge Harris became Justin’s mentor and was a primary influence in shaping his life.
In 1828 Justin left Strafford and headed to Portland, Maine to seek his fortune. He worked as a bookkeeper for a merchant who shipped lumber to the West Indies and later as a clerk in a wholesale-retail dry goods store. With skills in business under his belt, in 1830 he returned to Strafford and entered into a partnership with Judge Harris operating stores in Strafford, South Strafford and Derby Line near the Canadian border. He regularly traveled to Boston to purchase merchandise for the stores and traveled widely through New York, Washington, D.C., Virginia, Kentucky, Ohio, Indiana and Michigan to collect debts owed to the partnership.
Guided by Judge Harris, Morrill invested wisely and at the age of 38 decided to retire from business to devote his life to study and the leisurely pursuits of a country gentleman. It was during this brief retirement in 1848-1853 that Morrill designed his cottage and laid out the picturesque gardens that surround it.
Retirement was short and he was soon elected to the U.S. Congress and later to the Senate. There he sponsored legislation that established the nation’s Land Grant Colleges, forever changing the shape of the nation’s higher education system.
Justin Morrill’s Legislative Accomplishments
Morrill’s prominence, however, is not based on his interest in architecture and landscape gardening but rather on his legislative accomplishments. In 1857 while a U.S. Representative from Vermont, inspired in large part by his own lack of a formal education, Morrill became the chief sponsor of a bill, the Land Grant Act, the most important piece of educational legislation in the 19th century. In speaking before the U.S. House of Representatives in 1858 he rose to say:
“We have schools to teach the art of manslaying and make masters of ‘deep-throated engines"
of war; and shall we not have schools to teach men the way to feed, clothe, and enlighten the
great brotherhood of man?”
The Bill passed the House and Senate but was vetoed by President Buchanan.
Morrill knew his “College Land Bill” had widespread support among the American people and he reintroduced a revised bill in 1861. After much political maneuvering the bill finally passed and was signed into law by Abraham Lincoln in 1862 at the height of the Civil War.
The goal of this legislation was to create in each state, excluding the rebelling states, a Land Grant College which would provide a liberal and practical education for farmers, mechanics, artisans, laborers and include a provision for teaching military tactics. Inspired in large part by Morrill’s own lack of a formal education, these colleges were to teach courses in science, agriculture and engineering, in addition to the classics. The key aspect of this legislation was that it expanded American higher education to include practical training along with the classical studies traditionally offered only to clergymen, teachers, physicians and lawyers.
Because of this legislation vast tracts of Federal land, 30,000 acres for each member of Congress, were set aside as an endowment for each college. Sale of this land raised enough money for the colleges to operate, but did not leave enough for an ongoing endowment. To correct this problem, Morrill introduced a second bill in 1890 which established an annual cash subsidy of $25,000 for each college, extending the Act to the southern states and to fund colleges for women, African Americans and Native Americans.
The timeliness of the Land Grant Act cannot be overemphasized. Encouraged by the construction of the first transcontinental railroad and the offer of free land to settlers, westward expansion was creating a need for new and improved farming techniques to tame the vast farmlands of the West, as well as to restore the overworked farmlands of the East. The newly created Land Grant Colleges answered that need by developing the scientific research programs that discovered and tested the methods which helped revolutionize American agriculture. Hybrid seeds, crop rotation, and chemical fertilizers are among the best known results of these programs. (For a historic and contemporary perspective of Justin Smith Morrill's legacy, visit Vermont Public Radio's commentary links.)
The Morrill Homestead
The Morrill Homestead is an outstanding example of a Gothic Revival cottage, a style of architecture popular in rural America during the 1840s and 1850s. Like fashion, cars and electronics, popular architecture constantly changes. The same was true in Morrill’s time. By the mid 1840s the formal Greek Revival style, which resembled pagan Grecian temples, was going out of style and Andrew Jackson Downing began writing architectural handbooks promoting the Gothic style. Justin Morrill was a Strafford storekeeper but also a scholar who throughout his life read and collected many books. Among these were the books by Downing on architecture and landscape. You can see many of these books at the historic site today.
Morrill was thinking of retirement and dreaming of the house he would build in his hometown and the writings of the day influenced his thinking. During his brief retirement, before jumping into politics, Justin Smith Morrill designed and had constructed a 17-room cottage. That “cottage” incorporated much of the stone-like detail, actually rendered in wood that is the hallmark of the Gothic Revival style. Morrill did not copy his design directly from the house pattern books of the time, but instead borrowed and adapted the forms and details of the Gothic Revival to suit his own particular needs and vision. This basic knowledge of Gothic detail, along with his fertile and romantic imagination, were all that were necessary to create this embodiment of the picturesque that sits on a Strafford hillside. The Morrill Homestead has the irregular floor plan and elaborate detail characteristic of the Gothic Revival style. Finials crown the peaks of the steeply pitched gable roofs, and bargeboards hang like icicles from the eaves. Tudor hood moldings surround the doors and windows, bracketed canopies shelter windows with cusped tracery and decorative castle-like railings parade along some of the porches and library roof all add a delicate intricacy to the house as a whole. The exterior flush board siding is painted the rosy pink color Morrill selected as an attempt to imitate the appearance of cut sandstone. A.J. Downing rejected white as a color for a house. He felt it was an unnatural color and wanted buildings painted in natural colors to blend and link the house to the surrounding landscape.
After his marriage and the birth of his two sons, Morrill enlarged the house significantly with the addition of an entrance porch and dining room bay window on the front, and a library wing on the rear. Detailed with octagonal buttresses and turrets, and decorated along the roof line with crenellated battlements, these later additions enhance and give the house its castle-like appearance.
Current furnishings in the Homestead include many family pieces and a portion of Morrill’s personal library. The architectural details of the interior are as fanciful as those of the exterior. Prominent among the ornate Gothic woodwork and the period Victorian furnishings is an imported French window in the library painted especially for Morrill. The window depicts the crumbling ruins of the chapel in Holyrood Abbey in Edinburgh. And in a particularly clever, yet aesthetic measure of privacy, the downstairs has hand-painted window screens illustrated with romantic landscapes, allowing a view out, but not in.
Morrill was as serious a student of landscape gardening as he was of architecture. His designs and plantings for the walkways and the gardens surrounding the house are in the best tradition of the romantic landscape movement in America, at once formal yet Picturesque. He experimented with different plantings to see which would be best suited to the harsh Vermont climate. The scheme, however, was never completed, cut short by his entry into politics in 1854. Today, much of the original plantings made by Morrill in 1852-1853 survive, including species from Europe and the Orient. The Friends of the Morrill Homestead, working with the Master Gardener program from the University of Vermont have undertaken the restoration of Morrill’s landscape design. Today if you go to the site you will see what they have accomplished working with the Vermont Division for Historic Preservation. The Friends have also had designed and installed interpretive signage throughout the property so when the site is not formally open visitors can learn about and enjoy the property so lovingly developed by Justin Morrill.
Morrill’s fascination with architecture has left a mark not only on Strafford but also on the nation’s capital. During his 44 years in the U.S. Congress as both a Representative and a Senator, Morrill was an outspoken advocate for improving the architectural quality of the city. As Chairman of the Senate Building Committee, he was responsible for the construction of several buildings now regarded as landmarks, most notably the Library of Congress. Completed in 1897, one year before his death, the new home of the nation’s library is a fitting memorial to his lifelong quest for better education.
The Agricultural Buildings
The variety of farm and outbuildings located on the property—a horse and carriage barn, a cow barn, a sheep barn, a corn crib, an ice house and a blacksmith shop—reflect Morrill’s diversified interests in farming, as well as the needs of 19th century rural living. The buildings are tightly grouped in a neat row along a farm road which leads back to a manmade ice pond on the hill behind the house. The pond was the source for an extensive water system which fed the house, barns, and gardens and was a source for harvesting ice.
A carriage paint shop and a shuffleboard court are located south of the house. Behind the house but nearer the barns are the ruins of the hothouse which once supplied the vegetables and flowers for the house and gardens.
In 2008 the exterior of the original Horse Barn was reconstructed to serve as the site’s Education Center and a meeting space for community groups. The energy efficient building also houses the historic Morrill book collection that had been given to the Town of Strafford for a library collection. The building, Morrill Memorial & Harris Library, was funded by Louise Swan in memory of her brother-in law, Senator Justin S. Morrill, her sister, Ruth, and her nephew James Morrill. The donated collection was to be a non circulating collection. Working with the Town, the Library, and Probate Court the collection was transferred to the historic site’s Education Center freeing up space in the town library so that it could move into the 21st century. The historic book collection, which is still owned by the town library, can be accessed by contacting the Town Librarian at (802) 765-4037.
Today in the Carriage Barn is an interpretive exhibit on Justin Morrill and his varied accomplishments.
In the Ice House is an exhibit on the harvesting of ice and how it was stored. There is also an audio recording of men in Strafford who actually cut and stored ice for use in the warm months.
Public restrooms are located in an adjacent building which originally was a small barn for the family carriage. On special occasions the family’s “Rockaway” carriage is brought out for display. It, like the homestead, is detailed with pink paint!
Picnic tables are placed throughout the grounds for your use and enjoyment. There are various walks and trails Colburn Trail and the Morrill Valley Quest you can take to further explore the grounds
The Friends of the Morrill Homestead are working with the Vermont Division for Historic Preservation to further interpret and enhance the site.
For more information on Morrill’s legacy, visit the Morrill Site assembled by North Dakota State History Professor, Tom Isern.
Morrill Vermont Public Radio Commentary