The year 1816 has many nicknames in Vermont: "the year without a summer'" "the poverty year;" "the starving year;" and even, with a touch of black humor, as "eighteen-hundred-and-froze-to-death."
That year in Vermont, a June blizzard blackened leaves on the trees. Frosts and drought in July and August killed or stunted crops. It was also the year Bethel's first public building was christened.
The weather that year proved disastrous at a time when people lived mostly off what they grew or raised. The hay was poor and not enough to get livestock through the coming winter.
“People had to live for a year on pumpkins and turnips,” wrote David F. Lee in the 1987 book The History of Brookfield, Vermont. “Woodchucks and porcupines were very ‘popular’ staples since large game and even fish were already becoming scarce in Vermont.”
It’s said that many left the state because of the hardships of that year.
But others stayed and in some instances did more than survive. In Bethel, residents built the town’s first church and public building.
The handsome brick church in the Federalist style was consecrated on Christmas Eve, 200 years ago, and will be re-consecrated this weekend.
“It was built in 1816 by people who were close to starving to death and their animals were in a bad way,” says Bethel resident Janet Burnham.
Burnham has written a history of what was then known as The First Proprietors Meeting House and was built and used for worship by five different congregations.
At the time, no one knew why the weather had turned so catastrophically bad, but some saw in it the hand of a God angered by the sins of mortals.
The book Freedom and Unity, a History of Vermont quotes a poem from the time that speaks of snow in June that “nips the fruit in early bloom.”
The poem goes on to say:
Shall we be frightened by such things
No, rather frightened at our sins.
Burnham says there is no record of why people in Bethel built the church during that most horrible of years, but it’s easy to imagine that the hope of divine forgiveness played some role.
“If you used your common sense in 1816, that wouldn’t be something you would do. But these people went ahead and said, ‘Dear Lord, we’re building a church. Are you paying attention?'” she says.
Local hands built the church using bricks produced just down the road. The exterior, including the windows, is much the same as it was 200 years ago. The interior was redone in the 1850s.
“What you see now with this imbricated, tin ceiling that is about 16 feet above us was originally 32 or 33 feet above us with balconies on three sides,” says church pastor Tom Harty, standing just inside the nave.
Since 1816, other churches have been built in Bethel. Now, two of the original five denominations, United Church of Christ and Universalist Unitarian, worship here.
“We still have some of the original families [in town] who were known as the proprietors of the meeting house. At least three of those families still come to church,” says Harty.
One family that left Vermont after the year without a summer was Joseph Smith’s. They moved to New York State, where Smith would claim to discover the golden tablets that produced the Book of Mormon and a new religion.
In communities like Bethel, those who stayed built churches to practice the old time religion.
Burlington’s Unitarian Church at the head of Church Street was also erected in 1816.
Harty says perhaps people in 1816 thought the end was nigh, but there may have been many reasons why they banded together to build the church at that time.
“Doing it in a year with a frost in every month, in what they probably thought was kind of an apocalyptic world,” Harty says.
“And to think that five denominations came together, talk about forced ecumenism, was it social and cultural, was it financial, was it, ‘OK guys, our differences are so meaningless, let’s band together and get ourselves a house of worship’? It’s hard to tell.”
On Christmas Eve, members of the United Church of Bethel and the community at large will celebrate the 200th anniversary of the town’s first public building with live music and fireworks.
They’ll also unveil a historic marker that commemorates the church and the year "eighteen-hundred-and-froze-to-death."
Those who lived through 1816 didn’t know it at the time, but the weather was caused by the eruption of a volcano in Indonesia.