Slayton: Justin Morrill Homestead

Aug 25, 2017

Old houses have stories to tell. And none is a more eloquent storyteller than the homestead of Justin Smith Morrill in Strafford.

Not your classic white-clapboarded Vermont farmhouse, this is a perfect little Gothic Revival villa, a vest-pocket castle, Tudor-arched, crenellated, and painted a dusty pink.

It’s also a monument to high ideals, civic accomplishment, and one of Vermont’s ongoing causes, universal education, because the man who built it and lived there — Justin Morrill, was the the father of the Land-Grant College Act.

Morrill was a great 19th Century legislator and statesman, and his legislation, passed during the Civil War, aimed to make higher education available to working-class Americans. That’s part of the key to his greatness.

Morrill wanted to guarantee education for all because as a boy, he yearned for a college education — and was denied it. His family didn’t have the money to send him on to school. So Morrill studied on his own and became a prosperous storekeeper.

Later he was elected to the US House and subsequently, the Senate. His Washington career spanned 40 years, yet every summer he returned to his home — that classic pink castle in little Strafford, Vermont.

Somewhere along the way, he became devoted to the study of architecture. And by the time he was prosperous enough to build his own house, the cutting edge of architectural fashion was (you guessed it) Gothic Revival.

Today, the house and its 3 acres of gardens, orchards, barns and outbuildings is widely regarded as a national treasure. It was Vermont’s first National Historic Landmark. Visiting it is a trip back to the 19th century — and into the mind of this remarkable Vermonter. Middlebury art and architecture professor Glen Andres notes that: “The homestead is a precious and important key to understanding Justin Morrill.”

It’s worth pointing out that Strafford village is a long way from just about anywhere. And yet it’s a gem, an unspoiled collection of fine, elaborate houses, overseen by the imposing, starkly beautiful Strafford Town House.

Should you ever doubt that high culture and refined intelligence can’t be found in rural places, all you need to do is walk the streets of little Strafford, spend some time at the Justin Morrill Homestead, and wonder what American society might be like if Morrill’s ideal of higher education for all could somehow, someday be fully realized.