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Governor Erastus Fairbanks
(Courtesy of the Henry Sheldon Museum, Middlebury)
Governor Erastus Fairbanks
(Sturtevant's Pictorial History, Thirteenth Regiment, Vermont Volunteers, War of 1861-1865)
BiographyFairbanks, Erastus. - Twice Governor of the state, the signer of its prohibitory law, which defeated him for re-election, but eight years later elected the first of our three war Governors, the founder, with his brother Thaddeus, of the great firm of scale manufacturers at St. Johnsbury, one of the fathers of the Passumpsic R. R., and its first president, was born in Brimfield, Mass., Oct. 28, 1792.
The early American ancestors of the Fairbanks family, Jonathan and Grace Fairbanks, came from Yorkshire, England, in 1633 and settled in Dedham, Mass., where the family mansion there erected still stands. In Erastus Fairbanks, the sixth generation in the line of descent, was seen the junction of the qualities of character in the early New England settlers, energy, public spirit, and clear religious convictions. Joseph Fairbanks, a farmer, carpenter, and mill owner, was the father of the subject of this sketch, and he came to Vermont and St. Johnsbury in 1815, the son having preceded him by a few years. Erastus Fairbanks' early means of education were very limited and confined wholly to the common school of which he made uncommon use. In referring to this period of his early history he himself said of the school where he studied: "I went thoroughly through all the stages of the freshman, sophomore, junior, and senior classes of this institution, and graduated at the age of seventeen with a knowledge of the branches there taught as a foundation. I ever considered myself a student at large, capable of acquiring, and bound to acquire, a knowledge of other sciences more or less thoroughly, and an acquaintance with whatever is requisite to qualify myself for any calling or station which in the providence of God I may be called upon to occupy." For a little while after leaving school he continued his education by teaching for two terms. Soon after, in 1812, he accepted an invitation from his uncle, Judge Ephriam Paddock of St. Johnsbury to enter his office as a student of law. A serious affection of the eyes soon compelled him to abandon his legal studies and engage in other pursuits. He entered mercantile life as represented in a country store, and continued in this for eleven years in Wheelock, East St. Johnsbury, and Barnet. In these years he established a reputation for absolute integrity and for interest in everything that concerned the public welfare.
On the settlement of his affairs in Barnet, he returned to St. Johnsbury and entered into business with his next younger brother, Thaddeus Fairbanks, as manufacturers of stoves, plows, etc. In 1829 the brothers added to their business the purchase and preparation of hemp for market. The rude and inaccurate mode of weighing their purchases led to the invention of the platform scale by them. This invention, like most of the discoveries that have revolutionized methods of industry, was simple and easily understood. The demand for the new scale compelled the brothers to relinquish other business interests. The two men were fitted for partnership in the work and growth of a great manufacturing establishment. Thaddeus gave the strength of his inventive genius to the improvement and manufacture of the scale, while Erastus with his genius for business, by original and far seeing methods, secured a wide and solid financial success, though they had their full share of struggles and misfortunes. A fire and a freshet in 1828 compelled them to ask for a two years extension from their creditors, which was cordially granted.
In 1836 Erastus Fairbanks was elected to represent the town in the state Legislature, and was re-elected for the two succeeding years. In 1844, and again in 1848, he was chosen a presidential elector for the state. In 1848 he was appointed with Charles K. Williams and Lucius B. Peck to prepare a general railroad law, and also one relating to manufacturing corporations, and their report still remains embodied in the statutes of the state. In 1852 he was elected Governor by the Legislature, having fallen a few hundred short of a majority in the popular vote, because of the candidacy of Brainerd and the Liberty party. In the closing days of the Legislature of that year the law for the prohibition of the sale of intoxicating liquors was passed; Governor Fairbanks signed it, and in consequence was defeated for re-election the next year. The figures and particulars of that interesting contest are given in the sketch of Governor Robinson, his successful competitor. The Whigs desired to fight out the issue in 1854 with Governor Fairbanks again as a candidate, but he declined a nomination because of his business engagements.
In 1860, however, the Republican convention unanimously made him its candidate, and he was easily elected over John G. Saxe, the poet, Democratic candidate. His administration in 1861 secured for him a reputation as a "man with a brain and conscience." By his energy and patriotism; he being "as lavish of his own time and money as by was sparing of the people's; and as regardless of his private interests as he was devoted to the public good, " he earned the name of the war Governor. War meant loss of property and credits which the firm had in the South, but he never wavered for a moment in the conviction that the Union must be sustained. He called an extra session of the Legislature eight days after the assault on Sumter, and it placed $1, 000, 000 at his disposal without check on his discretion, for the arming and forwarding of troops, but at his earnest request a committee was appointed at the October session to audit his accounts, and on its report the Legislature adopted a series of resolutions highly complimentary to the ability and patriotic devotion with which he had executed the trust. The first six regiments of the state, of the famous "Vermont Brigade, " and the first company of sharp-shooters were organized and mustered into the service under his administration. The Governor's services all through this trying period were purely a patriotic offering. He declined even to draw his salary, such was his sentiment on the subject, and it still remains in the treasury a monument of his self-sacrifice.
As a man of business, he had the power that easily assumes and carries on great operations. In 1850 he was active in the construction of the Passumpsic R. R., and was for years president of the company. He was also a leading and efficient member of the company that constructed the Sault Sainte Marie canal. He was always a man-of deeds rather than words. "A staid and stable citizen, a successful man of business, a dignified and courteous Christian gentleman, " is Colonel Benedict's description of him in "Vermont in the Civil War." A man of wide reading, to which he devoted an hour every day, of wide and practical information, intensely earnest in his convictions, and resolute in carrying them out, he was well equipped in every way for success in both private and public life.
He made work of public good, especially the interests of the town, an integral and a necessary part of his business. Anything that touched the community touched his interests. Probably his most enduring reputation is that of a business philanthropist. Prominent among his home charities represented in an active way may be mentioned the founding of the Academy, with his brothers; and his endowments assist in maintaining the Athenĉum, the Museum of Natural Science, and the North Church. From 1849 until his death, he was president of the Vermont Domestic Missionary Society, and for many years was a corporate member of the American Board of Foreign Missions.
He was married, May 30, 1815, to Lois Crossman, of Peacham. His married life continued to within a few months of half a century. They had nine children, of whom four now survive: Charles, Franklin, Sarah (Mrs. C. M. Stone), and Emily (Mrs. C. J. Goodell).
Governor Fairbanks died Nov. 20, 1864
Source: Jacob G. Ullery, compiler, Men of Vermont: An Illustrated Biographical History of Vermonters and Sons of Vermont, (Transcript Publishing Company, Brattleboro, VT, 1894), Part I, pp. 89. Photograph from Abbe Hemenway's Vermont Historical Gazetteer, courtesy of Linda Welch.
Erastus Fairbanks, of St. Johnsbury, was chosen governor of Vermont for a second time in 1860, having previously served as its chief magistrate in 1852. His accession to office was during the incipient stages of the rebellion, when a man of great wisdom and experience was required for the position; and no man could have been selected better fitted for the trying and arduous work to be done. The firm of which he was senior members held large amounts of property in the South, and war would ensure its destruction, while peace would inure to his pecuniary benefit. But personal interests were not regarded by him when weighted against the cause of the Union, and the liberty and prosperity of the people; and he threw all his energies into the struggle for the preservation of the integrity and unity of the Nation. Day and night found him toiling ceaselessly to raise troops in a State where, three months previously, not even a knapsack could have been found. Success crowned his efforts, and regiment after regiment of "Green Mountain Boys" were sent forward to the seat of war.
No sooner had Fort Sumter been fired upon that he summoned his official advisers, and the best minds in the State, to his aid. The Legislature was convened in extra session and it placed a million dollars at his disposal for the preservation of the Government. No check was placed upon the expenditure of that sum, and his own prudent judgment was the only guide in its disbursement. Throughout his entire period of service Governor Fairbanks labored with untiring zeal, and with utter disregard of his private interests, for the welfare of his State and Nation. His services were given gratuitously, and the salary to which he was entitled as Governor was never drawn from the Treasury, but remains therein as a perpetual memento of his love to the Commonwealth whose interests were always placed before his own. During his term of office the First, Second, Third, Fourth and Fifth regiments of Vermont Volunteers were organized and sent to the front.
Source: Revised Roster, p. 742.
We learn that Hon. Erastus Fairbanks died on Sunday, 11 a.m. - a death quiet and peaceful. The State, especially his town and all institutions designed for the well-being of the community, have lost a man eminent for liberality and zeal. He brought to every service good judgment, prudence, methodical labor and untiring industry. Notwithstanding his private business was immense he was attentive to every public interest, giving largely both means and personal service.
Source: Vermont Journal, November 26, 1864
Courtesy of Tom Boudreau.