Stewart and Swift Family History
This was once the home of Jessica Stewart Swift who Guinness World Records recognized in 1981 as the oldest living person to be a passenger on a plane at age 110. Her families, the Swifts and the Stewarts, lived on this property from 1815 until 1981.
It all started when the original Main House was built by Samuel Swift (1782-1875) in 1814. Swift was just at the beginning of a long career of public service. Shortly after being admitted to the bar in 1808, he opened a bookstore before moving on to a printing business, and finally he published a newspaper in 1812 to offer war news to our residents who lived so close to enemy country.
Once the war was over, Samuel Swift moved his focus to law, serving first as Judge of Probate, then Judge of the County Court, and finally served in the state legislature. When the Middlebury Historical Society requested that he write the histories of Middlebury and Addison County, he then returned to writing. These documents are still primary sources for those wanting to study the area’s history.
Shortly after Judge Swift’s death in 1875, the house was bought by Governor John W. Stewart (1825-1915). Stewart’s political career included eight years in Congress and one term as Governor of Vermont. Stewart was proudest of his role in the 1860 Republican National Convention when he was influential in turning the Vermont delegation from William H. Seward to Abraham Lincoln.
The Stewart family used the house as their home base. Here, Governor Stewart, his wife Emma Battell Stewart and their five children lived in the house during the summers, using it as a base from which they traveled, attended school, or sat in Congress. Side trips were taken to Lake Champlain and Ripton where Mrs. Stewart’s brother, Joseph Battell, ran the Bread Loaf Inn. This is now the summer campus of the Middlebury College School of English and home of the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference.
Mrs. Stewart, who spent winters in Boston or New York, had one of the first telephones in Middlebury installed to connect her home with the Congregational Church so that she could hear the services she was unable to attend. She also kept the church supplied with fresh flowers from her gardens and greenhouse. In 1885, the Stewarts hired Clinton Smith, Middlebury’s most prolific Victorian architect, to design and build the horse barn and carriage house located on the northeast corner of the property. Smith’s other work is found throughout town in the Methodist Church, the County Courthouse, downtown Beckwith Block, and many other buildings, both public and private. 1906 brought upgrades to the home when Governor Stewart removed the original summer kitchen wing and replaced it with a two-story addition, which looks like it was built at the same time as the original house, thanks to the skill of Stewart’s architect: Harding & Seaver of Pittsfield, MA. The wing boasted additional doors, porches, and a new large arched window on the building’s east side.
In 1915, on the death of Governor Stewart, the house passed to his daughter, Jessica (1871- 1982). After a romantic and brief first marriage to J. Walter Sylvester, a minister who died of tuberculosis within eight months of the wedding, she married an older man, Charles M. Swift, grandson of the original owner of the house. Charles was a lawyer who had made his legal reputation in his younger years in a complicated property case that he spent 40 hours summing up for the jury. He later gave up practicing law and went into the business world where his major accomplishment was building a streetcar system for the Philippines. Mr. and Mrs. Swift traveled around the world, cruised on his yacht in Florida, maintained a New York apartment, and built a summer home complete with a golf course on Lake Champlain in Ferrisburgh. They used the Middlebury house occasionally and made it available to friends and relatives.
In 1939, ten years after the death of her husband, Mrs. Swift made Middlebury her primary home, giving up her New York apartment in deference to the Vermont countryside. Once here, she continued her family’s tradition of helping local institutions through donations, resulting in a new library wing for the Sheldon Museum to house her family’s papers, a Community House in the form of her early childhood home (built by her great-grandfather), and her actual home for use as a charitable restaurant by Sir Wilfred and Lady Anne Grenfell. Neighbors recall Mrs. Swift as being a strong and caring member of the community. She served hot cocoa to kids who she let sled down her snowy sloping front lawn. She listened to children recite the violin for her, and she offered generous scholarships to the neediest students. Her support made a difference in countless lives.