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Belknaps: Early Local Craftsmen of St. Johnsbury – October 2015 Edition of History & Heritage

Updated: Apr 18, 2023

Welcome to October’s edition of History & Heritage. Our purpose is to acquaint you with our mission to preserve the town’s rich history, highlight the legacy of those who have gone before and show how our past has shaped our present. We are a non-profit with 501(c)(3) status.

We are located in our new permanent home at 421 Summer Street as of August. Please join us on November 1st from 1 – 4p.m. as we open officially to the public at 421 Summer Street. We are still a work in progress but it is time for us to take our place in St. Johnsbury’s cultural attractions. This is your establishment and we encourage your support in making this historic home a wonderful place for exhibiting, preserving and collecting St. Johnsbury’s history. We also hope you will attend a Musical Salute to all Veterans at the North Church on November 11th at 7:00. The St. Johnsbury Band, Pumpkin Hill Singers and Pipe & Slippers will provide this benefit concert for the Center. Check out our web site at and our Facebook page. Our mailing address is 421 Summer Street, St. Johnsbury, Vt., 05819 and phone number is 802 – 424 – 1090.

Early Local Craftsmen of St. Johnsbury – Belknaps

In Mount Pleasant Cemetery, straight out from the chapel there is a landmark of a towering spruce, which casts a shadow over several early local craftsmen. Just before the spruce, there is a rose- colored granite monument that has three generations of Belknaps who had very talented hands. Before there were hardware stores, there were the blacksmiths who filled the needs of the early settlers. Amos Belknap arrived here in 1824 at the young age of twenty from New Hampshire. According to Edward Fairbanks’ history, he apprenticed on Main Street. In fact Edward almost told the story of his talent in one sentence “Amos K. Belknap, after seven years as apprentice under Samuel Crossman, surpassed his master, became the most expert blacksmith in this part of the world and stood vigorously at his anvil when nearly eighty years of age.”

In 1839, he bought land on the Sleepers River where he had his shop and in time his house. The location was the South Main Street area – you can pin point it on the Beers Atlas of 1875. Amos was known for his edge tools, sometimes making as many as three hundred axe heads in a year. He became well known for his fine work in iron, steel or brass. He produced the first cast-steel welding in town. Amos and his wife had a family of five, three boys and two girls. John and Amos Jr. would follow in their father’s footsteps. Amos Jr. ended up in Monroe, N.H. Their work being stamped A. K. Belknap proved problematic sometimes when trying to figure out whether the work was the father or son but usually the father stood out in his attention to detail.

John set up his shop near his father’s but his imagination and skills took him in several directions. He could turn out a knife blade or a rifle. He also used his ingenuity to make a water motor; one of his first ones was used to power the “Caledonian” press. He made ice skates. Knife blades in jackknives were turned out at the rate of nearly one hundred a week and sold for around twenty-five cents apiece. Make sure you check at the bottom of an old jackknife to see what name is there.

Around 1863 John started making guns and he probably turned out approximately twenty rifles. Some of the rifles were quite plain and others beautifully decorated examples of outstanding workmanship. Two of these fine pieces once resided at the Fairbanks Museum until they turned up missing many years ago. He made a 20-inch pistol for himself and was known to take this with him on canoe trips and yes he made his own canoe. One trip took him down the Connecticut River starting at Orford, N.H. all the way to Long Island Sound. His gravestone reveals that his death was by drowning at the age of 48. He was swept over the dam built opposite the State Police Barracks on Route 5 south. John had actually envisioned the dam, bought up the land and water rights, brought in four other businessmen to share costs and profits. He had the dam built and was to use the power to light the town with street lights. John was in the process of trying to remove a log which had lodged against the dam, was struck by said log and swept over the dam. The time was late November and being heavily dressed made rescue impossible as he was swept downstream.

The third generation was John’s son Harry who was seventeen at the time of his father’s death. He attended the Academy about a year and with the death of his father he entered W. C. Warner’s store to learn the trade of a watchmaker. He worked in Lowell Mass. for a short time and then returned to St. Johnsbury and began the making of rings and watch making at his home on Railroad Street. He died at the age of thirty-two in 1902.

An ad that Harry had in the St. Johnsbury Directory of 1897-98 reads in part “Some people talk with their mouths, others with their fingers. We talk through our goods —–“This certainly could be said of all three generations.

Hope to see you at the Grand Opening on Nov. 1st and the concert on the 11th.

Peggy Pearl

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