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Alexander Twilight: Pioneer, Scholar, Architect

The Old Stone House
The Old Stone House — one of the most impressive buildings in New England — lies in the small, quiet town of Brownington, VT. The massive building is a four storey granite structure containing collections of the Orleans Historical Society. Handicrafts, needlework, and paintings relevant to the history of Orleans County are collected there.

The building was originally constructed by Alexander Twilight, who was born in Corinth, VT on September 23, 1795. His parents, Ichabod and Mary, were the first African-Americans to settle in the town of Cornish, where they purchased a farm in 1798.

At the age of eight, Twilight was indentured by a neighboring farmer whom he resided with until he was 20. During that time, Twilight learned to read and write as he worked diligently to purchase his indentureship. Soon after his indentureship, Twilight attended the Orange County School in nearby Randolph. Six years later, Twilight graduated with the equivalency of college-level courses.

In 1821, Alexander Twilight enrolled at Middlebury College and in 1823, he graduated with a baccalaureate degree, making him the first African-American to do so. Three years later, he married New Hampshire native Marry Ladd Merrill. At the time of his marriage, Twilight was teaching in Peru, NY, where he studied the ministry.

Twilight arrived in Brownington in 1829, where he became the principal at Brownington Academy which housed students from all over the state. Because of the distance only students who resided in Brownington lived at home. All others had to stay with families who lived nearby.

As the student population grew, the need for more space became an issue. In 1830, Twilight approached the school’s presidential committee in hopes of raising funds for a dormitory. When his proposal was denied, Twilight decided to pay for the dormitory himself.

During the spring of 1836, a gift of land was deeded to Twilight for the purpose of constructing a boarding house that would accommodate the Orleans County Grammar School. The deed is one of the few remaining documents dealing with the construction of the building.

In addition to taking on the financial responsibilities, Twilight was solely responsible for the construction of the dormitory. When he finally finished the building, he dubbed it Athenial Hall (now known as The Old Stone House). The actual construction of the building remains a mystery. Some say Athenial Hall was built similar to that of the pyramids. As the stones were laid in place and the walls rose, a ramp of earth was built around the building, allowing Twilight to drag the stones along the ramp. When the wall was completed, the theory goes, the dirt ramp was removed.

Athenial Hall measured 36 by 66 feet and 24 feet at the Gables. The inner sides of the granite walls were bricked and plastered to a total thickness of over 20 inches.

In 1916, Alexander Twilight’s masterpiece was saved from destruction by the Orleans County Historical Society. Currently, the Old Stone House and its surroundings are designated as a Natural Historic District. Additionally, Twilight has an auditorium named after him at nearby Lyndon State College, while Middlebury College erected Alexander Twilight Hall in his memory.

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