Pownal is a town in Bennington County, Vermont, United States. As of the 2000 census, the town population was 3,560. The town of Pownal includes the villages of Pownal, North Pownal, and Pownal Center.
During the Woodland period, the area was settled by the Mahican people, with others, such as the Mohawks, traveling across it. By the late 17th century, Europeans may have entered the area as a result of the establishment of the Dutch patroonship owned by Kiliaen van Rensselaer, the Manor of Rensselaerswyck, which extended west and east out of Albany and the fur trading community of Beverwyck. The southwestern corner of Pownal was part of the patroonship. Rensselaerswyck passed into English control in 1664. The first European settlers may have entered the area in the 1730s. Those first European settlers may have been Dutch or other Europeans who leased land within Rensselaerwyck. On January 28, 1760, New Hampshire Governor Benning Wentworth chartered Pownal, which he named after his fellow royal governor, Thomas Pownall of the Province of Massachusetts Bay.
Thereafter, settlers, primarily of English descent, began to arrive from Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island. In 1766, 185 male heads of households in Pownal sent a petition to George III, asking that their land claims be recognized and that the fees required to do so be waived. Since Wentworth had granted to settlers land that the Province of New York also claimed, legal and physical conflicts broke out between "Yorkers" and settlers in the New Hampshire Grants (or "The Grants"). As a result, a number of Pownal residents joined the Green Mountain Boys under Ethan Allen.
By the American Revolution, the town was deeply divided between "Yankees" and the Tories, those sympathetic to England, each of whom considered himself or herself a Loyalist. Tories were often arrested and imprisoned.
These tensions were strong enough that when British General John Burgoyne's Saratoga campaign brought conflict to the area, Vermonters fought on both sides. William Card, originally of Rhode Island, fought for the British at the Battle of Bennington along with four of his sons: Jonathan, Elisha, Philo (or possible Peleg), and Stephen. The battle, a virtually complete American victory, resulted in the capture of the elder Card and all four of his sons, but they were soon released. Three years later, William Card's grandsons Thomas and Jonathan would serve in a Vermont Patriot regiment.
By the end of the Revolution, most Tories had fled Pownal for safety among the United Empire Loyalists who resettled in Canada. The novel Memoir of a Green Mountain Boy starts and ends in Pownal during the early years of the Revolution.
Pownal citizens have long prided themselves on their independent spirit. In 1789, a touring minister, the Rev. Nathan Perkins, described the town this way: " . . . Pawnal ye first town, poor land – very unpleasant – very uneven – miserable set of inhabitants – no religion, Rhode Island haters of religion – Baptists, quakers, & some Presbyterians – no meeting house."
Today Pownal has five churches. The Pownal Center Community Church was organized in 1794 as the Union Church, serving both Baptists and Methodists, and open to any denomination. The first church was a log structure. It was replaced in 1849 by the present church, jointly owned by the town and church.
Both cotton mills and woolen mills operated during the 19th century. The wool industry reached its peak between 1820 and 1840, though farmers continued to raise sheep until the 20th century. On the Hoosic River in North Pownal, an 18th-century gristmill was replaced by a woolen mill that operated from 1849 until 1863, when it burned. The Plunkett & Baker Co. Mill, built in 1866, served as a cotton mill until 1930, becoming a tannery in 1937. It closed in 1988. Remediated as a superfund site, the mill site is planned to become a recreation area.
During the early part of the 20th century, Lewis Hine documented child labor in the mills. His photograph of twelve-year old Addie Card, entitled "Anemic Little Spinner in North Pownal Cotton Mill, North Pownal, Vermont, August 1910", was featured on the U.S. stamp commemorating the passage of the first child labor laws (see the Keating-Owen Act). Elizabeth Winthrop has written a novel, Counting on Grace, inspired by Addie's photograph and life.
An electric railroad came to Pownal on June 7, 1907, and linked Pownal to The Berkshires and to Bennington. The brick power station still stands along Route 7. Schools were built in locations to which children could easily walk, and at one point Pownal had 11 schools, with four men and eleven women teaching in them. Two presidents of the United States once taught in North Pownal: James Garfield and Chester A. Arthur. Some children who attended high school in Bennington commuted on the electric railroad. Others rode wagons or horses to their schools.
Lime quarries operated in North Pownal until 1936. A rail car line extended from the southernmost quarry to the mill on the west side of Route 346, where the stone was crushed and packaged for shipment.