Get to know the man behind Ethan Allen Day. He was a pioneer and a patriot—and a bit of a troublemaker, too!
Pioneers are the first explorers of a new territory. They start with a vision, often risking life, limb, and lucre to journey into the unknown. Ethan Allen and the Green Mountain Boys were pioneers—let’s be honest, they were rabble-rousers, too—and their pioneering spirit was an essential ingredient in the founding of both Vermont and America itself.
In 2016, to celebrate Ethan Allen, Vermont declared June 23 to be Ethan Allen Day. To celebrate this special day, we’d like to tell you a little bit about our namesake and how we work, as a company, to keep his pioneering spirit alive.
A Youth Adrift
Once upon a time, there was a little strip of land between New York and New Hampshire. It was bordered by the Connecticut River to the east, Lake Champlain to the west, Quebec to the north, and Massachusetts to the south. Both New York and New Hampshire decided they owned this disputed territory, which would come to be known as Vermont.
New York began issuing land grants to settlers—and so did New Hampshire. New York’s grants were irregularly shaped tracts given to the wealthy and well connected. New Hampshire’s land grants were town-sized, with neat borders, bestowed mostly upon middle class frontiersmen. One of those grantees was Ethan Allen, a descendent of English Puritan farmers, who’d grown up in Cornwall, Connecticut.
Ethan became a bit of a drifter after his father’s death in 1755. He joined the militia to fight the French and Indian War, but he never got into the fight. He tended the family farm for a bit and then went into business as part owner of an iron furnace. He also dabbled in philosophy and, randomly, was kicked out of Northampton, Massachusetts; no one really knows why. In 1762, Ethan married Mary Brownson—unhappily, according to biographer Charles Jellison, for she was illiterate, rigidly religious, and quick to criticize her husband—and then fathered five children, only two of whom reached adulthood.
Ethan Allen and the Green Mountain Boys
Serendipity came, in two forms, to Ethan Allen in the 1770s. First, he was asked to defend a family member’s claim to a New Hampshire land grant after King George III—among his many ill-fated decisions—ruled that Vermont belonged to New York. After some unsuccessful amateur lawyering, Ethan traveled to Bennington, where he rustled up an entourage in the form of the Green Mountain Boys. Together, the gangsters started trying to drive New York settlers out of Vermont.
A second stroke of luck came when the American Revolution began, and Vermont declared its independence from Great Britain. Ethan Allen’s Green Mountain Boys rose in rank from hoodlums to heroes when they captured Fort Ticonderoga for the Yanks. It wasn’t too much of a stretch for Ethan—raiding New York was a thing he and his friends liked to do anyway—but the outcome had a happy result for the Americans; cutting off the fort also cut British communication lines between Quebec and points east.
After the Revolution
Ethan Allen and the Green Mountain Boys achieved prime patriot status, but it took a while for Ethan to find his happily ever after. The Green Mountain Boys voted him out as their leader after the capture of Fort Ticonderoga. He then tried to invade Quebec and ended up a prisoner of war. Following his release, his wife Mary died in 1782.
Mary’s passing left Ethan surprisingly sad—perhaps she improved in hindsight. He launched a spotty writing career by publishing both a poem for Mary and a treatise called Reason, the latter of which was panned as “crude,” “vulgar,” and “flimsy.”
Last Years in Vermont
Maturity brought an end, as it does for so many, to Ethan Allen’s wandering ways. He wrote a sequel to Reason, remarried (more happily this time), and fathered three more children. By the time of his death in 1789, he was revered for his role in establishing the state of Vermont, which achieved official recognition in 1791.
In death as in life, Ethan Allen seemed to be one of those people about whom there was no indifferent opinion. He was described by one local reverend, according to Jellison, as “a profane deist, who died with a mind replete with horror and despair.” On his tombstone, however, inscribed by those who apparently liked him better, were these kinder words: “His spirit tried the mercies of his God, in whom he alone believed and strongly trusted.”
Of course, someone stole Ethan’s tombstone in the early 1850s. The state of Vermont kindly replaced it in 1858.
Ethan Allen, the Company
About one hundred fifty years later, When Nat Ancell and Ted Baumritter bought a Vermont sawmill and started manufacturing furniture, they named their 1939 new releases after a local hero: Ethan Allen. That line of furniture became the Baumritter Company’s most popular; eventually, Nat changed the company name to Ethan Allen.
As it has grown from a local furniture producer to an internationally renowned brand, Ethan Allen the company has drawn on the best of the pioneering spirit that characterized its namesake. In the 1960s, Ethan Allen unveiled a whole new way to shop for furniture. Instead of arranging furniture in rows—lines of chairs, lines of tables, etc.—the company asked retailers to showcase each piece as part of a room setting.
Ethan Allen expanded this practice further in its own stores, creating gallery showrooms that made it easier for clients to picture how new furniture would look in their homes. The company made that visualization even easier in the 1990s, when it started hiring designers and offering free design service to anyone who shopped at Ethan Allen.
As 2020 approaches, the company continues its pioneer journey by embracing technology both in and out of the Design Center: in, with an incredibly realistic design studio experience; and out, with the Ethan Allen inHome augmented reality app. We aim to be less troublesome than our namesake, but we try to bring a little of his fearlessness into everything we do, from the styles we create to the way we market—and to our willingness to embrace the opportunities that come our way.
Check out these images from our company’s Ethan Allen Day celebration! Then, join us in lifting a glass to Ethan Allen, a mischief-maker turned philosopher turned statesman. Here’s to those who embody the pioneer spirit, in business and in life.
P.S. Sometimes, we talk about history, but mostly we talk about design here at The Art of Making Home. If you enjoy our posts, subscribe now to get the latest and greatest in your inbox.