Norton is situated at the northwest corner of Essex County, bounded to the north by the international Canadian border, to the east and south by the unified town of Averill, to the south by the unified gores of Avery’s and Warren’s and to the west by the Orleans County town of Holland.
The town has frontage on two sizeable lakes. Great Averill Pond, which is about three miles long and over a mile wide, is on Norton’s eastern border, and the slightly smaller Norton Pond is on its southern border.
The early history of Norton is a mystery. Its charter was reported to have been destroyed in a fire. So the date the township was chartered and to whom it was chartered are unknown. The first settlers are believed to have arrived around 1860, and by 1880, according to the Vermont Historical Gazetteer, the population reached 239. The town was not organized until March 6, 1885.
Norton’s first permanent settler was Samuel Cleveland, who came from Canada and built a sawmill. That mill changed ownership a few times as other mills were built and logging became the town’s primary industry. One Norton sawmill, according to the Gazetteer, employed 70 men and cut about 10 million feet of lumber annually in the late 1800s.
Norton attracted public notice in the 1970s as a result of the Hippie counterculture and back-to-the-land movements that grew out of civil rights and anti-war activism of the 1960s. From 1970 to 1994, Norton was the site of the 592-acre Earth People’s Park, which was open to “all the peoples of the earth.” Anyone who wanted to visit, camp or homestead was welcomed without having to pay rent and without having to adhere to any set of rules. It was inspired by the People’s Park in Berkeley, Calif., which was created in the late 1960s as a public park that became a sanctuary for the city’s homeless people. Some of the money used to purchase land in Norton for the Earth People’s Park was raised at the infamous August 1969 Woodstock Music & Art Festival in Bethel, N.Y.
The Norton Earth People’s Park was along the international Canadian border and became known locally as “the last left turn in America.” Living conditions were primitive, and the property did not have access to power or telephone lines. Water was drawn from Black Turn Brook or from the Coaticook River. Despite the lack of conveniences, from 1973 to 1975 about two dozen people were living on the land year-round. The park had more visitors during the summer months when gatherings and benefit concerts were held to raise money for such necessities as property taxes. In 1990 the Earth People’s Park was seized by the federal government after marijuana-related arrests, and its inhabitants were evicted. The property was subsequently conveyed to the state of Vermont for use as publicly-owned forest land, and it is now called the Black Turn Brook State Forest. It is open to recreational visitors for hunting, camping and hike-in activities pursuant to “primitive-use” rules.