He’s been called a craftsmen, gentleman and developer. First and foremost, Elwin Cross was a builder. The Northeast Kingdom is littered with his handiwork, including 75 homes, but his most memorable project is the street that bears his name.
In 1959, Elwin moved to the end of Stetson Terrace. Behind his house was a large strawberry patch and not much else. In the early 1960s, the demand for housing in St. Johnsbury was high, and Elwin decided to strike while the iron was hot. He bought the 15 acres behind his house and started building speculative houses.
Sitting in his home on Cross Avenue, a street that was practically created by his two hands, he recalled his decisions and the lucky breaks he got along the way.
“I had bought pieces of it at first, but when I saw what was coming I decided I better buy the whole thing,” he remembers.“I was lucky. I got into it at the right time.”
Elwin shelled out $7,000 for the land and went to work. He had the land bulldozed and gravel roads built. Sometimes his four-man crew would have as many as three houses under construction at a time. When he was finished, he had built almost 20 new houses in the new neighborhood and added significantly to the town’s tax rolls.
“We were real lucky,” he says.“We sold every house before we finished building it.”
He even sold his own house for $35,000 and moved into a new home on the newly constructed Cross Avenue. He remembers the building process being much different back then. All of his houses are ranch-style, with private septic systems and town water.
“When it came time to build another house, I would just pop into the town office and apply for a building permit,” he says.“Nowadays it’s just not that easy.”
In St. Johnsbury Center, the iron bridge over the Passumpsic River that connects Depot Hill Road to Memorial Drive has also been named after Elwin. In addition to his years with a hammer, Elwin spent 25 years in service to his town on the Zoning Board of Adjustment and Board of Selectmen. During that time, he worked tirelessly to convince the state of Vermont to replace the decaying iron bridge. His efforts came to fruition only after he had retired from public service. The town dedicated the new bridge and the 2004 town report to him in appreciation. Many who worked with him say his presence on town boards made people feel confident in the process.
“Elwin Cross is a true craftsman in St. Johnsbury,” reads the town report.“His considerable talents as a carpenter have not been limited to the beautiful homes he constructed throughout the region. Elwin Cross is a craftsman of this community.”
New construction is only part of Elwin’s legacy. He touched the lives of many St. Johnsbury residents with his willingness to help, whether as a town officer or just a handyman.
“He always took the extra step,” says Zoning Administrator Priscilla Messier.“He would work so hard with people on their proposed projects to get them through the permitting obstacles. If he couldn’t, he always tried to give suggestions, things they hadn’t considered.”
He was also quick to help those in need. Priscilla remembers calling Elwin in a panic when her roof started leaking.
“He was there in minutes and I never got a bill.”
It’s unclear how many others never got a bill.
Elwin built houses into his 70s and retired from town government when he was 86. After that, people in the neighborhood would still call him to come fix things. Town officials still call him with questions.
“When you ask him you know you’re going to get a truthful, well thought out response,” according to Priscilla.
The 2004 town report concludes,“The façade of St. Johnsbury will continue to be remodeled, updated, and repaired. May the apprentices of tomorrow learn well from the patterns of this master.”