ESSEX — When Gen. Daniel Wright built the Essex Town Hall in 1790, he was commander of the Essex Militia.
The Revolutionary War was fresh in people's minds, and Wright wanted a public building where everyone could get together. His militia trained for the day when King George would try to take back America.
A walk through Essex then was much like a walk along the same path today — quaint shops and inns, gorgeous brick and wood buildings amid tree-lined streets.
Wright ran the majestic two-story wood edifice as an inn and a meeting place. It was expanded in the 1800s, later became a private residence, and in the 1970s was given to the Town of Essex.
Essex officials say the building is the oldest town hall in the North Country.
Now the town is using a $400,000 state matching-funds grant to preserve and renovate the Station Road and Main Street structure.
"We found the original floors in the entrance corridor, so we're going to restore those," said Town Supervisor Frederick Drummond.
"We're finally, after years of trying, renovating the Town Hall. The foundation had to be redone first, with concrete blocks for support."
It's all worth it, he said, because of the historic character of downtown Essex. Many homes and buildings there are on the National Register of Historic Places, and the downtown is a National Historic District.
"We have one building built in 1722," Drummond said. "These are beautiful, historic buildings."
The Essex Community Heritage Organization has purchased buildings in town and restored them, Drummond said.
"Now they're looking at the old firehall."
Essex just completed a new fire station that will be dedicated in summer 1999. The old building across from the Town Hall is for sale.
The Town Hall project actually started in 1989, when the town applied for the historic-preservation grant. After it was awarded, bids were sought.
They were opened in January 1996, but were too high.
"We didn't have the money to do the whole building," Drummond said.
"We worked it down to where we can do this much of it, just the downstairs. The upstairs we'll do another time.
"It's getting done."
The building will also get new windows, plumbing and wiring. When completed, it will house town supervisor, town clerk, tax assessors, Planning Board, Town Justice Court and other local agencies.
The Town Board feels an obligation to preserve the building, Drummond said.
It is the historic character of Essex that attracts visitors who patronize local shops and restaurants.
"Last summer, every store was full," Drummond said.
"They had to build a parking lot for the Essex-Charlotte Ferry, so many people were coming across from Vermont."
"It was a good summer," said Sue Fletcher, who owns the Hand Made Shop in Essex.
"As I looked in the stores, they were full of people. Almost everyone was busy."
"The town has come along nicely," Drummond said.