The charter for Cavendish was issued by New Hampshire on October 12, 1761 and the Town was rechartered by New York on June 16, 1762. Cavendish was most likely named for William Cavendish, the fourth Duke of Devonshire.
The first settlers in Cavendish, John and Susanna Coffeen and their children, arrived in 1769. Salmon Dutton, who came in 1781, founded what is today known as the village of Cavendish, while Leonard Proctor arrived in 1782, developing what is now called the village of Proctorsville.
The original size of Cavendish was seven miles square. On October 19, 1793, the southeast corner of Cavendish was organized into a Town by the name of Baltimore. The main reason behind this division was that communication with Town officials was very difficult for those who lived south of Hawks Mountain. Cavendish lost 3,000 acres to Baltimore. In 1841, by legislative decree, Cavendish lost an additional 2,000 acres of its southern border to the Town of Chester. Therefore, a total of 5,000 acres of Cavendish was lost from its original charter.
The first highway through Cavendish was the Crown Point Road, begun in 1759 at Fort No. 4 in Charlestown, N.H., and passed through Vermont to its terminus at Crown Point, New York. This road was built by the order of General Amherst, the British General of all armies of North America during the French and Indian War. The road was needed to facilitate transportation of supplies and communications between New York forts and New Hampshire's Fort No. 4. The Crown Point Road went through the Township of Cavendish from the southeast corner to the northwest corner.
In June of 1769 Captain Coffeen came to Cavendish from Rindge, New Hampshire to become the town's first settler. He established his home near the Crown Point Road in the northwest part of town. In 1771 two more families arrived, the Russells and the Gilberts. At the start of the Revolutionary War there were five families residing in Cavendish. By 1790 the population was 491 and in 1870, the Town recorded its highest population ever with 1,823 residents. In 2010, The United States Census reported Cavendish's residential population to be 1,370.
The Town's first settlers established their homes in the hills, because it was easier and faster to clear land. Once the land had been cleared, the settlers started to raise agricultural crops such as wheat and corn.
The first major type of farming was raising sheep for wool, which was sold to local markets. Sheep farming ended with the coming of the railroads, which allowed for importation of cheaper wool from larger sheep ranches in the West. At this point farmers turned to raising crops that could be sold to markets in the cities. Dairy farming became the next main occupation for farmers. At one time, there were approximately 36 active dairy farms in Cavendish.
In the early 1800s there were three gristmills, eight saw mills, four pulping mills, three carding machines, two woolen factories, one nail factory, three tanneries, one tinware and stove factory, one hat factory, and several other businesses in Cavendish. By 1869 there were factories producing woodenwares, lead pipes, pumps, edge tools, starch, saddlery and harnesses, and rake and tool handles.
From 1870 to 1880, Cavendish lost over five hundred residents due to westward expansion and younger people moving to cities in search of higher wages. The Town population continued to decline in 1880s, reaching a low of 1,172 people, the lowest level from 1810 to the present.
Up until 1875, Cavendish had three major textile mills: one in Cavendish Village; one in
Proctorsville Village and one in what were then known as Fittonsville, a commercially oriented hamlet a short distance downstream on the Black River to the southwest of Cavendish Village.
In 1875 a catastrophic fire of suspicious origin wiped out almost the entire Fittonsville complex and it was not rebuilt. This left the mills in Proctorsville and Cavendish villages to provide the major influences in the development of the town and became the Town's major employer. The mills eventually closed; the Proctorsville mill in 1937, followed by the Cavendish mill in 1957. Mack Molding Company, a plastics manufacturing firm, became the next occupant of the Cavendish mill and continues to operate today. The mill in Proctorsville was occupied by several small businesses for a number of years until it was destroyed by fire in 1982.
In 1914, an important asset for the town was created,Proctor Piper State Forest, with the donation of 424 acres. A second gift from Leon S. Gay in the mid-30s added 300 acres, and additional purchases of property added another 700 acres. The property today is host to a wide variety of wildlife and recreational activities of fishing, snowmobiling, hunting, and trapping.
Over the years, Cavendish has survived a number of natural disasters. A devastating flood
occurred in 1927. During that flood, the Black River's waters spilled over its banks, washing out lower Cavendish Village and creating a large gully. The waters took seven houses, ten barns, four garages, and eight automobiles. In 1938 a major hurricane struck the Town. The winds blew down thousands of trees, blocking nearly every road. In 1973, Cavendish again experienced a severe flood that washed out many roads and bridges. On July 21, 2003, a ferocious storm with heavy rain, lightning and very severe winds roared through town. Classified as a tornado, the storm destroyed one mobile home (while occupied), blew apart several outbuildings, damaged several other homes and lay flat acres of forest. In late August 2011, Cavendish experienced very severe damage from flooding caused by Tropical Storm Irene. Many properties were heavily damaged and the town itself sustained several millions of dollars worth of damage to it's infrastructure including roads, bridges, water and sewer system. Thankfully no one in town was seriously hurt. With the assistance of FEMA, Cavendish was able to repair the damages and the evidence of the storm ravages are now mostly memory.
The Town of Cavendish was home to U.S.S.R. dissident and author, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn from 1977 to 1994. The Nobel Laureate called Cavendish home because it was a place where he could find sanctuary and a quiet atmosphere in which to write. Once Communist rule in Russia was over, he decided to return to Russia. To mark his departure, he was presented a plaque from the town as a token of esteem at the Cavendish Town Meeting on February 28, 1994. When Solzhenitsyn died in 2008, the town gathered to remember their neighbor.
In the last two decades much work has been done to improve and revitalize the village centers,
especially Proctorsville. In the late 1990's the Town of Cavendish applied for and received several important grants for revitalizing Proctorsville. With matching funds and in-kind matches provided by the Town and the private sector, the Town was able to change the vacant Proctorsville mill site into a handsome, well-designed village green with recreational space and with affordable housing strategically placed adjacent to the green.
In recent years, the Town of Cavendish has felt the influence of Okemo Mountain Resort, in Ludlow in a variety of ways, including housing, employment, tourism, traffic and population.
There has also been a rebirth of community spirit in the 2000s. There has been a renewal in community interest and ongoing town activities. There have been summer concerts on the Proctorsville Green, a community holiday affair in November, the creation of the Cavendish Players that offer a play in August, as well as other cultural and arts activities. There has been a revitalized interest in maintaining existing community institutions and creating new community organizations to enhance community and cultural life of the town.
At one time, there were ten small schools, with grades one through eight, scattered throughout the Town. At present, the Town has one elementary school serving grades kindergarten through six, which is located in Proctorsville. Cavendish students travel to Chester for grades 7-12 at the Green Mountain Union High School. The Cavendish School is a vital community center, providing a forum for town meetings and other functions. The community library was also moved to be co-located at the school in 1990. The town citizens came together in 1995 to build a playground behind the school. And in 2004, the school underwent a major reconstruction project to improve and enhance the facilities.