Acworth’s First 200 Years
Helen H. Frink
Acworth was granted in 1766 to original proprietors as lots and ranges; there were twelve ranges running east to west, each range divided into eighteen lots numbered south to north. As settlement began in 1767, each lot contained about 110 acres. This system of lots and ranges is indexed in the old Acworth history sold at the town library and town clerk's office. Landowners interested in what was located where they now live may be able to trace their home back to this old system through that history, published in 1867. Old stonewalls also delineated these lots, and they and ancient cellar holes are the most obvious features that remind us everywhere that others lived here long before us.
Acworth’s earliest settlers, many originally from Connecticut, settled near the high land at the center of town because it provided a good vantage point for defense, and because the air at lower altitudes was suspected of carrying disease. Acworth's historic Church on the Hill demonstrates the powerful force of religion in that early community. Until 1819 everyone in any New Hampshire town was expected to contribute to the minister's tax and to share the same religious beliefs, so that the religious community of Congregationalists and the town itself were one and the same. Therefore Acworth’s first meetinghouse, built in 1784, served both for church services and town meetings. But religious unity was short-lived. In 1809 Baptists built a church on the Lynn Hill Road and moved it to the present site of the Acworth school in 1844. Quakers petitioned for exemption from the Acworth minister's tax to attend meeting in Quaker City in Unity, where their 1820 meeting house could be handily reached from Acworth’s Black North Road. In 1844 Methodists erected their church on the common about where the flagpole and memorial boulder are now.
Acworth’s original meetinghouse needed major repair by the time New Hampshire passed a law in 1819 essentially separating church and state. After much debate the meetinghouse was dismantled and its salvaged building materials used to erect the present town hall in 1821. Around the same time, two rows of horse sheds were built behind the town hall and church. The single row of sheds visible today is one of only nine such structures remaining in the state. The magnificent new Church on the Hill, also built in 1821, never served as a town meetinghouse. It was built to seat 800 congregants, its pews rented to finance the building.
These churches fulfilled a social function at least as important as their religious role. Churches provided music, singing, and intellectual stimulation, as well as a chance to sit down and rest. Men worked with other men, particularly in Acworth's numerous water-powered mills. There they also enjoyed the sociability of farmers bringing corn and wheat and rye to be ground, or hauling logs to be cut into lumber or turned into chair stock or barrels or shoe pegs. Women generally worked at home with young children until Sunday. No wonder they were eager to take a bath on Saturday night, put on their best clothes, forgo cooking any hot meals on the Sabbath, and spend the day sitting down in the company of other women. They extended their church community to organizations like the Female Charitable Society founded in 1816. While we may think of women of the 1800s and early 1900s as more religious than men, we should also consider the importance of the church as a social institution.
In early days, Acworth was famous for raising flax used to manufacture linen, though most households depended on subsistence farming. Leather from the hides of oxen and milk cattle supplied the Acworth Boot and Shoe Company through the 1860s and 1870s. Farmers fenced livestock out of an enclosure protecting fields and gardens. Hogs roamed freely until they were slaughtered in the fall. Stray livestock that wandered into a neighbor’s enclosure could be corralled in the stone town pound, built behind the horse sheds in 1806. Owners were directed to claim ownership, pay charges, and take them away. To this day we vote annually to designate our selectmen as pound keepers, as well as fence viewers and measurers of wood.
Around 1830 sheep and wool production gained ascendancy, as valuable Merino sheep were introduced into New England, and Acworth’s water-powered mills carded, spun, wove and pulled wool. The dozen mills powered by the Cold River also ground grain, and sawed lumber, shingles, lath, and later manufactured butter tubs and syrup pails. These mills drew millhands and their families from the earlier hilltop settlement around the town common downhill into the South Acworth river valley. We can see this settlement pattern not only in Keyes Hollow in Lempster, in East and South Acworth, but also where the Grout Hill and Gates Mountain Roads meet across 123A. There stands a cluster of small houses built too close together to be surrounded by fields. Barns in such mill settlements weren't the huge barns that sheltered hay and dairy cattle, but smaller stables for one milk cow and a driving horse. Each of these little communities needed a school, and usually a store and a church, or a place for community gatherings. In 1854 the Methodist church was moved to its present location on the Beryl Mountain Road near the river, where it later became the Grange Hall. The Baptist church made the same journey into South Acworth, rebuilt on Main Street, as it was then called, in 1867.
Besides the mill, the church, and the school, most of these little settlements included a meeting place for sociability. We still have the South Acworth Village Store with its old Union Hall upstairs, built in 1865. Preserving the store and the post office as a gathering place has been a major achievement by some awfully hard-working volunteers. Later the Grange Hall, formerly the Methodist Church, filled this gathering function in South Acworth. East Acworth had a huge old hotel, livery stable and barn owned by the Buss family who ran the mill across the road. Besides dances held in the ell of the old house, there were church services there. In Acworth Center the gathering place became Eagle Hall, upstairs in the old two-story schoolhouse that burned down in 1929, replaced by the present school that opened in 1930.
In 1850, Acworth had thirteen school districts to serve 474 children. Several of these schoolhouses are still standing: the Grout Hill School built in 1847, the Derry Hill school, and the former East Acworth schoolhouse on Underwood Drive. Since children all had to walk to school, the schoolhouses needed to be within two miles of every family's house. The key factor here was darkness, and the distance children could walk on a snowy late winter afternoon. Schools included children as young as four, and went through the eighth grade. Many residents ended their schooling there because it was too difficult to travel to a local high school. Electricity and school bus transportation have changed education patterns, and also made it possible for families with young children to live much further from schoolhouses. Nevertheless, these changes have eroded the cohesion of small communities, as has the necessary establishment of regional school districts such as Fall Mountain, in 1967.
Acworth's population reached a high point of 1,526 residents in 1810. That didn't necessarily mean more households, because families were so much larger. In fact about a third of those residents were school-age children. Today only about 15% of the town's population is comprised of school-age children. Population declined steadily after 1810, first because soil proved too poor for continuous farming, and second because the opening of the Erie Canal in 1825 and the development of railroads around 1850 took the profit out of farmers' cash crops, first flax, later wool, butter and cheese, and then aple sugar. The farm families who migrated westward left behind cellar holes, old wells, apple trees, lilacs, and Concord grape vines. Most moved to New York State or further west, for example Illinois. The Civil War caused more rapid decline because young men in the Union Army saw better land and better opportunities in the south and west.
Because of the sheep boom between 1830 and 1850, the Acworth they left behind was almost entirely cleared land, as shown in old photos. Acworth’s farms raised literally tons of wool, for Army uniforms, blankets, and saddle blankets, some of it woven at the woolen mill in South Acworth. In the 1870s and 1880s, steam locomotives burned huge piles of cordwood, which was very inefficient, since the trains had to haul some of this heavy fuel supply on board. But Acworth farmers spent winters logging and hauling firewood over to North Walpole to meet the trains. In the 1860s two-thirds to three-fourths of New Hampshire was cleared land, mostly sheep pasture. Today two-thirds to three-fourths of New Hampshire is forest.
Many of Acworth’s old stonewalls, built mostly between 1790 and 1820, were later toppled by fallen trees or frost heaves. Others were cleared to make way for farming equipment; As soon as the scythe and hand-held rake gave way to horse-drawn equipment around time of Civil War, stone walls became an impediment, because the horse and mowing machine turned in an arc that left the corner of each field unmowed. Mowing by tractor brought no better use of these unmown corners, so old walls were removed. And after floods, highway repair crews piled in rock from old stonewalls and then shoveled in gravel to fill the breach, causing stretches of walls along some hillsides to disappear.
The mining of beryl, mica, feldspar, and quartz also reshaped some of Acworth’s landscape during the first half of the twentieth century, and provided employment as farming and mills declined. The low point of Acworth's population came in 1960, when the census counted just 371 residents. In the hippie years of the 1960s and 1970s, people began moving back to the land, so that in 1970 the population was around 460. These were younger people, some of them childless, and some trying out different communal lifestyles. The desire to live sustainably and to earn a living from traditional crafts also draws people to Acworth.
Some Acworth residents seek to get away from faster-paced city life, traffic, pollution, and noise. But for most of the town's history, the emphasis instead was on coming together. Originally everyone's driveway was town-maintained, because roads were intended to connect farms and families. The town organized thirty-two highway districts in 1810; most covered a very small area. Men figured the cost of necessary construction and repair, assessed highway tax on each household, and then worked out their highway tax. The wealthier residents, widows, and the elderly paid in cash. Most men worked with team of oxen or horses and a dump cart shoveling, raking, and spreading gravel. The system changed gradually as old backwoods farms were given up or burned down, and these roads were "thrown up" by the town, meaning there was no longer any tax-supported maintenance. Today these abandoned roads are still public rights of way. Several, such as the Stebbins Road, the John Symonds Road, the Keyes Hollow Road and the Dodge Hollow Road are much appreciated by cross-country skiers, snowmobilers, and horseback riders.
Most of these old roads followed rivers and streams, which is why the October 2005 floods did such terrible road damage. The reasons are both geological and historical. First, even a small stream carves out a valley, such as Honey Brook alongside route 123A going out to Marlow. Most townspeople considered that a pretty insignificant stream until October, 2005, when it destroyed the state highway. The same holds true for Thayer Brook that runs alongside the Forest Road from South Acworth to Alstead. Because the streams carved a fairly flat, broad valley, they made road building easier. Second, the larger rivers, particularly the Connecticut, had always been the highways, first for Native Americans, then for early white settlers. Hotels or taverns sprang up near these rivers, served the highways that followed the rivers, and then the railroads that followed in the 1850s. Stretches of Route 12 in Charlestown where we see the Connecticut River, Route 12, and the railroad through North Walpole represent all these forms of transportation: the River the oldest, the railroad the newest, and the state highway right in between.
Regardless of human settlements and the way they shape the landscape, Nature comes back every few decades to remind us that we are not the absolute rulers of the universe. During a huge flood in November 3 through 5th of 1927 the Cold River flowed over the road by Leon Newton's farm, and Crane Brook flooded down Crane Brook Road. The state allocated over $5,000 to repair this highway district in the west part of town alone. Glenn Bascom harnessed four of his horses and he and his neighbors filled in the washouts with stones from old stonewalls, and then hauled in gravel to spread over the damaged areas. The bridges in South Acworth and in East Acworth washed out and had to be rebuilt as well.
Another flood, this time in the spring, struck Acworth between March 12-19th, 1936, when several feet of heavy snow melting over still frozen ground contributed to the flooding. Roads were so impassable that the school bus, the mail carrier, and the stage, by now a motorized vehicle, were unable to get through. Much of the Cold River Road in East Acworth and 123A into South Acworth remained under water for days. Men used dynamite to blast huge icebergs out of the Cold River near the Newton farm and further downriver in an attempt to break up the huge ice dams that flooded low-lying fields and roads. This rainstorm destroyed traces of the foundations and dams of many of the water-powered mills. There was still a cement-topped mill dam in South Acworth that washed out and had to be repaired. By then it belonged to the town, which needed to pay for its repair as well as around $4,000 in road damage. Some of the work was funded by the Works Progress Administration, the WPA, which was one of President Roosevelt's make-work programs to counteract the massive unemployment caused by the Great Depression. Locally, the WPA was called the Working People of Acworth. Oddly enough, some of the factors that helped put an end to the Great Depression were further disasters: the 1938 hurricane that began on September 21st, the Marlow fire of 1941, and finally the Second World War. If there is a message here, it may be that these natural disasters can provide a creative opportunity for change. Today Acworth’s residents continue to work together to adapt the land to present needs, and to tie the community together.