Wander to Drewsville

An unplanned journey to a charming town

photo by stillman rogers
The Drewsville General Store dates back 200 years.

We hadn’t planned to go on a historical odyssey when we took the TR-6 on a Sunday drive to Walpole for ice cream. But you know how one thing can lead to another. In this case, one sign led to another, which is how we ended up in Drewsville.

We got there by following an intriguing “Old Cheshire Turnpike” sign from Walpole’s Valley Road. The narrow winding road didn’t look like what we now call a turnpike, but we were familiar with these old privately funded roads, where they “turned the pike” to let travelers through after they paid the toll (usually about one cent for a horse and rider). Between 1796 and 1830, more than 80 of these turnpikes were built in the state, stretching 500 miles. Where, we wondered, did this one lead?

It led us to Drewsville, an unincorporated village at the northeast corner of Walpole. The Cheshire Turnpike began in 1804 to connect the Third NH Turnpike in Keene to Charlestown, 24 miles away. Only five years earlier, an article in “The NH Sentinel” reported that “roads in New Hampshire were so bad that riding from one town to another a traveler’s life was in jeopardy.” The better-constructed private roads improved travel considerably, and by 1827 a stagecoach line was carrying passengers on the Cheshire Turnpike from Keene to Charlestown through Drewsville.

There was ample reason for commerce through Drewsville in the early 1800s, when the steep drops in the narrow Cold River Valley powered seven mills. One of the first was built by Col. Benjamin Bellows, the founder of Walpole, and it wasn’t long before a village grew around these valuable sources of water power. Only a few remnants of stone foundations remain today, as the mills couldn’t compete with later mills powered by combustion engines and electricity.

The pleasant village green where we stopped still reflects Drewsville’s early prosperity, with several notable buildings. On one side, the 1836 stone Seventh-day Adventist Church, which began as an Episcopal church, was founded by Thomas Drew, for whom the village was named. Drew was quite a character. Indentured in Londonderry as an orphan, he was traded to a local man, who brought him to Walpole. Drew went on to become a multiterm state legislator, and kept a public house in Drewsville. By the mid-1800s, along with the church and public house, Drewsville had a store, two blacksmith shops and two factories, one making pillboxes and the other sashes and doors.

Two particularly fine homes from this period face the common. One is a beautifully maintained Gothic Revival house with a columned porch, and the other is the 1880 Drewsville Mansion, now on the National Register of Historic Places. This large building stretches across an entire end of the green and is significant as a example of Stick-Eastlake style, decorated with jigsaw cutouts and stick work, which is rare in this region. In 1998, Southwestern Community Services and other sponsors received the NH Preservation Achievement Award for their rehabilitation of the Drewsville Mansion into affordable housing.

At the other end of the common is the Drewsville General Store, “in the heart of beautiful downtown Drewsville,” as its sign proclaims. In 2015, the store celebrated its 200th anniversary by throwing a town-wide birthday bash on the common. Inside, we looked at the day’s lunch specials — chili, Italian wedding soup, bacon cheeseburgers, mac and cheese, and custom-built sandwiches — and noted that coffee and breakfast sandwiches are ready starting at 5 a.m. It’s that kind of service that’s kept the store an important part of community life in this little town. In last year’s WMUR Viewers’ Choice awards, it was named one of the best local country stores in New Hampshire.

The Old Cheshire Turnpike leaves Drewsville and continues into Langdon, where the state’s smallest historic covered bridge crosses Great Brook. Prentiss Bridge predates the Cheshire Turnpike, which acquired it when the toll road was built. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the bridge is no longer open to cars but sits right beside the road that bypasses it.

Signs continue to identify the route of the Old Cheshire Turnpike as it bears left in Langdon and briefly joins Route 12A before veering off again and ending at Route 12 in Charlestown.

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