Historic Haverhill

A small village offers a glimpse into the past

It was our search for New Hampshire’s first farm-to-market road that took us to Haverhill Corner. We had lost it somewhere around Goshen, and decided to look for it from its northern terminus in Haverhill. We didn’t find the missing sections, because what we found in Haverhill sidetracked us: views of Mt Washington, a painted theater curtain and a beautifully preserved center that, according to the National Register, “represents an epitome of eighteenth-century town planning in northern New England.” And ice cream.

The settlement of Haverhill, high above the Connecticut River north of Hanover, was a direct result of the French and Indian Wars. That river, rarely straight for long, becomes especially wiggly as it flows alongside Haverhill, winding in great curves that leave large stretches of flat land between them. The river overflows in the spring, leaving behind prime topsoil as it recedes. These fertile oxbows didn’t escape notice by soldiers making their way home after the surrender of Montreal in 1760. As such alluvial land is not plentiful in New England, in 1763 a group petitioned New Hampshire’s royal governor to grant the township of Haverhill, and built the first permanent structures soon after. None of these has survived, but some in Haverhill Corner date between 1769 and the Revolution.

It wasn’t long before the tidy village of Haverhill Corner was underway. Its neat and regular plan was no accident. In fact, it was a direct result of royal instructions by George II, implemented by Royal Governor Benning Wentworth in the charter of the township. Included in the standard language of all such grants was the provision that a tract of land near the center should be “Reserved and marked Out For Town Lotts one of which shall be allotted to Each Grantee of the Contents of One Acre.”

In most places, these rules to assure responsible settlement were taken literally and the village placed squarely in the center. But Haverhill’s founders had a keen eye to the value of the riverside farmlands that brought them here, so they sited their village at a southern corner, high on a terrace overlooking the valley. Then they divided the alluvial oxbows of the floodplain into small, narrow lots, giving each of the township’s proprietors an equal share of the most productive farmland.

The minor miracle is that this original town is still here today, and in nearly pristine condition. There are rows of beautiful Georgian and Federal homes and public buildings. The Haverhill Corner Historic District, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, includes homes overlooking the two side-by-side commons, a number of buildings along Route 10 and several more on Court Street, which began as the first Province Road, later becoming the Coos Turnpike.

With the Connecticut River providing a ready means of transport, the Colonial government reasoned that farmers would send their produce directly into lower colonies instead of supplying New Hampshire’s own population. So the Province Road was built to connect the province’s most fertile farms with Portsmouth and settlements between them. Completed in the early 1770s, it later became the Coos Turnpike. It was the juncture of this only north-south road and the river that gave Haverhill its importance during the Federal period, 1790-1820, when it was northern New Hampshire’s center of law and banking. Several homes around the common began as taverns serving travelers, and large homes reflected the town’s prosperity. Look for fine architectural details, especially on houses built after 1790 — decorative moldings, fluted pillars, carvings and fan lights above doorways.

The earliest remaining public building, the 1816 Pearson Hall, is one of the oldest and best-preserved of its type in all northern New England. The brick Academy Building, 1813-16, is among the earliest and most impressive structures of its kind in New Hampshire. Erected later, between 1828 and 1851, were several more, including the county office building, now the Haverhill Library, and the old Court House, known as Alumni Hall.

Now host to Court Street Arts at Alumni Hall, this community arts center brings concerts, classes, theatre, art exhibits and other cultural events to Haverhill, and preserves a unique — and beautiful — bit of town history. Highlighting its stage is a spectacular painted stage curtain rescued from the Woodsville Opera House when it was converted to housing. Completely restored, the curtain pictures Old North Bridge in Concord, Massachusetts, with the “shot heard ’round the world” quote from Emerson’s famous poem. A little research told us that Haverhill has another of these curtains, in the village of Pike — enough reason to call ahead for an appointment and return.

Why did Woodsville have the opera house, and why did this other “village” of Haverhill become the tail that wagged the dog, leaving Haverhill Corner an architectural time capsule? Blame it on the railroad and the growing importance of whetstones mined in the village of Pike (yes, we know Haverhill has far too many villages to keep track of). The railroad chose a flatter point farther north, where the Ammonoosuc Valley joins the Connecticut, increasing the whetstone factory’s market and further siphoning off commerce from the Corner. Constructing the new courthouse in Woodsville was the final blow, and with no impetus for new building, Haverhill Corner remained almost pristine.

We couldn’t leave without visiting Woodsville, where the old opera house’s prominent tower still dominates the downtown. It was on the way there that we passed — or didn’t pass — Hatchland Farm’s Wicked Good Dairy Delites. The day’s 25 flavors kept us indecisive for some time before we agreed to order lemon crème and chocolate chili — and swap bites. We definitely need to come back to see that other painted curtain before the ice cream stand closes in the fall.

Categories: Our Town