Take a Trip Down Memory Lane in Fitzwilliam
The southern NH town is a window to the past
Fitzwilliam’s grassy common surrounded by early 19th-century homes is one of the most photo-worthy in New England. Remove the occasional passing car, and suddenly the view from the lawn of the Community Church looks like you’ve stepped back 100 years in time. The focal point is the majestic Town Hall, its white steeple rising well above the tops of the stately trees that ring the common.
The Town Hall was built as a meeting house in 1818 after the previous one had been destroyed by lightning only nine weeks after its opening. Its bell was recast from the original, which was melted down with the addition of 300 silver dollars — quite a sum in 1818. Until 1868, when it was turned over to the town, it was used by various denominations for religious services.
The Congregational meetinghouse at the end of the common was built in 1857 and was later raised to today’s two stories. Looking down the length of the common from the church, we see on the far end the only brick building — a large double house built in 1845. It’s now home to Macreay Landy Antiques, one of Fitzwilliam’s several antique shops. Next door are more antiques in Chef Allan’s Café, where we stopped for coffee and brownies. Another, Bloomin’ Antiques, is located in an early-1800s store.
Across the common, the Amos J. Blake House was built in 1837, later serving as Blake’s law offices, whose descendants owned it until they gave it to the Fitzwilliam Historical Society in 1966. Now a museum, each room in the restored house shows some aspect of life in Fitzwilliam. The museum shop sells the work of local artists and craftsmen. It’s open on Saturdays from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. from Memorial Day to Labor Day.
The oldest home on the common is two doors up, built in the late 1700s and now home to Clocks on the Common, which repairs and sells antique clocks. Not far off the common, which is the scene of the Fitzwilliam Antique Show each July, are more antique shops, among them Bequaert Old Books and Brian Luddy American Country Antiques.
Apart from the Town Hall, the most commanding building around the common is the Fitzwilliam Inn. Its large, two-story porch overlooks the village as it has since 1793, when it opened as a stagecoach inn on the road from Boston. Later it was a stop for passengers arriving at the station from a nearby settlement known as Fitzwilliam Depot.
Here, early founders had discovered a large outcrop of granite that could be removed in sheets by just cutting the sides. It was used for doorsteps, including that of the Town Hall, and began Fitzwilliam’s major industry. The first granite quarry opened in 1845 and within a few years facilitated by the 1848 opening of the Cheshire Railroad, Fitzwilliam became one of the three main granite centers of the Granite State. The top-quality stone was used in public buildings that include Union Station in Washington, DC. Cruising around Fitzwilliam, we found several old quarries, one beside Rte. 119 close to the old rail line, now a recreational trail. The quarries declined with the rise of concrete construction in the early 20th century.
With all this activity, Fitzwilliam thrived, and along with it The Fitzwilliam Tavern, now The Fitzwilliam Inn, where we stopped to sample the pizza from their wood-fired oven. Ambitious innkeepers Chelley and Dave Tighe re-opened the inn in 2013 after several years of closure, and took a cue from its century-old brochure that described the cuisine: “The idea is to set a good home table rather than attempt the usual hotel menu.” They use ingredients sourced from local farms whenever possible, and the menu’s blend of old favorites with dishes such as duck confit and crab and tomato risotto has once again made the inn a popular local gathering place. Guestrooms upstairs, several decorated by local antiques dealers, overlook the common.
But underneath this serene village common with its white clapboard homes something was stirring while we where there — perhaps seething is a better word. We didn’t need to eavesdrop on conversations in the inn to know what it was — we’d seen the signs in the yards and along the roadsides: No Pipeline.
A leading voice in the public outcry against the plans for a 30-inch-diameter, high-pressure pipeline to cut through town carrying fracked natural gas, Fitzwilliam helped create the 16-town NH Municipal Pipeline Coalition. This anti-pipeline group was born after Massachusetts denied Kinder Morgan permission to build there and the route was moved north.
At issue, along with the destruction of a wide swath in the “burn zone” and the dangers of contaminating water supplies, was Rhododendron State Park, a designated National Natural Landmark. In the direct path of the pipeline, the 16-acre grove of Rhododendron maximum that the park protects is the largest and most vigorous in central and northern New England, the northern limit of their range. News that the pipeline proposal had been withdrawn was fresh — protest signs still marked Fitzwilliam lawns.
We decided to visit the park to see for ourselves the beautiful giants that line the trails. There we entered a magical world — more like a tropical rain forest — where bouquet-sized clumps of fragrant flowers bloomed above our heads. This was not a single bush nurtured in a front yard; it was a whole forest growing wild in a place far from their usual home.
As we stood surrounded by this gift from nature, we understood the rage (and now likely the relief) that Fitzwilliam residents must have felt at the prospect that this would be destroyed just to get gas from Pennsylvania to terminals for sale overseas.