The Hidden Treasures of Sandown
The historic town has much to offer
It was New Hampshire’s finest meeting house that took us to Sandown, but it was the finest macaroons that lured us to linger.
About halfway between Hampton and Manchester, Sandown isn’t on a route we usually travel, so we thought it was time for a detour to revisit its historic meeting house and the newly reopened museum in its old train station. We found more than history in this out-of-the-way town; we found good things to eat and drink.
First, the history. Sandown’s Old Meeting House was built in 1773, in what was thought to be the exact center of town, as voted by its residents. The surveyors charged with measuring that spot, though, discovered the precise center to be some distance away in the middle of a swampy meadow, so they conferred with the deacons and declared a nearby hilltop to be the center. It was, they agreed, a much better place for a meeting house. In those days, a meeting house was a community building, used for church services, public meetings and social events, and the work of building it was shared by able-bodied townsmen who were encouraged in this exhausting work by a barrel of New England rum.
Now, it was hard work hoisting foot-square white oak posts and framing a two-story building measuring 44 by 50 feet, and their pauses for a pick-me-up quickly outstripped the rum supply. In what may have been New Hampshire’s first labor strike, the men sat down on the stacked timber and refused to work until someone drove a wagon to Newburyport and returned with more sustenance. While the construction was done by locals, the structure’s architecture and the finesse of its finishing details suggest a skilled professional hand.
The Meeting House, which is now on the National Register of Historic Places, was used until 1927. Here, townspeople debated over the new Constitution of 1787, worshiped on Sunday, managed town affairs and voted for every president from George Washington to Calvin Coolidge. Through all this time, the interior remained the same, with its closed-box pews, impressively large goblet pulpit and hinged bench seats, so people could lean on the wall when they had to stand through prayers that could last half an hour. At the ends of the rows of benches in the balcony are the original slave pews.
Back down Fremont Road, we found another historic landmark, also on the National Register. The 1874 Sandown Depot is cited as the “best remaining example of a depot on the Nashua and Rochester Railroad, once the busiest single-track line in the United States.” More than 50 trains a day passed through Sandown on that 147-mile line of the Boston & Maine, and, in World War I, it was used heavily to transport munitions, keeping them away from the risk of attack on the more vulnerable coast.
With their numbers dwindling and the museum in the depot closed for several years, the Sandown Historical Society embarked on a campaign to engage more people, seek new members and restore the museum. Now with an active and dedicated group of about 50 members, they have spruced up the depot, which reopened in May. The improved museum houses photos, lanterns, switches, ticket windows, tools, hats and shoes, which tell the story of the rail line and the town of Sandown. Outside are two flanger cars with small snowplows underneath that were used to clear the snow from between the tracks under the train.
The tracks are gone, their route through the woods now part of the Fremont Branch of the 26-mile Rockingham Recreational Rail Trail, popular with cross-country skiers and snowshoers in the winter and with hikers and cyclists in the summer.
On Main Street, we turned in at St. Julien Macaroons, where we didn’t need to be coaxed to help ourselves to the free samples. Not to be confused with the trendy little pastel sandwich cookies called macarons, nor with the coconut clusters found in supermarkets, these are the original almond macaroons from a recipe dating back to French convents in the 1600s. Baker and owner Jim Price has been mixing and baking these here since he bought the family business in 1993, sometimes six batches a day, with 155 dozen in each batch.
These are all he bakes, and he’s expert at it, so there’s no false modesty here. “We have the world’s finest macaroons,” Price assures us, and we have to agree. The ingredients are pure and simple — crushed almonds, sugar, egg white, honey, vanilla and natural flavoring — meaning the macaroons are dairy-free, cholesterol-free and gluten-free. We sampled the only two flavors, traditional honey almond and cocoa almond. We left with a tub for the freezer (they keep for up to two years, but who would do that?) and a couple of three-packs for immediate consumption.
Another business also Sandown on the map. Cheryl and Jim Zanello opened Zorvino Vineyards in 2001 on an 80-acre property where they grow grapes, make wine and host popular wine pairings. Zorvino wines are made from on-site grapes and from those imported from top wine regions in Italy, California and Chile. Another line is made (and named) from locally grown fruits: Pearz, and the sweeter Peachez and Cranbreez. Tastings are designed for everyone, and visitors who have never tasted wines before will feel just as comfortable as experienced connoisseurs. In the summer, the landscaped grounds include gardens and a bocce court.