The Many Souls of Francestown
There’s more to this village than meets the eye
People in Francestown wield proud and practiced phrases to talk about the place where they live. “We didn’t choose Francestown,” two residents told me. “It chose us.” One woman said living there is like having an on-call psychiatrist: If you feel depressed, it’s enough to go for a walk along a quiet country road. “And if you have to die,” added her husband, “Francestown’s a great place to do it.”
Pride and practice are also on show when you drive down Main Street. The ordered houses illustrate the phases of New England architecture, from humble Capes to countrified Federal-style houses, and even a take on Georgian stateliness in the public library building. Here and there are splashes of Greek Revival ornament and a restrained Victorian fancy. They’re all perfectly tidy, cheerily painted, and most carry little plaques telling passersby when they were built and by whom. Facing the green are the Old Meeting House, the Town Hall and the village horse sheds, all of which are white and clean and look like they belong in Yankee. Townspeople love to tell you how old the structures are and to relate ancient anecdotes about them, as if they had been there in person.
No one wants to begrudge a town its past, but the truth is such things are run-of-the-mill in New Hampshire. They’re written down in town histories that no one reads and recycled in only slightly less soporific visitor guides available in town libraries. But one can handle only so much of this. After a while, the lines all run together.
Each town, of course, has homed in on a few historical particularities that pique its sense of pride. Francestown has three. First, in 1800, the Second New Hampshire Turnpike was built right through the village, bringing as much traffic as the place has ever known for a period of about 30 years. Second, a locally famous grammar school once operated there and was attended briefly by two New Hampshire notables, Levi Woodbury and Franklin Pierce. It may be partly responsible for the town’s persistent bookish glow. And third, it was in Francestown that the purest deposit of soapstone on Earth was accidentally discovered in the 1790s. The soapstone was extracted profitably for several decades, but today the quarry lies invisible and abandoned beside a country road. The Francestown Improvement & Historical Society proudly possesses more than 100 articles made from this stone and will gladly show them to you, if you come during regular hours.
Yet try as I may to strip away the luster, I can’t escape the sense that there might be something special about this town. One day I was having lunch with a friend who lives there. When I told him I planned to write an article about it, he groaned and asked not to be included, so I changed the subject. “What are we eating?” I asked. “This is croque monsieur,” he explained, “a relic from the past, once served in Paris bistros until the politicians intervened. It’s essentially a ham and cheese sandwich, but really much more. I baked the bread. The cheese is Gruyère and the ham is prosciutto. The sauce is bechamel, after the Marquis de Béchamel, steward to Louis XIV. The herbs are Provençal.” My friend sells rare books and for years operated a private press in his house, manually printing works of literary merit in small runs. He built the house in 1975 from stone found onsite, following the Nearings’ manual. He lives a frugal yet exceptionally elegant life with no running water or central heating and boils just enough maple syrup on his woodstove to get through a year. Looking around, I said, “Are you honestly not going to let me write about you? You’re such a fascinating character.” No, no, he insisted. He really preferred to be omitted. “And besides,” he added, “by Francestown standards, I’m not terribly interesting. If you really must write this story, though, I suggest you begin by talking to my neighbor.”
And so you can read all the official histories you like. It’s only once you get behind closed doors that you touch the soul of a town. That was what I’d do.
It was below zero when I arrived at Priscilla Putnam Martin’s hillside house one December morning. She opened the door and I saw a house full of things yet somehow uncluttered. There was motorcycle paraphernalia everywhere, including a recent photograph of Priscilla, who is about 70, straddling a Harley-Davidson Sportster in Laconia. There’s a matching one of her husband. He’s her fourth, she tells me without embarrassment.
Priscilla is serious about motorcycles. When she was born, her parents brought her home from the hospital in a sidecar. She wrote an article a few years ago about Sylvester Roper, a Francestown native who in 1867 invented an early motorcycle. The “steam velocipede” was basically a bicycle with a steam-powered engine. Roper was an all-around mechanical whiz who died in Cambridge at 73 after crashing a new model of his velocipede at 40 mph. Little is known about his early years, but what there is Priscilla can tell you.
Genealogy is Priscilla’s other ruling passion. She has boxes and file cabinets overflowing with papers, as well as a head that is dizzyingly filled with centuries of names, places and migrations. Her own ancestors arrived in Salem Village in the 1640s and eventually moved inland. Her paternal great-grandmother was born in Francestown in 1847, and her family has been here ever since.
Priscilla’s parents lived next door when they were alive. They were hoarders, and their house had to be torn down. This too she tells me matter-of-factly. Her father was known in town for his sharp intellect but never had an education. He made a living cutting wood and doing odd jobs. “We’re peasants,” she says. “I’ve been poor all my life, and I’ll die poor.”
She tells me that her third husband built this house “when he still loved me, before he ran off with another woman.” She’s refreshingly open about her misfortunes, but not in a pity-seeking way. She has been through a great deal — too harrowing for the pages of this magazine — and says that she takes a stand where she lives to fight the demons who live here with her.
In last year’s Labor Day parade, Priscilla’s son-in-law made a model of the original velocipede for one of the floats. “The people in the Improvement and Historical Society don’t care about Roper,” she says, because he doesn’t fit with their image of the town. She thinks historically significant artifacts are ignored and discarded for the same reason. An old box factory in the village, for instance, was demolished because it didn’t conform to the prim idea of Francestown the rich newcomers had. They are nice people, she insists, but they don’t really understand this place. Priscilla thinks the past, good and bad, is the key to a real understanding. It’s why she’s holding onto boxes and boxes of old papers until she’s sure there’s space for them in the town archives.
The reason the town exists at all, says Priscilla, is because people used to make their livelihood here, and that’s become harder and harder. She understands the motivation for organizations like the Land Trust but is critical of what she sees as an uncritical enthusiasm for land preservation among the better-off in the community. It makes it all but impossible to earn a living here. She hounds this thought right to its logical end, letting a tinge of emotion into her voice: “There are people who want to die in Francestown but can’t afford to.”
After lunch, Priscilla and I were expected at the village home of Carol Prest Barr and Lawrie Barr for tea. We entered through the mudroom, where Lawrie welcomed us in a green flannel shirt, suspenders and Bean boots. He looked like the man in “American Gothic” might look if he’d gone to Exeter and was exceptionally well-spoken, with a pleasing voice and trained but unpretentious diction. It was no surprise, then, to learn that he’d literally grown up in prep schools, his father having been a French teacher at Haverford. Lawrie later became a real estate agent in Peterborough, and in 1980 he and Carol (who grew up in Francestown after moving from Boston with her parents in the ’50s) bought this house “to get away from the city,” he says with a snicker. Lawrie is an agreeable presence, although at one point he had to raise his voice to calm his elderly mother-in-law’s insistent calls for attention. He calls her “mother,” while his own mother, when he mentions her, is “maman.”
The house is an unassuming white Greek Revival with a brick foundation. Inside it has more character than outside, feels more inviting. Sylvester Roper, the motorcycle inventor, may have been born here, but that’s not something the Barrs advertise. From the mudroom, we entered a common room with a walk-around hearth and the kitchen at the back. A handsome wooden clock with finials hung over the hearth and proclaimed in gilt lettering, TIME IS MONEY. Behind the couch was a set of striking black-and-white silk prints in neat black frames.
Carol was busy in the other room entertaining a guest, a tall, gray-haired woman. I followed their voices in and met them both, but Carol was called away to the kitchen, while Priscilla and I stood with the woman and admired the fine woodwork in a newly restored mantelpiece in the formal drawing room. To break an awkward silence, the woman moved her hand delicately along the plane of the mantel and said, in a mellow contralto, “Carol was just showing me this lovely new ‘surround’ … as one says.”
More Francestown ladies trickled in, some exuding this same genteel Bostonian air. There was another tall, gray-haired woman who arrived with her husband, a balding man with a watchful look who sat apart from the circle that was taking shape and seemed suspicious. They had moved here from outside Boston. A woman in her 80s with beautiful manners talked to me with affection. She was a painter and still spoke with a Brahmin accent. Later I saw one of her paintings, a scene of a round mountain and a pond. The line of the mountain flowed down into a soft mist rising from the water. It reminded me of mornings in the high country of Stoddard or Washington.
An earthier woman from Pennsylvania had moved to Francestown just four years before. An avid weaver, she collects looms in a barn beside her house on Main Street. Her voice cracked with emotion when she talked about the town that she and her husband have retired in. She likes that it’s acceptable to withdraw and expect to be left alone, but that the neighbors are always there when you need them. Everyone nods in agreement. They’re all enchanted with their adopted town. Another woman holds up the innocence and simplicity of life here against the cynicism and red tape of California, where she lived for several years between spells in Francestown.
Carol came around with a tray of petite pâtisserie. I was too overwhelmed with listening to eat anything. I didn’t feel like the interviewer I was supposed to be but rather as if I had been mistakenly dropped into the midst of some Seven Sisters reunion whose attendees were as perplexed as I was about just what it was I was doing there. “Do you have any questions?” one of them asked me. “Yes,” said another, “what exactly are you looking for?”
When the circle broke up, the man who’d been sitting apart — the only other man there — came across and told me, unbidden, that he enjoys watching the townspeople from his window, perched somewhat above Main Street. He no longer seemed suspicious but now had a mischievous twinkle in his eye. He asked if I’d read “Peyton Place” and, as if to burst the bubble of propriety the women had so painstakingly inflated, said that Francestown had its scandals too. “But I don’t suppose you’d want to hear about that,” he said.
When evening came, Carol and I walked down Main Street to a neighbor’s Christmas party. Priscilla wasn’t invited, and I missed her company. I’d been told over the phone that it was an ugly-sweater party but had forgotten. As soon as I walked inside, I felt horribly gauche for having unthinkingly worn my best sweater. Carol insisted that I needed to spend some time with our host, Brooks Place, a reputed fount of knowledge concerning local history.
Brooks and I shook hands, trying awkwardly not to catapult the contents of our cocktail plates, in a central hall beside a large table spread with delicacies. Behind us loomed an imposing oil portrait of a Francestown ancestor of Brooks’, one of three Revolutionary generals from whom he is descended. His family line boasts several of the oldest surnames in town, reaching back considerably farther than even Priscilla’s.
The kinds of names one usually finds only on worn-out gravestones were spilling off his tongue as we threaded through the crowd toward the library at the front of the house, where Brooks keeps his collection of Hillsborough County town histories. From the elegant glass case he pulled down the hefty 1895 “History of Francestown” and opened it to the back. He flipped through the pages of genealogy with his thumb, explaining that he’d begun elaborating his own family tree here, but soon the work took hold of him and he’d followed virtually every strand until he had done genealogies for “everyone in Francestown.” His list was up to 30,000 names. I asked him what he was going to do with it all. “I’m not sure,” he said. “I hate writing.”
Our conversation eventually broadened out to more general subjects. Brooks loved to talk and seemed to have no limits. He told me about a young friend of the family who had recently been refused admission to Harvard. “The thing is,” he said, “every male in his family since 1630, or whenever it was founded …”
“Sixteen thirty-six,” I said, sensing he could handle some teasing.
“Yes, of course,” he said, raising a devilish eyebrow. “Anyway, every last male in the family has gone to Harvard, and now Harvard has had the nerve to reject him. Would you believe it? This political correctness really has gone too far. Does it mean anything to be a legacy anymore? So the kid ends up having to go to Cornell! Can you imagine that? The humiliation? And he only got in there because his father’s on the faculty. I don’t know about you,” he said, dipping his head slightly, flashing me a split-second ironic smile, and then sweeping his hair back with his hand, “but I think it’s a travesty. A travesty!”
I’d been among Francestowners for 13 hours straight and would be back the next day. I had reached saturation. After a few more minutes of Brooks’ outrageous but highly amusing banter, I thanked him and his wife and discreetly slipped out the door, wondering how I was ever going sum this place up.
Driving in the winter darkness along the Second New Hampshire Turnpike, which has hardly changed in 217 years, I remembered a scene from May Sarton’s novel “Kinds of Love.” The book is set in a semi-imaginary town near here called Willard. A few of the characters have been charged with the task of writing a town history for the occasion of Willard’s bicentennial. At a meeting of the historical society, someone asks, “I want to know whether we are going to try to tell the true history, or are we just going to flatter ourselves?”
The town historian is discomfited by such cheek and starts nervously shuffling his papers and clearing his throat. Just then the town’s frail and elderly grande dame, a certain Miss Tuttle, speaks up: “It would be most unusual if we told the truth. It has never been done on these occasions of celebration and self-congratulation.”
But the truth, while it may not always be as neat or as flattering as the official version, is often a great deal more entertaining.
100th Labor Day Celebration and Parade
In 1918, the Francestown Improvement & Historical Society decided that their town was truly distinctive. So, rather than the traditional Old Home Day, they were going to make Labor Day their big event. As far as we can tell, no one else has ever had quite the same idea. The Labor Day celebration would be an occasion to commemorate the town’s past but also a way to raise money for a worthy cause. Proceeds from the first celebration went to the Red Cross Society. Since then the money has gone toward a wide range of civic projects aimed at making Francestown a nicer place to live.
For the 100th anniversary of this one-of-a-kind celebration, Francestown is renovating the historic dormitory of the Francestown Academy, known affectionately as the Beehive, which will become the seat of the Improvement & Historical Society. Together with the Old Meeting House and the Town Hall, the building constitutes the core of a recently designated Historic District listed on the National Register of Historic Places. President Charlie Pyle hopes the complex will draw visitors interested in spending a summer afternoon (not just Labor Day) looking into the past, taking in the peaceful surroundings, and perhaps even enjoying a picnic on the green.
The four-day celebration will involve a contra dance, live music, a firemen’s supper, a pancake breakfast, children’s games, bake and rummage sales, and, of course, the parade. It’s also a chance for Francestown to show off some of its prized possessions, including a Concord Coach once used to provide 19th-century Francestowners with a regular connection to Boston (via the train in Greenfield).
The parade starts at 2 p.m. on Labor Day and the centennial-year theme is, fittingly, “The Last 100 Years.” Floats fabricated by local individuals and businesses are judged by a celebrity panel (former NH Charitable Foundation president Lew Feldstein, author and TV journalist Jennifer Vaughn, and beloved author/illustrator Tomie dePaola this year), so they are usually creative and funny. And visitors who arrive a little late will still get to catch all the entries, since — lacking a circle to traverse — the parade route doubles back and ends where it began.
The Sunday evening Vespers service (the unofficial kick-off for the events to follow on Monday) will be held at the Old Meeting House at 7 p.m. and will feature Fritz Wetherbee as guest speaker.
For more information, visit the Francestown Improvement & Historical Society website at francestownhistory.info.