Washington New Hampshire
The way things are and should be
Picture a large boulder deep in the forest, webbed with fissures. It’s far enough from any road that, when you lay eyes on it, you feel you’ve earned it. This is no common boulder. An anonymous artisan once came here and carefully melted copper into the intricate pattern of cracks. It must have taken days. Now, years later, the rock is laced in bright verdigris that catches the sunlight when it falls through the dark-green spruce boughs. The rock sits alone and unseen on a velvety bed of evergreen needles, as if delicately placed there by the hand of some cosmic jeweler.
Not long ago, I heard of such a thing. I’d been excitedly telling a friend that I was planning to spend some time in my favorite southern New Hampshire town. He knew the town, unlike most people, and told me that he’d once spent a day there with a knowledgeable woodsman, learning to track bears. At the end of the day, when the guide was sure he was thoroughly disoriented, he took my friend to this surreal spot. “I couldn’t begin to tell you how to get back there,” my friend tells me, “but I know it was in Washington, and I know I didn’t imagine it.”
Type “Washington, New Hampshire” into Google and you won’t find much about Washington, New Hampshire. You’ll get the official town website, of course, and a Wikipedia entry, but the rest of your search will drag up lots of unsought information about Mount Washington, flights from Manchester to Washington, DC, and a visit George Washington made to Portsmouth in 1789. There are those who consider this invisibility a point in the town’s favor.
New Hampshire’s Washington was named for the general from Virginia long before either the District of Columbia or the White Mountain summit — even before the office of the presidency was created, let alone filled. But the name is only the most recent in a string of at least four, and, despite the obligatory sign on the common informing visitors that this was the first town incorporated under the name of the man who would become the first president, it’s really the least interesting thing about the place.
What draws me is a sense of remoteness, in time and space, that you get in this town of about 1,100 inhabitants, in spite of that fact that only an hour of leisurely backroad driving separates you from Manchester. Perched on the spine of land separating the Merrimack and Connecticut valleys, Washington’s town center is the most elevated in the state. When you breeze past the picturesque common on Route 31, glimpsing a sweeping view through the trees to your south, you’re driving along the second-highest stretch of year-round state highway in New Hampshire, lower only than the Kancamagus — which explains why you feel an impulse to slam on the brakes and give this place a bit of your time.By car, Washington can only be approached from the sides. If you’re coming from north or south, you’ll have better luck hiking in on trails, paddling a canoe or, in the wintertime, riding a snowmobile. Residents are always telling prospective visitors from Keene not to trust their GPS; as often as not it’ll take them to the end of a lonely road in Stoddard or Marlow, where they’ll discover that the “roads” on the maps are Class VI at best, throw their hands up, and resign themselves to taking the long way around. North of town, a ridge running all the way to Lake Sunapee bars east-west passage.
It’s not just the minor inconvenience of getting there that gives Washington its romantic, faraway feeling. Driving along sections of 31 north of town, or heading west over the mountain towards East Lempster, the land is so thickly studded with conifers and dotted with water that you’d swear you were in Canada. Within town limits there are 26 lakes and ponds, and moose and bear are not an uncommon sight. It’s no surprise that the woods are sprinkled with hunting and fishing camps, making you forget sometimes that you’re still way south of the notches.
It’s also a paradise for those who prefer to wander without rod or gun. There are probably more trail miles here than in any part of southern New Hampshire beyond the flanks of Monadnock. The 7,280-acre Pillsbury State Park, a former logging tract, boasts tens of miles of trails and plenty of flatwater for paddlers. I fell in love with Washington when I came into town off the 51-mile Monadnock-Sunapee Greenway Trail, which passes right across the common before heading north into Pillsbury. The Washington General Store is the only place of commerce along the entire route, and it’s not uncommon to see tired and hungry long-distance hikers drooling in anticipation of a cheeseburger at the lunch counter.
I can still remember the impression Washington made on me that day. It was late on a May morning as I climbed over the steep knob of Oak Hill and came down through a tree farm that belonged, I read in my guidebook, to a certain Phil Barker, one of many landowners generous enough to allow the trail to cross their property. After stopping at Phil’s place to top off my water bottle, I made the short walk uphill to the village. The day was rich with the promise of summer. This was a village, unlike some others in this part of the state, which seemed to give scarcely a thought to whether it looked like a page out of a scenic New England calendar. Yet if I were knocked over the head and blindfolded in some distant place, and then casually dropped off here, as soon as the blindfold came off I’d know beyond doubt that I could be in no place but New Hampshire — not Vermont, not Maine. No, Washington is New Hampshire, with absolute certainty. That morning an old man cultivating his garden said hello and looked at the sky, something in his gesture inviting me to do the same. People sat on their porches and watched the cars go past or waited for lunch and talked to their neighbors, while others stood in the yards tending to their grills, from which the pleasant smell of cook-smoke wafted to my susceptible nostrils. For my lunch in the general store I paid what elsewhere I’d have expected to pay 20 years before.
In 1840, the people of Washington Center decided to build a church on the common. Until then, the nearby meetinghouse had been used for meetings both civic and religious. A handful of people living in the southern part of town had recently come under the sway of the Millerite movement, which had taken backwoods America by storm with its teaching that Christ’s Second Coming, or the Advent, would take place in October of 1844. The Millerite faction used the matter of the new meetinghouse as grounds to form their own “Christian Society” and hatched a plan to build a separate church building that wouldn’t require a long slog up Faxon Hill on Sunday mornings. The building, a Greek Revival pared down to an austere elegance, was built in 1841, and within a few years most of its members, who were to be disappointed by the Millerite prediction, had embraced another unorthodox teaching — worship on Saturdays. Because the twin doctrines of imminent Advent and seventh-day worship first came together in this remote Washington meetinghouse, it is said to be the birthplace of Seventh-day Adventism, although the denomination was not formally organized for another two decades.
The Seventh-day Adventist meetinghouse is as good a place as any to channel Washington’s old-fashioned feeling. It sits all alone down a dirt road maintained only in summer. I went for an unaccompanied visit last October and was struck by the building’s appearance without at first knowing why. It was a minute before I realized that it was the absence of power lines running to it. The large surrounding lawn, the adjacent graveyard and the church itself are a place of tranquility, where the 21st century seems far away and unimportant.
Behind the church there is a milelong interpretive path called the Sabbath Trail. It winds through sun-dappled hemlock woods with stones inscribed along the way highlighting aspects of the history and teachings of Seventh-day Adventism. I don’t think there could be a more suitable place for such a thing. Stopping to read the first few inscriptions, I’m not sure I’ll have the patience to punctuate a mile 30 times. The afternoon is wearing on. But soon I enter the spirit of the thing. I knew very little of this religion before coming here, and I learned that the Sabbath is the peculiar lens through which Seventh-day Adventists interpret Christian theology. Even for a nonbeliever there is something rich and meditative here, a compelling call to slow down, listen to the fluttering leaves, smell the scent of duff and bask in the warm light of autumn. This is a far more empathic way of learning about a religion than reading an encyclopedia article. At the very least, it was a history lesson and a pleasant way to stretch my legs.
The church building is thoroughly in keeping with the spirit of the place. It was built over the course of six weeks in 1841. Wanting to see inside, I called up Ken Brummel, pastor of the Claremont Seventh-day Adventist congregation, to give me a tour. It was winter now and we parked at the end of the road. Ken works the nightshift in a factory, and he seems sleepy and a little unsteady as we shuffle along the crusty snow. He notes that, even though the church’s builders thought the world was going to end in three years, they built a church that did not need significant renovations for 160.
To enter the building is to get a glimpse into rural New Hampshire a century and more ago. There are no electric lights, and the windowpanes are wavy antique glass, affording rippled views south to Jackson Hill. The gray and white pine floors and pews, as well as the curved ceilings done in lath and plaster, bespeak care in the workmanship. For bathrooms, there are two plank-built privies at the edge of the forest out back. When in use, the church is warmed with period stoves that, I’m somewhat disappointed to learn, have been converted to run on propane. On the wall are antique charts illustrating the phases of theological history as understood by Seventh-day Adventists. Ken sits down at a pump organ and plays “When the Saints Go Marching In,” treadling away at the pump pedals with a smile that says he’s awake now.
Used for worship only seasonally, the Washington Seventh-day Adventist meetinghouse teeters on the line between relic and vestige. There’s a sense in which Washington itself hangs in the same balance. This occurs to me when I arrive one sunny winter morning at the home of Gwen Gaskell and ask if I should take my shoes off before coming inside.
“No,” she says, quite brusquely. “We live here.”
In the southeast the sun is still barely above the horizon. The atmosphere of Gwen and her husband’s house is old — not 19th-century old, but maybe 30 or 40 years old. It gives me the same feeling that my grandparents’ house did when I was a kid. Yet it doesn’t feel as if I’ve traveled backward to the past from the present; rather, it’s as if I’d never left the past to begin with. This past feels like it’s been taken such good care of that there’s never been any need to update anything.
Gwen leads me through the kitchen to a sunny alcove that looks south over a sloping orchard, asleep under a bed of sparkling snow. Her brother, Phil Barker (the man who had given me water on the summer day I’d walked into town), stood to greet me with a handshake, and then the three of us sat down to a table dressed with a festively patterned vinyl cloth and spread with hot cocoa, an assortment of muffins and coffee cakes and a small dish of butter. A geranium decorated the window end of the table.
Phil and Gwen are the oldest natives left in town. The proof is in the way Gwen pronounces the word “native” itself, with the old brittle t-sound that one seldom hears now, followed by a vowel that bends into a rising diphthong. Phil founded the Washington Historical Society in 1982, and 35 years later he and his sister are largely responsible for its continued existence. A refrain in the society’s newsletters, and in our conversation, is the need for young blood. Phil and Gwen are tired, and when you see all they’ve done, it comes as no surprise.
The Barn Museum, where we go after our snack, is one of their labors of love. It began as an unsellable piece of property that was donated to the historical society. The foundation had to be shored up and then much of the barn rebuilt, using the original methods, from the inside out. For its work, in 2006 the Washington Historical Society won a Preservation Achievement Award from the New Hampshire Preservation Alliance.
Inside there is an immense collection of artifacts that spill over from the main museum building next door. Along the western wall of the barn are three life-size dioramas depicting a kitchen, a workshop and a sugarhouse, all as they would have appeared in 19th century Washington. The exhibits are carefully curated, and Gwen and Phil can tell an intimate story behind every square inch of this place. To rebuild the barn and create the exhibits, Phil milled 18,000 board feet of lumber on his portable sawmill.
The neighboring History Museum houses domestic objects that need to be kept warm. Among these is a barn loom, built in 1801. The loom is so named because its structure recalls that of a timber-framed barn. It’s a huge and complicated contraption that came into their hands in unfamiliar pieces, but this undaunted brother-and-sister duo managed to put it together, after which Gwen set about teaching herself to weave on it. She’ll demonstrate for visitors, and a few of her projects lend an authentic touch to the exhibits in the Barn Museum.
Another of the historical society’s (and particularly Gwen’s) highly involved undertakings was the acquisition and study of 40 years’ worth of diaries, dating from 1872 to 1911, kept by a Washington woman named Clara Hurd. As with the loom, Gwen dove head first into the writings and came about as close as one can to slipping into another person’s skin. Using descriptions found in the diaries, she made clothes like the ones Clara wore and then traveled around the state impersonating her to educate young people about life in a New Hampshire hill town in the late 19th century. She even affected a limp that Clara Hurd is known to have had. To this day, Gwen continues to mine the diaries for insights into Washington’s past.
In a way it’s odd that Gwen and Phil are so deeply committed to preserving the past, because, when you compare Washington to other places, the past hardly seems threatened here. But what they both seem to realize is that there’s a danger in thinking things are the way they are “just because.” Gwen and Phil love this place. Although they regret people moving to Washington and trying to bring along the very changes that have made them leave their old towns, what strikes me is that there’s no animosity in the way they talk about non-natives. As the last of a breed, however, they take their role as torchbearers very seriously. There’s something of the missionary’s concern for doctrinal purity about them.
Washington has appeal because here the gulf between the way things were and the way things are is still small. If that’s to remain the case, someone must be able to keep open the lines of transmission between past and present. And so Phil and Gwen are eager to pass on their immense store of knowledge to whoever loves this place, because if you take a thing for granted, it won’t last long.
The moral is that Washington didn’t just happen by accident. It’s as happy a union of nature and art as the jewel-like boulder my friend told me about. I did ask Phil and Gwen, as well as a couple of other people in town, about that enigmatic rock, but none of them had ever heard of it. Yet my friend continues to insist he saw it. I only hope that old Washington goes on existing — unspoiled like the rock, but also unforgotten — and doesn’t fade into a dreamlike place you once heard about from a friend, or read about in a magazine article, long ago.