Fitzwilliam Common Historic District
The Fitzwilliam Common Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1997. Portions of the content on this web page were adapted from a copy of the original nomination document. [†] Adaptation copyright © 2011, The Gombach Group.
The Fitzwilliam Common Historic District encompasses the historic core of the village of Fitzwilliam, New Hampshire. The Common itself is at the center with a variety of buildings surrounding it which range in age and functional type. The earliest structures date from the Federal period, approximately 1800; there are properties from the Greek Revival and Italianate idioms as well. The majority of the Fitzwilliam Common Historic District dates from the first half of the 19th century. The functional types which are represented include commercial, religious, civic, residential, hotel, and agricultural.
The Fitzwilliam Common Historic District possesses integrity of location, design, setting, materials, workmanship, feeling, and association for the period of significance which runs from the 1765 Charter to 1947, the 50-year cut-off date. This area has constituted the center of Fitzwilliam since the time of European settlement. It has been a civic, religious, commercial, and transportation hub whose importance endured even after the arrival of the railroad elsewhere in town. It has continued to be a visually striking and historically important aspect of the community's identity.
The Fitzwilliam Common Historic District is a good example of the settlement patterns/community planning of the period, based upon a Common, which was modified in the 19th and 20th centuries to become a public park and focal point of the community center. It is significant architecturally as a largely intact and unified traditional rural New Hampshire townscape historically functioning as the local center of religious, political, and social activity. The principal architectural styles represented are Federal (seen in the Third Fitzwilliam Meeting House, the John Sabin House, Fitzwilliam Town Library, the Steeplechase House, and the Fitzwilliam House, Greek Revival (seen in the Connelly House, the antique shop, the Landy House, the Amos J. Blake House, and the Fitzwilliam Inn, and Italianate (the Henry House and Dr. Silas Cummings House). With the exception of door surrounds, there is a general lack of stylistic detailing in the structures as is typical in small rural towns. But together, this group of primarily vernacular buildings constructed around the Common form a cohesive unit, a distinguishable entity whose components, taken individually, lack the same presence. This grouping stands out within this part of the Monadnock region as well, being the only village center organized in this way. No other village center consists of a town green ringed so cohesively by structures.
Fitzwilliam is one of five southwestern new Hampshire towns situated on the Massachusetts border. Incorporated as Fitzwilliam in 1773, it was named for the Earl of Fitzwilliam, an English cousin of the royal Governor of New Hampshire, John Wentworth. However, the history of Fitzwilliam Township goes back many years before its incorporation.
The first Englishmen came through Fitzwilliam between 1735 and 1740 building the Military Road from Boston to Charlestown Fort #4 in Charlestown, New Hampshire. The Military Road system played an important part in the later settlement of this frontier area. Soldiers from Massachusetts marched over these roads during the French and Indian Wars (1735 to 1760) on their way to the five forts located along the Connecticut River. Many later returned to establish homesteads in the area.
Originally known as "Monadnock Number 4," this township of six square miles was granted to 42 men in 1752. At that time, however, the entire Connecticut River area was plagued with frequent raids by Indians from Canada who had collaborated with the French in their war against England and its colonies. It was impossible for the grantees to meet the requirements for settlement in the time allowed in the first charter so the land reverted to the Masonian Proprietors in Portsmouth.
At the end of the war in 1760 a new influx of settlers began to come from Massachusetts. In 1765 a group of 23 men reapplied to the Masonian Proprietors for a new charter and grant for Monadnock Number 4. Their petition indicated that a few men had already begun to start homesteads on their land despite the dangers of Indian raids. They asked that certain of these men be regranted their original land, stating that "...many of them have Done Something in order to Improvement and that it would be more equitable they should have the advantage thereof than strangers..."(sic).
For the early settlers, farming was an important occupation. In addition to grains and vegetables, flax was raised in great quantities to be used for the making of linen cloth. Flocks of sheep dotted the hillside and herds of cattle were brought from Massachusetts to fatten on the excellent summer pasturelands. The abundance of wild fruits caused the Town of Fitzwilliam in the 1800's to be known as the "Blueberry Capital of the World." One hundred bushels a day were picked by the townsfolk and shipped to Boston.
An abundance of forests, four natural lakes, and many streams make Fitzwilliam a natural setting for sawmills. The first was built in the spring of 1767 by Daniel Mellen. His home, which was situated near that site, still stands today. The second sawmill followed two years later on Scott's Pond and by the early 1800's there were eleven in town. Many of the sawmills later included factories which were added after machinery was introduced in the early 1800's. The first wooden bucket factory in the country was in Fitzwilliam. E.N. Bowen, the owner of a chair factory in the Depot Village, invented a governor for the steam engine and patented it in 1886.
Two men were credited with starting an important wooden wares "cottage industry" in Fitzwilliam. In the 1780's, Thomas Clark and Stephen Harris began making wooden table articles such as handbowls, plates, and spoons. Others followed with "shops" in their homes producing spinning wheels, churns, window sashes, hat racks, picture frames, and furniture. So widespread was production of these articles that by 1825, when machinery was added to the hand-made procedures, Fitzwilliam had become known in eight states as an important center for the production of woodenware. Two men decided to seek markets for Fitzwilliam's woodenware outside New Hampshire. Milton Chaplin and Norris Colburn developed a marketing enterprise which by 1850 employed 50 traveling salesmen who took wagon loads of woodenwares to all five New England states as well as New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania. So productive was the supply business that two men traveling from New York State to Boston in the 1870's decided to get off the train in Fitzwilliam to see this woodenware industry. Expecting a town of about 15,000, they were surprised to find only about 75 houses centered around a quiet village green.
In the early 1800's when toll roads were begun, five stage coach lines passed through Fitzwilliam. Several of them crisscrossed where the village green is today. Fitzwilliam's location on these toll roads was no less important than the building of the of the railroad through the town in 1848. Originally planned to go through nearby Richmond, but rejected by its citizens, the railroad was brought through Fitzwilliam because of the donation of $5,000 to its development by Daniel Spaulding. Ultimately a route had to be found around Pinnacle Mountain, this problem unfortunately taking the railroad tracks around the town and close to outcroppings of yet another valuable natural resource — granite.
Fitzwilliam became one of the three major granite centers in New Hampshire, the others being in Concord and Milford. By 1870, many tall derricks could be seen hovering over the Depot Village. The first granite had been cut from vast slabs lying on top of a hill west of Laurel Lake. These were used for the steps of the Third Meeting House which is now the Town Hall. As early as 1810, wagons came from Massachusetts to haul granite. Loads of these slabs were distributed all over Cheshire County where there still remain houses with foundation stones, porch posts, and steps made of Fitzwilliam granite.
Quarrying began about 1840 with spurs of the railroad running to the quarries. Freight station records for 1886 show that 7,080 tons of granite were shipped out of Fitzwilliam Depot from its six major quarries during that year alone. As many as thirty flat cars stacked with blocks of granite from Fitzwilliam are shown in an old photograph taken as the train entered the Worcester, Massachusetts, depot. Fitzwilliam granite was shipped as far west as the Mississippi River. Today it can be found in buildings such as banks and libraries in Chicago, Cleveland, St. Louis, and Cincinnati. The Worcester, Massachusetts, railroad station and the Capitol of New York State in Albany were also built of Fitzwilliam granite.
Desirable granite found in Fitzwilliam's quarries derived its quality from having little iron content. It therefore did not discolor with age as did other granites. Blended with quartz, mica, and feldspar, it remains light in color and even in grain. The granite can be polished like glass to have the white look of marble yet is more durable when used in the climate of the United States.
The granite industry in Fitzwilliam peaked around 1915 to 1918, having brought 400 new residents to town, the first of which were Scottish stonecutters. People from Ireland and Finland followed. One of the first unions in America, a branch of the Granite Cutters International Association, was started in Fitzwilliam by these workers. Their contract terms for 1900-10 provided for eight hours of work per day, six days per week, with one hour off for dinner. A minimum wage was established with double pay on holidays.
By 1860, Fitzwilliam was a prosperous town of 1,294 persons. Its location on both the railroad and highways that linked New England with Boston kept townspeople abreast of the times. The Cheshire County Gazetteer in 1885 listed 40 occupations found in Fitzwilliam. Among them were two jewelers, two dressmakers, and one milliner. There was a good variety of shops in town including grocery, hardware, general, and drug stores together with one fish peddler and six meat markets (one of these butcher shops has been converted to modern use as a local post office, complete with the large meat freezer still intact). Two of the grocery stores built in early days are still in operation today, one near the Village Green and another in the Depot Village. Also located here were a book agent and an insurance agent. Many of these early store buildings still stand, having been converted to attractive homes.
Tourism became an important industry with numerous visitors frequenting the town's two hotels. Records of the 1880's show as many as 5,000 people arriving and departing the Passenger Station during a single year. Laurel Lake became a fashionable repose in the late 19th century with a large hotel being built there.
Numerous other industries flourished in Fitzwilliam. In 1885 there were four makers of carriages, sleighs and wagons, a livery stable where the stage coach horses were changed, and ten blacksmith shops (two of these were being used well into the early 20th century, the buildings still equipped with their tools). Two tanneries, a slitting mill, a cobbler shop and a boot manufacturing shop existed at various times. There were seven carpenters and builders working in town in 1885, and one mason, one surveyor, and one machinist. Five monument yards finished the products of the granite quarries. There was one dealer each in furniture, lime, cement and plaster, pumps and tubing, and tinware along with one cider mill, a grain elevator, and several grist mills.
Numerous "cottage industries" located in people's homes dotted the town. Throughout the landscape one can see evidence of these "shops" in such places as barns with numerous windows all around their second floor or basements lined with windows, especially in the houses built on the hillsides. The Upper Troy Road leading uphill from the Village Green has several lovely Greek Revival houses of the 1820's that have such features. This section has been called "the street of shops".
One unusual "cottage industry" that thrived for 45 years in Fitzwilliam was the making of palm leaf hats. Women and children wove them in their homes from about 1830 to 1875. So active were the women in this sideline that Reverend Sabin stated in 1835 (in an historical lecture) that this was the most profitable occupation in town. One of the dealers in palm leaf was Seth Whiting, a brushmaker who came to town in 1836. He lived in one of the houses previously referred to on Upper Troy Road near the Inn, importing, preparing, and supplying the palm leaf to the women who braided it into hats. Whiting them made brooms from the waste material of the palm leaf. The advantages to the town's housewives and the marketability of these hats can be seen in an advertisement Dr. Wittemore published for his general store. He offered to sell or barter goods in exchange for "CASH, produce, Palm Leaf Hats or Good Credit."
In 1885 there were four preachers in town and one lawyer, Amos J. Blake. His home and law office on the Village Green are now maintained as a historical house by the Fitzwilliam Historical Society and are open to the public.
There was a lively intellectual life in the town from the earliest days. The first Library Association was founded in 1797, by 1851 is numerous books being kept in the home of Daniel Spaulding. He later bequeathed this house on the Common to the town for use as a town library. The town still maintains a free public library at that site.
Many other civic organizations founded in the early years are still active today. Among them are the women's Christian Guild of the Federated Church, founded in 1733, and the Fitzwilliam Fire Department founded in 1825. The Fitzwilliam Musical Association was not founded until 1870 but as early as the 1830's musical concerts and conventions were held regularly.
The Fitzwilliam Common School Association was the first such town association in New Hampshire. It was active from 1842 until 1867 with a purpose "to increase the interest in and to perfect and improve our public schools." By the 1830's there were 12 school districts in town, each with its own "one room" type school house. Five of these old school buildings still stand, most having been converted to private residences. Many are of the Greek Revival style popular in the early 1800's. Most notable among these surviving school buildings is the small Cape-type house built on Fullam Hill Road in 1780 to house the Town's second school.
This small New England town has produced an impressive array of public servants including two generals and three members of the U.S. Congress. Lists of names of citizens who served their country in the several wars appear on plaques displayed on the porch of the stately town hall.
Norton, Rev. John F. The History of Fitzwilliam. NH. from 1752 to 1887. New York, Burr Printing House, 18 Jacob Street, 1888.
Old Home Day Committee. The Fitzwilliam Handbook. Fitzwilliam NH: Old Home Day Committee, 1977.
Town History Committee. Fitzwilliam, the profile of a New Hampshire town 1884-1984. Canaan NH: Phoenix Publishing, 1985.
West, Richard G. The Story of Fitzwilliam. Fitzwilliam NH: Fitzwilliam Committee of the American Revolution Bicentennial, 1976.
† Fitzwilliam Historical Society, Fitzwilliam Common Historic District, Fitzwilliam, NH, nomination document, 1997, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.