Chesham Village Historic District
The Chesham Village Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1986. 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 Chesham Village Historic District, small and very concentrated, represents the felicitous coincidence between an established family farming settlement and a grade alignment from Harrisville village to Marlborough village. This part of western Harrisville, known after 1886 as Chesham, became the hub of increasing activity after the permanent establishment of railroad service in 1880. It continues to survive as a crossroads residential nucleus of approximately one-half dozen mid-19th century houses owned now or at one time by members of an important Harrisville family (the Bemises) and includes Harrisville's best surviving railroad depot (on the south side of Old Roxbury Road west of its intersection with Silver Lake (Breed Road) and Harrisville Roads), watering trough at the base of the Silver Lake Road (Breed Road) hill and example of cast iron fencing (at Riverside Cemetery, (on the south side of Harrisville Road just east of the Ralph Bemis House).
As a group, Chesham Village Historic District's buildings, primarily white clapboarded Greek Revival residences which also accommodated civic and commercial services (post office, livery stable, store, etc.) in the past, share such internal consistency of design, materials, workmanship, feeling and association that there are no non-contributing buildings in the district. Its tight visual focus, as well as its amenities (watering trough, cemetery, etc.) make it the easiest of Harrisville's settlement centers to comprehend. Its period of significance, 1837-1936, covers its inception and growth as a family farming nucleus and its subsequent importance as a transportation hub and gateway to surrounding summer resort enclaves in Harrisville and Dublin.
Set in the valley between Sunset Kill and the Pottersville uplands, the Chesham Village Historic District straddles the intersection of Chesham Road with Old Roxbury and Harrisville Roads and the uphill road to Silver Lake. Its east-west axis corresponds to the now unused railroad bed which parallels Minnewawa Brook. The area is dotted with large white pine, spruce and maple trees, interspersed with some shrubs, yet its plantings convey less of a sense of street border than in the Pottersville Historic District.
The earliest house in the Chesham Village Historic District is the Josiah Knight Homestead at the northwest corner of Silver Lake Road (Breed Road), Chesham Road and Old Roxbury Road intersection. A well-preserved 1-1/2 story center chimney, center entry clapboarded Cape cottage on Brown Road and others in the uplands of northwest Harrisville, Eastview and the Harrisville Rural District), it is one of Harrisville's best surviving examples of this house form with attached barn complex or "additive architecture." (Other local examples of "additive architecture" are the George Bemis House, and the farmhouse for the Arthur Childs estate.) Within a decade Josiah Knight's sister, Betsey Willard, had built a tiny frame cottage with entry ell (1846), on the northeast corner of the same intersection. Two Greek Revival houses, built within the following decade on Harrisville Road to the east echo locally popular vernacular interpretations.
One (Lyman Culver House, 1854) reflects the size, configuration and orientation of the Calvin Smith House (1840) in Pottersville enough to suggest the same builder. Its entry can be compared to that of the Aaron Smith House, also in Pottersville.
The other, the Ralph Bemis House, built as a Baptist parsonage, established a pattern which would persist locally until the end of the century: 1-1/2 story three-bay temple form side-hall plan main house with attached ell or shed and the other parsonage in West Harrisville on the Harrisville Road).
The Chesham store (on Silver Lake Road [Breed Road]) of the third quarter of the 19th century sits abandoned just north of the Betsey Willard House. Its pronounced cornice and corner pilasters mark the 2-1/2 story frame building as yet another familiar example of local Greek Revival vernacular.
One of the Chesham Village Historic District houses (1875, with major additions in 1883, the George R. Bemis House) represents a number of locally popular building traditions: 1-1/2 story temple form side-hall plan very late Greek Revival main house and ell with single dormer and porch joined at right angles to which was later added an attached building and barn to expand the property's uses to include a livery stable.
The most distinguished building in the Chesham Village Historic District both architecturally and in its contribution to community life is the 1879 Chesham Station of the Manchester and Keene Railroad located on the south side of Old Roxbury Road west of its intersection with Silver Lake and Harrisville Roads. One of the three best presented Stick style buildings in Harrisville, it is also the better preserved of the two surviving stations (the Harrisville village station). Its fishscale shingles, broad overhanging roof supported by large arched braces and the decorative brackets in the gable end are more representative of the stylistic importance given to rural railroad stations of the period than they are of other Harrisville buildings. The transition of Chesham's role from that of a farming community to that of the transportation hub for western Harrisville and Dublin summering areas is symbolized by this building. (Note as well the survival of its section house, now moved to the rear lot of the Ralph Bemis House).
The ensuing renewal of civic vitality in late-19th century, Chesham also results in its enrichment with at least two amenities which continue to reflect local pride and civic consciousness: 1) The granite "Pro Bono Publico" watering trough at the base of the Silver Lake Road hill (now used as a planter) and 2) The Riverside Cemetery, established in 1873 on land on the south side of Chesham Road given by David Willard. It is shaded by four rows of large maples behind cast iron fencing in a handsome fleur-de-lis design, Harrisville's only surviving example of this type of fencing.
The simple frame Foursquare house of Casper Bemis, Chesham postmaster, (east side of Chesham Road) reflects a continuation of civic identity into the early 20th century in a residence which has several stylistic counterparts in Harrisville.
The Chesham Village Historic District's significance lies in its survival into the late 20th century as a concentrated, visually cohesive crossroads village of considerable integrity. Its economic and civic vitality was drawn initially from farming and, after it was chosen as the location for the west Harrisville railroad station, from its role as a local transportation hub. It has from its earliest years been associated with one of Harrisville's most active and prominent families, the Bemises, to the point where it has been referred to as "Bemisville."
Initially settled later than all of Harrisville's districts except the resort area at nearby Silver Lake, the Chesham crossroads intersection's first family was that of Josiah H. Knight, who established a farm on the northwest corner and built his house there in 1837. Within a decade he had been joined by his sister Betsey Willard, who built on the northeast corner in 1846.
Even before the arrival of the railroad, Chesham had achieved considerable civic identity. Several quite similar houses, one a Baptist parsonage, had been built (Lyman Culver House, 1854; Ralph Bemis House, 1859 and George Bemis House, 1875), a store with post office had begun its long service to the community in the north part of the Betsey Willard House and David Willard (the Josiah Knight Farm) had donated land for a cemetery (Riverside Cemetery).
A quickening influence resulting from the completion of rail service in 1880 was promptly felt. By 1883, original owner George F. Bemis had made major additions to his house to enable him to operate a livery stable. The ranks of his clientele were swelled by the influx of summer residents attracted by its scenery and fresh air to the area recently made accessible by the arrival of the railroad.
One wealthy and influential summer resident of Stone Pond in Dublin, George B. Chase, was responsible for having the local post office in this area, previously known as West Harrisville, renamed Chesham after the name of his own estate. This was accomplished in 1886 during the postmastership of George F. Bemis. Thus the western third of Harrisville has been known as Chesham for almost a century. It had achieved enough of a sense of identity by 1904 that a popular if unsuccessful movement to form an independent town was launched.
After the cessation of rail service in 1936, Chesham reverted to a quiet, essentially residential/farming community. In keeping with Harrisville's strong tradition of thriftiness through adaptive reuse, local farmer Ralph Bemis, one of the last Harrisville citizens to make his living entirely from farming, purchased the Chesham Station for use as a poultry processing plant in 1939. Also during the late 1930s, the small railroad section house was moved to the rear of his house lot to serve as a storage shed. Since 1978, the station itself has been the headquarters of Finestkind Timber Frames, Inc., builders of post and beam houses and barns.
A central unifying theme which has persisted throughout Chesham's century and a half of adaptability has been its close association with the Bemis family. Family members have owned seven of the village's major buildings (all but the Lyman Culver House) over many decades and built two of them (Casper Bemis House and George Bemis House). The Josiah Knight Farm, owned by Bemises for over a century, was at one time the home of Samuel Dana Bemis, in Harrisville's first group of three selectmen, an office he held for 40 years, and Bernard F. Bemis, selectman for 35 years. Bemis brothers ran the Chesham Store which included the post office, for many years.
A livery stable was operated by George F. Bemis in the late 19th century. Casper Bemis' house was specifically built to provide space which would allow him to fulfill his duties as Chesham postmaster, a position he held from 1902 to at least 1920.
Riverside Cemetery which is still in use, has been the traditional final resting place for members of the Bemis family as well as for other locally prominent citizens including Willards, Masons, Symonds and Hastings.
† Marcia M. Cini, Historic Harrisville, Inc., Chesham Village District, Harrisville, NH, nomination document, 1984, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.