Amherst Village Historic District
The Amherst Village Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1982. 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 Amherst Village Historic District is centered about the Big Common as its focal point. Surrounding the Big Common are the Amherst Town Hall, formerly the Third County Courthouse, the Congregational Church, formerly the Second Meetinghouse, the Amherst Brick School, other smaller open green areas, including the Civil War Common, and World War I Common, the former Amherst Post Office, the Colonel Robert Means House, and the Old Burial Ground, as well as other buildings dating from the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries. The Big Common, originally set aside as common grazing land for the villagers' cattle and sheep, later became the scene of the military musters of the local Militia, the site of annual agricultural fairs and the center of town activities. In this century, elms, maples and white pines have been planted there. The Village Center is considered one of the purest examples of a late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth century New England village. The level area around the Big Common, originally called "The Plains," was the intersection of the principal east-west and north-south arteries of pre-Revolutionary times. When the town center was removed from the area called Upper Flanders to the Plains about 1755, the village developed around the Big Common and along the eight roads which radiated therefrom.
Today the area around the Big Common and the roads radiating outward from the village center contain an outstanding concentration of buildings from the late Colonial, Federal and Greek Revival periods of American architecture. Streetscapes evoke the period as strongly as individual buildings.
Intrusions during the past one hundred years have been remarkably few and for the most part unobtrusive. A few modern, Colonial style homes have been built on the periphery of the Amherst Village Historic District; the Clark School, exhibits architectural styles of the first half of the twentieth century, and the ubiquitous, overhead utility lines and poles lend a somewhat jarring note. There are just four buildings devoted to purely commercial activities within the Amherst Village Historic District, two service stations and two stores. These are of an architectural style which is generally compatible with the surrounding buildings. (In fact, there are no real intrusions within the Amherst Village Historic District. Some structures are noted as being non-contributing, but for reasons of their ages, rather than inharmonius scale or siting. Eighteenth and nineteenth century development patterns are well reflected even in more recent uses and building types.) Limited home occupations are carried out in a number of private residences within the village, but again the type of work and controlled signs are evocative of an earlier era. A doctor, a dentist, a landscape gardener, a cabinet-maker, a seamstress, antiques for sale, and handcrafts are examples of home occupations which are currently being pursued within the Amherst Village Historic District.
The large open common area contains the flood plain of Beaver Brook and open meadow land surrounding the brook. In earlier days the center of the dam was raised and lowered to control spring flooding and to provide a pond for ice harvesting in winter. Today the open area and pond preserve the sense of openness and rural character near the heart of the village. Likewise, the approaches to the village have fortunately remained largely open and undeveloped, although Horace Greeley Highway (Amherst Street), the main east-west artery, has seen some development in recent years. The approaches to the village from the south via the Boston Post Road and Courthouse Road pass through open meadow and woodland with a sprinkling of buildings, including an 18th century roadside inn. Approaching from the west down Christian Hill Road into Foundry Street, one passes through one of the few remaining operating farms near the village, (adjacent to Meadowview Cemetery) again fortifying the town's rural character and identity with the past. Approaches from the north via Boston Post Road and Mack Hill Road and from the east via the Old Manchester Road pass through largely wooded areas, punctuated by open meadows and individual houses. Thus the integrity of Amherst Village has been preserved not only within the defined boundaries of the Amherst Village Historic District, but along the several approach routes as well.
Amherst Village Historic District was first surveyed and settled in 1735 by descendants of Massachusetts veterans of King Phillip's War who had been promised wilderness land in payment for services rendered to the Crown during the Indian War against the Narragansetts in 1675. The grant from the Crown was initially designated "Narragansett Number 3" and subsequently "Souhegan West." In 1760, the village, as chartered by the Crown, was incorporated as the Town of Amherst, taking its name from the Commander of British Forces in North America, Lord Jeffrey Amherst.
The original settlement was centered around the first Meetinghouse, built in 1749, on the hill at the northeast corner of the Village District. A granite marker and plaque designate the site of the first Meetinghouse. This area was known as "Upper Flanders." In the immediate vicinity of the site of the first Meetinghouse are several of the original structures, including the Hildreth-Jones Tavern, the first tavern in the town, dating from about 1750, the Hobson-Chickering Place, a Cape style farmhouse, dating from about the same period, the Nathan Kendall Home, the southern half of which dates from before 1750, and Kendall's store and grog shop, also dating from the early period. In the pre-revolutionary period, and specifically during the French and Indian Wars, 1756-1763, the town was strategically located about midway on the overland routes from the ports of Boston and Portsmouth to Lake Champlain, from whence troops embarked for the St. Lawrence River Valley of Canada. These overland routes from Boston to the south and Portsmouth to the east converged at the broad level area one-half mile to the south of Upper Flanders known as "The Plains." It was here that town common grazing lands were laid out. With the incorporation of the town in 1760 and its designation as the Shiretown of Hillsborough County, a new town center was laid out on The Plains. The First Meetinghouse was moved down from Upper Flanders to the new town center, and in 1764, when the town outgrew the first Meetinghouse, a second Meetinghouse, was erected on the Big Common. When Amherst became the Shiretown, the original Meetinghouse was put to use as the First County Courthouse until it burned a few years later.
For the next hundred years (1760-1860) Amherst Village prospered as the principal center of law, transportation, agriculture and commerce in south central New Hampshire.
Agricultural fairs were held annually on the Amherst Big Common, the central open space around which the village center grew, from Revolutionary times to the Civil War. These fairs were advertised extensively throughout New England and were attended by farmers, peddlers and others from throughout the region. An original broadside for one of these fairs is prominently displayed in Old Sturbridge Village, Massachusetts. Amherst was chosen as the Shiretown of Hillsborough County in 1769. As such, it was the County Seat where the Courts of Law were held and where the records were kept. It also had the County jail for convicted prisoners, and the gallows for hangings.
As the Shiretown, Amherst was the seat of the Courts for southern New Hampshire serving the town of Concord, Manchester, Nashua, Merrimack, Milford, Brookline, Wilton, Mason, Hoillis, Peterborough, Hancock, Antrim, Hillsborough, Francestown, Weare, New Boston, Goffstown, Hudson, Pelham as well as surrounding areas in what was then Hillsborough County.
This choice of Amherst as Shiretown came nine years after the inhabitants of Souhegan West had received a charter from King George II, signed by Governor Benning Wentworth, in 1760. It remained the only Shiretown until 1792. The annual term of the Superior Court continued to be held in Amherst until 1879 giving the town eleven decades as a Shiretown.
The second courthouse was built in 1788 when the town voted 80 pounds for its erection. It was located just northeast of the watering trough for the Town Common which at that time was the training field for the militia. Here were heard the pleas of such noted colonial lawyers as Jeremiah Mason, Levi Woodbury, Joshua Atherton, George Sullivan, and Arthur Gilmore.
This building was moved to its present location on Foundry Street when the third courthouse (now the Town Hall) was built in 1825.
Lawyers who made their homes in Amherst and practiced law here were such notables as:
Perley Dodge, Clerk of Courts from 1830-57, lived on the corner of Main and Middle Streets in a house built in 1818. He practiced law in Amherst for 51 years.
Frederick French, a well-known lawyer and Clerk of the Courts lived in the house on Carriage Road built in 1800. He died in 1824.
William Gordon was born in 1743, a Harvard graduate in 1770, a Senator in the State Legislature, a member of Congress, and was Attorney General. He built the house off Courthouse Road and Thornton's Ferry #1. He died in 1802.
Charles Humphrey Atherton (1773-1853), was a prominent New Hampshire lawyer for over 50 years, His law office, on Courthouse Road was built before 1797. He lived in the William Gordon House after the latter died in 1802, as Gordon's wife was the sister of Charles H. Atherton. Atherton was Register of Probate for Hillsborough County for over 40 years, a member of the 14th Congress and a Representative to the General Court in Concord in 1823 and 1838-39.
Samuel Dana, who purchased the Stewart-Spalding House in 1782 from the heirs of Samuel Stewart who had built that house in the 1750's. Dana had come to Amherst to study law with Joshua Atherton.
Andrew Wallace, who was Clerk of the Courts, lived in the house built in 1815 by Moses Hill which is the present Edward French home at the corner of Foundry Street and Boston Post Road.
Nathaniel Shattuck (1774-1864), a lawyer who was in jail for debt, and was permitted to take time off from jail sometime between 1810-12 to build a house, on Old Jail House Road.
(See Secomb's "History of Amherst" pp. 466-468, for a more complete list of lawyers and law officers residing and practicing in Amherst.)
As the southern terminus of the Second New Hampshire Turnpike which ran to northwestern New Hampshire and Vermont's "Northeast Kingdom," as well as the junction of the north-south Boston Post Road and the east-west Portsmouth-to-Bennington Road, Amherst was the hub of transport for agricultural products moving toward the cities of the seacoast, and manufactured products and imports destined for inland settlements. Although now paved, these transportation routes remain today in much the same position as originally laid out and form the nucleus of the Amherst Village Historic District.
Cattle, sheep, pigs, geese, and other livestock were driven to and through the village en route to market. Accommodations were provided in the village, rooming houses for drovers, teamsters and wagoners. During the era between the Revolution and the Civil War, Amherst was a principal stage stop for both east-west and north-south traffic. All of these activities provided business for the several blacksmiths, wheelwrights and tavern keepers in the village. During those periods when Court was in session, the village took on added activity with litigants, lawyers and clerks adding to the transient population of the village.
The early roads, impassable at times, were strictly for horses, wagons and oxen of farmers, hunters, mail deliveries by horseback, etc. Then came turnpikes which enabled the stagecoaches to operate. With expanding and better roads, stage companies increased. During the turnpike era, a long desired road from Amherst to New Boston and Henniker was built. Plans were made in 1824, and in 1827 the Court of Common Pleas accepted a petition to lay out a road from Amherst to Weare. It was started the same year and completed by January 31, 1829, according to the local newspaper, "The Farmers' Cabinet."
Farm produce and livestock flowed south to Boston and other Massachusetts towns, and manufactured goods and imports came by return trip.
In 1806, the first bank in the area was founded in the village as the Hillsborough Bank. The first bills by this bank were issued in 1808 in one, two, three, five and ten dollar denominations. In 1822, the state legislature granted a charter to the successor to the Hillsborough Bank, known as the Farmers' Bank. This bank operated in the same building until 1843.
Early in the nineteenth century, there were several small mill sites on which were established three corn mills, five sawmills, one mill for dressing cloth, four trading stores, three small cotton and wool manufactories, and one printing establishment. This data is taken from the "Gazetteer of New Hampshire" compiled by Eliphalet Merrill and Phinehas Merrill in 1817. Until roughly 1860, Amherst was a thriving industrial and commercial village for that time in history. It was the key town in southern New Hampshire.
With the advent of the Industrial Revolution in the middle of the nineteenth century, textile mills were built beside rivers where water power was available to drive the textile machinery. Railroads followed the contours of the river valleys to carry raw materials, wool and cotton, to the mills and to return manufactured goods to markets. Thus was formed the great Merrimack River artery of trade, creating new cities of Lawrence, Lowell and Haverhill in Massachusetts, and Concord, Manchester and Nashua in New Hampshire. Being situated some ten miles west of the Merrimack River, and without a river sizeable enough to support an industrial factory, Amherst found itself bypassed by the Industrial Revolution and by the railroad boom.
Although Amherst was bypassed by the Industrial Revolution, small factories and other manufactured goods were established in the village. A well-known foundry turned out cast iron stoves, bells, andirons and other metal products. At the same time, a whip manufactory and a cardmaker's shop were producing buggy whips and cards for the carding of wool in the center of the village.
From the 1790's until the 1890's Amherst Village was the home of the principal newspaper of the area. The weekly "Village Messenger," founded in 1798 became the "Farmer's Cabinet" in 1804, published continuously as a weekly periodical in Amherst until 1891 when it was moved two miles west to Milford and is still published as the "Milford Cabinet" by direct descendents of the original owners and publishers. For citizens of the area, the "Cabinet" was the principal source of information on world and national events as well as state and local news and advertising. The "Cabinet" is believed to be the oldest newspaper in the United States in continuous publication by the same family, the Boylston/Rotch family.
The presence of the law courts brought to Amherst many people of note in politics and government. For example, Daniel Webster, a native of New Hampshire and later a distinguished Senator from Massachusetts, made his maiden plea as a lawyer before the bar at Amherst. A by-product of the Courts was the county jail in the village where justice was carried out. Public hangings were fairly common occurrences and occasions for festivities, family outings and picnics in the center of the village. Amherst was the scene of the last public hanging in the state.
Dr. Josiah Spalding practiced and taught medicine in the Stewart-Spalding House. His most noteworthy contribution to medicine was the introduction of smallpox vaccine from Dr. William Jenner in England, and the practice of vaccination in this country. Smallpox was, of course, a scourge of many larger cities and smaller towns of the United States throughout the nineteenth century, but with no understanding of bacteria or viruses, the populace was often more frightened of the vaccination process than the disease itself. However, Dr. Spalding and his colleagues persevered, and in time, the disease of smallpox was eliminated as a health problem in the United States.
Amherst played a significant part in the military history of the area, the state, the region, and the country. About 1745, seven garrison houses were erected in different parts of the town, to which the inhabitants resorted in times of danger from Indian attacks. A blockhouse was built for the protection of the settlers as well.
As early as April 15, 1758, the Town voted in a Town Meeting to appropriate "20 pounds of lawful money" to procure powder and ammunition in preparation for the War of Independence and in September, 1776, voted to build a house on the easterly side of the burying-ground "to secure the Town stock of ammunition." It did duty for about 70 years.
At the outbreak of the Revolution in 1775, Amherst had a population of 1,428 people. Of the 1,600 volunteer soldiers who fought at the Battle of Bunker Hill on June 17, 1775, more than half came from New Hampshire and most were from Hillsborough County. Amherst provided the greatest number of volunteers with 84. This was 35% of the male residents from 16 years to 50 years of age. These statistics are from the book "Towns Against Tyranny" by William M. Gardner, Pages 289 and 291.
In 1777, when General John Stark called for volunteers to intercept the British drive south from Canada, by which the Red Coats calculated to cut the colonies in two, Amherst again responded with the largest number in the state, 49 volunteers, led by Col. Moses Nichols of Amherst who commanded ten of the twenty-five New Hampshire companies at the crucial Battle of Bennington. The British forces commanded by General "Gentleman Johnnie" Burgoyne were routed at Bennington, halting their advance down the Hudson Valley and setting up the conditions for Burgoyne's defeat at Saratoga two months later. Bennington gave hope and courage to a faltering cause, leading the way to Saratoga, the turning point of the Revolution.
During the middle of the nineteenth century, the Industrial Revolution caused new mill towns to be built along the fast moving rivers of this area where water power was available. The railroads followed the river valleys to bring raw materials to the newer mill towns of Milford, Wilton, Nashua and Manchester and to transport their manufactured products to markets and distribution points. During the same period, the great farm migration to flat, fertile, free land in the Middle West was in full swing. This combination of factors, the Industrial Revolution with the railroads bypassing Amherst, coupled with the great western migration, caused the town to decline as an important commercial and political center. Thus caused "the quiet years" of Amherst's history, from the Civil War through World War II.
In 1864, the courts were removed to the growing industrial towns of Manchester and Nashua, signaling the end of Amherst's preeminence in the pre-industrial agrarian period of New Hampshire's history. It was precisely this series of events causing Amherst to be bypassed which kept this late-eighteenth century New England village in a state of near perfect preservation for the next 100 years.
The fine old houses, buildings, and farms with clear air, and with beneficial medicinal springs located nearby, made an ideal location for summer vacations and brief holidays only a short distance from the industrial cities growing up along the rivers from Boston to Manchester. Nor was there great impetus to tear down the older buildings to make way for newer commercial development. Instead, the older buildings were continued in use as holiday quest homes and rooming houses. A large hotel was built in 1870 (burned in 1879) to accommodate vacationers and patrons of the medicinal baths, but the basic architecture of the older buildings and the original town plan have remained largely intact. A few Bungalow and small Cape or Colonial Revival residences were introduced in the early-twentieth century and blend well with the earlier structures and surrounding environment.
About 1950, the pressure of population and the drive away from cities began to bring the rural towns of southern New Hampshire into consideration as potential areas of residential development, especially for people in the industrial cities of the Merrimack Valley and the northern environs of Boston. Amherst was no exception in spite of the recent growth of the town as a whole, the architectural integrity of the original colonial village has been largely maintained, with relatively few incursions in this century.
History of the Town of Amherst, Hillsborough County, N.H. Daniel F. Secomb, 1883, Evans, Sleeper and Woodbury.
Gazetteer of N.H., compiled by Eliphalet Merrill and Phinehas Merrill, 1817.
Towns Against Tyranny, William M. Gardner, 1976.
"Amherst — A Commemorative History 1760-1960," Historical Society of Amherst, 1960.
"Amherst New Hampshire Bicentennial Program," June 25-26, 1960.
College Thesis on Transportation in New Hampshire by William B. Rotch, Editor of Milford Cabinet and Wilton Journal prior to graduation from Dartmouth College, 1938.
Copies of the 1902 Milford Cabinet pertaining to the history of that newspaper.
A Brief History of Amherst, Reverend Gardiner M. Day, 1972.
Colonial Amherst compiled by Emma Boylston Locke, 1916, W.B. and A.B. Rotch.
"Rambles About Amherst," Wm. B. Rotch, 1890, Farmer's Cabinet Press.
Colonial Meetinghouse of New Hampshire, Eva A Speare, 1938, Courier Printing Co.
† Robert W. Crouter, Historical Society of Amherst, Amherst Village Historic District, Amherst, NH, nomination document, 1981, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.