Alstead: 250 Years In The Making
Most of the towns granted in 1763 by New Hampshire Colonial Governor Benning Wentworth, were named after those Wentworth wanted to impress like personal friends or influential politicians… but according to New Hampshire history professor, Stuart Wallace, the town of Alstead, was a little different.
“Alstead was ironically named after a textbook author, a guy who wrote an encyclopedia, Johann Heinrich Alstead and it was a fairly standard text used at Harvard. Don’t quote me on this but this may be the only town anywhere in the United States named after a text book author.”
Although fairly secure within the borders of New Hampshire today, that wasn’t always the case. In the early seventeen hundreds, there was a disagreement between Massachusetts and New Hampshire as to where the border between the two states should lie.
So the Bay State claimed area where Alstead is today and its Colonial Governor, Jonathan Belcher ordered a small fort built. Five years later, when Alstead fell back into New Hampshire hands, the fort was abandoned.
On August 13th 1763, Alstead was officially granted its charter.
But the town never felt very connected to its provincial New Hampshire government all the way on the other side of the state in Exeter. To send representatives there was an ordeal, plus Stuart Wallace says, Alstead felt it had much more in common with its western neighbor.
“They used a rationale that was derived by a Dartmouth history professor that since the towns in the Western part of the state was not part of the original New Hampshire that was granted to John Mason back in the 1620s. They were in a state of Nature and hence could form any kind of government they wanted and so they rebelled. And Alstead would have been one of 36 towns that would have said, ‘were not part of NH anymore’.”
And Cheshire County New Hampshire became Washington County, Vermont. But officials in Exeter didn’t agree with the secession and wanted those towns back. According to Alan Rumrill, Executive Director of the Historical Society of Cheshire County, what happened next, was complete pandemonium.
“Some towns joined both Vermont and New Hampshire, each county elected a Sheriff in exactly the same area who went out and arrested each other. So there was great upheaval and controversy. And finally George Washington himself put an end to it. He sent a letter up to Vermont saying you have to give up your claim to New Hampshire or we will not consider statehood for Vermont.”
As Alstead settled back into Granite state life, small mills popped up around the town’s Cold River. Soon it would lay claim to the state’s 2nd oldest paper mill.
“The paper mills in Alstead were not using wood as the base for paper, paper was made from rags and cloth. They weren’t using acid to break up the pulp in the wood, so this paper often lasted much longer than the paper that was made in the late 1800s.”
The center of town came to be called Paper Mill Village because of the popularity of Alstead’s major export.
But the town also produced several notable people. There was author and watercolor artist, Marion Nichols Rawson. Also, James Hervey Bingham, who would become a founder of Cleveland Ohio.
And then there’s Samuel Thompson. Born in Alstead six years after it was granted its charter, Thompson was a farmer by trade. But he started to become increasingly frustrated at the medical treatments of his time.
“He felt that they really just working on trial and error and often they were injuring the patient as much as they helped them and he was very concerned over the use of chemicals that the doctors used in treating people. So he began to use herbal treatments. So he would go out and gather herbs and he treated his family with very positive results.”
Thompson wrote a book on his findings and introduced botanical treatments to medicine. Today he’s considered the Father of American Herbalism.
But one of the most important events to even happen in the history of Alstead occurred only eight years ago. Between October 8th and 9th of 2005 heavy rains fell in southwestern New Hampshire and tiny Alstead was ground central.
“…flood waters have washed away cars trucks and buildings, roads have disappeared stranding people in the homes.”
Lifelong resident and chair of the Alstead Historical society, Bruce Bellows was nearby as the water began to rise over the towns 12 foot high culvert.
“There was 36 feet of fill over the top of the culvert and the longer it rained it got to the point where water began to build up behind the dam. I didn’t see it but the reports from the road agent as it got up within 10 feet of the top. It created a whirlpool that he said you could have lowered a one ton truck into and never got it wet.”
Finally the road washed away and water flooded into town.
“There were 4 deaths and I would say 50 or 60 structures that were gone and thousands of trees and the roads and the power lines were just gone for miles.”
It took months for Alstead to recover and it was only last year when the final Jersey barriers were hauled away. But despite the devastation, residents like Peg Sutcliffe, say it brought people in this small bedroom community closer together.
“I think it changed the whole temperament of the town and I think you still feel that today. I think friends were made that will be lifelong friends out of that terrible thing.”
The Alstead Historical Society has worked to ensure the town remembers the flood. It published a book on the tragedy and collected nearly 8,000 photos from residents, some of which will be on display during its yearlong sestercentenial. It goes along with the theme of its 250th anniversary, “Know your Town”. It’s a message that organizers like Peg Sutcliffe hope they can impart to the citizens of Alstead, made closer by a tragic event.
“I think it’s important if you’re going to live here then you should know what you’re living with and in. I guess it’s a feeling of pride perhaps? A feeling that you should know where you are because if you don’t you’re not going to know where you’re going.”
For New Hampshire Public Radio, I’m Keith Shields