NH News
7:00 am
Fri November 8, 2013

Lisbon: 250 Years In The Making

The story of how Lisbon, New Hampshire got its name is really the story of the New Hampshire economy in the first half of the 19th century.  And it’s all thanks to this animal.

Sign welcoming you to Lisbon, NH
Credit Keith Shields, NHPR

“Baahhhh!!!”

But that’s jumping ahead.

The town was originally granted on August 6th 1763, and named ‘Concord’. Five years later, it was re-named to Gunthwaite. But that created a lot of confusion and so by the 1820’s the town realized it needed a new name.

So enter New Hampshire Governor Levi Woodbury, who was looking for a way to thank his friend, Colonel William Jarvis. Jarvis was appointed by Thomas Jefferson as the consul of Lisbon, Portugal. While there, New Hampshire Historian Stuart Wallace says, he noticed flocks of certain kind of sheep called Merinos

“Everyone knew the Merino sheep of Spain and Portugal has the thickest wooliest coat of any sheep. But the Spanish were smart; they were not going to let any sheep, at least a male and a female out of Spain.”  

Archive photo of Merino sheep
Credit Archive

But that changed when Napoleon invaded Spain. And when the French conqueror put his brother on the throne, Jarvis saw a unique opportunity.

“It became possible to smuggle Merino sheep out through Portugal and so what, William Jarvis did was that he got about 3500 sheep and sent them to Thomas Jefferson. Those sheep then made their way to New England and they really took off in places like NH.”

Within a few decades, sheep farms were running up and down northern New Hampshire and Vermont. 

“We had up to 600,000 sheep just in New Hampshire alone at one time. And Merino sheep turned out to be an ideal boon to the economy. It’s one of the few times in New Hampshire agriculture actually made a profit.”

And because of that, Governor Woodbury decided to tip his cap to Jarvis and renamed Gunthwaite, Lisbon.

But wool wasn’t the only business in town. By the 1840’s, the logging industry grew. The trees found in the area allowed Lisbon to become a world leader in two very different products… giant piano sounding boards and tiny shoe pegs.

For the sounding boards, it was the virgin spruce trees that Stuart Wallace says made Lisbon a boomtown.

“We wouldn’t think of piano sounding boards as terribly important today but keep in mind that in 1900 there were more pianos than bathtubs in American homes and so if you’re making a component of a piano, especially those stand up pianos that everybody had, that‘s a big business.”

But the town also had white and yellow birch trees which produced a tough wood that could be easily machined into thin pegs. According to Andrea Fitzgerald, president of the Lisbon Area Historical Society, manufacturing shoe pegs put the town on the international map once again.

Old sign of Moore Peg Company in Lisbon which at one time was one of the world's leading manugacturers of shoe pegs
Credit Keith Shields, NHPR

"Our pegs were shipped to Germany and Europe.  And they were superior to nails because the wood would swell up with moisture and it would become a part of the shoe, where the nails was not a natural match to the leather and they would rust." 

But another industry would bring people to Lisbon for wealth of another kind. In the late 1860s, gold was found in the hills of town; and as many headed out west to make their fortunes, hundreds of others came to Lisbon.

“There was an assay office here in town where people could bring their ore in. They would look at it and tell you if it was gold or not and how much it was worth.  In all of its production it put out fifty thousand dollars’ worth of gold in circulation in the country. But it’s a very fine, fine vein deep in the ground, it was cost prohibitive, and the only people who really made money were the farmers who sold their land to speculators.”

Even though gold didn’t ‘pan out’, Lisbon remained a healthy mill town into the 20th century. But by the early nineteen sixties, the town had become deeply divided mostly due to economic differences between the main part of town and Lisbon’s village of Sugar Hill.

Archive photo of Sugar Hill, NH
Credit Archive

Lisbon was mostly a blue collar industrial town. Sugar Hill had become an area of wealthy resorts and large second homes; in fact the actress Bette Davis had a place there.  Lifelong residents like Wendell Jesseman remember Sugar Hill didn’t want to share the costs of schools, road repair and the cleanup of the Ammonoosuc River.

“…and the Sugar Hill people decided that it was in their best interests to form their own town and they selected their own boundaries and it went to the courts and it was finally decided that indeed they could form their own town”   

“this is a case for home rule, men in towns grow only when they are free, live free or die …”

A flyer was created and distributed proclaiming that Sugar Hill wanted to secede from Lisbon. Andrea Fitzgerald reads from it.

“… known in many countries and filled with a desire that will enable it to grow and to help the state’s great recreational industry but which at present because of certain circumstances cannot fulfill its rightful growth and destiny.” I think from this brochure, they really want to stress the fact that the two towns are completely different, so they wanted to be split so they could do their own thing”

In 1962, Sugar Hill became its own town.  Residents say it took about 5 or 10 years for tension to subside, but now most say the neighbors get along just fine.

They also say their town is closer than it ever was and people like Susan Wall, chair of the town’s 250th celebration suggest their yearlong anniversary is proof of that.

Banner at Lisbon Area Historical Society celebrating the town's 250th anniversary.
Credit Keith Shields, NHPR

“It was a wonderful group of people who were very dedicated to celebrating our community and what our community is cause (chokes up) sorry… got emotional… I love this town.  And we saw that in that celebration, everyone coming together, people who are residents now, people who have left. It was incredible spirit of the town that came together to celebrate the community that we are."

The theme of the town’s 250th celebration is ‘Small town: Big Heart’. A good motto for Lisbon, that’s a town half the size it originally was but according the residents here, maintains a strong community beat.