NH News
8:00 am
Mon December 16, 2013

Thornton: 250 Years In The Making

Many iconic New Hampshire towns will have a quaint town center, a small general store or café and maybe a couple of businesses clustered together; but not Thornton.

Even locals like Sandy McIntosh who’s lived in the town more than forty years say it’s sort of an in-between kind of place. 

“It’s slowly growing more residential than business. There isn’t a lot of land available for developing and there’s not a lot of people to support an industry. Thornton was more of a pass through town to get to somewhere else and still is.”

Yet despite its quiet modesty, Thornton has stood out several times in its two hundred fifty year history, as a center of controversy, as the area of discovery and as the home of an American visionary.

The town was granted on July 6, 1763 and named after its most famous proprietor, Mathew Thornton, a signer of the Declaration of Independence.  It took a while for people to come to town, so much so that Thornton wouldn’t be officially incorporated for another 18 years. Gloria Kimbell, President of the Thornton Historical Society says in between that time the borders of town constantly changed. 

“They didn’t have the equipment we have today, so they would just go from a Chestnut Tree to a pile of stones to so many feet or so many rods, of course there was a little bit of rum and a little bit of cider and everything involved and sometimes they’d get off a little bit.” 

old map of Thornton
Credit Keith Shields, NHPR

Thornton’s neighbors Campton and Woodstock would take some of its land as well and what remains today  is one of the oddest shaped towns on a New Hampshire map; long and rectangular on the bottom, and then tapering up on both sides so that the shape of Thornton today resembles a folded paper hat.

The town’s first one hundred years were fairly quiet; there were farms and mills and when the railroad was built through town, it became a destination for tourists. But it would be a man who left Thornton, who first put the town on the national map.

Orison Swett Marden had a tough childhood growing up in Thornton.

“He became orphaned was split from his sisters and shipped from one foster  home to another only to be  used as a hired boy by his guardians, but that never stopped him from being an optimist.”  

Marden would become a successful businessman, buying chains of hotels. But it would be a book that he found in an old attic one day called “Self Help” by Samuel Smiles that would shape the rest of his life. Jeffrey Gittomer has written about Marden and is author of “The Little Red Book of Selling” the largest selling sales book of all time.

Orison Swett Marden
Credit Archive

“He literally became an evangelist for the Samuel Smiles book and when he looked for more books, he didn’t find any and so he decided to write on the subjects he wrote on. He was literally the living example of his writings.”

Marden’s first book “Pushing to the Front” published in 1896 became an international best seller. One year later, he would start “Success” magazine which today has a circulation of more than half a million readers. And now Marden is considered one of the nation’s first motivational speakers and the Father of Personal Development.

Around the time that Marden was finding his success, the Northern part of Thornton, that triangle tip called ‘Thornton Gore’ was becoming embroiled in a major controversy.  The “Gore” had long been an area for farming and mills but as the timber industry grew, logging companies began to move up and clear cut parts of the area. The most prominent group, the Connecticut-based New Hampshire Land Company, began to buy up so much land; that they starved out the few remaining farmers in town.

And so in 1900, an Episcopal Minister named John E. Johnson came to town to preach on the plight of the Gore’s farmers. And he published a pamphlet called ‘The Boa Constrictor of the White Mountains”. Plymouth State University History Professor Marcia Schmidt Blaine reads from it.

Boa Constrictor of the White Mountains by NH Revered John E. Johnson
Credit Archive

“The farmers, exhausting their limited tracts of woodlands and unable to buy more at any price, gradually found themselves without logs for the local mills.  Their sons, robbed of their winter employment, took no longer to the woods but to the cities, leaving the old folks to fall slowly but surely into the clutches of a company which took their farms from them or their heirs, in most cases for a dollar or two an acre.”

Reverend Johnson’s pamphlet caught the attention of New Hampshire politicians. One year later, the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests was created.

“He had a great villain and he had wonderful victims; the farmers being the perfect victim, the NH Land company was the perfect villain and he was the one that really let people know. We need to do something.”

Ten years later, the Weeks Act was passed which stopped destructive logging practices and allowed for the purchase of land for preserving forests. And one of the first purchases was the White Mountain National Forest, in part thanks to what happened in Thornton.

In 1955, the U.S. Department of Agriculture established the Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest in the Thornton area of the White Mountain National Forest; Lindsey Rustad is a team leader there

“I think I can honestly say that Hubbard brook is the single most influential and important ecological study site in the world.”

In fact acid rain was discovered at Hubbard Brook. In its half decade of conducting experiments, researchers have done controlled clear cutting of their own to learn about its effects on the environment.

“Here we can show that it has quite a dramatic effect on the hydrology and the chemistry but these systems are fairly resilient to these changes”

Resilient… a lot like Thornton itself. The town’s 250th celebration was small. It was incorporated into the Old Home Day gathering, but that doesn’t take away from the town’s important history.

That it stood tall against powerful lumber barons and that no matter how humble of a start you have, you can still find success with the right outlook on life.

For New Hampshire Public Radio, I’m Keith Shields