You Asked, We Answered: Why Are So Many N.H. Towns Split Up Into Villages?

Sep 8, 2017

The town of Grafton as shown on a map from 1860.

All over New Hampshire, towns are divided into even smaller communities; Barnstead contains Center Barnstead, Barnstead Parade, and South Barnstead. There’s Conway, North Conway and Center Conway. Chocorua, South Tamworth, Wonalancet, and Whittier - are all part of the town of Tamworth.

This prompted a listener to our Only in New Hampshire series to write in and ask ,why are so many towns split up this way?

NHPR’s Molly Donahue found the answer to that question with a visit to Grafton.

Listen to the story:

Andrew Cushing works for the New Hampshire Preservation Alliance and he knows the town pretty well, plus, his father wrote a book about the history of Grafton.

Having a father who wrote the official history of your hometown would give anyone a leg up in the historical society, and it also makes Cushing an ideal guide to help explain Grafton’s layout.

Credit Sara Plourde / NHPR

Because looking at a map of the town? It gets confusing - fast.

There’s the town itself, which is named Grafton, but when you take a closer look you’ll realize it’s split into several different parts: there’s Grafton Center, then a few inches away - about three miles according to the scale - is Grafton Village, and a few inches after that is East Grafton.

I spent the afternoon with Cushing to get a better understanding of why there are three smaller Graftons all within town limits.

But we when first headed up Turnpike Rd, we didn’t drive towards ANY of them. Instead we headed up a hill to where the whole show started back in 1785.

"In 1785 the Baptists, who were really good at proselytizing to the peripheral townsfolk, so they would try to create congregations in the wilderness, trying to kind of duke it out with the Congregationalists to get power in some of these rural towns."

The Baptists built Grafton’s first meeting house up on Razor Hill. Two taverns hugged the meeting house, and Razor Hill was the center of town life, until those Congregationalists Cushing mentioned got the upper hand.

The Razor Hill Cemetery
Credit Logan Shannon for NHPR

"Grafton Center came about because while the Baptists claimed this spot, most people in town said wait a second, this isn’t the exact center of town, we want to build another meeting house," Cushing tells me.

In 1797 the townspeople, lead by the Congregationalists, started coming down off the mountain and they built a new meeting house in the geographic center of Grafton, which is why the village that eventually grew up around it became known as “Center Grafton."

So that’s where we headed next.

"We just pulled in to Grafton Center which is kind of the, ah, well, from a macro view, the iconic New England Village," Cushing says. "You have the church at the head of the common, it’s ringed by all these houses that were probably built between late 1700s and early 1800s. A war memorial in the middle and hills, surrounded by hills."

The Center Grafton Store
Credit Logan Shannon for NHPR

Center Grafton was established because of religious differences and sheer geography, and that’s one reason towns can get split up into separate villages. But another big reason? The railroads.

"And then things really changed in 1847, 1848 when the Northern Railroad came through, and this is kind of the story of New Hampshire. When the railroad came through, the economic and religious and social centers of all towns shifted to where the railroads built their depots."

Railroads revolutionized life in America. Not just out west, but in places like Grafton, too. Depots cropped up every three miles or so, establishing stores, boarding houses, and industry in places that used to be the middle of nowhere. Which gets us to the next spot on our map: Grafton Village.

The Grafton Village Store
Credit Logan Shannon for NHPR

This is where you can find the Grafton Country store, the post office, library, and former Grafton Inn. In its heyday, Grafton Village had the largest side rail on the Northern Railroad, which meant a pretty large and active freight yard. And aside from infrastructure, the railroad put new places on the map, literally.

Railroads needed distinct names, Cushing tells me.

"Because railroads needed to have special names for their depots to avoid confusion on, like, data logs or schedules, it kind of made concrete those village names and those village identities that we now see today."

From Grafton Village, we got back into the car and continued further down Route 4, towards our final place on the map.

East Grafton didn’t have a railroad depot - it’s sitting back towards the hills - but it does have another resource.

Andrew Cushing gives producer Molly Donahue a tour of the Grafton Mill
Credit Logan Shannon for NHPR

Mill Brook runs through East Grafton and powered the mills that sat along its banks. most of those buildings are gone now, but the old carding mill is still standing, a perfect example of Grafton at its prime.

"Really, by 1900 you have shingles being made here, you have clapboards, you have bobbins, you have boxes, I already said shingles, but you have coffins, carded material, so like yarn and wool and flax and you have cider being pressed, so it was really an industrial hub."

Grafton - the whole town as a whole I mean - is still small. At the East Grafton Meeting House, our ringing the bell didn’t qiote bring people running, but Cushing did tell me later he got a lot of questions around town about who he had been driving around town.

The Razor Hill Tavern
Credit Logan Shannon for NHPR

The population is back around 1200 people, roughly the same as it was at population peak in the 1850s. People don’t really have a reason to distinguish between the villages anymore, since the railroad has stopped running and the mills have shuttered.

The main thing all the villages of Grafton have going for them now? The highway, which means people don’t have to live right next to the place they work...and the place they worship.

"In the 1950s, New Hampshire put a lot of work, and the federal administration, put a lot of work into paving and widening roads and straightening roads, and so what we’re driving on now, which is RT 4 which is a wide, two-lane highway...was not so easy to travel until 1950. And so with these new highway networks, suddenly you could live in Grafton and commute to Hanover or Lebanon or Concord."

Credit Logan Shannon for NHPR

So, the story of New Hampshire’s villages - at least up in the old industrial towns - seems to sit with transportation, changing technology. But when it comes down to it, a village is just a place, somewhere that once was a community within a town, with a separate identity, neighbors that knew each other, maybe a general store and library.

Just people, establishing a sense of place.

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