The many hills and steep slopes that contribute to the beautiful natural environment of our town are the same geological features that led to a later settlement of Nelson. The favored fertile river valleys and flat lands that attracted early pioneers dependent on farming were found elsewhere. The hardy souls who ventured into the hills of Nelson came as more desirable land was already settled.
The first meeting of the Proprietors of a tract of land then called Monadnock No. 6, later named Nelson, was held in Portsmouth in December of 1751. An early sense of the necessary elements to establish a successful community was reflected in the stated intent of the meeting; settlement should be encouraged by offering land in a way thought to be “most convenient for making good settlements, for the public good.”
Three shares containing two lots each were to be set aside for public use. One was “reserved for the first settled minister, one for the ministry and one for public schools, forever.” Another condition of the grant was that a meetinghouse was to be constructed in a central location within ten years. Also, roads were to be laid out through the town where necessary. Although this simple design was set in place, the first settler did not arrive until fifteen years later.
In 1766, Breed Batchelder built a large timber-framed barn on his property and in the same year married Betsy Davis establishing the first family with the birth of their daughter the following year. Within five years, several more settlers had arrived.
The first town meeting was held in February of 1772 at the house of Breed Batchelder listed as an inn holder. At that meeting, it was voted to raise a tax on each share for expenses of the Proprietors and use of the highways, which were little more than rough paths cut through the woods at that time. It was also voted to clear four of the ten acres reserved for public use to build a “Duty Meeting-house” which was completed in June of 1773 serving the needs of both the church and town. It was built on the hill south of the present village where the Nelson cemetery is now located.
At that meeting, the survey of the town laid out by Breed Batchelder was accepted and paid for. He had been appointed to that task by the Proprietors in 1767 and completed it the following year. The town as originally laid out was a rectangle five miles from north to south and eight miles from east to west. It was divided through the center into four quarters. It was further divided into lots of 104 acres each. Land was bought, sold, and traded by land speculators often sight unseen. Thomas Packer acquired a great amount of land, at one time owning almost the entire northwest quarter. Packer had promised to give the town 500 acres if they honored him by naming the town Packersfield.
In 1774, Gov. John Wentworth, in the name of King George the Third, for we were still a colony of England, signed the Act of Incorporation filed by the town. Monadnock No. 6 thus became Packersfield. However, Packer never gave the promised land to the town. This caused a lot of discontent among the residents who tried to change the name several times. Finally, in 1814, the petition to change the name of the town to Nelson was approved by the state legislature.
By the early 1800s, the rough frontier settlement had seen great changes. The population rapidly increased to 1076 by 1810. Sturdy houses and barns had been built, fields cleared and planted, and orchards established on expanding farms. Records in the Nelson Archives show that as early as 1786 changes in land use determined the amount of taxes levied. Undeveloped land referred to as “wild land” was taxed at a different rate than three other categories of developed land use.
A village center developed around the large meetinghouse built on the hill in 1787 on the site of the first log meetinghouse. Its generous proportions, 60 feet long and 45 feet wide, reflected the growing prosperity of the town. The old meetinghouse was sold and moved to the junction of Hardy Hill and Lead Mine roads where it served for a time as a village tavern and later as a woodworking shop and residence. The first schoolhouse, District No.1, was built across the road from the new meetinghouse. Just to the north was an early store run by Josiah Melville and his wife, Sally, across the street from their house. Scattered houses, a village pound and a granary completed the early village.
Locating the meetinghouse on the hill followed an early tradition based on a formerly necessary defensive posture. However, it presented serious travel difficulties, since from every direction, the access was uphill. During spring mud season, residents, their horses, and carts were mired on the rutted slopes; during the long winters, ice and snow made traveling laborious. With defense no longer a consideration, the village center began to shift north to the base of the hill on what was referred to as “the Nelson Plain” small as it was.
The Toleration Act passed by the state legislature in 1819 gave further impetus toward the move down the hill. It ruled that Congregationalism would no longer be the established church and town taxes would no longer support the church; members were required to pay the expenses of their minister. Other religious societies could now share the use of the meetinghouse based on their numbers. Nelson was slow to follow the policy of separation of church and state since most of the tax payers were members of the Congregational Church and still discussed church issues at town meeting. By 1840, however, they had decided to build a new church in the developing village “on the plain” The large meetinghouse was no longer needed since it would only be used for town business. It was decided to build a town hall in the new village. The large meetinghouse was taken apart and a smaller building was constructed from its frame to serve the needs of the town in 1846.
The new village had already seen the building of a large red brick schoolhouse for students in School District No.1 in 1838 replacing the original District No. 1 on the hill and the construction of an impressive two story brick store and hotel by Reuel Nims in 1839 on what is now the town common. The Reuel Nims house was built nearby the same year. The popular store attracted shoppers for miles around until it was destroyed by fire in 1894. A long narrow building called the Centre Building stood between Nims store and his house. It served many uses over the years including as a tailor shop, a stable, a shoe maker, and sometimes as a school for the fall term. In 1852, a parsonage was built behind the church adding to the several homes and a blacksmith shop already in the village.
Little has been added to the village since the mid-1800s except for changes that centered around the library. Two earlier library societies had been formed, one as early as 1797 and the second almost 100 years later in 1882 when the Nelson Free Library Association was established with the passing of a constitution and bylaws. Members could join by signing the constitution and making an annual payment of one dollar. The library was located in the large store in the center of the village. In 1892, the library was offered to the town to take advantage of state aid for establishing free libraries. Two years later the store was entirely burned to the ground but quick response saved almost the entire collection of books. The library was then relocated to a room in the Town Hall.
The first separate building to house the library was constructed in 1925 as a memorial to Olivia Rodham, a beloved naturalist and a gentle Quaker, Her many friends funded the design and construction of this memorial building and made it available to the town to be used as a library in recognition of her great love of literature. It was designed by Alexander Law, a prominent Boston architect and a local summer resident. It served for 70 years until the needs of a growing community required more interior space than was available. The new library was built in 1996 with careful consideration to the design of a structure that would maintain the sense of place of a mid-19th century village. The original library became the home of an art gallery that featured local artists. It is now owned by a descendent of one the original donors.
As a means of protecting the historic village from changes that would impact the visual sense of place to the village center, generous residents and the Nelson Conservation Commission have placed conservation easements on land that surrounds the village so that every approach is through a natural unspoiled environment. The village center was one of seven areas cited in the Town of Nelson Priority Conservation Plan of 2001 for protection as a recognized cultural resource containing an aesthetically pleasing collection of historic buildings.
The largest number of residents, 1,076, was reached in 1810 after which a steady decline began when changes in the economy due to a depression following the War of 1812 and the opening of richer agricultural lands in New York and westward led to a migration out of the hills of Nelson. Although home industries and the development of small mills in town, an early cotton mill in Munsonville built in 1814 and later mills in Harrisville in areas where water power was sufficient supplemented some incomes, the majority of the population was still farming the land. The distance from large population centers, a poor transportation network, and limited water power prevented the development of large mills and manufacturing to offset the less productive agriculture.
When a railroad was proposed in the 1860s to serve the town, it led to a serious division in public opinion. The state-chartered Manchester and Keene Railroad would run through Harrisville in the southern end of Nelson. The farmers in Nelson and Dublin saw no benefit from the railroad and refused to pay the 3% gratuity on valuations to help with construction costs. The residents in the village of Harrisville which straddled the Nelson/Dublin line were in favor of the rail line because it would allow greater access to markets for the growing mill complex developing there. After being defeated at public meetings in both towns, the Harrisville voters petitioned the state to grant a charter to a new town, Harrisville, to be formed from land taken from Nelson and Dublin. The charter was granted and became effective November 27, 1879. Nelson’s revenues were greatly diminished and its population of 744 in 1870 was reduced to 438 in the 1880 census. A hundred years passed before that number of residents was reached again.
By 1930, in the midst of another depression, the number of residents had dropped to 162. After this period, the population began a slow climb as better transportation offered by rail and automobile encouraged the arrival of summer tourists and residents who could travel to work outside of the town. From 1960 to 1980 the population doubled to 442. Continued growth in Nelson reflects that of the larger region and state as population pressure increases. The last 35 years have added additional residents bringing the present number to 729. To continue the intent of the founders to make a good settlement based on the public good, we must attempt to balance the needs for housing with the preservation of the natural landscape and the cultural resources which define our town and underlie the reasons we have chosen to live here.