The Power of Water: Munsonville, New Hampshire, from 1850 to 1950

Alan F. Rumrill
Executive Director of the Historical Society of Cheshire County

The history of the small village of Munsonville is a familiar New Hampshire story as it has all the elements of the history of similar villages throughout southwestern NH during the 100 years from the 1850s to the 1950s. The same factors – natural, technological and economic – played leading roles in the growth, decline, survival and rebirth of Munsonville as they did in towns throughout our region.

Twin Hills with cattle

Essential elements here that played a major role in the history of the village included the decline of agriculture, the growth and decline of industry, and the growth of tourism and recreation.  Furthermore, the impact – both negative and positive – of transportation and technological advances, and the overwhelming influence of water were essential to the development of the village. Those three things alone – technology, transportation and water, especially water – can be used to paint the picture of Munsonville’s past.

Background
Some background information is needed to develop the setting of Munsonville in 1850.

Haying on Wilson Farm,
Munsonville, NH.

Mill Pond outlet from Granite Lake

A few farmers, including my great-great-great-great grandfather, settled around the “lake” (then known as Fish Pond) in the late 1700s. Munsonville, or Factory Village as it was called then, did not truly begin until the early 1800s, however, when mills were developed at the outlet of the pond.  The reason the mills could be built was because of the rapid drop of the water in the brook from the pond to the flats down by the Nelson School. Munsonville, like so many local villages, was built on water power. The Nelson Cotton and Woolen Manufactory was founded at the outlet of the pond in 1815 by Asa Beard, encouraged by taxation on imports and then import embargoes during the War of 1812. A village store opened a year after the mill and a Baptist church was formed in 1818. The members met upstairs in the cotton mill.

The cotton factory often worked just part time until it was sold to Alvan Munson and George Forbush of Peterborough for $4000 in 1832. A new road being constructed from Keene to Concord was built through the growing village in 1830. This was not a town road, but was a county road and was intended to be a main route through the region. That road played a major role in the history and economy of the village from that time to the present.

Main Street

A post office was opened in the village in 1837. The postmark read “Nelson Factory.” The name of the post office, and the village, was changed to Munsonville in 1849. Alvan Munson thought this was a more “dignified” name, although there was local resistance to the name change. Munson apparently donated 50 books to the town to be used for a public library to seal the deal.

Church built in 1842

The Baptists built the brick church in 1842. A chair shop opened on the brook below the cotton mill in the 1840s, and thus a new industry was begun in the village. The growth of the cotton factory and chair shop signaled a fundamental change in the local economy. Prior to this time many products needed locally were produced in the home or in small shops. Factories took much of this work away from households, disrupting an extra source of income for farm families, and soon resulted in local families using their limited income to purchase cloth, chairs and other products in more distant markets where they were being shipped for sale.

1850s
By 1850 Alvan Munson had $10,000 invested in his cotton factory. He purchased 25 tons of raw cotton that year. The mill contained 12 looms and 640 spindles which were operated by 20 employees (15 of them females who earned an average of $8.75/month while the males earned $20.00/month). The factory turned out 55,000 yards of cotton cloth in 1850, valued at $13,200.

Fred Taylor early chair factory, 1896

Chair maker Frederick Taylor employed four men in his chair shop where they made 8000 chairs which he sold for $3,600. These two men were clearly shipping their products beyond the borders of Nelson as we saw the growth of a regional economy and the deterioration of the farm economy.

The former Fish Pond had become known as Factory Pond and then Munsonville Pond by 1860. The population of all of Nelson stood at 700 in 1860, a decline of 33% since its peak of population half a century earlier in 1810. Much of the decline was due to the loss of farms and farm families.

Munsonville Village map, 1853

An 1858 map of the village showed the reliance on industry at that time. In addition to the cotton factory and Taylor’s chair shop, there were three other mills on the outlet brook at that time. These included a shoe shop, paint shop and saw mill. There was also a boarding house for cotton factory workers and the Munson family also owned other residences in the village that may have been used for employee tenements.

So, in the 1860s we saw very clearly the decline of agriculture and the growth of industry. Produce being shipped by canal and rail from the “west,” meaning New York, Pennsylvania and Ohio, destroyed any urban market for local farmers. Furthermore, the thin soil, especially in the hill towns of the region, was becoming depleted after three generations of farming and overgrazing by sheep herds.

Cattle at Wilson Farm

Despite this decline, the farmers in and around the village were still producing considerable output in 1860. For the purpose of this paper, I have defined Munsonville farms as those in the village itself and as far away as the Tarbox farm at the end of Chester Town Road beyond the McIntire place, to John Bunce’s house near the cemetery, and to the top of Murdough Hill Road. The 1860 agricultural census listed eleven farms in that area.

These included full-time farmers as well as storekeepers and millers who farmed part time. These people had more than 1000 acres of improved farm land and owned 11 horses, 40 cows, and 424 sheep. The Tarbox family was the main sheep herding family throughout the history of the village.  The eleven farms also produced 1380 pounds of wool (presumably with a market at the Harrisville mills), more than 6 tons of potatoes, 9 tons of butter, and 8 tons of maple sugar during that year.

Colony textile mill

Carding Room at the Colony textile mill

Alvan Munson put the cotton factory up for sale in the late 1850s and by the start of the new decade father and son Joshua D. and Lewis J. Colony of Keene had purchased the business for $8000. They modernized the machinery and increased the number of looms and spindles, just in time for the economic boom associated with the Civil War. Textile mills have historically done well during war time because large armies require uniforms, blankets, tents, and other textile equipment. By the late 1860s the Colony’s employed 12 men, 24 women and 4 children and turned out 160,000 yards of cloth annually.

Attached barn to mill boardinghouse

Armies also require huge amounts of food and the demand for produce expanded as well.  Furthermore, there was a new class of workers in Munsonville now. The local farm families could not supply all the labor for the mills. The result was imported laborers who lived in the boarding house and elsewhere in the village and did not have land that they could farm. The farmers bartered their produce with the storekeeper, who then sold to the mill workers.

The story of the brick church during these years illustrates the nature of life in the village at that time. The Baptists, who built the church in 1842, sold it to the Universalists some years later. The very presence of these two groups illustrates the presence of a variety of denominations in addition to the former single town supported Congregational Church, signaling a growth of religious diversity, the passage of the Toleration Act by the NH Legislature in 1819, and the resulting separation of church and state. By the 1860s, the Universalist church membership had declined to the point where they could not afford to keep up the building. It was sold in 1862 to a stock company of local residents, including the Colonys. It became a community hall and was witness to more balls, dances, and similar social activities than it was to church services, causing much consternation among the religiously minded in the village. An invitation to a dance in the hall in 1869 promised dancing from 7:00 p.m. to 4:00 a.m. in the morning!

The life and death of Jonathan Whittier tells something about farming and the nature of life in the neighborhood in the 1860s and 1870s. In 1864 Jonathan moved with his family into a 60-year-old farmhouse in the southwest corner of Stoddard. He worked the farm and renovated the old farmhouse. In the mid 1870s, as he approached 60 years of age, it is said that he worked the fields like a man half his age.

On December 29, 1876, Jonathan walked to the post office in Munsonville, some three miles distant, to pick up the family’s mail. Snow began to fall as he made the journey. He picked up the mail and started toward home. The storm changed to a blizzard and the snow piled up fast and deep.  Jonathan Whittier never returned home to his farm that evening.

When the weather cleared, Jonathan’s family began searching for him. They found that he had started home from the post office, but they could find no trace of him anywhere in the neighborhood. For three months the family waited, with no word of their husband and father.

Jonathan Whittier

On March 25, 1877, as the winter snows began to melt, Jonathan’s body was found by the roadside not far from his home. His gravestone in the Munsonville Cemetery recounts the tale of his tragic death. It reads: “Jonathan H. Whittier, died December 29, 1876, age 58 years, 8 months. He perished of cold by the wayside in trying to reach his home. Found March 25, 1877.”

After the Civil War, the decline of agriculture resumed and then increased dramatically. The Nelson Correspondent to the New Hampshire Board of Agriculture lamented in his 1873 report that “we think no farmers are making money. Almost all leave town; about one-fifth of the farms are abandoned.” They knew at the time exactly what was happening. By the 1880s there were still approximately 20 horses and 40 cows in or near the village, but the crop output had decreased drastically and the number of sheep had decreased by 50% over the previous 20 years.

Fire at the mill, 1877

The village was now more dependent than ever on the mills to support the residents. A fire in 1877 changed the nature of manufacturing in the village. The Colony’s cotton factory burned in that year.  There was always some suspicion about the fire. The night watchman found the fire early on, but when he tried to ring the factory bell to raise the alarm, the rope broke. By the time he was able to summon help, the fire was too far advanced and the factory was destroyed.

Rebuilt mill

The Colony’s rebuilt the factory, but when they did so they equipped it with machinery to manufacture chairs. By the mid 1880s the company employed 30 to 50 people and made 25,000 to 30,000 chairs annually. These were carried to Keene where they were finished and then shipped by rail across the country and beyond. Mrs. Grover Cleveland ordered two Colony rockers specifically for the White House when she was first lady. The second chair factory on the stream was producing some 7000 chairs and 2000 four-foot settees each year. Chair manufacture was now the dominant industry in the village. George Burdett operated a third substantial chair shop on the brook, but soon found that the Colony’s controlled the water flow so tightly that it was more effective for him to move his business to Keene.

The chair shop provided another source of income for the remaining farm families. Local families would visit the mill and pick up chair seat frames and rattan, carry them home, weave the seats of the chairs, and return them to the factory where they were paid a few cents for each seat completed.  This income helped support the local economy and the families on the dying farms for a number of years. My great grandparents traveled over the hill from Center Pond in Stoddard to get chair seats; they could make up to $15.00 a month during the winter weaving seats which was an important supplement to their meager farm income.

A Methodist church was organized in May of 1891 and purchased the old brick church building at about that time. Organized religion had returned to the village and the now half-century old building was saved from further profane insults, but a full decade later the minister was still lamenting the building’s years as a community hall when he proclaimed that: “the effect of such a state of affairs is still blighting the better life of many in the community to this day.”

It was at about this time, the later 1800s and early 1900s, that a new industry (and form of income) was born in Munsonville. The “Tourist’s Guide-Book to the State of New Hampshire” was published in 1902. It listed summer hotels and boarding houses throughout the state. Summer resort hotels had been developed near the railroad stations a generation earlier. Now with improved roads, however, it was a quick comfortable stage ride from the depots to lakes throughout the region. The Tourists Guide Book listed several summer boarding houses in Nelson, but two were described in detail.

Beechwood was operated by F.A. Corey. The price was $1.00 per day or $5.00 for a week. The house accommodated 8 people and was open from July to September. The house was 1400 feet above sea level and 200 feet above Granite Lake. It boasted of a fine view of Monadnock, picturesque scenery, plenty of berries, and a fine beech grove.

The Granite Lake House, on the lake, was operated by Frank Foster.

Water had a new leading role in Munsonville as the 20th century arrived. Its power operated the mills, and now its beauty and recreational enticements were drawing visitors – who were spending money locally. The Main highway between Keene and Concord, which was built through Munsonville in the 1830s, now gained added importance. This main artery made it easy to travel to the lake, and some of the many people who passed by as they traveled elsewhere returned for a visit.

Dr. Charles A. Eastman

Within a decade summer camps for youngsters were founded on the lake as well. Camp Oahe was opened at the other end of the lake by the Sioux Indian Ohiyesa – Dr. Charles A. Eastman.  Camp Winnecomack, and Camp Notre Dame were also at the north end of the lake and Granite Lake Camp was opened in the village.

The Camp Winnecomack catalogue (click here for entire catalogue for Camp Winnecomack) assured parents that a summer at the camp would offer their daughter “a summer in which she may know the delights of athletics in fresh air…of swimming in the pure clear water of the lake, under the open sky…the joys of boating and canoeing, of long tramps through the wood of pine beech and hemlock. A Summer, in short, in which she lives close to the heart of nature.”  The cost was $150 for the two-month summer season.

Dodge Cottage from Granite Lake

In addition to those who rented rooms and attended the youth camps, some visitors bought old homes in the village as summer homes or purchased small lots on the shore of the lake where they built their own cottages. These visitors paid for rooms and meals, or paid camp tuition, or paid the store keeper for supplies, or the town for property taxes. Finally, many of them hired townspeople to build their cottages, cut their firewood and clean and care for their homes in the off season. In short, summer tourism and water recreation was a major source of new income for Munsonville. It was at about this time that Munsonville Pond became known as Granite Lake, during an apparently unorganized but widespread move to beautify the names of NH lakes to attract more visitors.

Paul Savage Cottage and Music Hall

Tourism began to pick up the slack as milling declined in the village. All the factories downstream from the outlet of the lake started on a small scale, but soon needed more power, capital and transportation to survive. By the early 1900s almost all of the mills downstream from Colony’s chair factory had closed. Only Colony had sufficient capital available. He also controlled the flow of the water which affected all of the factories downstream. The final factor, transportation, affected all of the Munsonville mills. The Keene road was a comparatively good highway, but the Keene railhead was still 12 miles away. Only Colony could absorb the cost of transporting his products to Keene for shipment to distant markets. The other factory owners could not compete with similar companies which were located in towns with rail lines running though them.

J. Colony died in 1891 and his family operated the chair factory until 1916. The mill was sold to the Demeritt-Fisher company soon after that. Fred Fisher operated the company; his son Hermon was involved in the operation in later years. Demeritt-Fisher operated chair plants in both Munsonville and Keene until 1929 when the cost of transportation and the impact of the Depression forced them to close the Munsonville plant and consolidate all operations in Keene. The chair factory, the heart of the village, now stood empty.

George Page poultry accounts

Something else that was mostly empty by this time were the barns and the pastures in and around the village. Two farmers, Everett Scott and George Page, turned to eggs and poultry on their farms, George Page’s “poultry account book” is in the collections at the Historical Society of Cheshire County. As an example, in December of 1925 he sold 41 dozen eggs for $22.05 and $7.35 worth of poultry. After expenses he made $15.20 for the month and a profit for the year of $165.95 from his egg and poultry business. The New Hampshire Extension Service did an agricultural survey in 1935 in which it found that the only farm stock and production in Munsonville consisted of 550 hens, 3 cows, and 2 commercial maple syrup producers.

The life of Emory Tarbox illustrates the death of commercial agriculture in the village. Emory was born in 1843 and spent most of his life on his family’s farm in Nelson. Several years before Emory’s birth the Tarbox farm was annexed to Nelson by the town of Stoddard. There were no roads into Stoddard from the farm and the Tarboxes did their shopping, schooling and other business just down the road in Munsonville. The result of the annexation was a several hundred-acre rectangle of Nelson jutting into the southwest corner of Stoddard.

Emory Tarbox

Emory raised sheep on the Tarbox farm. He became known as the best sheep man in the region. He consulted about their care and was the fastest sheerer of sheep in the town. Emory was a friendly fellow who always went barefoot when the weather permitted.

Emory stayed on the farm throughout his life. He became somewhat of a hermit in his later years, growing a beard and caring for his sheep. Emory continued on the farm long after it was profitable.  By the end of his life, the old family farmhouse was falling down around him and he had become a beloved legend in Nelson. Ten years after his death his photo was featured on the cover of Yankee magazine, thereby immortalizing Nelson’s “Shepherd of the Hills.”

By 1930 the town of Nelson had dropped to its lowest population level since the 1770s (162 people). The best illustration of life here in the 1930s comes from the writings of Ralph Page. Most of you are familiar with Ralph – known as the “Dean of American Contra Dancing” because he taught it across the country and around the world and helped to revive contra and square dancing nationally. Ralph’s family lived in Munsonville for generations, including many years in the Bunce house.

Ralph Page on the dance floor

Ralph was elected town selectman on March 13, 1934. He kept a detailed diary of all of his selectman’s duties for his first two years in office. These diaries tell a great deal about life in the village:

“Tuesday, March 13, Town Meeting Day. Very windy. Was elected selectman 33 to 28, defeating Harry R. Green, one of the “old guards” of the town. Marguerite elected a member of the school board 43 to 11.  Slowly but surely the defences of the old conservatives are crumbling away before the attack of youth and progressivism.”

During the next year Page handled an amazing variety of town duties. These began with a reassessment of all livestock and real estate in town. Other duties for the selectmen included overseeing repairs to the town hall and town roads and appointing jurors and new town officers. Page and his colleagues also presided at the town tax sale, studied industrial development, dealt with dangerous animals, handled tax disputes, inspected town boundaries, and took in tramps. Furthermore, they spent several days at meetings and elections, both in town and throughout the state.

Page Farm

One day in May selectman Page was required to attend the burial of what he described as a “very, very, ripe and mellow” horse which had been left beside a town road. As overseers of health and welfare, Page and his fellow selectmen worked all night long one August evening to round up an unbalanced resident, transport her to the doctor’s office in Keene, and then drive her to the state hospital in Concord to be committed.

As the 1935 town meeting approached, Page worked on the annual financial statement and prepared the town report for publication. During his first year in office selectman Page had spent some 80 days and several hundred hours working on town affairs. He received an annual salary of $65.00 for his efforts.

The selectmen were concerned with the Depression that was gripping the country and affecting the residents of Munsonville and the entire town. They attempted to arrange for government funded road improvement projects that would give work to local residents who needed the income. They also did what they could to get a tenant for the empty chair factory in the village. On Tuesday October 16 Ralph wrote that:

“This afternoon while shoveling in Priest’s bank Harry Green came along with a Mr. Blodgett of Hillsboro, who has been dickering with MacBean for some time over leasing or buying the old chair shop. seemed a very pleasant man, but some of the world’s worst crooks and dead beats are the most affable. He is a manufacturer of knife handles, knife trays and lock boxes. Has a big order from General Electric to make panels for Frigidaire and a chance to make a lot of cheap baseball bats. Would pay 30 cents an hour and run a 40-hour week as per the N.R.A. lumber code… He wanted the town to give him a thousand dollars to help defray the expenses of moving.”

Mr. Blodgett did bring his business to the mill, without town assistance for the move. On April 2, 1935, the selectmen spent an hour in the shop with Blodgett. In an example of small-town politics, they gave him a generous tax assessment and he gave them each a finished knife tray. Ralph wrote in his diary that, “It means a lot to Munsonville to have a business concern operating in the factory.”

The mill operated for a while under the name of the Granite Lake Company, but by the beginning of the 1940s, it had failed. Mr. Blodgett had left the old chair shop and the building was empty once again. There was no textile mill to take advantage of the demand created by World War II. There was, in fact, no manufacturing left in the village at all. Recreation was now Munsonville’s industry.

McIntire Map, 1946

Bill McIntire’s 1946 map of the lake showed a much different village than was illustrated on the 1858 map. The chair shop, standing empty, was the only industrial building left along the outlet brook. Summer cottages lined the road around the lake. The map included 98 houses around the lake. The majority of these were summer homes and included Camp Notre Dame and Granite Lake Camp.

Everett Scott, the one full-time farmer in the 1935 survey, with three cows and 500 hens, had retired and left town. There were, consequently, no true farms left in the village. Not all of the full-time residents relied on tourism and recreation for their livelihoods, however. The improved quality of both roads and automobiles allowed for a commuting society.  Local residents could now live in Munsonville and drive to work in Keene every day. People enjoyed living in the old homes in the small village, but they did not have to rely on the town to supply jobs.

An event that occurred in 1947 symbolized perfectly the collapse of industry in the village. A newspaper clipping from that year read as follows: “The roof on the main building and ell of the old chair factory in Munsonville…collapsed about 11 o’clock Thursday morning, carrying with it two walls on each building and causing the wooden store house to be pushed toward the lake…

“The building was used for many years as a chair factory. Chairs which were manufactured there in the nineties and early in the present century were hauled to Keene with four horses. The buildings had not been used for a number of years. The last person to occupy the building was Jack Sherrard who used it for the purpose of raising angora rabbits.”

The last mill was gone, as was the manufacturing it represented.

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In conclusion, from the 1850s to the 1950s the people of Munsonville followed the same path taken by the residents of many New Hampshire mill villages during those years. They followed the flow of agriculture, industry, tourism, transportation and recreation. Agriculture was already declining by the beginning of the 1850s, but the 1000 acres of farmland in and around the village then supported livestock and turned out many tons of produce annually. The village itself, however, was born because of water. The numerous mills were located where they were to take advantage of the power of the water flowing from the lake and tumbling down to the flats below the village.

Both the farms and the mills fell victim to modern technology, transportation and the competition of regional, national, and eventually global markets. The farms needed better soil and transportation, and the manufacturers needed better power, more capital and cheaper transportation.

If water gave Munsonville its birth, it also allowed it to survive; not because of the power of the roaring brook, but because of the placid, relaxing surface of the lake itself. Improvements in transportation allowed urban dwellers to easily escape the summer heat, noise and dirt of the city to travel to the cool, peaceful and placid lakes of New Hampshire to relax. Finally, the modern transportation that allowed these people to visit Munsonville also allowed local residents to commute to distant jobs. Anyone familiar with Munsonville and Granite Lake today knows that is exactly what happened here.

I want to end with a quote from a tourist travel booklet published by the Monadnock Region Association in the 1940s.

“Second in lofty perch only to Dublin, Nelson reposes high in the mountainous altitudes of the Monadnock Region. A little village of beauty, charm and outdoor activity, untouched by the hustle of the cities, and unscarred by anything of slightest resemblance to industry, unless it be that of catering to its hundreds of summer and winter visitors. Nine lakes and ponds color Nelson’s township, most of which are well populated and form the summer activity of the town. Granite Lake, Tolman Pond and Silver Lake are particular favorites…Nelson is a true vacation spot.”