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Nelson History – Exploring the past of Nelson, New Hampshire

250 Years
(and counting)  
in Nelson,New Hampshire!

What’s Up With These
Old Photographs?

Postcards of these photos are now available at the Harrisville General Store (Harrisville, NH) and at certain town events. Click here for captions.

Nelson’s History (The Short Version)

The settlement of what would become Nelson was established by a grant of land from King James I, who awarded John Mason a charter of land which included all the land between the Naumkeag (today called the Merrimack) and Pascataqua Rivers extending 60 miles inland. The place was to be called New Hampshire and Mason’s charge was to settle the area. Mason died in 1635 leaving only minor heirs. The title to the lands fell into dispute – a dispute resolved by a court case in 1746, which awarded the right to most of the original grant to John Tufton Mason who in turn sold his rights to a group of men who came to be styled the Masonian Proprietors. On December 6, 1751 the Masonian Proprietors granted “Monadnock Number Six” (as the area of Nelson was then identified) to another group of proprietors who would have the direct responsibility of settling the town. One of them was Thomas Packer, who never in fact lived here, but for whom the town was briefly named. The first settlers were Breed Batchellor and Dr. Nathaniel Breed, who arrived in 1767, and it is this year that has been chosen as the birth-date of the town, which was officially incorporated in 1773. The town changed its name to Nelson in 1814.

Engraving by R.P. Hale, July 2017

Like many small New England towns, Nelson had a steady growth in population through the first few decades of the 19th century. Population figures are somewhat misleading, as the town in those days also included what is now the northern part of Harrisville. However, with the opening of the west, a decline in sheep farming, and the Civil War (to which Nelson contributed significantly), the population fell into a decline which began a very slow reversal in the 1920s. A chair industry once flourished in Munsonville (a “suburb” of Nelson on the north side), and small mills dotted the landscape. But the town never had railroad service, and its hilly rocky terrain was a deterrent to aggressive settlement. Today there are no stores, and mostly just cottage industry. Nevertheless, the town has a rich cultural heritage of writers, artists, musicians and craftsmen, and a very vibrant community spirit.

Nelson’s Colonial
A Colonial Garden was created to celebrate Nelson’s 250th anniversary. The celebration is over, but the garden continues – come check it out behind the library. Click on the Nasturtium to download a 4-page pdf brochure about the garden.

250-logo1– A Sense of Place –

In 2017, the town of Nelson, NH, population 749, according to the last census, embarked on a yearlong observation of the settling of this rural community. Nelson has long been a haven for artists, writers, musicians and anyone seeking peace and beauty in a pristine environment, surrounded by mountains and encompassing several crystal clear lakes. A committee was formed a few years prior to 2017 to plan activities for the community that would celebrate the talents and achievements of those who lived in the past, and those who are still among us who keep those values alive. There were those who settled here with skills of carpentry, brick making and laying stone, and those who could sing and dance and write poetry. There were men who went to war, and some never came back. There were those who raised sheep, and those who made mills and ran them, and those who taught school, and some of the men served in the State Legislature. Everyone farmed, at least for a while. And lots of people told stories and some of them wrote them down, and some of them are true.

The new Center School, District No. 1

The committee agreed on the theme “A Sense of Place” and the logo is of the Old Brick Schoolhouse built in 1838 and still standing on the Town Common. It is one of ten original schoolhouses built in Nelson so that every child was within walking distance of a school.

While the initial focus of this website was to explore the many events of the town’s 250th anniversary celebration in 2017, the site will continue to be an ongoing and ever-improving resource for local history. Please browse through the many articles and pictures that convey why Nelson is such a unique place.

Making Cider

Renn Tolman*
February 11, 1957

Uncle Bill French

I had a great uncle named Bill French, a tall, raw-boned old Yankee, who worked around my grandfather’s farm. Generosity was his virtue and his pleasure, and nothing so delighted him as going to country auctions from which he would return with a truck load of booty to bestow upon his friends or to donate to the farm. However, his generosity didn’t extend as far as the auctioneers or fellow bidders; he had a keen eye for a bargain. Good buys proved so irresistible to him that my grandfather’s barn was crowded with old ice boxes, boxes of miscellaneous bits of scrap iron, and chamber pots; and the barnyard collected all species of horse-drawn vehicles. When Uncle Bill and my grandfather died, the farm died as well. The machinery was sold, and the old ice boxes thrown away. Only one item that Uncle Bill had purchased at auction, his favorite, was kept: the cider mill.

October was cider time. When the winter squashes had been harvested, the carrots and potatoes had been snugly bedded against winter frost in the root cellar, and the cows brought back to the barn from summer pasture, out came the cider mill, powdered with the dust and laced with the spider webs of a year’s disuse.

The farm was ransacked for bushel baskets in which to gather apples and gallon jugs to receive the finished product. Uncle Bill would recruit several of us kids to pick apples and to help with the grinding and pressing in return for some cider. Old Jim, the little Morgan work horse, was hitched to the wagon and off we went to the Old Johnny Dixon place to pick apples. Uncle Bill was never noted for his patience, and the prospect of cider making didn’t increase it a bit. Old Jim, the unhappy recipient of a lot of light whipping and heavy cursing, pulled the springless wagon over the cobbled dirt road so fast that I was afraid that my teeth would rattle loose.

The Dixon Place, 1920s, photo by Sid Partridge

Johnny Dixon must have loved apples because around the cellar hole where the house had stood was a large orchard of apple trees of many varieties. There were several Baldwin trees, loaded with apples that wouldn’t ripen until December but which made good, if not sour, cider. There were fiery red Astrakhans which made cider as red as beet juice, several varieties of green cooking apples and a scattering of trees which bore tiny, sour wild apples. We kids climbed the trees to start a shower of fruit. Half a dozen bushels were gathered to provide an afternoon’s work for the mill.

To continue this story click here.

Randomly Selected Articles

Below are some randomly selected articles from this website. Refreshing your page will provide a new set of selections. Click on the title to read the full article or click here for a full listing of the articles that have thus far been posted on this website.

Nelson’s First Fire Truck

These photos show Nelson’s first fire “truck”, a 1931 Chevrolet Coupe donated by Catherine Robinson about 1939 or 1940. The Nelson Volunteer Fire Department mounted a siren on the hood, and cut out the rumble seat to make a pick-up bed for carrying hose and a portable pump.

Frank’s Kitchen

Frank Upton was the consummate Nelson story teller. Perhaps it was yesterday’s social media, but news got passed along around Frank’s table – the good with the bad. Stories that now make up a large part of our local lore were told. This was a true gathering of community vitality where things were shared and ideas were born. Frank’s kitchen was a “happening” place, where a kind of grassroots democracy thrived.

Excerpts from “Family Notes by Beth Barrell”

Beth, Newt Tolman's first wife, helped with the family business at Tolman Pond: running the boarding house, the summer camps and entertaining the many guests. The following, excerpted from her family notes, gives a delightful accounting of what life was like at Tolman Pond during the 1930s:

A Look at Nelson’s Past

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.”

Hotel Nelson Burns!

A glow in the darkened sky alarmed Wayland Tolman and his father, Orson, as they turned towards home after a long winter’s day of logging near Long Pond (Nubanusit). The date was February 6, 1894. They raced ahead and as they rounded the road to the village their worst fears were realized. Fire!

Nelson History: In the Beginning

King James I awarded John Mason a charter of new land in the New Hampshire/ northern Massachusetts in 1623. The grant included all the land between the Naumkeag (today called the Merrimack) and Pascataqua Rivers extending 60 miles inland. The place was to be called New Hampshire and Mason’s charge was to settle the area.

Listening to NH Spring’s Short Song

I heard the ice go out on Tolman Pond one year. My garden is next to the pond, and as I was breaking through the tough, heavy sod, I heard a soft music like silvery bells. Looking around me I realized that it was a warm breeze blowing the ice out of the pond. In a minute, it was over.