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.

Our town wasn’t always called Nelson … find out more . . .

A load of chairs from the Colony Chair factory in Munsonville.

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.

Preparing for our holiday tables. Print by Fran Tolman

While this website endeavors to portray Nelson history accurately, the flavor of the town has been seasoned by flamboyant eccentric characters, and tall tales, most of which serve as smile or laughter-generating entertainment. We trust the explorers of this website to distinguish between the dry data and the more frivolous musings, though the latter does indeed say a lot about the history of the town.

While the history of the town by definition must start with those European settlers who stepped into an area designated by the British Empire, the history of the land, and its occupants, is an older story. As is noted elsewhere, this website is – and will always be – a work in progress. One of our goals in the coming months will be to fill in some of this older story, and we welcome suggestions and resources to help in this process.


Working from Home

by Alan Rumrill, reprinted with permission, from a recent Newsletter from the Historical Society of Cheshire County

A load of chairs from the Colony Chair factory in Munsonville.

The coronavirus pandemic has resulted in substantial numbers of people working from home as a way to accomplish social distancing. This process has the potential to remain commonplace into the future, perhaps resulting in social and economic impacts on the country. The residents of the Monadnock Region were involved in some of the earliest work from home undertakings in the 19th century, which were the result of social and economic changes occurring at that time.

The three leading forms of working at home in this region involved palm leaf hat manufacture, weaving rattan seats for chairs, and weaving covers onto some of the larger bottles made in local glass factories. This outwork, as it was known, signaled fundamental changes to the American economic process as the countryside transitioned to a new form of capitalism.

The palm leaf hat industry was an important element in the economic structure of southern New Hampshire during the mid-1800s. The outwork system involved the distribution of raw materials by store owners to New England farm families who used the raw materials to make finished products in their homes. The 155-year-old palm leaf hat account book of Reuel Nims of Nelson details this system of trade. Storekeepers imported the raw palm leaf from Boston and sold it to local families. These families took the leaf home and braided the finished hats; they then retuned the hats to the store and received store credit for them.

Between June of 1865 and June of 1866 ninety-three women from eight towns braided 8638 hats for Reuel Nims. These women received an average of 12 cents in store credit for each hat they made. The $1000 that they earned was a considerable amount; factory workers in Nelson in 1860 earned an average of $27 per month.

Another form of working from home involved the weaving of chair seats for local factories that began producing large numbers of chairs in the mid-1800s. By 1900 the region’s chair shops were turning out as many as 1 million porch rocking chairs annually; many of these had woven seats and backs. Many hands were required to accomplish this amount of work, and local families became involved. As with the hats, farm families traveled to the factories near them to obtain the frames of the chair seats, as well as the rattan they would use to weave the seats.
The Mountford family, trying to survive on a failing farm in Stoddard, began weaving chair seats for extra income in the late 1800s. They drove their wagon several miles to a chair factory in a neighboring town to pick up seat frames and rattan, wove the seats, and returned them to the factory where they received 10 cents for each seat completed. One winter the family earned $34.64 weaving seats. This outwork resulted in sorely needed cash income above and beyond the normal bartering for household necessities.


The final significant form of outwork in the area was related to the region’s glass industry. Glass factories in Keene, Stoddard and Lyndeborough produced millions of bottles between 1815 and 1886. Some of the larger bottles, called demijohns, were covered with woven rattan or pliable willow twigs, chiefly to protect them from breakage. As with hats and chair seats, this bottle covering chore was undertaken by local residents in their homes. The Webber family, recent immigrants from Switzerland to Cheshire County, worked to weave coverings onto bottles for the Granite Glassworks in Stoddard. In 1860 Webber, his wife Mary and 18-year-old son were all employed “willowing bottles.” This was the family’s main source of income. Many other families in the glass manufacturing communities took bottles into their homes to weave this protective covering by hand.

The residents of southwest New Hampshire were involved in early forms of “working from home.” Their work was not the result of a pandemic, but resulted from fundamental economic and social shifts occurring as a result of the burgeoning American Industrial Revolution. The shift from small workshops operated by skilled artisans to large factories producing huge quantities of goods was well under way. The invention of larger and more sophisticated machinery meant that more products could be made more rapidly in mills, and improved transportation, especially railroads, allowed the shipment of goods to distant markets. On the other hand, families living on declining farms in shrinking hill towns needed additional income to survive. These factors combined to give rise to the outwork system.

Reuel Nims’ store, (on the left)

The annual output of 8638 hats made for Reuel Nims’ store and 14,000 demijohns made at the Granite Glassworks was not all sold locally, but was shipped away to distant markets. The agrarian economy of the United States was shifting to one based more on factories and manufacturing. The Industrial Revolution was reaching into homes across the region, and bringing additional income into those homes. Furthermore, much of this income was being earned by women, another shift in the nation’s economy. All 93 of Nims’ palm leaf hat makers were women, and the credit they earned was used by them in his store.

The mid-19th century movement to work from home resulted from an industrial revolution. Today’s work from home movement has been facilitated by a technological revolution, allowing workers to maintain a connection to files, information, social media, and contacts that they normally access in their offices. Despite these vast differences, working from home then and working from home now have accomplished the same result – allowing workers to earn much needed income during a time of need.

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.

Our Write Wing: The Authors of Nelson, Part I

"There's gold in them thar hills," the ever hopeful western prospector used to say. But the only ore in the hills hereabouts was "lead" (which was really graphite), and the two so-called lead mines in Nelson have long since ceased operating. In our hills, however, there runs another kind of rich vein, and that is the writings of various Nelson authors.

Ben Smith, an Interview

From Summer to Settler: This interview with Ben Smith is one of a series of interviews conducted by Tom Murray, his nephew. He is especially interested in talking with people who became “year-round people” after having spent time in Nelson as “summer people.”

Nature Gave Us an Early House Cleaning

The first snow is like a distant relative you thought wasn’t going to come for her annual visit for a while yet and so you had time to clean the house. Suddenly, in mid-November, there is the guest, waist-deep in your clutter.

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

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.

New Hampshire’s ‘Mongrel Season’

Everyone in New Hampshire knows that there are far more than four seasons. There are sub-seasons, mini-seasons, seasons that hide in the woods, and seasons that last for just a day. There are seasons that happen in the hills but not in the valleys, and vice-versa.

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