In 2004, I made a presentation to the Bradford Historical Society on the legacy of Bradford’s common lands. This article expands on that topic by adding materials from some other area towns. Newspaper archives, town plans, online sources, interviews and local histories provide background information. Not all examples of common lands are included.
In early New England communities, the initial proprietors set aside the land that was not privately owned as “common lands.” In some cases, parcels were designated as cow or ox commons and could be used by all for grazing or for gathering of fuel. As newcomers arrived, parcels were sometimes granted to them. This distribution of common land was not without considerable controversy.
As village centers developed in these early communities, a central piece of land was set aside as a permanent common or green. That property was surrounded by the town church, stores, taverns, district schools, and the homes of the town’s most prominent families.
This was not the “common land” of England, where the term often referred to large tracts of land owned by the village or local feudal lord to which locals were allowed access, but with restrictions.
A main motivation for migration to New England was the possibility of land ownership, something rare among the lower classes of Europe. For the colonists, land ownership become synonymous with personal and economic freedom. That individual freedom was combined with a spirit of co-operation needed for survival and community enhancement.
When the royal governor of New Hampshire chartered many area towns, he gave the land to friends and associates, many of whom never visited or settled here. In addition to land set aside for the governor himself, four 300-acre plots, called glebes or lease land, were assigned for the support of the local school and church as well as the Church of England and the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts. Over the years, land transactions turned most of these parcels over to actual residents and other entities.
So why is it that some area towns replicated the central common of southern New England and others did not? Bradford does not have one and I think a reason for that is the location of the village along the falls of the Waits River.
That village grew up along the central road on a snug piece of land between the flood plain and Mt. Tug rather than on the broad river plateau of the Upper or Lower Plain. Imagine, if you will, a Bradford village on the Lower Plain with a broad common green as found in other communities.
Another reason may be that Bradford was not chartered by the royal governor of New Hampshire and therefore lack the glebe land found in neighboring towns. The original settlers were squatters living in an unrecognized piece of territory until it was chartered by the governor of New York in 1770. These pitch-holders, their claims now legitimized, were willing to set aside land for a school and meeting house, but not for a town common.
Why then do many local communities have beautiful “ornamental commons” framed by historic houses and public buildings? The need for a central common was satisfied by the generosity of large landowners from among the early settlers.
The commons in Haverhill Corner provide an excellent example of this generosity. The North Common, adjacent to the brick church, originally belong to those whose houses ringed the property. It was given to the town in 1788 by a group led by Col. Charles Johnston.
In 1807, it was expanded when a store on the southwest corner was relocated. The South Common was given to the town around 1800 by tavernkeeper Asa Boynton. Over the years, these properties have been improved with fencing and a bandstand.
Orford’s west village has one of the grandest commons in the area. Beginning in 1773, several major landowners began to deed land on both sides of the road for the purposes of a training field, academy, meeting house and burial ground. Known as the East and West Commons, these open spaces have been complimented by a mall that stretches along Orford’s Main Street.
This mall, with both private and public ownership, led one visitor in the mid-1800s to refer to Orford as “the most charming country village” and noted the existence of the mall as its center. Framed by the West Cemetery and the grand houses of the Ridge on the east and private and public buildings on the west, the common continues to be a useable centerpiece for Orford Street.
At the core of Newbury Village is that community’s common. In 1833, the New England Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church purchased, with help from the town, a portion of the property, which until that time was private farmland. Newbury Seminary was built on the property.
In 1868, the Seminary moved to Montpelier. In 1888, the local school district purchased the property and that ownership later passed to the Newbury town school district. In 1912, a monument to Revolutionary General Jacob Bayley was erected. The next year, a major fire destroyed a number of buildings on the common’s periphery.
Described as one of “Newbury’s sacred possessions,” and called the Village Common, it has been the site of numerous festivals, school activities, flea markets, concerts, weddings and ball games. In June 1921, the Barre Daily Times described members of the Newbury High alumni reunion strolling across “the old common which holds many a story of happiness and grief, laughter and tears.”
As is true of other town commons, the use of the property has been the subject of controversies over the years. Recently the Elementary School Board voted to subdivide that portion of the Common under their control, setting off the land immediately surrounding the school building to remain property of the district and convey to the town the remaining portion. A substantial portion along of the north side of the Common is owned by the Newbury Woman’s Club.
Thetford Hill’s common is in the center of the historic district. The original common was much smaller and had the town’s meetinghouse at its southern end. The property was enlarged in 1795 and again in 1818.
In 1830, the meeting house was moved to an adjacent property north of the common. As the attached 1877 map shows, the common was ringed by private homes, an academy and post office. Since 1913, the common has been the site of a summer as well as other community gatherings.
Groton’s Veteran’s Park in Groton Village offers a gazebo along with opportunities for recreation and civic events. Puffer’s and Frost Ball Fields are also Groton town property.
Dotting town commons in the area are civic structures and monuments. In Fairlee, the 1926 Soldiers Monument and flagpole stand opposite the recently refurbished 1924 bandstand. In Lyme, a granite soldier stands at parade rest atop a memorial to that community’s Civil War veterans. In Warren, it is a Redstone Missile, brought to the town in 1971. Over the years, commons may have hosted animal pounds, water boxes, cannons, whipping posts, flagpoles, burial tombs, jails, horse sheds, fountains, and or commemorative plantings.
Piermont’s pocket-sized common was eliminated in 2012 by the reconfiguration of the adjacent road. That year, after much discussion, the Veterans War Memorial that was the centerpiece of the tiny common was relocated to the new Veterans Memorial Garden in the South Lawn Cemetery.
No local town common looks the same as it did 150 years ago. Building have been destroyed, moved, renovated and replaced over the years. Structural fires have altered the buildings facing local commons. Changing social and economic factors have significantly eliminated the small businesses and district schools that ringed these greens. Regular summer flea markets held in Fairlee’s Samuel Morey Memorial Park are an example of the new uses for older pieces of property.
While Bradford does not have a common, it does have common land owned by the town and school. In 1946, the Bradford school district acquired from Jessie Blakely Low 65 acres of forest on Mt. Tug. It was increased in 1961 by an additional 60 acres donated by Nina St. John. Known as the Low-St. John Forest, the property is used as an outdoor laboratory for school projects as well as public recreation.
In 1946, the school district voted to obtain land behind the Academy building for a recreation field. Led by members of the Bradford Community Club, the largely unusable swamp land was rehabilitated into ball fields. Recently the ownership of what became known as Memorial Field was transferred to the Town of Bradford.
In 1994, Bradford began the acquisition of portions of Wright’s Mountain. Since then, the property has been expanded to over 500 acres with the creation of miles of hiking trails. Recently the site has been honored by the National Park Service and included on its list of National Recreation Trails.
Additionally, common land in Bradford includes Elizabeth’s Park on Fairground Road, Boch Memorial Park near the Falls and Denny Park on North Main. What the town lacked in a central ornamental common in its early decades has been more than compensated for by these pieces of common land.
As with Bradford’s Wright’s Mountain and Low-St. John Forest, newer town common land is more likely a municipally-owned town forest. Acquired with public funds, grants, private donations and with the help of groups such as the Upper Valley Land Trust, these heavily-forested tracts are maintained for conservation, watershed protection and recreation. One estimate places 67,000 acres of preserved land in 172 municipal forests in Vermont.
Thetford owns four parcels of forested land of which the 261-acre Hughes Forest and 171-acre Thetford Town Forest are the largest. As with properties in other communities, Thetford has a conservation commission to manage these forests.
The Bushwood Community Forest combines public property belonging to the towns of West Fairlee, Fairlee and Bradford. Additionally, Fairlee owns the Fairlee Town Forest. That 770-acre property was acquired in the 1980’s from the Lange family. In Corinth, the town forest was the gift of Sue Shea and is called the F. X. Shea Town Forest in honor of her late husband.
Most recently, Newbury voters completed the purchase of 636 acres to create the Tucker Mountain Town Forest. This was accomplished with $25,000 in town funds along with the assistance of the Vermont Land Trust, the Leach family and donations from numerous citizens.
One of the municipal properties in Haverhill is the Kinder Forest, a 21-acre parcel initially acquired by the town in the 1920’s to settle back taxes. The Woodsville Community Field and the Veterans Park on Central Street belong to the Woodsville Precinct. Nearby Railroad Park is owned by the town. Since the 1920s the community field has been the site of numerous community events. Hazen Park on Hasen Drive honors John Hazen, Haverhill’s founder.
As with many municipal forests, Warren’s town forest offers hiking trails. Hazen Park on Hazen Drive honors John Hazen, Haverhill’s founder.
In addition to this common property owned by local municipalities, state and federal agencies own large tracts of land in both states. It is estimated that over 13 percent of New Hampshire land is under federal ownership and 2.86 percent is under state ownership. Vermont’s corresponding figures are 6.6 percent and 1.61 percent of land.
Local property that falls under this category include Thetford Hill State Forest and Groton State Forest in Vermont. In New Hampshire, there are the Bedell Bridge State Park in Haverhill, the Black Mountain State Forest in Haverhill and Benton, the Tarleton State Park in Piermont, the Davis-White State Park in Warren and the White Mountain National Forest as well as properties occupied by state and federal agencies. Additionally, Haverhill has several Grafton County properties.
While this column deals with pieces of common land, there are many properties in each town that are common in the sense that they are owned by the local governments for the public good. Those include municipal buildings, highway garages, water and sewerage facilities, school buildings, cemeteries, firehouses, libraries, beaches and boat launches and roads.
Annually, in early March, the citizens of area towns are called together to vote on issues related to these common properties. Those topics include the pooling of their funds for the properties’ operation and maintenance as well as issues over their management. In doing so, we continue the tradition begun by the freemen of colonial New England almost four centuries ago.