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Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Take A Walk

Journal Opinion
August 8, 2012

Located on the sidewalk just south of The Local Buzz, this marker indicates ground zero for the property boundaries in this section of Bradford village. It marks the center of the old elm tree that blew down in 1903. (JO Photo by Michelle Sherburne) 

Looks Like Permanent. The Newbury history indicates that the Village of Wells River did not vote for “permanent sidewalks” until the 1920’s. This pre-1892 photograph shows sidewalks along that village’s main thoroughfare. (Horace Symes)

 Orford Grand Mall Walk in 1910. Created in the early 1800s, this mile-long walk along Orford’s Main Street mall has been described as “a living memorial of the public spirit and liberality of those who made it.” In 2006, a grant allowed it to be restored by Orford volunteers. It is probably the earliest village sidewalk in the area and certainly the loveliest.

Bradford Sidewalks in the 1850s. Sidewalks run along side white fences and hitching posts on the main street of Bradford in this early photograph. The second building from the left is the Bottle Shop. (Bradford Historical Society)

“Most of us take sidewalks for granted. Sidewalks seem to be the epitome of mundane. Sure, there are pretty sidewalks, ugly sidewalks, dirt ‘sidewalks’ and places without sidewalks, but for the most part, underfoot means out of mind.”

This is how Brian Michael Lione describes sidewalks in his 1999 article “Sidewalks: Ignored Aspects of Everyday Life.” He goes on to say that sidewalk history is “difficult to pin down.” This column deals with the history of sidewalks in our region. The information comes from local histories and records and old photographs of area villages.

Sidewalks and walkways occur primarily in population centers. There is no need for them on rural dirt roads. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, legal entities, such as the villages of Bradford, Wells River and Newbury and the fire district of Woodsville, were created to provide services, such as sidewalks, needed by those who live in clustered areas.

Sidewalks on village streets with their higher traffic volume provided both safe and cleaner paths for pedestrians. They linked village homes with downtown business streets. A testimony to the degree to which dwellers were willing to walk to services is shown by the lack of parking for carriages or autos in the initial plans for the Bradford Public Library in 1895.

Probably one of the earliest and certainly the most attractive sidewalk is located along the mall in Orford. Located along the eastern side of what is now Route 10, the mall was created in the early 1800s on land owned by John Mann and Samuel Morey and the town common.

In 1865, Joel Mann described it as “one mile long--straight as a house floor-- straight as a line, and skirted with trees on both sides…note-worthy a feature of this village.” Granite posts were set up along the walk to prevent driving along the mall on “muddy days when people might be tempted to avoid the rutted road for a smoother surface. The posts were placed three in a row, one on either side of the walk and one, a veritable barrier, in the center of the walk.”

An early letter in the Boston Evening Traveller described the mall as “the chief ornament of this village, and is a lasting memorial of the public spirit and liberality of those who made it. In that spirit it should be carefully preserved and kept in perfect order.” The mall walk is still on a combination of public and private property and in 2006 a group of volunteers, working with a transportation grant, restored it. It continues to function as the lasting memorial it was meant to be and provides enjoyment to its users.

Some of the earliest sidewalks were planked. Photographs show what appears to be a plank sidewalk up Bradford’s Bank Street and along the road to the Bradford railroad station in the 1890s. In 1892, a plank sidewalk connected the schoolhouse and the church in Haverhill Corner. Groton had some planked sidewalks until 1904. Some sections of the walks in Newbury village were also planked.

In other early villages such as Fairlee, West Fairlee, Post Mills, East Corinth, Warren and Piermont, walkways were packed dirt or crushed stone. Some appear to be well laid out and well kept, whereas others appear to be mere paths of convenience created by walkers seeking safe and convenient routes.

In 1898, Fairlee officials dealt with the increased number of bikers by widening the walks “as it is quite dusty for ladies to ride on the main road.” Photographs show established walks on both sides of Fairlee’s Main Street from Bridge Street south.

Some photographs also show packed crosswalks, stepping stones or planks across main streets and gutters, designed to keep boots and lengthy ladies skirts out of the mud and muck of dirt roads. In the case of several villages, gas lamps and hitching posts were sidewalk amenities.

When there was a period of building and street construction, these earlier sidewalks were often replaced with concrete. Between 1888 and 1896 new sidewalks were built in the village of North Haverhill. The new Woodsville Fire District built concrete sidewalks along Central Street in 1888 and extended them along other village streets over the next four years. Much of this work was accomplished by S. D. Tilton, concrete paver of Woodsville. A 1907 photograph of South Ryegate shows a nice sidewalk along Pleasant Street.

Some villages put off creating more elaborate sidewalks. Although early photographs of Wells River show footpaths and then sidewalks, the Newbury history states that Wells River did not vote to make “permanent sidewalks” until the 1920’s, a project not accomplished until 1934. Between 1926 and 1930, Newbury Village replaced their older sidewalks with concrete, “the cost [of which was] shared by landowners and the village” augmented by private donations.

Some bridges also had walkways. In 1917, the new bridge between Wells River and Woodsville featured a six-foot wide sidewalk. In 1925, a covered walkway was attached to the north side of the 1856 covered bridge between Fairlee and Orford. When that bridge was replaced with the Samuel Morey Memorial Bridge in 1938, a walkway was included. The iron bridge built by the Village of Bradford in 1910 near the grist mill also had a walkway as does the 1938 concrete replacement.

The recurring discussions that often accompanied plans to ask taxpayers to fund sidewalk construction are exemplified by a closer examination of the history of sidewalks in the Village of Bradford. Even before the Village was created in 1890, the Selectmen had authorized new concrete sidewalks to be built in front of the new brick buildings.

The village residents then authorized the building of additional sidewalks on most of the village streets. The United Opinion of July 17, 1896 states that “work on the sidewalk is being pushed. This is a much needed link in the system.”

But by 1927 these sidewalks were in poor shape. A poem entitled “Sidewalks” which appeared on the front page of the November 4, 1927 edition of The United Opinion began with the following: “The sidewalks, oh the sidewalks that they laid in ‘ninety six. Had grown old and rough and narrow and in an awful fix.” It went on to describe the difficulties caused by the trees that had “sent in their roots like drills, and raised the concrete surface up and formed it into hills.”

“Our shoes” it described “were filled with water, our feet were wet and cold, And in language strong and forceful we scored the sidewalks old.”

In January 1927, the Village voters authorized $23,225 for a village sewer system, but a separate article relative to sidewalks was dismissed. As the sewer project proceeded, it was realized that money would be left over. A special village meeting was held to raise an additional $5,000 to hire the same construction company to repair and replace the sidewalks.

The local newspaper gave editorial support, saying that with these repairs “we will have reason to feel proud when referring to our village as ‘Bradford the Beautiful.’ ” The author of the aforementioned poem wrote “To walk is now a pleasure, but though the walking’s great/ We’ll get there if we ‘choose to run’ in nineteen twenty-eight…Of course no one of us expects these walks can always stay, But we can’t either, so enjoy and use them while we may.”

And, of course, they didn’t stay. By 1946 the village sidewalks were again in poor shape. The Village Trustees proposed a bond vote of about $40,000 to repair three and one-half miles of sidewalk. In the discussion, special concerns were raised about the safety of school children walking on unsafe sidewalks. The bond vote passed by a vote of 202 to 15. The United Opinion editorialized “We won’t have to feel ashamed or apologize for our abominable sidewalks much longer.”

The work was finished in the summer of 1947. The construction company offered to do driveway work at the owner’s expense. There were some concerns over the need for “city-like sidewalks” and questions raised about the need for a sidewalk up Peters’ Hill to the new catholic church. Since there were plans to rebuild that portion of Route 5, that sidewalk was delayed.

Wear and weather continued to wreck havoc on these sidewalks and by the early 1990s concerns about unsafe sidewalks were raised again. The voters of the Village created a revolving fund for sidewalk repairs and contributed $50,000 to it annually. Contractor Norman Allen drew up a preliminary repairs and replacement plan at a cost of $194,000.

A seven-part plan for spending $223,389 in sidewalk, street and water repairs was put to a bond vote in February, 1995. The Journal Opinion, which had referred to the “nagging problems of the village sidewalks,” favored of the bond. “The streets and sidewalks in the village area are a continuing sore thumb. Patching them up won’t do it, they need to be rebuilt. And if the work is done piecemeal or held back for a year or two, the cost will be even greater.”

With only 68 votes cast, the portions of the sidewalk repairs on Main, South Main and South Pleasant were defeated whereas the reconstruction of North Pleasant and High streets was accepted. Further, no sidewalk was added to High Street as the residents had lobbied against having something they had not had or needed. Over the next 20 years, federal and state grants were used to complete several of the defeated projects.

Additional grants and local appropriations built new sidewalks on Barton Street, from Barton to the newly refurbished grist mill and up Fairground Road to the Bradford Elementary School. That one was later extended to Elizabeth’s Park. Outside the village Route 5 has been widened walking and biking. In 2004 the merger of the Village and Town of Bradford placed the responsibility for all Bradford sidewalks under the jurisdiction of the Bradford Selectboard.

There are cracks and upheavals on the sidewalks of Bradford again. Some have been deemed compromised by underground delivery vaults to Main Street stores. Some have been completely removed by the current water project. Those will be replaced by the construction company by late fall. Several months ago I observed civil engineer Thomas Bigelow taking measurements of the sidewalks on the east side of the business district near the North of the Falls store in anticipation of additional replacements.

I asked him to notice the special marker that had been placed in the sidewalk in the 1930’s. It is the top of a pipe that marks the location of the historic elm tree that had stood at that location since the early years of the town’s settlement. That tree, which was used as a boundary marker for many of the building lots in the business district, fell down in 1903.

At that time a metal marker was placed at the location of the center of the tree stump. As the president of the Bradford Historical Society I wanted to be assured that a replacement marker would be part of any rebuilt sidewalk.

The sidewalks and pathways of the area seem busy with walkers, in groups, with dogs or alone. Joggers run past those enjoying a more leisurely pace. Sidewalks are also where children enjoy biking, being pushed in strollers, hauled in wagons or playing games outlined with chalk. In some communities, they are being made safer by the Safe Routes to School programs. They are a meeting place for conversations between friends and neighbors. Stores use them to display goods, daily or during special events. It is on the sidewalks of my village that I am amazed at both the number of folks I recognize and the number I don’t.

Yes, it may be true that to some “underfoot means out of mind,” except perhaps when the way is broken and dangerous, icy or messy with the deposits from dogs with irresponsible owners. But for me they are pathways to freedom from the automobile, relaxing walks for our health and that of our dog, routes to new places or favorite sites and especially a town’s history.

(Editor’s note Additional essays by this author can be found in the newly-published In Times Past: Essays From the Upper Valley, Book Two available at local outlet to benefit the Bradford Public Library)