Gilsum: 250 Years In The Making

Sep 6, 2013

As Loudon is to racecars and Hanover to Ivy League students and Canterbury to its Shakers, then Gilsum… is to rocks, and proudly so; just ask one artist who lives in town.

“I mean every place we ever vacationed had rocks and now I’m in the freakin’ rock capital of the United States.”

Maybe not the Rock Capital but the town takes its stones seriously. It has a stone arch bridge which has the highest vault of any such bridge in New Hampshire. There’s a war memorial bedazzled by many of the gems and minerals found in the area and every June people come from around the world for its famous rock swap.

(I’ll take this hackmanite and then uhm… do you want that one there?)

But it wasn’t rocks that first brought settlers to Gilsum in the mid-1700s, it was cheap farmland. According to New Hampshire History Professor Stuart Wallace, with the end of the French and Indian war, they found those opportunities in the frontier land of New Hampshire.

“They had reached a point where if you wanted to have a farm of your own, you had to move beyond Southern New England and so Connecticut people started pouring up the natural avenue, namely the Connecticut River and heading up into New Hampshire.”

Two of those families who came to this area were the Sumner’s and Gilbert’s. The town’s charter would be issued to Benjamin Sumner, while Captain Samuel Gilbert would be the town’s first moderator. Legend says there was a dispute over which family to name the town after. So according to Alan Rumrill, Executive Director of the Historical Society of Cheshire County, the families came up with a compromise.   

“The settlers chose the first syllables of each of those names, Gil and Sum as the name for the new town, Gilsum, and the Governor approved that.”

And on July 13th, 1763, the only town in the world named Gilsum would officially be granted its charter.

One of the town’s early residents was Lucy Mack. Born in 1775, she lost several of her sisters to consumption. When Mack herself came down with the disease at age twenty seven, Stuart Wallace says, she had a spiritual awakening.

Archive photo of Lucy Mack Smith

“She decided to dedicate herself to some faith as a result of surviving. She had 10 surviving children and was a very pious soul who had a great deal of influence in the religious upbringing of her children.”

One of those children was Joseph Smith, who would go on to start the Church of Latter Day Saints and publish the Book of Mormon.

By the late 1800s, Gilsum itself was going through a conversion. The small mills that popped up couldn’t compete with those in larger cities and Alan Rumrill says that cheap farmland had far more rocks than soil.

“There were a lot of exposed ledges in the town of Gilsum and they actually realized that there was some potential for mining.”

(Sounds of walking a breaking rocks)

By the early eighteen hundreds, residents of Gilsum, started digging, chipping and blasting these exposed ledges, trying to extract the minerals they found for money.  There was feldspar used for glass and ceramics, beryl for nuclear reactors and most importantly was mica which according to Peter Nielsen, chair of the Geology department at Keene State College, had a long list of uses.

Watch as Keene State College Geology Professor Peter Nielsen explains what the different minerals found in Gilsum look like:

“The earliest use of mica was probably for windows. As technology advanced, people began to discover they could grind up the mica and use it as a filler or an additive, a lot of the paints that have a sparkle to them, its ground up mica in there.”

At one time, tiny Gilsum cornered the market on mica, producing 100 percent of the nation’s supply. As miners pulled out large sheets of the mineral, the shiny extra shards would amass in large grout piles, while the gemmy clumps of quartz and garnets, that at that time had little use, would litter along the side of the roads. Longtime residents Ralph Jernberg and Dennis Moleski remember a town that on certain days would glimmer and sparkle.

“After a rainstorm, the roads of Gilsum, all just shined with all these little garnets, there would be millions of them that lined the road that just made the roads all red. And there was this one pile from the French Mine, and a writer for some NH tourist magazine in the 60s he likened it to a Tolkenesque scene with this mound of sparkle.”

But by the mid-20th century, the sparkle of the mines began to lose its luster. The mineral could be found more cheaply elsewhere and many of the mines closed up. But every summer, Gilsum reclaims a little of its dazzling past at the town hosted Rock Swap.

A scene from the 49th Annual Gilsum Rock Swap
Credit Keith Shields, NHPR

(Here are your rocks, they have the labels of what they are, where they came from and let me get you a receipt)

It all traces back to Francis ‘Bunk’ Maloney. The former town Postmaster and miner, was an avid rock collector. In 1964, he came up with an idea of a fundraiser where other mineral collectors would come for a ‘rock swap’. Rob Mitchell is the current President of the Gilsum Recreation Committee that puts on the Swap and Mineral show.

“You had this real interest in the late 60s and the 70s in mineral collecting and there were all of these clubs all over the country that would do these swaps and they started flocking here and by the mid-70s, there were 10,000 people coming to this little town, all meeting up on this field to trade minerals”

This June, the town celebrated its 49th Rock Swap. 

(Your attention please, the 5:45 seating of the ham and bean dinner at the Rock Swap)

Archive photo of Gilsum's 250th Anniversary coin

A month later, Gilsum officially celebrated its 250th anniversary. On top of a week’s worth of activities, many tied to its mining past, the town came out with a commemorative bronze coin with its incorporation date of 1763 on one side and its famous Stone Arch Bridge on the other to celebrate a town with a rich culture and a good amount of pride, because according to the people who live here.

“Gilsum Rocks!” (laughter)

For New Hampshire Public Radio, I’m Keith Shields

“…may the quartz be with you.”