What It Takes To Preserve History Along Route 4 in N.H.

Aug 1, 2019

Historic buildings and sites are scattered all along Route 4 in New Hampshire. Some are well preserved and others look like they need some love.

Grafton native Andrew Cushing works for the New Hampshire Preservation Alliance, an advocacy nonprofit. He's also the president for Mascoma Valley Preservation.

As part of NHPR's summer series on Route 4, Morning Edition Host Rick Ganley sat down with Cushing to talk about some of the historic sites he cares about along the highway.

Driving along Route 4, you see all kinds of historical buildings and markers. Obviously, it's an old rural route in the state, but I imagine it takes an awful lot to keep some of these sites going. What's an example of a successful historic preservation project along Route 4?

Credit Sara Plourde / NHPR

Yeah, I think certainly towns in New Hampshire are pretty frugal. So it's classic for us to be approached by a town where they haven't touched it for 40 years, and now there's a long laundry list of items to be done. So what we always advocate for is, is getting a use in that building. So I'll give some examples.

So Danbury, right next to Grafton on Route 4, they converted this former, I believe, is a Baptist church into a community center and they put money behind it. So there's a part-time person who's coordinating card games, and town wide suppers, and teen youth projects. And so it keeps the building used, it keeps it occupied. And there are always people then who are advocating for that building and they're noticing when the paint is chipping or they're noticing when there's a broken pane in the windows. And I think another example on Route 4 is in Canaan. So a former Grange Hall was converted into a senior center. And so you constantly have this group of people who are using the building and they're noticing when the furnace isn't working. So when you have a good use to a building, you're building a good base of advocates for it, but you're also getting the regular maintenance the building needs.

What about a building or a site that that no longer exists that was lost along Route 4? Do you have an example there?

So Potter Place, for example, which is actually bypassed by Route 4. So it's off on a little side road. There's an old railroad depot there, but there's a lot of empty lots where big hotels used to stand or the Richard Potter house used to stand. And so when you go there, it seems a little ghost townish.

Potter Place depot in Andover, N.H. can feel a little ghost-town-ish.
Credit Dan Tuohy / NHPR

It goes back to an era when people would come up from New York and other parts of southern New England to come to the New Hampshire air for the summertime.

Yeah exactly, and then when Route 4 bypassed it, all the traffic left the village too. And suddenly there was no economic base. And when the railroad stopped bringing passengers there, it really depleted the village.

What happened there?

So now the historical society actually owns several of the buildings in the village. And I think there's a new shift to create a more vibrant village through their ownership. So it might not just be museum spaces, but they're looking at can they rent some of the buildings to get people living downtown -- downtown in quotations. Can they put in some businesses? Can they attract some vibrancy?

You are working with Mascoma Valley Preservation on saving Grafton's old meetinghouse. This is right along Route 4. I happened to go by it when Morning Edition was kicking off our Route 4 a road trip recently. It's all boarded up. You've got tarps over it. It burned back in 2016. I mean, it was obviously very heavily damaged. What kinds of challenges are you having with this meetinghouse?

There's a lot of challenges, as you explained. So what we're looking at primarily is once we acquire the property, we're doing emergency stabilization. So we're putting a temporary roof on it to keep the building watertight, to dry out some of the timbers that have been exposed to the elements for three years. We're looking at getting an assessment this summer. So we're pulling out a timber frame or we're pulling in an architect just to kind of guide us through that process of this playing triage with the building. So we know that there are timbers that definitely have to be repaired. We know there's a lot of cleaning out that has to be done in terms of kind of falling plaster and insulation that's holding in all that moisture.

Grafton Center Meetinghouse: Mascoma Valley Preservation and volunteers are working to repair and save the historic landmark.
Credit Dan Tuohy / NHPR

And then, we're hoping next year to start the real big rehabilitation. So getting those timbers replaced, getting the foundation secured, putting a permanent roof on it. It's a long list of things that need to be done. But I think in Grafton, having such an iconic building and so visible -- and you can really see it. It's right on Route 4 and it's on the back property, it's right on the rail trail. And when you see an aerial footage and you see this meetinghouse, it's the anchor of the common. It's the anchor of that village there. And not having Grafton center with its meetinghouse would be -- it would be a tragedy.

So, you know, you grew up in Grafton, went away for a while to school [and] came back. What are you seeing as the benefits, and you know, what's the goal here for you to preserve the meetinghouse in general?

Kind of those memories. It's very nostalgic for me personally. My parents got married there. My great grandparents rang the church bell every Sunday for decades when they moved here. And so there's a lot of personal memories in the building for me. But also, I love architecture. I love history. And I'm a big booster for my town. And I want to see this building restored because it shares a very different light on the town than what it currently has.

Grafton's general store is also closed and boarded up right now. That's gone through multiple opens and closures over the years, I know. Why has it been so challenging to keep that open?

Former Grafton general store on Route 4.
Credit Dan Tuohy / NHPR

I think all around the state we see general stores struggling and we know storekeepers kind of do the Lord's work. It's long hours. It's maybe not a lot of pay. And I know when I was a kid, there were three general stores in town. 

And now we've struggled with this last one, keeping it open. So I think just economics is a huge factor, but also kind of I think a change in how people see how they want to spend their leisure time and how they want to spend their work time. It's shifted a bit in the past decade or two.

But where are they going? Are they going to neighboring Danbury? I know they've got a thriving general store there.

Yeah, so Grafton and Danbury are certainly kind of sister towns. Historically, we've always been very close. And when Danbury's store reopened, it was at a time when Grafton's store had closed. And so they they won a loyal fan base in Grafton. And, you know, I patron the Danbury store all the time. And the owners are really terrific community supporters and they support projects in Grafton, too. So even though New Hampshire is very tribal in its town loyalties, general store loyalties seem to transcend town lines.