Historic Harrisville

P.O. Box 79
Harrisville, NH 03450
603-827-3722

Erin Hammerstedt
Executive Director
ehammerstedt@historicharrisville.org

 


 

Office Hours

Monday-Friday
8:00 AM to 4:00 PM

 

 
Meetings & Events

Incorporators Meeting
Saturday, April 27, 2019
10:00 a.m.

 


 

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Historic Harrisville at 40 Years

By Chick Colony, Jeannie Eastman, and Linda Willett

Former HHI Chairmen: (l-r) David F. Putnam, Kathleen Bollerud, Mary Stewart Hewitt, Arnold Clayton and John J. (Chick) Colony III.

October 2011 marks the 40th anniversary of Historic Harrisville (HHI), the nonprofit public foundation that formed shortly after the closing of Cheshire Mills and which has, without doubt, played a major role in the town’s recovery.

In 1971 Harrisville faced a bleak future. The mill had closed in October, 1970, just four short months after the town celebrated its centennial. Harrisville felt the effect of lost revenue from its major industry, and empty buildings were a constant reminder that the Cheshire Mills no longer existed.

Yet things were stirring in a new way as a small group—David Putnam, John Colony, Robbins Milbank, Chick Colony, and Jim Putnam—began to explore possibilities for the future. None were preservationists and nobody came in with ‘a plan,’ but a plan for the eventual recovery of Harrisville did, indeed, begin to take shape. Along the way they had the help of people at the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities (SPNEA), in Boston, and officials at the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Through that broader lens, the importance of Harrisville as a nearly intact 19th century industrial site began to come clear to the group. It was energizing.

Eventually, however, the local group rejected many of the ideas that came from SPNEA and the National Trust, which called for removal of some of the mill buildings and expensive, meticulous restoration of others. Harrisville required a new model—something that hadn’t been tried elsewhere. A plan was developed and Historic Harrisville was established to carry it out. New people came onboard: Bill House, a forester and member of the Harrisville Planning Board; Bill Hart, who would later go on to be president of the National Trust; John Tillson; Rick Monahon, an architect fresh out of MIT; and William Pierson, pre-eminent architectural historian at Williams College. Pierson understood how Harrisville fit into the history of American architecture and development, and he confirmed the group’s conviction that it was unthinkable not to preserve Harrisville’s historic buildings.

In March 1971, Yankee published an article about Harrisville’s uncertain future and titled it “Town for Sale.” Many Harrisville residents were offended because only the holdings of the Cheshire Mills were for sale.  Nearly half the homes in the village were privately owned. But the magazine article attracted the attention of John Hansel, a New Jersey manufacturer of water filtration systems. His company, Filtrine Manufacturing, purchased the Cheshire Mills complex, reestablishing the tax base and employment opportunities that the town desperately needed.

By the time Filtrine made its actual move to Harrisville in 1973, Historic Harrisville had developed a model for the revitalization of the rest of the historic buildings.

 

  • There would be three aspects to the village: 1) Filtrine at the mill; 2) privately owned houses, many with new protective covenants; 3) other old industrial buildings, which embodied much of the town’s history, to be owned by the new nonprofit. HHI raised funds to purchase the six 19th-century “core buildings”: the Harris Storehouse, Harris Mill, Harris Boarding House, Harris Boiler House, Cheshire Mills Boarding House, and Harris Sorting & Picker House.
  • HHI would be self-sufficient, unlike most nonprofits, because the buildings would earn their own keep; rent from tenants would maintain the buildings and pay their property taxes.
  • Harrisville would remain a real town with employment opportunities for residents, as it has always been; it would not become a living history museum.

 

Thus, Historic Harrisville began to bring back the tired industrial buildings and put them to new uses. Starting with the Harris Storehouse, at the corner of Main and Prospect Streets, they embarked on a careful, one-building-at-a-time recovery. They would raise money, find a tenant who fit into HHI’s vision of what the town wanted to be, learn what the tenant needed, and proceed with renovation. Dealing with limited funds, they found tenants who didn’t require much change to the structures. By the end of 1973, three buildings were occupied and the Harris Boarding House was being reconfigured into three affordable apartments.

Recognizing that the mill village was remarkably unchanged and represented the country’s earliest industrial foundations, the National Park Service designated it the Harrisville National Historic Landmark District in 1977.

In 1999, Filtrine moved to Keene, and Historic Harrisville purchased the Cheshire Mills complex. Owning the mill changed everything. Mill No 1, the 1848 centerpiece of the complex and commonly called the “granite mill,” was in poor condition. HHI needed someone with a professional background in historic building conservation; it hired Linda Willett, then curator of buildings at SPNEA, and later Linda hired Fred O’Connor as project manager. Both experienced in preservation standards and procedures, connected to experts in the field, having a propensity to hard work and used to doing quality work on a frugal budget, they were the exact team that Historic Harrisville needed.

Over the next ten years the Cheshire Mills complex underwent major structural repair, roofing, masonry, carpentry, and interior repairs as well as the updating of all electrical and mechanical systems to bring it up to modern standards and code compliance. Four million dollars later, the complex provides a home for small industries, business offices, and artist studios for 15 tenants.

In 2000, the Harrisville General Store, built for that purpose in 1838, was threatened with changes that would have resulted in a significant loss of historic building fabric. The need for a store in Harrisville had been recognized by both Future Search, the town planning initiative, and by Historic Harrisville. Although the timing was not ideal, HHI purchased and renovated the store building. Today, thanks to the vision and hard work of manager Laura Carden and her staff and the support of the local community, the store is once again at the center of village life.

Even though its main focus has been stewardship of the mill village, HHI has placed a high priority on other things. It fought the bypass of Highway 101, which would have hurt Harrisville, and later won a legal challenge to its protective covenants. It conserved important acres of land near the perimeter of Harrisville village, established an archives of town history, held contra dances in the mill, organized village dinners, provided land to establish a community garden, hosted academic and preservation groups, held two reunions of the descendents of Bethuel and Deborah Harris, and twice provided meeting space for the New Hampshire Governor and Executive Council. Each year it holds historic tours on Old Home Day.

By taking a chance on an untried plan, one which embodied modest goals that seemed appropriate for our town, Historic Harrisville has accomplished much of what it set out to do 40 years ago. It did so with the determination of the founders but also with the generous help of a lot of people and strong support of the town.