Meg Gourley – Village improvement societies do what needs to be done

The site of the former horse-watering trough in Jaffrey.

The site of the former horse-watering trough in Jaffrey. PHOTO BY MEG GOURLEY

A village improvement society booklet.

A village improvement society booklet. —PHOTO BY MEG GOURLEY


For the Ledger-Transcript

Published: 05-20-2024 12:01 PM

Modified: 05-20-2024 12:28 PM

A traveler driving eastbound from, say, Keene or Marlborough and headed to metropolitan New Ipswich would pass through the beautiful and historic town of Jaffrey.

They would pass through miles of forest and a bog, and catch some great views of Mount Monadnock on the left. Presently, the village of Old Jaffrey would appear and disappear, before arriving in a few miles to downtown Jaffrey where gas and replenishment could be found.

But some amount of the beautiful and historic charm of the town is located in Old Jaffrey, or Jaffrey Center, and the reason it looks the way it does is in large part due to the efforts of the Jaffrey Center Village Improvement Society.

Jaffrey is not alone; improvement organizations have been working hard all over New England since the Civil War – fixing, cleaning and reorganizing, keeping things quaint and ensuring that New England charm we all love about our region.

Jaffrey Center is old; its meetinghouse was erected in 1775, which makes it as old as the republic. The houses there have been added-onto, updated, restored, preserved, burnt down and rebuilt, as in any other town. But the traveler may notice that the only color scheme seems to be white, and folks with a discerning eye will also notice that the shutters – all wooden, of course – are solely black or dark green.

This is by design, and a result of the village having been designated a historic district in 1970. The intent of the Historic District, however, is not to freeze Jaffrey Center into any one period or to prevent future change, but to ensure that the changes that do occur in the district are compatible with the surrounding historic environment – the buildings, sites, and overall setting of Jaffrey Center.

The public recognition of the importance of Jaffrey’s heritage are benefits of this designation, and it has a stabilizing effect on property values and the economic benefit of drawing visitors to the area.

Improvement societies began cropping up all over New England in the mid 19th-century. The first one was the Laurel Hill Association in Stockbridge, Mass., founded by Mary Hopkins Goodrich in 1853. Goodrich was riding her horse through the old Stockbridge burying ground and finding it rough going. There was no path and the place was full of weeds, burdocks, tangled vines and brambles.

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She had a vision of wide pathways, green grass and kept hedges. As she continued her ride, she noticed the condition of the roads in the downtown and the habit people had then of just piling garbage up alongside the road, willy-nilly. She posted a notice, collected an assemblage of townsfolk and organized a committee to fix the state of the roads, plant trees for shade and eradicate weeds.

Goodrich’s town improvement committee spawned a nationwide movement that established forever what a rural American township should look like.

The rise of the village improvement societies occurred from 1848 to about 1916. They were part of the utopian movement that overtook New England. The second half of the 19th century was the age of optimism. There was an overall feeling that things could be improved; the country was witnessing great strides forward in communication, scientific progress, urban planning, and medicine.

Suffragism, abolitionism, transcendentalism, temperance – people were working for a better society. This was the case, at least, until World War I came along and disabused us of these happy notions.

With the coming of the bicentennial in 1976, people gave thought to what it meant to be American. There was a spur to build libraries and lyceums for the betterment of our minds. Historical societies were founded to save and preserve items unique to our history. Not incidentally, most historical societies were established after 1880 as a response to immigration, specifically Catholic immigration.

The utopian movement also gave us intentional communities (communes, essentially) where members could live together in harmony with shared ideals. Hopedale and Brook Farm in nearby Massachusetts were just a couple, and the most famous was undoubtedly the Oneida community in New York.

These communities viewed themselves as religious, moral, philanthropic and social reform associations; they not only sought to create a better way of life but also to recast American civilization, so that greater equality and harmony would prevail. While most of them were religion-based, others were espousing everything from free love to transcendentalism to socialism.

By and large, women were the driving force behind the improvement society movement. The country was industrializing at a fast clip; there were more professional men and mill-owners, with wives who had some spending money and a lot of energy. Like Mary Hopkins Goodrich of Stockbridge, they were looking around and seeing things that needed to be done, only now there were pamphlets and booklets extant detailing how to set up an organization for such purposes.

Added to the mix were cities that were burgeoning, and people were beginning to escape the city for the tranquility of the countryside and clean air – and staying all summer. Housewives in the countryside were ashamed at the look of their towns when the fancy folk came out.

The chief aspiration and holy grail of these newly formed village improvement societies and the first order of business was drainage, drainage, drainage. Recall that in 1902, there were only 25 miles of paved macadam in the entire country. Hitherto, paving meant bricks and flagstone, only done in urban areas and usually only to sidewalks.

All the roads were dirt, and the dust kicked up and made the grass and plantings along the sides of the roads white and dirty. They sprayed petroleum on the streets to keep the dirt down, adding to the stench that was already there. Spring rains turned dirt and gravel streets into bottomless pools of mud and liquefied horse manure, leavened occasionally with the overflow of pit toilets.

Ladies dresses were ankle length. Dresses dragged in the effluvia and children fell in it and likewise mussed up their clothing, making more work for the housewife. The ladies wanted raised-wood board sidewalks along one side of the street. But paying for all this was not easy, since rural folk were not out in town as often and it was hard to get towns to appropriate funds for beautification. The women in hundreds of rural towns took matters into their own hands.

When organizing a village improvement society, Susan Fenimore Cooper, daughter of author James Fenimore Cooper, had some suggestions. Writing in Putnam’s Magazine in 1869, she says, “Let a well-written, well-digested plan be printed. After a few prominent persons are sufficiently interested —men and women of good sense, good taste, good feeling – then call a public meeting. Offer your plan for adoption, settle your Constitution and By-Laws, elect your officers, and go to work as soon as possible.”

Suggestions were offered on handling weeds, sidewalks, personal yards, public parks and cemeteries. With regard to parks, Cooper opines, “A public ground for summer picnics should also be provided, within a short distance from the village -- purchased, planted, and improved by the Society, and a general village gathering held there every year, during the pleasant weather.” She was a big promoter of benches, as well.

Other writers of that time period extolled the virtues of keeping your cattle, pigs and poultry corralled on your own land, so as to not have them wandering around town and doing what they do in the parks and in the cemeteries.

There was another reason why women spearheaded these movements besides the progressive rise in a leisure class over the century; women were more intimately associated with sanitation, the thinking went. As one 19th-century writer put it, “The intimate connection between a woman and a broomhandle is an obvious and a natural fact.”

Further, Mary Caroline Robbins, writing in The Atlantic in 1898, says “Of the various branches of public improvement, that which concerns the villages may be called the most vital, in that it closely appeals to all the inhabitants, no matter what their age or sex or station, and gives something to do with purse or hand to every man, woman, and child who takes an interest in producing organized beauty.”

Indeed, the most exuberant societies and the ones with staying power were associations which worked hard to be all-inclusive to all members of the village, making sure there was something for everyone. Many held contests, and prizes were given to promote tree-planting. Nominal annual subscriptions were sold – typically 50 cents – and picnics and town-wide events on the common or in the new parks were held. Basically there was a push to create a sense of civil responsibility among all the townsfolk.

Trees, it was thought, were also important because the sanitary value – “Authorities on the causes of malaria insist upon the danger arising from the too sudden drying of surfaces which have been previously soaked with water; for the quicker the drying, the more virulent the poison that is evolved … the presence of shade-trees prevents too rapid evaporation from the soil, and thus hinders the growth and propagation of malaria germ.”

Throughout the 19th century, malaria affected most populated regions in the United States. It wasn’t until 1897 that the connection of malaria with mosquitoes was discovered. It was also thought that many horse illnesses were caused by malaria germs, so horse drinking-troughs were something that the societies took an interest in.

As the century wore on, cleanliness got closer to godliness and the pamphleteers became messianic. Parris Farwell, writing in his 1918 book “Village Improvement,” pens, “This movement… it is a direct agent for the prevention of ignorance, disease and crime, and for the promotion of health, usefulness, happiness and good morals.” A community which reveals itself by this level of beautification, “reveals … its love for cleanliness, orderliness, beauty, there also are temperance, virtue, intelligence and friendliness.”

Farwell further shares a story about a women from Stockbridge, Mass., who married and moved west before the days of improvement. When she returned to her native town 50 years later, she could not believe her eyes.

“Throughout the town all streets are well made, and the main street, with its grassy borders, its pleasant walks, and its magnificent over-arching elms, is one of the most beautiful in New England.” Everywhere she went, she encountered a park-like atmosphere, with a fountain or a monument at the intersection of roads.

Fallen-down sheds, dilapidated fences, unsightly garbage pits and vehicle wrecks – all were removed by motivated citizens. Effort was also expended to protect the roadsides from disfigurement; billboards and ads on rocks and fences were removed, as well.

Once the movement was well underway, it wasn’t long before people bequeathed land for parks and recreation. One much-lauded village improvement society was established in 1889 in Bar Harbor, Maine. Here, they opened through the woods a road for driving by pleasure carriages which connects various points of interest, and it also completed a bicycle path and footpaths.

“Rubbish has been removed, the village burial ground has been cared for, and unsightly places have been improved, all with the active aid of the inhabitants, who willingly bear the expense for reforms upon their own land…” The tony Bar Harbor society also employed a man to keep these light roads in good repair and “...guard them from fire, clear away brush and deadwood … to the advantage to the natural roadside trees, which the society takes under its protection. Its tree committee plants nursery trees where they are most needed along the streets.”

These early efforts later morphed into the Acadia National Park that we know today. In Gouldsboro, Maine, the society built the town green, but their very first order of business was establishing the women-run entertainment committee; the next order of business was the rental of a piano. Improvement societies put up many dance halls around New England, as well.

Closer to home, the Jaffrey Center VIS was founded on a warm August night in 1906. B.L. Robinson and Kate Fox met with seven other women – and one man – at Fox’s house on Thorndike Pond Road. They picked officers, established bylaws and discussed the first order of business, the purchase of the flat-iron lot, for a park. This is the lower triangle of what is now Cutter Park, by the Meetinghouse.

Next, and probably what prompted the establishment of the society, was the replacement of the unsightly watering horse trough on the corner of Thorndike and Main streets. This was accomplished after they raised $154.80 and paid to the W.E. Blodgett Company for their “First-Class Fitzwilliam Granite.”

More pressing, however, was the unsightly Cutter hotel, which had burned to the ground in 1901. Until the coming of industrialism in the 1830s and the railroad in 1870, Jaffrey Center was the political, religious and commercial center of the town. The location along the Third New Hampshire Turnpike, the Boston-Keene-Walpole road was ideal and the Cutter Hotel was a mainstay. The residents of Jaffrey had been looking at a charred mess of old beds and scorched timbers for five years. It needed to be removed and a park established there in its stead.

This turned out to be not so easy, as Cutter wanted $2,000 for his heap of a mess. The society pulled together, had music salons and sold peanuts and lemonade by the side of the road, and otherwise found the money. Two years later, the purchase was completed. Other early projects undertaken by the society were the planting of flower beds around Melville Academy and on the common, trimming trees and creating the town dump.

They also paid for trash cans outside the post office. They filled in five wells, made five benches under shady trees and repaired and painted the town hall, now the Meetinghouse. Not a bad showing, indeed.

The old Meetinghouse is oft-cited as Jaffrey’s dearest possession, and it is this building, together with Melville Academy, that has consumed most of the time and attention of the Jaffrey Center VIS. The erection of this building in 1775 marked the founding of the town, and it is still used today for various civic purposes.

While the VIS has been instrumental in the several significant restorations, the town can be viewed as an equal partner in funding these enterprises. As anyone who owns an old house can attest, the work is incessant, and the building has undergone two major renovations, 1922 and again in 1991, with several refurbishments to the bell tower and the clock. The VIS refurbished, restored and then purchased the nine horse sheds behind the Meetinghouse as well.

Before Thorndike Pond Road had its name, it was called Academy Street, due to Melville Academy’s presence there. Melville is now a local history museum and the formal home of the JCVIS. It was a private academy from 1833 to 1859, then a town school. In 1920, the VIS took it over as its headquarters. It is open on weekends in the summer, and in it you will find many items of interest pertaining to the town’s history.

Today the JCVIS is headed by Jaffrey resident Suze Campbell and a panoply of supporting volunteers, all of whom are dedicated to preservation of the society’s holdings. The JCVIS owns quite a few properties, including a large 12-acre swale (marshland), which is being looked into for its current ecological conditions in order to develop a 10-year stewardship plan.

They maintain 22½ acres of grass, trees and bushes around the village and have 35 acres of conservation easements. They are responsible for the “running horse” signs in Jaffrey Center and have historically worked with the town on the maintenance of the cemeteries.

It’s not all sweat and toil though – the society also sponsors ice cream socials, concerts, plays and lectures, the Christmas tree-lighting and caroling on the common and an annual reading of the Declaration of Independence on July 4.

As a movement, the village improvement societies and army of dedicated volunteers are responsible in no small measure for the picturesque-look we associate with rural New England today.