It's been quite a ride to Nutfield's 300th anniversary

Richard Holmes

Celebrate! The Nutfield towns are now 300 years old, having first been settled in 1719; a time when your great, great, great, great, great, great great grandfathers and grandmothers were likely alive and perhaps living in Europe, Africa, or Asia.

As an historian, I am always impressed by how well that the Nutfieldians’ (my word) towns have turned out. It hasn’t been easy. For three centuries our people have lived with the forces of derision, both from within and without. Think of our history as resembling a couple of the rides at Canobie Lake Park — sometimes it’s like the quiet, sedate ride on its merry-go-round but other times it’s more like the park’s corkscrew roller coaster with head-spinning turns, and anxiety causing loop-de-loops. For 300 years its been quite a ride! And despite it all, Nutfield has managed to survive and has kept intact that well defined sense of community that was first brought here by those pioneers in 1719.

When we first arrived at the Nutfield Grant in the great forest wilderness, we were perhaps 200 Presbyterian emigrants from the north of Ireland. These so-called Scottish-Irish settlers were led by their pastor, the Rev. James MacGregor, known throughout Ireland as ‘The Peacemaker.” His congregation left Aghadowey in county Londonderry to escape economic, social, cultural, and religious persecution by the British. Within a few years Nutfield’s population began to grow larger and was soon incorporated by the royal government as a town called Londonderry.

During the first dozen years after 1719, our citizens were occasionally threatened and violently attacked by ruffians from Haverhill who claimed the Nutfield Grant was their land, not ours. There was also the ever present fear of attack and kidnapping by Indians led by the French from Canada. Despite all these dangers, we stood together and bravely made the land ours.

By 1740 the town was becoming more English than Scottish. Soon a religious schism forced the town to build two meeting houses. The less populated, western half of the town apparently remained mainly Scottish Presbyterians who while being very strong in their faith, also enjoyed a “live and let live” attitude toward life. This was called the Londonderry Parish. The majority of those in the more populated eastern half of the town seems to have been more English and doctrinally rather like the Calvinist Puritan of Massachusetts who took a rather strict and dour view of life. This was the Derry Parish. Two parishes. One town.

In 1769 we had managed to survive our first 50 years and but were now pondering the question of whether we should we remain loyal to Mother Britain or should we join the Patriot cause? That year a group of our men pointed their muskets at a squad of British soldiers sent here to rescue a few deserters, who no longer wanted to be in the King’s army. At the start of the Revolutionary War, our men officially voted 372-15 to support independence and there were public threats of death against anyone who might be secretly pro-British. How split we really were is unknown but more than a 100 of our men did enlist in the Patriot Army and Dr. Matthew Thornton of Derry Village signed the Declaration of Independence. On the other side, one of our selectmen proved to be the biggest British spy in Northern New England and had to flee our town under the cover of night. The English Range Road was also believed by many to be a covent of clandestine king-loving Tories.

Over the years parts of the old Nutfield Grant began to break off to found their own towns. The southeast corner of our town became Windham; the northwest corner became Derryfield in 1751, now part of Manchester. In 1778 the southwest corner became a part of the town of Hudson. Originally Nutfield was 114 square miles, but by 1778 it was reduced was to just 78 square miles and now contained just the Derry and Londonderry parishes which were culturally, politically and economically very different from each other. In 1827 after some mean spirited town meetings and sneaky land grabs by Derry’s power brokers, the state allowed the two battling parishes to split and become incorporated as the present towns of Derry and Londonderry. I do hope that the angst of 1827 is now forgiven by the kind people of Londonderry. We really did treat you very badly back then. Sorry!

The pages of local newspapers like the Derry News were filled with the accounts of the causes of tension within the Nutfield towns. Our citizens over the generations vigorously argued the pros and cons of abolitionism, on how to keep hobos out of town, giving women the vote, mercy killing, the legality of the sale of alcohol, opposition to the war in Vietnam and raising or lowering taxes, etc. There were many on each side of these issues. Starting in the 1870s we began to see the end of our agricultural-based economy, and soon most workers were employed in factories or in the service industries. During the Great Depression of the 1930s, we suffered with an unemployment rate of somewhat over 30% as many local factories, businesses, and stores closed.

During the 1930s, ‘40s and ‘50s, the Nutfield towns began to experience population stagnation. Many of our young people left town as soon as they were of age as there were few jobs available locally: we had become a part of “The Great East Coast Rust Belt.”

This economic down slide changed in 1963 with the opening of Interstate 93. Soon Nutfield area’s population doubled, than tripled and finally quadrupled. New housing developments now sprang up all over the area. Soon gone were the pastures that were once grazed by many hundreds of cows. Seemingly overnight century-old forests were cut down and ancient homes razed to be the site of apartment complexes. We were now part of “The Great East Coast Megalopolis.”

While this growth brought economic prosperity it also brought about new problems. Our roads became markedly more crowded and traffic lights had to be installed at many now dangerous intersections. This population boom meant there was the need for a larger police and fire departments. Classrooms became seriously over crowded and new schools had to be built. To pay for this necessary improvement to our infrastructure our taxes had to be raised and in the 1990s the shrill voice of taxpayers’ “revolts” was heard throughout the land. In 2003 many disgruntled locals supported an attempt to make East Derry a separate town. What ever we went through, we went through it together.

Despite 300 years of political, religious, social, and economic struggles, we are still here. Throughout our long history, after all is said and done, the majorities of Nutfieldians always manage to put aside their differences and work together for the common good. Perhaps this attitude may have been inherited from Nutfield’s founder, MacGregor, The Peacemaker, who knew and preached that toleration and agreement were always needed in order to survive as a family, a neighborhood, a people, or a town.

What will be the future of the old Nutfield towns? I don’t know. I’m a historian, not a prophet, despite my long white beard. All I know for certain is that in 2019 I find in the area many, many schools filled with excellent teachers and eager students, well maintained town halls, fire, and police stations, each with truly professional staffs, fabulously stocked local museums run by dedicated volunteers, and neat neighborhoods lined with well cared for homes. All of this leads me to believe that our future will be good — though likely not without struggle, disagreements, and dissent. To borrow some of the words of William Faulkner, I truly believe that because of our citizens’ pride of place, compassion, and awareness of the area’s history and traditions, our sense of community will remain, and it “will not merely survive …it will prevail.”

Richard Holmes is a historian, educator and author of many books and articles on local history.

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