Municipality: Cornish, NH
Location: Town House Rd at Center Rd
Site Type: Town Hall.
THE STORIES THAT LIE BEHIND how the various church buildings in Cornish came to be built tell a series of tortuous tales. From Child's History of Cornish we can glean some idea of the pain and passion generated by the debates that led to the erection of these churches. It is a sad commentary, however, that in the closing decade of the twentieth century few of them are still serving their original function. Most of them succumbed to a process of secularization. The new town office building recently occupied by the selectmen began as one of those tales. Even the building the selectmen formerly occupied in Cornish Flat is tangentially related to those tales.
What we all used to know as the Cornish Grange building owes its existence to a dispute within the largest religious group in Cornish during its earliest days, the Congregationalists. The first meetings of the Congregationalists are described in the chapter on James Wellman, above, pp. 57-58. After some dissension among the faithful, a church was erected in 1799; it came to be known as the old Congregational Church on the hillčon the west side of North Parsonage Road near the top of the hill at the junction with Harrington Road. In 1841, however, the group felt that "the meeting house on the hill was becoming old and uncomfortable, especially for the winter season."(1) Unrest continued to roil the waters of the Congregationalists. Some members talked of moving the church building off the hill down to what is now Center Road where they did erect the "Congregational Church at the Center" (what is now the home of the United Church of Cornish). This decision increased the tension: "a large and important portion of the church in the southern and western parts of the town felt aggrieved, and decided they could no longer remain in fellowship with the other portion. The 'high hills' of separation arose between them."(2) In 1841 this group formed "The First Congregational Society of Cornish" and, as Child continues, "public-spirited men among them, at their own expense, erected a parsonage with vestry attached, during the first year.... On the September following they took united action about building a new meeting house (42 x 56) on ground in the rear of the new parsonage, to be completed on or before November 1, 1842." Thus the groundwork for the building that is now the Selectmen's Office at the junction of Center Road and Town House Road was laid.
But the Congregationalists continued their internal bickering. The break-away "First Congregational Society of Cornish" angered the Sullivan County Congregational Association, the body responsible for governing all the Congregational churches within its jurisdiction. It refused to recognize Cornish's new group. Hence, regarded as spiritual outlaws by the Association and itself growing deeper and deeper in debt, the doom of the new church and its new building "was now sealed. It was compelled to die."(3) The last recorded meeting of Cornish's First Congregational Society was in 1853.
Help for the building, however, came from an unexpected quarter: the Methodist Episcopal church. They first organized in Cornish during 1838; its membership, though faithful, was small. They used schoolhouses and members' homes until they realized, during the early 1850s, that they might be able to use the building that the First Congregational Society had erected. They rented it for several years; then, in 1860, they appointed a committee "to negotiate for the mortgage on the church and parsonage, for the benefit of the Methodist Church."(4) By June 27,1867, they were fully ready to take over and held their dedicatory services. Unfortunately, many Methodists were attracted to their like-minded brethren in Claremont, so the Methodists in Cornish were unable to nurture their group for very long. "Soon after the opening of the present century, it was found that the Methodist Episcopal Society of Cornish had become nearly extinct, and the church edifice was partly in ruins."(5) Just as the Methodists had been rescuers of the First Congregational Society, so the Unitarians became the rescuers of the Methodists in 1905. Calling themselves the "Independent Parish of Cornish," and affiliated with the Unitarian Church in Windsor, Vermont, this group dedicated their church, as Child puts it, "in its new order and dress," in 1906.(6)
In the meantime, however, the building had acquired another use: as the meeting place for the Cornish Grange #25. The national Grange organization, those "patrons of husbandry," was first formed in 1867 as what we would today call an agricultural lobby. Their purpose "was to arouse the farmers to a sense of their privileges and to restore dignity to their occupation by placing it at once on a level with the other callings and professions."(7) Locally, the Grange was first "organized at the Methodist vestry by Dudley T. Chase, then master of the New Hampshire State Grange" on March 25, 1874.(8) Paying an annual rent of five dollars for the vestry in the old hall, the Grange continued to expand and utilize their new building. Then, "on June 28, 1917, the church building formally became the grange hall.... the Grange purchased, for four hundred dollars, from the Methodist Conference all the church property: this induced the church, the parsonage, the vestry and the surrounding grounds."(9) (Although the Unitarians had been holding their services in the building for over a decade, its formal control remained with the body governing local Methodist churches, the Methodist Conference.)
The Cornish Grange remained excellent stewards of the building and put it to good use for one hundred and twenty years. In 1950 they had to add a fire escape; its final secularization occurred in 1961 when the steeple was removed. As the Grange membership gradually declined toward the end of this century, the members decided to do something to preserve their building. On February 11, 1994, the "Cornish Grange #25 proposed to donate the Grange Building to the town for the purpose of establishing town office facilities on the lower floor of the Grange while retaining the upper floor as a meeting room.≤(10) Extensive renovations, for which the town appropriated $164,000, resulted in the town's selectmen, Stuart Hodgeman, Robert Maslan, and John M. White, Jr., holding their first meeting in their new building on February 20, 1995.
Of further interest is the fact that there is even a tinge of religious history involved in the building the selectmen vacated. As the previous chapter points out, the building we know as the Town House was once the Perfectionist Meetinghouse. It was officially deeded to the town in 1850 for the royal sum of $300. But again a problem arose with the secularization of a religious institution. Child's definition of this issue is a treat to read:
"While the town was generally well satisfied with the Town House as a place for a full meeting of the town, there existed a pressing need of a place to safely deposit the accumulating records, books, papers, etc., belonging to the town. With every change of town clerk these valuables were shifted to a new home, incurring more or less risk of damage and loss. A large safe was provided by the town for the most valuable portion of its documents; but this afforded only a partial solution of the difficulty, as its capacity was insufficient for its requirements, and this cumbrous article had to migrate to the home of the newly elected clerk, there to remain until his successor was chosen Then, again, a convenient room for the selectmen to meet in for the transaction of the town's business was much needed."(11)
Because the Perfectionist Meetinghouse lacked all the accoutrements necessary for the Town House, the 1886 town meeting agreed to appropriate $800 to construct a Record Building. Thus the former Selectmen's Office was born. Child continues, noting that it was "a small brick building, containing all needful safety vaults, library cases, etc., with a commodious selectmen's room in front, with all necessary furnishings." The beautiful safe Child mentions is still there today. It was a Steam Fire Proof safe the town purchased in Boston for $300 from the American Steel Safe Company. It had previously been in the Boynton Brother's store, which has subsequently been "the E. P. Brown store, then A. C. Thornton's, and now the Schad building."(12)
In 1895, to the tune of $450, the town added an annex onto the Record Building "furnishing the only 'lock-up' belonging to the town. Its chief use has been to accommodate certain moneyless traveling gentry, called tramps, with cheap lodgings, crackers and cheese moistened with 'Adam's Ale,' all at the expense of the town. Sometimes this institution receives its share of patronage, but has no constant boarders."(13) Recent "boarders" in the jail have been Paul LaClair, who used it as a Civil Defense office, and Bernice Johnson, who moved the town clerk's office to it in the late 1970s. In the annex's centennial year, then, the town clerk's office moved with the selectmen to the new office building, with its rich religious and secular history.(14)