A Not-So-Small-Time Town
Growing Up in Plainfield, New Hampshire
On a beautiful spring morning in 1955 my life began and so did the birth of my growing up years in Plainfield, New Hampshire, a not so small-time town. To some Plainfield, a small town with a rural, country lifestyle, may seem like a setting with little to offer, but to me, it was a life experience that created the basis of who I would become and it has served me well throughout my life.
For years I have been jotting down notes about this charming town and that formative period of time in my life. I began to realize as I started the writing process, using the old-fashioned method by putting pencil to paper, just how many thoughts and memories were occupying my mind.
Plainfield, New Hampshire has been a very special place since the time that it began. It is a beautiful town, occupying nearly fifty-three square miles of land and water where its western edge lies along the banks of the Connecticut River. There are fertile fields lying among the rolling hills and the stately mountains all adding their picturesque qualities to the scene. Mt. Ascutney rises majestically from the land in the neighboring state of Vermont and watches dutifully over the river valley. This mountain called a monadnock reaches over three thousand feet, featuring forms created during the last glacial period. Huge sections of its mighty granite outcrops can be seen, especially near the top. Many photographers and artists have captured the mountain’s beauty in their works, including Plainfield artist, Maxfield Parrish. The deep and rich bluish green colors painting its slopes, change with the variations of light that shine down on it, while the clouds that hover above offer their shadows to the peaks and valleys, adding to the picture before you. In autumn, Mt. Ascutney’s sides light up like a fire with glorious shades of red, orange and yellow, an alluring New England sight that bring many from afar to see. The winter snow will soon begin to cover the peaks and signal the approach of the next season. Each direction traveled gives the viewer a different perspective of its elusive apex. On approach from roads in both New Hampshire and its neighbor Vermont, ones eyes see what appears to be the tallest peak only to soon discover another reaching higher and claiming its place as the summit. I still search eagerly for which peak of this grand landmark is the highest, even though I already know the answer.
The charm of this serene river valley life offering nature’s very best, has been the beckoning call for many dating back the time of King George. In 1761 King George issued a land grant to settlers living in the town of Plainfield, Connecticut to begin a new life on the untouched fertile grounds of this region where the Connecticut River flows through the valley. It is the longest river in New England. It runs four hundred and seven miles from its origin in the Connecticut lakes in northern New Hampshire where it borders Canada and eventually sheds its clean waters into the Atlantic Ocean at Long Island Sound in the state of Connecticut. The river as well as the brooks and streams feeding it provided a generous water supply for the settlers and their animals. They had found a perfect place to settle next to a vital waterway bordered by rich soil lands needed for farming and raising sheep. This land also had a bountiful supply of exceptionally fine white pines that could be used to build ship masts for the king’s English fleets.
Where did all of this natural beauty and rich, fertile land come from? It is best described as a geological paradise created when the last glacial period occurred during the Lake Wisconsin Glaciation dating back nearly twenty thousand years ago. After reaching its final extent, the Laurentide Ice Sheet started to recede northward and the Great Lake Hitchcock began forming near Middletown, Connecticut. This was due to the damming up of the abutting ice margin near Rocky Hill, Connecticut. The glacial lake grew as the ice slowly melted and retreated up the Connecticut River Valley carving the land and leaving in its path a magnificent landscape. As the water leveled, it deposited its fine silts and wondrous clay along the way, which continue to provide richness to the valley today. All of this creating unique and prosperous lands for its future inhabitants and the setting for my story.
During the late 1800’s, Plainfield and the neighboring town of Cornish, became the summer home and, in some cases, the residence for many famous artists, architects, writers, lawyers, and politicians. This would come to be known as the Cornish Colony. Drawn by the natural beauty, they sought solace from the bustle of city life. Among those who came was the sculptor, Augustus Saint-Gaudens, whose home and studios are now a National Historic Site and Park. This property was first owned by a lawyer, Charles Beaman, Jr., who also established the nearby Blow-Me-Down Farm. He was seen as being responsible for the beginning of the Cornish Colony, as he had introduced Saint-Gaudens to the area. Others soon began to follow to be near the famous sculptor and they, too, were amazed at the beauty of the river valley. The names of those seeking the qualities of the land and proximity to Saint-Gaudens also included world-famous sculptor, Hebert Adams, the playwright, Louis E. Shipman and Charles Platt, a painter and architect. Stephen Parrish, an etcher, and his famous son Maxfield Parrish, illustrator and painter also made Plainfield their home. President Woodrow Wilson established his summer White House at the Harkalenden House on the Plainfield-Cornish town line from 1913-1915. Also bringing their talents to the area while enjoying the beauty of the land were; Winston Churchill, the writer, not the politician, Philip Littell a writer, Percy MacKaye who was a poet and dramatist, George Rublee a lawyer and a diplomat, and actress, Ethel Barrymore. In the early 1950’s author, J.D. Salinger found his seclusion in the woods of this special place, which turned out to be a wonderful addition to my life. His daughter, Peggy and I became lifelong friends.
I know this sounds like a Who’s Who bragging list, but it is far from a complete roll of names. There were many others who sought out the beauty of this area. My hope is that the reader will come to see the richness of what Plainfield and the surrounding area brought to the lives of these important people, in the same manner that it brought prosperity to the towns people. More importantly those coming from the city were instrumental in helping to form the cultural history of this area, which, in turn, influenced future generations, including mine.
The members of the Cornish Colony not only offered cultural growth to those living in the Connecticut River Valley, but they also offered a needed boost to the economy. Some of the “city people” so called by the locals, traveling to the area boarded in the homes of the towns people during their stay. They also purchased local products and hired numerous people from the area for a variety of jobs to help them maintain their large homes and properties.
Generations ago my family was also attracted to this beautiful countryside. I wish that I could hear the accounts of their first impressions when they arrived. Fortunately for me, the generations continued to make Plainfield their home which eventually became mine. More than a hundred years after my first ancestors settled here, I, too, was able to revel in the bounty of the natural resources of this rich river valley in an era that allowed me to just be a kid.