The Brookline, New Hampshire Meeting House

The Bline Meeting House
This early 1900’s postcard photo of the Meeting House is part of the archives of the Brookline Historical Society. The photographer is only suspected.

In 1768, thirty-three people living in west Hollis and in a mile-wide corridor of land between the west boundary of Hollis and the east boundary of Mason submitted a petition to the Royal Governor, John Wentworth. The petitioners requested that a new town be chartered out of the land they occupied. The petition stated that their “people live very Remote from the Meeting House in said Hollis, that to attend the Public Worship of God there, is attended with much Travil.” A second such petition was granted in 1769, and a new town, population about 134, was chartered.

Life in the new town was hard.

“The town was still in the log cabin period of its existence, no more than two framed houses having been erected. Its only public building was a log pound. It had neither meeting house nor schoolhouse”… “The public highways, what few there were of them, were at all times of the year, in a wretched condition and at certain seasons almost impassable…There were no grist-mills in town, and no store that deserved that name. Poverty prevailed, and for many of the people stagnation and starvation walked hand in hand.”

Six years later, in 1775, life became even more difficult when war broke out. The economy, such as it was, became unstable. Plus, over the course of the war, “practically all of [the town’s] entire adult male population served as soldiers in the army.”

It wasn’t until a March 1, 1780 town meeting, 11 years after the town’s founding, that the people voted to build a meeting house. A committee of four local citizens, Samuel Douglas, Alexander McIntosh, Clark Brown and James Campbell, was elected to “find the place to set the same.” Their recommendation was: “about midway of the south side of the meeting-house hill, and on the east side of the highway leading up the same.” With that began an experience not unique in New Hampshire history to Brookline: a “meeting house war.”

“One faction favored the site selected by the committee. Another, and apparently the larger one, was in favor of the location on the summit of meeting house hill, where the house now stands. In addition to these two principal factions, there were others, minor ones, composed of two or three persons, and even of single individuals, each of whom had opinions of their own as to the best site for locating the house.”

The building of a meeting house in this town was at a combative impasse.

“The war between the several factions was carried on with more or less intensity and bitterness of spirit for a period of nearly eleven years in duration, during which neither side would yield; nor did either gain any permanent advantage. For, if by chance, at any of the numerous town meetings called in reference to the meeting-house either faction succeeded in carrying a vote by which the location was fixed, the defeated faction would immediately cause the calling of another meeting; at which, aided by the smaller factions, and individuals who, because they couldn’t rule, were bound to ruin, they generally succeeded in revoking the vote of the preceding meeting and passing another one by which the site of the house was fixed in a location more in accord with their own wishes.”

In 1787, seven years after the first vote to build, and apparently for a third time, the townspeople again voted to build a meeting house. The agreed dimensions of the building were 38 feet long and 28 feet wide, 2 stories high. A committee of five citizens was chosen: Samuel Douglass, James Campbell, Randal McDonld, Issac Shattuck and Thomas Bennett. Once again the committee’s recommended location was contested. A month later, a committee of two, Samuel Douglass and James Campbell, was chosen to determine the site. Their decision was that “the meeting-house shall stand at or near where the fence comes to the road from Foster’s hovel and on the south side of the road and east of the grate bridge.” But the battle continued.

In a 1788 town meeting, the voters decided to ask for the Legislature’s assistance. The Selectmen filed a petition explaining that “the inhabitants of said Town have voted to build a meeting-house in said Town but cannot Exactly agree on any particular spot of Ground to set it upon,” and asked for the appointment of a committee for that purpose. Timothy Farrer of New Ipswich, Abiel Abbot of Wilton and John Goss of Hollis were appointed. The committee’s report has not been found, but town records indicate that the matter continued to occupy the voters at 4 subsequent meetings into 1789. In April of that year, the voters decided to send a second petition to the Legislature for a committee “to come and view the town again and see if they can find a spot of ground for us to set our meeting-house.” The records don’t reflect it, but tradition has it that the committee acted and chose the location where the building was eventually built. That site today is at the northwest corner of the intersection of Springvale Avenue and Meetinghouse Hill Road.

Benjamin Farley, Joshua Smith, Eleazer Gilson and David Spaulding were selected in 1789 as a supervisory building committee, but the work was a community effort:

“[t]he house was built by the people; each one contributing to its construction in labor and materials, or both, according to their several means and circumstances. From time to time appropriations to defray necessary expenses were made. Besides these appropriations, money was made by selling pew grounds.”

Work began in 1789, and continued for two years. It would have required a great deal of planning and coordinated effort. The granite foundation stones had to be split, hauled and set in place. Trees needed to be selected, felled, hauled, hewn and cut for beams. The structure’s mortise and tenon framework would have required that the beams be shaped, fitted, pinned with wood pegs and raised in large sections by carefully supervised teams of men. The work wasn’t without danger. In 1773, five men were killed during the raising of Wilton’s meeting house. If this town’s project was typical, rum would have been supplied for the workers. There were floors and sheathing, likely with lumber milled by a local water-driven up-and-down sawmill. Nails would have been made by blacksmiths. Hand-split wood shingles would cover the roof. Windows, doors, and interior finish work would have necessitated the work of skilled woodworkers. We know that Daniel Spaulding agreed to accept a pew in each corner of the south side in exchange for building the 10’ x 10’ x 10’ “porches” to shelter the side doors. In 1790, ninety pounds was voted for furnishing the meeting house.

The first meeting it take place in the building was a town meeting held on March 12, 1791, 11 years after the town’s 1780 vote to build a meeting house.

Brookline’s meeting house was similar to a number of area meeting houses built during that period. Thanks to a few surviving photographs, we know that Brookline’s building was simple and unadorned. It had no steeple, belfry or decorative element. It was a two-story rectangular building, presumably 38 feet long and 28 feet deep, per the town’s 1787 vote. The building faced south and was built on a small rise, the highest point on what is now known as Meetinghouse Hill. A large doorway was in the center of the first floor with 2 first floor windows on each side. The front of the second-story had five equally-spaced windows. The gable ends had 5 windows, one at the peak and two on each floor. Two smaller side entry ways were at the east and west gable ends, sheltered by Mr. Spaulding’s one-story enclosed porches. The porches’ doors faced the front. Meeting houses looking much like Brookline’s were built in Mason, Milford, Hollis, Wilton, Goffstown, New Ipswich, Antrim, Weare, Hillsborough, Webster, Northfield, Fremont.

Two surviving examples of such meeting houses exist today in Sandown, New Hampshire and Rockingham, Vermont. These carefully preserved buildings, as well as prints, photographs and sketches in other town histories, and clues in Parker’s 1914 History of Brookline, New Hampshire, give us some insight into what the interior of Brookline’s meeting house probably looked like. There are no known photographs or sketches of the interior.

In his town history, Brookline native, Judge Edward Everett Parker (1842-1923), mentioned the meeting house’s “lofty, ornate and beautiful pulpit.” It was customary for a meeting house’s main floor to have a raised pulpit for the minister, 10 or so feet high, enclosed by a low wall, built against the middle of the back wall. A podium of some sort would be at the center. A staircase usually extended from the floor on one side in the front of the pulpit, turned at a right-angle from a small landing near the top of the stairs, with several more stairs to the floor of the pulpit. The pulpit in the Brookline meeting house was apparently of an ornate nature.

Parker also referred to the house’s “sounding board.” Sounding boards were often installed above a meeting house’s pulpit. Usually made of wood, a sounding board was a structure, often circular or semi-circular in shape, that hung above or projected over the pulpit in order to reflect the speaker’s voice.

Judge Parker wrote of “the box-pews, the ‘sheep-pens’ of our childhood” that stood on “the main floor of the house.” From this we learn that the main floor of Brookline’s meeting house had the traditional waist-high, square wooden enclosures, with benches, for parishioners. They likely each had a hinged door. A meeting house artifact in the Brookline Historical Society’s collection suggests that the doors, and perhaps the walls of the pews, were topped with a horizontal rail held up by small, finely turned ballisters. This would be another feature that would be consistent with other meeting houses. The pews were privately-owned and had been sold off to help fund the building. Customarily, a center aisle ran from the front door to the pulpit, so that is presumed to be the case in Brookline. The pews were usually on both sides of the center aisle. They may have also lined the outside wall. Unenclosed bench pews may also have been on the main floor.

Parker referenced “gallery pews,” something common to meeting houses. The second floor of Brookline’s meeting house, therefore, had a “gallery,” an overhanging second-story balcony, on one or possibly on three interior walls. This was an additional seating area. Whether the gallery had box-pews, bench pews, of some combination of the two is not known. There would have been a stairway for access to the gallery.

Such was the Brookline meeting house in 1791, when it set out to serve the combined civic and spiritual interests of the small community. As a town building, the maintenance of the meeting house was supported by town taxes. The services of a minister were also. That provided a security for the chosen religion, but some citizens who did not share its beliefs were forced to bear the expense. By the time Brookline’s meeting house was completed, the traditional thinking about the relationship between religion and government was undergoing change. In 1791, New Hampshire enacted a law that exempted taxpayers from a town’s ministerial tax, so long as they could show that they were contributing financially to the cost of the minister of another religious society. In 1819 a state law ended mandatory religious taxation in towns. While that law allowed for the continued expenditure of town funds for meeting house maintenance, the role of a town meeting house was no longer the same.

Such a change in thinking did not filter down automatically. It was in 1821 that the Brookline voters first agreed to permit a local religious group other than the Congregationalists to use the meeting house for its services. A town meeting vote in 1831 opened the meeting house doors to other denominations as well. The open-mindedness that made for a shared place of worship, however, apparently had its limits.

“The Congregationalists, who viewed with apprehension and alarm the growth in town of the spirit of liberalism, and who were dissatisfied in being compelled to share with a society whose creed was, in their judgment, fraught with so much danger to the welfare, both here and hereafter, of the citizens of the town, in the use of a house of worship of which for so many years they had undisputed possession, resolved to abandon the old meeting-house as a place of worship, and did so [in about 1835]. For a few years succeeding their abandonment of the old meeting-house they held their meetings in the schoolhouses.”

The Congregationalists built their own church in town in 1839. Other denominations continued to use the meeting house as a house of worship. One of them, the Methodists, built their own church in 1859.

While the role that the meeting house played in the religious life of the town diminished over time, the building continued to be used for town meetings. The records are largely silent on the details of the civic use of the building; however, it appears that the use was minimal as there was an interest in putting the meeting house to more practical advantage. In a 1871 meeting, the town voted to rent the lower level of the building to a local furniture business.

“The same year Cook, Putnam and Co., took possession of the lower part of the house, and having torn down and removed the ancient and ornate pulpit, and also the pews in the center of the house, the “Sheep-pens” of the early settlers’ childhood days, used the same as a store room for the firm’s manufactured products in the furniture line. A sacrilege which must have caused those same early settlers, figuratively speaking, to, at least, sit up in their graves and take notice.”

Town reports from 1885 to 1890 referenced “town house” rent payments from another business, Hobart, Kendall & Co. Town meeting warrants from 1895 to 1915 regularly included an article seeking appropriations for and town reports recorded expenditures from the buildings’ ongoing maintenance and repairs.

Judge Parker wrote in 1914, that the building “still is and always has been used for holding the annual and special town meetings of the town (with the exception of a few years in the latter part of the last century, when the town meetings were held in Tarbell’s Hall in the village).”

The grand structure was for some people a venerated memorial to the town’s early inhabitants. That sentiment was reflected in the following excerpts from a poem titled “ The Old Meeting House” that appeared in a booklet printed for the 1895 centennial celebration of the Brookline Congregational Church.

“Upon the hill top’s rounded crest, naked, brown and bare,
Firm and securely founded on its solid granite base,
The fathers’ ancient meeting-house uplifts, in crystal air,
Its crude and homely outline; void of beauty and of grace;
Yet there are those who love it, and the memories it recalls,
And traditions which surround it, from the days of long ago,
Which, like a flame of glory, deck its time-defaced walls
With drapery of beauty human skill could ne’er bestow”…

“Around its sacred precincts, as a center fixed and firm,
Are grouped the township’s records through a century of years,
All of ill the fathers suffered, all the glory they could earn,
As Providence dealt with them, in its history appears.
There they worshiped, there they married, and then, when time was o’er,
Their tributes of affection to departed friends were paid,
E’er the living, through its portals, in sad procession bore
Their dead to rest forever in the church yard’s quiet shade”…

“Within its walls for cycling years, the fathers, young and old,
Gathered yearly from their homesteads, in the early spring-time thaws,
When the snows had let the hillsides, and the frost had fled the mould,
To choose the village rulers, and to regulate its laws”…

“Long may the meeting house survive to greet each rising morn,
Through all the strange vicissitudes of rolling years to come”…

Construction of Brookline’s Daniels Academy building, funded by a generous private bequest, was completed in the summer of 1913. A large auditorium and stage was built on the top floor.

The following article appeared in the “Milford Cabinet and Wilton Journal” on January 14, 1915:

“On last Friday [1/8/1915] at about two o’clock the townspeople were awakened by the sounds of the church bells ringing furiously, and looking from their windows, saw the Old Meeting house ablaze from roof to cellar. How long the fire had been burning before discovered no on knows, but the flames did their work so quickly and completely that not even a timber remains of the ancient structure. It was first built for a church in 1797 (sic) and used as such for years, but of late years it has been used mostly by the town for storage purposes and before the new town hall was built the town meetings were all held there. It was one of the interesting places that visitors coming to town always wanted to see; and a few years ago it was suggested that the building be restored as nearly as possible to its original state. Part of the old pulpit was still there, as were the old-fashioned box pews. Some of the old pew doors are now in the possession of some of the old townspeople and the sounding board that used to be back and over the pulpit is in a good state of preservation, and in the care of Mrs. Ella Tucker. How the fire started is still a mystery.”