What’s a meeting house without a meeting house bell to summon townspeople? Customarily, early New England villages included a meeting house – a public building for Sabbath services and conducting town business. However, Effingham, N.H., incorporated in 1778 and settled many years earlier, had failed to erect a meeting house until 1798, when Isaac Lord took up the task.
Lord arrived in Effingham from Maine, well after the town’s founding. He came loaded down with English dry goods for sale, and he quickly set about making a small fortune by the standards of the day. He would eventually own a tavern, the town’s first store and more than 1,500 acres of land with a host of farm animals. A first-class entrepreneur, Lord quickly became a prominent leader in town and the area around his house became known as Lord’s Hill and Lord’s Corner.
In 1792, Lord built one of the only bridges across the Ossipee River. He operated it as a toll bridge, charging a penny a person and 10 cents for a team of oxen or horses to cross.
Thomas P. Drake, meanwhile, lived just down the road in the Drakesville section of Effingham. Drake’s grandfather was one of the founding fathers of Effingham and Drake was a well-known leader in his own right.
The Lords and Drakes, however, were different as night and day. The two families backed opposing political parties, with the post office regularly moving from Lord’s Corner to Drake’s Corner and back, depending on which party was in power. They competed over everything from stores and post offices to stage coach routes to see which section of town would dominate.
I’ve Got a Bridge to Sell You
In 1798, with the town settling on a location for the meeting house, it would naturally boil down to Drake’s Corner or Lord’s Hill. Ultimately, after plentiful debate, Lord’s Hill won out. In 1820, Lord offered an improvement to the meeting house. If the town would buy his bridge, for $750, he would in turn furnish the meeting house with a new bell. The town accepted the offer and Lord kept his word, hanging an 1,100-pound bell in the meeting house.
The bell was undoubtedly music to Lord’s ears right up until he died in 1838 at the age of 66. But Thomas P. Drake had one last trick up his sleeve to best the Lord family. The town voted to sell its interest in the bell at auction, and Drake bought the town’s interest for a bargain.
Meeting House Bell Goes Missing
Drake waited until a day when the men of Lord’s Corner were all busy at work on a road project, then he made his move. Arriving with a wagon and helpers, Drake began to remove the bell from the meeting house. Deacon Robert Clark happened upon the scene. He threw himself on the bell, but the Drake men picked it up anyway, with the Deacon clinging on, and loaded it onto their wagon.
With the bell now relocated to Drake’s Corner, the Lord’s Hill faction turned to the courts for recourse. They won an order granting them ownership of the bell. With a sizable contingent, the Lord’s Hill neighborhood went to Drake’s Corner and retrieved the bell, restoring it to its rightful home.
For Whom The Bell Towles
You might think one meeting house bell battle would be enough for a small town. But oddly enough, Lord’s bell wasn’t the only bell battle that plagued the people of Effingham.
This next story takes place in Freedom, N.H. For many years, Freedom was a part of Effingham – known as North Effingham. Its residents, however, did not see eye to eye with their fellow townspeople and agitated for their independence. In 1831, the town of Freedom was incorporated – named to celebrate the break with Effingham.
Elias Towle made a prosperous living farming and tending his store in Freedom for nearly 60 years. Born into poverty, hard work made him successful. In 1850, at age 43, Towle gave a meeting house bell to the Calvin Baptist Society for use in their church. By 1867, however, Towle grew dienchanted with the Baptists. They had not, he claimed, made good on promises to improve the church building. The church was disintegrating. And the church never paid him anything for the bell.
Loaned or Given?
Towle switched memberships to the up-and-coming First Christian Church on Elm Street in Freedom. Towle also obtained a court order granting him authority to retrieve his bell from the Baptist Church. Late one night, Towle and some associates sneaked into the Baptist Church and relocated the bell to the First Christian.
The matter wound up in court again. This time the judge had apparently run out of patience for both sides and their argument over the bell. “Without regard to ownership of the bell, something must be done to stop the litigation,” he said, and he crafted what must have seemed like a clever verdict.
No Win Solution
The judge settled the case for $1 and gave the bell to Towle. But, he ordered that if the Baptists appealed the case or continued it further, the verdict was automatically in favor of Towle and they would have to pay him more than $180 in court costs. If, on the other hand, Towle continued the case, the verdict would be reversed and he would have to pay the Baptists the value of the bell, some $300.
Doubtless the judge thought he had found a clever way to silence the squabble. He hadn’t. The case pressed on through the courts – all the way to the New Hampshire Supreme Court – which eventually let Towle and the First Christian Church keep the meeting house bell.