Arts and Leisure

A Tour of New England’s Uncommon Town Commons

There is no shortage of town commons in New England, as many communities were laid out with a parcel specifically reserved for the meeting house, and the yard of the meeting house generally became the common.

In the earliest European settlements of New England, commons were routinely town centers as people built their business and homes adjacent to them. They could be spaces to keep livestock at night and at times when the town had to be closed off for fear of attack. But there is no single story behind the New England town common. Each developed along its own lines, once launched by the original settlers. Later commons were given to towns as donations by larger landowners.

They were routinely forested, and often became dumping grounds and nuisances. Cattle were often placed on them to keep down the grass. In areas where people were most leery of the state embracing a religion, the meeting house (and the attached common) were far less common.

Today, commons and greens are features that make us think back to early New England. Over the centuries many have been modified to fit the times. In the earliest days, the commons often became a home to cemeteries. In the middle and late 1800s, it became fashionable to plant, landscape and manicure the commons. Many were trimmed to make way for a paved street. And in more recent days, they’ve played host to baseball or soccer fields. In some cases, they were outright destroyed.

This week we wrote about how Connecticut’s Lebanon Green was used during the American Revolution. It reminded us of just how many greens and commons remain in New England and how they are a good jumping off point for some interesting visits to the less-traveled areas of the region.

In Connecticut, there’s the aforementioned Lebanon Green.  Another old favorite is Litchfield Green in Litchfield, Conn., which has served many purposes over the centuries. Dating to 1720, the green has been home to the town’s meeting house, a school and courthouse. It was also a recruiting spot for soldiers during the Civil War. Today visitors to the green are more likely to be shoppers rather than soldiers.

Connecticut’s Trust for Historic Preservation maintains a website with information about all the state’s town greens.

The State of Vermont also has created a website that provides some details about many of the state’s commons.

In St. Albans, Vermont, the common goes by the name Taylor Park. It was donated to the city in 1799 by Col. Halloway Taylor, and it’s rather ornate. The St. Alban’s Historical Museum fronts on it. Though in the upper third of Vermont, New England history lovers will want to clear a few days in their calendar to visit this tiny city. It boasts some of the most remarkable stories of New England’s past, including a rich history of smuggling during the embargo leading up to the War of 1812, a nearby naval battle in which a band of Vermonters vanquished the invading British, an unlikely (and unsuccessful) attempt at conquering Canada and the northernmost battle in the Civil War.

As you’re as far north as St. Alban’s you might as well travel through Bridport. As opposed to St. Alban’s fanciful park, Bridport’s common probably looks more like it did in colonial times, laid out at the center of the farming community. On the route to nearby Crown Point you’ll travel the roads where Ethan Allen and Eli Roberts fled an attempt by British soldiers to capture him in 1772 and cross the path Thomas Jefferson took through the state (before it was a state) in his northern tour.

And to see what’s probably Vermont’s most photographed common, you can visit Woodstock where an 1830s vintage common sits quaintly in the middle of the picture-perfect, upscale shopping and dining center.

Princeton, Mass. Town Commons

Princeton, Mass. Town Commons

In Bethel, Maine, the Town Common is the centerpiece of many activities. Visitors in July can watch the Molly Ockett Days festivities, names for an Abenaki healer from northern Maine and New Hampshire.

A short drive away is Paris Hill, Maine – which could be correctly described as Maine’s political capital. Paris Hill was established as the county seat in 1805. The tiny village produced congressmen, governors, a senator and vice president (Hannibal Hamlin). When the county seat was moved, Paris Hill was left behind in time. Its common is at the center of a remarkably well-preserved historic district that includes Vice President Hamlin’s home.

In 1714, the Pejepscot Company formed out of the Plymouth Colony  and bought a large area of land in Maine from the Native Americans. Today it comprises Brunswick, Topsham and Harpswell. The purchase would be the source of disputes for more than 100 years between American Indians and other settlement groups, all disputing the validity of its boundaries..

Ultimately, the Pejepscot Company prevailed. One of the early acts of the company, in 1719, was to establish common land. Unlike most town and village commons, which were at the center of the town, the Pejopscot group chose to set aside an enormous tract of 1,000 acres as the commonage.

Walking the common today is a far cry from most preserved, pastoral commons, but it is a look at Maine’s past. Brunswick Commons contains an example of the pine barrens that were once numerous in the state.

New Hampshire is also home to countless historic commons. Orford, New Hampshire has a beautiful six-acre common along Route 10. Just a couple miles north is the distinctive double commons at Haverhill Corner. A wonderful excuse to wind your way up through some of the rarely visited towns of the Connecticut River Valley.

Another favorite is the common at Walpole, N.H., in another of the state’s less-visited and less-congested corners.

Massachusetts, of course, ranks right up with Connecticut in terms of the numbers of commons it houses. There are, of course, most famous ones at Lexington, Concord and Boston. But some less famous ones that still retain charm and history are West Brookfield and Dogtown Common in Rockport.

Anyway, that’s a sampling of our favorites. We’re sure you’ve got your own favorites, too.

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