Nashoba Publishing/Chelsea Feinstein
Ryan Hayward (left) leads a walking tour of the former Fessenden Hill neighborhood in conjunction with the Townsend Historical Society.
By Chelsea Feinstein
TOWNSEND -- Outside of Townsend's historical district, in a seemingly nondescript dirt path through the woods, are the remains of one of the town's early neighborhoods -- if you know where to look.
Architectural historian Ryan Hayward of the Preservation Collaborative, in partnership with the Townsend Historical Society and Townsend Cultural Council, led about 15 Townsend residents on a tour of the remnants of the Fessenden Hill neighborhood, which was founded in the mid-18th century and destroyed in a forest fire in the 1930s.
"The story, I felt, needed to be told," Hayward said. "It's a lost site, a part of Townsend history that has disappeared."
The tour began at the end of West Hill Road in Brookline, N.H., and headed toward the Townsend border.
Using clues in the landscape, census records and other historical documents, Hayward was able to reconstruct the village that is now long gone, pointing out holes in the ground where house foundations once stood, stone walls dividing properties or paths that indicate where pathways once were.
He also passed around pictures of computer reconstructions he had done of what the houses may have looked like, based on the family income and social status as well as clues on the ground.
Hayward pointed out the remains of a cider mill, a cooperage and a blacksmith shop on one parcel of land.
"This really was its own community," he said. "It had its own building, its own group and everything."
He told stories of residents who were boxmakers, coopers and farmers, trading their goods throughout New England.
"You can see how important Townsend was to not just the town economy, but the regional economy as a whole," he said.
Over the years, many families moved away from Fessenden Hill, selling their farmland in favor of factory jobs, Hayward said.
In a particularly dry summer in the 1930s, a huge forest fire destroyed what was left of the neighborhood.
"After burning to the ground, Fessenden Hill was sold to the state of Massachusetts, and 2,200 acres became Townsend State Forest," he said.
The Fessenden Hill tour was the second historical tour of Townsend in the past two months and the last one planned for this year. However, Hayward said he hopes to be able to excavate the Fessenden Hill site in the future to dig up more of the neighborhood's secrets.
"It's forgotten and it's important to remember our past because it always repeats itself, so we need to take lessons from it," Hayward said.
Jeannie Bartovics of the Townsend Historical Society said the tour helped to further the society's mission of promoting Townsend's history.
"Our history is where we came from," she said. "It's what the town was built on, and it's very much a part of our present and plan for the future.
"Ryan helps bring it alive," she added. "When he points out the cellar hole, he talks about the family, too. He brings the entire road to life again for all of us."
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