Trails Benton MacKaye Landscapes

A Drover’s Tale: Along Great Road and Turnpike, from Meriam’s Corner to the Wapack Range (Part 2)

NOTE: The second of three posts in a series titled “A Drover’s Tale”

Part 2: Stagecoach, Tavern, Turnpike

After leaving Knops Pond, as Marion Davis later recalled, she and Frank Robbins would drive their herds through Groton, the relatively unsettled southern part of Pepperell, and the villages of Townsend Harbor and Townsend Center. “We’d . . . make the Townsend Poor Farm out of West Townsend for the second night,” she recounted. “Lots of times when we got there, there’d be another drove of cattle ahead of us that was going up to Stoddart. I remember they had the pasture, and we had to put our cattle in the barnyard, which crowded them some, but we managed all right.”

This is the stretch of road along which I lived throughout my childhood and early teenage years. Even today, while following Rt. 119 from Knops Pond westward, the echo of an earlier lively era of transportation and commerce can be detected, both on the landscape and in imagination. In the post-Revolutionary era, as the nation, state, and region gained their political and economic footing, the Great Road became a busy artery of stagecoach travel. Groton for a time served as a significant transfer point for stagecoach lines connecting Boston with communities arrayed north, south, and west. This era flourished in the early decades of the 1800s, but stagecoach travel dwindled and then came to an abrupt end as the new and expanding railroad network began to reach into or near the region’s towns from the 1830s onward.

Stagecoach days

Groton’s prolific historian, Samuel A. Green, writing in the 1890s, cites a 1793 newspaper advertisement as the first published reference to a regular Boston-Groton stagecoach service, with connections to Walpole, New Hampshire, on the Connecticut River. By 1802, a stage line had been established from Groton to New Ipswich, New Hampshire, the destination of the Davis/Robbins cattle drive a century later. Green describes the rumbustious scene in Groton during the stagecoach era:

During the first half of the present century Groton had one characteristic mark, closely connected with the old taverns, which it no longer possesses. It was a radiating centre for different lines of stage-coaches, until this mode of travel was superseded by the swifter one of the railroad. Wayfarers from the surrounding towns off the line of travel came hither daily in private vehicles to engage their seats and take their passage. During many years the stage-coaches were a distinctive feature of the place; and their coming and going were watched with great interest, and created the excitement of the day. In early times the drivers, as they approached the village, would blow a bugle in order to give notice of their arrival; and this blast was the signal at the taverns to put the food on the table. More than a generation has now passed away since these coaches were wont to be seen in the village streets. They were drawn usually by four horses, and in bad going by six. Here a change of coaches, horses and drivers was made.

Green and historians of other neighboring towns depicted the stagecoach drivers as swashbuckling, almost heroic figures, the messengers and symbols of the connection between rural towns and the commercial and cultural hub represented by Boston and the world beyond. “The stage-driver of former times belonged to a class of men that has now disappeared from the community,” Green wrote. “His position was one of considerable responsibility. This important personage was well known along the route, and his opinions were always quoted with respect.” He offered as an example “the familiar face of Aaron Corey, who [was] a careful and skillful driver, and a man of most obliging disposition. He would go out of his way to bear a message or leave a newspaper; but his specialty was to look after women and children committed to his charge.”

From further upcountry, Frederick Kidder and Augustus A. Gould, in their 1852 history of New Ipswich NH, offered from living memory a stirring portrait of the stagecoach trade and the larger-than-life coachmen:

That old stage coach! Who that can remember it, thirty
years ago, does not recall the excitement which was awakened when it peered over the brow of the hill, and came thundering down, with Jehu speed, half enveloped in a cloud of dust? The tin horn sounds its approach, and the driver, summoning his bravest air, rounds up to the door at full gallop, with a crack of the whip within an ace of the leader’s ear, which sent a thrill through every beholder. He was a great man, that coachman. He had seen what to us were foreign parts; and knew more of what was going on in the world than all the town beside. He was almost the only medium of intercourse between our mountain-enclosed citizens and the outside world. If there had been a fire, or a failure, a marriage or a murder, a death or a duel, he knew all about it. He jumps from his box while the mail bag is being examined, waters his horses, cracks a few jokes, retails as much gossip as the
time will allow, discharges a passenger if there happens to be one, tosses up his mail bag, mounts his seat, and is off to Batchelder’s tavern for dinner.

Taverns and inns

The stagecoach trade, as Groton historian Green noted, supported a substantial number of inns and taverns in villages and along the roads. Some of these buildings survive today, if not necessarily serving their original purpose. By one account, one of the stage-lines alone in 1831 carried 15,000 passengers along the route between Boston and Keene, New Hampshire. These travelers and the stagecoach crews required overnight accommodations and places to eat–and drink. “The public houses have been almost too numerous to mention,” observed New Ipswich historians Kidder and Gould in a censorious tone, “and very much too numerous for the good of the town.” Some of the taverns and inns were depots where the coaches harnessed fresh teams of horses (a function which our barn in Pepperell may have served). The fat histories of virtually every town in the region published in the latter 19th century routinely chronicled the taverns and inns that proliferated to serve travelers and commerce along the Great Road.

The Groton Inn, Main St., Groton MA, as it appeared circa 2007. The building and attached structures were destroyed in a 2011 fire. For many years, my father attended weekly Rotary Club meetings here. A new Groton Inn, advertised as a “boutique” hotel, opened on the same site in 2018. It maintains a facade and footprint similar to the original building, sections of which dated back to 1787. (“Community Wide Preservation Project: 2007,” Groton Historical Commission, Groton MA)

The crops and products produced by the farmers, small-scale manufacturers, and artisans of inland rural New England were increasingly traded in regional, national, and international markets. And the inhabitants of these upcountry communities of course required goods they could not produce. The flow of these commodities also contributed to the intensifying traffic along the Great Road. “Besides the stage-coaches, the carrier-wagons added to the business of Groton, and helped largely to support the taverns,” Green writes:

This road was traversed by a great number of wagons, drawn by four or six horses, carrying to the city the various products of the country, such as grain, pork, butter, cheese, eggs, venison, hides; and returning with goods found only in the city, such as molasses, sugar, New England rum, coffee, tea, nails, iron, cloths, and the innumerable articles found in the country stores, to be distributed among the towns above here. In some seasons it was no uncommon sight to seen forty such wagons passing through the village in one day.

Winter conditions, in that more dependably frigid era, proved a boon to commerce along the route, “especially during the season of good sledding,” according to Allen Chamberlain, author of Annals of the Grand Monadnock (1936), a durable classic of local history:

In winter the toll was but half the summer rate. The farmers and traders all the way from Vermont down used this route in carrying their pork, poultry, butter, cheese, grain, wool, hides and cider to down-country markets. For return cargoes they picked up consignments of such merchandise as iron and other hardware, cotton cloth and finer textiles, and groceries, which included New England rum. From twenty to forty sleds in company was no uncommon sight. In his “Old Days in Jaffrey” (1922) Honorable Albert Annett quotes an old man who remembered those days as saying that “Barnum’s Greatest Show on Earth was never a circumstance to the caravans that passed along our turnpike in those stirring days.”

Built circa 1812, the former Artemus Hemenway Tavern as it appears today on Rt. 119/South Road in Pepperell MA, about midway between Groton and the house where my family once lived a few miles to the west.

Leaving Groton, Davis and Robbins would have urged their herd westward across the Nashua River through Pepperell, past the site of our old home, then through the village of Townsend Harbor, where the road paralleled the Squannacook River (a tributary of the Nashua), into Townsend Center. The Townsend Common there is little changed today from how it appeared in the 1950s, when my younger sister and I crossed it while walking from our nearby Riverbank Terrace home to nursery school in the basement of the Congregational Church. And the setting was likely not so different from how it looked when Davis and Robbins herded their cattle along the adjacent streets. The Common was not a stopping place for them, but during the early 19th century, according to Townsend historian Richard Norton Smith in his Divinity and Dust: A History of Townsend, Massachusetts, 1676-1978 (1978), the “Common was used extensively about this time as a cow pasture, herds of cattle several hundred strong spending nights there enroute via the turnpike to summer pastures in southern New Hampshire.”

Townsend Common, at the intersection of MA Routes 119 and 13, looking west, where during the 19th century cattle had grazed during their annual migration upcountry. In the early 1950s, my family lived a few hundred yards behind and just to the left of the Civil War statue, in a small house on Riverbank Terrace beside the Squannacook River. (Marc N. Belanger, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Townsend also represented a significant focal and terminal point in the early decades of the 19th century in the development of the region’s road and transportation network. The stagecoach era coincided with an intense but short-lived period during which private, state-chartered corporations built “turnpikes” throughout New England. Tolls, collected at stations along their routes, would provide the revenues–and the anticipated though usually sparse profits–from the turnpikes. The private turnpikes were intended to facilitate and expedite transportation over longer distances, which had relied primarily on the uncoordinated, poorly maintained, and insufficient network of roads maintained by individual counties and towns.

“The turnpike era in Massachusetts began in 1796, when the first act of incorporation for a turnpike was passed,” according to Frederic J. Wood, author of The Turnpikes of New England (1919). “By 1850, most turnpike corporations had either been dissolved or had stopped collecting tolls.”

Townsend Center became the southeasternmost terminal points of two such turnpikes, both of which proceeded northwesterly, towards and into New Hampshire. “Townsend must have been fortunate in its roads in its eastern part,” Wood observes, “for both the Third New Hampshire and the Ashby seem to have been satisfied to terminate their roads at Townsend Center, leaving their patrons to continue their journeys over the county road.”

The Ashby Turnpike, chartered in 1806, appears to have more or less followed the route of present-day Rt. 119, through West Townsend, Ashby, and Ashburnham, to the New Hampshire border at Rindge. Wood, an engineer by profession and a meticulous researcher, reports that from its “westerly end the Ashby [Turnpike] seems to have been pointing toward Keene, New Hampshire, but no turnpike franchise has been found in that state which would complete the connection.” The toll road, perhaps not even twenty miles long, opened for business at the end of 1810, but was turned over to public use in 1833.

The other turnpike originating at Townsend Center was the Third New Hampshire Turnpike, a fifty-mile interstate route most of which traversed its namesake state as far as Walpole, on the Connecticut River. The New Hampshire organizers began work on the road in 1800. A year later, Massachusetts chartered the four-mile extension from Townsend Center to the state line, along the straight-line route of today’s Turnpike Road, just to the north of Rt. 119, to its intersection with the existing Mason Road near the Townsend Poor Farm. The route of the Third New Hampshire Turnpike, from Mason and New Ipswich to Walpole, is depicted on a map of New Hampshire from an 1816 atlas. (It is legible by enlarging and perusing the bottom of the map at the link above.)

Indeed, it was the common custom of turnpike companies, based on anticipated savings in building costs and traveling time, to build arrow-straight roads, regardless of local topography. As the Third New Hampshire Turnpike proceeded into the roller-coaster hills of New Ipswich, for whose residents the road’s location was as bad as it could well be,” according to one town historian, it “was laid out on the idea that the most direct course was both the shortest and most expeditious; hence there was the tugging directly over the summit of steep hills, when it would have been as near to go round them on nearly level ground.”

The turnpike survived as a toll road for barely twenty years, by which time, Wood reports, “the business had become so poor that the owners had practically abandoned the road” and the individual towns assumed the cost and responsibility of maintaining it as a public road.

A map prepared by Frederic J. Wood, author of The Turnpikes of New England (1919), depicts the Ashby Turnpike and the Massachusetts section of the Third New Hampshire Turnpike along the New Hampshire border at the top-center of the map. See inset below. (
A section of Wood’s map of 19th-century Massachusetts turnpikes, depicting two turnpikes terminating in Townsend MA and leading into New Hampshire: the Ashby Turnpike and the 3rth New Hampshire Turnpike. Marion Davis and Frank Robbins followed the route of latter (though it no longer functioned as a toll road) on their cattle drives north to New Ipswich NH. Wood’s map does not depict other public roads. In addition, it provides names for only those towns through which a turnpike passed. Thus, (from west to east) Pepperell, Groton, and Littleton are not identified in the blank area between Townsend and Acton/Concord.

Marion Davis’s recollection of her cattle-droving route doesn’t make clear whether she and Robbins followed Turnpike Road (former 3rd New Hampshire Turnpike) or Rt. 119 (former Ashby Turnpike) for the several miles between Townsend Center and West Townsend. If the former (Turnpike Road), it would have led them directly to their next identified destination, the Townsend Poor Farm, at the intersection of Mason Road. If the latter (Rt. 119), they would have turned northward in the village of West Townsend at Canal Street and across the Squannacook River along Mason Road to the Poor Farm. In either case, they and their cows would have passed or made use of sites where inns and taverns had flourished a century earlier.

An early tavern was constructed by the Hobart family in West Townsend, at the intersection of today’s Rt. 119/Main St. and Canal Street. By 1793, according to Townsend historian Smith, the West Townsend tavern was purchased by Moses Warren, under whose ownership it “became a popular stopping point for travelers to and from Boston” during the turnpike era. Warren’s old tavern still stands at the junction of the alternative routes upcountry represented by the two former turnpikes.

The former Moses Warren tavern (top and bottom photos) in West Townsend MA, as it appears today.

Whichever route they followed from Townsend Center, Davis and Robbins on the second night of their cattle drive from Concord would have arrived at the site of the Townsend Poor Farm, a mile or so north of the old Warren tavern in West Townsend. As it happens, the Town Poor Farm had originated as a tavern, according to Smith, when built by John Sherwin “around 1800 at the junction of Turnpike and Mason Roads.” By 1834, as the turnpike and stagecoach business waned, Townsend acquired the property for the care of the town’s indigent. Smith’s history, along with the characteristic design of the large outbuilding still standing at the site, reminded me that when I lived in Townsend the former poor farm was functioning as a substantial poultry farm.

The Townsend MA Poor House, at the intersection of Turnpike and Mason roads, in West Townsend, where Marion Davis and Frank Robbins stopped for the night with their cattle.
In case you are in the market for your own poor farm, Townsend’s is available. The granite road marker points the way left, along the route of the Third New Hampshire Turnpike, to the towns of Greenville, New Ipswich, and Jaffrey, and right to Mason.
The former poultry barn at the Townsend Poor Farms has been used for a variety of other commercial purposes in more recent decades. Directly behind the spot from which this photo was taken is a small pond, which may be where Davis and Robbins watered their herds. The meadow is today part of the Squannacook River Wildlife Management Area, owned by the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife.

“The next morning we’d make for the mountain. Sometimes we put cattle into the Old Peppermint. That’s where there used to be a tavern many years ago,” as Marion Davis recalled the final leg of the cattle drive. “Other times we’d make the top of the hill where the Brown place used to be, where the Wapack Lodge finally wound up. It took us two to three days sorting out the cattle to go to the different pastures. We’d take fifteen to twenty head over to Sharon pasture; there were about two hundred acres there. Some went up into the north end of Barrett Mountain to the Haines pasture, and the rest over to the Reed and Wheeler near the old Livingston place.”

The elevation at the Townsend Poor Farm, where Davis and Robbins began the third day of their cattle drive toward New Ipswich, is about 330 feet. From that point, the road starts to climb, noticeably and gradually more steeply, towards and into New Hampshire. “Upcountry,” it is clear even from the vantage of a comfortable modern automobile, has a literal, visceral meaning. The route would have been a hard trudge for those cows, and their drovers, after their night’s pasturing and watering at the Poor Farm. The road rises all the way to “the top of the hill where the Brown place used to be, where the Wapack Lodge finally wound up,” as Davis described their final destination, at over 1,400 feet, where the Wapack Trail crosses New Ipswich’s Turnpike Road (Rt. 123/124) today.

Well into the twentieth century, a long-time New Ipswich resident like Marion Davis could still talk of “Old Peppermint,” a storied tavern in town, that hadn’t operated since some time in the mid-nineteenth century. By the time Davis and Robbins were reaching the end of their cattle drives from Concord, the site served as a meadow and the original tavern building was apparently no more. Driving along Rt. 123/124 in New Ipswich today, near its intersection with North Road where the old tavern apparently once stood, a scattering of homes and small commercial buildings are arrayed on a somewhat scruffy and nondescript landscape typical of much of rural New England. Historians Kidder and Gould, writing in 1852 within living memory of the heyday of stagecoach travel along the turnpike, reported that the tavern Marion Davis called “Old Peppermint” had been built by Samuel Batchelder and “enjoyed the reputation of being the best house on the road, and indeed it was probably unsurpassed anywhere in the country.” The nature of its hospitality and appeal survived for generations in local lore, as in Marion Davis’s hand-me-down tale that the tavern’s local patrons relished an infamous beverage that “left them ‘sizzled for days.'”

The demise of “Old Peppermint” is captured, if somewhat cryptically and poignantly, in the pages of the town’s historians. The tavern’s last owner, Moody Adams, wrote Charles Henry Chandler in his 1914 History of New Ipswich, N.H. 1735-1914, operated the establishment for twenty years, “leaving it only when the changed methods of travel had left no patronage.” Adams then moved into the town’s Center Village where, according to Chandler, he finished his working days employed at a slaughter-house.

Indeed, the active, briefly lucrative (at least for some) era of intensive stagecoach travel along the route Marion Davis and Frank Robbins had traced from Meriam’s Corner in Concord to the site of Old Peppermint and “the top of the hill” where they would build their own hostelry, the Wapack Lodge, had lasted but a few decades in the early 1800s. Chandler’s predecessors as New Ipswich annalists, Kidder and Gould, in their 1852 volume had offered a kind of eulogy for the end of that colorful era:

But what a change has taken place within the last twenty years! The stage coach is no longer an object of wonder, and every body has travelled. The old straight road to Boston through Townsend, Pepperell, Groton, Littleton, Acton, Concord, Lexington and so on, the road which our fathers and grandfathers knew, has been well nigh abandoned; and were those who emigrated in 1833, to colonize a new town in Iowa, now to revisit their native place for the first time, they would have little conception of the strange and devious way by which they would approach it. And all owing to the introduction of railroads.

As Marion Davis and Frank Robbins in the early years of the twentieth century led Concord’s cattle up into their home terrain, they were marking the conclusion of one long chapter in the region’s cultural, environmental, and economic history. Soon, though, they would open a new chapter in that history by literally blazing a trail across their own mountain landscape. That path’s existence and impact persist a century later. ♦


Part 3 of “A Drover’s Tale” will describe how Marion Davis and Frank Robbins created the Wapack Trail. The 21-mile north-south hiking trail stretches from Mt. Watatic in Ashburnham, Massachusetts, along what has become known as the Wapack Range, and ends just north of North Pack Monadnock Mountain in Greenfield, New Hampshire. Their efforts influenced and reflected a transformation in the management and economy of their southern New Hampshire landscape, as agriculture gradually gave way to recreation, leisure, and the curation of its heritage.