Uncovering the rarely told secrets of Wilton history

Wilton, like most New Hampshire hill towns, has a past that encapsulates many different eras of change and growth. Old Home Days is a great time to remember how fortunate we are that a great deal of our history — in the land itself, as well as in wood and brick and stone — has survived. Much, though, is now lost to us and lives only in memory or a few old photographs. We see our town every day, but are we aware of the gems that lie hidden all throughout it? Some of our history that did survive into this century is not always apparent or visible to the casual viewer. The Historical Society and the Heritage Commission are preparing a brochure and map that will be a driving/walking tour of the many points of interest in town. Here, as a kind of a sneak preview, are just a few samples of the many secrets that Wilton holds.

Walk down Main Street, and take the time to remember while you do that it was all destroyed by fire; not once, but three times between December of 1874 and December of 1885. The Color Shop (built circa 1811) is the only building still standing today that had survived all three blazes; it was, for a time, the home of the Wilton Police and still has the old iron jail cells in the basement.

Did you know that there are remnants of what was once a bowling alley in town, beneath what is now Nelson’s Candy? Or that the Town Hall, and its theatre, were once home to traveling vaudeville shows as well as the early silent pictures? It stands on the site of the old Whiting House, one of two hotels on Main Street which burned to the ground in the first Main Street Fire of 1874. The old Jones Hotel, rebuilt as the Everett House, which survived into the 1940’s (now the parking lot by the river, opposite the Police Station) is the other.

The old Town Pound still sits in Wilton Center, where stray animals were gathered up by the Constable and corralled until their owners, after paying a fine, could claim them; and the Baptist Church (1817) was the oldest public building still standing in Wilton until it was converted into a private home.

Finally, how many of our citizens today know that Wilton was, for 26 years, the home of the Hillsborough County Poor Farm and the Poor Farm Cemetery where perhaps 200 or more men, women and children rest silently in the woods off Burton Highway in unmarked graves, forgotten now by all, except for brief mentions in yellowing old County Reports? Pieces of old milldams and the foundation stones of the mills themselves are scattered all through Wilton, up and down Blood Brook, Stony Brook, Mill Brook and the Souhegan, not to mention one of the few water-powered mills still standing, and still in operation in America, Frye’s Measure Mill.

These are but a few of the secrets that our town holds; you can find much more in pictures and artifacts and documents at the Historical Society, on the second floor of the Wilton Public and Gregg Free Library, which is open to the public every Thursday from 1:30 until 5 p.m.

Michael Dell’Orto is a Wilton resident and Heritage Commission member.

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