Bennington celebrates 175th anniversary

  • Bennington to celebrate 175th anniversary. (Abby Kessler / Monadnock Ledger-Transcript) Staff photo by Abby Kessler—Monadnock Ledger-Transcript

  • Bennington to celebrate 175th anniversary. (Abby Kessler / Monadnock Ledger-Transcript) Staff photo by Abby Kessler—Monadnock Ledger-Transcript

  • Bennington’s 175th anniversary celebration is this weekend. Staff photo by Abby Kessler

Monadnock Ledger-Transcript
Thursday, June 01, 2017 12:16AM

It’s told that Bennington’s first settler was a man by the name of Joseph Putnam.

A book called “A History of Bennington New Hampshire” tells the tale of Putnam riding a horse through a thicket of woods when he happened upon a gurgling stream. He followed the sound until he reached the Contoocook River where he discovered a section of the river that dropped 70 feet, a natural feature that became known as Great Falls.

Putnam later established a farm and built a saw and grist mill (a mechanism that grinds grain to flour) near the falls. The business became essential for the rise of the new community. 

Later on, a group wanted to establish the area as its own town.

Eventually pieces of Antrim, Francestown, Deering, Greenfield, and Hancock were taken to establish enough land to create the town.

It became known as Bennington, a name derived from then-governor Benning Wentworth. It was established in 1842, 70 years after Putnam had set down his roots in the area.

The history books say people began clearing forests and pulling granite rocks from the earth, stacking them into walls that still line parts of the town today. Five dams have provided power to run different mills and industries, which include a chair factory, a knife manufacturer, saw and grist mills, a cotton-thread maker, and the Monadnock Paper Mill that’s still in operation today.

“It was a good spot for mills because of the river,” said Lisa Berghaus, marketing manager for the Monadnock Paper Mill.

Sandra Cleary, a member of the town’s historical society, said at one time, there were many mills that lined the river, which provided steady work for many of the townspeople.

In the late 19th century, soil depletion coupled with people fleeing in search of more urban areas led to widespread depopulation, but in the early 20th century, hundreds of foreign laborers rushed into the town in search of work at the mills.

Over time, people opened taverns, hotels, inns, restaurants, and shops. Residents also established schools, churches, firehouses, a town hall, and cemeteries. Recreational activities in the town include swimming and fishing in the Contoocook, attending summer camp, listening to music at the bandstand, playing baseball at Sawyer Park or Newhall Field, and skiing and hiking on Crotched Mountain, the book says. 

Much has changed in town over the years, as businesses have come-and-gone, and structures have been subject to fires, floods, and other natural disasters. The bandstand, old wooden sidewalks, and the shuttering of many of its factories are just a few of changes the town has witnessed over the years. Farming in the community has also diminished, and the fields that were once cleared have largely grown back into forests, the books says.

For more than a hundred years, the town’s population has remained fairly steady, hovering around 650 people. Within last several decades or so, the town has seen a burgeoning number of people. The most recent census, which was completed in 2010, lists 1,476 inhabitants.

And while much has changed, a lot has stayed the same.

Its Town Hall, Pierce Elementary School, and the Congregational Church are still the focus of the village’s center, which recently received designation as a historic district.

The paper mill remains in business, functioning as the backbone of industry and employment for the town.

Cleary said she has been in town her entire life.

“I will be 70 this year, and I was born and brought up here,” Cleary said, adding that she went to Antrim for two years but has otherwise been in town the entire time. “… And you know what? My husband, who is 74, the same thing.”

Cleary said older generations in town are like that. They’ve stayed.

She said many things have changed since she was a young girl. On that list, are stores that have come-and-gone over the years.

“I remember as a child my mom would give us a grocery list and cash to go buy food from the market,” Cleary said.

At that time, she said, most people shopped in town. Now, people travel to Hillsborough or even Concord to buy their groceries.

And while people used to stay in town for life, younger generations are more likely to leave in search of larger communities.

But for the old-timers, and the people who know the town of Bennington well, the small town that pulses on without much attention from outsiders, is a place steeped in rich history that has affected neighboring towns, the state, nation, and some argue the world.

“Right here in Bennington, we were involved with shaping the history of the world,” said the late David Glynn, who is the co-author of the history book and a lead contributor of a pictorial history book of the town. Glynn passed away on Saturday.