Rare summer carriage part of Francestown’s history

  • A fully-restored 1897 Vis-a-vis ladies carriage, which belonged to a prominent Francestown family in the early 1900s, is returning to town to become a part of the Francestown Heritage Museum's collection. Courtesy image—

  • The 1897 Vis-a-vis ladies carriage during its last use in Francestown: carrying Francestown resident Jane Hamilton's older sister from the Old Meeting House to her wedding reception at Old Tannery Farm on June 22, 1946. The carriage, which belonged to a prominent Francestown family in the early 1900s, is returning to town to become a part of the Francestown Heritage Museum's collection. Courtesy image—

  • The vis-a-vis carriage in the Francestown Heritage Museum on Thursday, July 22, 2021. Courtesy image—

  • Carriage deliveryman Chris Gabala and Francestown Heritage Museum curators Bob Abbott and Bill McAuley roll the vis-a-vis carriage into its new home. July 22, 2021. Staff photo by Abbe Hamilton—

  • Carriage deliveryman Chris Gabala and Francestown Heritage Museum curators Bob Abbott and Bill McAuley roll the vis-a-vis carriage into its new home. July 22, 2021. Staff photo by Abbe Hamilton—

  • Carriage deliveryman Chris Gabala and Francestown Heritage Museum curators Bob Abbott and Bill McAuley roll the vis-a-vis carriage into its new home. July 22, 2021. Staff photo by Abbe Hamilton—

Monadnock Ledger-Transcript
Published: 7/26/2021 2:12:09 PM

A little more than 30 years after it left Francestown, a fully-restored 1860s-era vis-a-vis carriage returned to town on Thursday. The vehicle, unique in its own right, earned a place in the Francestown Heritage Museum as a piece of town history.

The carriage’s gleaming painted steel, fringed parasol, and lightweight wicker seats and trim was a striking contrast to the more commonplace truck and trailer that brought it up from Charleston, South Carolina, where Francestown native Jane Hamilton (formerly Evans) kept it for many years.

“Vis-à-vis,” French for face-to-face, refers to the carriage’s design, which seats passengers face to face behind the driver’s seat. “A lady would go out and about on an afternoon to show off her elegant carriage and would probably be dressed in an outfit to match the upholstery and wicker trim,” Hamilton said. The carriage would be drawn by a matched pair of Morgan horses, she said. This particular carriage originally came to Francestown thanks to Alice Winslow (1883-1955), the wife of Boston industrialist and head of United Shoe Machine Sidney Winslow (1880-1963). The couple owned a hobby farm known as Hob & Nob Farm on a large tract of land in town at the base of Crotched Mountain, Francestown Heritage Museum curator Bill McAuley said.

 “Mrs. Winslow was quite the socialite and often fêted large gatherings of the ladies from Boston,” McAuley said. “The story goes that they would come up from Boston by railroad and wanted to be able to get themselves and their friends from Greenfield to their farm in Francestown when they arrived.” The Evans family of Francestown owned a tannery and stored the Winslow’s carriages while they were in the city, McAuley said. Hob & Nob farm was a premier farm, one of the largest land holdings in town during its day, and nationally recognized for breeding award-winning dairy cows and sheep, he said. “The farm brought a good deal of money and jobs to the town and many folks today still collect the old glass Hob & Nob milk bottles,” McAuley said.

The vehicle’s glamorous heyday came to an end when the main barn at Hob & Nob Farm burned, and the Winslows left the area for good, McAuley said. They gave the vis-à-vis carriage to the Evans family, and deeded their Concord stagecoach to the town, he said.

The carriage was last driven in 1946, for Hamilton’s sister’s wedding at the Old Meeting House. It then sat for years in the Evans’ barn, just a couple hundred feet from its new home at the Heritage museum, before joining Hamilton in Charleston, South Carolina in 1984. It was refurbished after sustaining damage during Hurricane Hugo in 1989, Hamilton wrote, and got new springs, perfectly-matched upholstery, and hand-painted mustard colored striping. It kept its original Brewster lamps.

Earlier in 2021, Hamilton, now 93, asked the town if they wanted the carriage back. That was an obvious yes, McAuley said. Less clear was how they would get the pristine, 150-plus year-old apparatus all the way up the coast.  A conversation with the Carriage Association of America supplied Chris Gubala, who’s made carriage deliveries his job for 25 years. The museum managed to raise the necessary funds in just two weeks, McAuley said.

Gubala has seen thousands of carriages while delivering antique horse-drawn vehicles across the country. How special is Francestown’s vis-a-vis? “It’s gonna be in the top two percent of rarity, first of all,” he said as he helped Heritage Museum curators McAuley and Bob Abbott push the carriage into its new home. “Few people ordered wicker,” he said, so the carriage would have been a rarity even when it was made. Gubala said he only knows of three wicker Brewster vis-a-vis carriages, period. “You can’t find a price on that,” he said.

Northern New England’s climate lends itself perfectly to preserving antique vehicles, which are optimally stored at 50 degrees and 50 percent humidity, Gubala said. “New Hampshire, Vermont, Maine... there’s a lot of old homesteads and old farms,” he said. “This is where you find the greatest stuff,” he said, describing it as “carriage-picking heaven.”

What’s in store for the carriage now that it’s returned to Francestown? That’s still in the works, McAuley said. “We would like to have it in the town Labor Day parade,” and other such events – one of the museum curators even has connections to arrange for horses and a competent two-in-hand driver. “We will have to see if they will let us,” he said, as it can be hard to insure horse-drawn vehicles in parades. Meanwhile, the Heritage Museum is open in the summer on Friday afternoons from 4-6 p.m., concurrent with the farmers market on the Town Common. 


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