In colonial America, meetinghouses stood at the center of life in the community.
Two and a half centuries later, they retain a place in the hearts of townspeople, a symbol of their heritage and one of “603 Reasons” they regard New Hampshire as special.
“Every town used to have one. They were the center of town,” said Atkinson photographer Paul Wainwright, whose book with Peter Benes, “A Space for Faith: The Colonial Meetinghouses of New England,” documents their presence. “The whole idea of Town Meeting got started in meetinghouses.”
In some communities, the meetinghouse has put a town on the map.
“It’s Sandown’s claim to fame,” said Arlene Bassett, secretary for the organization that preserves the Old Meeting House. “People fly in from all over and ask if they can get in. People drive in from Massachusetts.”
Bassett’s family has stayed involved with the Old Meeting House for decades.
Her mother- and father-in-law helped save it 60 years ago. Her sister-in-law, Eleanor, recently died and had served as treasurer.
“It was started in 1773 and finished in 1774,” Bassett said.
Visitors can tell because the dates mark doors on either side of the building.
“The Old Meeting House has been used for everything,” Bassett said.
Typically first used as houses of worship, meetinghouses ultimately filled many roles in towns.
Town Meeting, voting, speeches from prominent politicians — all have happened at the Old Meeting House.
“It was the only building big enough where everybody could gather,” Bassett said.
That meant dinners, dances, weddings and plays were held at the meetinghouse.
Other important assemblies were, too.
“They gathered there to go to war, both the Revolutionary War and the Civil War,” Bassett said.
The Sandown meetinghouse is Wainwright’s favorite in the area.
“Sandown is one of the best preserved,” he said.