By John Toole
---- — 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.
No matter what new facilities appear, communities still manage to find a place for their meetinghouses.
“It’s always been in use,” Hampstead historian Maurie Randall said of the Old Meeting House, built in 1745.
Despite a major remodeling project in 1836, when a second floor was added and old box pews removed, the building retains its character.
“It’s all original,” Randall said.
A famous name is attached to Hampstead’s meeting house, that of Paul Revere.
But it is not the patriot rider, rather his son, Paul Revere Jr., who made the bell.
“He only made two or three of them. This is one,” Randall said.
These words are engraved on the bell: “To the church I call, and to the grave I summons all.”
The Congregationalists used the meetinghouse for decades, but departed amid conflict with another group of worshippers.
Randall said historical accounts relate how they left because “damned Baptists” had started using the meetinghouse.
“Back then, religion was quite a thing,” Randall said.
For a long time, the meetinghouse in Hampstead served as home to the Grange.
“If you go upstairs to the second floor, there is a door and it has a round circle 3 inches in diameter with a slide that covers it,” Randall said.
“You had to have a password to get into the Grange meeting,” he said.
Derry has a meetinghouse, too, built in 1769. It’s in East Derry, home to the First Parish Congregational Church.
“It’s the one link we’ve had since the beginning of our town,” historian Rick Holmes said. “That’s been the constant. It was used for everything. It was the town’s function hall.”
Townspeople went there for worship, to pray for men going to war, to marry children and bury the dead, he said.
A meetinghouse is the fabric of a town, Holmes said.
Today, Sandown holds open houses at the meetinghouse, lets students come on field trips and allows couples to marry there.
“We have two weddings scheduled next year so far, one in May and one in June,” Bassett said.
Preservation is an ongoing concern with meetinghouses.
Randall recalls fending off a modernization effort by a selectman a few years ago to cover the exterior with vinyl siding.
He sees these buildings as community treasures to be defended and protected.
“They all should be preserved,” Randall said.
“Preservation” is what should be their future, Holmes said.
A few years ago, Holmes encouraged officials to include the meetinghouse, not the Old Man of the Mountain, on the state’s commemorative quarter.
“Now, the Old Man is a pile of rocks,” he said. “We have a bunch of meetinghouses that are still standing.”