Joseph Dow's History of Hampton: The Old Meeting-House

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The Old Meeting-House

Situated on the north side of "The Ring," encircling the ancient "Meeting-house Green," still stands, though renovated and modernized, the building erected for a house of worship by the Congregationalists, in 1797, after the Presbyterians had appropriated the old meeting-house, the fourth in order, built on the opposite side of the green. When the opposing parties united, as related in our Ecclesiastical History, under the agreement of 1808, one sanctuary, the new one, again drew all the people together, and not only the old church, but the old spot, consecrated from the first settlement of the town, was deserted.

That summer, the glass was taken out and windows boarded up; and, in the fall, the old house, built in 1719, was torn down, most of the lumber thrown into lots and sold by auction, and the ground cleared. Meanwhile, the new meeting-house was altered somewhat, to suit the new requirements; the owners of the "long pews" were given liberty to change them into "square pews," at their own expense; the "singing pews," were built out of material from the old church; and the house, painted. The selectmen had been instructed that year, to "pay over to a committee, to be appointed by the singers, thirty dollars, for the use of the singing in the town." Then, in November, it was ordered: "that the front of each gallery be made uniform with the four frunt, with banisters," and "that the men shall set in the front of the galleries, and the young men in the other seats, according to age." The pews on the floor of the house, and running around three sides, at the back of the galleries, were occupied by families, as at the present day; but later, and probably from the first, the long gallery seats, between the row of pews and the balustrade, were free; and the above regulation applied to all who were not otherwise accommodated.

It was a venerable array of elderly men, who looked down from those front seats in the high gallery. Each man, as he entered, reached over the balustrade and deposited his hat on a projecting shelf, all unconscious that the general effect would, for a lifetime, impress itself upon the boys of the day, as that of a second-hand hatter's shop. Boys were quick to note when a luckless hat dropped over and startled some one below; but fear of the stern tithing-men generally kept the merriment pent up for the time. The young men, arranged according to age, behind their elders on the west end; the women, on the east; the few negroes, in their allotted northwest corner; and the "singing-pews," facing the pulpit, complete the picture of the galleries, as presented to us by memory or tradition. Winding stairs on either side led up into the high, urn-shaped pulpit, under the great sounding-board.

Not until 1811 was the steeple built. Two years before the old house was taken down, Colonels Garland and Shaw were chosen in town meeting, to exchange the old bell for a new one, to be not lighter than five hundred pounds nor heavier than six hundred; but we find no further action in regard to a bell, until this year 1811, when a committee of five were chosen, to make a plan and receive proposals for building the steeple, and also to ascertain the cost of a new bell, of not less than six hundred pounds nor more than eight hundred, the old bell to be turned in towards the payment. It is probable, therefore, that, for at least three years, there had been, for the only long interval since the settlement of the town, no bell to call the people together. Jeremiah Hobbs contracted to build the steeple, for eight hundred ninety dollars; and from a vote on the 2nd of December, "that the bell be rung at nine o'clock at night till next March meeting," we know that the purchase was promptly made. The ringing of the bell was put up to the lowest bidder, and secured by John Brown, for seven dollars.

From that time on, the nine o'clock bell became an institution, with the exception, for some years, that on Saturday and Sunday nights it should be rung at eight. Year after year, at the March meeting, the office of "saxon" was put up, with varying results, till, in 1839, it settled permanently on Samuel Harden, usually at from twenty five to thirty dollars. "Grandsir Harden," as he came to be called, in his old age, was long a familiar figure in his daily visits to the station, to keep his thick, old-fashioned watch regulated by railroad time. Let a tribute be here paid, to his twenty-three years' faithful service, as sexton for the town.

The noon bell was inaugurated in 1825, but only for the summer; later it was rung at noon from April 1 to November 1, and at nine from November to April. But in 1838, and thence onward, both noon and nine o'clock were signalled from the belfry, the year round.

In March, 1821, behold -- an innovation! John Down, James Leavitt, Esq., and Dr. Lawrence were chosen a committee, "to place the stove in the meeting-house, so as not to injure the meeting-house or any person who sits therein." Two months later the same committee were requested to "remove said stove out of the meeting-house, until next fall." Oh, the endurance of former generations! Who, of the present day, would or could sit through the long service, morning and afternoon, each Sabbath day, from autumn to summer, in an absolutely unwarmed house? The little foot-stove of perforated tin, with its dish of live coals, brought from home or from a neighboring fireplace, kept the fortunate possessor from benumbing cold for a little while, and as long as the fire lasted, was sometimes slipped along from one to another in the pew; but could have been but a sorry makeshift, against the rigor of a New England winter.

A vote of the town in 1831 is significant, as showing that the old denominational stiffness was relaxing. It was voted, "to give the ministers of other denominations liberty to preach in the meeting-house when not otherwise occupied." But, a poll being demanded, it was found to have passed by the somewhat narrow margin of fifty-seven to forty-three.

After the Congregational society removed to their new church, in 1844, it became necessary to renew the lease of the ground on which the old house stood, or make some other provision for a legal tenure. As a result of negotiations with Edmund W. Toppan, who owned the land, the town bought the site, for four hundred dollars. The next year, liberty to open the house for any other than town purposes was refused, and as these occurred but seldom, the building soon came to be a prey to vandalism, for the detection of which, rewards were offered. The temptation to ring the bell at improper times had always been a fruitful source of trouble, -- so much so, that fines of considerable amount had been occasionally imposed; and at one annual meeting, the town had specified the days and hours on which the bell should be rung, by the sexton only, or by his order, "and at no other times, under penalty of fifty cents for each offense or neglect." Included in this order was: "on July 4, at sunrise, twelve and sunset," whence it seems that it was a patriotic principle, not a "jolly lark" to ring for Independence. Gradually, however, the boys captured the situation, when new rules were made and large fines required for violation.

In March, 1850, it was voted that the intermission between meetings on Sabbath days, be two hours, from April 1 to October 1, and the remainder of the year, one and a half hours. The town controlled the bell, and the churches conformed to this town regulation. The order has never been formally revoked, though for the last few years, the afternoon service has been for the most part, given up.

After the old Academy was burned, in 1851, and negotiations between town and trustees, to fit up the old meeting-house for a town-house and Academy had failed, small repairs were made, as needed, but no great work undertaken till, in 1855, a proposition was made to raise a thousand dollars for repairs and such alterations as would give a good hall and other needed rooms. But here interposed a difficulty growing out of the tenure of the property. It is related that, on the promontory of Kieman, in Switzerland, situated on the western side of the lake of Zug, is a forest, where "the land belongs to Lucerene, the wood belongs to the canton of Zug, and the leaves, to the canton of Sweitz. [Bucke's Beauties of Nature, I:80.] So, formerly, this old meeting-house belonged to the town of Hampton, the site, to Mr. Toppan, and the pews, to individuals. The land having been purchased, there still remained the questions of the rights of those pew-owners, who had declined to relinquish their pews, when the societies united, in 1808; and for the time, the matter of repairs was dropped. Another attempt the next year also failed; but in 1860, the scheme was enlarged and carried to successful completion.

At the annual town meeting, held in the town house (so called in the warrant for the first time, instead of "old Congregational meeting-house," as heretofore), David Towle, Jr., Thomas L. Marston, Daniel Y. Moulton, Morris Hobbs and Morrill M. Coffin were appointed a committee, to consider the several propositions made and report at an adjournment. Their report was adopted and the work done accordingly. Hon. Amos Tuck, of Exeter, Thomas Brown, Esq., of Hampton Falls, and John Lamprey, Esq., of North Hampton were chosen a committee, to appraise the pews; and the selectmen were instructed to tender to the pew holders the amount awarded by said committee, before any repairs should be commenced. They were authorized to hire a sum not exceeding twelve hundred dollars for the proposed repairs, for which they should levy on the tax-payers, two hundred dollars annually, till the required amount should be raised. The site was to be enlarged by purchase, the house turned end to the road, and the proposed alterations made, including an upper and lower hall and several smaller rooms, the taking down of the corner tower and building a belfry from the roof, and all to be completed before the first of November. That done, the old bell, which had done good service for nearly fifty years, but was now regarded as quite too small, was exchanged for a new one, of fourteen hundred eight-five pounds' weight.

In this style the town-house stood till 1888, when it was again radically made over, at a cost of about thirty-three hundred dollars.

The nine o'clock bell has been but a memory, since the spring of 1878; and in 1888, the noon bell also was discontinued, its place being supplied for a time by the steam whistles of saw-mill and shoe-shop.

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