Wednesday, February 29, 2012

The Way We Were

Looking at Swanzey, you can almost see two distinct towns.  One is the Swanzey of old, with a strong manufacturing base.  For almost two hundred years, people worked with the resources at hand: wood and wool.  But that Swanzey ended around 1984, creating the town we see today.

The Bridges Inn is located in the Whitcomb House.  Construction on it began in 1792 by a Mr. Richard Stratton.  There was a Stratton Woolen Mill and the town library still bears his name.  The house was sold to Roswell Whitcomb in 1841.
The Whitcombs were another local family and they operated a saw mill.  Continuing to work with lumber, they ran a box factory.  However, in the early 1980's, amid tension between labor and management, the factory burnt down.  Part of the building remains today and a craftsman uses the space for a forge.


In 1918, the family built Whitcomb Hall.  It was involved in recruiting soldiers for World War I.  At some point, ownership was transferred to the town.  The hall thrived as a community center.  People would go there for meals (Whitcomb Hall china still exists!).  There was a stage for performances and even a basketball court.  Children attended pre-school and adults voted there.  Sadly, it is condemned today, but there is a movement afoot to restore it.

Next to the Ashuelot River, harnessing its energy, was Homestead Woolen Mills.  The building currently houses Tree-Free Greetings and was previously home to Trikeenan Tileworks.  Recently, the state removed the dam, allowing for over twenty miles of uninterrupted river.

Homestead Mills must have thought that they survived the recession when, in 1983, the interest rate fell.  They took out a large loan to build a loading dock.  A gas station had to be knocked down and traffic rerouted.  But by the time construction was complete in late 1984, the mill was out of business.

The woolen mill and the box factory closed at approximately the same time.  Swanzey lost well over a thousand jobs.  Two local businesses suffered immediately as a result.  Gomarlo's Food & Circus and Nick's Restaurant (pictured below are their former abodes, Gomarlo's on the left and Nick's on the right) were located across the street from the mill.  Both were owned by local families who had a long history of serving the community.  They adapted quickly, building new facilities on Route 10, where they are located today, still operated by the same owners.

The railroad came through Swanzey until not too long ago.  Children would wait for it after school.  As it passed, the conductor would toss out candy.  Today the tracks have been replaced with a bike path to Keene.  Perhaps the thing that I would most like to have seen are the Scarlet Marauders, a drum and bugle corps.  It was like a parade every weekend.  They would practice and march around the block.  They competed in national competitions and won their fair share of events.  Some of their uniforms are on display at the Swanzey Historical Museum.

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