A Shared Sense of Community
Story and Photos by Stacy Milbouer / Fiddlehead Contributing Editor
A lot of people glean their image of New England from movies, TV, Norman Rockwell paintings or old Currier and Ives prints – idealized vignettes of dirt roads, mom-and-pop shops, brick buildings, snow-covered pines, general stores and neighbors who seem to know everyone in town.
It’s a bucolic image. But the small towns and villages along the Souhegan River, like Wilton, hold the promise of those idealized visions.
They’re like versions of Brigadoon – almost untouched by the passage of time. In Wilton there are no malls, few if any fast-food places and more forest than asphalt. But there is well-preserved architecture, lots of dirt roads, small business, farmland, history and a shared sense of community in this former mill town.
The Temple-Wilton Community Farm, for example, formed 32 years ago, is the oldest continuously operating CSA (community supported agriculture) farm in the country. There is an on-site store selling fresh products like raw milk, yogurt, eggs and meat.
And visitors can dine on those farm-fresh products at the on-site Hilltop Café, in an 18th-century farm house with one of the best views in the region. In addition to a wide range of coffee and tea drinks, the menu includes polenta bowls; breakfast soup made with chicken broth, organic red miso, cilantro and scallions; and spinach, goat cheese and feta croissants. There are also special Friday and Saturday night pop-up-style, four-course dinners by Chef Michael Zielie with themes, such as Hilltop’s India menu on Nov. 17-18.
On nearby Abbot Hill is Wilton’s High Mowing School, situated on what was a mid-18th-century farm. It’s the first Waldorf high school in North America, celebrating its 75th anniversary this year. Across the street from High Mowing and sharing its 300-acre campus is Pine Hill Waldorf School, a preschool through eighth grade. The two schools merged last year.
And then there’s downtown Wilton, which is, admittedly, in transition with many family businesses steeped in generations and several younger entrepreneurs starting out on the historic Main Street.
Jessican Searles, owner of Frost This!, a bakery specializing in homemade cookies, cakes, cake pops, cupcakes, brownies, pies and muffins “just like your grandma used to make” is one of those small business owner who chose downtown to locate, or rather relocate, her new business. “There’s a lot going on here on Main Street,” she said.
Searles worked at the bakery when it was in Greenville, bought it with her mother, Melissa Bronson, and earlier this year moved it to 53 Main St. in June.
“Business is better here” said Searles. “In addition to the movie theater, there are a lot of attractions. Gary’s Harvest Restaurant opened earlier this year, and the Sky Bridge Café opened a couple of years ago.”
Gary’s relocated to Main Street from a highway location on Route 101 where it served customers for 35 years. That location is now the home of Oliver’s Restaurant, specializing in homemade food and baked goods – including the best peanut butter whoopie pies ever.
Owner Kirk Burnelle, whose parents ran the highway eatery all those years, picked up the gauntlet and opened the new Gary’s Harvest downtown. Burnelle, who started working at his family’s business in grade school, chose downtown for its location and to fill the void left when two eateries closed.
Main Street has been so good for Jennifer St. Cyr’s Cropaholics, a scrapbooking business at 43 Main St., that she recently expanded her shop.
Local Share: Community Supported Gathering and Foods opened two years ago as a coffee shop, gathering place and a shop selling items such as candles, handmade toys and hand-knit goods from Greenfield’s Plowshare Farm.
Earlier this year, Ducks in Row yoga opened at 51 Main St., specializing in teaching yoga and “children of all ages” how to be mindful and manage stress.
All the business owners on Main Street agree that there’s nothing but support for old and new businesses alike. Among the oldest is Elmer’s Barber Shop, celebrating its half-century anniversary on Main Street.
Marie Fortier, owner of Here Today Emporium for 23 years, was all about upcycling before it was “a thing.” Her shop on Main has four rooms of antiques, vintage furnishings, handmade gifts and jewelry. It’s the perfect location for non-stress, non-mall holiday shopping. And a bonus for all who visit is hanging out with Belle, her adorable pug.
White Home Collections on 9 Greenville Road also has upcycled and hand-crafted items, perfect for a one-of-a-kind holiday gift.
Doug Nelson’s family started Nelson’s Candies in 1914 in Lowell and in the summer, operated at Hampton Beach. For the past 25 years, he has adopted Wilton’s Main Street as the business’ home.
“I love it here,” he said while operating a vintage taffy pulling machine in the shop’s front window.
He’s using many of the family’s original recipes, including his grandfather’s iconic, authentic, hand-pulled, foot-tall candy canes he makes at the holidays and hangs from the ceiling.
“They’re the best in the world,” said Nelson. “Customers come from everywhere to buy them.”
When traditional Hand Pulled Christmas Canes hang from the ceiling and chocolate Santas line the shelves.And for the past 15 years he’s also run “Local’s Café,” which he calls, “the best-kept secret in Wilton.” It’s an intimate live-blues music venue attached to the candy shop that comes alive each Saturday night. There are open-mic nights for local talent, live folk and rock performances, and a focus on good, old-fashioned blues with the likes of Luther Guitar Junior Johns and Chicago Blues Trio having played there. And Doug also grabs an “axe” when his house band – Sweet Tooth – (a name he hates, he said) take the stage.
Live music can also be heard at the unlikely venue of Wilton Attic Finds consignment store, where “Robert the Saxophone Man,” plays most Saturday afternoons from 1-4 p.m. to entertain shoppers and passersby.
It does seem Wilton is the kind of character-filled community one might see in a classic film screened at Town Hall Theatre, especially at holiday time (see sidebar). That’s especially true when heading to Main Street, doing a little shopping, grabbing a homemade candy cane or chocolate Santa and taking in a big-screen showing of “It’s a Wonderful Life.”
You can almost see George Bailey running down Main Street and listening for bells to ring when his guardian angel Clarence Odbody gets his wings. There must be many angels in Wilton because the chimes in the town clock tower sound every hour and ring out holiday tunes during the season.
Speaking of angels, volunteerism abounds in Wilton year-round. Tom Belt, a retired teacher, could recently be seen doing volunteer work for the Wilton Main Street Project at the Main Street Park. The Wilton Main Street Association, with a $10,000 town budget, is active in trying to preserve the traditions of Main Street, while reinvigorating downtown business and industry.
Belt was instrumental in creating the environmental sculpture that is the centerpiece of the park. The large glacial erratic boulder is charged by water that erupts from the top, where it pools before falling over the side.
“It came from the intersection of the Isaac Frye Highway and Burton highways, where more than a few cars hit it over the years. We decided we had a much better use for it. I think the public works department was glad to be rid of it,” Belt said.
While he spoke, a handful of giggling children were playing with the hands-on piece of public art.
The park also features a Little Free Lending Library cabinet, designed to look like the Wilton Public Library, hanging from the wall of an adjoining building, where readers may pick up or leave a book to share with others.
There’s an effort in town to reinvigorate commerce while retaining its authentic, hometown character.
Richard Putnam, 70, is owner of Putnam’s Clothing, a fixture on Main Street for more than 100 years. While once just a haberdashery, Putnam’s now sells formal wear, casual clothing, does dry cleaning, tailoring, wedding invitations and has one of the most expansive wall-sized magazine racks around.
“You have to change with the times,” said Putnam, who is not shy about retiring and trying to sell the establishment while at the same time staying active in community matters. He said he doesn’t see Wilton turning into a hipster town with a Starbucks on every corner.
“Our undiscovered gem is our natural resources and our outdoor recreations,” he said. “We have miles of beautiful hiking trails, an active snowmobile club, which beautifully maintains trails while keeping an eye on conservancy. We’re at the confluence of two waterways – the Souhegan and Stony Brook. There’s an active white-water rafting, hunting and fishing activity here.”
Putnam puts faith in the one-year-old Wilton Economic Development Commission, to which the town has given a $10,000 budget – and especially its director, Jennifer Beck, a retired marketing director.
The goal of the commission, on which Putnam sits, is “to help achieve the vision of Wilton residents to remain a vibrant and thriving small town … to protect its rural environment, historic charm, and natural resources while promoting opportunities for residential and business growth …”
Since its inception, the commission has brought three warrant articles to Town Meeting, surveyed business owners and residents, sought a business retention study and held a design charrette this summer.
This town is working on the future, but has deep roots in the past. Wilton was first part of a township chartered as Salem-Canada in 1735 by Colonial Governor Jonathan Belcher of Massachusetts to soldiers from Salem, Mass. In 1749, it was re-granted by New Hampshire Colonial Governor Benning Wentworth and was known simply as “Number Two,” but was officially incorporated as Wilton some 13 years later – named either for Wilton, England, or for Sir Joseph Wilton, a famous English sculptor.
The town’s 19th-century mill town roots are evident in the brick buildings, which still line the Souhegan River, The County Farm stone arch bridge over the Whiting Brook and at Frye’s Measure Mill on Frye Mill Road. (see sidebar).
Perhaps Putnam described this town best.
“We’re not Milford and we’re not Peterborough. We’re Wilton, and that’s different than other towns.”
A Measure in Time
By Tom Long / Fiddlehead Contributing Editor
Frye’s Measure Mill in Wilton is an echo of an earlier day when water power was high-tech and a wooden “piggin” was the latest kitchen appliance.
Charles Dickens would feel right at home at the Victorian-era hilltop compound of red wood-framed buildings where a sign at the entrance proclaims: “water powered since 1858.”
Visitors to the factory and museum shop walk creaky well-worn floors and the warren of rooms redolent of the stain used to the make the wooden boxes that have been the factory’s bread and butter since 1848.
“The mill has been in family hands almost since it first opened,” said Lorrie Haskell, who took time out from staining boxes on a recent morning to explain the operation to visitors. “The boxes are made of maple wood that was harvested from our own lot until the mid-1970s, but we still get it locally.”
The factory was originally powered by a water wheel, which was replaced in the 19th century by a cast iron underwater turbine. The last of its kind, the mill was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1982.
The mill and its workers turn out a fantasia of hand-crafted, wooden containers. There are oval boxes to measure dry goods and buttons. There are square lap boxes, courting boxes, tinder boxes, document boxes, round Colonial boxes and oval Shaker boxes. All are museum quality, meticulously crafted works of art.
But there is more to the mill than vessels. The artful container displays are salted with a selection of antiques – on a recent visit there was a Colonial-era foot warmer of tin and wood, daguerreotypes, even vintage Baldwin and Cortland apple tags from the Frye Family Farm in Wilton.
There were also more modern items likes Monadnock Micro Roasted Coffee, English pub glasses and a wooden writing box containing black, blue, red and green ink, some parchment and a nibbed pen. Shoppers are serenaded by acoustic string music that conjures up an earlier time.
Browsers may also visit another building in the compound that once housed the factory’s blacksmith and now has a selection of antiques. There’s also the fire station on-site, which houses several vintage fire engines. Another building is home to the Oak Leaves Studio of fine art wood carver William Schnute.
The mill’s “contrivances’ were first made by Daniel Craigin, who founded the operation in 1858 and sold his boxes from Boston to San Francisco. At the time, farmers, fishermen, storekeepers and homemakers needed measurement devices when mechanical scales were scarce. Originally the boxes were made in five sizes: one, two and four quarts, a peck and a half bushel. Nesting sets of all five were popular.
In 1909, Whitney and Edmond Bailey Frye purchased the mill and their family owned it for 52 years before selling it to general manager Harland Savage in 1961.The Savage family still owns and operates the mill using period machinery and techniques.
“Some of the molds we use are more than 100 years old,” said Haskell. “We have made Shaker boxes since the 1960s, after Eldress Bertha visited from Canterbury Shaker Village.”
Inspired by the Shaker motto “hands to work, hearts to God,” Harland Savage designed Shaker boxes using his grandchildren’s hands as a pattern for the overlap, or “finger joint.”
So, what exactly is a piggin? It’s a small wooden bucket with a handle. They can be held by the bucket or the handle or even hung at one’s side. They were once the most modern of kitchen appliances. Frye’s make them in one- and two-cup sizes.
Wilton’s Heart and Soul
Story and photos by Stacy Milbouer / Fiddlehead Contributing Editor
Want to jump into your favorite holiday movie? Head over to Wilton Town Hall Theatre, where Main Street might as well be the Bedford Falls soundstage of “It’s a Wonderful Life.”
Not coincidently, Town Hall Theatre shows free holiday films on weekends in December, including the 1946 Frank Capra classic. Moviegoers are only asked to bring nonperishable food items, if they choose, to donate to the Open Cupboard food pantry or drop some change or cash in the cookie jar, the proceeds of which go to local charities at the holidays.
Those collected donations are just one of the ways the theater, situated on the second and third floors of Wilton Town Hall, serves as the heart of this community.
“It’s my holiday. It’s my favorite thing to do,” said Dennis Markaverich, who has operated the theater for more than 45 years.
Art films, classics, silent movies, as well as documentaries and well-chosen mainstream features (Markaverich once vowed never to show a Sylvester Stallone movie and never did) are shown in the 250-seat “Big House” theater. In 1988, Markaverich added the intimate 63-seat “Screening Room,” converted from the original vaudeville actors’ changing room.
The brick structure was built in 1886 as a vaudeville venue where the likes of Sophie Tucker and Tessie O’Shea once performed and signed a wall backstage. In 1912, the venue became a movie theater where silent films left citizens in wonder and a live piano player was the only sound track. During World War II, Town Hall Theatre was the only show in town, and those on the home front came to watch news reels and escape from reality – if only for a few hours at a time.
Technologically, the theater has changed with the times; there’s surround sound systems in both theaters, which are being converted to digital formats. But the theater has never lost its commitment to an old-fashioned movie-going experience, including a red velvet curtain, which opens when the feature begins, and low admission prices – $7, $5 for seniors and free for members of the military.
Snacks are a throwback to an earlier time. For the price of one box of Junior Mints at a multiplex you can get two house-made popcorns with real melted butter, two small lemonades and a Klondike Bar.
It’s usually Markaverich who sells tickets, butters the popcorn, then runs to the projection rooms to start the show. It’s a labor of love that he’s been doing since finishing school and time in the service.
It was the early 1970s when Markaverich, who worked as a town dispatcher started running the Town Hall Theatre, while also working as a projectionist at movie theaters in Peterborough and Nashua and as assistant manager at a second movie house in Nashua.
Markaverich regularly pays homage to the theater’s past, showing free, classic movies every Saturday – holiday themed this time of year – and has free Silent Sundays, when pre-talky films are screened and pianist Jeff Rapsis provides a live soundtrack the way it used to be at the theater a century ago.
While the theater is extraordinary all year, it comes into its full small-town glory during the holidays. Movie-goers climb the time-worn wooden stairs of the theater to the lobby where a cup of hot tea or chocolate awaits. They settle into their seats and watch a red velvet curtain open and close as if by magic, then watch Donna Reed and Jimmy Stewart “Charleston” their way into the Bedford Falls High School swimming pool and hear the bell ring when Clarence the flustered angel finally gets his wings.
“We pack the place the night we show ‘It’s a Wonderful Life,’” said Markaverich. “We have to bring in extra chairs and set them up in the aisles. It’s monstrous – all the food for the food pantry and the donations – that go for things like fuel assistance. People bring so much. Plus, I love seeing these classic films on the big screen as much as the audience. That’s Christmas to me.”
And his three favorite classic Christmas flicks? The 1947 “The Bishop’s Wife,” “Christmas in Connecticut” and “It’s a Wonderful Life,” of course.
Ask most Wilton folks and they’ll say the theater is the heart and soul of the town. And while Markaverich doesn’t see anybody who might take over today – “Millennials like to watch movies on small screens at home,” he said – “I have no intention of going anywhere. I’ll be here as long as I’m alive and as long as I have customers.”