John Grimes and John Hancock
In colonial times, the area now known as Hancock was a remote wilderness at the very edge of the American civilization. One described it rather unromantically as "an unbroken tract of gloomy forest filled with dangerous wild animals." The native population was already gone and the fur trappers had moved on.
Into this realm came John Grimes. He built his rough log cabin on the south shore of Half Moon Pond in the summer of 1764. Even then, New England mostly grew rocks so the Grimes family lived from hunting and fishing. Yet, within 15 years, the Grimes family would be joined by some 30 families who moved into what is now Hancock. Their lives were just as hard. And was cleared for farming, usually by burning the trees which temporarily enriched the soil and endless supply of rocks were moved. Soon rye and corn were grown, usually for the family's own use since neither had much commercial value.
In 1779, Hancock separated from the Town of Peterborough, the population then being about 150. The new town was named for the famed American patriot, John Hancock, who owned 1875 acres in the town and was one of the wealthiest men in America. According to tradition, the town was named for the patriot as a public relations tool. They hoped he would be so honored that he would grant the town some considerable lands or funds! As far as anyone knows, John Hancock never even noticed.
Corn and Rye
After incorporation in 1779, Hancock grew rapidly and took on the shape so familiar today. Within 10 years, the population grew to over 600 and by 1840 it was over 1300. This was the age of the farm.
From 1770 - 1840, the land radically changed. Trees fell to make room for farms and pastures. Stonewalls ran over the hills to mark boundaries (some can still be seen today). What once was a never-ending forest was now a patch quilt of farms - large by New England standards, but poor. Corn and rye were the staples, but all farms also had both "green" (vegetable) and herb gardens. Later, apples, chickens, sheep and cattle were familiar sights, as well.
Life was hard in those early years. Most farmers barely scratched out a living. Early houses were little more than log cabins. The first glass window did not appear in Hancock until 1784. They worked hard and made do. Remnants of cloth were made into quilts. Garbage was fed to animals or used to fertilize the gardens. Bones became soup, fat became soap, used water was tossed on the apple trees. Since people couldn't afford wallpaper, they painted designs on the wall (a few still exist around town). Since they couldn't buy rugs, they painted mats to look like them. Everyone worked. Even little children had countless chores, with very little time for school or play.
A man looked to his land to supply the needs of his large family. There was only a small cash economy. Selling food to the villagers could raise a bit of money but this went to pay town and church taxes, to the town doctor and perhaps to buy some ammunition and "drink." The credit at the town store could purchase some tea or cloth or shoes but these were expensive.
As the 1800's opened, life improved. Cattle and poultry supplied more income and there developed a bit of industry in Hancock. Some 16 mills once operated along the streams of Hancock by the close of this era, usually owned by farmers and worked part-time by neighbors as a way to supplement their small farm incomes. Gristmills, lumbers mills, even small factories. There was a shoe factory and another that made wooden handles, chairs and boxes. The remains of some of these can still be explored today. A number of one-room schools were built around the town, supplying basic education to the children.
During this era, the village center took shape on the south shore of Norway Pond. The Sheldon house was probably the first building in the village, built in 1781 as the home and workshop of a cabinet-maker. But it was the decision in 1782 to build the meetinghouse here that insured this would be the town center. The Commons was deeded in 1785. The Meetinghouse and The Hancock Inn were built in 1789, the Titus house in 1790, the Marshall house in 1793. By 1840, there were at least 33 homes and businesses in the village. Although many of these have been expanded and altered over the years, the village still looks remarkably as it did in 1840!
Cows and Chickens
Hancock reached a peak population of over 1,300 in 1840 - close to the current population. Farms stretched over the hills and the village center prospered. Hancock was a fairly typical New England farm town, but change was in the wind.
The farm economy was being replaced with a cash economy. New, vast farmlands were opening in Ohio, Indiana and Michigan - land where farming was much easier and more productive, and many young men left to make new lives there. Cities were springing up along America's ports and rivers and others left to find work there. In just 30 years, from 1840 to 1870, the town's population was cut in half. It would remain at that level for a century.
A man now began to see his farm not as a way to supply his family's needs but to earn money. Those who remained continued to raise vegetables and grains, but these became sidelines. Farmers learned that they could make more money by raising cattle and poultry for the marketplace. A creamery in Peterborough turned Hancock cream into butter and cheese. Hancock eggs were sold as far away as Boston. Pastureland was rented to ranchers who drove their cattle to Hancock for the summer.
This was the age of ranching. It was a time of cattle drives, grand balls at the Hancock Inn, stagecoaches and picket fences (they keep the cows from trampling your yard!). While farming continued, the economy now centered more on animals than crops. This enabled a higher standard of living with a bit more free time, but it supported a smaller population. There was very little new construction during this time and the mills closed one-by-one.
Summer People and Retired Folks
Ranching, too, became increasingly difficult. It was hard to compete with the huge ranches out west. But just when things were looking bleak, a surprising twist occurred. The people of Hancock suddenly discovered a new way to supplement their incomes - tourists!
By the 1880's, families desired to escape the heat, crime and pollution of the new cities and longed for the "simple life" and the "good old days." Hancock seemed to fit the bill perfectly! With the new railroad (arriving in Hancock in 1878), Hancock suddenly was close yet far away.
Inns and vacation hotels flourished, many farmers took in summer guests by the week, cottages were built along the lakes, old abandoned farm houses were all spruced up and given a new life. During the summer months, the railroad ran several trains to Hancock each day! Hancock hummed with visitors and the sounds of children. Lifeguards were supplied at Norway Pond, games were organized, bands supplied music on the commons.
Not only were summer people attracted to Hancock, but also retired folks. Hancock offered a quiet, safe, and inexpensive place to spend those golden years. Especially after 1920, Hancock became known as something of a retirement community.
Meanwhile, both farming and ranching declined and much of the land returned to forest. The depression of the 1930's meant fewer summer visitors and the railroad stopped coming in 1934. In the 1950's, the new highway 202 by-passed the town and Hancock High School closed. Yet it was this era that saved the town, assuring the authentic community enjoyed today.
A Good Place to Grow Up
In the 1950's and 1960's, summer people still came, a few farms still raised apples, sheep and chickens, and the Hancock Inn still welcomed a steady flow of happy guests. Roads were well-paved and maintained - even in winter. Automobiles were reliable and affordable. Around Hancock were several communities with a great need for workers - all within easy driving distance. Suddenly there was a new reality.
Hancock's appeal now was not its land but its friendliness and quaintness, its sense of history and community, its good schools and non-existent crime. Slowly at first, Hancock became discovered as simply a great place to live and raise the kids. Families came, reaching a peak in the 1970's when the population grew faster than in any previous decade - creating some concern and generating careful town planning and an historic district. Some people found employment in Peterborough or Keene, but increasingly new small businesses sprang up in Hancock - often home-based. Some were artists, writers, actors, musicians, consultants, computer wizards. They were people who could live anywhere but choose to livein Hancock. By 1980, Hancock re-captured its historic population high set in 1840 and has now surpassed 1,700.
The cows and corn are gone. The trees and wild animals have returned. The village remains remarkably the same. Through it all, the people of Hancock have proudly embraced the past while welcoming the future in creative and often surprising ways.
History submitted by Sandy Klug - Thanks!
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Last update: 12 July 2012 at 11:49 pm