Rural lifeline

NH country estates are great escapes

Special to the Union Leader
June 24. 2013 6:53PM

Chemical-laden air in the slums got you down? Looking to scatter your excess cash across the countryside? Want to farm for fun? Then come to New Hampshire.

It was these very notions and desires of the moderate-to-wildly nouveau riche at the turn of the century that made farms fashionable, and country living a must, for anyone who was anyone.

While this country estate movement was a national craze, New Hampshire officials created an entire publication dedicated to extolling the virtues of buying up abandoned farmland to turn into sprawling country estates suitable for any robber baron.

Though many of these estates have been lost to time or are in private hands, three of them - The Fells Estate in Newbury, Saint-Gaudens in Cornish and The Rocks Estate in Bethlehem - are open to the public and remain testaments to the gilded age and the movement that had everyone heading for the hills.

It's the movement, and these historic estates, that historian Cristina Ashjian will focus on in her lecture, "Exemplary Country Estates of New Hampshire." Ashjian will be delivering the lecture, sponsored by the Humanities Council, at several locations around the state.

It was the gilded age and there were a lot of newly wealthy people, Ashjian said. It was also at this time, in New Hampshire in the 1890s, Secretary of Agriculture Nahum Josiah Bachelder was looking at a slew of abandoned farms in his backyard - 1,342 according to a survey at the time.

"This is the result of what we would call farm flight," Ashjian said. "Many people moved to the cities for work. It was also the post-Civil War era so a lot of younger people didn't come back or were looking for opportunities elsewhere out West. And so, a lot of the New England farms particularly all the hilltop farms where all of the rocks are, were left abandoned. Over time older people would move off the farm and into the village, and a lot of these properties came onto the market."

Meanwhile, the country estate movement was sweeping across America. It started with getaways to working farms that offered a room for a few days or weeks or hotel stays out in the country. However, soon the newly rich started buying up acreage and building ever-more elaborate homes on their properties.

These "magnificent" and "splendid" properties, and their owners, were highlighted nationally in special publications that extolled the virtues of having country home and promoted ssummer home tourism.

An 1894 article in the state's version of this publication, New Hampshire Farms for Summer Homes, touted the idea that, "Even a man of moderate means may possess himself of one of these (farms as country homes) upon terms which will enable him to occupy it and enable him to live in it from May until October, cheaper than he could live in the city or patronize a decent summer boarding house."

In the same breath, the article goes on to say that those of more generous means could afford to build a grand estate and "farm for fun," while at the same time escaping the degenerate city.

"It's really interesting because it's being promoted in terms of health and prosperity and so forth with the backdrop of the unhealthy city conditions, especially in the summer in the city," Ashjian said.

Among those who crashed ashore on this wave was Secretary of State John Hay, who built The Fells, artist Augustus Saint-Gaudens, who built an artist colony and home in Cornish, and tycoon and International Harvester cofounder John Jacob Glessner, who built The Rocks.

"For John (Hay) he wanted a country retreat that would allow him to relax and escape from a very hectic international career," said Mary Boswell, executive director of The Fells. "He came to Newbury with the idea of escaping, but also, Newbury was not a total retreat at that time, there were some significant and beautiful inns that were built around Lake Sunapee and three trains came through the town per day."

Ashjian said many of those who turned up in New Hampshire would start out buying a 100 or so acre farm and then quickly snap up the surrounding countryside as it became available. The Rocks, started at 100 acres and when Glessner was done it was more than 1,400.

As for Saint-Gaudens, it was originally owned by New York attorney and patron of the arts Charles C. Beaman. By 1885 he had built it up to a 43-acre Blow Me Down farm with nine outbuildings including an enormous red barn and a dance hall. He spent the rest of the 1880s buying up land in Cornish and Plainfield. By the time Beaman died in 1900, he held nearly 2,000 acres.

At The Fells, the original farm was 178 acres. When Hay was done, the property was 1,000 acres. Today only about 85 acres remain at The Fells.

Ashjian said this is fairly typical of these massive tracts of land. As they are passed down through the generations, and even as they go into public hands, bits are often sold off so they can continue to be maintained.

But even estates that have been broken apart or reclaimed by wilderness have certain attributes that make them recognizable. Ashjian said one telltale sign is a long stone fence with tall pillars at the gate.

Most of them also had similar attributes on the property, Ashjian said, including a big house, elaborate gardens, an agricultural component such as a farm, and recreational components such as riding stables, garages and greenhouses, among other outbuildings.

At The Rocks, for example, Glessner had the Big House, which was a 19-room mansion constructed in the Queen Anne style. He also constructed 22 buildings on the property, including a windmill, greenhouse, bee house, observatory, among many other structures. He also built elaborate gardens, including a formal garden designed by Frederick Law Olmsted's company, according to The Rocks' website.

The Big House and other residences at The Rocks were removed in the late 1940s, according to the website, but many of the original buildings have been restored and are in use today, according to the website.

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