Settlers may have abandoned Monson Center in 1770, but it’s a pretty ghost town today – The Union Leader


I ’ve come here to experience a real-life ghost town, but there is nothing haunting about my first glimpse of historic Monson Center.

The short walk from a small unpaved parking lot off Adams Road in Hollis brings me to a Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests kiosk with a map of the trails and a tantalizing peek at the site’s mysterious back story: This was one of New Hampshire’s first inland settlements, founded in 1737 — and then abandoned in 1770.

The reason is still debated 250 years later, but some say the echoes of discontent and struggle linger in the abandoned cellar holes and along the remnants of dirt roads.

But all I see when I step from the woods is a stunningly peaceful vista of rolling fields dotted with wildflowers and meandering stone walls that melt into the distant haze of a lazy summer day. It’s hard to conjure things that go bump in the night when a breeze that feels like a contented sigh flutters through the tall grass and tree leaves.

Still, this picturesque historic site, presided over since 1998 by the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests, is a complicated collection of things lost and found in hardscrabble ground. From taxation woes and political discord in the 18th century to a 1990s debate surrounding a proposed housing development, not much has happened here that didn’t involve a hard day’s work.

J. Gould House

The two-room museum at Monson Center, a rebuilt house and clock shop, is named after Joseph Gould. Caretaker Russ Dickerman’s parents, Edgar and Ethelyn Dickerman, bought the property in 1956.

Caretaker of stories

No one knows Monson better than Russ Dickerman, the great-great-great-grandson of one of those bygone settlers and a longtime caretaker and story keeper of the site. On a recent outing, I come upon Dickerman outside the J. Gould House, a 1756 home and clock shop that he rebuilt 22 years ago and turned into a little museum.

“I’m here most afternoons,” Dickerman says, settling into a fold-out chair with his 12-year-old toy poodle, Nicky, at his side.

Though the museum — the only building standing in Monson — has been closed during the past four months due to the pandemic, Dickerman can often be found tending to chores and projects here. His handiwork can be seen in everything from the wooden bird houses that line what was once the main road to trails that feature carved tree-trunk benches along the way.

He has an eclectic collection of memorabilia, including a packed photo album that chronicles Monson’s past in pictures, letters and documents, and well as a box of paranormal authors’ books on this Granite State “ghost town.”

With the exception of a stretch of time from 1928 to 1955, Dickerson’s family line has owned property in Monson since the 1730s.

“My mother lived right up here on Federal Hill, and my father lived down here on the other end of this road, on Hayden (Road) and (Route) 122,” says Dickerman, who is 89. “During the Depression, they got married, but there was no work up here. Everybody was losing land to taxes, so we went to work down in Somerville (Mass.) at a piano factory. They got married and got a house, and I was born down there.”

But city life wasn’t for him.

“I hated it!” he says, grimacing. “My mother loved this area and wanted to build a house — her folks lived up here on a farm. So we purchased this property. We bought it back in 1956 from the Haydens. I’ve been here forever.”

Main road

The old main road in Monson Village still guides visitors into its Colonial past.

Setting the mood

It’s clear to see Monson’s appeal. Today, the property, which extends over 280 square miles, has footholds in several towns — Hollis, Brookline, Amherst and Milford. Across fields enclosed by stone walls and down the old road from the Gould house, the trail winds past cellar holes with signs that dig into the lives of those who once lived there. The main pathway leads through arching trees to a spectacular opening and views of a beaver pond.

I purposefully visited Monson Center twice — on an overcast day and a sunny day, because the weather can definitely change the experience. Some elements that seem quaint and peaceful one day can feel filled with shadow and portent the next. So pick a visit based on your mood, and then let your imagination do the rest.

I found that a cloudy sky’s dark gray swirls played up the strange, primordial-looking tree trunks sticking out from the pond and added atmosphere to the darkened cellar holes. But on a crystal clear day, the pond was an endless sea of green lilly pads with white flowers, and the bright blue sky made it easier to see the colorful dragonflies landing here and there on the ground and the blue herons moving about their tree-top nests.

Revoking a charter

Dickerman is used to people asking him why he thinks those early settlers worked so hard to get a charter in 1746 and then took a vote and walked away in 1770. There are many theories surrounding the settlement, which existed before America gained its freedom from British rule.

Theories range from poor town planning to an unforgiving landscape, clashes with indigenous people to a tax structure that benefited non-resident land owners.

{span}For the record, Dickerman says it was political greed that led to the downfall of Monson, which strove to build a town hall, school house or church in its center, but never wound up doing so.

“I blame the demise of Monson on Gov. Benning Wentworth,” who was royal governor of New Hampshire from 1741 to 1766, Dickerman says. “Every petition (Monson’s residents) put in to better the town, he turned down.”

Monson museum

Old-fashioned clothes hang from a wooden peg rail above an antique high chair and maps in the J. Gould House at Monson Center.

Instead, he contends, the king of England and the governor increased their own land holdings and put emphasis on unequal taxation of more and more communities, rather than on infrastructure within and between existing communities.

“All of the towns were fighting to stay alive,” Dickerman says. “Nobody had any money. The king wanted province taxes in silver. Well, he only authorized paper money for the colonies; he didn’t offer silver coin. So, how could they pay? He didn’t want his worthless paper money. He could print all of that he wanted.”

Forest Society records indicate six settlers from Massachusetts and Nova Scotia bought land in 1735 and moved here in 1737 with their families, clearing the land and building a cluster of homes. Initially, Monson was part of Massachusetts, but when Colonial border lines were adjusted in 1741, the community became part of New Hampshire.

“For a few years, the town thrived under the leadership of such people as Thomas Nevins, a sergeant in the French and Indian War who lost three sons in the Revolutionary War; Joshua Bailey, whose 11 children narrowly escaped a fire that destroyed their home; Dr. John Brown, a prominent physician whose fancy chaise carriage was the talk of New England; and Russ Dickerman’s great-great-great-grandfather, Richard Clark,” according to “The settlers farmed the land until the village was disbanded in 1770 and absorbed into the surrounding towns.”

Ghost town

The remnants of Monson may feel like scant evidence, but somehow it’s striking in its starkness. Stone slabs jut out here and there like toppled gravestones. One is trapped and tilted in the roots of a big tree. Other stones are turning green with moss or disappearing into the ground, beneath weathered brown fallen leaves.

It’s easy to see how easily pieces of the past can get swallowed up by time. For 220 years, Monson kept much of itself secret, until a proposed housing development in the 1990s ignited debate and sparked a grassroots campaign to preserve this chapter of history.

“What was in jeopardy is what was right over the wall here,” Dickerman says looking out over the fields. “They were going to put 28 high-end homes in there.”

Colors of summer

Stone walls that enclosed Monson Center in the 18th century now frame picturesque vistas of fields and wildflowers.

He and his late wife, Geri, were staunchly opposed, drawing in like-minded area residents and state archeologist Gary Hume, who spoke up about the archaeological merits of the site. But they hit a lot of stone walls, so to speak. The Dickermans eventually gained ground with help from the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests, the New Hampshire Division of Historical Resources and Inherit New Hampshire (now called New Hampshire Preservation Alliance.)

“We started a campaign and had six months to come up with $350,000 — over Christmas. We had to have it by Feb. 15, I think, in 1998. But we made it. There’s a donor’s stone on the property with more than 400 major donors,” Dickerman says.

In addition to the acreage the Forestry Society purchased, the Dickermans donated 125 acres of their own property to the preservation project. Geri died in 2009, and a clipping of her obituary is tucked into that album of memories in the museum.

Another entry in the much-paged-through book is a 2015 letter from Milford Historical Society’s president at the time, David Palace, who puts their efforts in context of those early settlers:

“The town history says, ‘Monson was unable to support the gospel, build bridges and maintain roads.’ The Citizen of the Year Award for 2015 goes to a man who achieved what his great-great-great grandfather could not. Gathering grass-roots support, Russell Dickerman and his wife, Geri, donated their own land and raised a third of a million dollars to ward off a developer who was going to flatten the village and build 28 McMansions. Russ had the vision, desire and muscle to rebuild the old village of Monson on the foundations left by his family hundreds of years before.”

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