Pierce and Hillsborough: The Hometown of NH's only US President
For a brief period in 1852 this small New Hampshire town was the talk of the nation. Its native son, Franklin Pierce, had appeared from nowhere to become the 14th President of the United States. Almost a century and a half later Hillsborough, New Hampshire, remains as much of a surprise as its scion, Franklin Pierce. The Pierce family home has change little since his lifetime, and the one room school from his day still has 19th century lesson scrawled on the chalkboard. Yet, like Pierce's memory, Hillsborough looks bypassed by life in modern America. It still shows the glory and wounds of Pierce's tenure, and is perhaps the one place in America that still gives Franklin Pierce a fair shake.
The two could not have come from different places to end up so alike. Hillsborough was born from an absentee land grant in the 1760's and grew into a hill community of farmers. Today Hillsborough Center still refuses to be anything other in appearance than a simple farming town, with its clapboard houses and white steepled churches. The climate, uneven soil, and granite boulders never lent themselves to agriculture. Rather, the town folk became as hardened as the granite that seemed to grow in their fields. By 1804, the year that Franklin Pierce was born, his father Benjamin had discovered that politics was a more fertile soil that farming. At one month old he and his family moved into what was then considered a mansion, when compared to the simple houses of the town. Five bedrooms, all with closets, a ballroom with a spring floor, a huge kitchen, a parlor, and a tavern room to exchange ale for a story. Every room was hand stenciled, and the ceilings were high and plaster.
Benjamin Pierce would deny his nine children nothing, for he had risen from a humble and poorly educated farmer to a hero of the Revolutionary War, to a respected leader who would twice serve as governor of his state. His sons would eventually attend private academies and continue to college. But first, they would watch as the great Americans of the day came to Hillsborough to consult the man they called General Pierce. The visitor can only imagine was tales of sacrifice and courage young Franklin heard at his father' knee, surrounded by men who had served with him at Valley Forge. Daniel Webster was a family friend, and young Franklin could not have failed to be touched by the presence of such a statesman.
Today the Pierce Homestead still keeps watch over the old 2nd New Hampshire Turnpike, surrounded by open fields and forests. The spot is not unlike the world that formed young Franklin. Up and down the road are homes from the same period, including the small Hillsborough Lower Village lies than a mile away. This corner of Hillsborough appears as if white federal houses fell from the sky, landing in a careless fashion, and then a winding toad was snaked around them. There are few reminders of the great names that came from these clapboards. In two generations there would be a railway magnate, the founder of an international banking giant, and the man who is credited with the creation of Vaudeville. And the only citizen from the Granite State ever to be elected President of the United States.
History does not record how that would be President was taken to the old Center schoolhouse, a two-mile journey. Most surely it was along the Shedd-Jones road. Today the dirt road is shrouded in forests where once open fields and farmhouses grew. Several old homes remain, appearing on hills that look over then roads many blind curves. There are two brooks to contend with: The first, the Shedd brook, ran through the old Pierce farm, and must have been a favorite fishing and swimming stop for the children. The second, the larger Beard Brook, is breached by an early double arched stone bridge that begs any visitor to admire it. Built by Irish and Scottish stone mason in the mid-19th century, it shares a construction style with earlier Roman bridges. No mortar was used to hold its stones together, but rather, the forces of gravity have held the bridge intact for 150 years. Not be outdone, the town offer a half dozen similar spans, some of which are isolate inside a State Forest. After passing the Beard Brook, two notable brick houses appear. The second is famed for the counterfeiter exploits of a former owner, and as a safe house to freedom for escaped southern slaves. Finally, the road comes to a sudden halt, and the traveler must turn to the left and climb a hill. Suddenly the forest parts, and a triangle of buildings know as the Center comes into view. Here Pierce was schooled with the common folk before his father sent him to Hancock Academy. Here stood the first town meeting house, and it was here that the first European settlers built their town in 1760's. Little changes on the outside in a New Hampshire small town, and in Hillsborough Center we have the rule, not the exception.
The town common is still mowed by the citizenry, and there is still a gate on the lost animal pound, should a neighborhood sheep or cows get loose. The town's first European settlers are buried in the midst of their descendants in the old cemetery, and many a life story is transcribed in slate on a tombstone. A 19th century church watches at 20th century Congregation church across the way. Both are open for services on Sundays in the summer, just at different times of the day. No one bothers to lock up the older Methodist-but-now- Episcopal church. Inside, its simple white walls and modest altar hark back to a more spiritual agricultural America. Aside from its remarkable preservation, Hillsborough Center is home to a renaissance of sorts. These houses once formed the hearth of Hillsborough, but as agriculture faded in New Hampshire, the mills of Hillsborough Bridge, along the Contoocook, became the new focus of the town.