Simpler, gentler: A journey through the eastern N.H. hinterlands
The multiple hamlets of Milton and Wakefield are sometimes called the “New Hampshire Border Villages.” We assume tourism promoters chose that name because this 16-mile stretch of road lies well east of the Lakes Region but still west of the border with Maine. But that’s only geography. These places also exist on the border of then and now. While you’ll never lose cell signal, at times you could marvel that the roads are actually paved. Located two hours north of Boston along Routes 125 and 153, these villages and their attractions benefit from leisurely touring. No single stop will capture your entire day, but together they invoke a way of life that has all but vanished.
You’ll probably be greeted by chickens pecking on the lawn when you start at the New Hampshire Farm Museum in Milton. Tours of the circa-1778 farmhouse show how one family lived and farmed here from the early years of the republic through World War II. At the entrance to the Great Barn, kids will find several games that they can play on the lawn, including Graces (French hoops) designed to “develop feminine grace.” But they will probably want to explore the big barn itself — jampacked with such oddities as a sheep treadmill and the 90-foot-long “Uncle Sam,” said to be the longest sled in the world. They will probably also want to grind corn to feed the chickens so they can purchase an “I fed the chickens” T-shirt in the country store. Don’t forget to pick up some eggs from the fridge. Their yolks are marigold orange.
About 30 years old, nearby McKenzie’s Farm is a much more modern operation. The farm store carries the seasonal harvest and makes delicious, feathery light apple cider donuts. With an extensive PYO program, the farm satisfies the primal urge to forage and gather, letting you fill up your baskets with New Hampshire bounty. You can gather blueberries from mid-July to late August, peaches from mid-August to mid-September, tomatoes from late August to late September, and apples from late August to October. For even more exercise, both the Farm Museum and McKenzie’s have access to some of the shorter loops on the Plummer’s Ridge hiking trail network (www.branchhillfarm.org).
Once you swing off the numbered highway en route to the village of Milton Mills, you could be forgiven humming any number of folk or country tunes that extol the beauty of bucolic middle of nowhere. And if those tunes need accompaniment, you’re in luck. Gordon and Wendy Parsons operate the Music Mill inside the barn of a 1790s farmstead near the village crossroads. This one-stop shopping destination for homemade music-making sells guitars, banjos, fiddles, mandolins, harmonicas, and even ukuleles.
“Ukuleles are the big thing these days,” Gordon said. “They’re so easy to play that I can teach someone in half an hour.”
The Parsons also host the free Liberty Music Gathering every other Saturday (March through early December) at nearby Liberty Hall. “Fifty or so musicians at all levels of talent come and go,” Gordon explained. “Everybody does three songs.”
A few paces away, Chris and Michele Penta opened Binker Brothers Antiques last summer in the village’s former Grange Hall. The quirky collection of antiques and collectibles includes landmark country music LPs, steam-punk lamps created by Chris, and a swiftly rotating selection of costume jewelry curated by Michele. With a penchant for industrial items and vintage Americana, Binker Brothers is not a conventional backroads emporium of Victorian furniture and bric-a-brac. Nor are their customers the usual collectors. “The stranger the items are,” says Michele, “the faster they sell.” The Pentas had sold goods on Etsy and eBay, but consider themselves lucky to have landed their brick and mortar shop in an old Grange hall.
In fact, Grange halls seem to have a preservationist karma. Just north of Milton, the former Lovell-Union Grange in Wakefield Corner is home to the Wakefield Heritage Commission, the organization that serves as the town’s collective memory. The building also houses the Stage Stop Museum. Concord coaches were built just a few miles away and stagecoach travel was key to Wakefield’s growth. Several inns and taverns were built in Wakefield Corner to service the six stage lines that merged here. A small bronze of a stagecoach and horses by western artist Charles Marion Russell, “Six Reins From Kingdom Come,” greets visitors at the door. The upstairs meeting room, complete with stage for amateur theatricals, makes it seem that the Grange could reconvene at any moment.
The last one-room schoolhouse in Wakefield — the District 8 East Wakefield School — sits less than 5 miles north. Built in 1906, it housed all eight primary grades until it closed in 1941 due to lack of students. Reopened in 1953, it held its last classes in 1969. Many townspeople remember attending — and fetching fuel for the stove from the attached woodshed. The classroom is re-created with great attention to detail, right down to the apple on the teacher’s desk and the blue-black stains around the pupils’ inkwells.
The Heritage Park Railroad Museum in the village of Union is the most dramatic of the Heritage Commission properties. Union flourished in the mid-19th century when it became the northern terminus of the Eastern Railroad. From 1854 until the line was extended in 1871, Union was the north country’s shipping hub — sending crops, lumber, and lake ice to Boston. The 1912 Union train station is full of railroading artifacts, while the stationmaster’s office even contains a working telegraph. (Visitors can operate authentic period keys to send Morse code.) A fully reconstructed water tower (essential for steam engines) stands outside, and a short siding of track holds a caboose and a 1902 snow plow car — a reminder that this railroad operated in New Hampshire North Country.
Perhaps the most charming of the museum’s exhibits is the HO-scale model railroad display in the freight house. Volunteers have painstakingly re-created parts of the five villages served by the Boston & Maine around 1909. Replica engines and cars zip through a landscape where trackside stations and village structures conjure life in these parts in the early 20th century — appropriately enough on the cusp of then and now.