A Brief History of Townsend

Originally part of an area called Wistequassuck by the Native Americans, the land which eventually became Townsend, Massachusetts was first surveyed by Jonathan Danforth in 1676. The land had been granted to Judge William Hawthorn of Salem as a political thank-you gift. Although the Judge never saw the land, it was known as “Hawthorn’s Grant” for many years.

By 1719, the House of Representatives decided to divide an area called Turkey Hill, of which Hawthorn’s Grant was a part, into North Town (present day Townsend) and South Town (present day Lunenburg). The first meetinghouse to serve the 200 settlers of North Town was built in 1730 on Meetinghouse Hill, and on June 29, 1732 the town was incorporated as Townshend. It was named after Charles Townshend, the second Viscount of Raynham, and a former British Secretary of State (the viscount was also known as Turnip Townshend for introducing England to the large-scale cultivation of said vegetable).

The Second Townsend Meetinghouse, c. 1771 and now the United Methodist Church.

Townsend soon outgrew the first meetinghouse, so in 1771 a new and larger one was erected just behind the first one. After the Revolutionary War growth in the town began to shift to the west. This shift combined with earlier boundary changes moved the geographic center of the town. The people wanted their meetinghouse more centrally located; so the second meetinghouse, the larger building, was moved in 1804 to Townsend Center. The first floor of the meetinghouse was used as the town hall until the 1890s, when Memorial Hall was built to commemorate those residents who fought in the Civil War. Today, the meetinghouse is home to the Methodist Church. (The church has been renovated recently, and the old slave pews were preserved.)

In 1733, a dam was built on the Squannacook River at the place now known as Townsend Harbor (“harbor” originally referring to a place of refuge, comfort, security, or a seat of local business, though it also is located on the pond created in building the dam and is now materially a “harbor” of sorts). A gristmill and sawmill were erected near the dam. The Harbor was the first part of Townsend to be settled even prior to the incorporation of the town. A tavern was built by the Conant family around 1720, known as the Old Mansion or Conant House. Throughout the 18th and early 19th centuries, Townsend Harbor was the industrial heart of the town. The Conant House, the Grist Mill, the Cooperage and the Reed House all date from the late 18th and early 19th centuries and can still be seen today around Harbor Pond.

The Spaulding Cooperage as seen in the late nineteenth century when the South Street bridge was a simple wooden structure spanning the Squannacook River.

Up until 1744, the only schooling that most children received was what their parents could give them at home. However, in 1744 the town voted to raise and appropriate 20 pounds for the support of three schools. As the years passed and Townsend grew, small school houses were built throughout the town. Some are still standing today. In the late 19th century, the large white building on the corner of School, Howard, and Highland Streets — now home to Evans on the Common — was built and used as a school. In the 1830’s, the West Village Female Seminary was built, which helped West Townsend become the cultural center of the town. Unfortunately, it eventually failed for financial reasons.

In 1767, the Townshend Acts, proposed by Charles Townshend’s grandson, were passed by England’s Parliament. These acts placed a tax on common items imported by the colonies. These acts further infuriated the colonists who were already suffering under the Stamp Acts of 1765. Eventually, most of the Townshend Acts were repealed, but the seed for revolution had been planted. When the British marched on Concord on April 19, 1775, word was received in Townshend that afternoon. A cannon was fired on the common, calling out the alarm. Townshend sent seventy-three soldiers to Concord, nearly 10% of the population of 821 (1776 census). These men were gone twenty-one days, at which time they were called back to root out reported Tories in Townshend. One result of the new mood of animosity toward England was that several Tory properties were confiscated and sold. Another was that as the war progressed and patriotism took root, the “h” began to drop out of the spelling of the town’s name in the written record, and by the 1780s Townsend was the accepted spelling.

As the 19th century progressed, most commercial and manufacturing interests moved closer to the center of town. These interests included the production of stockings, clothing, pails and tubs. But the major industry in Townsend was the production of coopering stock. The B. and A.D. Fessenden Company became the largest employer in the town, running lumberyards and sawmills in addition to the cooperage factory for three generations. When the company finally closed in 1960, most of the building was taken down. Later the remainder burned completely. However, the Historical Society acquired a cooper shed from the old Fressenden site and moved it to the Reed House where it is awaiting a firmer foundation.

The development of West Townsend was linked to the stagecoach turnpike which passed through the area on its way to western Massachusetts and New Hampshire. Several taverns were built, and by 1806, the Joslinville Tavern (the big mansion at the corner of Main Street and West Meadow Road — now 519 Main Street) was a main lunch stop on the Boston to Keene Stagecoach. The railroad came to Townsend in 1846 and had a unifying effect on the town. Many of the goods manufactured in town were now shipped via the railroad, which further enhanced the development of these industries. By 1900, three trains ran in and out of town each day.

The Townsend Center Depot as seen in the early twentieth century. The Peterboro and Shirley Railroad was constructed in 1847 and connected the three local hamlets.

With a quick mode of transportation now available, farms were able to increase their production. Cranberries were raised in a bog off Spaulding Street; the Harbor Farm on Main Street produced milk, apples and produce; and several poultry farms became major suppliers to the New England egg market. Many of these businesses lasted well into the 20th century. The booming manufacturing and agriculture industries created other needs. By 1871, the town district schools made way for its first high school located near the center which also housed primary and intermediate grades. The first bank was chartered in 1854, and the fire department was established in 1875. The first police department came fifty years later in 1926.

As was true all across New England, by the middle of the 20th century many of the manufacturing and agricultural businesses began to slow. The train ran only three times a week. The Fessenden Company closed in 1960. The poultry industry waned until only one farm remained in operation in the 1970s. The last Boston and Maine train left Townsend in 1981.

By the end of the century, Sterilite was the largest industry remaining in town. With the decrease in industry, Townsend has become a residential community with many of the requisite service providers while retaining much of its rural character. The town adopted its governing charter in 1999, and Memorial Hall was beautifully restored ten years later. In 2007, Townsend celebrated its 275th anniversary with many activities, culminating with a grand parade in September of that year. Townsend continues to make history each and every day and we’ll be sure to share it with you as it enters our collections.

Townsend in the Future as seen in an early twentieth century postcard.