This scheduled post describes a visit we made to a NH historic site during pandemic times. We're out of state for a weeklong visit with family in other New England states this week.
When you think of U.S. ghost towns, western states often come to mind. According to online sources, the state of Texas has the most of these. Yet, there are ghost towns all over the U.S. in Pennsylvania, Wyoming, Montana, Alaska, New Mexico, West Virginia, even New Hampshire.
On a day trip during pandemic times being outdoors was our go to activity. We spent as much time outdoors as possible, weather permitting. That said, in early spring, we took a road trip back in history by way of a 20 minute drive from Nashua to Milford, NH, where we explored the former town of Monson, considered by many a ghost town, as it was abandoned by its residents after 30 years.
|Monson entry signpost|
After arriving and parking in a small lot, we walked a few hundred yards down a dirt road. This carved sign → confirmed our arrival at Monson Center.
Our walk started from this point and soon the forest opened up with fields and stone walls on either side. A visit here was like stepping back in time off and it was definitely off the beaten path. A walking path now called West Road was once the main street in this 1700s village.
Located on the border of the NH towns of Hollis and Milford, the ghost town of Monson was the state’s first inland colony, settled sometime in the 1730s. It was part of Massachusetts when first settled in the early 1700s. (Despite searching online, I never found out why it was so named.)
Unlike many historic sites that are roped off or protected from visitors. Monson is open to everyone to freely explore on a completely self-guided tour. Perhaps the one thing needed more than anything else is the creativity to imagine what it could have been like to live here. In this large area, foot power was the main mode of transportation to cover large distances, except for a horse and buggy used by local doctor John Brown.
|Walkway leading to former town of Monson|
At its peak, it's believed that the town consisted of 15 families. Records indicate six settlers from Massachusetts and Nova Scotia bought land in 1735 and in 1737 moved with their families, clearing land and building a cluster of homes. In 1741, when colonial border lines were adjusted the borders of NH and MA, Monson became part of NH. It was incorporated in 1746.
But by 1770, those early inhabitants had left. Abandoned homesteads left to the ravages of time and the elements now have been reclaimed by the surrounding woods.
Why did they leave? The original inhabitants were mostly farmers dispersed in a wide area over the NH countryside and perhaps it's why the village never progressed beyond a group of houses. That said, the primary reasons for abandonment have have been long debated — harsh weather conditions, poor soil, limited resources, lack of effective town planning, costs associated with maintaining the town. The exact reason(s) is still unknown and still questioned today.
|Hand drawn map showing former Monson residences|
What's left to see in Monson is noted on the above map hand drawn and provided by its 89-year old caretaker (more about him below). Walking along these trails, we didn't come across intact structures, but found several overgrown cellar holes and stone walls.
|Monson cellar hole|
We walked along well-rutted pathways believed to be roadways travelled by original settlers and saw a few still-visible cellar holes ↑ on the sites of some early family homesteads. (A cellar hole is either an excavation intended for a cellar or the exposed cellar area where a house once stood. Where a house once stood 100 to 200 years ago, often all that remains is an indentation (cellar hole) in the ground of houses that once sat atop them.)
Today, Monson is considered one of the most significant archeological sites in New England. Many signposts contain information outlining the history and genealogy of the homestead’s original owners.
Some others were located off a pathway that meanders around the former town.
More can be found deeper in the woods. On this initial visit, we didn't venture far afield, perhaps on a revisit we will look for more of these informational signposts.
|Stone walls still standing in former town of Monson|
The town was large and covered over 17,000 acres, A series of paths and dirt roads, set within fields and woodlands, lead to the center of the abandoned town.
Monson had a short distance existance of about 30 years. Just before the American Revolution, towns people asked the colonial government to repeal their charter, effectively disbanding the town. Land was split between the neighboring NH towns of Hollis and Milford. Tradesmen who had settled and built homes packed up and moved out. Farmers took their goods and trade to Hollis and Milford. Eventually, nothing remained in the woods but stone walls and cellar holes.
|Marker to depict Monson Town Center|
|Monson Pound was used to gather runaway cattle|
There was only a single public structure in Monson — a pound for runaway cattle. Unlike many early New England towns, there was never a school house, meeting hall or church.
|Caretaker Russ Dickerman & Nicky|
Aside from its historic past, what makes Monson unique today is its caretaker, Russ Dickerman, a descendent of one of Monson's early settlers. Except for a stretch of time from 1928 to 1955, his family has owned property in Monson since the 1730s.
He and his late wife, Geri, restored the J. Gould House, the last standing colonial house on the property. Dickerman’s parents bought the property in 1956 and Russ rebuilt the 1756 former home and clock shop and has since turned it into a small museum.
The museum houses an odd assortment of memorabilia, like a photo album that chronicles Monson’s past in letters and documents, books paranormal authors have written on this “ghost town” and letters of thanks from previous visitors.
While officially closed during most of the pandemic it was open when we visited. Since Dickerman works on the property most days tending to chores and projects, he opens the museum when he's onsite. He was there during our visit and is always accompanied by pet poodle, Nicky. Dickerman told us that he is used to questions about why those early settlers worked on getting a charter in 1746, then voted to walk away years afterwards.
|The Gould House, sole remaining structure in Monson|
|Items found in the Gould House museum|
|NH Gov. Benning Wentworth|
Not everything in the Gould House museum is related to the history of Monson. Instead, it's a showcase of items that Dickerman has amassed over the years.
Dickerman claims political greed led to Monson's downfall explaining that settlers wanted to build a town hall, school house or church in its center, but failed to did so. He assigns blame on the town's failure to Gov. Benning Wentworth, colonial governor of NH from 1741 to 1766. Dickerman contends that he rejected every petition Monson’s residents put in to better the town.
And, rather than fight a losing battle, residents asked the colonial government to repeal the town charter. Land was split between the neighboring towns of Hollis and Milford. Tradesmen who had settled and built homes packed up and moved out. Farmers took their goods and trade to other towns. Eventually nothing remained but the remains of a former New England town, stone walls and cellar holes in the forest.
For nearly 230 years, Monson was a well-kept secret until 1998, hen a developer proposed a luxury housing development in what was once the town center. This sparked a campaign to preserve history. The Dickermans, banded with area residents and state archeologist Gary Hume, who touted the site's archaeological merits.
Eventually, and with help from the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests, the New Hampshire Division of Historical Resources and Inherit New Hampshire (now the New Hampshire Preservation Alliance) the remains of Monson were spared, preserved, and made available to the public. Along with 200 acres purchased by the Forestry Society, the Dickermans donated 125 acres of their property to the preservation effort.
Monson is now a historic NH park covering 200 acres of fields, forests, and hiking trails. It offers a piece of long-forgotten state history that's open to the public and also free of charge.
There have been reports of paranormal activity in Monson with those who think that residents from the 1700’s still walk its roads. However, we didn't see anything haunting there and definitely no roaming ghosts. Maybe that will change on a repeat visit in the not-so-distant future. This first visit was all about learning about the history of this very local NH town.
|A few of the stone seating areas in Monson|