Gilsum, New Hampshire

Exploring the Town of Gilsum, New Hampshire
July 2004
by Emily Osborn

The 2004 WFA cousins’ trip began in the village of Gilsum, population approximately 800, located ten miles north of the city of Keene, New Hampshire, and close to the east branch of the Ashuelot River. Gilsum was the village nearest to the home of Benjamin and Huldah Ware in the late 1700s. Gilsum is also the name of the “town” (sometimes referred to as a township in other areas of the country), where the village is located. The town of Gilsum is shaped like an upside-down “L,” surrounded by the towns of Keene on the south, Sullivan on the east, Alstead and Marlow on the north, and Surry on the west.

Stone Arch Bridge

As we drove from Keene to Gilsum on Highway 10, we first saw the Ashuelot River, a substantial stream of water flowing in a deep, rocky gorge. We also got our first glimpse of the impressive Stone Arch Bridge, constructed across the Ashuelot in 1862-63 by carefully fitting the stones together without mortar. An earlier attempt to build a stone bridge at the site failed after a few months, but the town decided to spend an amount necessary to try again with a new contractor. According to Silvanus Hayward’s History of Gilsum, earlier wooden bridges always rotted away after a few years of being assaulted by the spray created by a dam above the bridge. The first wooden bridge across the Ashuelot was built by brothers Solomon and Elisha Mack about 1778, probably because it greatly benefited customers traveling to the the grist mill they had built in 1776. The area around the bridge and the grist mill became a hub of activity and was known as Lower Gilsum.

In 1989, members of the Gilsum Historical Society worked hard and succeeded in getting the Stone Arch Bridge listed in the National Register of Historic Places. A highway marker was finally placed in 1996 and dedicated on August 9, 1997. The marker informed us that “with an arch 36 feet, six inches above the average upstream elevation, the bridge has the highest vault of any dry-laid bridge in New Hampshire.”

The Village of Gilsum and the Village Store

Highway 10 angles to the east as it approaches the village of Gilsum. Part of the village extends along the highway, but we turned north on the Alstead Road which serves as a main street and is the route to the home and land once owned by David Ware, just north of the village. We saw the Gilsum Village Store, pictured left, on the west side of the road and the post office, the First Congregational Church, and the Gilsum Historical Society building on the right side of the road. Some of Gilsum’s residents live in the historic wood frame houses along the road. At the eastern edge of town is a small municipal building that also houses a village library. The village today is surrounded by tall, forested hills. It was hard for us to imagine that people 150 years ago had cleared the forests and farmed on these steep slopes.

At one point we stopped at the Gilsum Village Store for snacks and a look at the 1888 photograph of the store that hangs behind the cash register. It tells us that Chilion Mack built the store in 1828. The Mack family settled in the Gilsum area about the same time as Benjamin Ware. Chilion’s father, Solomon Mack, joined with Benjamin Ware to form a militia in the War of 1812. Chilion married David Ware’s first cousin Hannah Ware, daughter of Capt. Benjamin Ware’s brother, Elijah. Another Ware/Mack couple, Calvin and Huldah Ware Mack, settled in Montgomery County, Illinois. Our New England cousins on this trip, Cindy, Adelaide, and Betsey are descended from both the Macks and the Wares of Gilsum.

Vessel Rock

The geology of the Gilsum area has attracted people for years. Earlier on in Gilsum history people came to mine feldspar and mica. Nowadays some come to collect mineral specimens and visit the mine sites. In June of 2004, two weeks before our WFA visit, the Gilsum Recreation Committee hosted the 40th Annual Rock Swap and Mineral Show, which drew a large crowd of visitors to Gilsum.

The most famous rock in the Gilsum area is Vessel Rock, a large boulder and a topographical landmark. On a drizzling and rainy afternoon, we traveled south of Gilsum on Vessel Rock Road to visit the rock. On the way we passed the former site of an old town meeting house, from 1793 to 1834, now a small home. A short distance later we found the rock, sitting about 20 feet from the road. Like thousands before us, we tromped around the rock, took our photos, and tried to see, or at least imagine, the large seagoing vessel shape that had inspired its name.

We also puzzled over the close proximity of a house to the famous rock. A photograph of Vessel Rock in Silvanus Hayward’s History shows that the trees had been cleared from the land and a school house built very close to the rock. Today, the school house appears to be a private home, probably a renovation of the original building, but we continue to puzzle as to why the early settlers built within a few feet of the rock. Hayward described the rock as “45 feet in length, by 32 feet in breadth and 25 feet in height. It received its name from its striking resemblance to a vessel under full sail. This resemblance has been much marred by the falling of a large piece from the west side, which represented the bow and jib-boom of the vessel. Before its fall the breadth of the rock was very nearly equal to the length. The fall was doubtless occasioned by the earthquake of October 5, 1817, as it occurred the night before Thanksgiving following.”

The rock site is about a mile and three-quarters, as the crow flies, from the home where Benjamin and Huldah Ware lived after their marriage. They very likely walked, rode horseback, or traveled by wagon on the rough roads that connected one house to another and connected them to the meeting houses and school houses. Although Hayward describes how main roads were laid out with a width of three rods by town selectmen in the late 1700s, most roads began as bridle paths. Traces of old roads used in the last two centuries can still be seen in the area, perhaps now used for hunting or logging.

Cemeteries in the Gilsum Area

Benjamin Ware, his three wives, and three of his daughters who died young are buried at Vessel Rock Cemetery. The cemetery is south of Vessel Rock, about a tenth of a mile from Vessel Rock Road. Our local guide to Benjamin’s cellar hole, Terry Mark, kindly helped us out on our trip to the cemetery by offering his truck bed as a means of transportation for part of our group over the rough trail from the main road to the cemetery. We left our cars near a modern home, then rode or walked past a swampy pond and into the woods.

The group of Ware descendants, pictured above, are standing by the grave of Benjamin Ware. His second wife, Martha Chapin Ware, is buried on the left and his third wife, Fanny Willis Ware, is buried on the right. Martha’s stone is broken and the top of the stone with her name is now in front of the stone.

According to Hayward’s History, the land for Vessel Rock Cemetery was purchased from Simon Baxter in 1810, but a one-half acre plot was first used as a burying ground in 1804 when Justus Hurd, Benjamin’s wife’s grandfather, became the first to be buried there. In 1810 and 1811, terrible years for Benjamin, he buried his wife, Huldah Wilcox Ware, and two young daughters, 8-year-old Mariah and 6-year-old Statira.

Our first sight of the cemetery was a stone wall running along the rise of the ground where the graves are located. Part of the wall was a higher mound of stone with a heavy door. The door covered a hole dug into the side of the hill, but we were unable to enter it. This manmade vault has been described very well by our cousin, Patricia Olmstead, in her notes from her trip to Vessel Rock Cemetery in 1982. At that time there was no door and she was able to enter the vault. She described it as follows: “….where the wall dropped down to the lower level was a crypt-like structure – a room about as big as a medium sized bedroom. It has an arched top to it, vaulted construction. You can stand up straight inside (dark though), made of mortared stones….I learned later that this was for wintertime storage of bodies until ground could be dug for the graves. And, this was locked, having been constructed to maintain the bodies and keep them from being robbed by the students from Dartmouth College, who used them for their anatomy classes.”

We looked at almost all of the grave stones, many now broken and badly worn by the elements. Ann Tindall was our intrepid recorder, video-taping and reading the names, dates, and verses on the gravestones into the recorder. A calm and friendly orange cat that had accompanied us from where we parked our cars to the cemetery seemed to enjoy lurking around the stones. The early settlers continue to rest well in this secluded and beautiful spot, now surrounded by the forest which has taken back the land.

We also traveled to the Bond Cemetery, a large, still-used cemetery located near the Stone Arch Bridge. We found many gravestones of the Mack family and a few Wares buried at this cemetery. Ann Tindall continued her task as primary recorder. For those of us descended from David and Mary Smith Ware, it was an opportunity to visit the grave of Mary’s father, Samuel Smith, who served as part of General George Washington’s personal body guard during the Revolutionary War.

On the same day that we viewed the David Ware house, we also went to the Ware Cemetery, now known as the Village Cemetery, to visit the graves of David Ware, Mary Smith Ware, and their son Samuel Benjamin Ware. Samuel died in 1856 at the youthful age of 21 and was the first person buried in this cemetery, then part of his parent’s land. The cemetery is located on the west side of Alstead Road just north of the Village of Gilsum and is easily accessible.

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