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NEW HAMPSHIRE

Monson was a ghost town long before this pandemic

Monson, N.H., was incorporated in 1746 and at its peak was home to about 15 families. It was abandoned by 1770.
Monson, N.H., was incorporated in 1746 and at its peak was home to about 15 families. It was abandoned by 1770.James Sullivan for The Boston Globe

HOLLIS and MILFORD, N.H. — There are still signs of human life in these woods. Rutted paths carve through the forest. Stone walls meander through the clearing. A few cellar holes gather rainwater where tiny cabins once stood.

But no one lives here anymore.

Even in the best of times, there is something alluring about visiting a ghost town — the site of a centuries-old settlement that has been abandoned, because of economic struggle or some kind of warfare. Or contagion.

Right about now, historic empty spaces come filtered through an extra layer of poignancy, for obvious reasons. In a time of pandemic, many of our most bustling public spaces have been abandoned. When a shopping center or civic plaza suddenly feels like a ghost town, we’re reminded, quite rudely, that nothing lasts.

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Russ Dickerman is well aware. He’s the caretaker of Monson Village, the site of the short-lived New Hampshire town of Monson, just west of Nashua. The town, incorporated in 1746, was home at its peak to about 15 families, some of whom lived in tents. A combination of humble means, poor farming conditions, and men called to military duty created hardships that could not be overcome. The people of Monson petitioned the state to repeal their charter, and the town was abandoned by 1770.

Dickerman, who is 89, was born in Somerville. As a boy, he hated city living, he says. He came to Milford to work on his uncle’s farm and never left the area. It was home to most of his descendants — the Clarks, the Adamses, the Bloods — and he knew he belonged here.

In the 1950s, Dickerman and his parents bought a plot of land that had once been part of Monson. He and his father restored the Gould house, the sole home still standing on the property. Today, the two-room structure serves as the welcome center of Monson Village, a tiny museum crammed with local archives and mementos, household antiques, and eccentric clutter.

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(During the current stay-at-home order in New Hampshire, visitors are being urged to stay away from the grounds. In safer times, the museum is typically open when Dickerman is on the premises, often in the afternoon. Trail maps are available in a box affixed to the side of the Gould House.)

Amid the old garden tools and quirky effects (“Caution: Elephant Crossing”) on display in the museum, Dickerman has mounted portraits of some of his ancestors. His great-grandfather, Samuel Russell Dickerman, died at age 36, a prisoner of the Confederate military in Andersonville, Ga.

In 1998 Dickerman and his late wife, Geri, spearheaded an effort to “Save Monson Center” from a proposed townhouse development. They donated 125 acres, and the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests, which now oversees the property, purchased another 200. The hiking path called West Road — once the village main street — leads through the woods out to a point overlooking a beaver pond, where blue herons have nested.

For years, Monson Center has been a favorite destination for paranormal investigators, who claim they can sense tragic events they think happened on the village grounds.

West Road — once the village main street — leads through the woods out to a point overlooking a beaver pond.
West Road — once the village main street — leads through the woods out to a point overlooking a beaver pond.James Sullivan for The Boston Globe

“You gotta be a believer,” says Dickerman, greeting a visitor in a gray Stetson and a Red Sox warm-up jacket. He’s accompanied by his sidekick, a miniature poodle named Nicky.

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He doesn’t count himself as one, he says. “But I can tell you a few things that happened here that I can’t explain.”

Out on the trail, two hikers urge a passerby to look for the herons, and listen for the bullfrogs. Karen Fletcher of Merrimack and John Bozzuto of Hollis say they’ve been coming to the site regularly, since Bozzuto learned of this hidden gem in his own backyard from a spirit medium who was giving a talk on Halloween.

It’s been a number of years since David Fiske visited Monson, but the sound of the frogs remains etched in his memory.

“It was not quite dusk,” he says, “and all of a sudden, dozens of bullfrogs started croaking. It was almost like a clap of thunder. I’d heard frogs before, but never in that multitude.”

Fiske, who lives near Saratoga Springs, N.Y., was born in Maine, grew up in Connecticut, and used to live in New Hampshire. He’s been intrigued by the various ghost towns of New England since reading a few books on the subject in the 1970s. He has written one of his own and keeps a digest of ghost town news on Facebook.

Inside the Gould House museum, Monson. That’s caretaker Russ Dickerman in the mirror.
Inside the Gould House museum, Monson. That’s caretaker Russ Dickerman in the mirror. James Sullivan for The Boston Globe

He has studied abandoned places such as Perkins, Maine, where the arrival of refrigeration killed off the local ice-harvesting industry, and a 19th-century settlement in northwest Connecticut that was built around an iron furnace. After the workers denuded the surrounding land to fire the furnace, Fiske says, they moved on.

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“Now it’s so forested, when people go, they can’t imagine that anyone lived there,” Fiske says.

Ghost towns, he says, are trying to tell us something.

“We sometimes forget that things change,” he says. “Our planet is constantly changing, regardless of what we do.”

The current concerns over coronavirus will likely affect much of our social interaction to come, Fiske suggests. Gathering sites may continue to require six feet of distance between each visitor; “cozy little restaurants maybe aren’t going to exist anymore.”

Whatever the outcome, it helps to be reminded that our way of life is constantly evolving.

“It’s always sad when something changes,” Fiske says. “But it’s the way of the world.”

James Sullivan can be reached at jamesgsullivan@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.