Thornton Gore

                                                                                       Thornton Gore

                                                                                                        by Rick Russack

 The story of Thornton Gore is the story of many hill-country farming settlements in the White Mountains. While details will vary from town to town, the general outline of events was repeated all over the region.  Fortunately, good records survive in Thornton so the themes become clear

                                                                        Double clicking these images will allow you to enlarge them.

Abandoned House in Thornton Gore, Belcher Collection,  Dartmouth College Collection.


 What used to be the town of Thornton Gore, lies to the east of the Pemigewasset River,  east of Thornton and north and east of Woodstock, along the Talford and Eastman Brooks.  Today’s Tripoli Road goes through the area, with traces of settlement   both to the north and  south of the road..  In earlier days,   the “Gore Road”, ran from Woodstock to the town. 

  Karl Harrington described the road from Woodstock and Thornton Gore as it once existed,.[1] “A fertile valley, opening with a curve to the east, the road lined on both sides with well-tilled farms.  The lower hillsides were cleared for pasturage or mowing.  Huge barns testified to the productivity of these grassy slopes, and the ruins of mills, schoolhouses, and farm buildings of every sort indicate how desolating has been the influence of modern civilization in this typical abandoned-farm region.”

The town lasted less than 100 years. It had its own Post Office for only a year, 1890-1891.  The first settlers arrived in 1804 and by 1900 their descendents were gone.  The New Hampshire Land Company, by that time, owned most of the land and large scale lumbering was about to begin.  However, in its century of existence, there were 22 farms, a school, a mill, a church and 2 cemeteries.  Today, the remnants are all within the White Mountain National Forest (with the exception of the earliest cemetery, which lies just a few hundred feet from the Forest boundary).[2]

The area that came to be Thornton Gore consisted of 2,600 acres.  By 1800, one of the original Proprietors of Thornton, John Raymond of Goffstown, had acquired most of the land.  He began selling lots ranging from 80 acres to 200 acres.  As was often the case, those who came to settle shared either family or religious bonds.   The original farms were scattered widely with locations dictated by the lay of the land.  Roads were built to connect the farms and therefore as the town grew so did the road system. 

 Between 1804 and 1820, eight farms were established, and although ownership and size would change over the next 100 years, these eight were the nucleus of the town and lasted until the end of the community.  The first few years were a period of subsistence farming and the farms were small.  By 1820, these eight farms had only seventy-two cleared acres.  The average farm had   nine improved acres; three for hay, one for crops, and five for pasture.[3]  The cleared land represented only about 6% of the land the farmers owned-the rest was forestland.  These woodlots were important; they provided lumber for building, firewood, and maple sugar, which for most families was the only type of sweetening available. 

The town developed and between 1820-1830, population increased, a school was built, and in 1823 a grist mill was built on Eastman Brook.  The Thornton Gore Free Will Baptist Church was organized and a sawmill was built, also on Eastman Brook.  During the next 30-40 years, some of the farms grew and prospered.  By 1870, three families owned more than half the land; one farm was 235 acres and another was over 500 acres.  These farms each had a team of horses, teams of oxen, flocks of sheep, and dairy herds of around 10 cows. 

The 1850 Agricultural Census tells us that 3,370 bushels of potatoes were sold to the starch factory in Woodstock, nearly a half ton of maple sugar was produced and 75% of the farms sold wool to the Dole Woolen Mill in nearby Campton. Over 300 pounds of butter was sold.  The townspeople were prospering, but changes were coming.

During the 1860s, population declined and agricultural production declined.  With slightly varying details, such was the story in most of the region.  The Civil War took young men from the farms.  Some died and others, having had their horizons broadened, decided not to return to the family farm.  The Industrial Revolution provided many jobs.  The textile mills less than 100 miles away offered employment to young women, as well at the men.  In the 1850s, the railroad reached Plymouth and in 1883, it reached North Woodstock.  Farm goods now arrived in the area by railroad at lower cost from large farms in New York State and the mid-west.  The land “out west” was fertile and agricultural machinery reduced production costs.  New Hampshire’s hilly, rocky fields did not lend themselves to the newly invented machinery (even if the local farmers and been inclined to experiment-most were not.)  Furthermore, the intensive farming practices used by  farmers in towns such as Thornton Gore,  depleted the soils while many resisted the agricultural improvements, such as fertilizing,  being written about in the farm magazines of the day.  The Civil War temporarily increased the demand for wool, but after the war, the demand decreased.  Textile makers in Great Britain had learned to produce starch chemically, thereby eliminating the market for potatoes, which had been a major cash crop on White Mountain farms. 

Taken together, these factors created a cycle that could not be reversed.  With less family labor, and the aging of the parents, less acreage could be farmed and fewer animals could be cared for.  As acreage was taken out of production, the forest reclaimed the land.  In 1863, in Thornton Gore, a large sawmill was built, and in 1882 a bobbin mill was built.  These mills bought nearby  timber land and by 1895 George James and his New Hampshire Land Co. began buying as much land as they could.  He bought the bobbin mill and the several hundred acres it had accumulated to support the mill.  The older families abandoned their farms, or sold them to James.  He bought actively at tax sales throughout the region, as did other lumbermen.  By 1900, the New Hampshire Land Company owned all but two parcels of land in the Gore.  Effectively, the town of Thornton Gore no longer existed.  

In 1907, the Woodstock Lumber Company built a large, modern steam powered sawmill in Woodstock, not far from Thornton Gore.  Large-scale logging  in the Gore began with millions of feet of timber being hauled out, at first by  teams of horses and dumped in the Pemigewasset River, a little north of the new mill..  In 1909, the company built a logging railroad, The Woodstock and Thornton Gore Railroad, and   logging increased, until the sawmill burned in 1912.

The New Hampshire Land Company, and others like them, were investors. They were not farmers nor were they in the lumber business.   They bought land to re-sell to lumber companies such as The Publisher’s Paper Co, the J.E.Henry Co. and the Parker Young Company. 

When companies like the New Hampshire Land Company bought farmland, their main purpose was to accumulate large, contiguous holdings and allow re-growth of the forest .  They had no interest in the farms or the buildings on them.  The buildings, for the most part, were not in their way and so they were ignored and allowed to decay.  When the timber had been cut and the loggers were finished, they sold the cutover lands to the Federal Government for inclusion in the White Mountain National Forest, which had been authorized by the Weeks Act of 1911.   The government also had no interest in whatever buildings may have remained and the cycle of decay continued.  The effect of decades of decay was inevitable; the buildings fell to the ground, their timbers decomposed, and the forest reclaimed the land.  In some cases, farm equipment was left to rust in the fields and some remains today.  Only stonewalls, cellar holes and cemeteries are left to tell the stories of the once thriving towns.

"Newer" Old Cemetery in Thornton Gore, 2009, photo by author

"Newer" Old Cemetery in Thornton Gore, 2009, photo by author

This sequence of events was repeated throughout the White Mountains.  Just within the WMNF, over 600 cellar holes have so far been identified.  Undoubtedly, there are many more.  Beyond the Forest boundary, the story is the same and hundreds more cellar holes can be found.  In addition to cellar holes, there are dozens of remains of water-powered mills and piles of brick that tell of chimneys and steam engine bases.  

[1] Karl Harrington, Walks and Climbs in the White Mountains, 1926, New Haven

[2] Justine B. Gingras,  Nomination of Thornton Gore Archeological District to the National Register of Historic Places,  1988, unpublished

[3] Justine B. Gingras,  Nomination of Thornton Gore Archeological District to the National Register of Historic Places,  1988, unpublished