Do you remember the show, “You are there” with Walter Cronkite? He took you to major historical events through reenactments during a 1950’s TV show. Well, you might not have been there, but Henniker was and made an impact in every major period of American history. The artifacts remain to tell the tale.
In the 1735 settlement of the land dispute between New Hampshire and Massachusetts Bay Colony, Henniker was allotted township number 6 in the lines of towns between the Connecticut and Merrimack Rivers. In the Charter of 1768, Governor Wentworth named the town of Henniker in honor of his friend, John Henniker, Esq., a wealthy London merchant of leather and furs.
Tradition states a few settlers arrived in the early 1730's but none stayed due to some Penacook Indian harassment and the French and Indian War. A marker on the north side of Rte 9/202, 1.7 miles east of junction with Route 114, indicates where the first permanent settler arrived and settled in 1761. On Shaker Hill Road, just off River Road, another historical marker shows where the first framed house was built and the first child was born, both in 1763. In total there are 23 historical markers around Henniker that form the Bike ‘Round Henniker History Ride. A map to plan your ride ‘round Henniker to view them all is planned.
Some of the earliest settlers were Quakers. A Meetinghouse was built in 1799 and moved to its’ current location on Quaker St in 1845. Near by are several farm houses dating from the same period as well as a schoolhouse.
There was a girl born in 1720 on a ship carrying Scotch-Irish immigrants to Boston who played a role in Henniker’s 20th century history. No “Ocean Born Mary” as she was known, didn’t live that long but her legend did. The Historical Society’s article separates fact from fiction in a tale of pirates, silk gowns and a haunted house. All that remains of the gown can be seen at the historical society. The house still stands, but haunted? You decide. It is currently in private hands but there is an historical marker.
In addition to Ocean Born Mary, Henniker has been home to several interesting and outstanding people: Edna Dean Proctor, nationally-known poetess; Amy Cheney Beach, pianist with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and composer, James W. Patterson, educator; and Ted Williams, baseball player with the Boston Red Sox. Mr. Williams was an avid fisherman; no wonder he choose Henniker and the Contoocook River Valley for his second home.
The Contoocook River, always a focal point, was first spanned in 1782 by a wooden bridge. The present double-arched Edna Dean Proctor stone bridge was built in 1835 and rebuilt several times since. The river's scenic beauty attracted a profitable tourist business starting in the late 1800s and continuing today with colorful kayaks seen on the rushing water. Water power supported mills and manufacturing in the days of the Industrial Revolution. Wooden rims, lumber, paper and shoes were some of the goods manufactured here. Remains for mill dams can be seen on the Contoocook along Ramsdell Rd. The paper mill site on Western Avenue provides a pleasant walk along the sluiceway. In 1850 two railroads, one from Manchester and one from Concord reached Henniker. You can see the old depot just up from town hall; it’s beautifully restored and home to Three Season Landscaping. A busy village grew up around the industry with sidewalks first introduced in 1890, the first telephone in 1894 and electric streetlights in 1895.
Henniker continued its blended commercial and agrarian course though the first half of the 20th century. Boys went to WWI and came home men. The 1938 hurricane blow through New England and in Henniker the volume of trees downed was more than could be milled quickly. The resourceful residents decided to store the trees in local ponds until they could be pulled out and milled later. The stone arched bridge was washed out so a bucket pulley system was used to pass mail and supplies between the two sides of town till it was repaired.
The next generation of Henniker boys went to WWII and the GI Bill brought other towns’ sons to Henniker with the opening of New England College (NEC) in 1946. Boone Tillett was the idea man; he saw the returning GI’s and Henniker as the perfect match for his dreams of founding a college. Charles Weber, a returning GI himself and Hofstra College professor, was put in the position of implementer of Tillett’s dream. From initial enrollment of 67 men and 1 woman NEC has grown approximately 1200 undergraduate and a like number of graduate students. Bachelor of Arts and Science, Master of Education, Science and Fine Arts degrees are conferred in over 30 Majors. The higher-level degrees are often earned while working full time through a 21st century model of “distance learning”. NEC and Henniker continue to innovate to meet the needs of the changing student population – making Boone Tillett proud.
Today Henniker is a friendly, rural community in which to live or just visit. In addition to New England College, it is the home of Pat's Peak Ski Area, opened in 1963. Visit their lodge to see some photos of early days of skiing and snow making in New Hampshire. The Henniker Historical Society operates a museum and archive center in the historic Henniker Academy building at 51 Maple Street in downtown Henniker. Genealogical research is conducted from this 1836 schoolhouse.