One of the pleasures of traveling is discovering places with local flavor, and Harrisville has that in abundance, as we discovered in May.
Nestled in the Monadnock Highlands of southwestern New Hampshire is the tiny brick mill village of Harrisville, where yarn has been spun since 1794. It’s about 15 minutes from the town of Keene, and about an hour from Manchester. Some houses cluster in the village, but many are strung out along narrow winding lanes through the woods, or around the edges of the many lakes and ponds.
Mount Monadnok (3,165ft) looms above pastoral farmland, extensive woods, and tiny villages, such as Harrisville. Hiking to the top of it for the spectacular views became popular in the 19th century, and today it’s still one of the most frequently-climbed mountains in the world. A monadnok is an isolated mountain, the remnants of ancient crystalline rock more resistant to erosion than the surrounding rock strata. Geographers used the name of Mount Monadnok to describe similar formations elsewhere.
The village of Harrisville was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1977. It’s recognized as the only 19th century textile village in America that survives in its original form, and some say it’s the most photographed village in the state.
Harrisville is a lovely little place, and we were lucky to visit with extended family living there, who were very happy to show us around and tell us about their special place.
For example, Harrisville General Store, one of the oldest general stores in continuous use, is perched on a hill overlooking the mill complex. It opened in 1838, but in recent years was facing an uncertain future, due to competition from big-box stores. About 10 years ago, the preservation organization Historic Harrisville Inc. took over ownership and leased it out to new management, with M’Lue Zahner and Laura Carden taking over. The managers are Phil Gargan and Samantha Rule who are committed to selling and preparing fresh local produce. They make pies, soups, sandwiches, and salads fresh daily (try their signature kale salad with feta and dried cranberries). They offer a great pastry selection and also prepare dinner menus to take home. I’m told we shouldn’t miss cider doughnuts and grass-fed burger, too. Besides being a popular place for the local community, it’s become a tourist destination in its own right, and people are willing to make the detour to visit it.
Bit of History
Water power attracted settlers to various remote locations in New Hampshire beginning in the late 18th century. In 1794 the first of several mills was built across the Nubanusit River to harness the water-power necessary for carding fleece brought down from local hilltop farms to the village. The Harris family built many of the original mill buildings and houses for their family and workers. Hence the name of the village.
In the mid-1800s, the Colony family bought out the Harris holdings and created Cheshire Mills. When that business closed its doors in 1970, a group of citizens and preservationists joined together and formed a non-profit organization called Historic Harrisville Inc. (the same group that saved the General Store). It soon bought several of the main buildings to renovate and lease out to businesses.
John J. Colony III was very much involved in this venture. He realized that, as the mill buildings were being cleared and machinery was being broken down and sold for scrap metal, textiles would disappear from the village. So, he started Harrisville Designs in 1971 to keep the textile tradition alive and to create jobs to help the village economy. Harrisville Designs still makes high-quality 100% natural yarns for knitting and weaving, plus they make wooden floor looms in several sizes and styles. We enjoyed looking around at all the goods for sale. They also offer many different workshops and classes, and it’s become a place for locals to socialize, too.
Harrisville Lake, which has loons as well as other water birds, has a small beach with imported sand and a nice kid’s playground. Our family there assures us that the water does get quite warm enough to swim. In fact, one family member swims regularly in a small lake near their home.
All around New Hampshire we saw churches with a very typical style of architecture, and Harrisville is no exception. Many New England churches gained their familiar front towers and steeples between 1720 and the American Revolution. They were often adapted from the published designs of Christopher Wren and James Gibbs. The Harrisville Congregational Church, the Harrisville Designs building and the old library, all around the mill pond, create a very attractive picture of an early rural mill town—and it’s especially lovely when their images are reflected in the water. Nearby is Aldworth Manor, an old Italian-style manor is an ideal spot for a wedding.
New Hampshire is well known for maple syrup and blueberries. We saw plenty of maple-sugar trees, but it was early in the season for blueberry bushes to yield their fruit. It was the season for fiddlehead fern fronds, which are delicious just lightly sautéed in butter. We saw some for sale in grocery stores, but our host went foraging for them in the woods next to his home.
Where to stay:
Harrisville Inn, 797 Chesham Road, run by Maria Coviello, a charming lady originally from the British Virgin Islands.
Where to eat:
The Harrisville General Store makes great fresh food every day. Alternatively, drive to the Kimball Farm Restaurant in the nearby village of Jaffrey. It serves up soups, salads, all kinds of fish dishes, and an amazing selection of ice-creams. Open mid-April to Columbus Day.
— Uncharted101.com (@Uncharted1o1) July 22, 2017
About the author: Vivienne Mackie, an Urbana, Illinois, resident, is an ESL teacher and freelance travel writer.