many outsiders—and residents, too—it’s very difficult to think of
Hanover without thinking of Dartmouth College. But, while the lives of
the town and college are truly intertwined, they are still separate
entities and anything but twins. For one thing, the township of Hanover
is older than Dartmouth College (which almost wound up in Haverhill, New
Hampshire, instead). And, though Dartmouth has acquired more fame and
many famous alumni, Hanover’s history has many high points and
successful residents of its own.
Members of the board of the Hanover Historical Society include (from left) Betsy Gonnerman, Cyndy Bittinger, Susan Boyle, Alan Callaway, and Christine Eickelman. Missing from the photo are Bob Keene and Teresa Oden.
one is more aware of this bifurcated history than the members of the
Hanover Historical Society, whose museum is the venerable Webster
Cottage (located on the Dartmouth campus) but whose purview is the story
of the entire town, including the thousands of years of pre-Colonial
history when this region was home solely to Native Americans. For the
past several years, under the guidance of President Cyndy Bittinger, the
society has been fleshing out the combined historical record by
focusing on less well-known residents and those groups who have
historically been disregarded: women, Native Americans, and Blacks.
Eleazar Wheelock gathers the “Church of Christ at Dartmouth College.”
Cottage is an example of how famous names can overshadow people who
were just as interesting. Daniel Webster lived in the building only
during his senior year at Dartmouth (1800–01). The house itself was
built on land that Eleazar Wheelock gave to his daughter Abigail in 1774
for her dowry. She lived there all-told for 14 years, raising a family
on a working farm, carrying on after her minister husband’s early death
in a sleighing accident, and finally taking on boarders to make ends
meet. This resilient woman was Webster’s landlady.
the 19th century, there was a series of tenants and owners in the
cottage, which in one period was known as Mrs. Smith’s Tavern (she was
also a widow) and in another as Miss McMurphy’s Boarding House. In fact,
there were two Miss McMurphys, aunt and niece, who owned the cottage
and boarded students from 1853 until 1900.
college purchased the 120-year-old house shortly after the younger Miss
McMurphy died and rented it in 1902 to Professor Prescott Orde Skinner
and his wife, Alice Van Leer Carrick. During their 50-year-plus tenancy,
the college moved the cottage (and them) across the road and a little
farther north. Sometime during that period it acquired the name of
Webster Cottage, along with the bronze plaque that says so. Meanwhile,
Alice Skinner became a self-taught expert in American antiques,
furnished the cottage with them, and published seven books about
antiquing under her maiden name, including The Next to Nothing House,
describing the cottage and its contents. She traveled throughout the
country giving lectures. By coincidence, she was landlady to the
cottage’s final boarders, which included another Daniel Webster (of no
relation to the famous one).
Carrick-Skinner was also the final tenant, staying on almost a decade
after Professor Skinner’s death in 1950. She eventually moved away to
live with relatives and died in 1961. That year, the college decided the
cottage should be a museum.
Hanover Historical Society reopens Webster Cottage to visitors. Entry is free.
tour of the cottage is something like a curated step back in time.
Volunteer docents, all members of the historical society, greet you at
the door and take you around or provide an artifact list for a
self-guided tour. The ell is gone, but the cottage retains much of its
18th-century interior design and many of the antiques Carrick-Skinner
collected, along with maps, documents, samplers, portraits, old photos,
and artifacts from other donors with some connection to the college or
town. Most recently, the Dunfee family donated a striking portrait of
Daniel Webster painted by French artist Joseph-Désiré Court (1797–1865).
The Rauner Library serves as archive for the society, and about half of
the HHS artifacts are technically “on loan from the Hood Museum.”
cottage is only one facet of the Hanover Historical Society’s
activities. They also publish several historical booklets, including a
history of the cottage’s residents and a self-guided walking tour of
Hanover’s remaining 18th- and early 19th-century houses. They are an
annual presence in Hanover’s Fourth
of July parade, and every year collaborate with the Howe and Etna
libraries to mount exhibits and present several programs about local
history and people. They also co-host an annual event at the Norwich
Historical Society. A few years ago, they began partnering with CATV to
record all of the presentations and make them available online.
The Nugget Theater explodes and burns to the ground. The replacement, built on its current location, opens in 1951.
presentations included the histories of the Nugget Theater, Storrs
Pond, and the Skating Club at Dartmouth; a viewing of Webster-related
items in Rauner’s special collections; and a tour of midcentury modern
homes in Hanover, which filled quickly with eager members.
society hosts an annual visit to Webster Cottage by the fourth-graders
from the district’s schools (always including a round of “Guess what
this artifact is for?”), and since 2018 has presented an annual $1,000
Senior Award for Excellence in Social Studies to a graduating student
chosen by the Social Studies faculty at Hanover High School. The award
is funded by donations and fees charged for some of the events. (The
society is a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization.)
the COVID period, the society was forced to close the cottage and host
all of its presentations on Zoom. Topics ranged from the 100-year
history of the New Hampshire primary (asking, is it still as important
as it was?) to the extensive archaeology of the long-term presence of the Abenaki and a history of the women’s suffrage movement.
COVID shutdowns also proved a good time to research local stories—the
history of Keene’s Lodge in Etna—and also the histories of Hanover
women, including Grace Hill, who brought classes in movement, fitness,
and dance for women to the Upper Valley, and Jean Lande Hennessey, whose
many achievements in public service were described by her daughter
Martha. The society also managed to hold one in-person event: a tour of
the Hanover cemetery. The Hanover Historical Society’s most important COVID project, however, was the creation of its website, hanoverhistory.org, funded by its first-ever federal grant through New Hampshire Humanities.
the site’s many educational offerings are a historical timeline of the
town and college, brief bios of historical residents, an archive of past
presentations, and a virtual tour of Webster Cottage. Much of the text
was prepared by Hanover High student Katie Stannard, and the virtual
tour was created by alumna Liz Rooker.
the society is restarting in-person presentations, combined with Zoom
and recorded for the website archive by CATV.
Hanover Historical Society has a completely volunteer staff and a small
but dedicated membership. According to President Cyndy Bittinger, the
biggest benefit of membership is advance notice of the many
presentations; the tours in particular fill up quickly. It’s also a good
way for people interested in local history to learn more while
supporting a worthwhile organization. The membership fee, purposefully
kept low to encourage others to join, is only $10 per year.
Daniel Webster’s senior year, $10 would have been about 30 cents. Given
the rich, interwoven history of the town and the college, it’s a real
bargain in any era. H
Hanover Historical Society
PO Box 142