To a traveler passing through, Harrisville might appear to be a town captured in time, marked by impressive brick, mill buildings neatly arranged along the rushing Nubanusit. Its quirky, authentic General Store has the flavor of local life but welcomes the passerby just as openly. And the idyllic scenery, which features glassy lakes, open fields and thick forests, makes a classic New Hampshire backdrop.
An online reviewer would likely use the word “charming” to describe it all, and that would be absolutely accurate. But there’s something rooted far beneath the charm that continues to make Harrisville a compelling town in which to work, live, vacation and even tie the knot.
Three remarkable venues, Mayfair Farm, Aldworth Manor and Cobb Hill, have made Harrisville an unexpected destination for couples planning country-chic weddings. And spectacular natural areas, like Lake Skatutakee, which has a little-known natural spring, and the Eliza Adams Gorge, which offers a captivating day hike, draw outdoor enthusiasts from all over.
But it is the town’s distinctive “downtown” that often comes to mind when folks think of Harrisville. Classified as a National Historic Landmark in 1977, the village plays the part in look and feel but holds its own set of secrets.
HISTORICAL, BUT NOT ‘STUCK’
“I think a lot of times people think of Harrisville as a historical society that doesn’t want anything to change,” describes Erin Hammerstedt, executive director of Historic Harrisville Inc. (HHI), an organization dedicated to preserving and enhancing the town’s way of life.
But “stuck” is the last word she would use to define Harrisville. Instead, the town has spent decades purposefully rehabilitating key elements, like the mills, to make the town an attractive place to both live and do business.
“To have the center of Harrisville cared for in such a beautiful and thoughtful way offers all of us a foundation to work from,” says Marcy Schepker, a Harrisville-based fiber artist and arts educator who has lived in town for 30 years.
Much of that foundation can be credited to HHI, which was formed by a dedicated group of residents in the 1970s when the town’s mills shuttered their doors. The organization has successfully crafted a space and culture that a diverse range of people want to partake in.
“I think they recognize that this is a conscious effort. They want to be part of this sort of lifestyle,” Hammerstedt notes.
Artist, “arts-enabler,” and HHI board member, Michelle Aldredge says, “Harrisville is the perfect fit for me because my own values are aligned with those of the community.”
She and fellow artist Corwin Levi recently moved their studio space from the Storehouse to the Sorting and Picker House, which will give them access to more work and storage space.
Both locations, which served historical purposes within the town’s network, are owned by HHI, the organization responsible for their restoration and maintenance. The various mill-related buildings HHI has taken under its oversight, continue to be a popular choice for artists and entrepreneurs, ranging from the likes of Walt Siegl Motorcycles to the Harrisville Children’s Center.
Monthly tenant gatherings give everyone a chance to network, learn about each other’s work, and spark collaboration or trades.
“For example, I am designing a website for a composer I’ve become friends with thanks to our sharing a studio building. This composer is collaborating with another artist, who also has a space here,” Aldredge describes.
FROM MILL TOWN TO CREATIVE CENTER
She believes the village’s concentration of creatives is consistent with the dynamic arts community that’s present across the Monadnock Region.
“What is unique, though, is that thanks to Historic Harrisville, we have a thriving, walkable village with quality, affordable spaces for artist studios, small businesses, and events,” she describes.
Combined with affordable housing, beautiful outdoor spaces, and the town’s lively general store, Harrisville offers the essential ingredients of a thriving community.
Though it’s been in existence since the 1880s, the Harrisville General Store came under the HHI umbrella in recent years to preserve its role as the village’s social hub. Now subsidized by HHI, the business is able to offer an authentic country store experience, as well as a go-to gathering place.
Hammerstedt says, “It’s definitely been a good investment.”
It’s not a new store pretending to be classic, and it’s not a convenience store disguised as a mom-and-pop shop.
“The magic of the store is that it’s real, which I think people really value,” Hammerstedt notes.
Inside, patrons find locally-made bread, bottles of wine, and fresh fruits and veggies, as well as homemade pastries, salads and ready-to-eat dishes.
“Being able to go to the general store and have a conversation over a meal, looking out at the mills is a gift to us all,” says Schepker.
For her, the mills hold a special place in her heart because they are home to Harrisville Designs (HD), producer of high quality, natural 100 percent wool yarns, carded fleece, and handcrafted looms.
“All the wool that I use for my personal tapestries and artist-in-residences comes from Harrisville Designs. They have been very generous towards the community service projects I am involved with, as well as schools I have taught at,” Schepker describes.
Her own son now works in Harrisville Design’s woodworking studio building looms, and Schepker says, “For me to know that they are continuing to keep alive textiles through products and classes makes me very happy.”
Harrisville Designs has been owned by the Colony family for generations, and members of the family also actively serve on the board of HHI. Owner John Colony was there at HHI’s beginning and thought at the time that he would also try to launch a small textiles business to keep the traditions of the town alive.
“The connection between Historic Harrisville and Harrisville Designs is very tight,” Colony notes.
He firmly believes his business would not have been successful all these years without the innovative work of HHI intertwined.
He also says, “If we’ve had any secrets to success, it’s that we’ve created a niche doing things that other people wouldn’t do.”
For instance, Harrisville Design’s focus on high-quality educational offerings attracts artists of all levels from around the world. The business also crafts custom fibers for specialized projects, like the time they made yarn for blankets used in a major motion picture featuring Russell Crowe.
“It’s funny to be involved in an industry that’s as old as textiles,” Colony says.
Though it may be old, Harrisville Design’s modern-day following of fiber fanatics consider the business a treasure.
THE RETURN OF WATER POWER
Recently another big treasure was unveiled in Harrisville’s Cheshire Mills Complex: the return of hydropower. In the works since the 2000s, the project has taken a long time to come to fruition due to the complex engineering, permitting and expenses involved.
However, an open house hosted by HHI in December showcased the facility’s new 38-kilowatt Francis-style turbine. The equipment will generate electricity for the mill buildings and help HHI save significantly on energy costs going forward.
“Harrisville was literally built around the water power,” Hammerstedt describes.
To see that facet of the town’s history restored in such an efficient, modern way was a huge win.
“It’s really exciting for us … and even more exciting for the people who have been working on it this whole time,” Hammerstedt says.
As HHI looks toward the future, reducing energy costs and becoming more self-sufficient definitely rise to the top of the priority list. After completing the hydropower project and renovating three affordable housing units in the past year, HHI is taking 2019 to focus on maintenance and planning.
“We’re sort of maturing as an organization and looking to go in a new direction,” Hammerstedt says.
Drawing more young people and families to the area is a focus, as it is for so many rural NH communities. Hammerstedt says affordable housing and energy efficiency will be critical pieces of that puzzle.
Regardless of where HHI sets its sights next, Aldredge says one of the most important things to her is “living in a place where the community works together to make decisions … Residents volunteer at an impressive rate, which I deeply appreciate.”
Though there isn’t consensus 100 percent of the time, people show up to be part of the conversation.
“In a world filled with distractions, both large and small, it is a very special place to live, where the priorities are the quality of life, not the quantity,” Schepker says.
Caroline Tremblay writes from Fitzwilliam, New Hampshire.