First settled about 1765, the town was incorporated on January 17, 1774 by John Wentworth, governor of the province of New Hampshire. He named it Deering after the maiden name of his wife, Frances Deering Wentworth, just as two years earlier he bestowed Francestown with her first name. Deering had 928 residents when the first census was taken in 1790. By 1859, the population was 890. Its hills and valleys were well suited for agriculture. Industries included two sawmills, one gristmill, and one clothing factory.
The thirty-six square mile town that was to become Deering was carved out of a large land grant the British king gave to Captain John Mason in 1621. In 1746 John Tufton Mason, great grandson of the original John Mason, sold his entire claim to twelve wealthy Portsmouth merchants. These investors were known as the Masonian Proprietors. The unsettled portion of their land was called the “Society Lands.” It was bounded on the south by the present towns of Lyndeborough, Peterborough and Dublin; on the north by Hillsborough and Henniker; on the west by Nelson and Stoddard, and on the east by Weare and New Boston.
In 1753, the Masonian Proprietors surveyed the Society Lands and divided it into fifteen equal sections. Each proprietor was then deeded a big lot of about 4,000 acres. Once these divisions were made, the proprietors “drew lots” to determine the exact location of the land they would own. The proprietors then divided the entire parcel into approximately six-by-six-mile new towns. In 1774 the large lots from 11 through 15 to the east of the Contoocook River were incorporated as the Town of Deering, named for Governor Wentworth’s wife Frances Deering. As new settlers streamed into the Society Lands, they created the new towns of Francestown (also after Wentworth’s wife), Greenfield, Hancock, Antrim and, in 1842, Bennington.
Once the area was relatively safe from Native American attacks, the earliest Deering settlers began arriving in the 1760s, some 150 years after the first settlers in Massachusetts. They were mostly like-mined Scotch-Irish and English settlers from Londonderry were who were seeking to build a new community in the forests. Families from Londonderry, such as the McKeens, Forsaiths, Aikens, Pattens and Shearers, were among the first newcomers to Deering. These first Deering settlers could buy one or more fifty acre parcels of land and establish a family farm. One town plot was reserved for a Congregational minister and an additional plot was set aside to support a public school.
In the 1770s a great influx of new settlers from Londonderry, Chester and Amherst moved into Deering. Together they cleared hundreds of acres of fields, built roads, held yearly Town Meetings and elected town officers, the most important of which were the Selectmen and Town Clerk. Some, like the Aikens, Dows, and Lockes, volunteered to join the Revolutionary War. Others, like the Loverens, were major builders of the town and oversaw the construction of both the East Deering and Center churches and the fine colonial houses, some of which are still standing on East Deering Road. A few, like Russell Tubbs, opened stores. Most newcomers farmed and raised large families. By the first census in 1790, Deering had 928 citizens, about 130 more than Hillsborough.
One of the major efforts of the new Deering citizens was to build a town meeting house. After considerable argument over where the center of the town actually was, the town meeting agreed on where to erect the building. Deering citizens and volunteers from neighboring towns turned out to raise the building and the new meeting house was completed in 1788. From 1788 until 1829 the meeting house served as both church and civic center, before becoming the “Town Hall.” It was extended by a third to its present size in 1927 by members of the Community Club. This historic building, much in need of attention after 211 years of constant use, was thoroughly renovated in 2004. It remains the historic center of Deering and symbolizes our collective sense of community.
On Christmas Eve, 1789, a group launched the first church in the newly constructed meeting house. Most Deeringites at that time were strong Calvinists who believed in God’s grace and thought people should live to glorify the Creator. The strong winds of temperance were also blowing though town, and hundreds of citizens turned out to hear speakers rail against the evils of alcohol. After 1819, when New Hampshire passed the Toleration Act law separating church and state, the Congregational Church had to leave its home in the Town Hall. Ten years later, members of the Congregational Society financed the building of the present independent church in the Center, completed in 1830.
By 1820, Deering had mushroomed to 1,415 residents, during the great sheep raising boom that lasted from 1810 to around 1840. The New Hampshire sheep era started after 1809 when Spanish Merino and English Saxony sheep became available. This new wool could be worn close to the skin and soon New Hampshire mills were springing up in towns with large waterfalls and the new factories in these towns created a growing demand for wool. Deering, without waterfalls like Bennington and Hillsborough had, eagerly joined the sheep raising boom. In the 1830s farmers were selling wool for a dollar a pound (which means about$100 per pound today). The average sheep yielded about 3 ½ pounds per year, but the best rams could produce up to 9 pounds. In 1835 Deering farmers owned 2,705 sheep. In the same year our neighbor, Francestown was home to an astounding 7,230 sheep.
By 1840 New Hampshire farmers were raising some 617,000 sheep. The sheep raising craze led to the construction of some 250,000 miles of stone walls in New England and New York. Farmers also girded, burned and cleared new fields, transforming New Hampshire’s landscape from forests to 85% of open fields.
However, after 1830, as railroads connected New Hampshire with the western lands, sheep farming left New England. The rich land in the west attracted many New Hampshire farmers. In New Hampshire it cost from 1 to 2 dollars to raise a sheep, however, in the west the cost was only about 25 cents. At the same time, many Deering farmers were being lured to the many textile mills in Hillsborough and surrounding towns. Starting in 1840, Deering’s population steadily declined until the 1970s.
Most citizens were literate thanks to the tax-supported, free public schools that welcomed all young people who wanted an education through eighth grade. At one time Deering supported eleven public schools. Two of the original school buildings are still standing: the East Deering School building and the small school building at Deering Center that is now the town Library. Deering youngsters were learning many of the same values in school and in Sunday school. In both settings, they heard a constant message of personal responsibility, the importance of hard work, and the importance of community. McGuffey’s Readers, widely used texts in the schools, instructed students in those virtues. Students were not learning to read to pass standardized tests, but to become virtuous individuals.
McGuffey’s stories such as The Honest Boy and The Thief, The Elevated Character of Women and The Intemperate Husband all suggest the prevailing morals of 19th century New England. Deering citizens strongly supported these values, as well as temperance. Ministers in the 1830s regularly reported on the success of the Deering Temperance Society. In 1839, Rev. Holt reported that he and the town selectmen had organized some two hundred members into the Society.
Well-informed citizens turned out in large numbers for state and national elections, and until 1924, most cast their ballots for Democratic Party candidates. As the home of Benjamin and Franklin Pierce, New Hampshire was a stronghold of the Democratic Party. Financing schools and maintaining roads has accounted for the major civic expenditures in Deering history from the first town meeting to the present.
In 1860, Deering had several stores, many water mills, three post offices, two hotels and many successful farms. Even so, after the decline of the sheep boom, the population had declined from 1,415 in 1820 to only 890 in 1850. Deering had little industry, and its once fertile farm land was being depleted by sheep grazing and the top soil that had slowly built up for thousands of years was giving out. Meanwhile, neighboring towns that were built near waterfalls or by rivers that could be dammed were adapting to the Industrial Revolution that had moved north from the Merrimack cities of Lowell and Manchester.
The Civil War marked a watershed in Deering’s history. Few locals actually served in the army because the Town Meeting voted to raise money to pay for substitutes for those who were drafted, but even so, the population continued to decline as a result of the war. By 1880, the number of people living in Deering had fallen to 674 and by 1900 to 486, half the number during its earliest years. In the 1904 presidential election, fewer than a hundred voters cast their ballots. By that time, the Lockes, Ellsworths, Loverens and Forsaiths were the only descendents of the early families still living in Deering.
By 1900, Hillsborough had become a major village of 2,254 people and was an important manufacturing and rail center. As Hillsborough industrialized, the town accepted immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe. As the Town History explains, “Immigration has rapidly increased our numbers. Hillsborough has shared in the new impetus given to business in the coming of foreign blood.” Meanwhile Deering remained largely Protestant and northern European and the town has never industrialized.
By the turn of the century, many of the once prosperous New Hampshire farmers had fled westward to start new lives in the more fertile expanses in Iowa and Oregon, and Deering was not immune from this exodus. One of Deering’s first families, James Wilson Grimes, was elected in 1854 as Iowa's third governor. He was born in Deering, New Hampshire, on October 20, 1816. And attended the Hampton Academy and Dartmouth College. Grimes entered public service in 1836, serving as the secretary to the Indian Commission at Rock Island, Iowa. James later was elected to the U.S. Senate and voted against the impeachment of Andrew Johnson.
In 1900 Governor Rollins issued a plan for an “Old Home Day” hoping to attract some of the many people who had moved elsewhere to return to their original towns, if only for a day. On August 24, 1904, Deering held its first Old Home Day and the theme was “A plea . . . for people to repopulate old farms.” However, few old natives responded, and by 1920 Deering’s population was at an all-time low with a mere 288 people trying to eek out a meager existence from the tired land. Gradually, however, a new influx of settlers including many European immigrants began to trickle into town. This second wave of newcomers had come originally from Germany, Scotland, Sweden, Ireland, and Canada with the dream of owning their own land. Although many had ended up working in the Massachusetts mills, some still clung to that hope.
Unhappy factory workers dreaming of owning their own farms coincided with the massive exodus of the old-stock Yankee farmers fleeing west or grudgingly accepting jobs in the factories of nearby towns. The deserted farms in towns like Deering, selling for very little, seemed to offer the new immigrants the fulfillment of their dreams.
The new immigrant settlers, who had benefited from a rise in wages during World War I, were able to buy up the vacated farmland for very little; a mere $1,000 might buy three hundred acres plus buildings. Not realizing that under the uncut hay lay acres of rocks waiting to be carried off to walls, the immigrants saw only the potential to own land and become masters of their own fate. In the first twenty years of the new century, families like the Woods, Lawsons, Johnsons, Titcombs, Wilsons, Grueniers, Desmarais, Normandins, Bissonettes, Gerninis and Olsons, mostly from Europe, came to settle in Deering. Most of them had difficulty making a decent living farming, so they supplemented their modest incomes by chopping wood, working on the roads, driving trucks and working as carpenters. Some had to take jobs in the same kind of factories from which they had fled only a few years before. But they stayed in Deering, and, together with their Yankee neighbors, they formed the new generation of citizens that shaped Deering history until World War II. By 1933, two of the three selectmen were European immigrants.
For most of the Deering families in the first half of the twentieth century, life was harsh and money was sparse. The population sank to an all-time low and farmers were fortunate if they could clear a thousand dollars per year. Most young men joined the workforce after eighth grade rather than go on to high school. The nation-wide farm depression of the 1920s also struck Deering and during the decade of the Great Depression in the 1930s plunged many into deeper poverty. Deering farmers were dealt a third blow in 1938 with the fiercest hurricane in memory. Barns and chicken houses were blown away and farmers watched their hens blowing away, never to lay eggs again.
In the 1920s and 1930s, during these difficult economic times, Deering had another influx of people. This third group spent their summers around Pecker’s Pond, later known as the Deering Reservoir. These newcomers on the lake, such as A. Ray Petty and Daniel K. Poling, included some of the most prominent Protestant leaders in the country. Many came to Deering because of the remarkable Eleanor Campbell, a multi-millionaire devotee of good causes who, in the 1930s was the largest land owner in Deering’s history. Not content to live the life of the idle rich, Dr. Campbell turned her considerable energies to reform. As one of the few women at that time who had completed medical school, she set up a health clinic in Deering to help the poor farmers who were similar to the struggling Italian American families she had served in New York’s Lower East Side.
Dr. Campbell’s impact on Deering was far-reaching. She bought the Arthur Locke farm on Route 149 and turned it into the Community Center, a summer camp for children. The Community Center hosted campers from around the country and sponsored the prestigious Ministers’ School that attracted some of the world’s most eminent theologians. She established scholarships, spread the message of family planning and encouraged her fellow “summer people” to reenergize the moribund Deering Church. From the 1920s until the 1990s, the summer people who came to Deering meant Deering enjoyed cultural activities, educational opportunities and many experiences that exposed its year-round residents to the wider world.
The coming of the summer people also underscored the continuing failure of farming in Deering. In 1940, with a population of only 288, Deering had sent fifty-seven young men to serve in the military. However, after serving in World War II, many of the veterans decided not to return home. In the 1950s few viable farms remained and that decade marked the end of small farming in Deering. Open fields, which had allowed farmers to see across the hills to another neighbor miles away, were filling up with scrub trees and brush. Forests were increasingly trespassing over stone walls and occupying rapidly vanishing fields. By 1980, Deering had less open cultivated land than it had had in 1770 when the town was first settled.
In the aftermath of World War II, Deeringites increasingly looked outside the town for employment and education. In 1945, the last two classes of eighth graders graduated from the East and West Deering one room schoolhouses. In 1953, the last such school in East Deering was closed and students were bused to Hillsborough. From the high water mark of eleven one room schools, Deering now looked elsewhere to educate its children.
At the same time Deering was becoming more open to people of other cultures and experiencing national trends such as the Civil Rights and Women’s movements. In 1946 Winniatt Griffiths was Deering’s first Catholic Selectman, followed in 1970 by Kathleen Yeaple who became the first women selectperson.
By the 1970s, the large number of vacant farms invited a fourth wave of settlers. Some bought the pristine 18th century houses at bargain prices, refurbished these splendid houses and turned them into historic landmarks. At the same time, many of the large farms were sold to developers who broke them into small house lots, leading to a building boom that lasted until the housing bubble burst in 2008.
Unlike the earlier waves of settlers, the newcomers worked outside Deering. Moreover, unlike the past migrations, this most recent group of newcomers did not have a common shared world view; they came for many different reasons and with dramatically varied systems of values. In addition, for the first time, Deering began to attract retirees who did not have to work and wanted a peaceful environment for their later years. Soon professionals who could commute to work in the larger nearby cities but who wanted to escape urban life also joined the influx. Many of these newcomers could renovate the pristine, but ramshackle old houses they had bought or buy new houses.
Deering in the 1980s experienced its most rapid population increase. The population went from 1,707 people in 1990 to 1,875 in 2000 and, more than 2,000 in2010, the highest population in Deering’s history. Some of the new settlers who were deeply involved in environmental causes moved to Deering because its healthy environment and open spaces seemed an attractive place to raise their children. They brought an enthusiastic dedication to nature and have helped make the town a model of conservation and dedicated attention to our rural environment. The vast majority of current Deering citizens came to settle here between 1970 and 2000. There are only a handful of citizens who were born in Deering and even fewer who can trace their heritage back several generations.
Since the 1970s, the few surviving natives, working professionals who commute to jobs or manage to earn a living working at home, many retirees and an undetermined number of folks who take seriously the state motto “Live Free or Die” and just want to be left alone, have combined to create the present, far more pluralistic Deering. Many residents contribute much to the character and quality of life in Deering. Many are active in local churches and youth groups and willingly serve on the school board and town committees. They have also developed one of the most successful volunteer fire departments and rescue squads in the area and are attentive to environmental issues.
As these diverse groups strive to find their places in a rapidly changing and expanding community, Deering, like most towns, has its share of divisions and contentious debates over town politics. Old Yankees have traditionally been suspicious of large egos, too much talk and too many lawsuits and have had a great antipathy to zoning, building codes and town planning. But today's residents must tackle the daunting issues of town planning and the development of a more complex and integrated systems of government, education, and civic amenities. And, of course, as good citizens of New Hampshire, they hope to accomplish all these worthy goals without raising taxes.
Those of us who are residents of Deering endeavoring to build a modern sense of community that allows for great individual freedom at the same time must recognize that we no longer share the common set of values that united Deering’s first settlers and were passed on to subsequent generations in the public schools, religious organizations and close families. Current Deering citizens come from many backgrounds and world views, and the older organic, face-to-face bonds of community have given way to faith in social mobility and individual rights. At the same time some of the newcomers have infused the community with new energy and have successfully run for office and led many civic functions; others have withdrawn from their earlier contributions to civic life.
As Robert Putnam, the eminent social scientist and Jaffrey citizen, reminds us, there is a direct ratio between the amount of time people spend commuting to work and from work and the extent and quality of community participation. The fact that the average Deering commuter spends an hour getting to and from work and helps explain why many citizens have difficulty attending meetings and volunteering for community service projects.
By the first decade of the 21st century, traditional civic organizations such as the Community Club, Wolf Hill Grange, Old Home Days, The Deering Connection, Friends of Deering, The Historical Society and the Deering Association have all either ended or fallen on hard times. Amazingly, the Deering Women’s Guild, founding in 1928, is still thriving. At the same time, volunteer civic committees, especially the Planning Board and Conservation Commission, continue to perform crucial work for the town.
Present Deering residents are no less in need of communal bonds and a strong sense of community than its earlier residents. With the desire for privacy and individualism on the one hand and the longing for supportive personal relationships on the other, each person must seek to balance his or her own personal desires and the greater good of our larger community. As we seek to balance our personal happiness with our responsibility for our community, we can be thankful that we are living in Deering and have the privilege of participating in an open and democratic system of town government where every voice can be heard and majority rule prevails.