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 merchants from Portsmouth. This group of investors was 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 then was deeded a big lot of about 4,000 acres. Once the 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.
The earliest Deering settlers were groups of like-mined people - mostly Scotch-Irish and English from Londonderry - seeking to build a new community in the forests. They began arriving in the 1760s, some 150 years after the first settlers in Massachusetts, once the area was relatively safe from Native American attacks. 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 plot in the new town 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 of the newcomers farmed and raised large families. By the first census in 1790, Deering was home to 928 citizens, about 130 more than neighboring 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 to erect a building. Deering and volunteers from neighboring towns turned out to raise the building and the new meetinghouse was completed in 1788, later extended by a third to its present size in 1927 by members of the Community Club. From 1788 until 1829 the meetinghouse served as both church and civic center, before becoming the "Town Hall." This old building, much in need of attention after 221 years of constant use, remains the historic center of Deering and symbolizes its collective
sense of community.
On Christmas Eve, 1789, a group launched the first church in the newly constructed meetinghouse. 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 was forced out of its home in the Town Hall and in 1829, 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. Farmers were growing sheep to provide wool for the burgeoning textile mills in Hillsborough and other towns that were lucky enough to have been built near waterfalls.
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 buildings of the East Deering School and the school at Deering Center that is now the town Library. Well-informed citizens turned out in large numbers for state and national elections, and until 1924 most cast their ballots for Democratic Party candidates. 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, the population had declined from 1,415 in 1820 to only 890 in 1850. Deering had little industry, and sheep grazing was depleting its once fertile farmland and topsoil. The topsoil that had slowly built up for thousands of years was giving out. Meanwhile, neighboring towns, built near waterfalls or by rivers that could be dammed, were adapting to the Industrial Revolution that had moved up from the Merrimack cities of Lowell and Manchester.
The Civil War marked a watershed in Deering 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 of its founding 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 settling 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 some of the new waves of immigration 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." Deering, on the other hand, remained largely Protestant and northern European.
By the turn of the century many of the once prosperous New Hampshire farmers had fled westward to start lives anew in more fertile expanses in Iowa and Oregon, and Deering was not immune from this exodus. 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 innocent 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, having difficulty making a decent living farming, supplemented their modest incomes by chopping wood, working on the roads, driving trucks and working as carpenters. Some were forced to take jobs in the very factories 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, and most young men were forced to join the workforce after eighth grade rather than go on to high school. The nation-wide farm depression of the 1920s also struck Deering and decade of the Great Depression in the 1930s plunged most 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 experienced another influx of people. This third group came to spend their summers around Pecker's Pond, later known as the Deering Reservoir. The newcomers on the lake, such as A. Ray Petty and Daniel K. Poling, included many of the most prominent Protestant leaders of the country. Many came to Deering because of the remarkable Eleanor Campbell, a multi-millionaire devotee of good causes, who by the 1930s had become the largest landowner in Deering history. Not content to live the life of the idle rich, Dr. Campbell turned her considerable energies to reform. As one of the few woman of the age who completed medical school, she set up a health clinic in Deering to help the poor farmers whom she saw as 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 old Arthur Locke farm on Route 149 and turned it into the Community Center, a summer camp for area 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 coming of the summer people each year meant Deering enjoyed cultural activities, educational opportunities and many experiences that exposed its year-round residents to the
The coming of the summer people, however, also underscored the continuing failure of farming in Deering. After serving in World War II, many Deeringites decided not to return home. In the 1950s few viable farms remained. 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 stonewalls and occupying rapidly vanishing fields. Soon 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 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 the first Catholic Selectman elected in Deering history followed in 1970 by Kathleen Yeaple who became the first women selectperson.
By the 1960s, the vacated farms invited a fourth wave of settlers. These new settlers looked outside Deering for their incomes. Unlike the past migrations, this latest group of newcomers did not come with a common shared worldview; they came for many different reasons and with dramatically varied values. In addition, for the first time many working people were able to retire with enough means to live a comfortable life, and Deering began to attract retirees who wanted to find 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 joined the influx. Many surrounding New Hampshire towns, especially those along rivers, had long come under the influence of the industrial revolution, so they were far more densely populated than
Deering. Deering's open land and deserted old farmhouses were once again very appealing. This time the new arrivals had surplus money that they enthusiastically invested in renovating the pristine, but ramshackle old houses that had not felt paint for generations. New settlers involved with 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 environment.
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 Deering. Residents contribute much to the character and quality of life in Deering. They have donated their time and talents to publish The Deering Connection, to support several town voluntary organizations including the Deering Association, the Deering Foundation, the Conservation Commission, the Planning Board and the Deering Historical Society. Many are active in local churches and youth groups and willingly serve on the school board. They have developed one of the most successful volunteer fire departments and
rescue squads in the area and are attentive to environmental issues.
Deering almost doubled in population from 1970 to 1980, it grew from a town of 578 people to a town of 1,041. Deering in the 1980s experienced the most rapid population increase in its history. By 1990 the town had 1707 citizens, the largest number in its history. By 2000 this large population had slowed to around 1,875, but more growth is sure to come.
As these diverse groups strive to find their places in a rapidly changing and expanding community, Deering, like most growing 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 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 of newcomers in the public schools, religious organizations and close families. We come from many backgrounds and worldviews, and the older organic, face-to-face bonds of community have given way to faith in mobility and individual rights. Yet, present Deering residents are no less in need of communal bonds. With our desire for privacy and individualism on the one hand and our wish for intimate personal relationships on the other, each person must participate in the search for a balance between his or her own personal desires and the greater good of
our larger community. This is an American dilemma that most small towns are experiencing, and Deering also faces this daunting challenge. As Deering citizens seeking to achieve both maximum personal happiness, while at the same time filling their deep need to strengthen civic bonds and serving as responsible citizens, all Deeringites are privileged to be living in one of the most exciting times in Deering history.
By Don and Jean Johnson