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The Commons
Photo 1

Randolph T. Holhut/Commons file photo

The interior of the Rockingham Meeting House is plain and austere, as many of its kind were in the 18th century.

Town and Village

Holding history

Rockingham Meeting House celebrates 230th anniversary as part of Old Home Days

Originally published in The Commons issue #419 (Wednesday, August 2, 2017).

ROCKINGHAM—Residents of Vermont, a place of rich tradition and deep-rooted culture, understand the importance of cherishing and preserving the relics of our history.

On the north side of Meetinghouse Road lies one of the oldest of these treasures, the Rockingham Meeting House, which this year celebrates its 230th anniversary and will be recognized by several events around Rockingham’s Aug. 5 Old Home Days celebration.

Built in 1787 — and established as a National Landmark in 2000 — the landmark was the second of two meeting houses, the first being constructed in the late 1770s. Fashioned in the austere Georgian style, the building displays very little decoration.

Simple wooden pews and private boxes — sometimes called “pigpens” — furnish the meeting house, and the simple pulpit sits high on the first floor in order to be visible from the second floor.

Now painted white, the meeting house was originally painted brown and red, as white paint was an expensive commodity at the time. The surrounding area of the meeting house contains an active cemetery with headstones dating back to the Revolutionary War.

Rosemarri Roth, one of four docents, or voluntary guides, of the landmark, described the uses and history of the meeting house: “It was never a church, the people who worshiped here believed that you worshipped god in your own heart and in your own mind, and therefore you could meet anywhere to learn the word of god, hence, a meeting house.”

A final meeting in 1869

The building was used for services until 1839 and, in 1869, the last town meeting took place, and the meeting house was closed.

This abandonment correlated with the rise of Bellows Falls as an industrial town, caused by the arrival of the railroad in the 1830s and the creation of the paper business in the town.

As the village of Bellows Falls grew more prominent, the town of Rockingham receded into the background.

Rockingham, which contains the incorporated villages of Bellows Falls and Saxtons River, and the unincorporated villages of Cambridgeport and Bartonsville, had itself, starting in the 1750s, contained a town consisting of a doctor’s office, a general store, and other basic necessities of a village, including the Meeting House.

A fire in 1905 wiped out the majority of these establishments but the meeting house, safe on the hill, was one of the few buildings to be spared from the disaster. It was in 1906 that a group of members, descendants of the original meeting house founders, raised $1,200 to restore the building, which had deteriorated with age, vandalism, and neglect.

The meeting house was also repainted white, the desired color of their ancestors but unaffordable at the time of the building was constructed. The restored building continued to be looked after through the decades.

In 2000, the Rockingham Meeting House was declared a National Historic Landmark of Vermont, through a program established by Congress to preserve cultural heritage of national importance.

Roth noted that this puts the meeting house in “a very special situation. It is one of very few in Vermont.”

Having retired as executive director of the Bellows Falls Downtown Development Alliance, Roth said she appreciated the importance of preserving landmarks of such historical prominence, and became more involved with the Rockingham Meeting House.

“The more involved I became, the more I got to love it, and the more I felt that we just really have to preserve this for future generations,” she said. “This is so indicative of the way life was back in the late 1700s.”

Dependent on donations

Funding the meeting house’s continual maintenance, however, can be a challenge.

“We get limited town funding, so we are pretty heavily dependent on donations, and we need to restore a number of things in here,” Roth said. “The ceiling needs to have work done on it, [and] that takes a very highly specialized master to do that, as [the] ceiling is made out of animal hair, and plaster.”

Encouragingly, attendance at the Rockingham Meeting House has increased. “Last year was a really good year for a number of reasons,” Roth said. “We started doing this tour. We didn’t do it before, [and] people would just come in and look around.

“People also became aware of our need to help us maintain this building, which was more than before. Also, a group of people that live close by got together and wanted to raise funds to offset some of the expenses.”

The Rockingham Meeting House Preservation Project, a group created to support the meeting house, organizes events to promote and celebrate its value.

On Aug. 3, the Windham Antique Center in Bellows Falls will host a cocktail party at 7 p.m. The event will include guest speakers, food, music, and opportunities to learn and talk about the meeting house.

The 111th annual pilgrimage to the Rockingham Meeting House will be held Sunday, Aug. 6, at 1 p.m, at the meeting house. This year’s program features 12 songs of “Vermont Headstones,” written by Stanley Charkey, and an informal barbecue lunch catered by Lisai’s Market.

In addition to events such as the pilgrimage, the meeting house offers tours, holds weddings, and hosts local events like the Roots on the River festival, providing a unique venue steeped in American history and culture.

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