Since the mid-nineteenth century, Meredith Village has served as the town's civic, industrial, commercial and residential center. The village is nestled on a narrow neck of land bounded by lakes on either side, and its streets are lined with nineteenth and early twentieth century buildings. Stunning vistas of Lake Winnipesaukee are afforded from many vantage points, and the tour includes three landscaped, lakeshore parks.
The township of Meredith was granted in 1748, but unrest due to the ongoing French and Indian Wars meant settlement was delayed for some twenty years. However, by the late 1760s Meredith had its first residents.
Initially, the center of town activity was farther south, at Meredith Parade, an open, upland area where a meetinghouse, cemetery and schoolhouse were sited along the Province Road. This early route was a main supply route between the coast and northern inland New Hampshire and passed through Meredith.
New England town histories are rife with communities whose eighteenth century hilltop, agriculturally based town centers were abandoned in favor of nineteenth century valley villages oriented around industry serviced by water power and the railroad. Meredith is no exception.
Though Meredith Parade was the original town center, it was soon eclipsed in importance by Meredith Center and the Weirs, both of which had water power for small mills. During the nineteenth century two other manufacturing centers dominated Meredith's industrial growth: Meredith Village and Meredith Bridge. Meredith Village to the north was the smaller of the two. Meredith Bridge, whose water power surpassed that of the village, grew more rapidly and had a number of factories devoted to hosiery manufacturing.
Meredith Village in 1889.
Meredith Village's beginnings stem from the construction of a sawmill in 1795 and a grist mill shortly thereafter along the outlet of Lake Waukewan into Lake Winnipesaukee. By 1800 a small village had taken shape, with a third (fulling) mill, two stores and a handful of houses. The town built a road in 1773 branching off the Province (now Parade) Road running to the Moultonboro town line, now Center Harbor village, part of which still serves as Main Street. Meredith also profited from a seacoast road that linked Dover to Alton Bay, where transport continued on boats across the lake and thence into inland New Hampshire; one of the boat landings was at Meredith Village.
Every town had its "squire" or civic leader. Meredith's was Ebenezer Smith, who, as agent for the original grantees, was one of the town's first settlers along Parade Road. He organized the settlement into an incorporated township in 1768, led the town into involvement in the Revolutionary War, and represented Meredith and surrounding communities in the provincial and state governments.
In 1809, John Bond Swasey, a local resident only twenty-seven years of age, made a substantial land purchase that included a major portion of Meredith Village and ultimately shaped its future. The seller was Daniel Avery, who played a leading role in developing Meredith Bridge and who had bought up much of Meredith Village in the decade prior to Swasey's purchase.
In the years that followed, Swasey reconstructed the Waukewan outlet into an abundant canal leading under Main Street and over a forty-foot waterfall. Several new and larger mills were built along the canal, including a carding mill. In the early 1830s the carding mill was renovated into a cotton mill under the auspices of the locally controlled Meredith Village Cotton Factory Company.
An account of the village in 1822 mentions five stores, a tannery, a cloth-dresser and manufacturer. The first of the village's three historic churches, the Baptist Church, was built in 1834 on Main Street. In 1839, Seneca Ladd opened a carriage manufactory on Plymouth Street; it prospered until it burned eleven years later. Arrival of the Boston, Concord & Montreal Railroad at Meredith Village in 1848 was a key factor in the community's continued growth.
One of the more illustrious Meredith figures of these years was Dudley Leavitt, best known for his popular farmer's almanac. Leavitt left his mark also as a schoolmaster, teaching the finer points of literature, mathematics and the sciences to youngsters at his academy located between Meredith Village and Center Harbor.
In 1854 the town of Meredith voted to relocate its town hall from Parade Road to the village. A site was selected at the southeast corner of Main and Lake Streets and work begun. The following year, the partially finished building collapsed during its first town meeting, killing five and injuring dozens of others. The calamity only furthered the already existing rift between Meredith Bridge and Meredith Village, and a few months later, the Bridge seceded and was incorporated as part of the new town of Laconia. Meredith hastily rebuilt its town hall on the same site, where it remained until 1877.
The loss of Meredith Bridge meant the loss of a major portion of the town's economic base, as well as of prime agricultural land. Meredith Village at that time included a saw mill, a grist mill, several blacksmith shops, two tanneries, a carpenter's shop, a tin shop and a cooper's shop. Seneca Ladd opened a piano and melodeon business at the corner of Highland and Main Streets, in a building that later housed the Meredith Village Savings Bank and the post office and, currently, the Historical Society Museum. Another half-dozen stores, three churches (including two that were moved from elsewhere in town), a cemetery, a school and approximately 80 houses rounded out the village. Dr. George Sanborn practiced medicine from his house at the corner of Main and Water Streets. The railroad tracks and depot were situated at the south end of the village. Lang Street (then Winnipesaukee Street) provided a shorter route between the depot and the shore, and Dover Street led to the steamboat landing. Plymouth Street was newly developed with houses erected primarily by Joseph Ela beginning in 1846. Water and High Streets had houses on either side of the canal.
In 1859 a group of local businessmen formed the Meredith Mechanic Association to promote and develop the village's manufacturing potential. It purchased the water privileges along the Waukewan Canal, considered among the best water power sources in the state, and soon owned three factory buildings, three shops, one store and three houses along the south side of Dover Street. In 1873 a town vote exempted new manufacturers from property taxes for ten years if their capital exceeded $5,000.
One of the Association's first tenants was Seneca Ladd's piano manufactory. This was followed in 1866 when two brothers established a lumber mill at the foot of Dover Street, where they made building materials utilizing power regulated by the Association. But it was Samuel Hodgson's hosiery mill, which the Association brought to town in 1876, that had the greatest impact on the village.
An Englishman, Hodgson first went to Lowell upon his arrival in the United States in 1866. He soon moved north ward to Lakeport (part of Laconia), where he was involved in dyeing and manufacturing hosiery. While there he teamed up with mechanic William Abel to develop and patent an automatic machine for knitting stockings. Hodgson foresaw the vast potential of both the machine and the Mechanic Association's property and, in 1876, brought his new equipment to the Association mill at Meredith Village. There he rented the Association's main mill in the center of the village. He soon built a larger mill that tripled his work space and, by 1885, employed over 150 workers.
Meredith in the 1880s was a prosperous mill town. In addition to Hodgson's hosier mill and dark's lumber mill, there was the Meredith Shook and Lumber Company, with its sixty workers at a lakefront site near the foot of Mill Street; the J.A. Lang & Company, makers of piano cases, doors, windows and other building supplies; and Jaziel Robinson's organ factory. Churches, a hotel, new town hall, bank, library, local newspaper and various stores attracted people from not only outlying Meredith, but the surrounding region. Both the railroad and steamboat brought people from farther afield. New streets sprang up, lined with dwellings to house the many workers in Hodgson's and the other mills.
Beyond the confines of the village, Meredith was a prosperous agricultural town. Its hillside farms and lake views were prized, and some of the state's most successful stock breeders raised their herds here. The forward thinking of the community's farmers was reflected in its grange activities; one former grange headquarters, now a Masonic hall, still stands on Main Street in the village. The Wadleigh plow, noted for its lightness and its swivel blade, numbered among the village's products.
In late 1889 Hodgson's mill burned to the ground. With the loss of its principal tenant, the Mechanic Association's strength weakened, and its property was put for auction. It was eventually purchased and outfitted into a linen mill that specialized in toweling made from imported flax. The mill operated until the 1980s.
Today, the restored mill complex houses a fine hotel and specialty shops set amidst the waterfall of Swasey's canal.
Beginning in the late 19th century and continuing throughout the 20th century, Meredith, like other Lake Winnipesaukee towns, became a popular summer resort destination. Visitors arrived first by train and later by automobile. Two primary routes to the White Mountains intersected in the village, encouraging downtown Meredith to develop into a regional trading center, a function it continues to serve today, with its handsome wooden storefronts. After the state relocated the highways around the village to follow the lake shore, lake frontage was set aside to the town, opening up former industrial land to the public for strolling and picnics.