Old Town Hall (1848-1987)

    After NMCo came to town in 1823, more and more businesses and residences became concentrated in the “Lamprey River Village” part of the township.  Eventually the town voted in favor of moving the governmental meeting place away from the old Meeting House on Ash Swamp Road where the old town center had been located since before 1727.  The NMCo donated land to the town for the sole purpose of constructing a new town hall.

    John Mathes furnished the bricks from local brickyards, and John Bennett furnished the lumber needed.  The building had a slate roof, the same as the mills.

    Newmarket historian Nellie Palmer George describes that era in her book Old Newmarket—in a chapter titled Hard Times.

    On the 15th of January, 1848, the Town Hall was finished.  Even at that time no one suspected the business depression that within a few weeks swept over New England.  In Newmarket the mills reduced wages and even closed for a period of time.

    In addition to hard times that year in Newmarket, town politics were in a turbulent condition.  The minority party claimed a reckless expenditure of the town’s money in building the new Town Hall, in the management of the town poor-farm, and in work on the highways.  The outlying school districts claimed they had not received their just share of school service…

    On town meeting day both parties were well represented and in a fighting mood.  Verbal and fistic arguments were frequent.  A “free for all” seemed imminent when the polls were closed without having voted any money for school purposes. 

    For the entire 1848 school year, the schools had no funding - so they were forced to close.  Several teachers stepped forward and set up small private tuition schools in houses and apartments to provide some academics — but for only those who could afford it.

    (photo: Newmarket Town Hall, circa 1900-1911.  Building on left is NMCo. Mill No.6)

    The earliest surviving town report is 1848-49, and it mentions nothing of these difficulties. However, it does list payment of several constables for their services at the March 1848 town meeting, and it reports that the entire cost of the new “Town House” was $3700.  It also lists expenditures for additional Town House equipment, such as:

    Feb. 8, 1849:  269 lbs. Eng. Funnel    $26.90

                            2 large box stoves       17.50

                            2 days labor—setup       4.00

                            Wire                                .42

                            6 lbs. zinc                         .75

     These payments were made to John S. Bennett—who had also supplied the lumber for the new building (see Site No. 14).  Interestingly, John S. Bennett was one of Newmarket’s three selectmen. 

     At first there was no tower or cupola to the building; those were added later between 1887 and 1892. 

    The next big change came in the fall of 1911 when the front entrance had been extended to fill in both sides of the tower. This created two rooms on both floors. The room on the bottom floor was to be used as a ticket office. A horseshoe balcony was also added, extending from the back of the hall to the front of the building.

    (photo: 1982 shows exterior changes made in 1911)

    Lewis Hersom, a local carpenter and boat builder, was awarded the construction contract. When he and his son Walter (AKA Spike) brought the bricks by motor launch from Dover, they were caught in a severe thunderstorm with rough waves that rocked their heavy cargo and they were lucky to get off the Bay alive. They and their crew got back to the town landing drenched.  

    Most reports say the NMCo donated the land to the town. 

    What they actually did was “lease the land to the town at no cost as long as the purpose remained for the use of a town Hall.”  That became apparent prior to the 1911 additions when the space had already become cramped. The town was eyeing the old vacant Methodist Church across the street. 

    The NMCo very much wanted the land back so they could expand Mill No. 6 . The mill directors even offered to buy back their own property, and then give the money to pay for expected renovation expenses at the vacant church. 

    That arrangement did not sway voters at Town Meeting.  They felt the cost to renovate the old church would far exceed what the company would provide. Costs were too prohibitive!

    (photo:  Lighting was still provided with a few kerosene lamps in this photo of the Town Hall auditorium.  The decorations were for the “1899 Last of the Century Fireman’s Ball” which was held on December 15, 1899.

    Proceeds of the ball went to benefit an electric alarm system for Newmarket’s Fire Department.)

     “Ya Can’t Read What Ya Can’t See”

    When the town hall was first constructed, it was lit with kerosene lamps—not a very satisfactory source, but it worked at the time.  With the advent of electricity and the creation of the Newmarket Electric Company later in 1891, plans were made to lay pipe and string wire. But they remained plans for almost a decade.  Many of the surrounding cities and towns already had electricity, and The Newmarket Advertiser ran many a negative article concerning the lighting situation in town. 

    Mr. Pinkham, the newspaper publisher, later joined the Board of Directors of the Newmarket Electric Company.  In fact, the first street lights were a gift to the town in 1873 from Col. George W. Frost, Mill Agent at the time.

    Letters to the Editor, and paper editorials started airing complaints in the town paper,  such as this one on March 7th, 1891:

     What’s  the matter with the lamps in the town hall?  Has kerosene “riz”?  At the very interesting entertainment given by the pupils of our public schools, on Thursday evening of last week, the hall was so poorly lighted that it was almost impossible to read the program, and many expressions of disgust were made by persons around us.  There certainly would be more pleasure in attending entertainments if the hall could be better lighted.  Let us have more light.  submitted by ONE WHO WAS PRESENT.”

    That was followed by an Editorial the paper printed on June 27th of the same year:

    We have refrained so far from saying anything about the condition in which the street lamps are kept, hoping those in charge would improve with practice.  But we believe they grow worse instead of better.  Can’t you give us more light, boys?

     Finally, on November 22, 1899, selectmen gave the Newmarket Electric Company authority to set poles and string wires throughout the streets of the Town.

    The 1899-1900 Town Report lists an expenditure of $221 paid to Newmarket E. L. P. & H. Co. for the wiring of the Town Hall and the Police Station, which was in the basement of the building.

    Town Hall building itself remained pretty much the same until 1951—with three exceptions:

    In 1909 motion picture  machines were installed;

    Hersom’s 1911 renovation expanding the front of the building ;

    and a fire exit door was added in 1912.  

    (photo:  Lights were installed and operational for the May 1900 “Knights of Pythias May Day Ball.”   The grate from the coal furnace is visible in the bottom of the photo)


    ( This 1949 photo shows the balcony that was removed two years later)

    In 1951, town crews and members of the Newmarket Service Club removed the balcony and installed two shower rooms. These renovations were in response to requests by the Newmarket School Department and other town teams who pressured  town fathers, that basketball games could no longer continue without the requested chnages.  The argument was that there were more out-of-town teams visiting and that girls’ basketball games were gaining in popularity.   Oddly, Shirley (Roper) Walker who played on the girl’s basketball team team the old Town Hall remarked that “The girls never got to use those showers!”  The girls always played just before the boys’ teams and it was the two boy teams who used the shower rooms  instead— one boy team per shower room. 

    The last high school game in the Town Hall was in 1959, as recalled by one of the players, George Walker.

    The Town Hall was a place to pay taxes, register vehicles, and appear in court.  It was home to the Police Department and the Municipal Court, to Selectmen, town committees, and annual Town Meetings.  It was a place to vote, to dance or play basketball, or even get vaccinated.    A Newmarket Times May 31, 1962 headline read: Over the years the building held graduation ceremonies, balls and banquets, roller skating events, vaudeville shows, plays, lectures and movies, a day care center and a nursey school.  It hosted political caucuses and debates, visiting governors and dignitaries, and was the site of campaigning politicians. It housed dance classes, Christmas fairs, and  countless war bond drives during two world wars. It was central to a wide variety of activities and community events, most importantly, the main floor  was the site of countless blood drives, and over 1,150 townspeople received the oral Polio vaccine in special special clinics  run by town doctors and  State Health Agencies.


    Total Destruction September 19, 1987

    When electric power first surged through the wires strung on posts in downtown Newmarket, it spurred all sorts of development up and down Main Street.  But electricity could play an adverse role as well.

    For not even a new Fire Alarm system could rectify the outdated and faulty circuitry in the building’s basement which sparked the blaze that destroyed the Newmarket Town Hall on the evening of September 19, 1987.

    Police, Fire and ordinary townsfolk created an emergency chain as town records were pulled from the building and relayed to safety.

    Nine firefighters were inside the building when the roof collapsed — none were hurt.  

    A makeshift emergency Town Office was set up at St. Mary School, which eventually became the new Town Hall.

     (As luck would have it, Newmarket’s new  elementary school had just opened, so the old St. Mary School building was no longer needed to house all of Newmarket’s young students.)

    Most records were saved.  Unfortunately, lost forever were the old 1907 screen drops used on the stage for countless town theatrical performances.  They were irreplaceable.

    What was left of the old Town Hall building was torn down, and the lot remained vacant for years, used for town parking.