Chesterfield cellar holes reveal the past

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CHESTERFIELD, N.H. — Abandoned cellar holes, which dot the New England landscape, can reveal information about early European settlers' lives and occupations. But first, you have to know where the cellar holes are located — they may be found in people's backyards; others are hidden under brush in areas no longer occupied. Hunters often find those.

For some years, the Chesterfield Historical Society has wanted to document the location and condition of cellar holes in the area, but the work has progressed slowly.

"As a historical society, we've tried to identify, photograph, and measure local cellar holes, and provide some sort of analysis," said Cornelia Jenness, president of the historical society. "We want also to locate the cellar holes on a map so we have an idea of where people lived, but we haven't gotten very far, completing only about 10."

This fall, the effort received a boost when four Keene State College seniors, all geography majors, undertook this research as the focus of their senior seminar project.

The four students — Hannah Legacy, Cavan Perrott, Samuel Nickerson, and Cameron Cummings — had varied reasons for choosing this particular project.

"Growing up, I was always out in the woods," Cummings said. "I'd come across these stone structures. I think it's wicked cool to learn how people migrated in New Hampshire."

"This project breaks preconceived notions about geography," Legacy said. "It's not just states and capitals. History isn't dead. When you see it out in the real world, it makes it come alive."

"It's cool to look at old land use," Perrott said, "and see how it changes over time. Areas that were productive are no longer."

"I noticed old roads going out to these areas," Nickerson said. "Sometimes we had to walk through wetlands. It's important to maintain the old roads so these sites can be accessible to the public."

The students presented an overview of their 120-page final report, "Down the Cellar Hole: Preservation for the Sake of Education," to members and friends of the Chesterfield Historical Society on Dec. 7.

The students located and logged 30 cellar holes. Depending on the structures present, these may be house foundations, barn foundations, stone animal corrals, or mill sites. Their work was somewhat limited by the time frame (one semester), the lack of cell phone service in remote locations, inadequate satellite exposure in dense forest for their tablet computers, and the struggle to find survey participants.

"We had 85 survey results," Legacy said. "We were standing outside the Big Deal convenience store on Route 9, asking people to take the survey."

As presented, the report includes a review of the literature on historic preservation; a study of the Chesterfield area (comprising three villages: Chesterfield, West Chesterfield, and Spofford); methods used (surveys, Geographic Information System processes, and a public forum); survey results; cellar hole location, distribution, and accessibility; historic cemeteries (9) and burial grounds (15); land use changes over time; and recommendations.

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"The students had a good idea, using cemeteries to locate cellar holes," Duston said. "They came up with that."

Using this technique, the students were able to document that the Hardscrabble area in the southeast corner of Chesterfield was the last settled and the first abandoned.

The students were assisted in their research, including site visits, by Tom Duston, chairman of the Chesterfield Conservation Commission; Siegfried Richter, an interested resident; and Jenness,

"A lot of cellar holes are just a square in the ground," Duston said. "Others are interesting configurations with barn foundations nearby, and well stones. Some outbuildings have no foundations. These homesteads were abandoned 200 years ago in remote parts of town. What did these people do? And why did they abandon these homesteads?

"We hope to identify and precisely locate all of the old cellar holes in Chesterfield," he continued. "In the future we'd like each one identified with a plaque including the names of the people who lived there, if we can find that out. I made up a form so town residents could put down whatever they know about a site. The students' work is a major jump forward."

Dr. Lara Bryant, the students' professor in Geography Seminar II, said the senior seminar assignment ideally has a service-learning component, as this one does, helping the local community with their cellar hole project. The ArcGIS (Geographic Information System) technology the students used means their entire report is available online, and the map showing the location of the cellar holes is interactive — as new cellar holes are discovered and identified, they can be added to the map. Photos of specific cellar holes will be included. The website can also be linked to the historical society's website.

"This is the first project we've done using the ArcGIS technology and its editable feature," Bryant said. "KSC hosts ArcGIS as a service to you."

The four students will present their cellar hole project at the American Association of Geographers' national conference in Boston in April 2017.

There are risks associated with having an open cellar hole on one's property, so the students hope that before people fill it in, they alert the historical society so that measurements and photos can be taken.

People who know of a cellar hole on their property, or who are interested in the Chesterfield project, can contact Jenness at niall@webryders.com.

"We're starting to find pictures of the buildings that are gone," Jenness said. "For example, I know of a cellar hole off Stones Mill Road. A family named Schlichting lived there. They were German immigrants. In the second generation, the father died, leaving five little children, so the widow moved the family to town. From the picture, it was quite a big farm."

The Chesterfield History Society is open Sundays from 2 to 4 p.m. and Thursdays from 9 a.m. to noon, or by appointment. The mailing address is PO Box 204, Chesterfield, N.H. 3443. It is located on Route 63 in Chesterfield Village. Membership is $10 per family.

"We're collecting all this information, and people get to use it," Jenness said. "It will be up to the next generation to carry it on."

Nancy A. Olson can be reached at olsonnan47@gmail.com.


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