Fire Engine 1 leads the Independence Day Parade around Lyme Common
Lyme is a small town on the bank of New England’s largest river, wealthy in both natural and architectural heritage and in the respect of its people for its past and for each other.
The distinctive profile of Lyme’s 3,238-foot Smarts Mountain, in the northeastern corner of the town, stands tall on the Upper Valley horizon. Smarts, Holts and Winslow Ledges, and smaller hills rolling through the eastern and central parts of town are home to a healthy variety of wildlife, from black bear, fisher, and moose to the once-endangered peregrine falcon.
Hewes, Grant, and Trout Brooks flow from these heights to the flood plain of the Connecticut River at the town’s western border. Quiet Trout and Pout Ponds punctuate these streams, while Post Pond, in the lower valley of Trout Brook, echoes with the voices of children at the town beach. The river terraces along the Connecticut harbor some of the richest agricultural soils in New England.
For centuries, Lyme was home to the Abenaki, including a band of Sokokis who spent time near Post Pond at a place they called Ordanakis. At the close of the French and Indian War, immigrants of English descent moved north into the upper Connecticut River valley, and Lyme was among many towns on both sides of the river that were granted charters in the year 1761. The Sloan family was the first to settle in Lyme, arriving three years later. Most early settlers followed trails up the river from Connecticut and Massachusetts, and set up homesteads on the rich flood plain and also on benches of fertile soil among the heavily forested hills above.
Then, as now, the big river united rather than divided those living along its banks, and Lyme people felt more kinship with their neighbors in Thetford, Vermont than with those on the other side of the ridge in New Hampshire. In the late 1770s, Lyme petitioned to join Vermont, then an independent republic, along with a number of other New Hampshire river towns.
Lyme’s early economy centered around its timber resources and the products of family farms. In 1806 a stagecoach route opened from the east, passing from Concord through Lyme to Orford as the Grafton Turnpike, stimulating travel and trade. Lyme’s agrarian fortunes developed and changed as Merino sheep arrived in the valley. The population grew along with the flocks, reaching 1,824, the highest in its history, in 1820. Lumbering and farming pushed back the forest, leaving Lyme’s landscape 85% cleared.
Like most of the rest of northern New England, Lyme’s population waned after the opening of the Erie Canal, as many of its farmers, tired of growing granite, left to seek their fortunes in the newly opened American midwest. Hill farms were abandoned and the remaining population began to concentrate in the valleys and along brooks, especially the villages of Lyme Center and Lyme Plain. After the Civil War, to which Lyme lost many of its sons, the face of farming shifted to dairy, with Lyme farmers serving distant markets via rail. Lyme is fortunate to have retained much of its agricultural history, both in the farm businesses that continue today and in the many historic barns and other structures that survive on former farmsteads.
Close-knit neighborhoods are a cherished feature of life in Lyme, dating from the days of its thirteen school districts, when children attended one-room schoolhouses dispersed throughout the town, a system that remained in place until 1959. Today, Lyme’s children attend kindergarten through eighth grade in the school at Lyme Plain, and then choose a secondary school from among those in neighboring towns.
Ties with other Upper Valley towns, present since the Revolutionary War era attempt to secede from New Hampshire, have become ever stronger through the years, as Lyme people participated in the growth first of Dartmouth College in nearby Hanover, and then in the development of its medical school and the Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center. The connection with the college remains firm as a number of graduates settled in Lyme after completing their careers. Lyme’s population has become a comfortable combination of those whose families have called it home for generations, and those drawn to the town by its natural beauty and its nearness to an engaging cultural center.
Lyme has always appealed to those who appreciate the outdoors, and outdoor recreation is an important part of life here. The Appalachian Trail runs through the eastern part of town over Holt’s Ledge and Smarts Mountain. The Dartmouth Skiway occupies the slopes of Holts and Winslow, straddling the old Grafton Turnpike. Post Pond is popular in winter for ice skating and fishing. Public trails on town conservation land offer hiking, snowshoeing, and cross country skiing, and the Lyme Pinnacle Snowmobile Club’s energetic membership maintains miles of trails. Lyme’s youth and adults participate in a wide variety of sports.
Townspeople have a talent for organizing celebrations and special events to bring the community together, whether it’s the Pumpkin Festival on the Common, Old Home Day parades through the two villages, or the annual Fourth of July celebration at Post Pond. Both the Lyme Congregational Church and the First Baptist Church of Lyme are settings for secular community events as well as religious worship.
Active participation in the life of the town has always been valued, and Lyme has a strong tradition of volunteerism and neighborly support. Lyme is fortunate that its citizens continue to take an active interest in local civic responsibility, and governs itself through decisions made at Town Meeting. Although business today is far-reaching as Lyme workers telecommute long distances, the center of commerce remains the family-owned hardware and country stores that have served the town since the 1800s.
As Lyme enters the twenty-first century, one striking feature of this small town on the big river glows more brightly than ever: reverence for its heritage. Decades ago, Lyme was in the forefront of a new movement to conserve its natural heritage, and remains so to this day. Much land of statewide significance has been protected throughout the town, ensuring that the town will still be recognizable to its children years from now, and that good soil will still be available for food production. Despite its small size, the town has taken a statewide leadership role in protecting its agricultural heritage with one of New Hampshire’s first farmland protection projects, and most recently with an effort to preserve historic barns.
Lyme is also blessed with a rich inventory of historic architecture, and its citizens with the instinct to respect and care for it. Before historic preservation caught on elsewhere, Lyme people were working together to restore the historic horse sheds behind the Congregational Church. The row of twenty-seven sheds standing today is the longest line of contiguous horse sheds in New England, and possibly in the United States.
Both of Lyme’s early nineteenth century churches have been the subject of dedicated historic preservation campaigns, and when a new school was needed in the 1990s, the community elected to retain the 1912 schoolhouse and build anew inside and around it. The 1839 Lyme Center Academy saw two waves of dedicated restoration work that earned a statewide award. The Academy is now home to the extensive collection of the Lyme Historians, the town’s energetic historical society. Private homeowners have also restored homesteads throughout the town. Despite fires and other changes through the years, the Common remains ringed with the handsome evidence of Lyme’s history.