New England Preservation: The Reuben Whitten House


By Carla Charter

ASHLAND, N.H.- In 1816, New England survived what is known as ‘The Year Without a Summer’, when snow and ice occurred every month for over a year. The cause of this bizarre weather phenomenon was a volcanic eruption at Mt. Tambora in Indonesia in 1815.

Ashland, then part of Holderness, like the rest of New Hampshire suffered through the unusual weather. “They could not grow crops. They kept replanting and the little seedlings would die There was an inch of ice on Squam Lake, a huge freeze on June 5 and windowpane ice on July 5, ”according to Katie Maher, Co-Chair of the Whitten House Committee.

During that year there were about 15 to 20 families in town creating a population of about 100 residents, in Holderness, most of whom were related and belonged to the Free Will Baptist Church. Among the residents were Rueben Whitten and Reubens wife, Sally (Sawyer) Whitten, a founding member of the church and a good Christian woman, Maher said. Their home was a two- room house with a center fireplace and a sleeping loft, believed to have been built between 1795 and 1810.  It is the oldest building in town.

Whitten had a southern facing slope on his property, which despite the weather, allowed him to grow wheats, beans and some corn. Although Whitten had seven children of his own he willingly shared his crops with other members of his community, helping to keep them from going hungry.

Reuben Whitten died in 1847. A small marker with his initials, R.W. was placed on his grave.   An oral  legend states the children of families that were saved in 1816 raised $46 and had a headstone carved for Reuben Whitten.

 

Whitten’s grandson, Calvin Robert, a Stone Carver, created a memorial stone summarizing Reuben’s generosity in 1911.  This carved memorial stone is the only link to 1816.

The house itself, has historical parallels to the growth of the town as a mill town, Maher continued. In the late 1800s the Whitten home was moved closer to the mills.  After the Whitten’s, over a dozen different families lived there. A resident of the last family who lived in the home, Ruth Knapp, donated the home to the Ashland Historical Society in 1969. The historical society itself was founded in 1968.

Two weeks after the home was donated a truck lost its brakes and crashed into the house. The accident collapsed one of the long walls of the home and destroyed two windows. The society boarded the building up until 1974 when it was then placed on another wagon and placed behind the George Hoyt Whipple House, home of the Historical Society Museum.  George Hoyt Whipple was the only New Hampshire resident to win the Nobel Medicine prize in 1933-1934.

“In 2013 during a discussion about the 200th anniversary of the 1816 event, the Whitten story came up. We fell in love with the house and decided to preserve it. We found the story so compelling, we found the house so charming,” Maher said.

Among the work done on the building included the repair of the damaged wall, restoration of the windows, and installation of new clapboards.  The society also preserved any of the original clapboards which could be saved. Although the windows could not be saved, replacement windows were made to replicate those of the 1816 period.  Among those donating labor and supplies to the project were Starck House Joiners, Sippican Partners, J.G. and Sons and Belletetes.  The house was then painted by volunteer citizens from the town. “Everyone who donated to the repair of the house said the story has touched them.” Maher said. The building is a reminder of true community,” added Co-chair of the committee, Susan Macleod. The building has been placed on the New Hampshire Historic Register.

One feature which was able to be preserved were the Indian Shutters used on the windows. “They lie inside the wall, they are an upper and lower set of solid panels.”  The building also houses an informational presentation of the Year Without a Summer.

The Whitten’s are being remembered by the Long Lake Conservation Society as well. The society recently purchased 500 acres of uplands to assist in preserving the Squam Lake Watershed. The land has been named Whitten Woods as it is adjacent to the property Whitten owned.

The museum is currently developing a maintenance endowment to preserve the building for future generations. The museum is also interested in any donations of items related to the Whitten’s or items that may have survived from the Year Without a Summer. “We would love to hear from any descendants of Reuben and Sally (Sargent) Whitten, “said Maher.

More information on donations can be found by e-mailing Maher at katiemaher@comcast.net. More information on the Reuben Whitten House can be found at www.reubenwhitten.org