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New Life   For Old Grafton Church

  • The East Grafton Union Church, the town's first meetinghouse, has been renovated several times since it was built on Razor Hill Road in 1785. In 1842, it was moved by oxen to the industrial village of East Grafton. This photograph was taken in about 1930.  Photographs courtesy of the Grafton Historical Society

    The East Grafton Union Church, the town's first meetinghouse, has been renovated several times since it was built on Razor Hill Road in 1785. In 1842, it was moved by oxen to the industrial village of East Grafton. This photograph was taken in about 1930. Photographs courtesy of the Grafton Historical Society

  •  The East Grafton Christian Union Church, built in 1785, was recently given to the town.

    The East Grafton Christian Union Church, built in 1785, was recently given to the town.

  • The East Grafton Union Church, the town's first meetinghouse, has been renovated several times since it was built on Razor Hill Road in 1785. In 1842, it was moved by oxen to the industrial village of East Grafton. This photograph was taken in about 1930.  Photographs courtesy of the Grafton Historical Society
  •  The East Grafton Christian Union Church, built in 1785, was recently given to the town.

Grafton — A long vacant 18th-century church just off Route 4 in Grafton is in the process of being reborn. Again.

The town’s original meetinghouse, now the East Grafton Christian Union Church, has weathered big changes in its 228-year history. It’s been relocated, renovated and renamed. It’s fallen into disuse at least twice, most recently in the early 2000s. But if the town and the Grafton Historical Society have their druthers, the doors of the white Victorian-style building may soon reopen.

Rebecca Martin, who lives in Danbury, N.H., joined the church in 1990. Part of the New England Evangelical Baptist Fellowship, the congregation had a regular minister for a time but generally relied on visiting preachers from Massachusetts or Maine, she said.

Martin’s daughter, Jessica Hatch, recalls services attended by 10 or so people, including her parents and a neighbor. They often gathered afterward for brunch, usually in the parsonage, as the church itself has no plumbing.

“We did fairly well there for a while, and then it just went downhill, and it was harder and harder to get someone to come in,” Martin said. “We kind of just basically had to shut the doors.”

Then, the former members found themselves facing a pricey problem.

“When you are a church, you are tax-exempt,” said Hatch, the church’s lone trustee. “We were going to have to pay $6,000 a year in taxes.”

This spring, the church gave the Turnpike Road property to the town. For Hatch, who was married in the church in 1999, the decision was bittersweet.

“I had a lot of memories there, but it’s just sitting there now,” she said. “It will be good that they can preserve it and be able to open it to the public.”

The details are still being worked out, but the town plans to lease the property to the Grafton Historical Society, which Selectboard Chairman Steve Darrow describes as “a very ambitious group.”

“They have really broad plans to try and preserve as much of Grafton’s past as they can,” including the church, Darrow said. “They felt it was too good to pass up.”

Darrow called the building “an artifact of Grafton” and said it would offer a public meeting space in addition to the old Town Hall, another historic building in need of updates. Once used for town business, the Grafton Town Hall now opens occasionally for wedding receptions, birthday parties or public hearings, but its condition “isn’t what we’d like to see,” he said.

The Selectboard plans to discuss the lease at its Sept. 4 meeting.

In the past few years, the tiny historical society has been working to save several structures in town, including the Pines Schoolhouse, the East Grafton Carding Mill and the Tramp House. Once a stopping place for railroad hobos, the tiny “house” on Library Road will eventually serve as a historical exhibit, said Andrew Cushing, a member of the historical society. And the mill on Grafton Turnpike Road could one day become a working cider mill.

“We’d like to start getting the buildings on the tax roll,” he said.

Cushing calls the church, which is listed on the state register of historic places, “the nicest building in town.”

“There’s something about a Victorian sanctuary that’s very romantic,” he said. “Meetinghouses are known for their austerity, but these churches are a little more sumptuous.”

The North Meetinghouse, as it was originally called, was built in 1785 on Razor Hill, then the center of town, said Cushing, who wrote a short history of the building for the historic registry application.

According to the historical society website, the site was difficult to reach by horse and buggy, and in 1794, Grafton voted to rebuild in a more accessible spot. (That building, the Grafton Center Meetinghouse on Route 4, is now privately owned.)

The last Town Meeting held in the church took place in 1814, and it wasn’t used again until the 1840s, when worshippers in need of a church had it hauled by oxen to the industrial village of East Grafton.

To encourage a variety of denominations to hold services there, it was rechristened the Union Church, Cushing said.

Little is known about the following five decades, he said, but in 1896, thanks to a $1,600 donation from Grafton store owner E.F. Folsom, the church was completely transformed to the Victorian style.

According to an article in the Canaan Reporter , Cushing said, it boasted new cedar shingles, stained glass windows, and red oak woodwork, pews and pulpit. The congregation also remodeled the steeple and added a 1,200-pound bell, which is still intact. In 1898, the newspaper called the newly renovated building “one of the prettiest edifices in this part of the country.”

It’s not yet clear what the building will be used for. It may eventually serve as a public gathering spot, hosting events such as lectures or weddings, Cushing said. “We’d like to use it as much as possible.”

But first, some repairs are in order. The building is not accessible to those with handicaps, the electrical work is outdated and the floor joists are rotten.

“The undercarriage hasn’t been touched in 230 years,” he said. According to one estimate, fixing the joists alone could cost between $100,000 and $120,000.

The historical society is in the process of applying for a preservation grant. In the meantime, members are sprucing up the grounds, cutting down dead trees and mowing.

The parsonage, a two-bedroom Greek Revival home, is in better condition than the church, Cushing said. “We’d love to see it as a house,” possibly with a “rent-to-restore” agreement “to make sure that our society, with its five or six members, aren’t completely exhausted.”

In fact, Cushing said he hopes the latest project will help more people recognize “what assets our town really has” and spark interest in Grafton’s history and future. Last winter, the historical society held a non-denominational service to reintroduce people to the church.

The holiday sing-along attracted 40 or 50 people, Cushing said. “We were surprised at how many people really support the town having this building.”

For more information, go to www.graftonhistorical societynh.org.

Aimee Caruso can be reached at acaruso@vnews.com or 603-727-3210.