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Out & About: Lyme Historians look at the history of town’s population data and the story it tells

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    A 1925 map of Lyme, N.H., from "A Town That Has Gone Downhill" by James Walter Goldthwait. Courtesy

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 8/21/2021 9:45:05 PM
Modified: 8/21/2021 9:45:15 PM

In 1927, Dartmouth College professor James Walter Goldthwait published an article titled “A Town That Has Gone Downhill” in which he used the town of Lyme to illustrate Northern New England’s declining population.

At that time, people had been steadily leaving Lyme since its census peak of 1,824 in 1830. The population that remained tended to literally move from the hills of Lyme toward the town’s center. That study — as well as other items in the Lyme Historians’ collection — have served as the basis for its latest exhibit “Lyme in the 1920s.” It originally started as a dive into Lyme history to see how the 19th amendment impacted the town, said Jane Fant, a member-at-large and past president of the Lyme Historians.

“We could find no evidence in the ’20s that it was a big deal in Lyme,” Fant said.

What they did find was that the Roaring ’20s was the last decade that Lyme lost population. According to the 1930 census, there were 830 people living in town. In the 1930s and 1950s, that leveled off before it started to slowly grow once again. In 2010, there were 1,716 people living in Lyme. And the 2020 census numbers released this month show the town at 1,745.

The Lyme Historians, whose home is the Churchill-Melvin House at 15 Main St., are now open to visitors from 3 to 5 p.m. Wednesdays and 10 a.m. to noon Saturdays through Oct. 9. The exhibit also comes at a time when the Upper Valley is experiencing another population shift as more people have moved to the area during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In Goldthwait’s 1927 study, he used census data to map what areas of town were abandoned. He used the color red to mark homesteads that were abandoned around Holt’s Ledge, Plott Hill, Grafton Turnpike, Quint Town Road and Winslow’s Ledge.

“People went downhill,” Fant said, congregating in Lyme Center.

Farmers who left Lyme tended to go west toward Ohio, seeking better soil for farming. Others migrated to southern New Hampshire and Massachusetts to work at the mills. That was a change from Lyme’s earliest days, when farmers raised merino sheep for wool.

“Lyme was one of the biggest ratios of sheep to people in Northern New England,” Fant said. From the 1830s on, the amount of sheep went down along with the population while the number of cows went up, in part attributed to the Lyme Creamery. “There were ways to make a living, but the farmers kept going west.”

The 1920s mark what Fant considers the start of modern Lyme: It’s when automobiles became more common in town. Before, it was more difficult for residents to commute to Hanover and other towns for employment. Cars made it possible for people to live outside the community they worked in.

“Cars were here and telephones were here before electricity was here,” Fant said. That came later, in the 1930s, with Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal program to electrify rural America.

Cars also provided another source of income for towns, as they collected registration fees. In 1920, Lyme made $130 from automobile registrations. By 1920, that amount had climbed to $1,576.

“New Hampshire was early in putting a registration fee on cars,” Fant said.

The 1920s was also when Lyme’s roads began to be paved, including Route 10, which was paved for the first time. The person who oversaw the paving projects in Lyme was Guy Roberts, who worked for the state of New Hampshire. He recruited Italian immigrants and other workers to pave Lyme’s roads.

The 1920s was also the Prohibition era, and Lyme was not immune to its effects. Roberts died in 1927 after stopping for a drink on his way home. The alcohol turned out to be poison.

In the 1930s and 1940s, the population leveled out. Then, as Dartmouth College grew, so did Lyme.

“More summer people, more summer homes, more tourism,” Fant said. “The farms just went away.”

One amusing item in the exhibit is a 62-stanza poem by an anonymous Lyme resident typed on a long ream of paper dedicated to Al Smith, the first Catholic to run for president on the ticket of a major party. Smith, the Democratic governor of New York, lost to Herbert Hoover, including in New Hampshire, where Hoover carried roughly 58% of the vote to Smith’s 41%.

While the population may have been lower in the 1920s, civic life was still strong, as evidenced by the events put on by the Morning Star Grange including dances, dinners and lectures. The exhibit features newspaper clippings that describe daily life. One, from the Hanover Gazette published on Dec. 31, 1925, describes a radio given to Lyme resident L.O. Melvin by his daughter who was living in Tilton, N.H. Another item describes an incident in Lyme Center when village boys accidentally fired a gun into the post office, narrowly missing Arthur Chesley, whose sweater filled with glass from the broken window.

“We hope the gun will be taken care of as the boys are not large enough to use one,” the news concludes.

“We’d call it gossip,” Fant said. “I’m sure if you lived here, you would have felt village life was quite vibrant and yet it was shrinking.”

Liz Sauchelli can be reached at or 603-727-3221.

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