The Second Meetinghouse Model

Model of the Second Meetinghouse in situMeetinghouse model at the Historical SocietySometime in the 1880’s Henry A. Holt (born in 1839), “a wheelwright and builder of writing desks and fancy boxes,” according to the Town History, built from memory a model of the Second Meetinghouse in old Wilton Center, which was donated to the Historical Society in 1929 by his wife, Emily Pierce Holt.

Meetinghouse Original clapboardMeetinghouse crossThe Society also has two remnants of the building itself – a small cross made from wood salvaged from the fire, as well as a piece of what might be clapboarding, or a roof shingle.  The cross is labeled as follows: “The writing in pencil on this cross says: A piece of the old Church which was burned December 8, 1859 after a concert which was given by the church’s singing school taught by Miss Mary Thurston.”  The clapboarding/shingle is also labeled: “From Old Church at the Center (Burnt 1859)”

Meetinghouse needleworkMeetinghouse painting W.E.F.The model, a painting dated 1888 (which may have been drawn from the model), and a needlework representation of the building (undated), are, along with some contemporary descriptions, the only evidence  we have of what the building looked like; although there are examples extant in New England of similar structures, most notably the Meetinghouses in Washington, NH, and Rockingham, VT.  

Rockingham, Vt. Meetinghouse interior example
Interior of the Rockingham, Vt. Meetinghouse showing box or "pig-pen" pews

Wilton’s Meetinghouse was described as having box pews (sometimes called pig-pens because of their resemblance to a square animal enclosure), with “porches” (entryways) at either end of the building, a gallery or balcony on three sides, and a pulpit with a sounding board above it (the sounding board acted as an amplifier of sorts for the preacher, reflecting his voice out and over the congregation). In addition, the main porch and stairwell was capped with a belfry, which contained a bell that had been cast by Revere and Sons in Boston.  From its very inception the Meetinghouse had quite an interesting history, beginning with the horrific accident that cast a deadly shadow over its raising in 1773.

The Raising of the Second Meetinghouse – The “Meetinghouse Tragedy”

 After Wilton’s first church (a log structure constructed in 1752 and likely located near the current Andy’s Summer Playhouse) was deemed no longer adequate, construction began in 1773 of a second Meetinghouse which was sited, according to the Town History, a little to the north of the old log church, roughly in the space between Andy’s and the present-day Unitarian Congregational Society Church. 

The raising of the frame took place on September 7th, 1773.  When the frame was nearly up, the main support post, which turned out to be either worm-eaten or rotten at its core, splintered and broke, causing the central beam it was carrying to collapse.  Close to 53 workers, from Wilton and some of the surrounding towns, standing on various points in the frame, most of whom were 30 feet or more off the ground, fell amid a shower of  loose timbers, boards, and tools such as axes, adzes, hammers and iron bars.   Three were killed instantly, and two died soon after of their injuries. Many were crippled for life, and no one escaped without serious injury.  

The Town History concludes its description of the event with the following observation:  “Upon reflection on the event in later times, it has not been unnaturally conjectured that, possibly, a previous vote of the Town, providing for a large amount of spirituous liquors, may have had something to do with it, and it was not altogether an accident, but the result of too much good cheer and consequent self-confidence on the part of the master workman and his associates.”  Despite what came to be known as “the Meetinghouse Tragedy,” construction resumed on the building and it was completed in 1775.  The attic of the building served, interestingly enough, as the town’s powder arsenal.

The Meetinghouse Fire – “Like a Mighty Destroyer, Some Fearful Demon Entered”

It stood in the Center for 84 years, but as the focus of the town shifted away from a largely agrarian to a more manufacturing-based economy, spurred in part by the coming of the railroad to Wilton in 1851, the economic and political center of town was moving down into the East Village (now downtown Wilton),by the river and the rail line.  The Meetinghouse was, by this time, rarely used by the Town; it also became increasingly inadequate to the needs of the Church congregation as well, although it had been repaired at some point in the 1850’s and the Town hoped it could remain as a fine example of 18th Century church architecture for generations to come.

Meetinghouse Musical Program 1859On Thursday, December 8th, 1859, just after the presentation of a musical program by the Juvenile Singing School of Miss Mary Thurston, and after the church had been secured for the night, at about 11 PM, several residents of Wilton Center saw flames issuing from the top of the bell tower.  Several of them tried to gain entrance to the building but were fearful that the bell deck (over the main door) was in imminent danger of collapse.  Others went in search of the keys which they believed to be at the nearby home of Mr. Amos Putnam, but he did not have them.  At that point the residents forced open a door on the far side of the building with an axe, but by that time the upper levels of the building were fully involved and all they could do was watch as it was completely burned to the ground.   

The building’s susceptibly to fire was no doubt increased by the fact that gunpowder had been stored in the attic at one time (although there is no reason to believe it was still being used for that purpose).    A “Committee of Investigation Appointed by the Citizens of Wilton” was formed in 1860 to determine the fire’s origin; but in their official report the Committee concluded:  “In view of all the evidence presented, your Committee are unanimously of the opinion that the fire was set by an incendiary [arsonist]. By whom the deed was done, they have not the means of determining, nor of forming a reasonable presumption. [But] they would recommend to their fellow-citizens to act upon the principle. . . adopted in our courts of justice, that everyone is to be presumed innocent until proved to be guilty.”

As devastating a loss as this was to the town and its people, the community quickly moved to rebuild, and by late 1860 a new Town House (eventually Andy’s Summer Playhouse) and a Congregational Church were erected on the site.  The Revere and Sons bell in the Meetinghouse was salvaged and re-cast by Henry Hooper and Sons in Boston, and hangs today in the belfry at Andy's.  The impulse to try and preserve what had always been was a noble one, but the political and economic realities of the shift towards mills and manufactories, not only here but in many towns across New England, led to the eventual sale of the new Town House in favor of locating the town government in the East Village.  Henry Holt’s model, a few scraps of wood, a painting, and a needlework sampler would be all that we had to remember a way of life, and way of community, that had all but disappeared.

The Meetinghouse Tragedy BookIn 1998, Emeritus Professor of History Charles E. Clark of the University of New Hampshire published a book, The Meetinghouse Tragedy, about the collapse of Wilton’s Second Meetinghouse during its construction.  This book is available for purchase at the Wilton Public and Gregg Free Library and at the Historical Society, at $5.00 per copy.

This article is indebted to, and reproduces part of, previous work done by Nancy Clark, David Potter and P. Jane Bergeron.

The Wilton Historical Society is looking forward to re-opening the rooms (on the second floor of the Wilton Public and Gregg Free Library) as soon as it is safe for all concerned to do so.  Please plan to visit us!

 

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