New England has no shortage of town commons, as many communities were laid out with a parcel specifically reserved for the meeting house. The yard of the meeting house generally evolved into the common.
In the earliest European settlements of New England, colonists built their businesses and homes next to commons. They kept their livestock on them at night and when they closed off the town for fear of attack.
But there is no single story behind the New England town common. Each developed along its own lines, once launched by the original settlers. Later, large landowners gave commons to towns as donations.
Early Town Commons
Generally they had trees on them, and often turned into dumping grounds and nuisances. Cattle were often placed on them to keep down the grass. In areas where people were most leery of the state embracing a religion, the meeting house (and the attached common) were far less common.
Over the centuries many have been modified to fit the times. In the earliest days, the commons often became a home to cemeteries. In the middle and late 1800s, it became fashionable to plant, landscape and manicure the commons. Many were trimmed to make way for a paved street. And in more recent days, they’ve played host to baseball or soccer fields. In some cases, they were outright destroyed.
Connecticut’s Lebanon Green was used during the American Revolution. It reminded us of just how many greens and commons remain in New England and how they are a good jumping off point for some interesting visits to the less-traveled areas of the region.
In Connecticut, there’s the aforementioned Lebanon Green. Another old favorite is Litchfield Green in Litchfield, Conn., which has served many purposes over the centuries. Dating to 1720, the green has been home to the town’s meeting house, a school and courthouse. It was also a recruiting spot for soldiers during the Civil War. Today visitors to the green are more likely to be shoppers rather than soldiers.
A much more well-traveled common is the New Haven Green, a privately owned park once the center of the original Puritan settlement.
Connecticut’s Trust for Historic Preservation maintains a website with information about all the state’s town greens.
Vermont’s Town Commons
The State of Vermont also has created a website that provides some details about many of the state’s commons.
In St. Albans, Vermont, the common goes by the name Taylor Park. It was donated to the city in 1799 by Col. Halloway Taylor, and it’s rather ornate. The St. Albans Historical Museum fronts on it. Though in the upper third of Vermont, New England history lovers will want to clear a few days in their calendar to visit this tiny city. It boasts some of the most remarkable stories of New England’s past, including a rich history of smuggling during the embargo leading up to the War of 1812, a nearby naval battle in which a band of Vermonters vanquished the invading British, an unlikely (and unsuccessful) attempt at conquering Canada and the northernmost battle in the Civil War.
As you’re as far north as St. Albans you might as well travel through Bridport. As opposed to St. Alban’s fanciful park, Bridport’s common probably looks more like it did in colonial times, laid out at the center of the farming community. On the route to nearby Crown Point you’ll travel the roads where Ethan Allen and Eli Roberts fled an attempt by British soldiers to capture him in 1772 and cross the path Thomas Jefferson took through the state (before it was a state) in his northern tour.
And to see Vermont’s most photographed common, you can visit Woodstock. There an 1830s vintage common sits quaintly in the middle of the picture-perfect, upscale shopping and dining center. Or you could just rent the classic film, The Trouble With Harry, and view another quintessential New England common in Craftsbury.
Maine’s Town Commons
In Bethel, Maine, the Town Common is the centerpiece of many activities. Visitors in July can watch the Molly Ockett Days festivities, names for an Abenaki healer from northern Maine and New Hampshire.
A short drive away is Paris Hill, Maine – which could be correctly described as Maine’s political capital. Paris Hill was established as the county seat in 1805. The tiny village produced congressmen, governors, a senator and vice president (Hannibal Hamlin). When the county seat was moved, Paris Hill was left behind in time. Its common sits at the center of a remarkably well-preserved historic district that includes Vice President Hamlin’s home.
In 1714, the Pejepscot Company formed out of the Plymouth Colony and bought a large area of land in Maine from the Native Americans. Today it comprises Brunswick, Topsham and Harpswell. The purchase would set off disputes for more than 100 years between American Indians and other settlement groups. They all questioned the validity of its boundaries..
Ultimately, the Pejepscot Company prevailed. One of the early acts of the company, in 1719, was to establish common land. Unlike most town and village commons at the center of the town, the Pejepscot group chose to set aside an enormous tract of 1,000 acres as the commonage. Walking the common today is more like hiking a forest than strolling most preserved, pastoral commons. But it is a look at Maine’s past. Brunswick Commons, for example, has pine barrens once numerous in the state.
New Hampshire is also home to countless historic commons. Orford, New Hampshire has a beautiful six-acre common along Route 10. Just a couple miles north is the distinctive double commons at Haverhill Corner. A wonderful excuse to wind your way up through some of the rarely visited towns of the Connecticut River Valley.
Another favorite is the common at Walpole, N.H., in another of the state’s less-visited and less-congested corners.
Bay State Commons
Massachusetts, of course, ranks right up with Connecticut in terms of the numbers of commons it houses. There are, of course, most famous ones at Lexington, Concord and Boston.
Anyway, that’s a sampling of our favorites. We’re sure you’ve got your own favorites, too.
This story updated in 2022.
Images: Walpole Town Green By User:Ken Gallager – Self-photographed, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=84089424. Dogtown Common CC BY-SA 3.0, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8398833. Lexington Battle Green By Dudesleeper at en.wikipedia, CC BY 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11116213.