Home New England Historic Houses The Fells: A Magical Summer Retreat, With History

The Fells: A Magical Summer Retreat, With History

The house is lovely, but those gardens!

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John Hay called himself “the winner of all life’s prizes.” He had fame, wealth, family, stature, accomplishments, friends—and The Fells.

John Hay was one of President Abraham Lincoln’s two secretaries, or “Lincoln’s boys.” He also ran the New York Tribune, the biggest and most influential U.S. newspaper of its day. He served as U.S. secretary of state under William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt. And as a member of an elite literary circle, he wrote bestselling fiction and poetry.

On top of all that, he married an extremely rich woman.

They had homes in New York and Washington. But the stress of being a rich, famous, successful statesman and journalist could get to be too much. So in 1891, John Hay did what wealthy gentlemen did: He built a summer home in the cool northern countryside, Lake Sunapee in New Hampshire.

He called it The Fells.

The Fells

In the 1880s, New Hampshire farmers were abandoning their land and moving west for better farmland. The New Hampshire state government stepped in and encouraged wealthy families to buy up the properties and turn them into gentleman farms.

Hay answered the call. He bought 1,000 acres of land on the shores of Lake Sunapee in 1888. Hay hoped to establish a summer colony for his group of friends—Henry Adams, his wife, Clover, and geologist Clarence King. But then Clover Adams committed suicide, and Hay abandoned his plan.

Instead, Hay built a rustic cottage and named the property The Fells, a term for a rocky upland pasture. His son Clarence and wife, Alice Appleton, later expanded the cottage into a 22-room Colonial Revival mansion. Clarence wrote a book about it in 1962, called Gardening in Granite. It describes his rock garden, one of many he planted on the property.

The Hays donated much of the land to the government, and when they died The Fells became a nonprofit organization. Now a preservation project of The Garden Conservancy, it’s listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Five Things You’ll Remember About the Fells

The Gardens

John Hay’s son Clarence had a strong interest in horticulture. He created the gardens around the house: the perennial garden, the meadow, the shade garden, the heather garden and the rock garden leading to a pond. Children can build fairy houses of moss and twigs in the fairy garden. Rhododendrons put on a stunning display in the spring, and in the fall Mother Nature goes wild with her paintbrush.


Birdwatchers love the place. The Fells sits next to a wildlife preserve, and you’re likely to see some wildlife as you hike the trails. You might see a flock of turkeys, or a loon with her babies in the nesting box by the lake. Visitors have reported seeing snakes, herons, squirrels and chipmunks.

The History

John Hay for half a century was a Zelig in American history. A room on the upstairs has artifacts and documents from Hay’s fascinating life, including a guest book signed by Teddy Roosevelt.

John Hay, by John Singer argent

Tree Planted by Teddy Roosevelt

When Roosevelt came to visit The Fells while campaigning in 1902, he planted a maple tree. It’s still there, known as the Roosevelt Tree.

Quirky Sculptures

Hiking trails wind through the woodlands surrounding the old estate, and you’ll find artistic surprises along the way.

Lake Sunapee

If you’ve seen the old Katharine Hepburn film On Golden Pond, you can probably understand the appeal of Lake Sunapee. If you’ve spent a summer in Washington, D.C., you can definitely understand it.

Lake Sunapee

But Lake Sunapee has more than refreshing lake waters, cool mountain breezes and the call of the loon. It has cottages and compounds belonging to families that have for a long time had enough money to take the summer off.

Newbury has a tiny population. If you happen to summer in the area, and you need something to do on a rainy day, drive 40 minutes north to the Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site.

If you visit…

You can just visit the gardens, or you can take a guided or self-guided tour of the house. The cost of admission per adult to see the gardens and National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) is $10.00 per person. An additional fee is charged to tour the home. For information:  https://thefells.org/

You can park in a gravel parking lot a quarter mile from the house. If that’s too daunting, there’s a smaller parking lot closer to the house.

Check out the video that provides more details. You can buy many unusual varieties of perennials at a reasonable price.

The Fells is located at 456 Route 103A, Newbury, N.H.

Feature image of The Fells: By The Fells – http://www.gardenvisit.com/assets/madge/the_fells_newbury/600x/the_fells_newbury_600x.jpg, Attribution, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11155642. Lake Sunapee: CC BY-SA 2.5, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6436209



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