Getting the Farm

Activists play catch-up in the battle over Daniel Webster's New Hampshire Retreat.

By Richard Todd

The cemetery occupies the property but is separately maintained.

Credit: NTHP

The Daniel Webster Farm stretches along nearly a mile of the swift-running Merrimack River, just south of the village of Franklin, N.H. The distinguished 19th-century statesman and orator lived on the national stage, but the farm, his home for much of his boyhood, served as a beloved retreat from the politics of Boston and Washington until his death, in 1852.

Webster's letters are laced with affection for the place, which was known then as The Elms. "I really think this region is the true Switzerland of the United States," he declared to one correspondent. To another, "the most beautiful place on this earth." That was Webster's heart speaking. The region can't really claim to be as monumental as the Alps, but it is something equally valuable to a certain sensibility—one of those deeply satisfying, cohesive New England rural settings, a place whose natural resources have been put to both practical and beautiful use, a "working landscape."

So it had been for some 200 years, but all that was thrown into jeopardy last July, when the farm, with its collection of historic structures, was bought by a real estate developer intent on putting a residential development on the fertile bottomland that is the heart of the property. The crisis landed the property on the National Trust's list of America's 11 Most Endangered Historic Places for 2005. An alliance of local preservationists, aided by the nationally recognized Trust for Public Land, worked to prevent the proposed residential development. Though many questions remain about its ultimate fate, the battle to save the farm provides a valuable case history with resonance for preservationists everywhere.

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