In Southern Vermont, just a mile or two west of the Connecticut River, between Springfield and Bellows Falls, you will find the Rockingham Meeting House.
I remember going there on a field trip in high school and doing gravestone rubbings. We had a chance to stop there while on vacation in Vermont last week and I’m glad we did, so I could share the place and my memories of it with The Long-Suffering Wife.
Built between 1787 and 1801, the meeting house was originally used for governmental meetings, church services, and social events. It was not a “church” in the sense that we think of it today. To the people of the time, a “church” was a group of people who shared similar beliefs, while a “meeting house” was any place that they met. The Rockingham Meeting House was used by congregations of multiple denominations.
While not the first building in this part of New England, the Rockingham Meeting House is by far the best preserved today in its original condition. It was declared to be a National Historic Landmark in 2000 and the building is still in use for events such as weddings.
Two stories tall, the upper balcony is reached by steep staircases on either side. The building was originally built with no method of heating, so winter church services would have been an exercise in fortitude.
The more prominent members of the community would have their own pew box. While this meant that some of the congregation would have their backs to the pulpit, they believed that hearing the word of God was what counted, not watching the minister.
The pulpit was impressive, although those stairs are narrow and steep. I managed to get up onto the pulpit and survey the room without falling and breaking my neck, or being hit by lightning. I figured it was my one chance, if you know what I mean.
The pulpit has been rebuilt and repaired over the years, but the sounding board above it is original. You can also see that the walls are covered with windows. Of course, in the late 1700’s there were no other methods of lighting the interiors other than candles or oil lamps. Up close you will notice that the glass is hand-made, with waves, bubbles, and imperfections that none of us have ever seen in our machine-manufactured glass panes.
Outside (in the rain on this particular afternoon) was the first community cemetery for the area, and one which remains in use to this day. As I wandered about in the rain I could see a few modern headstones. The most recent one that I saw was for 1957, but there are graves here as recent as 2007.
It is always interesting to me to wander through these old, old cemeteries. I find the headstones, particularly the very old ones, to be fascinating. Some of them were artistic and ornate in their day, but if their day was over 225 years ago they’ve become faded, worn, moss covered, and difficult to read.
That’s where the gravestone rubbings come in. If you place a large piece of paper over the headstone and then gently rub the surface with a pencil, charcoal, or even a crayon, the characters and artwork underneath will be revealed.
I didn’t have the materials or the time to do any rubbings, but I went hunting for the oldest headstones I could find.
“Sacred to the Memory of Betty Lane Who Died June 22nd 1791 In the 34 year of her Age & alfo her Twins, one ftill-born the others age 3 days” (I’m quoting verbatim, including the archaic spellings, which often use an “f” where we would use an “s.”)
This one’s pretty illegible all the way around due to the moss and lichen growing on it, but that was part of the reason I liked it. “In memory of Dina Gilmore,” daughter of Mr. John and Mrs. Margaret [illegible], died some time in March, 1791. “In memory of Elizabeth Gilmore,” also daughter of John & Margaret, died in 1797, aged 24 years (maybe).
The Rockingham Meeting House might be easy to miss if you’re not looking for it. But if you’re passing through and have an hour to spare, it’s worth your while to look for it. (Bring some big sheets of paper and crayons!)