As we drove through the New Hampshire’s White Mountains, we were amazed at the natural beauty all around us: rugged granite mountains, crystal clear streams, and trees dressed in their fiery fall coats. But beyond the leaf-peeping is a history of homesteading and pioneering in northern New Hampshire.
That history is preserved at the Russell-Colbath House National Historic Site, about 15 miles west of Conway, where we learned about homestead life, pioneer families, and a husband for whom “home” seemed more concept than concrete, Thomas Colbath. His story is one of the local legends that breathe life into the sites and history of the White Mountains. At the Russell-Colbath house, we learned much about the site and history, but most of Thomas’ story remains a mystery.
The home is visible from the famous Kancamagus Highway which, of course, was not there when the house was built in 1832 by Thomas Russell, who purchased 500 acres from the government the year before, for a stunning $5.25! He later sold the house and the 100-acre parcel it sat on to his son Amzi, who raised a family with his wife Eliza. As homesteaders in a town that was just getting settled, they worked hard to just barely get by. They tended to their garden, ran a small store from their home, and Amzi did some logging and milling.
The home and land was deeded to their daughter Ruth and her husband, Thomas Colbath, in 1877. The couple tended to the small farm, by then all that was left of the original 500 acres. Ruth served as Post Mistress, and their home as the first Post Office in Passaconaway. As you enter the home today, the “post office” is right up front, complete with a shelf in the kitchen door where townsfolk received their mail.
As the story goes, one day in 1891, Thomas announced he was going into town and would be back “in a little while.” Hours turned into days, then weeks, and finally years. There were no signs of foul play. There wasn’t another woman or far away family. He just disappeared, leaving only a mystery. While he was gone, Ruth waited faithfully at home, keeping a lamp burning in the window every night in the hope that Thomas would return. In 1930, at age 80, Ruth passed away, having never seen Thomas again. A replica of that lamp sits in the kitchen window of the small home, which is filled other household items that Ruth would have used, including a spinning wheel and leather working bench.
Three years later, a stranger claiming to be Thomas Colbath came to town and introduced himself to Ben Swinston, the only year-round resident of the valley after Ruth’s passing. He said he had no quarrel with his wife, and remained in the area for at least a year without returning home. But, after a time, he was too ashamed to return, and began wandering farther and farther away. He eventually made his way to California, and later to Panama and Cuba. There has been speculation that he may have worked on the Panama Canal or fought in the Spanish American War. Whatever the case, he had returned home too late to find his wife and home. Ruth had died and was buried in the cemetery adjacent to the homestead, which was sold as her estate was settled. Thomas Colbath wandered off, never to be seen again.
The Russell-Cobath House was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1987, but not for the Colbath’s bittersweet story. The home is remarkable as the only surviving 19th-century homestead in New Hampshire, and the last remnant of the town of Passaconaway. (Bonus Fun Fact: the town was named after the Native American “Chief of Chiefs” who founded the Pennacook Confederacy, and was the grandfather of Chief Kancamagus, for whom the highway was named.) The home was purchased by the U.S. Forest Service in 1961 to preserve the historic site, and serves as a museum to educate visitors on the heritage of the Passaconaway Valley. At the museum, you can learn about homestead and pioneer life, see crops grown by settlers, and see authentic tools and furnishings of the time. The barn on the property was built in 2003 by the Forest Service and has modern restrooms. It was built approximately where Ruth Colbath’s grandfather, another of the region’s original settlers, had built a barn and cabin in the early 1800s.
Donations are welcome at the museum, but there is no admission charge. The museum is open 9am to 4:30pm seasonally: weekends from Memorial Day through 30 June, and from Labor Day through mid-October; daily during the summer. The museum is closed during the winter. Volunteers in period garb staff the museum and are happy to explain the home and surroundings, share Thomas and Ruth’s story, and help talk about the resources, crops and way of life of homesteaders.
Have you been to the Russell-Colbath National Historic Site? How did you like it? Are there other scenic and historic places in New England that you like? Just leave us the details in a Comment!
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