The first settlers of Peterborough were farmers who arrived in 1739. The initial town center center at that point is what is called Old Street Road today, and it stayed that way for more than half a century.
Despite their mistrust of the Old World form of government, the settlers of Peterborough fought in the King’s army during the French and Indian Wars, losing more citizens per capita than in any subsequent conflict. When the Revolution came, settlers also served at the Battle of Bunker Hill in 1775. Peterborough’s Old Street Road Cemetery is the final resting place of most of our Revolutionary War veterans, including William Diamond, the drummer boy of Lexington, who moved to Peterborough in 1795 to establish his home and family here among our hills.
The citizens of Peterborough next defended the Nation in the War of 1812. Peterborough’s most noted contributor to the war effort was a native son, James Miller (1776-1858), who came to be known as the Hero of the Battle of Lundy’s Lane. When asked to take this critical position, he is quoted as saying, “I’ll try, Sir.” He was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal in 1814. Nathaniel Hawthorne, in his introduction to The Scarlett Letter, described Miller as “New England’s most distinguished soldier.” His heroism and success is remembered today by Miller State Park, New Hampshire’s oldest state park, which overlooks the town he fought to preserve.
Around 1800 the center of activity in Peterborough shifted from Old Street Road to the current center of town, at the confluence of the Contoocook River and Nubanusit Brook, as agriculture was in economic decline and textile mills were rapidly taking its place. One of the first mills in town was Samuel Mitchell’s grist mill on the Nubanusit Brook, at the current intersection of Main Street and Elm Street. Thomas Morison had a sawmill on the Contoocook near today’s old bridge at Noone’s Falls. Multiple mills were built along the Nubanusit between Grove and Elm Streets. The Bell Factory, the second cotton mill in New England, was built on River Street in 1810. Then in 1813, the Phoenix Factory was built on the present-day site of the Guernsey Professional Building on Main Street, along with a mill for carding work in South Peterborough at Noone’s Falls. The North Cotton Factory was built in North Village, where later the Wilder Thermometer Factory would be located. The Union Mill was built in West Peterborough in 1824. The construction of these factories and others in such a short time and their demand for workers had a profound effect on the town; the population grew quickly and many homes were built as a result. While most of these mills have disappeared over the years, Peterborough is proud of its heritage in this area.
On April 9, 1833, at Town Meeting, a proposal was made and passed “that a portion of the State Literary Fund be used for the purchase of books to establish a library, free to all the citizens of Peterborough.” In that moment, Peterborough established the first tax-supported public library in the world. The Peterborough Town Library’s claim to importance is not that it was the first library to which the public had access, for such libraries had existed before 1833. Rather, its importance rests in its being created on the principle, accepted at Town Meeting, that the public library, like the public school, was deserving of maintenance by public taxation and should be owned and managed by the people of the community. In this, the Peterborough Town Library was the first – and has, since its founding in 1833, been an integral element of the Peterborough community’s identity.
In the 1850’s, Peterborough's churches were opened to abolitionist speakers, including Frederick Douglass, and many homes were part of the Underground Railroad. The statue in front of the old GAR Hall (now home to Post & Beam Brewery) was erected to commemorate the many residents who fought in the Civil War.
The Arts found fertile ground in the beauty of the region. With the establishment of the MacDowell Colony (now known simply as 'MacDowell') in 1907 by Edward and Marian MacDowell, Peterborough came to have connections directly to Boston and New York. MacDowell remains America’s largest artist colony. Peterborough Players Theatre was established in 1933. Inspired by Peterborough, Thornton Wilder wrote the play Our Town during his stay at MacDowell in 1937 - It is believed the name of 'Grover's Corners' was prompted by the intersection of Grove Street and Main Street, where the Peterborough Town House stands. The play was first shown at the Peterborough Players Theatre, and well-known American actor James Whitmore returned to Peterborough to perform in the play many times until 2008, only a year before his passing.
Peterborough's Historical Society, based out of the Monadnock Center for History and Culture located on 19 Grove Street, has a wealth of wonderful information for those interested in discovering more about Our Town's fascinating history.