Before anyone living today was born, there was Heath. A town with a rich history. A town that in the mid-nineteenth century boasted nine schoolhouses within walking distance of the children’s homes. A town whose historic center had three protestant churches: Episcopal, Methodist, and Baptist. By the end of the nineteenth century, the Baptist church was torn down, and the three churches combined into the Union church as it still exists today. A town that by the turn of the twentieth century had emerged from its existence as a quiet settlement of farmers and parsons and doctors to embrace the influx of summer residents seeking temporary respite from city life to enjoy fresh air, natural locally grown food, and the beauty of the surrounding hills. And after everyone living today is gone, there will still be Heath. Life is change. What will be our contribution to future generations living here?
Over the two centuries of its existence, Heath Center has seen many changes, both to its appearance and its life. Its first building in 1785 was a schoolhouse, erected on a lot where the Community Hall now stands. Three years later, town meetings began to be held in the building. The first meeting house, erected in 1786, stood on a one-acre lot that became the town common. It was demolished in 1834 after the new meeting house (now the Union Church) was built in 1833. Part of its materials may have been used to erect the town house for public meetings. In the nineteenth century, the Common was used for haying and surrounded by houses, a creamery, shops, liquor stores, horse sheds, blacksmith, an inn, schools, and churches.
Calver’s history records the many changes the Center has experienced. Houses were built, torn down, or burnt. When the Baptist Church was dissolved in 1884, Hugh Maxwell bought the building and moved it to his house on West Main Street to use as a barn. The shop selling fertilizer became a shop selling matches and then a private dwelling. In the nineteenth century, its Common sported town scales for local farmers to weigh their produce on the way to market and was the site of stocks for public exposure of people who had committed some or other infraction against the town and its people. It had an active grocery store and post office until 1956 (now the home of the Gruens). The Red House Inn and Tavern, the center of many gatherings and activities, was torn down in 1897 to become the site of the town library and Grange at Sawyer Hall. The Grange attracted many local events and sported a private pool room for members until by 1979 it was suffering decline. When the Methodist Church, that had a store in its lower level, was deeded by the Historical Society to the town, it became the Community Hall, with many ongoing events including square dancing, town suppers, talks, exhibitions, and the site for election voting. It became the location of the Senior Center in 2004.
Today, the Historic Center is much less active as a gathering place for community activities. Sawyer Hall stopped functioning as a Grange when town offices were moved into the building in 1980. With the grocery store no longer existing, the post office was located in what is now Sharon Brauer’s place, when Esther Dickinson was postmistress, before it moved into its current quarters in Sawyer Hall. Although events still take place in Community Hall, notably the annual Art Exhibit and the Historic Society’s Dining with History, monthly senior luncheons and programs, and is the current location of the town nurse, it has limited occupancy possibilities for major events, like the annual town meeting, and needs extensive restorative work to bring it up to state code. Sawyer Hall is also in need of rethinking its usage and space needs.
So, how to bring the Historic Center back to life? Do nothing is not an option if we want to secure a positive and fiscally workable future for our town. We do not yet know how the coming of broadband will affect our future, whether with more families moving to Heath or the possibility of attracting much-needed business opportunities to enhance our tax rate. But we all agree that whatever ensues, Heath needs to respect, renew, and add to its rich history by revitalizing Heath Center. The only way the Center has ever survived is by changing with the times and needs of the town. We shouldn’t fear change. Instead, we need to make a short- and long- range strategic plan. Several ideas have already been bruited abroad. Can we work together to brainstorm a strategic plan for the Historic Center – and Heath’s future?
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