A Brief History of Hampton Center In The 1900s
Edited by John M. Holman, Hampton History Volunteer
Lane Memorial Library, Hampton, NH
Shopkeepers or "traders," as the old term ran, were present in Hampton from the beginning. Thomas Cromwell came from Newbury to open a store in 1639 when Hampton became a town. Although he remained here only briefly, another promptly took his place, so essential were these shopkeepers to the well-being of the town because every New Englander regarded sugar, molasses, and rum as necessities.
Altogether Hampton has had four different commercial centers dictated by transportation. During the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, the center was on the Landing Road, or its immediate proximity, since trade came largely over the water from Boston. Joseph Chase, the most successful of these early traders, lived near The Landing from 1697-1717 where he kept a store in his house. At that time he was known as the richest man in the Province of New Hampshire.
During the second half of the eighteenth century, shopkeepers tended to locate close to taverns, particularly after a number of stagecoach lines originated in Portsmouth and in Portland rattled regularly over the dusty Country Road (now Lafayette) on the way to Boston. Major Jonathan Moulton (eventually General) may have been the first to have his store detached from his house. At one time there were three stores on this road next to taverns.
The coming of the Eastern Railroad in 1840 moved the commercial center close to the freight depot. Four stores, clustered among residences, lined the eastern end of Exeter Road near its junction with Lafayette. Until 1900 this end of the road was called Main Street.
Edwin Lane, the first of these shopkeepers, built a two story store in 1848, a little west of the old Lane homestead, on the north side of the road. The sign above his general store advertized: "Groceries, Grain, Hardware, Shoes and Boots, China and Glassware." Across the road and over the railroad track, J. A. Towle raised his store in 1867. A variety of occupants sold dry goods, millinery, and groceries. This same Towle in 1883 built another store to the rear of his first one. It too, had a variety of occupants. The fourth store, known as the Shaw Block, built in 1890, was a large three story affair located across the road from the Lane store. It replaced an earlier one that had been there for a long time. D. O. Leavitt and his partner, Robert Laird, ran a grocery and apothecary shop in this building.
Meanwhile the volume of traffic on the Eastern Railroad had increased enormously. It was obvious by 1899 that another track was necessary. At the same time the Eastern officials recognized that there would be increased danger to horse drawn vehicles crossing a double track. They agreed to raise an overhead bridge at Towle's Crossing. Such an undertaking made it mandatory to remove the stores on Main Street and to seek another commercial center. So it was that the railroad officials had the stores moved (with the exception of the Lane store) to the east side of Lafayette Road, beginning at High Street. The Shaw building occupies the corner lot; the old J.A.Towle building with its one story annex sets next to the Shaw building. Since 1915, it has been owned by the Marelli family which currently specializes in wines, beer, and groceries; beyond it, the second J. A. Towle building which formerly had been to the rear of Towle's first store, is Colt's News Store, owned by the Casassa family. The Merrill Block, already on High Street since 1889, absorbed other businesses that formerly occupied some of the stores on Main Street as well as catering to new occupants.
While the three former stores from Main Street were being established on their new sites in 1900, Howard G. Lane already was at work with his contractor building a more spacious J.A. Lane store on the northern corner of Lafayette and High Street. Intended to be the latest efficient design for a general store, it occupied the corner portion of the large three story building, reserving the remainder as rental space. Since the 1950's a hardware business has occupied the former Lane store. Currently the Lane Block is owned by Robert Wallace. Thus it is that the core of the old commercial center on Main Street dominates the present center. Its frame buildings are almost one hundred years old and some considerably older which make the commercial center of Hampton unique in the annals of business districts.
In recognizing the historic value of Hampton's commercial center, it would be desirable for its citizens to also support its businesses.