- Ann Bennett
A Sense of Place
In the late 1700s, Benjamin Randall of Portsmouth, N.H., split from the Congregational Church and founded a new religious order known as the Freewill Baptists. Randall traversed northern New England expounding his views, and 1801 found him in the village of Eaton, N.H. He was, apparently, a persuasive individual, since by 1820 three separate Freewill Baptist churches had been established in Eaton, and it had become the town's predominant religion.
The term "church," in earlier, more austere times,referred not so much to a physical structure as a group of people drawn together by similar convictions. Services were held in private homes, barns, school houses, or any other location large enough to accommodate the congregation. In 1878, however, Charles and Emma Robertson offered the Eaton Center Free Baptists property adjacent to the Eaton Cemetery to construct a church. The deed they drew up stated specifically that the building was to be maintained for religious purposes, or otherwise, the contract would be void.
In October of 1879 a committee representing the church signed an agreement with Charles, Robert, and Henry Robertson contracting them to construct a church building for $1,200. It was the congregation's desire that certain features of the structure should resemble the churches of Madison and Conway, and for $2, architect Oliver Hurd drew up the specifications.
Originally, the cost of construction was to be raised by selling the 44 pews the building was eventually to contain at a cost of $25 each. The balance of the payment was to be drawn from the church treasury, or as their contract stated, the Robertsons would be responsible for the remaining expense. Farms were thriving in Eaton in those days, but surplus cash was a rarity. Many parishioners worked off a part of the cost of their family pews by joining the construction process. Initially, several of the benches were not sold, and the three Robertsons acquired 12 pews among the three of them. Mrs. Winifred Noon remembers that her grandparents, Mr. and Mrs. Henry Robertson, eventually took over a debt of $500 on the church, a sum that took many years to pay off.
The church's budget in those days was barely solvent. Upkeep of the building was done by volunteer labor or monetary contributions, and pews were assessed on an annual basis. In 1889, the cost was $.75 for a year. Some paid in cordwood or otherwise worked off their debt. Others gave oil for the lamps, or if they had it, paid in cash. Although the building was erected with a substantial belfry, it remained empty for years. In 1904, largely through the canvassing efforts of Pastor J.W. Farrell, sufficient funds were raised to repair and repaint the building and to purchase a bell.
In the early 1900s, summer residents began to acquire homes along the shores of Crystal Lake as well as a few of the hillside farms. Drawn by the history and obvious charm of the lakeside chapel, these people helped steady the financial footing of the church.
As people's mobility increased and religious convictions began to vary, many Eaton resident began to travel to the Conways for Sunday services. In the years after WW II, as the congregation began to dwindle, it was no longer feasible to retain a pastor. At this point, the chapel became non-denominational, and while it is no longer used on a regular basis, there is still an annual Christmas pageant. Also, many people drawn by its simplicity and quiet strength choose to hold their weddings, christenings, and funerals there.
Financial support is now provided by Eaton's Ladies Circle, which prepared bean suppers, bake sales, and the like when money is needed for repairs and maintenance. And, of course, there is still a congregation, and when specific needs arise, donations are requested. According to Mrs. Ellsworth Russell, wife of one of the church's three trustees, its membership consists of anyone interested in belonging and supporting the church. By implication, this is very likely the better part of the town's citizenry. Mrs. Russell also said that the church is in excellent structural condition.
As to whether the property might ever revert to the Robertsons' heirs by edict of the original will ("so long as the corporation shall maintain a church for religious purposes on said premise this deed shall be valid. Otherwise it shall be void."), Mrs. Russell replied that she found it highly unlikely. "The church is a part of Eaton," she stated, "and everyone who lives here."
Today, a somber gray afternoon in February, the church spire catches the eye, just as it has the many tourist, photographers, and residents, and probably much as it has occupied the attention of passerbys for 100 years. The church is a central place, and not just in a geographic sense. As long as people regard it as an integral part of their lives, and choose to hold the celebrations of wedding and christening and the rites of funerals there, the chapel will remain religious in the strictest sense.