The early colonizers of New England came seeking land ownership. The entitlement to own land was something that they held dear because it was unavailable to the lower classes of England and Europe. Thus it was not without controversy that some portion of land was set aside as “common land.” While common land was sometimes designated for grazing or firewood, many settlements created a common in the center of a village. It was around the common that the town church, the school, tavern, and village stores were situated.
This was the case with the Thetford Hill Common, which was established in the 1700s at the junction of what is now Route 113 and Academy Road. The Town meetinghouse was built on the common between 1785 and 1788. The common, initially quite small, was enlarged to its present footprint in 1795 and 1818. The meetinghouse later became a church and in 1830 was moved off the town-owned common in accordance with the separation of church and state.
In Thetford Center, the common has an entirely different history. An 1877 map shows the land where the present-day common is situated as a parcel accommodating the Thetford Center schoolhouse and the residence of C.E Porter on Tucker Hill Road. By the 1900s this had been reduced to a smaller piece, known as the “Arad lot,” that excluded the school house. It had been acquired by the Howard family, who deeded it to Charles and Mary Banker in 1946. In 1948 the land was conveyed to Dr. Charles and Fannie Hughes.
Dr. Hughes was a music professor from New York state who had been invited to Thetford in 1921 by Professor Charles Farnsworth to play music at Camp Hanoum in Thetford Center. After that introduction, Hughes returned to Thetford every summer. He acquired various properties and settled in his farm on Poor Farm Road North in the 1990s after Fannie died in 1989. He is remembered in Thetford for founding the Thetford Historical Society, the Barn Museum, and for authoring two books on Thetford history, Beloved Village, Reminiscences of Thetford Hill VT, 1921-1985 and The Mills and Villages of Thetford Center. These are available through the Historical Society.
In 1998 Charles Hughes conveyed the Arad lot to the Town of Thetford to be used “as a village green or common in the village of Thetford Center, similar to the village greens or commons existing in 1998 in the village of Thetford Hill … and in the Village of Post Mills in the Town of Thetford.” Fortuitously, the Town Hall, the Village Store, Timothy Frost Church (as it was then), and the former schoolhouse (now the Thetford Center Community Association) all abutted the common, as if it were meant to be.
Charles Hughes passed away in 1999.
The Thetford Center common was given on the condition that “it be used as a common, and that no buildings shall be constructed on the property. To the extent possible the property shall be kept open and any hay on the property shall be cut. The property may be improved, to the extent possible, with amenities suitable for a village green or common, such as shade trees, flowers, benches and walking paths.”
Following the donation of the common, the next few years saw a flurry of activity. The common was found to be not optimal for recreation because a wet swale ran through it. Tim Ulman of Northwoods Excavating spent two days working with equipment to even out the grade and install a drainage culvert. EC Brown nursery and residents donated shade trees. A gazebo was added, which raised some eyebrows — is it a building or not? The late Mike Pomeroy, former owner of the Village Store and Baker’s Store, obtained a used set of playground equipment that lasted a number of years. Some time later, the Recreation Director supported the concept that a community garden provided a needed form of recreation. She suggested it could be placed on the Thetford Center common, and the idea won Selectboard approval.
Still later the Town was awarded some assistance to replace Town Hall’s ancient septic system. However the Town Hall’s lot was just too small to accommodate a system compliant with modern standards. In addition, with an eye to the future, it was prudent to include the needs of the Timothy Frost Building and the Community Association building (the former schoolhouse). Thus the new septic system, a discreet mound, was built at the back of the common. The rear of the green also saw the addition of a beautiful memorial bench. This year the community vegetable garden has been augmented with plantings of native wildflowers (aka pollinator garden) to raise awareness about the decline of pollinators while nourishing them.
The Thetford Center common is for informal use by all residents. It may also be booked for functions. In 2019 the Selectboard adopted a Facility Use Policy for renting such public facilities that required a $100 rental fee “to hold a gathering” or public event on the common, with a security deposit of $150, which increased to $250 for events serving alcohol. In addition, businesses-for-profit, and persons or entities that charge an entry fee, had to carry liability insurance. Outdoor events of more than 25 people were required to provide “portable sanitation services.”
Currently the Town Manager and Selectboard are considering a revised policy. Changes include limiting events to 150 people. When this limit was questioned, the selectboard majority said that parking for a greater number does not exist. However, at an average vehicle occupancy of two people, there is not enough parking even for 150.
Another provision is that “any individual, group, business or organization” wishing to rent the common “shall notify the Town at least 10 business days prior to the event.” A $50 user fee is proposed, while the deposit for events serving alcohol is $150. The Selectboard may waive the user fee for nonprofit organizations at its discretion. Use of tobacco, tobacco substitutes, and cannabis is prohibited, as is possession or sale of illegal drugs. The renter must produce proof of comprehensive general liability insurance. In addition, there is an accompanying Facility Use Agreement for a One-Time Event. Here the Town has been advised to include language that says the Town is not liable for any injury, loss, or damage to private property that occurs during, or as a consequence of, an event. No sign or temporary structure may be placed on the premises without obtaining advance approval in writing. The Agreement also specifies that “For all Events involving minors (persons 17 years or under) there shall be at least one adult over 18 years of age for every 10 minors for the duration of the Event.” There is no mention of portable sanitation services.
The Facility Use Policy and Facility Use Agreement will be applied to the Thetford Hill common and the Post Mills common (Veterans’ Park), as well. They are also owned by the Town, thus exposing the Town to the same liability as cited for the Thetford Center common.
Photo credits: Nicky Corrao, Li Shen
Hughes handwritten letter, copy provided by Town Clerk Tracy Borst