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On a Quest for Cellar Holes

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The Chesterfield Cellar Hole Gang
The Chesterfield Cellar Hole Gang

A group of Keene State senior geography majors went underground, in a manner of speaking, during the fall semester. For a capstone course led by Dr. Lara Bryant, they took on a request to help out the Chesterfield, New Hampshire, Historical Society with a cellar hole mapping project.

“Basically, what the project aims to do is examine land use over time,” says Hannah Legacy. She and her fellow group members, Cameron Cummings, Samuel Nickerson, and Cavan Perrott, tromped around in the woods to identify, map, and research some of the estimated 30 to 40 cellar holes in the nearby town.

What’s a cellar hole? It’s the exposed, stone-lined cellar where a house once stood. The woods of New Hampshire are dotted with them; they reveal homesteads and settlements long since abandoned. “In Chesterfield,” says Legacy, “what we’ve noticed from our research and in mapping the older settlements is that they cluster mostly on the eastern portion of town, which is now really sparsely settled. We’re also examining how mill power and how the sheep industry played a significant role in Chesterfield’s coming about. It’s very interesting.”

With a goal of identifying the town’s cellar holes, the Chesterfield Historical Society had roughly located many of them, in part from anecdotal information provided by longtime residents. But they were not pinpointed and little was known about them. Tom Duston, a Keene State emeritus professor and a cellar hole aficionado who lives in Chesterfield got the geography majors involved.

By mid-semester they had trekked out to about 20 of the town’s cellar holes, measured and photographed them, and determined their exact GPS coordinates, with a plan to upload all the information into mapping software. Once the project is completed, people will be able to find the cellar holes on an online map.

“One of the purposes of making this map,” says Cummings, “is so it can be used as an educational tool. Children who go to school in Chesterfield will be able to look at the map, see the cellar holes and learn about the history of the families who once lived in those spots. And they can even go on a field trip to see the cellar holes.”

The students also surveyed town residents to see what they knew about cellar holes and how they felt about historic preservation, and they researched old tax records.

At the end of the semester, they gave a presentation, “Down the Cellar Hole: Preservation for the Sake of Education,” for Chesterfield residents at the Town Hall, outlining their work. The Historical Society presented them with T-shirts proclaiming them the Chesterfield Cellar Hole Gang.

As for the gang members, they learned a lot of history about one New Hampshire town, and they also learned how to use the tools of geography: using GPS and GIS mapping software, doing surveys and compiling statistics, researching historic documents, conducting interviews, and more.

They’ve also provided considerable information for the Historical Society to use in continuing its study of cellar holes. “I really like this project because it gives us a lot of hands-on experience with geography,” says Legacy. “This is what actual geographers do in the field.”

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