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The Magic of Potter Place

Kathi Caldwell-Hopper - July 9, 2012





I   have a motto I try live by: when forced to do something boring or unpleasant, lessen the duty with something fun. That motto came in handy when I recently had to keep an appointment in the Hanover, NH area.

As I drove from Franklin towards the tiny town of Andover on Rt. 11, I realized there were many places I would rather be on a hot summer’s day, namely the beach. Although the area is very pretty, it’s also rural in the extreme with just a convenience store here and there and not much else.

Therefore, when I saw the sign for Potter Place and the Andover Historical Society, I decided to take a detour and check out the area. I took a quick left off Rt. 11 and followed the sign to the village area of Potter Place.

I recalled that Potter Place was named for Richard Potter, a most unusual inhabitant of the area in the 1800s. Richard was African-American and gained fame as NH’s black magician. To be black in NH in the 1800s was a bit of a rarity; to also be a magician in a small town was unheard of.

As I entered the village area, it was very quiet. Except for my car, there were no other vehicles to be seen. I spied the beautifully restored train station and a very unusual general store directly across the street. Intrigued, I just had to stop and explore.

I could literally have heard a pin drop, the hamlet was so very quiet. Because of my appointment, I didn’t have time to wait for the Andover Historical Society, which maintains the train station and general store buildings (and a few others) to open for the day.

However, I took time to peek in the windows of the store, named the J. C. Emons Store. I was enthralled with the building and its old-fashioned sign above the door and the huge front windows full of displays. It reminded me of the days when a general store was the lifeblood of any community and the excitement rural people felt when they came to town to see the latest displays in the shop windows.

As I gazed through the windows, I saw wonderful things inside the store. The society has quite an extensive collection and the glass cases looked to be full of intriguing items such as old photos and memorabilia. At least one huge advertising sign was placed at the back of the store.

Clearly, the general store has been well decorated and certainly harkens back to the time when locals got just about everything at the town’s one and only store, from molasses to farm tools to fabric.

Across the street, the railroad station beckoned. I gazed at the exterior and marveled at the workmanship to keep this old building in such great condition. Nearby was another train building, which was probably a freight shed. Tucked almost behind the railroad station was a wonderful little and well kept little red caboose.

The entire Potter Place area, while sleepy and small, is clearly a place where a lot is happening and much of it seems to relate to the Andover Historical Society and the fascinating buildings.

I had to reluctantly be on my way, but when I arrived home, I checked out the Andover Historical Society’s website where I learned a lot about the many buildings and goings on at the Society.

According to the website, “The Andover Historical Society, of Andover, New Hampshire, was established to preserve the history of Andover through the acquisition and conservation of property, artifacts and stories, and to foster an awareness and appreciation for that history within the community.

The Society’s facilities are located in the village of Potter Place in the town of Andover. This village is named for, and contains the homestead and grave site of Richard Potter (1783-1835), the well-known black magician/ventriloquist of the early 19th century who traveled and performed successfully throughout America.”

The old railroad station is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and its architecture is a bit more dramatic than most surviving railroad buildings. The beautiful architecture of the station I admired on my early morning visit is an adaptation of the late 19th-century Victorian Stick Style railroad station design, with stick work, brackets and bargeboards. The broad hip roof with slate covering, the wide overhanging eaves with large elaborate brackets, and the projecting bay window for the station manager’s office, all add to the striking appearance of the station.

Although I was too early to tour the interior of the station, I read that it retains much of its original functions and appearance. The stationmaster’s office is historically accurate and authentic, with a main waiting room and access to a ticket window. Separate gents’ and lady’s waiting rooms, each with adjoining rest rooms, once offered privacy for passengers. The baggage room at the end of the station was later converted to a milk room where cans of milk were stored waiting for shipment on the early morning train to Boston.

The station now functions as a museum, displaying many of the artifacts in the Andover Historical Society’s collection. Each year a special exhibit is mounted, featuring a particular aspect of the history of Andover.

The building that so charmed me during my stop in the village, the J. C. Emons General Store and Post Office, was once a thriving business. People coming and going from all over New England and beyond stopped to stretch their legs when riding on the train, and probably sauntered to the store for penny candy or a snack.

The general store is one of the remaining structures from the heyday of train travel. It was built in 1912 by George W. Weed and intended for use as a general store. At a later time, a post office was added. It’s hard to believe all the changes the old general store has witnessed: the advent of the automobile and the fading away of the train and with it the population’s decline.

By the late 1950s the store was closed, but the post office remained until 1988. (John C. Emons owned and operated the store from 1935 to 1940.)

In the early 1990s, the store was donated to the Andover Historical Society. The members have been busy recreating the store’s appearance and atmosphere as an authentic old-time general store. The post office retains the old lock boxes and customer window. Behind the window can be seen the sorting table where incoming mail was organized for delivery.

I plan to return when the store is open so that I can browse the glass cases and experience what an old-time general store was really like.

A gift shop is located in the store, where books, videos and other documents of Andover history are available, along with T-shirts and other items relating to the town.

The little red caboose I spied on my visit is indeed well preserved.  Identified as CV-4030 from the Central Vermont Railroad, the caboose dates from 1907. It retains all of its historically interesting features, such as the cupola for monitoring the train cars, racks for the safety flares, a pot-bellied stove for warmth, an ice box for the engineer’s provisions, and a bunk bed for overnight duty.

Although I was not aware of it when I stopped at Potter Place, I later learned that famed Richard Potter, the black magician, is buried in a small cemetery in the village. The hamlet of Potter Place in Andover is named for the celebrated magician, ventriloquist and showman who lived from 1783-1835. Potter settled in Andover in 1814 and lived there until his death in 1835. A small graveyard adjacent to the railroad station contains his remains and those of his wife Sally.

According to church records, Richard Potter was born in 1783 in Hopkinton, Massachusetts, the son of a slave on an estate. Potter was educated until he was 10 years old. At that time, he went to England as a cabin boy. Later, he traveled throughout Europe as a circus performer until 1801 when he returned to America as assistant to John Rannie, a well-known magician. He learned his craft from Rannie and started to perform on his own when Rannie retired in 1811.

Potter must have been a natural as a performer, because he became a celebrity from Quebec to New Orleans and is described as the “most famous ventriloquist and sleight of hand performer of his day.”

The magician performed at a tavern in Andover and liked the area and the people. He decided to settle in Andover, where he purchased a 175-acre farm in 1814, and built a home that became the most ornate in the area. The neighborhood became known as Potter Place. In 1871 the post office made the area officially Potter Place, as a nod to the town’s most famous resident.

The charming Tucker Mountain Schoolhouse is also part of the Andover Historical Society properties and is well worth a visit. Built in 1837, the school served the local community until 1893, when the declining population led to its closing. It stands today in its original setting and location. It is in great condition, looking much as it did when it was the only school for miles around.

The little building is a model one-room school, measuring 16 by 18 ft. A small closet in the adjoining shed contains the two-hole privy. The building is of post-and-beam construction, with hand-hewn timbers and a foundation of granite stones.

The heavy plank desks stand bolted to the floor as they were in the heyday of the school. The floor slopes downward on two sides toward the center of the room, which increased visibility for pupils in the back rows. The interior walls are of wide pine boards, painted flat black to serve as chalkboards.

I plan to return to Potter Place when the museum buildings are open. It’s a wonderful village, full of historic buildings and a pervasive peaceful atmosphere. It is probably why world traveler Richard Potter settled there and it is why visitors still find it a fascinating place today.

For information on the Andover Historical Society, visit www.andoverhistory.org. The museum is open Saturdays from 10am to 3pm and Sundays from 1 to 3pm until Columbus Day.

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