The homestead of clergyman Peter Thatcher Smith is reputably one of the oldest historic landmarks in Windham.

Atop a steep hill off River Road, the homestead – known as the Parson Smith House – stands well preserved more than two centuries after settlers helped the minister build the house in 1764.

Once a museum owned by Historic New England, the house is now privately owned by Donald and Elaine Dickinson. But the retired couple still opens their doors every fall and spring to Windham school children and to the occasional history enthusiast.

Now with the house for sale and public access dangling in the balance, Windham historians are preaching the significance of the Parson Smith homestead and are asking for the town to invest in this piece of Windham’s heritage.

Next Tuesday, a public hearing will be held at 7 p.m. in Windham Council Chambers to decide whether a $30,000 investment in the house should go to referendum vote this June.

The house and its history

With the Presumpscot River nearby, the area surrounding the Parson Smith House was the epicenter of the original Windham colony known as New Marblehead.

According to legend, settlers had begun to build a church when, fearful of Native American tribes that also survived off the Presumpscot, they tore it down to build Fort Sumner.

After hiring Smith to come to Windham to preach, the settlers and their oxen helped build the minister’s home right next to the Fort Sumner.

Parson Smith’s diary describes the construction of the house and documents Smith’s sermons during that time. It is unclear however whether the “Home” where he preached, according to his diary, refers to the homestead itself or Fort Sumner.

“This is probably as documented a house as exists,” says Donald Dickinson who has become a Smith history buff. “The thing that’s particularly unique about the house is that one family owned it for 190 years.”

For more than a decade now, the Dickinsons have literally been living in the past.

Though the original furnishings are gone, Donald Dickinson, an antique collector, has adorned the various rooms of the house with period paintings, old books, furniture and rare artifacts like an old-fashioned pencil sharpener. And every step through the old Parson Smith house gives a sense of what it was like to live during the 18th century.

There’s the dining room, or “keeping room,” with antique china and a massive hearth by which generations of Smith descendants kept warm. A chute in the ceiling lets hot air drift to the bedrooms above, though each one holds its own fireplace. It took 50 to 75 cords a year to warm the house during the long winter, Dickinson says.

In the north parlor, a piano along with antique chairs and a music box tells the story of how settlers might have kept entertained.

In a second parlor, a window bears the scratched name of Louise Anderson centuries after she lived in the house with her husband Edward. In a nearby closet, the remaining strips of old French wallpaper, which once patterned the room, date back to the late 1700s.

Upstairs in a study cluttered with books, a sooty boot sits next to the fireplace.

So the story goes, Dickinson says, the boot once belonged to Edward Anderson, the other pair long since deteriorated. And former occupants of the house swear they’ve heard footsteps during the night and found the boots mysteriously appear elsewhere in the house.

This ghost story is particularly popular with Windham third graders who tour the Parson Smith house while studying the history of Windham.

As owners of the Parson Smith house, the Dickinsons not only care for the general upkeep of the house, but also act as stewards of its historic preservation.

Once winter gives way, they tend gardens and repaint the exterior of the house. Inside, they use homemade plaster to replicate the old plaster walls.

But this constant preservation has become too much for the Dickinsons who are both in their senior years. And so for the past few summers, they’ve put the house on the market.

“We’ve enjoyed being here,” Dickinson said. “It’s simply gotten to the point where the home owns us.”

The task ahead

Though its historic status requires that neither the land nor the house be altered, the Dickinsons and the Windham Historical Society fear new ownership may shutter out the public.

With this in mind, the Dickinsons agreed to postpone putting the house up for sale this summer to give the Windham Historical Society time to buy it.

For nearly 200 years, Smith’s descendants owned the house and the 124 acres that comprise the estate. They granted the estate to Historic New England who preserved and ran the home as a museum with its original furnishings for decades.

But then in the early 1990s, the town of Windham decided to begin taxing the estate and Historic New England sold the home to the Dickinsons.

Now the Windham Historical Society is hoping to raise $700,000 to buy the house.

“To me, it kind of stands a symbol of who we are as a community,” says Walter Lunt, a member of Historical Society. “It’s where it all began and I would certainly want my grandchildren to see where we all started.”

Before they can apply for preservation grants, they need an investment from the town to show historic foundations and other donors that the town is committed to the house’s preservation.

They are asking for $30,000 to build a visitor’s center next to the house if they are able to purchase it, says Lunt. If they are unable to purchase the house, this money will go back to the town.

“If the community is not behind us, there’s little sense to continue,” Lunt said. “Then it just becomes an obsession of a few people. We want to preserve this piece of heritage for Windham.”

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