In 1820 the farmers of southwestern New Hampshire set Mount Monadnock
on fire. They had tried to do it once before, in 1816, but the wet
weather had defeated them. These farmers were wool men.
Their only cash crop was the wool fleeces from their flocks. They
had mutton and vegetables to feed their families and farm workers,
but wool was king.
The first settlers in the Monadnock region used fire to clear
pastures on the wooded slopes, so they knew how to control fire.
But this time they sought no control. They knew the fire would climb
up the slopes to the very top of the mountain. Why did they do it?
It was clearly a coordinated effort. Men, living in the towns of
Dublin, Jaffrey, and Marlborough conspired to burn all the vegetation
on the mountain. Whatever the source of their frustration, they
succeeded in starting a fire that burned for weeks. One result was
the closing of the Connecticut Legislature in Hartford because of
the smoke from the Monadnock fire. Portsmouth, New Hampshire saw
people hospitalized with severe breathing problems.
The fire did make it to the top of the mountain. Every tree was
burned. Some remained standing, waiting for the wind that now blew
harder to topple them, and some gave up sooner. The giant game of
Pick-Up-Sticks made it impossible for mere men to pass. The following
years brought rain and snow while local citizens watched the soil
slide down the slopes.
Mount Monadnock is now a bald-topped mountain, much of it protected
as a state park, making it ideal for climbing trails and hikers.
On a clear day at the peak hikers can see Boston some 60 miles away.
Thousands of people enjoy climbing the mountain every year.
But the arsonists of 1820 found no joy. Some managed to burn their
own land and barns, most were ruined financially because their New
Hampshire fleeces were no longer wanted. Prices had plummeted in
the Boston Fleece Market leading up to the devastating fire. Many
left the area, going to work in the mills of Manchester and Lawrence
or moving on west hoping for something better. Again, we ask why
did they start this fire.
Today the local wisdom is that the farmers were so frustrated
that they set the fire to kill wolves. There is some truth to that.
Wolves did harass their flocks. But how many wolves did they kill?
Probably none. Wolves are smart animals. At the first whiff of smoke,
they would have taken off, only to return to their ideal habitat
of deadfall trees. Wolves could navigate that mess more easily than
the men who hunted them. As long as there were sheep in the pastures
below, the wolves would stay close. Im sure the wolves were
a menace and angered the farmers, but they had put up with them
for generations. What was the catalyst? What was the spark?
When William Jarvis had introduced Spains Merino sheep to
New England in 1810, it was a sensation. Labeled the Silk Sheep,
its hair was softer and longer making it easier to work. Granted,
the high cost of the animal slowed its introduction, but those newcomers
with capital had caught Merino Mania. By 1820, the Boston Fleece
Market wanted only the Merino fleece.