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Peterborough, New Hampshire
Town House, built in 1918
Town House, built in 1918
Official seal of Peterborough, New Hampshire
Location in Hillsborough County, New Hampshire
Country United States
State New Hampshire
County Hillsborough
Incorporated 1760
Villages Peterborough
Happy Valley
North Village
West Peterborough
 • Total 38.43 sq mi (99.53 km2)
 • Land 38.02 sq mi (98.47 km2)
 • Water 0.41 sq mi (1.06 km2)  1.06%
718 ft (219 m)
 • Total 6,418
 • Density 169/sq mi (65.2/km2)
Time zone UTC−5 (Eastern)
 • Summer (DST) UTC−4 (Eastern)
ZIP Code
Area code(s) 603
FIPS code 33-60580
GNIS feature ID 0873697

Peterborough is a town in Hillsborough County, New Hampshire, United States. The population was 6,418 at the 2020 census. The main village, with 3,090 people at the 2020 census, is defined as the Peterborough census-designated place (CDP) and is located along the Contoocook River at the junction of U.S. Route 202 and New Hampshire Route 101. Peterborough is 38 miles (61 km) west of Manchester and 72 miles (116 km) northwest of Boston.


Bird's-eye View of Peterborough, NH
Bird's-eye view in 1907

Granted by Massachusetts in 1737, it was first permanently settled in 1749. The town suffered several attacks during the French and Indian War. Nevertheless, by 1759, there were fifty families settled. Incorporated on January 17, 1760 by Governor Benning Wentworth, it was named after Lieutenant Peter Prescott (1709–1784) of Concord, Massachusetts, a prominent land speculator.

The Contoocook River and Nubanusit Brook offered numerous sites for watermills, and Peterborough became a prosperous mill town. In 1810, the first cotton factory was established. By 1859, when the population was 2,222, there were four additional cotton factories, plus a woolen mill. Other industries included two paper mills, an iron foundry, a machine shop, a carriage factory, a basket manufacturer, a maker of trusses and supporters, a boot and shoe factory, seven sawmills, and three gristmills.

Abiel Abbot, after being charged with heresy by the Connecticut religious establishment, came to Peterborough as minister to the Peterborough Unitarian Church in 1827. Reverend Abbot founded the town's first prep school, the Monadnock Summer Lyceum, and the first free library in the US, all in Peterborough.

Other early cultural institutions include Mariarden, a summer theatre where Paul Robeson played in Eugene O'Neill's The Emperor Jones at a time when roles for black Americans were scarce. Bette Davis performed there as a teen.

Performance blossomed again in 1976, when Widdie and Jonathon Hall founded the Peterborough Folkway. "Within a few years, it became a 'must play' on the East Coast for folk musicians and continued to be a popular stop" for two decades. Regular performers included Tom Paxton, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Shawn Colvin, Martin Saxton and Suzanne Vega.

In the 1980s, thanks to publisher Wayne Green, "Peterborough was clearly the per capita magazine production capital of the world." Over 100 magazines, mostly about computers and technology, were published there; these included Byte and MacComputing.

Peterborough's leadership in environmental protection began in the 1990s, when its Earth Day USA office supported the US Air Force's annual Earth Day events around the world.

Town Library

Peterborough is home to the first tax-supported free public library in the United States. The Peterborough Town Library was founded at a town meeting on April 9, 1833. This idea was revolutionary in a time when subscription libraries were popular. The collection of materials would essentially be owned by the people and free to access. Funds for the formation of the library were made available through the State Literacy Fund. The Reverend Abiel Abbot already had experience in creating libraries. In the six years he had spent in Peterborough prior to 1833, he had established the Juvenile Library, which he operated out of his home, and the Peterborough Library Company, a dues-paying membership library. Due to the success of Abbot's libraries, specifically the Town Library, the New Hampshire State Legislature passed a law authorizing towns to raise money to establish and maintain their own libraries. This law was enacted in 1849, making New Hampshire the first state to pass a law of this nature.

The library started in the town's general store, which also served as the post office. The postmaster also served as the librarian, until Susan Gates was appointed in 1854. By 1873, it was decided that the library materials would be moved to the Town Hall, but by 1890, there were 6,000 books and not enough space to accommodate the collection and patrons. A new library was built and continues to operate as the town's library. Since construction, the library has been expanded twice, and its collection has grown from the hundred original items to over 43,000 books. A booklet on the history of the library is available at the circulation desk.


Mt Monadnock
Mount Monadnock as viewed from Peterborough

According to the United States Census Bureau, the town has a total area of 38.1 square miles (98.7 km2), of which 37.7 square miles (97.7 km2) is land and 0.42 square miles (1.1 km2) is water, comprising 1.06% of the town. Peterborough is drained by Nubanusit Brook and the Contoocook River. The highest point in Peterborough is South Pack Monadnock Mountain (2,290 feet (698 m) above sea level), in Miller State Park. Peterborough is also home to Edward MacDowell Dam and Lake recreation area, where visitors can walk across the dam, hike, cross-country ski, swim, boat, picnic, play Frisbee golf, horseshoes or other recreational opportunities, many of them disabilities accessible.

The town center, or census-designated place (CDP), is where nearly 50% of the population resides. It has a total area of 4.77 square miles (12.35 km2), of which 4.75 square miles (12.29 km2) is land and 0.02 square miles (0.06 km2), or 0.52%, is water. The CDP includes the village of West Peterborough, located 2 miles (3 km) west of the town center, along Nubanusit Brook.

The town is crossed by U.S. Route 202 and Route 101.


Historical population
Census Pop.
1790 861
1800 1,333 54.8%
1810 1,537 15.3%
1820 1,500 −2.4%
1830 1,984 32.3%
1840 2,163 9.0%
1850 2,222 2.7%
1860 2,265 1.9%
1870 2,236 −1.3%
1880 2,206 −1.3%
1890 2,507 13.6%
1900 2,527 0.8%
1910 2,277 −9.9%
1920 2,615 14.8%
1930 2,521 −3.6%
1940 2,470 −2.0%
1950 2,556 3.5%
1960 2,963 15.9%
1970 3,807 28.5%
1980 4,895 28.6%
1990 5,239 7.0%
2000 5,883 12.3%
2010 6,284 6.8%
2020 6,418 2.1%
U.S. Decennial Census

As of the 2010 United States census, there were 6,284 people, 2,713 households, and 1,629 families residing in the town. The population density was 167.0 people per square mile (64.3/km2). There were 2,956 housing units at an average density of 78.4 per square mile (30.3/km2). The racial makeup of the town was 96.1% White, 1.8% Asian, 0.7% Black or African American, 0.2% Native American, 0.02% Pacific Islander, 0.4% some other race, and 0.8% from two or more races. Hispanic or Latino of any race were 1.4% of the population.

There were 2,713 households, out of which 28.1% had children under the age of 18 living with them, 45.8% were headed by married couples living together, 10.6% had a female householder with no husband present, and 40.0% were non-families. Of all households 33.6% were made up of individuals, and 15.2% were someone living alone who was 65 years of age or older. The average household size was 2.24, and the average family size was 2.85.

In the town, the population was spread out, with 21.5% under the age of 18, 6.2% from 18 to 24, 19.9% from 25 to 44, 30.3% from 45 to 64, and 22.0% who were 65 years of age or older. The median age was 46.6 years. For every 100 females, there were 86.9 males. For every 100 females age 18 and over, there were 81.7 males.

For the period 2009–2013, the estimated median annual income for a household in the town was $66,026, and the median income for a family was $89,401. Male full-time workers had a median income of $66,314 versus $34,707 for females. The per capita income for the town was $40,385.


The town of Peterborough is a leader in sustainability: It has been cited by the US Environmental Protection Agency for its Green Purchasing Practices; since 2014, the town achieved 100% reliance on sustainable energy. Its model for funding the largest solar facility in New Hampshire has drawn national and international attention, including climate scientists from around the world in the US Department of State's International Visitor Leadership Program. The solar array was built atop a wastewater treatment plant.


Sign on Route 101
Town Library, Peterborough, NH
Town library in 1906
Kayaking in Peterborough NH
Kayaking in Peterborough

Many artists' introduction to the town comes as fellows to the MacDowell Colony, a wooded creative retreat that provides grants to over 250 artists per year. "While working at MacDowell, Leonard Bernstein composed his Mass; Aaron Copland composed Billy the Kid; Thornton Wilder wrote Our Town and The Bridge of San Luis Rey; James Baldwin wrote Giovanni’s Room; Willa Cather wrote Death Comes for the Archbishop; DuBose and Dorothy Heyward wrote Porgy and Bess; and Virgil Thomson composed Mother of Us All. Alice Walker worked on her first novel and Meridian at MacDowell. Michael Chabon wrote The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay; Alice Sebold wrote The Lovely Bones, and Jonathan Franzen completed The Corrections."

The town celebrates First Friday monthly with presentations by MacDowell Colony artists, along with gallery openings, special shopping opportunities and events in the downtown area. Favorite hang-outs include Harlow's Pub with its live music and the riverside Water House.

Restaurants line Route 202, from family-style Brady's American Grill north of town to The Pearl and the Parker House Coffee Roaster on south 202. The Peterborough Diner, a classic Worcester railway lunch car in the center of the village square, attracts many presidential hopefuls every four years.

Peterborough hosts many events. The Snow Ball in January, Children and the Arts Day in May, Thing in the Spring music festival in June and Greenerborough, a summer festival promoting the town's leading position in sustainability, are just a few of the music, arts, farm, energy and nature celebrations held annually.

The Peterborough Town Library is the oldest free library supported by taxation in the United States. It was founded on April 9, 1833, by Unitarian minister Abiel Abbot. The original collection comprised 100 books and was housed in Smith and Thompson's General Store, along with the post office. It later moved to the town hall, then in 1893 was given its own building designed by the noted bridge engineer George Shattuck Morison. The collection now includes over 50,000 volumes.

The Moses Cheney house in Peterborough served as a stop on the Underground Railroad in the mid-19th century, and Frederick Douglass stayed at the home. Moses' son Oren B. Cheney founded Bates College in 1855, and his son Person C. Cheney was a U.S. senator.

The Peterborough Players have performed since 1933, having employed such renowned actors as James Whitmore and Sam Huntington.

New Hampshire's oldest continuously active state militia unit, the Lafayette Artillery Company, was founded in Peterborough in 1804. It is now based in nearby Lyndeborough. However, since the early 20th century, Peterborough has been home to the Amoskeag Veterans, founded in Manchester in the mid-19th century.

The town was a model for the play Our Town, written by Thornton Wilder while in residence at the MacDowell Colony. His fictional town of Grovers Corners appears to have been named for Peterborough's Grove Street. At the corner of Grove and Main streets, a cell-phone Quick Response Code near the horse-head fountain starts a QR-code tour of Peterborough.

The film The Sensation of Sight was shot entirely in Peterborough.


Peterborough is a global village and entrepreneurial seedbed. Start-ups based in Peterborough include New Hampshire Ball Bearing, Microspec, Pure Flow, Peterboro Basket Company, Borrego Solar, MobileRobots Inc., Toadstool Bookstores, Froling Energy, Brookstone, SoClean and Hyndsight Vision Systems. Approximately a third of Peterborough workers are home-based entrepreneurs or remote workers.

Like the rest of New Hampshire and the Monadnock region, Peterborough's third largest industry is tourism. The town's outdoor amenities include hiking trails, wild flowers, cross-country skiing, kayaking, cycling and small lakes for swimming, sailing, fishing and ice-skating. It is a popular bird-watching area, one of two sites of the NH Audubon autumn migratory raptor count.

Its cultural attractions include the Monadnock Center for History and Culture, the exhibition gallery and craft gallery of the Sharon Arts Center, the Peterborough Players theatre, Peterborough Community Theater cinema, Monadnock Music concerts, the Monadnock Summer Lyceum, MAXT Makerspace and Mariposa Children's Museum. Peterborough's First Saturday contradances are a place for singles and dance enthusiasts to enjoy live music in the spacious Peterborough Town Hall.

Education and research

The public schools are part of Contoocook Valley school district (SAU 1) which has a total of 11 schools and one applied technology center.

  • Contoocook Valley Regional High School, built in 1970, serves approximately 700 students.
  • South Meadow School, founded in 1989, serves approximately 400 students. The school began as Peterborough Middle School.
  • Peterborough Elementary School, locally known as PES, serves approximately 250 students.
  • While the area has many private kindergartens, pre-schools and elementaries, The Well School, founded in 1967, is the only Pre-8 school within the town. The Well is a day school that serves approximately 160 students on an extensive rural campus.
  • Clay Mathematics Institute, a foundation supporting cutting-edge mathematics research, is also located in Peterborough.

In addition to formal education, the town has dance and karate studios, arts, sports, fitness and nature activities year round, for children and adults.

Notable people

Unitarian Church, Peterborough, NH
Unitarian Church in 1906, built in 1825 with published plans by architect Asher Benjamin
  • Abiel Abbot (1765–1859), minister, educator and founder of the first free library
  • Charles Bass (born 1952), US congressman
  • Perkins Bass (1912–2011), US congressman
  • Robert P. Bass (1873–1960), farmer, forestry expert, 53rd Governor of New Hampshire
  • Jotham Blanchard (1800–1839), lawyer, newspaper editor, Canadian politician
  • Ingrid Chavez (born 1965), actress, musician
  • Moses Cheney (1793–1875), abolitionist, legislator, and founder of Bates College
  • Person Colby Cheney (1828–1901), manufacturer, abolitionist, US senator, 35th Governor of New Hampshire
  • Francis Joseph Christian (born 1942), retired auxiliary bishop, Diocese of Manchester
  • Frank Gay Clarke (1850–1901), US congressman
  • Landon T. Clay (1926–2017), businessman, philanthropist, art collector, founder of Clay Mathematics Institute
  • Matt Deis (born 1983), musician
  • Jeanne Dietsch (born 1952), state senator
  • Richard Despard Estes (born 1928), author
  • Wayne Green (1922–2013), publisher
  • Sam Huntington (born 1982), actor
  • Beth Krommes (born 1956), illustrator, winner of 2009 Caldecott Medal
  • Edward MacDowell (1860–1908), composer
  • Marian MacDowell (1857–1956), founder of the MacDowell Colony
  • Bob "Mr. Mac" McQuillen (1923–2014), teacher, musician, prolific composer of contra dance tunes; recognized as a National Heritage Fellow
  • James Miller (1776–1851), US congressman, general
  • Elting E. Morison (1909–1995), US historian, professor emeritus at MIT, founder of the MIT's Program in Science, Technology and Society (known as STS), lived and died in Peterborough
  • Eddie Mottau, guitarist
  • Walter R. Peterson, Jr. (1922–2011), realtor, educator, 72nd Governor of New Hampshire
  • Jeremiah Smith (1759–1842), jurist, US congressman, 9th Governor of New Hampshire
  • Robert Smith (1802–1867), US congressman
  • Samuel Smith (1765–1842), manufacturer, US congressman
  • John Hardy Steele (1789–1865), mechanic, manufacturer, 19th Governor of New Hampshire
  • Elizabeth Marshall Thomas (born 1931), author
  • George Walker (1824–1888), attorney, state congressman, banker, corporate executive, political adviser, prominent advocate for bimetallism and U.S. Consul-General in Paris
  • Isaac Davis White (1901–1990), commanded the U.S. Army, Pacific (USARPAC) from July 1957 to March 1961
  • James Wilson I (1766–1839), US congressman
  • James Wilson II (1797–1881), US congressman
  • John Wilson (1777–1848), US congressman
  • Elizabeth Yates (1905–2001), Newbury medalist, author of 26 books including Amos Fortune, Free Man

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See also

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