The Old Meeting House
Construction of the old Meeting House, also known as the Town House, was started in 1793 and completed in 1796. It was built on land purchased in December 1792 from a shoemaker named William Douglas, who lived in a log cabin at the rear of the lot. He sold the land, comprising a few acres, for 11 pounds 5 shillings. The common was a swamp full of trees, rotten logs and frogs. Through draining and clearing it became settled land.
William Parkhurst, of Canaan Street, was the builder, and received the sum of 561 pounds. The plans were for a building without steeple or bell, 42 feet wide by 52 feet long, with posts 26 feet long between joints and roof in proportion thereto. There was a porch at each end, twelve feet square with 23 foot posts. The porches housed stairways to the gallery at the second floor level. The principal entrance was in the center of the south side. The pews were square boxes, those in the center in squares of four, with a row around the walls raised one step. Ten steps led up to the pulpit, which was on the north side at about the gallery level. The gallery ran around the east, south, and west sides. A large sounding board was suspended above the desk.
The steps were hewn stone. Nails were of wrought iron. Timbers were cut on the common nearby, and the sills and plates of the building were 20 inches square. Windows were constructed with 40 lights of 7x9 glass. The pulpit and canopy were to be built like the Chelmsford Meeting House, and painting of the outside wall to be like the Lower Meeting House in Salisbury. In 1794, it was voted to paint it stone-color, the roof Spanish brown, and the doors sky blue. Major Levi George of Salisbury was hired to do the pulpit and panel work.
People were present from miles around for the raising in September 1793, and a barrel of rum was procured from East Enfield to steady the nerves and increase the emulation of the workmen. After the raising of the frame a grand banquet was planned at the Parkhursts. Unfortunately, Mr Parkhurst was riding astride one of the heavy timbers near the roof top when the rope tackle broke and he fell to the ground, to be paralyzed for life.
In those days meeting houses served a dual purpose, being both church and public meeting place. It is hard to determine which was the primary purpose, although they tended to start as churches and become multi-purpose buildings through usage. The Canaan Meeting House was no exception, and in ensuing years it had numerous changes. In 1812 it was painted white with a red roof. At some time prior to 1830 the western porch was removed and placed above the eastern one to form the present bell tower. In 1829 the Town of Canaan accepted a deed to the building. In 1842 the Baptists were given permission to put a floor across the gallery opening and thus create an upper hall as a place of worship. Presumably at about the same time the pews were removed and the present settles installed, which had been originally in the gallery. The old pew doors and wide panels were carried off by relic hunters. In 1853 a new 1200-pound bell was installed to replace the old one.
The use of the upper floor created by closing the gallery opening apparently was not extensive, and in 1885 a second floor was constructed four feet above the first one, completely covering up the original gallery structure. At this time an outside staircase was added, serving only the second floor. A clock was added to the bell tower in 1894.
The new second floor was used for roller skating, dancing, and other social purposes for many years. Theater curtains were painted for use with theatrical performances. In more recent times these uses declined and ceased. Also, the annual town meeting was finally moved to another location because of the restricted capacity of the ground floor. The Meeting House was used only sporadically, for occasional voting or small meetings.
In 1968 the Canaan Historic District was established and a commission appointed, as authorized by the State legislation. Subsequently, both the District and the Meeting House were enrolled in the National Register of Historic Places of the U.S. Department of the Interior. A program is now in being to rehabilitate and restore the Meeting House both historically and for practical use. In 1973 it was possible to make extensive repairs to the foundations and the tower structure, both of which had deteriorated seriously with age. Funds were raised from private sources. Much more remains to be done, but through gradual work as funds become available, the day will come when the Meeting House is restored to an active part in the life of the Town.