More people, fewer farms: Longtime Canterbury resident reflects on 87 years in town

  • Ella Mae Cochrane sits in the bedroom of her Canterbury home recently. Cochrane, who is 92, has lived in Canterbury for 87 years. (ELODIE REED/ Monitor staff) ELODIE REED/ Monitor staff

  • This Carter Hill Road home is the former one-room schoolhouse Cochrane used to attend as a child. She now lives just a stone throw away. (ELODIE REED/ Monitor staff) ELODIE REED/ Monitor staff

  • Ella Mae Cochrane stands next to Kimball Pond in Canterbury recently, where she grew up playing. She and her friends would walk there in the winter with shovels to clear off the ice for skating. (ELODIE REED/ Monitor staff) ELODIE REED/ Monitor staff

  • Decades-old photos of Ella Mae Cochrane and her late husband, William, on their wedding day hang on her bedroom wall. ELODIE REED/ Monitor staff

  • The barn where Ella Mae Cochrane and her late husband, William, kept their farm animals years ago. A former piece of this Center Road property is where Cochrane had her current home built. She lives several hundred feet behind the barn. (ELODIE REED/ Monitor staff) ELODIE REED/ Monitor staff

  • Ella Mae Cochrane stands next to Kimball Pond in Canterbury recently, where she grew up playing. She and her friends would walk there in the winter with shovels to clear off the ice for skating. (ELODIE REED/ Monitor staff) ELODIE REED/ Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Friday, March 25, 2016
She really likes the color purple, once worked making smoking pipes, attended a one-room schoolhouse and, for the past 87 years, has lived within the same square mile in the town of Canterbury.

Ella Mae Cochrane readily admits she may be one of the only old-timers left in town. “I think this year I’m up for the Boston Post Cane,” she said in an interview last week. “To tell you the truth, I can’t believe I’ve lived this long.”

Last Monday, Cochrane still had helium-filled balloons floating in her entryway, left over from her 92nd birthday party Feb. 4. Over the years, Cochrane said she’s seen her hometown transform around her from a tiny hamlet to a bona fide town.

“It sure has grown,” she said.

Early years

Born in Claremont, Cochrane said she was 5 years old when her family moved to Canterbury in search of country-living. They bought a farm on West Road, just east of what is now Exit 18 on Interstate 93.

The census taken closest to that when Cochrane moved to Canterbury – in 1929 – indicated there were just 505 people living there. Now, there are five times as many residents.

The 15th U.S. Census in 1930 also says that there were more than 15,904 cows in Merrimack County living on the region’s 1,997 farms. A gallon of milk at the time cost a mere 27 cents. The most recent census in 2014, took stock of just 600 farms left in Merrimack County in 2012 with just 4,745 cows.

“Everyone was farming, and no one had much money anyways,” Cochrane said. The house her family moved to, for example, was hooked up to nearby power lines, but they didn’t have the money to turn the electricity on.

Cochrane’s first home in Canterbury had no running water – the bathroom was a “two-holer” outhouse at the other end of the Lees’s woodshed. They used a woodstove to heat the house, cook, and warm up soapstone to heat the bed covers. Cochrane’s big tomcat would crawl down under her blankets on cold nights, too, and keep her feet warm.

“We only had one car, and my father had to use that to go to work,” Cochrane said.

While Canterbury was primarily farmland – and Cochrane’s family had a vegetable garden, pigs, work horses and chickens – New Hampshire hosted far more workers in the manufacturing industry at that time. Cochrane’s father, Vernon Lee, worked for Boston & Maine Railroad for a while, and he also worked as a custodian at the Tilton School.

Her mother, Hazel, stayed home to tend to the animals and garden, and care for her daughter and two sons.

Cochrane attended the Carter School, a one-room schoolhouse on Carter Hill Road. “I could almost throw a rock and hit it,” she said, sitting at her table in her current home near the intersection of Carter Hill and Northwest roads.

Outside of school, Cochrane said her favorite place to go was Kimball Pond to ice skate. She and the other kids in town would walk there with shovels in the winter and clear the ice.

They made bonfires off Baptist Road and had sledding parties, too. Driving past the old Carter School – which is now a house – last week, Cochrane pointed down the hill and said, “This used to be a wonderful sledding hill.”

Growing up

Cochrane attended the former Penacook High School, and the kids from Canterbury were clearly the outsiders.

“They used to say that we were the ‘hicks from the sticks,’ ” she said. “We were the only ones at that time from Canterbury.”

While the other girls had more expensive clothes with frills, Cochrane had the advantage of knowing how to sew. “The pig grain used to come in colored bags with beautiful material,” she said. “I used to open that up and use that cloth to make dresses and things.” And while the other girls at school had fancier clothes, Cochrane said she had more options.

“It used to make me feel good,” she said, chuckling.

After graduating from high school, Cochrane said she worked for several years making smoking pipes and at Beede Electrical Instruments. The Penacook manufacturing company was just sold in 2014 after 97 years.

Cochrane met her husband, William, in high school. They didn’t really hit it off until her graduation day, Cochrane said.

“He said he was going to take me home, and I said, ‘Well, you’ve got to ask my mother.’ And he did. He asked her, and she said yes.”

They married young. She was 18 and he was 17. A photo from their wedding day hangs in her bedroom. As a couple, they ran Cochrane’s Farm on Center Road, growing and preserving vegetables and raising animals.

“Of course I did a lot of canning for years,” Cochrane said. “Then we got a freezer that worked real good.”

They had five children, too. William, who went by “Bill,” died 18 years ago, in the 55th year of their marriage.

Looking back

Nowadays, Cochrane lives down a little logging road in a home designed by her and built by her sons on property that used to be attached to her family’s land on Center Road. When you go through the front door, the first thing you see is a whole lot of purple.

On the day of her interview, Cochrane was covered head-to-toe, from the lilac wire rims on her glasses to her deep purple sneakers. Her bedroom is a mix of purple flowered linens and brightly painted lavender furniture.

“Through the years, everyone’s figured – I like purple, so they all give me purple at Christmas,” she said, laughing.

Cochrane donned a grape-purple coat for a brief tour around town, which she said she’s been highly active in over the years.

“I’ve always belonged to every organization and still do,” she said. She listed them off – the Canterbury Benevolent Society, the historical society, the former Grange and women’s auxiliary, the local church.

Though she stays home more now and does a lot of reading, Cochrane said she’s seen Canterbury change dramatically throughout the years. More people, fewer farms and more grown-up land.

Pointing past the falling-down barn on her and her husband’s former farm, Cochrane said the trees have all grown to block what used to be a perfect view of the mountains.

“People used to call this the most beautiful property in Canterbury,” she said.

Thinking about the changes throughout her lifetime, Cochrane said she certainly appreciates modern conveniences – such as a toilet with running water and using electricity, not kerosene lamps, to do her reading by – but prefers the way things used to be in a slower, quieter Canterbury.

“To tell you the truth I liked it better then because it was small – a small town and a lot of country fields, open land,” she said. “Now, it’s getting so crowded. There’s hardly any open land anywhere.”

At 92, however, Cochrane said she doesn’t get upset about it – she just goes with the flow of time, change and life.

“I had to figure I’m too old to worry about it,” she said.

(Elodie Reed can be reached at 369-3306, ereed@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @elodie_reed.)