By Mike LaBella
---- — Carpentry students at Whittier Regional High are putting an iconic piece of history back in place at the Rocks Village Bridge.
A team of juniors and seniors is building an exact replica of the quaint wooden toll house that stood next to the drawbridge from 1828 to 1911.
The one-room building, which also served as a cobbler’s shop, is an impressive artifact from Haverhill’s bygone days. It’s also tied to the school’s namesake John Greenleaf Whittier, who tells of the toll keeper in his poem “The Countess.”
“It’s an important connection,” said Christine Kwitchoff, a member of the Rocks Village Memorial Association who is coordinating the project with fellow association member Cindy Dauksewicz and Whittier carpentry Instructor Earl Corr. “We were so delighted when we got the call that Whittier would accept the project.”
Students were recently nailing the frame and roof beams of the 10-by-12-foot house together in the school’s carpentry shop. They expect to be finished by May 1.
“We’re using the historically accurate blueprints and putting it together the exact way it was then,” said Amber Mercier of Methuen, a Whittier senior. “It’s interesting because we learn about these people in history and then we actually get to relate to it in real life.”
The toll house is being built at the school based on design specifications the Rocks Village group obtained from the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan. When the building is completed, it will be trucked to the site.
Senior Tiffany Soucy of Haverhill said she is happy she will have a landmark in her city she can point to and say, “I built that.”
“I’ve gone over that bridge many times and thought, oh, that’s just a shack,’’ she said. “But it’s a big part of history.”
Built in 1862, the toll house was used to collect tolls until 1868, when all highways in Essex County were declared free to travel. The little building remained in use for the drawbridge until 1911, when the drawbridge was torn down and the toll house was moved to a former bridge-tender’s yard.
Henry Ford bought the toll house in 1928 and brought it to his museum of American collectibles in Michigan, where it is on display today. Built in 1828, the quaint little building housed a toll keeper who assessed fees from the horse-drawn carriages and wagons that crossed the Merrimack River.
Traveling to and from Haverhill and West Newbury, carriages and wagons often had cows and pigs in tow and were charged according to a rate schedule posted on the toll house. Traffic was light in those days, so the toll keeper spent most of his hours inside the small building working as a cobbler repairing and making shoes. The toll house was also a known gathering spot for men who came to discuss the events of the day, including the famous poet Whittier, who lived just four miles away.
With the restoration of the Rocks Village Bridge now underway and set to be finished in August, the Rocks Village Memorial Association undertook recreating the original toll house. The neighborhood group was also responsible for the restoration of the old Hand Tub House nearby, which once served as a fire station.
When the replica of the toll house is brought to the site, it will be placed on granite piers as the original building was more than a century ago. Currently, there is a small, red shack located at the bridge. The shack is used for storage by the Public Works Department, and will be demolished.
Along with the labor donated by Whittier, the project is being done completely with donations of lumber and materials. More is needed to get the job done, said Kwitchoff. The Rocks Village association is offering individuals or companies the opportunity to purchase a “window to history.” The toll house has five windows, which cost $120 each. Those interested in donating materials or cash are asked to contact Kwitchoff at email@example.com or send a check to her attention to 14 Colby’s Lane, Haverhill, MA 01830.
The following companies donated supplies to the project: Amesbury Industrial Supply, Brockway-Smith, CP Building Supply, Feuer Lumber, Home Depot, Jackson Lumber, Johnson Lumber, Lambert Roofing, Lowe’s, Martingetti Enterprises and Moynihan Lumber. Lambert Roofing owner Richard Lambert is a Whittier Regional High graduate.
Two verses in Whittier's famous poem "The Countess", written in 1863, describe the toll keeper at the bridge: Along the gray abutment's wall The idle shad-net dries; The toll-man in his cobbler's stall Sits smoking with closed eyes. You hear the pier's low undertone Of waves that chafe and gnaw; You start,--a skipper's horn is blown To raise the creaking draw.