Governor’s Island has a remarkable association with many governors from New Hampshire, but the name is most likely derived from Sir John Wentworth, who was a governor and the first documented owner of the island.
Wentworth was a 1st Baronet and the British Colonial Governor of New Hampshire from 1766 until 1775. When American rebellion activities heated up and made it unsafe for him to stay, Sir John abandoned his properties and fled to Boston, then to Halifax Nova Scotia, where he served as Lieutenant Governor. Sir John is the grandson of another John Wentworth, one of the earliest English settlers of New England and the Lieutenant Governor of New Hampshire from 1671 to 1730.
Ownership of Governor’s Island was granted to Sir John in 1772 by the Masonian Proprietors, a group of 12 influential citizens who had the power to organize and grant properties for the purpose of settlement. Wentworth was rewarded with Governor’s Island for making a significant investment in the development of a large parcel of land in the Lake Winnipesaukee area. Now known as Wolfeboro, this area was originally called Kings Wood. Wentworth was preoccupied with his estate and business in Kings Wood. He had little interest in Governor’s Island, and it was never utilized or developed.
In 1778 after the American Revolution, the New Hampshire government confiscated all of Sir Wentworth’s properties. Samual Gilman of Newmarket was appointed by the probate court of Rockingham to act as trustee for Wentworth’s properties in the Lakes Region and dispose of them. Governor’s Island was sold in 1780 to John Cushing of Boston. Eight years later in 1788 it was sold again to John Langdon of Portsmouth.
Originally from a hard-working farm family, Langdon was far outside Sir Wentworth’s fashionable circle and was the last person Wentworth would have wished to see in possession of his estate. On January 6, 1777 Wentworth complained to Lord Germain that “the leaders in the rebellion still continue very industrious to keep an evil spirit among the people…among those Mr. John Langdon is one of the most violent and active, as he derives great advantages from the continuance of the rebellion.”
Langdon started his professional life doing a brisk shipping business in support of colonists, but ended his career as a prominent New Hampshire politician. He represented New Hampshire at the Continental Congress, assisted in the creation of the Constitution, served as United States Senator for twelve years and became president pro tempore (the person who presides over the senate in the absence of the Vice President.) Langdon was also governor of New Hampshire from 1805-1812, and at the end of his governorship he turned down a nomination to be a Vice Presidential candidate.
Langdon was another owner who had little interest in Governor’s Island. Except for stories of a revolutionary war soldier who squatted on the island, no other activity was reported. In 1797 Langdon sold the property to Lemuel Mason of Alton. Records describe the island as 500 acres “of a very superior quality” and that it was “covered with a very heavy growth of timber, pine at the eastern extremity and hardwood on the western portion.”
Two notable changes occurred in 1799. Governor’s Island was annexed to the Town of Gilmanton by the New Hampshire legislature, and Eleazer Davis bought the island from Mason. Then in 1812 the island was included in the new town of Gilford. It’s said that Eleazer, who owned a large farm on Alton Ridge, put his son Nathaniel in charge of the island to keep him busy and out of trouble. Nathaniel established a successful farming cooperative and the island became known as Davis Island. Unfortunately little remains from this era except the Davis family cemetery and tall tales.
The first development of any significance was probably the construction of the bridge from the mainland to the island. New Hampshire legislature granted Nathanial Davis the right to the bridge in 1808, providing he gave free access across it and did not obstruct passage of boats underneath. Davis’s bridge appears on the map of Gilmanton first drawn in 1772, then updated in 1808 and 1845. Before the level of the lake was raised in 1826, the passage to the island was just high enough to cross but wet enough to be inconvenient.
Governor’s island remained in the Davis family from 1799 until 1857. The title passed from Eleazer to Nathaniel, and in turn to sons Franklin and Eleazer, who finally sold it to George Smith of Meredith and David Plummer of Concord. Then it passed through several more hands until 1872, when Isaiah Morrill and Henry Brown of Gilford paid $5000 for the island.
In August 1883, Stilson Hutchins, an American reporter and the founder and publisher of the Washington Post, leased Governor’s Island from Isaiah Morrill for $1,000 per year for 99 years, “with the privilege of purchasing the island within twenty years for the sum of $20,000.” The purchase arrangement took effect January 1, 1884.
Hutchins built an impressive granite mansion on the island in 1885. A 1903 photograph of the house shows a 2 1/2 story, hipped roof nearly square plan building with two-story verandahs on most sides, and dormers and a square belvidere on the roof. Hutchins hired A.B. Mullett, the supervising architect of the U.S.Treasury. Job W. Angus, who had erected the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, came to Gilford to manage the construction job. Landscaping was supervised by F.L. Temple, a disciple of Frederick Law Olmsted.
A sloping, terraced lawn in front of the house provided commanding views of the lake and distant mountains. Hutchins raised Shetland ponies on the island; he also had a valuable herd of pure-bred Jersey cows which supplied his creamery, and several hundred sheep. Most of the island was open fields, excepting a woodlot along the northeastern shoreline. Other improvements to the island by Hutchins include a road along the shoreline, a drive to the crest of the island (Summit Avenue), as well as a Queen Anne-style farmhouse, a barn, a creamery and several outbuildings.
In 1903, Hutchins leased his mansion to the Ambassador from Germany, Baron Speck von Sternburg, who established a summer embassy there with a retinue of at least 20 persons. The Baron later wrote that the view from the mansion was as magnificent as anything in Switzerland or Bavaria. The State Board of Agriculture didn’t miss this golden opportunity to feature the Baron’s photo and message in the 1908 issue of New Hampshire Farms for Summer Homes.
Hutchins’ many political connections brought Presidents Grover Cleveland and Theodore Roosevelt here. In winter, local caretaker/gardeners sent Mrs. Hutchins fresh flowers on the train from her Governor’s Island greenhouse for her Washington parties.
The property passed through three generations of the Hutchins family and then was acquired for $110,000 in 1928 by real estate developer Clifford Hayes, who envisioned a recreational colony similar to the Bald Peak Colony Club across the lake. His twenty-four-page promotional book never once mentioned Gilford, but described the island’s location as ” simply a short Pulman ride from New York, Boston, and Montreal.”
The Hutchins mansion burned down to the ground on August 1, 1935. All that remains today are remnants of the foundation, a sturdy stone silo-like structure, and the now grown-over terrace garden. Clifford Hayes investment was ruined and banks forclosed the property.
The remaining islanders formed their own association and succeeded in rescuing the crumbling stone barn, which the banks had slated for demolition, and launching an island newspaper, The Island Item, which kept islanders in touch with each other from 1939 through the 1960’s. A beautifully appointed stagecoach was stored in the barn. It became a regular feature of Old Home Day parades, often with a luckly little princess enthroned on the red velvet upholstery.
During World War II, large groups of women met at the barn to wrap surgical dressings for the Red Cross, and victory gardens bloomed. The barn evolved into the island’s community house. Until it was struck by lightening and destroyed in 1952, the barn was the scene of island association meetings, dances, plays, church services, and even weddings and christenings led by summering Pennsylvania clergyman Jule Ayers and others.
Devlopment of Governor’s Island took off after World War II under the corporate name of Governor’s Estates. Seasonal houses were built at a great rate along the shoreline, and the bridge was updated. The Governor’s Estates brochure draws attention to features such as electricity and telephone service, Pullman trains direct from Boston and New York, and the price of lots at $1,800 and up — “the same as before the war.” Tennis became “the thing” and young and old alike enjoyed the island tournaments.
In 1962, there were about forty year-round and ninety summer residents occupying the island. Over the next three decades, most of the earlier (1930s and 40s) summer cottages were substantially rebuilt and enlarged. By the 1990s the population had grown to include 156 houses, of which a third are year-round residences. Today there are just under 200 properties on Governor’s Island. No further development is allowed.
***Note that portions of this abbreviated history are adapted and/or fully excerpted from The Gunstock Parish, a book by Adair D. Mulligan and published for the Thompson-Ames Historical Society of Gilford, New Hampshire. Appreciation is given to the society for the permission to release this information on the GIC website.