History of The Fells

The Fells, situated on a nearly 1,000-acre hillside in Newbury NH overlooking scenic Lake Sunapee served as a summer retreat for three generations of the Hay family. Experiencing the connections between this landscape’s diverse elements is often the visitor’s strongest memory of “The Fells”, named after the Scottish word for rocky upland pastures.

John Milton Hay, born in 1838, son of a rural Illinois doctor, graduated from Brown University and at age twenty-two was chosen as private secretary to Abraham Lincoln. He went on to serve as ambassador to Great Britain and served as secretary of state under presidents William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt. For more information about John Hay click HERE. It was on the shores of Lake Sunapee that he and his wife, Clara Louise Stone, sought refuge from public life, and in 1888 Hay quietly began acquiring abandoned farms that would eventually total nearly 1,000 acres.

In 1889 John and Clara Hay hired architect George F. Hammond who designed the Colonial Revival, gambrel-roofed structure with a long open porch, reflecting the prevailing summerhouse style of the time. Construction was completed in 1891 and was followed by a renovation in 1897. Clara had a garden of roses and hydrangeas, but the lawn was still littered with boulders left from the ice-age, and sheep grazed nearby. When John Hay died at The Fells in 1905 the property passed to his son Clarence.

From 1906 through the 1930s, Clarence Hay and his wife, Alice Appleton Hay, transformed The Fells into an exceptional American estate and working farm. They remodeled the cottage into a stately country home and undeterred by the encroaching pines and boulder-strewn fields of Newbury, the Hays transformed sheep pasture into terraced lawns and formal gardens.


Over the next forty years Clarence and Alice pursued their individual horticultural interests. The result was a varied estate landscape that included both natural and cultivated elements. They created a stonewalled entry court on the east side of the house, which they planted with yew hedges, summer-blooming trees, shrubs and vines. On the west side, they built a hundred-foot-long stone wall that provided structure for a dazzling perennial border featuring iris, delphinium, hollyhocks, phlox, and colorful annuals and biennials. High walls and a cascading fountain on the south side of the house framed a rose garden of hybrid tea roses under planted with fragrant annuals.

Clarence and a crew of skilled stonemasons began construction of a large rock garden on the south-facing hillside toward the lake. They set lichen-speckled rocks to appear as if they had always been there, and planted hundreds of alpine and rock garden plants to give the impression of a rocky New Hampshire hillside. A stream flows the length of the rock garden; at its center is a lily pool surrounded by azaleas and Japanese iris. Paths meander throughout the garden, and alongside them crevices and raised islands provide growing conditions for the more demanding rock garden plants. Today the hardiest of the original plants remain, and many more have been added.

In 1960 Clarence and Alice deeded most of the estate, 675 acres east of NH Route 103A, to the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests. Clarence died in 1969 and in 1972 Alice deeded the remainder of the estate’s 165 acres to U.S. Fish and Wildlife as a wildlife sanctuary–the bulk of which came into Federal possession upon her death in 1987. In 2008 The Fells, an independent non-profit organization which had managed the property since 1995, became owners of the 84 acres that includes the historic buildings and gardens.