By Jeff Woodburn
LITTLETON – After graduating from White Mountains Regional High School in 1983, Veronica Francis did what most ambitious and adventurous local young people do, she left. “I couldn’t wait to get out of the area,” she said. But, after going away to college and doing stints working in Southern California and Virginia, where, she said, “the weather was too nice” and the landscape had “too much concrete,” she returned home. Francis, of Littleton, who owns Notch Net, a web hosting and internet consulting business, is an anomaly, but not alone.
This writer compiled and surveyed a dozen or so local high school graduates, who went off to college and started careers away from the region, but ultimately decided to move back home. Most acknowledged that returning cost them money and professional advancement, but that the lifestyle, culture, and environment easily made up for it. Many spent their formative years in metropolitan areas testing their professional abilities, but as singlehood was lost to matrimony and eventually children a shift in lifestyle occurred.
The North Country has long been plagued with what has become known as a “brain drain,” which demographers define as a loss of residents 25-39 year-old with at least a four year college degree. The region has a storied economic history tied at one time or another to agriculture, manufacturing and tourism. Each of these booms busted and rid the area of people, income and culture. As the old adage goes, the North Country’s great export is its young people.
Even before the more recent mill closures, Coos County was hemorrhaging jobs and young people. Between 1990 and 2000, the county lost nearly 40 percent of its 20–29 year olds, according to a study published by the UNH’s Carsey Institute. Even Littleton, which has transitioned from an old shoe factory town to a stylish retail destination, has had trouble keeping or attracting young college educated people, whether they are natives or newcomers. The town’s medium age is 39, the same as Lancaster, and older than Groveton and three years younger than Berlin. The college education disparity is equally mixed with 22 percent of Littleton residents having college degrees, while Lancaster has 24 percent, and Berlin and Groveton’s percentages are in single digits.
Still, at least anecdotally, North Country, especially Littleton area, appears to be attracting its younger former residents back. What’s drawing them?
A little more than a year ago, Dr. Joel Tuite, an optometrist in Littleton and Littleton High School graduate, left a large practice in Portsmouth to return home primarily for family and community. “I love living here,” he said, “the people are very genuine and thankful” for even the simplest things. Tuite likes that people take pride in the community and that everyone knows each other. “I find myself waving at every other car,” he added.
The smallness of scale attracts many people, especially those who’ve experienced other regions. Life in the North Country appears to be simpler, more personable, egalitarian, less rushed and focused on material attainment. People have more influence and are not a cog in a large system. “You can be a big fish in a small pond,” said Francis. Alburritos Restaurant owner John Alberin, a Littleton High grad, agreed, “You can do anything here,” he said, businesses “are easier to start, low competition and lots of community support.”
Emily Herzig, of Litteton, a Lisbon High School, UNH graduate and owner of E.H. Floral, likes that “Money isn’t the focus. We don’t need a lot.” When she was in Portsmouth, she noted that it cost so much just to get by and the expectation was to “keep up with the Jones.” In the North Country, she added, this relieves a lot of stress. In some ways, it is in poor taste to over indulge.
While working in New York City for many years, WMRHS graduate Pamela Comeau, a yoga clothing manufacturer from Whitefield, noticed that generally “you invited people into your life – and mostly this was based upon profession or status, but here everyone has access to you.” This makes life much richer, more diverse and authentic, she said.
The vast and rugged environment seems to have an emotional, defining hold on most that are drawn back to the region. Bruce McLaren, who graduated from White Mountains Regional High School and went on to get a bachelors and masters from Brandeis University, so loved the outdoor recreation like hiking, skiing and biking that he left a promising career in International Finance. I was “commuting 70 miles each way,” he said, “My days went from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m.” He left and spent the first winter working at the Bretton Woods Nordic Center. “I was willing to leave my profession,” McLaren added, “I never guessed I’d be back in the industry,” but as luck would have it, he ended up with Community Financial Service Group in Littleton. In the summer, he rides his bike to his office and, regardless of the season, he is awed by the mountains that he hardly noticed as young adult. “Every singe day,” he said, “I look up at Lafayette. Every single day.”
Others like Jim Hampton, a 1984 WMRHS graduate, said it is a “way of life”—that is tied directly to the land and includes hunting, fishing and snowmobiling. He makes his home in Lancaster, but during the week his job with Stihl Incorporated takes him he’s all over New England. Having lived in Ohio, Virginia and southern New Hampshire and spending so much of his life on the road gives him an appreciation for the uniqueness of the region.
It is easy to forget said Daniel Chancey, of Lancaster, a WMHRS graduate and Worcester Polytechnic Institute-trained engineer, how fortunate we are to have the amenities of a major tourist area. He specifically points to the number of golf courses, ski areas, and the three grand hotels. Chancey, who has worked in Texas, Maine and now Vermont, said, while other areas may be equally rural “they don’t have the amenities that we have here.”
All the idyllic reasons for returning to the North Country also make it a great place to raise children. Part of it is nostalgic, admitted McLaren, and added, “I loved my childhood here.” At least, one reason is that more than any other profession, the schools seem to attract returning natives. Several Littleton High School graduates teach within the local school system.
Classmates from Kindergarten to their senior year at Littleton High School, Christy Johnson and Crystal Blaisdell-Martin, both of Littleton, were in the same class. Today, they share space at the Littleton Academy, where both teach. They know many of their students’ families. Education is popular profession for returning locals. It is a profession that is portable. Both Johnson and Blaisdell-Martin left the area for college and taught in more urban settings.
Blaisdell-Martin was a special education case manager for 45 students at a Nashua at school. Because of a language barrier, she couldn’t even communicate with many of her students’ parents. She also wanted to coach and the competition made it hardly likely that she could win such a coveted spot.
Johnson decided to move home when she and her husband were expecting a child. Between family and friends, she said, there is so much support. “The exact same reasons that caused me to leave (the North Country)” Johnson said, “brought me back.”
“This is not an easy place to live,” said Francis pointing to among other things, the harsh weather and poor economy.
Few live beyond the reaches of these challenges, but educated people in the North Country are few and far between and enjoy an advantage over many of their neighbors. Among them is the opportunity to leaving the area for more lucrative jobs. This makes living here more of a choice. It is something Herzig considers all the time, but her weekly trips to Boston for her floral business serve as a reality check. “It doesn’t matter where you are,” she adds, “but who you are.”
It may be just a little easier being your true self in a place that long-time newspaper publisher Jim McIntosh observed, “Doesn’t shoot their injured.”