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Archive for the ‘culture – history’ Category

Peter Riviere

By Jeff Woodburn

Four decades ago this summer, the nation watched in awe – or disgust – as a half million rain-soaked hippies amicably gathered at a weekend concert that has become simply known as Woodstock.  It became a touch stone for a generation, which wanted to change the world, but ultimately was changed by it. Three local men—Woody Miller, Peter Riviere, and David Van Houten were there, and despite echoing disillusionment about the lost of idealism, fondly recall their experience.

These men were drawn to Woodstock Music and Arts Festival mostly by the music, and once there, were awed by the sheer volume of people and the cooperative, kindly spirit, despite the poor weather and supply shortages that engulfed the pig farm which was temporarily converted into a concert sight.

David Van Houten, of Bethlehem, was 18 during the summer of 1969 having just graduated from high school in Princeton, New Jersey. He and his girlfriend at the time were one of the few attendees who actually purchased tickets, which he still has today.  He was motivated by the music and, at the time, was not part of the counter culture, anti-war movement.  Woody Miller, of Franconia, was a 19 year old tennis pro in Sugar Bush, Vermont at the time. His decision to go to Woodstock was spontaneous and initiated by a waiter friend of his. They went without having purchased tickets. It was the start of a personal transformation into a hippie, but at that time, he said, “I wasn’t as cool as most people.”

Peter Riviere, of Lancaster, was 22 at the time, and a U.S. Navy veteran.  He was very much a part of the hippie culture living in a Portsmouth commune while attending UNH.  The focus of the venue was indeed music, not politics, and the top rock and roll and folk musicians were participating. “It would have taken 10 years of going to concerts to see this line up. All the names that you’d hope to ever see were in one place,” Riviere adds, “but where the hell is Woodstock?”

As the attendees would soon find out the concert was moved 50 miles away to Bethel, NY, a small farming community slightly bigger than Whitefield.  All three men got there the same way driving until the traffic halted and then by foot.  The average Woodstock attendee walked 15 miles to get to Max Yasgur’s farm. Van Houten, who borrowed his parents’ car to make the trek from New Jersey, remembers the traffic getting heavier and heavier and then it just stopped.  At that point, they pulled over and parked the car and walked for several miles to the concert location. The concerts organizers—and the host town were quickly overwhelmed by the turnout. Two-hundred thousand people were expected, but more than twice that showed up. No one could have anticipated or orchestrated an event of this magnitude. The true organic nature of it, Riviere said, is “the magic of what happened.”

Van Houten remembers along the route to the farm residents set up little stores on their front yards. Food and supplies were in short supply and needed to be brought in by helicopter. Adding to the organizers and camping concert-goers challenges was the weather — three days of rain turned the farm land into a mud hole.  The circumstances didn’t dampen the mood though, and, in some ways, it extenuated an ambiance of mutual concern and peaceful coexistence.  Riviere remembers an announcement over the loud speakers that the Woodstock concert had grown so large that it “is the second largest city in New York (and) no one over 35 years old was there.”

Van Houten said he didn’t witness any major problems. “Everyone was coexisting in a very pleasant way even when the weather went bad.”  Just the sheer size of crowd amazed Miller.  “There were more people in one place than I had ever seen in my life,” he said, “Of course, there was a lot of weirdness too, like naked people climbing the scaffolding but nothing dangerous and menacing.”  And then, there was drugs—lots of marijuana and LSD. Although it is estimated that 90 percent of the attendees partook in illegal drugs – Van Houten was not among them. “I was clean, and I had a great time,” he said, “I didn’t do drugs or drink.”

With more than two dozen legendary performers – including Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, The Who, The Grateful Dead, Crosby Stills Nash and Young – the three men concurred that Richie Havens, who led off the star-studded line up, was the best.

Woodstock, Riviere says “was just a moment in time.” And that moment and the idealism that it represented, like all things, changed with the passage of time. Woody Miller, David Van Houten and Peter Riviere, who are all nearing old age themselves, are impatient with the progress of the last forty years toward the ideals of the 1960s.  “We were going to change the world,” Van Houten said, “but change doesn’t come that easy.”

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Jeff Woodburn
LANDAFF – Our vast, complicated education system produced its annual results last week as high schools across the country held graduation ceremonies. In New Hampshire some ten thousand high school seniors were handed diplomas thus finishing a 13 year process at a cost of around $135,000 per pupil. (more…)

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LYMAN – In a large, rustic cafeteria adorn with lots natural wood and screening over looking an idyllic summer camp setting, a sea of middle age or older people are devouring their lunch. As the meal wanes, an unlikely scene emerges; a speaker, on a small stage behind a microphone, wonders aloud where everyone is from. (more…)

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By Jeff Woodburn
WHITEFIELD – The first left off of Forrest Lake Road is “Newell” and second, just a few feet away, is called “Casino.” Together these Burma-Shave looking signs are the only remaining evidence of the popular dance hall that for forty-years became a summer Saturday night staple drawing crowds of as many as a thousand young people. For many—who are now grandparents or great-grandparents themselves — the memories of adolescences remain and are possibly an uncomfortable reminder that kids will be kids. (more…)

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by Kim Robert Nilsen

Counted nine fistfights, I did, going on at the same time just a good spit uphill from North Stratford village. Bottled up all winter in logging camp hovels and then turned loose to drive logs down the Connecticut River for months, the axmen I use to manage in the headwaters country needed fortification for the long pull south, down to the mills at Holyoke and Hartford. Bellies full of mash lightning, the loggers knuckled one another and swore oaths they couldn’t say to their skinflint timber baron employer, old man Van Dyke. The Bastard!

Forgive me, I didn’t introduce myself. The name’s, Jigger, Jigger Johnson. I was in Van Dyke’s employ for forty years, a walking boss in the logging camps up the old Indian Stream Territory. I bossed for him on the river drives in the Connecticut River drainage. Worked for other timber barons, too, the length of the Magalloway and down the Androscoggin. I was the best there ever was. But, you know, I turned 95 under the blue moon. I’d drown myself, sure, if I had to dance in my spiked boots now on a rolling river log.

Now where was I? Oh, yes, George Van Dyke. He was the king of tall timber, king of them all. The man had so much coin, investment stock and land holdings that he could put a gang to work for weeks digging a mighty furrow dead straight through a river oxbow at Colebrook. He’d change the course of the Connecticut so as not to shanghai logs in the bend, where it would always jam up so bung-tight that it took several boxes of dynamite and four days wages to free up the godforsaken log tangle. To the devil with that! Straighten the god-given river, he’d say.

North Country timber made the man, Van Dyke. Cut timber for him I did from Pittsburg Township on the Canadian line all the way down to that big railroad crossroads, Woodsville, a hundred miles to the south. But he wasn’t the only scoundrel who made it big. Timber made more than a few men wealthy on the northern New Hampshire frontier. Big woods and fast water, steam locomotives and icebox rail cars, soda ash and sulfite chemicals, tidal waves of milk and potatoes and immigrants, and all those highbrow tourists’ with their taste for mint julep and candlepin bowling; why, all that would conspire to change the Granite State’s northern jungle into an economic powerhouse that couldn’t catch its breath. I seen it all. Give me a few minutes of your time, friend, and I’ll tell you all about it.

You see, it was boom times up here, once. In just one generation––oh, roughly 1885 to 1910––we made the leap from hand-to-mouth to full-blown prosperity. In 1900, about the time Teddy Roosevelt was sworn in as president of the 46 United States of America, this here big isolated county where we’re sittin’––Coos County––was already a big kingpin in America’s headlong rush to become a global power. Imagine this, Coos was once the undisputed world leader in paper pulp capacity and in newsprint production. The sawmill with the largest volume output in all New Hampshire called Coos home. Just about the grandest dairy herd on this planet ruminated in a community called Hazen, once a town of few hundred. You can’t find it on the map no more. Today, its population is exactly zero.

Bear with me; I’m still pretty sharp, even though I’m wrinkled like a crabapple in winter. There’s so much to tell you.

Now, this land north of the mountain notches once boasted one of the largest pharmaceutical companies in North America. Not fibbing, I ain’t. Mountain folk at Berlin actually burned as many electric lights as the masses huddled around the Amoskeag Mills in Manchester. Innkeepers in town after town built 12,000 summer lodging rooms and suites to house the vacationing horde of genteel New Yorkers and Bostonians. Loggers harvested 30 million feet of spruce logs per year just for the young paper industry, never mind the sawmill trade. Shippers sent special unit trains chock full of lumber or ice and milk southward to the cities. More than a few farmers in Colebrook made darn good potato whiskey and grew a billion spuds that they made into landslides of shirt collar starch.

Now, those heady times in these mountains won’t have been so glorious had it not been for a fellow from Pennsylvania. A decade after Robert E. Lee surrendered his forces to General Ulysses S. Grant, a wee bit of a chemist from outside of Philadelphia, one H. H. Furbish, got hold of an English invention and brought it up here to the backwoods. Furbish knew a Limey by the name of Hugh Burgess who invented a process of combining ground wood and caustic soda ash into a slurry. Burgess agitated the mixture. Lo and behold, the lignin glue that cements all wood fiber together in every living tree on earth liquefied. He rinsed the liberated wood fiber and pressed the water out of it. The loose flock stuck together into a thin mat. Presto! Burgess made himself paper.

You see, until that moment, paper production was a laborious endeavor, requiring pounded plant fiber, endless bales of rag cloth, and lots of time and toil. Burgess’ soda ash process needed only ground wood and a common earth chemical, that soda ash. His process was fast. The potential for the mass production of paper was not lost on the chemist from Pennsylvania, Mr. Furbish. So what does he do? Furbish goes in search of forests where poplar trees grow in abundance. He stepped off a Grand Trunk Railway train in the tiny hamlet of Berlin, on the east side of Coos. From the train windows he could see poplar stands intermingling with the cold-hearty spruce and fir of the trackless northern boreal forest. Within a few years, Furbish had two Forest Fiber Company mills on line on the banks of the Androscoggin River. The business had a total daily pulp wood capacity of some thirty tons.

But the promising wood-fiber mills were nearly stillborn, see. He started out producing far too much product than there was a market for in the 1870s. So tiny Berlin, population of little more than a thousand souls, had to hold its breath until the mid-1880s before a new technology could be shoehorned into a startup mill at the maw of the great falls of the Androscoggin.

The brothers W. W. and J. B. Brown––men with Portland pedigrees, investment money to buy up most of the local sawmills, and a nascent interest in the soda ash scheme––turned their backs on Furbish’s process, limited as it was to the use of low grade hardwood trees. They embraced a caustic sulfur molecule instead, one that, under heat and pressure, could very efficiently liberate wood fibers from softwood logs. Surrounded by a million acres of spruce and fir forest, the Brown brothers decided to channel a good share of their resources from their sizable Berlin Mills Company sawmill operation into something altogether new called the sulfite papermaking process, named for that Englishman, Burgess, but taken a big step forward by an American named Benjamin Tilghman. Tilghman liked to play with fire. His papermaking scheme used sulfurous acid, terribly corrosive stuff, you know, dangerous as all get-out.

Well, the Brown brothers built a big sulfite paper mill of great complexity in 1888 and fitted out with the new wonder technology.

Furbish couldn’t compete with the new sulfite works. So, he abandoned his soda ash effort and turned his attention to harnessing the power of falling river water at the millrace dams and the muscle of high-pressure steam. Just like God, who makes lightning bolts in the heavens, Mr. Furbish made electricity. Pretty soon Berlin matched Manchester light bulb for incandescent light bulb. The town glowed at night under the Milky Way, an island of electric brilliance huddled in the dark folds of the White Mountains. It was one hell of a sight to behold, I can tell you.

But paper was only part of the story up here in the north. Other marvelous things were getting a toehold, too. On the other side of Mount Washington, some thirty-five miles to the west, a young town a-building along the Johns River was running a high temperature, hot as the scarlet fever. Whitefield was a little farming town of 1,000 citizens on Abe Lincoln’s inauguration, but it swelled to nearly 3,000 in a generation, and no one knew how many men were bedded down in straw in the logging camps at Pondicherry reservoir and farther east.

Whitefield became something like an octopus. Three mainline railroads and narrow-gauge logging tracks snaked through the mountains and converged at mammoth sawmill complexes covering untold acres of ground just below and west of that quaint Kings Square in the center of town, with its fine whitewashed bandstand where the Whitefield Amateur Band played on summer evenings.

A family by the name of Brown, no relation to the Browns of Berlin, mind you, managed a truly huge conglomerate, larger and more varied than most in existence in the six New England states. Its primary business was the milling and sale of dimension lumber for the building trade. In 1885, the Brown factory alone ripped twenty-three million board feet of lumber from a gang of high-speed steam and water-powered blades. They also produced fine molding, clapboards, hardwood flooring, butter tubs, rain gutters, even masts for sailing ship. The buildings were first lit with gas lamps and then electric lights and ran day and night. Laborers by the hundreds earned an industry-busting annual wage of $500. That was good money then, boy.

Nearby stood the Libby Company sawmill buildings, eclipsed only by the Brown’s monstrosity. The steady flow of timber from the mountains spawned a dozen other woodworking businesses: a butter box plant, stovebox kindling kilns, dowel-stock turning firms, railroad tie cutters, a textile bobbin mill, a carriage maker and wagon fitter and more. The workers had to have rugged, well-made clothing on the job. That was no problem whatsoever in Whitefield. Snow & Baker, whose textile plant sat adjacent to the sawmills, employed a hundred women who stitched a world-renowned overall worn by just about every railroad hand, farmer, miner, and stevedore in America.

Now, wood from the forests may have been the fuel that sparked the economic boom in the North Country, but tourism fanned the flames. Yes sir. The growth of the tourist trade was simply remarkable.

Two miles north of those big Whitefield sawmills stood the Frank and Mary Dodge farm. The main house boasted a view like no other in the east––towering treeless summits that rivaled the Alps of Europe. The Dodge family took in their first guests because a stagecoach became mired down in a great blow in 1865. Thirty years later and they had built one hundred rooms and were adding floors one atop the other in their majestic Mountain View House.

About that time, the modest Dix House in wild Dixville Notch sixty miles to the north had just been purchased and it was expanded into a colossus, something they call The Balsams Grand Resort Hotel today. The Crawford House perched at the head of Crawford Notch always had an army of carpenters at work on new annexes. Fabyan House nearby, The Glen House, Profile House, Maplewood, Waumbek, and so many more were raised up all at once and gained in girth decade by decade.

You look skeptical. Don’t believe me? Well here, I’ve kept clippings from all manner of newspapers and periodicals. Read this one. “The pleasure houses of the fashionable tourists are full,” wrote Nathaniel Hawthorne. I imagine you’ve heard of him?

Here’s another, from a New York Times social scene reporter. She typed this out in 1906: “The Hampshire Inn and the Elms at Colebrook are both opening in early June with the usual large patronage.” Now imagine that? Colebrook! Those guest rooms were the very farthest from the eastern metropolises, yet they were overflowing. And they might have had stiff competition had not the unfinished Metallak Hotel, a grand Victorian edifice, been blown off the hill overlooking town by a fierce April storm a decade earlier.

The North Country boom years, they brought a new sort of leisure clientele. When I was a youngster, roughing it on trails and riding horseback up the rough bridle paths to the summits of the high peaks was de rigueur among the tourist set. The writings of Thoreau and Longfellow were the rage, and guests longed to test their mettle against the mountains. But all that changed by the last decade of the century. The mountains became wallpaper. Few climbed them; it wasn’t fashionable any longer. Gentlemen and ladies of the Gay ‘90s demanded ice in their afternoon highball, bowling alley games, string quartets playing on sweeping verandas, and polo matches.

Speaking of polo, why, you should have seen the magnificent 6,000-acre Louis Hazen farm beneath Cherry Mountain, with its agricultural fairground buildings, and its horserace and trotting track. Sports flush with money used to play polo matches on the infield. Hotel guests flocked by carriage and train to see the competitions and bet on the races, only to find the steeds occasionally spooked by the incessant yammering of the logging, passenger and freight trains pounding through nearby Waumbek Junction, where several rail company lines and a logging railway converged in the span of just a few dozen yards. Sometimes the smell of dung from 500 head of Hazen’s award-winning Jersey cowherd wafted over the festivities. Truth be known, it was common knowledge that the Hazen dairy herd was the largest and one of the most productive Jersey dairy herds in all of North America.

And still that little town on the Johns River continued to add new businesses and new structures to its downtown. Just south of the old Whitefield and Jefferson Railroad depot, where big Baldwin locomotives once sat idling under a clouds of steam exhaust and coal smoke, stood a fancy new brick-faced dairy goods manufacturing plant erected by The Maine Condensed Milk Company. The firm processed raw milk, canned Baby Brand products, and shipped the goods by the boxcar load every day. The big agricultural business purchased milk from farmers as far north as the Canadian border, who shipped their bulk product in hip-high steel cans loaded aboard boxcars lined with cakes of river and lake ice. The firm paid out $11,000 in milk receipts every month once business reached full production in 1890. That was a lot of coin at that time.

Up in Colebrook, farmers talked-it-up about the coming of the Maine Condensed Milk Company plant to Whitefield, just fifty steel rail miles away. Farming was Colebrook’s sturdy backbone, and it was about to get a whole lot stronger. The main trading center for Upper Coos, Colebrook had already been crowned the “Potato Capital of New Hampshire” when the first iron horse pulled into the town’s newly minted railway station in 1887. Mountains of potatoes and potato starch could ship by rail, surely; but load ice aboard double-walled boxcars and milk could get to Whitefield unspoiled, could get anywhere, really. Hundreds of hill and intervale farmers within a few hours’ wagon ride of Colebrook’s depot responded extravagantly to the new market opportunities unleashed by the arrival of the railroad. Within a few years, they were shipping two million pounds of dairy per annum.

I think you’ll agree, the whole of northern New Hampshire was a beehive of hyperactivity. It was wild, hectic. But there was a cure-all for all that frenetic pace over at the county seat, in the shire town of Lancaster. A fellow there by the name of Parker J. Noyes––he was a lieutenant in the Great War between the North and South and the owner of a small apothecary––invented something he called an automated tablet machine. The first one, built in 1885, began kicking out standardized medicinal pills by the thousands every day. He set up packaging and bottling lines. The young firm couldn’t make Noyes Pectoral Syrup fast enough. It was spectacularly popular. Here’s an advertisement pamphlet of the day. Take a look. See that? It says, “Noyes Pectoral Syrup with Heroin should be placed at the head of cough remedies, as its sales exceed all others combined.”

Now, remember, I was talkin’ about Berlin early on. Well, Berlin needed that Noyes elixir in the worst way. International Paper swooped in to town and bought up the startup Glen Manufacturing Company in 1898, a plant conceived by Boston Globe and New York Tribune backers as the answer to their respective newspapers’ voracious appetite for newsprint. By the turn of the century, that mill was the largest newsprint processor on the seven continents. Staggering was I.P.’s need for raw materials. The mill had to grind, pulp and process 400,000 cords of wood per year to meet demand. More than 500 men were on the mill payroll alone, but each winter there were many hundreds more, axes and crosscut saws in hand, toiling in the woods, dropping timber on every damned mountain within fifty miles. Most of the farm land in the Androscoggin River valley was given over to the growing of hay to feed the many hundreds of horses needed just to pull the massive pulp sleighs full of logs to crude railheads or out onto river and lake ice to await the spring thaw and the log drives to the mills.

In the time it takes for a newborn babe to reach puberty, the little hamlet of Berlin was overrun with new citizens, swelling that wee burg from a little over a thousand folks to nearly 10,000, most cramming into hastily built boarding houses and triple deckers that, in many cases, housed four and even five generations of big extended families. Why did the Norwegians, the Germans, the Italians, the Irish, and especially the French Canadians come in such numbers in so short a period of time? All you had to do was take a walk downriver a mile from the falls toward the lofty snow blanketed peaks of the Presidential Range. The Androscoggin River was unrecognizable, coated thick with factories, one atop the other, each bigger than the next. A dozen smokestacks rivaled the heights of the peaks. The rancid smoke they belched smelled like money. There was plenty of gainful employment to be had.

So quickly did that new city rise up from its rough wooden boardwalks that by 1904 merchants and the civic-minded alike decided to tear down many a wooden structure on Main Street, prone as they were to fire. They built big new four- and five-story blocks of granite, marble, and brick. In three years the infant town sloughed off its old skin and grew an entirely new one. I’ve been told that more than a million fares were paid one year on the shiny Berlin-Gorham Electric Railway, a trolley line. Now how’s that for growth?

Money grew on trees, but before long the “City That Trees Built” started running out of trees. So did the buzzing sawmills at Whitefield. I’ve got a stereopticon image of the village by the Johns River; it shows an industrial town ringed with stumps, not a single tree in sight all the way east to and up the flanks of the big mountain ranges. The company brass in Berlin hastily invested in new railroad track into the wilds of Magalloway, Lincoln Plantation and Paramachenee on Maine’s northwestern frontier. Spring log drives on the rivers were fine, but logging trains could haul year ‘round.

With all that prosperity came trouble. It came in the form of smoke on the wind. A family acquaintance of mine keeps an old letter from a Marian Pychowska, who was vacationing in the mountains back in 1886. Mrs. Pychowska wrote to say that smoke “had filled Crawford Notch and drifted way ‘round to Conway, while great yellow-brown volumes rolled up from the increasing fire, making the southern landscape all lurid.”

Ever advancing, ever larger armies of woodcutters left mountains of tree-crown slash in the woods. I was guilty of it myself, more than most. Lightning strikes and hot embers blowing from locomotive stacks would spark ever-larger conflagrations one year to the next. The worst was feared, and the worst arrived in the spring of 1903 on warm zephyrs that wicked the cutover forests of moisture. On the Maine-New Hampshire line east of Mount Washington, fire erupted in the Wild River drainage and consumed peak after peak of the Carter Range. West of the great 6,288-foot summit, the Zealand Valley resembled the gates of hell, so hot was a 10,000-acre blaze adjacent to a 12,000-acre burn that ran its course just half a decade earlier. Smoke was so dense from six major forest fires burning at once that an eyewitness––a citizen standing at the mill yard fence of the just completed Odell Manufacturing Company paper mill in Groveton village forty miles from the Zealand fire––admitted to a Coos County Democrat newspaper correspondent that evening darkness had descended at the noon hour and the air was unfit to breathe. In Manchester more than 100 miles to the south, wash hanging on clotheslines was coated gray with forest-fire soot. That’s God’s honest truth.

The fires brought brimstone from a hornet’s nest of angry citizens. The Reverend John E. Johnson, an Episcopal missionary, scrawled a scathing report about the fires and their cause. He wrote that lumbering had become “the boa constrictor of the White Mountains,” and that civilized men and women must rise up to “crush such an unmitigated outrage upon the rights of humanity.” Clear-cutting timber, he continued, “robs…the vast array of worshippers at nature’s footstool who turn to the White Mountains for health and recreation.”

Those fires charred 86,000 acres. The voices grew more strident with each new blaze. A well-regarded agricultural periodical of the time, the New England Homestead, called forth citizens to “organize a White Mountains forestry association. Talk alone cuts no figure. The lumber barons are united as one man; the vast public, if united as one man, can secure justice.”

Action was swift. Reams of legislation were written and signed into law in state chambers and federal halls. By 1911, Congress passed the Weeks Act, named for a prominent politician who hailed from Lancaster, and established the first landmark conservation district in the east: The White Mountain National Forest. But fire is swifter still. Many of the over-built Brown mills at Whitefield burned in a spectacular nighttime blaze. Horse-drawn firefighting equipment was no match for the flames. The Browns were spiritualists. They believe in God’s plan, not insurance. They didn’t rebuild and sold their remaining interests to Blanchard & Twitchell at Berlin. The family emigrated to Idaho.

Borden Company bought out The Maine Condensed Milk Company and operated the plant for the briefest period, when a worker noticed flames lapping under the eves. The fire reprised the Brown sawmills fire. Insurance? No sir. Borden pulled out of town, too.

Clear-cut forests were smoldering and mills lay in ruins. By Christmas of 1910 much of the North Country economy was collapsing in upon itself. The giant sawing operations in the region bowed to “King Paper” in Berlin and dwindled down to nothing. They’d lost most of their markets to western lumber merchants shipping Rocky Mountain lumber east on the nation’s rapidly expanding transcontinental railroad web.

George Van Dyke, capitalist lord of these northern Connecticut River watershed forests and the man who championed the straightening of the river to speed logs to market, died suddenly in 1909. Van Dyke’s driver rolled a touring car too close to the edge of a steep embankment overlooking a massive log jam in the sweeping dogleg bend at Turners Falls, Massachusetts. The earth crumbled beneath the tires and the auto pitched off the cliff. Van Dyke was dead by nightfall.

Six years after his death, old man Van Dyke’s patented log drives ceased to run the river altogether. The corn and potato whiskey bars dried up in North Stratford. Loggers could board trains now and turn to driving newfangled trucks and ugly duckling Lombard Log Loaders that looked like little steam locomotives with tractor treads. Mechanization began to cut woods job numbers dramatically, even as the papermakers thrived and increased production until the Wall Street crash of ‘29. But sawmill operators walked away from their mills, and hill farmers wink out quickly, one by one, as first steam and then gasoline farm tractors boosted productivity on the best bottomlands but killed off the little guys with pastures that grew stones better than food.

In-migration into the North Country stalled and reversed direction, particularly here in Coos County. The Boom Times went bust. People couldn’t buy a job. So they left. They are still leaving. Every single decade now for a full century this grand forested county has lost population. It’s a shame. It pains me to have to tell you that. I’ll be checking out soon myself, old as I am. But I don’t want to go. I love the place so.

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Christy Johnson and Crystal Blaisdell-Martin.

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?

Community, family

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.

Environment

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.”

Raising Kids

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.”

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By Jeff Woodburn

Two years ago, Coos County, the state’s beautiful and beleaguered northern outpost, embarked on an ambitious branding campaign built around the county’s three grand hotels. But the branding effort — with its slogan, “Grand Resorts, Grand Adventures” — may be in grand trouble as it fends off a barrage of criticism from the county’s three elected county commissioners and other North Country leaders.

At the heart of the debate is the basic identity of the region and its people, who are decidedly not feeling too grand these days as the harsh economy destroys jobs, businesses and optimism.

As part of the campaign, each community in the county will be asked to support changing the region’s brand name from “Great North Woods” to “Grand North.” It would be the third such name change the region has undergone in a dozen years. But the greatest controversy has been caused by the selection of businesses in the region to be showcased in the marketing effort.

Not surprisingly, those that made the cut and have been certified as “grand” defend the selection criteria, while those that didn’t are more critical. The loudest voice in opposition has been County Commissioner Tom Brady of Jefferson, whose family’s Western theme park, Six Gun City, was stripped of its top billing because the brand leadership team felt it didn’t meet the criteria.

Branding guru

For three years, the Northern Community Investment Corp. of nearby St. Johnsbury, Vt., has been working on the creation of a single brand for the Coos County region. Eventually, NCIC secured funding through various federal grants, the three grand hotels (The Balsams in Dixville Notch, Mountain View Grand in Whitefield and Mount Washington Resort in Bretton Woods) and the Tillotson Fund, among others.

In December 2008, Roger Brooks, a Seattle, Wash.-based community branding guru hired for the effort, presented his plan to, as he said, “use the grand hotels as the hook.”

His plan was warmly received with hardly any criticism.

Coos County is New Hampshire’s anomaly, and a distant reminder of what state use to be. With nearly 2,000 square miles of wilderness, it is geographically the state’s largest county — nearly as large big as Hillsborough, Rockingham and Strafford counties combined. Isolated by a meager road system, mountainous terrain and famously aggressive weather, the county is slightly populated, with just 18 people sharing each square mile.

Katie Paine, a prominent marketing executive who moved her company from Durham to Berlin several years ago, notes that there is a mythical frontier mentality that draws and keeps people in the county. And since few people live there because of a job, it is a heightened definition of place that dominates the region’s politics.

Selection process

Brooks recently returned to Coos County to unveil a new Web site and reveal nine “grand adventures,” which included the three grand hotels, a theme park, a rally school, hiking, canoeing, ATV and snowmobile trails, a mountain-climbing railroad and auto road and a canopy tour.

The Web site promotes two dozen businesses that are certified as the “best of New Hampshire Grand.” The local “Grand North” brand manager, Samantha Kenney, explained that businesses were vetted through a process that included being nominated by a group of volunteers and then privately inspected. Several businesses expressed surprise by their inclusion, while others were involved in the organization from its inception.

From the start, Brady’s family theme park was on the list of Grand Adventures, along with its neighbor, Santa’s Village, but as the criteria formalized and inspections occurred, the brand team became troubled by the park’s “deferred maintenance,” said Cathy Conway, NCIC’s vice president.

“It missed some of the criteria,” she said, but the problems were “not expensive items.” This enraged Brady, who said his family had spent $200,000 in repairs over the summer and some projects were not completed because of poor weather. “We’re not being treated fairly,” he said. He insinuated that the action was retribution for his vote to cut economic development funding from the county budget. He said he has pondered legal action.

Brady was not the only businessperson who felt snubbed by the branding effort. Mary O’Connor of Christy’s Maple Farm in Lancaster, was surprised to learn that her competitor was selected as one of the best businesses and she had not heard a word from anyone about the program.

It “bothers me,” she said. “How did they get there and we didn’t?”

Defenders of the branding effort say it is essential that the experiences they promote are indeed grand. The process, NCIC President Jon Freeman said, “is not perfect, but it’s for everyone. We have to have criteria.”

He said his organization is ready to provide technical assistance to businesses that want to be certified. The goal, he said, is to have more, not less, participation.

The basic premise of taxpayers’ money being used to promote one business over another troubles Coos County Treasurer Fred King of Colebrook. Access needs to be available to everyone, the former state senator said. Government should not be critiquing competing businesses with a process that essentially says, “These sheets are cleaner than those sheets,” he said. “It’s grossly unfair.”

George Bald, the state’s commissioner of the Department of Resources and Economic Development, who met with members of the Coos County Delegation begged them to stay the course. “We need to do something different,” he told them.

For and against

Some damage appears to have already been done. Brady’s two colleagues on the county commission joined him in criticizing the NCIC’s branding effort and refused to support a $3.5 million federal grant to improve signage throughout the county.

Paine, who is well-versed in the business branding business, is confident the plan will work, but said it needs time and support. “All they know how to do is knock holes in things,” she said of the naysayers.
Nevertheless, some observers have their doubts about the use of the word “grand” as part of the region’s brand.

John Harrigan of Colebrook, a veteran Coos County newspaper publisher, said the branding concept “smacks of elitism and doesn’t reflect the workaday world” of the area.

Dick Hamilton of Littleton, a retired tourism official and North Country native, doesn’t like it either, calling it “an insult to most of the residents. It’s not what the North Country is about. There’s a hell of a lot more here than the grand hotels.”

But Stephen Barba, who ran The Balsams in Dixville Notch for 35 years before moving on to become executive director of university relations at Plymouth State University, spearheaded establishment of the Great North Woods region, takes a broader view.

He acknowledges that the word “grand” may not capture the true essence of the region, but he added, “it doesn’t matter. No one theme could ever please everyone, and this theme can work so long as it’s given a fair chance to succeed. It is really important for Coos County to come together. Doing it the way it’s been done has not been effective and it doesn’t work.”

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