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By Jeff Woodburn

The North Country is a great place to live, but a terrible place to make a living or so the axiom goes.  Anyone who lives here for more than one winter knows this fact firsthand.  Great views, small town intimacy and rural culture, don’t pay the bills.  The demise of the once dominant paper industry is the closing chapter of a steady decline in population and manufacturing in this region since 1900.

As we enter a New Year full of uncertainty, any positive news is welcome.   One source of the good cheer is New Hampshire Public Radio.  To celebrate their two and a half decades of broadcasting, they have been chronicling 25 people who’ve influenced our state over the past 25 years.

Many of those on the list were people, I’ve come to know and admire over my years in politics and business.  The New Hampshire community is pretty small and its leaders are very accessible (and helpful to young upstarts.)  The point of the piece was not to revel in the celebrity obsession that so poisons popular culture, but to study how our state has changed since 1982.  The selected leaders are icons in their own fields that range from government, business, religion, media and arts.  The group collectively expressed New Hampshire’s unique culture.  But moreover, they are well established and, mostly old enough, to offer insights, rather than self promotions.

What I found most interesting and illuminating were their answers to a very simple question posed by interviewer Laura Knoy.  The query was:  what is your favorite place in New Hampshire?  I kept a running tally (with the help of NHPR’s web site) of the responses.    Some listed several places, others none at all.  Many picked their hometowns, but the vast majority chose places in Northern New Hampshire.

Conservative Union Leader Publisher Joe McQuade finds truth in the old cow pasture at the summit of Mount Washington from his early years working at the Cog Railroad, while liberal social justice activist Arnie Albert finds it at the World Fellowship Retreat in Conway.

Episcopal Bishop Gene Robinson is inspired by the 13 mile woods between Milan and Errol with his “eyes peeled for moose, loon, eagles and the like” while Catholic Bishop John McCormick sees the hand of God at the “the top of a ski trail on a clear day.”   The mountains are not only beautiful, McComick explains, “but great symbols of the resilience, strength and durability of the people of our state.”

Former Republican Gov. John Sununu likes the bend in the road just beyond the Mount Washington Hotel (the Bartlett side) during the change of seasons.  Former Democratic Gov. Jeanne Shaheen was more general, but succinctly represented most with her observation that “Mount Washington… embodies the excitement and beauty of the state.”

Former tourism guru Steve Barba and Healthcare Executive Norman Payson both praised the rich heritage and remoteness of the Balsams and Dixville Notch.

All told our beautiful (but deprived), secluded (but inaccessible), peaceful (but boring) home was the overwhelming favorite of this informed and important group.  Why is that sometimes we have such trouble seeing our own good fortune?  Maybe it because most of us live in the shadows of the great mountains, where the air is cold and heavy?   We’re down to earth, simple, terribly practical and suspicious of comfort. There is an Irish saying that goes:  “If you marry a mountain girl, you marry the whole mountain.”   It is a struggle to live here, but those of us who choose to call this place home, it’s a bargain at any price.

The North Country’s only contribution to this lofty list was veteran Newspaper man and raconteur John Harrigan.   He represented us all well (as he always does.)    By the way, what is his favorite place in New Hampshire?   “My house; It’s warm, remote…,” he says without missing a beat, “and the food is good. “

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By Jeff Woodburn

Previously published in Union Leader and NH Business Review.

There is an old saying that goes, “If you marry a mountain girl, you marry the whole mountain.” For many of us, who live in the shadows of Mount Washington, we can’t separate the mountains from ourselves, or for that matter our culture, identity or economy. Our landscape draws, holds and defines us.  We learn to respect nature’s awesome power. On those rare occasions, when mankind outwits Mother Nature, we hold those stories dear as they offer us some hope.  Such is the case with Mount Washington’s long-standing record of having the strongest documented winds.

So, we are naturally upset to see our beloved mountain and her famous record beaten by 254 mph cyclone that blew over Barrow Island, Australia in 1996. The Mount Washington record was reminder of man’s near constant quarrel with nature. Unlike many, who live in less wild, more domesticated places, we have had neither the power nor the inclination to remake our landscape to meet our commercial desires. We live with what we got.

What is most troubling about the decision of the Meteorological Organization, who spent 14 years studying the validly of Australia’s feat, is not that we were beaten, but how the winning wind was recorded. The record-breaking wind was measured by an automated weather sensor in a totally un-staffed station. Not a single human being participated or was even discomforted by this triumph.

By contrast, the 231-mph wind at Mount Washington in 1934 was recorded by scientists, whose passion led them to literally battle a wind that was nearly three times stronger than an average hurricane or as a Concord Monitor writer observed “strong enough to up root trees.” Author Eric Pinder, who worked for years at the Mount Washington Observatory, told me, “They had to keep the anemometer free of ice, so that it could accurately measure the record wind.” This is a harrowing, physical drama to recount. While their station building was being thrashed by the fierce winds, the observatory crew climbed onto the roof then crawled across its peak and with a sledge-hammer broke the ice that was preventing the device from working.

Mount Washington’s historical claim – had little to do with the speed of the wind, but rather, it was about the courage of the men, who risked it all, to record it.  Stronger winds have blown cross this earth for sure, but its power was never documented by man. In Australia, it was not man, but man’s tools, that triumphed. It is this technical inhumanity that so easily confuses observation with participation and improvement with destruction.

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By Jeff Woodburn
He’s one of New Hampshire’s most successful politicians, yet he’s never been to the White House or a National political convention. He is, although, quick to boast that he’s never missed a Lisbon Lilac Festival or a Lancaster Fair. For Ray Burton, the persistent, perennial Executive Councilor, who represents the northern two-thirds of New Hampshire, all politics is local and all consuming.
So early in the year, when he became the longest serving Executive Councilor in the state’s history, Burton quietly acknowledged the feat. Absent was the traditional fanfare that he is famous for during his 33 years as an aspiring or successful elected official. He seemed reluctant to celebrate his seniority, and preferred to focus on the future – the people and the projects that need his attention.
Burton burst on to the political scene in 1976, when as a young-upstart with political connections, out-hustled several better known opponents. During this bicentennial year, he set his own personal record marching in 26 parades in the short, six month campaign period. He was a young man on the move with his name being bantered around for higher office, but his moderate politics ran contrary to that of Governor Meldrim Thomson’s decidedly conservative outlook and growing dominance over the state’s political scene. Burton, of Bath, was targeted for defeat by Thomson, a neighbor in nearby Orford, and was beaten in the Republican primary of 1978. Humbled and hardened by defeat, Burton came back with vengeance and if a style was not born, it was certainly cemented. From then on, he has worn down even his most ardent opponents by showing up everywhere and taking care of his constituent’s most mundane concerns and chores. “I respond to everything,” he said, “no matter how small.” On a given week, he receives a thousand e-mails and hundreds of telephone calls.
While his home turf loves his folksy parochialism, some high-minded state bureaucrats with a righteous distain of politics consider him a persistent pest trying to pry state money into his district. Burton is not shy about his money-grabbing ways, even if it requires raising taxes to pay for it. In this region of tiny relevance with a culture foreign to most state’s elected officials, Burton has become a revered champion of the North Country. He understands the challenges and uniqueness of the people he represents – he, himself, works four part-jobs despite being beyond the age most people retire and doesn’t take vacations.
He casts a broad net and, even those who live in quiet obscurity somehow end up in Burton’s web of activity. He makes it a habit of celebrating even the smallest achievement with a formal commendation or as they’ve become known as a “Burton state seal” letter and often a photo for the local paper or his own Burton Reporter. At least one minor town official was so moved by the recognition that he included it with other important mementos in his casket when he died.
This eagerness to help – especially the downtrodden — has also landed Burton in trouble. While most politicians run from conflict, he has defiantly remained loyal to friends, including the jailed former owner of the Mount View Grand. A few years back, when the state’s top leadership – Democrat and Republican – called upon him to resign his seat for employing a sex offender as a campaign aide, his constituents rallied around him. Political observers from away couldn’t understand the loyalty that locals had for him, and as the outsiders’ attacks mounted, the voters drew him closer.
I caught up with Ray Burton at large public hearing in Whitefield. My attempts to interview him were constantly interrupted by numerous passer-bys. Each had project or problem and he patiently listened and jotted down notes on 3×5 cards, which would be followed up by him personally or one of his college interns.
Back with me, I sneak in a few questions that go to the mystery that engulfs him: why does he work so hard when he really doesn’t have to? Ray Burton has trouble with these questions, probably can’t even comprehend the cynical thought process that developed them, and because of this he’s enigma to us. We go on wondering: what motivates him? Ambition, fear of losing, or quite possibly, he genuine loves what he’s doing and can’t imagine doing anything else?
I’ve known him for nearly three decades (including service as one of those interns) and I’ve heard many variations of this question. One occasion stands out in my mind; it was at some obscure dedication of a new furnace or maybe a backhoe. There were a dozen people gathered, and of course, Ray was there bringing relevance to the absurd. An admirer encouraged him to run for Congress and he responded with a mix of humility and humor, “I wouldn’t be able to be here if I was a Congressman.” We all laughed, but I think now Ray really meant it.

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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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