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A look back through Alton history

Witham talks cottages, lodges and more with Alton Historical Society

by Cathy Allyn
Contributing Writer - The Baysider

ALTON'S tourist houses, hotels, motor lodges, cabins, and cottages made a comeback at a recent Alton Historical Society talk on the town's bygone businesses. This sign was a familiar sight in front of The Lamplighter, one of the prominent places of accommodation for the many tourists who descended on the area. Cathy Allyn. (click for larger version)
July 05, 2017
ALTON — If structures can be registered as historic buildings, why not people with their town's history at their fingertips? If that were the case, there's no question that Alton's Bob Witham would qualify.

At any rate, a large segment of the town's population definitely views his memories as an important natural resource.

Witham has been the guest speaker at a series of presentations for the Alton Historical Society regarding Alton's Bygone Businesses and anyone with a thirst for nostalgia has attended.

At his most recent talk on June 20, he featured "Camps-Cottages-Tourist Homes," and added "Hotels-Motels-Inns and Boarding Houses" to the pile. He stood next to a large sign that used to sit outside of The Lamplighter to let folks know they were in the right place.

"We're here to find out what we don't know," Witham said, asking members of the packed house to throw out tidbits of information if he came up dry. There were only a few questions that stumped him, however.

Places to spend the night might not seem like big business for a town, but during Alton's heyday as a tourist mecca, when thousands of people poured in by train and car, those accommodations had a whopping impact on the local economy.

And everyone was in on it. "If you had an empty room in your house, you rented it," Witham explained, "if your place was commercialized or not."

Back in the old days, no one worried about ranking hotels. The only stars people were concerned with were the ones in the sky. "Overnight cabins," Witham said, "came with a bed, toilet and sink."

That was it, and no doubt people were grateful it was a toilet and not something less gentrified.

For the sake of ease and better recollection during his talk, Witham's memory lane took his fellow travelers from place to place "in order as you come into town." The slides of the old buildings were a highlight.

Witham rattled off brief descriptions. Names like Hillcrest Cottages, Aunt Mandy's Tourist Home, and Clover Brook Farm cabins brought appreciative sounds from the audience.

"Fremont Farm was a boarding house," he said, explaining that when tourists came to Alton they were ready for a good time. "There was a dance hall there, and people would also walk down to the silent movies in town. Everyone walked everywhere then."

The building, built by Joseph Roberts more than 200 years ago, is still standing, now owned by Roger Sample. Someone in the audience noted that it had been a stagecoach stop.

Hollywood Beach cottages on Route 28 had a background people were unfamiliar with. "They were on Half Moon Lake," Witham said, adding, "When I was a kid, the only lake was the lake. Everything else was a pond."

He guessed that as real estate values shot up, the ponds became lakes.

"Al Jolson was a frequent visitor to Alton, but that's not why the beach was called Hollywood Beach. A producer from Hollywood owned it and brought movie stars there."

Witham said he did not know when Crescent Lake became Half Moon Lake, and drily expressed puzzlement over the change, considering how the shapes differed.

He spoke of home cooked food available at Lake Knoll Farm on Prospect Mountain Road. "The Gray family used to walk to the lake on Hollywood Beach," he said, indicating it was done by crossing property. "Try that nowadays."

The current owner was in the audience. "It looks pretty much the same," she reported, "and the chimney still works."

Witham remembered the chimney fire there years ago. He recounted asking Kent Locke about it, a while after it happened.

"He told me it must be okay if it hadn't set the house on fire."

A postal carrier for decades, Witham knows his way around town and can describe where the buildings were, to jog other people's memories. "Proctor's Camps, known as Varney Cabins, were by where Aroma Joe's is now. Some of them were moved to the lake."

The Altona House, "by Subway," was a boarding house and restaurant. "When the Model Ts came out, they changed the name to Altona Motor Lodge," Witham told the audience.

Sawyer's Tavern, owned by Enoch Sawyer, was a stagecoach stop on an early Alton lot. "It was by Wayne's Transmission. A house is still there on what used to be the road to Gilmanton. The back part of the building is the oldest."

Witham said every stagecoach stop was a tavern. "That was lucrative for the town because the taverns had to be licensed."

A real estate building is now on the lot of the old Fifield House. "It was a big hotel," Witham said, "built in two stages so they were mirror images of each other."

A blacksmith shop and livery stable were behind the hotel. The building burned down in the 1970s.

"It was called the Monroe House for a while. The train came in and people needed to take the stagecoach to Gilmanton. To get up the hill, the men would have to get out to lessen the load for the horses."

The Victorian building still in town was the White Lodge, owned by a wealthy manufacturer. "Nellie Clough traveled the world and invited people she met to Alton. She had a reserved room and her own table at the White Lodge."

The Hillside Cottages on Rollins Hill are all gone now. "The owners were prominent people," Witham said. "Allen Albee took a couple of camps and moved them to Wolfeboro and the other owner owned Avis Rental Car."

Many of the places had something that set them apart. Will Reynolds of The Sunny Side had a surrey with fringe on top, which he used to pick up guests at the train station. A beauty parlor was part of Tip o' the Bay. Tourists could rent rowboats at Loon Cove Cottages, and Boulder Lodge had its own train stop for its guests.

A boarding house on Rand Hill rented rooms to summer workers.

"We all washed dishes at Land Ho," Nancy Downing called out from the audience.

Witham reminisced about the campground, although "most of the old campground is gone." He spoke of a boarding house there with a dining hall and bakery.

"Pastries, pies, and wing dings," he said wistfully. "They were cupcakes filled with lemon. And baked beans every Saturday night."

Witham noted how well the grounds of all of the summer accommodations were maintained. "They were kept right up to snuff. And that was in the days before motorized mowers."

As a mainstay of the fire department, Witham had relationships with some of the buildings on a different front. He recounted the burning of McGrath's Store. "I came around the corner and every window and door had flames coming out of it. It was a big building."

One audience member described what he saw that day as "a big ball of fire up in the air."

McGrath's Motel was saved. Those units are condos now, as are many of the old boarding buildings, including Dick's Deluxe on 11D.

Packed with recollections as he is, Witham is sometimes the stuff of digression. But those side trips were always delightful. Stories about diving off of rooftops into the lake, finding the metal frame of an old snow roller, how hot it got in July at the Mason's meeting place, and feisty old ladies appealed to everyone.

"I just get up here and tell stories," he said, disclaiming himself as a public speaker, although the audience's reaction belied that. Everyone enjoyed remembering where the old places had been.

Part Two of Witham's series on businesses will be held next season. The Alton Historical Society's free presentations are held from April through September at 7 p.m. on the third Tuesday of each month, in the meeting room on the lower level of the Gilman Library.

"The tourist season was 10 weeks," Witham said. "Most of the businesses were owned by people from out of state. Come Labor Day, they'd pack up and leave, and Alton Bay died."

A lot from that time has gone by, but with the Withams of the world, not the memories.

Pierce Camp
Martin Lord & Osman
Brewster Academy
Varney Smith
Frasier enterprises
Glen Cliff Home
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