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Joyce Endee

Old Man's legacy celebrated in Franconia

May 16, 2011


FRANCONIA— Eight years ago, the Old Man of the Mountain tumbled from his perch atop Franconia Notch. To mark the anniversary last Tuesday, the Franconia Heritage Museum hosted "Old Man of the Mountain: Substance and Symbol," a look back at the stories and people who shaped the stone face's enduring legacy.

"Collectively, there is probably more knowledge about the Old Man of the Mountain in this room than is in my presentation, but I hope you will all learn something new," said Maggie Stier, the presenter for the evening's events. Stier is a board member of the Old Man of the Mountain Legacy Fund, the non-profit organization aiming to provide a lasting legacy for the Old Man. She is also the co-author of the book "Into the Mountains: Stories of New England's Most Celebrated Peaks."

"I got interested in this topic years ago because there is so much history about the Old Man of the Mountain that has been forgotten," said Stier. A few dozen North Country residents turned out for the event held in the Old Man's backyard at the Franconia Town Hall, and were treated with tales of the natural formation's history.

The Old Man of the Mountain was first seen by white men in 1805 when several groups of surveyors were working in Franconia Notch to construct a road through the rural pass. Stier said that many of these men would have been from Bethlehem, Franconia, and Lincoln. As these were the towns that would most benefit from such a road, residents were taxed for the capital needed for construction, and men were able to work off these taxes by offering labor. Though many have claimed credit for the Old Man's discovery, Stier names Luke Brooks and Francis Whitcomb as the first to notice the natural rock formation's distinctive profile.

Though the Old Man gained some notoriety in the following years, it was not until the 1850s that the stone face became a real tourist attraction, said Stier. The Old Man – along with draws like the Flume Gorge, the Basin, and numerous hiking trails – helped spur the hotel industry. In 1853, the Profile House, a grand hotel, was built on the site where the parking lot for the Cannon Mountain Ski Area and tramway now sits, and quickly flourished, welcoming such prominent guests as President Ulysses S. Grant and William H. Vanderbilt. Following the end of the Civil War, a huge growth in the accessibility and ease of traveling to the White Mountains for vacation bolstered the growing tourism industry.

Though the Old Man may have had status as a fascinating quirk of nature, it was not until a famed New England author brought attention to the attraction that it was imbued with a more symbolic worth, said Stier.

"It was Nathaniel Hawthorne who really invested the Old Man of the Mountain with more value than it heretofore had," she said.

Hawthorne's "The Great Stone Face" tells the story of a young boy who grows up in the shadow of the Old Man of the Mountain. In the story, published in 1889, Stier explains, the Old Man comes to represent moral righteousness and Christian values. The boy spends his whole life searching for a person who legend tells will share the same traits and countenance as the Old Man. In Hawthorne's story, the Old Man truly came alive.

"The farther he withdrew from [the rocks], the more like a human face, with all its original divinity intact, did they appear; until, as it grew dim in the distance, with the clouds and glorified vapour of the mountains clustering about it, the Great Stone Face seemed positively to be alive," described Hawthorne. Hawthorne was only one example of the many artists – from painter to poet – that extolled the virtues of the great stone face over the years, adding to his prominence.

It was in 1872 that the Appalachian Mountain Club first expressed concern over the stability of the granite that composed the Old Man's face, said Stier. Experts hired by the concerned owners of the Profile House said there was nothing that could be done to stabilize the face, but Reverend Guy Roberts, of Whitefield, made it his personal crusade to save the face. He found Edward Geddes, a granite quarry superintendent from Massachusetts, who used a device called a turnbuckle to secure his quarry. In 1916, Geddys installed turnbuckles himself to hold the profile in place after his small crew of hired workers decided the work was too hard on the first day. Geddys would continue to inspect the formation for the rest of his life.

Though the Old Man may have been secure, the land he reigned over was not. At the turn of the century, fires plagued the forests of the White Mountains, usually started when sparks from the railroads set ablaze slash left behind by clear-cutting loggers. Ash from the worst of the fires was seen as far south as Nashua and Boston, said Stier, and tourists would have to stay inside of their hotels when the smoke became too thick. The lumber companies ruled the region, as evidenced by a law briefly in place that stated all pieces of property sold had to be offered first to the lumber companies, said Stier. In 1893, one such fire claimed the Profile House, which had blossomed to accommodate 500 guests at one time. The owner decided against rebuilding the structure, and considered selling the 6,000 acres of Franconia Notch he owned for $500,000.

A group of concerned residents and visitors of the White Mountains, led by the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests (SPNHF) and the AMC, launched a campaign to have the land be bought and preserved by the government. It was this movement that heralded the Weeks Act, which allows the government to buy private land for public use. The mission was ultimately successful, and the 6,000 acres were purchased for $400,000, thanks in some part to the Old Man whose visage was used in the campaign as "an emblem of God's favor in New Hampshire," said Stier. The state appropriated $200,000 for the purchase, the SPNHF $100,000, and the New Hampshire's Federated Women's Society $100,000. In 1928, the deal was finalized, and Franconia Notch State Park was dedicated to the men and women of New Hampshire who have served the nation in a time of war.

Other landmark events include the 1926 inclusion of the Old Man on the state license plate, the 1938 construction of the tram, and the 1945 adoption of the profile on the state's emblem. In 1955, for the 100th anniversary of the Old Man's first sighting, a grand jubilee event was held that welcomed President Dwight Eisenhower to the Notch.

"1955 was a great celebratory year, but that did not mean that repairs that had been done to the Old Man had completely stabilized it," said Stier.

The state passed a bill appropriating $25,000 for the repair of the Old Man of the Mountain, but there was only so much that could be done. In 1958, four new turnbuckles were installed, a waterproof cover was constructed for one of the larger cracks, and a water diversion ditch was created over the Old Man's head. In 1960, Niels Nielson, a highway department employee, became the first official caretaker of the Old Man, a position he held for more than 30 years, and was assisted in by his son and wife. Over the years, Nielson sealed a 43-foot long crack on the south face of the Old Man using wire, cloth, and fiberglass and installed 14 number tags across the face to measure movement. Much of this was done by a method of descending the face on a boatswain chair.

On May 3, 2003, the Old Man of the Mountain fell in the middle of the night, signaling an overwhelming outcry of loss from New Hampshire residents and others alike. The state determined the cliffs of Cannon to be too active to try to rebuild the face, and instead set about finding a way to immortalize the Old Man. In 2007, a contest was held to decide what that memorial would look like, and Ron Magers and Shelly Bradbury, of Massachusetts, were chosen. Their plan is to construct five granite monoliths that will line up to from the Old Man's profile. The longest structure will be 22 feet high and visible from the highway. The memorial, located on the shores of Profile Lake, will also feature a plaza and gateway. The gateway will be held in place by cables and wires in tribute to all of the caretakers who worked to preserve the Old Man.

Construction of the memorial is already well underway, and it is scheduled to be unveiled next month. The project was ultimately unfunded by the state, and so the Old Man of the Mountain Legacy Fund has worked to raise the money itself. One of the final parts of that fundraising attempt is the sale of granite pavers, to be installed in the plaza as part of the memorial. The pavers can be engraved with a name and/or message, and are offered in three sizes ranging from $250 to $1,000.

Board Vice Chairman Frank Grima said there are about 200 pavers installed to date, and the group has raised almost $10,000 in that effort alone, noting that it is a nice way to be able to include individuals in the process. The pavers are being engraved in Littleton.

"There's a tourism element, but for me, it's more than tourism," said Board Vice Chairman Frank Grima. "It's about preserving the legacy for future generations."

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