By ALBERT MCKEON Telegraph Staff Writer
Henry Ford understood our need to search for answers on the open road.
Not everyone, though, can escape for a few weeks and travel the acclaimed highway of introspection: Route 66.
So why not New Hampshire’s Route 3?
Before the state built the F.E. Everett Turnpike and Interstate 93, Route 3 served as the only means to drive straight from the Massachusetts border to the North Country.
As a result, much of New Hampshire’s identity is tied to the old route: from the Gate City of Nashua to Moose Alley in Pittsburg, with stops at the Statehouse, Lake Winnipesaukee and the Old Man of the Mountain along the way.
Nowadays, many stretches of the road bear little resemblance to what travelers saw in those pre-turnpike times. The most obvious alteration came when strip malls uprooted the family farms of Nashua, Merrimack and beyond.
But in other spots, the landscape hasn’t changed: the garish Weirs Beach sign and the pastoral ripple of the upper Connecticut River.
If anything, the road’s current blend of Wal-Marts and unspoiled forests provide an ideal setting for reflection.
Does the Old Man of the Mountain make you stand in awe, or doubt its natural beginnings?
Do you praise or bemoan the lack of cell phone coverage in the north woods?
Would you raise a family in Pittsburg or only vacation there?
Answers to these questions can be formed along Route 3 — in places where clerks, farmers, hearse drivers, fishermen and fellow travelers are also searching.
Rose Morse grew up on Route 3 in Nashua.
Not the F.E. Everett Turnpike — the divided, eight-lane artery that doubles as a NASCAR racetrack — but the road people now call Daniel Webster Highway.
Before the turnpike opened in 1955, U.S. Route 3 passed right through downtown Nashua.
Anyone then traveling north into the Granite State, or south into Massachusetts, relied on the two-lane road.
The route consisted of several family-run businesses, a few eateries, modest homes and spacious farmland.
Morse lived on Bancroft Farm, where the Pheasant Lane Mall now sits. The Bancrofts established the farm around 1725, and Morse — her maiden name is Bancroft — moved there in the 1950s.
As children, Morse and her sister, Ruth Morgan, would run through the cornfields, where they eyed the populous pheasant roaming the farm. Sometimes they sneaked a look at movies playing on the drive-in screen adjacent to the property, just over the state line in Tyngsborough, Mass.
Years earlier, their grandfather Horace T. Bancroft waited for the train to chug alongside the Merrimack River. It carried his good friend Samuel Clemens, who often toured New Hampshire and may have signed hotel guest books under his pen name, Mark Twain.
“I can’t even believe that’s the same road now,” says Morse, who lives in Mont Vernon. “That road stayed the same for so many years. It was just home. Watching that go totally commercial . . . it’s unreal. It’s something you can’t go back to.”
Farms and homes have vanished, supplanted by apartment complexes and strip malls. The 1986 opening of the Pheasant Lane Mall — which made the city a destination for shoppers across New England — fostered even more retail plazas and effectively ended rural life in south Nashua.
Once over the state border, any of the 32,000 cars that now travel the road daily can pull into the parking lots of the mall, Pizzeria Uno, Newbury Comics, Egon Zimmerman, Tweeter, Daddy’s Junky Music, Barmakian Jewelers, Starbucks, For Eyes, Borders, Market Basket, Toys ‘R Us, McDonald’s, Staples, Barnes and Noble, Shaw’s, Marshall’s, Burger King, Circuit City, Best Buy and dozens more — all before traveling a mile.
Only two vestiges of old Nashua remain, nearly hidden by the temples of consumerism: a little red brick schoolhouse — where Morse’s mother and grandparents received an education — and the neighboring Old South Burial Ground, a final resting place for Massachusetts Bay Colony residents who settled in the township of Dunstable in the 17th century.
Farther up the road, on the Main Street portion of the old route, congestion also poses a problem. But when a car finally breaks free of stop lights, more flashes of Nashua’s history appear in the mill yard, Library Hill and stately homes along Concord Street.
In that area, the official Route 3 leaves the turnpike off Exit 7, meanders down the Henri Burque Highway and joins the Old Route 3 on Concord Street, near the Nashua/Merrimack line.
Beer and more
Once in Merrimack, the road widens dramatically, allowing Bill Henderson to jog. The road isn’t as crowded with retail stores, but it’s just as busy with cars, forcing Henderson to mind the occasional erratic driver. “I have to watch out for idiots,” Henderson says.
His white Aruba hat, blue and white tank top and yellow shorts blend well with the McDonald’s arches and Citizens Bank sign in the background.
Henderson doesn’t indicate whether his route passes by the Anheuser-Busch brewery. More than 3 million barrels of beer are produced annually on the 294-acre lot, a parcel just big enough to stable the world-famous Budweiser Clydesdales.
Many area residents may take the brewery for granted, but about 40 percent of the 60,000 people who tour the plant each year are repeat visitors. Maybe they like the two cups of beer offered at the end of the tour.
Bedford planners call their portion of Route 3 the “Performance Zone” for the slew of commercial and high-tech companies that have settled here. They share the road with Mark’s Showplace, a venue where exotic dancers give a different kind of performance.
In Manchester, Route 3 starts on Second Street, zigs onto Queen City Avenue, zags onto Elm Street, veers west on Webster Street and then hooks north on Hooksett Road.
Elm Street, Manchester’s main drag and long a popular cruising strip for teen-agers with car stereo systems that throw off as much vibration as King Kong’s feet, is struggling to reinvent itself. Residents complain about the street’s angled parking spots, and small shops have trouble competing with the Mall of New Hampshire.
As part of the comeback attempted at McQuade’s, a 62-year-old downtown clothing store known for its stylish inventory, owner Bill McQuade now sells value-priced merchandise. “That’s what customers want,” he says.
The needs of shoppers are apparent on Route 3’s journey through Nashua, Manchester and Concord. Consumers prefer large chain stores in rural suburban areas over small businesses in old-fashioned downtowns.
The Clemens connection
Samuel Clemens leaves his mark on the state again in Concord. While browsing in Paulsen’s Bookland, resident Michael Clemens claims he’s the great-great grandson of the man who wrote “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.”
“I’m a writer trying to follow his footsteps,” the young Clemens says, producing a movie manuscript that features a witch who comes back from the dead to collect Merlin’s spell book.
Michael Clemens also claims actor James Coburn as a great-uncle.
“He gets into the roles. He becomes the character,” says Clemens, who stops short of suggesting he’s kin of the former Boston Red Sox pitcher of the same last name.
Down the road, Mary Lou Kelly helps run a Concord Chamber of Commerce booth in front of the state Capitol. Concord residents strive to maintain the city’s small-town atmosphere, Kelly says. They hope Concord can become a place of villages, with little parks surrounding each neighborhood.
Tourists will occasionally show Kelly a quarter with the Old Man of the Mountain on the back.
“How can I get to this?” they ask.
A few miles north of downtown, Amy Huter paints her white picket fence while clad in a bikini top and shorts. Unlike Huck Finn, Huter can’t convince her friends to help paint in the hot sun.
Huter and her husband, Jason, just bought their modest home on North State Street. They appreciate how Route 3 traffic whizzes by, and enjoy their proximity to the Yellow Submarine sub shop.
Huter paints while her hubby sleeps. He works as a third-shift guard at the Merrimack County Correctional Facility in Boscawen, just a few miles down on Route 3.
A steady diet of trees and streams from Penacook to Franklin should make even the most jaded traveler forget the last strip mall.
Franklin has a unique distinction that only a talk-show host like Jay Leno could love: it is the birthplace of Daniel Webster and the hometown of Jenna Lewis. Only in America could a reality-TV show survivor such as Lewis earn as much acclaim as a noted Federalist orator such as Webster.
This novelty escapes Chris Herne, who cleans his pickup at a local car wash. Herne has never visited Webster’s old home, and he finds Franklin a boring town.
Perhaps Herne should consider fishing. The Winnisquam River runs through the downtown of neighboring Tilton, enticing kids to pass on modern amusements such as video games for old-fashioned pleasures.
“Swim, fish, and swim and fish,” Joe Cole, 13, says of his summertime routine.
With a cap tucked down low over his head and a small black loop jiggling in his ear, Cole’s friend Matt Gullage eyes a large snapping turtle skimming the river’s rocks. Gullage, 15, has already caught and thrown back several tiny bass.
Several yards away, near a stationary Pullman car owned by Merrimack Valley Railroad, several teen-agers jump off a train trestle into the light brown water. A police officer slowly passes in his car, seemingly approving of their activity.
After a respite from the marvels of modern materialism, a huge strip mall appears in west Tilton, just after Route 3 and Interstate 93 cross. Outlet stores, restaurants and ultra-convenient gas stations have turned the area into what some residents of nearby towns call “More Massachusetts.”
If all that discounted Gap clothing doesn’t bog down their cars, tourists will get their first glimpses of the White Mountains a few miles down the road in Laconia. It’s quite a sight: the mountains to the north, Paugus Bay — the connecting point between lakes Winnisquam and Winnipesaukee — to the west, and slightly garish motels all around.
In a Three Stooges short, Curly and Larry reveal they were born on the shore of Winnipesaukee. Some tourists have also made stooges of themselves during the annual motorcycle weekend on Laconia’s Weirs Beach.
Most days, though, beachgoers keep their fists unclenched and some level of clothing on while they swim, play cards and eat picnic lunches.
“For some reason, the beach holds a great attraction,” lifelong resident Jennifer Peavey says.
Neighboring Meredith offers a more upscale view of Winnipesaukee with tidy shops and manicured lawns. Marilyn Rushton’s foothold in town runs five generations deep. She remembers the town’s now-defunct asbestos mill, and how workers would come home covered with the material.
“I guess what I see in my hometown is there’s beauty in things that are not beautiful — they’re part of your hometown,” Rushton says.
Still, she can’t think of a more gorgeous spot to wait at a traffic light than where Route 3 overlooks the lake. “We vacation in Ogunquit (Maine),” she says, “and whenever we come back home, I’ll stop and say, ‘To think people pay lots of money to vacation here.’ ”
Holderness can boast of having both Big Squam and Little Squam lakes, where the film “On Golden Pond” was shot.
“There are still a lot of people that don’t know that,” says Bonnie Webb, owner of the Inn on Golden Pond. “The movie and the signs out front don’t make a twit of difference.”
Students come and go
Several thousand students evacuate the state college in Plymouth each May, letting year-round residents savor the summertime charms of a small town that still draws tourists in need of a leg stretch.
Granted, not as many cars pass through now as when Route 3 was the only major north-south road, but the town rotary offers just enough activity to hold the interest of three siblings.
Henrietta Miller, Irene Wilkie and Edgar Simoneau moved to Plymouth with their parents and 10 other siblings in 1933. They share childhood memories when they meet regularly on a downtown park bench.
“Sundays, there was bumper-to-bumper traffic,” Miller says of pre-I-93 days. “We’d look at all the out-of-state license plates and run around the common.”
Miller, 77, worked for nearly every restaurant in town, and once lived in the Hawthorne House, a place where “The Scarlet Letter” author Nathaniel Hawthorne never lived. But Hawthorne did die in Plymouth, expiring in his sleep at the now-abandoned Pemigewasset Hotel in 1864 after accompanying former President Franklin Pierce on a train ride north.
Miller and Wilkie have never really left Plymouth, but Simoneau lived elsewhere until returning home in 1985. He left town to serve in the Navy during World War II.
He and his twin brother, Gerard, survived four kamikaze attacks while stationed on the USS Emmons. Simoneau, 78, still works full-time for Rochester Shoe Tree in nearby Ashland.
Wilkie, 79, stitched materials for Plymouth Manufacturing. She lost her job of 35 years when the plant closed down four years ago.
She doesn’t appreciate the college scene, but admits students have curbed their behavior, especially since the days when kegs would roll down the streets, prompting Playboy magazine to rank Plymouth State as one of America’s top party schools.
Miller, wearing a Red Sox hat, loves the college’s sports teams and doesn’t mind the school’s annual Spring Fling, a celebration sometimes marred by binge drinking and arrests.
“Plymouth would be dead without the college,” she says.
Fadden’s has it all
Campton marks the official start of the White Mountains Region. Campgrounds, many offering tiny cabins, dot the roadside with Spartan homes, several of which sell crafts and maple syrup.
In Thornton, mountains peek through tree lines or thrust out brazenly in open spaces. An evangelical church announces on a basic marquee that its building is “Where the Lord Jesus Christ is proclaimed.”
Before hitting legendary White Mountain tourist spots such as Clark’s Trading Post, motorists pull into Woodstock, home of Lincoln’s old railroad station. Sawed in half and moved to its current spot, the station is now a brewery and inn.
Many of the inn’s guests browse in Fadden’s General Store, a Woodstock staple and Fadden family legacy since 1896. The store’s quintessentially Yankee motto: “If we don’t have it, you don’t need it.”
It’s hard to believe the Fadden family didn’t hermetically seal the place around the 1950s and open its doors recently. Shelves are filled with ancient odds and ends: tins for Tiger Chewing Tobacco and Sunshine Biscuits, and boxes enabling customers to scoop candy by hand.
The store’s quirkiness shines in the offering of modern products: plumbing supplies, car belts, doughnuts, Pine Sol, Gatorade.
Owner Jim Fadden also sells state fishing and hunting licenses. Before granting Illinois resident Jane Skarosi a fishing permit, Fadden jokingly asks if he can call her hairdresser because he needs to know her true hair color.
While Skarosi and her husband, Lou, relay how they must wait another day for Federal Express to deliver a new fishing rod, Fadden’s black Labrador, Sassy, lies dead still on the squeaky wooden floor.
Fadden will probably close the business in the near future. None of his children want to assume the obligation, and customers don’t frequent the store as often now that I-93 carries the bulk of tourist traffic toward ski-minded Lincoln, he says.
“With the interstate, there’s no big push off the exit for travelers to come this way,” Fadden says.
As a result, Main Street has kept the same rustic look, but it hasn’t necessarily seen economic prosperity in return, he says.
If busy city folk should envy Fadden’s unhurried schedule, he quickly reminds: “Mister, send ’em up here with their checkbooks and see if they want that lifestyle.”
Yet, Fadden appreciates what his station in life affords. He can work from 7 a.m. until he gets “sick of it,” and he has made a bear’s breakfast at a nearby trash bin more comfortable by setting down a picnic table.
He also draws pleasure in chatting with locals and sharing prime fishing spots with strangers. After pointing out a stream for the Skarosis to angle in, Fadden asks if they’ve seen the Old Man of the Mountain.
“Who’s the man?” Jane Skarosi asks.
“Give me back that quarter,” Fadden jokes, in reference to the quarter that bears the Old Man’s likeness.
Into the Notches
Louis Blais pulls a hearse into the Old Man of the Mountain viewing area so he can stretch his legs in the shadow of New Hampshire’s most recognized attraction.
SUVs and family sedans — top-heavy with bikes or skis, depending on the season — typically rule this portion of Route 3 as it meanders through breathtaking Franconia Notch State Park.
So the sight of a hearse has understandably startled some tourists already straining their necks in the viewing area.
Blais is helping his friend Pauline Rice deliver a body from her funeral home in Worcester, Mass., to Littleton. Rice’s husband usually drives, but he’s ill.
As he stretches his limbs, Blais nearly twitches with delight as he recalls his skiing adventures of the 1940s on Cannon Mountain, home of the Old Man. He would bullet down the slopes using narrow, World War II surplus skis.
“Now, with these modern skis, it’s like having power steering,” Blais says. He regretfully announces he injured his knee several years ago and retired from the sport.
Blais and Rice sneak one last peek at the Old Man, slowly back out of their parking space and head north.
Route 3 and Interstate 93 merge inside the 6,440-acre notch. Otherwise, the roads run separately on their parallel south-to-north journeys to Franconia, although they occasionally cross each other, via bridges, like unsure dancing partners.
Until the interstate was built — in a piecemeal process that took 27 years — only Route 3 connected southern and northern New Hampshire. I-93 still doesn’t entirely accomplish that today; it shoots west to Vermont and only touches the skirt of New Hampshire’s North Country.
The roads clearly have two identities: I-93 can zip a Nashua resident to the notch in 90 minutes time; Route 3 will just get you there eventually.
Of course, calling Route 3 an inconvenience because it’s not a modern, ultra-fast thoroughfare misses the point. The route, unlike any other, connects motorists with the people of North Country — folks who still carry the torch of an old New Hampshire.
They’re mostly tried and true Yankees who rely on several incomes to survive. They’re modest people who employ a sense of humor to overlook the disparity in wages between the two geographical tiers of the state.
They toil the land, develop strong forearms moving lumber, bustle behind diner counters, or inspect furniture that may eventually sit in an elegant Beacon Hill townhouse.
Cross over the northern edge of Franconia Notch and you’ve entered another world. A place where serene ponds and magnificent forest stand in contrast to the agents of progress and the elements of change.
Poets and farmers
Once outside the notch, Route 3 separates from I-93 and once again becomes a small two-lane road. Though the beauty of the notch starts shrinking in the rear-view mirror, the windshield welcomes a larger-than-life White Mountain National Forest, a sweeping expanse of trees that occasionally breaks to provide glimpses of North Country’s foothills.
A road cutting into the forest accesses Bethlehem, poetry capital of New Hampshire. Robert Frost summered here, and local poets recently used that tidbit to help secure the state designation.
Bethlehem has what many consider the cleanest air in New England. Here, antique shops outnumber pollen grains.
The now-defunct Hay Fever Relief Society would host kids from all over during the summer as they beat allergies and asthma. Town librarian Ruth Miller’s late grandfather was once “deadly sick with asthma” to the point where doctors advised him against any activity, especially moving to Bethlehem. But he defied their orders, and his lungs generated pure oxygen for 56 more years.
The last northbound stop light on Route 3 appears in Carroll. Or is it Twin Mountain?
Officially, it’s Carroll; Twin Mountain is only a section of the town. But on street signs, and from the mouths of some locals, Twin Mountain looks and sounds like a town.
There’s no confusion upon entering Whitefield. The town marks the beginning of the Great North Woods Region, and also is home to Bernie Bean.
Short in stature but long in geniality, Bean owns the 325-acre Scenic View Farm. The name’s fitting — Bean can see the Presidential Mountain range, and Kilkenny and Cannon mountains. To the north, he can see perhaps the only place with a better vantage point then his: the sprawling Mountain View Hotel.
Wearing a baseball hat with a Scenic View Farm logo and a slightly stained, gray T-shirt, Bean puffs on a Shield cigarette. “They’re cheap,” he says.
Bean keeps a close eye on his wallet. He works three jobs to maintain the farm that his grandfather bought in 1941.
“I don’t make any money. It’s just an existence, but I enjoy the lifestyle,” he says.
Bean raises hay, and sells grain, vegetables and dog food from a farm stand. He also works for Styles Fuel Company and digs graves on the side.
“It takes a lot of money to keep the farm going,” he says, lamenting how his dairy operation ended in 1988 at the hands of conglomeration.
“It’s like everything today: you either get bigger, or you’re going out. The farm used to have 50 to 55 cows, but I sold them. You can’t compete with 500 cows on these larger farms, or how Canadian farmers are subsidized. I figured we would sell our cows, or our cows would sell us.”
Many North Country dairy farms have closed and been bought by vacationers, Bean says. Slaughter houses and farm supply dealers have also fallen, he says.
The one saving grace that keeps a smile on Bean’s face is the 238-acre protection easement his grandfather placed on most of the hilltop parcel.
“No one will touch that,” he says.
Lancaster is the seat of Coos County. It’s a place where residents sit on neatly decorated farmer’s porches, host events at a giant fairgrounds and attend pig roast-poker runs at John W. Weeks VFW Post 3041.
Ironically, just as Route 3 narrows, enormous logging trucks fly by. Northumberland’s lumber industry started shortly after the American Revolution, when mills first began spitting out reams of sawdust. They haven’t stopped since.
Two mills stand side by side today: Wausau Mosinee of New Hampshire and Groveton Paper Board. The residents of Northumberland constitute the bulk of their workforces.
As in Carroll/Twin Mountain, the people of Groveton consider themselves part of their own town even though they technically live in Northumberland. Groveton, the business center of Northumberland, may not be incorporated, but it does have its own time capsule, which won’t see light again until 2076.
When Route 3 leaves town and enters yet another stretch of wilderness, it has formed a true partnership with the Connecticut River. The road will now hug the glistening river all the way to Pittsburg, with the water beaming through thickets and old trees. When the river narrows, Vermont soil will sit only feet away from New Hampshire turf.
In another display of economic diversity, a Stratford business owner sells computers and model railroads. Almost every home has a satellite dish.
Construction crews slow traffic as they widen and improve a mile stretch of the road. Unaffected by troublesome humidity, State Trooper Jerry Marcoux works traffic detail.
Two of his fellow officers recently had their patrol cars demolished by moose. “It’s like running into a truck,” Marcoux says.
Marcoux’s troop F covers nearly two-thirds of the state, from Lebanon to Pittsburg. Some troopers have a 100-mile patrol area, meaning back-up is at least a half-hour away.
For a recent arrest, Marcoux needed no help at all. A man speeding in his car hit a guardrail, blew out his tires but still drove on the rims. He finally stopped and jumped into the Connecticut River.
Marcoux walked across a bridge into Vermont and waited to make the arrest. “He was cocked,” Marcoux says.
He has never worked a day in Nashua or Manchester. “North of the notches is a different country. There’s not as much stress up here. In general, the people are great.”
It’s no Mason-Dixon line. The Connecticut might separate the White Mountain and Green Mountain states, but for those who live along the natural border, any differences between the two lands are purely academic.
Take Columbia residents Robert Young and Ruby Wallace, two widowed in-laws. They can feel Vermont’s breeze sail through their home, the 350-acre Pioneer Farm that’s been in Wallace’s late husband’s family since 1787.
They can also feel New Hampshire’s cool air just a skipping-stone’s throw away in Lemington, Vt., where Wallace and Young own a combined 350 acres.
“Nobody can build around us,” Young says as he finishes biting an apple, his afternoon snack. He wears a wrap-around sun visor on his glasses, a white T-shirt, green pants, thick boots and a baseball cap that declares “Branson, Missouri.”
They spend most of their time on Pioneer Farm, where Wallace rents rooms and fights a losing battle against pigeons that have broken her barn windows. She’d like to restore the slightly decaying barn, but can’t afford the work.
The farm sits down in a valley, somewhat diminishing the roar of Route 3 traffic. Wallace, though, had to contend with a much larger disruption last year when a natural gas pipeline was installed right through her front yard.
But she won’t complain much. With the river and Vermont’s Mount Monadnock in the background, Wallace’s quaint red farmhouse has earned the distinction of appearing in four local calendars and on numerous restaurant place mats.
“It isn’t like the city,” Wallace says, an obvious remark that doesn’t seem quite as silly with the land boldly justifying her opinion.
They’re not too far from the nearest grocery store in Colebrook, and if they need a decent feed they’ll check out the many country diners along Route 3. They know everybody in town, except for the newcomers.
Working on the property pretty much tuckers them out by nightfall. It’s an existence they won’t relinquish.
But don’t think they’re a couple of hicks disconnected from modern society. “We’re hooked up to the Internet and all that (expletive),” Young says.
Route 3 in Colebrook honors the two State Troopers fatally shot in 1997 by a local man who, in an angry rage over property taxes, also killed local judge Vickie Bunnell and News and Sentinel editor Dennis Joos.
Before entering Colebrook center, the route becomes Trooper Leslie Lord Highway, and heading north out of the town, the same honor is bestowed on Trooper Scott Phillips.
Four years after the murders, Colebrook shows signs of healing. Friendly waitresses at Howard’s Restaurant rib customers who hesitate ordering dessert, and blue-collar workers sipping coffee shoot the breeze with a Catholic priest who just ate an early lunch.
Karen Harrigan, current editor of The News and Sentinel, isn’t a lifelong resident, but she’s earned an honorary standing because her grandparents lived here 40 years and her father, John, helped put the weekly newspaper on the map.
Harrigan, who has lived south of the notches, praises North Country living.
“It’s worth it. It’s worth not having someone standing next to you in a store and not talk on a cell phone. It’s worth not having to worry about sending your kids up the street to get ice cream. It’s worth not worrying about getting stranded when your car breaks down.”
Country living does have a few downsides, Harrigan says. “Everybody knows your business, or they make it up.” And she doesn’t appreciate locals who say they have nothing to do; she’s always busy.
The downtown video store may not have the latest foreign film release, but Harrigan quickly reminds she has the option of plopping a canoe in the Connecticut when she’s finished work.
The 45th parallel
Stewartstown just hosted its Logfest 2001 competition. Siblings Jessica and Josh Edwards of Pelham participated in the test of gut-iron strength. Events included sawing a log faster than a chain saw, hurling an ax over your head to hit a bull’s eye, and climbing a greased pole to ring a bell.
Maybe contestants drew energy from the 45th parallel, the actual point on the earth that’s halfway between the equator and the North Pole. It’s Stewartstown’s claim to fame.
Situated near spacious farmland, resident Danny Matthew washes his car in his driveway. Stewartstown is as good as any place to raise kids, he says, but it doesn’t offer his 20-year-old and 18-year-old daughters anything but minimum-wage jobs.
Matthew works as a furniture inspector at an Ethan Allan manufacturing plant just over the river in Beecher Falls, Vt. He also needs income from his part-time job as a meat cutter at a local store.
Showing the disparity in wages between Southern and Northern New Hampshire, the per-capita income for Hollis is $35,835 — the fourth highest average in a 1996 state survey — but in Stewartstown it is $11,302, the fourth lowest average in the state.
Ethan Allan just closed a facility elsewhere and may consider layoffs at Beecher Falls, Matthew says. “It’s tough for people to live.”
Down the road, no one has ever taken the last train to Clarksville, simply because the rail line doesn’t come this way.
“Nothing goes on here,” says resident Julie Barssau.
Maybe not here, but all Barssau needs to do is follow the moose tracks into neighboring Pittsburg.
Great beasts roam at end of the line
It’s doubtful any of the 980 people who live in this 190,000-acre town bursting with timberland, lakes, streams and moose are claustrophobic.
Route 3 stops here in Pittsburg before making an unceremonious finish at the Canadian border, and what a stopover it is.
Can’t imagine a highway so quiet during rush hour that you can hear your ears ring? Then stop the car almost anywhere along the last 12 miles of Route 3 north and walk onto the road.
Don’t worry, a car won’t plunk you. A vehicle will pass sometime; you’ll just have to wait a few minutes, maybe 10. If anything, brace for oncoming moose.
This final stretch of Route 3 has no utility lines, no homes — and to the chagrin of anyone who hails from the highway’s opposite end in Southern New Hampshire — no Dunkin’ Donuts. The only dunking up here happens in a lake.
No other town can boast of having not one but three Connecticut lakes. But then again, Pittsburg is the largest township in the contiguous United States.
There’s room for fishers, hunters, snowmobilers — and moose. Sorry, one can’t help but mention moose often in these parts.
The word rolls off the tongues of natives and tourists in a declarative-yet-reverential tone. Just breathe the word anywhere in town and you’ll draw more attention than a distinguished senator dropping names at a Beltway cocktail party.
Everyone has a moose story. Of course, the big one always gets away before the camera can focus. But just look, look at those hoofprints.
Bullwinkle’s kin have more clout in this town than an A-list celebrity in Manhattan, but they hardly suspect they’re the focus of such attention. They clop along in search for salt and vegetation, oblivious to cars teeming with moose peepers.
If moose could talk, they’d likely discuss the same news that troubles residents. International Paper recently announced it would sell 171,000 acres of land in Pittsburg, Clarksville and Stewartstown.
Residents wonder if they will still have access to the land for recreation. But a land trust group has reached a purchase and sales agreement to buy the property and assure that future owners will retain current land uses.
The whole state watches with great interest.
Young in Pittsburg
Arolyn Chappell acts beyond her years. Only 19, Chappell discusses her childhood in Pittsburg with a cadence normally heard in old timers.
She’s home from college, and will spend her summer relaxing in a town that hosts tourists who drive hours just so they can temporarily lose themselves. “It’s nice to get away, but I miss home,” she says.
Chappell’s father, Ron, can’t find decent work in Pittsburg. During the week, he lives with relatives in Milford so he can draw a steady paycheck from a construction firm in an area white-hot with development. He drives back home to Pittsburg on Friday nights.
While the area’s numerous fishing, hunting and snowmobiling opportunities thrill sportsmen, the town doesn’t necessarily overwhelm teen-agers who crave the fun of shopping malls, movie theaters or video game arcades.
But Pittsburg’s teens adjust, Chappell says. The quietness almost guarantees family bonding, and believe it or not, teens do like fishing and snowmobiling, she says.
Chappell’s friend, 17-year-old Tom Sambito, will pass his summer restoring the nearby Kenneth Poor Farm. He’ll cut trails and treat apple trees.
“I get pretty bored if I don’t work,” Sambito says. For fun, he golfs and “eats a lot.”
His buddy, 18-year-old Steve Gagnon, has his sights on the culinary world. He currently works as an apprentice chef at The resort in Dixville Notch. For fun, he drinks beer.
Tourism is a boon, putting food on the tables of people who built some form of lodging near the First Connecticut and Francis lakes. Some of them are natives, others left high-salaried and hectic careers behind for the life of a North Country innkeeper.
With the exception of mud season, tourists flock here year-round: with fishing and boating gear in the spring and summer; binoculars for fall’s foliage; and snowmobiles in winter.
People already move at a leisurely pace, so when the dog days of summer strike hard, locals and tourists function as if they’re stuck in instant-replay speed.
Boaters cruise the lakes slower than a Coast Guard search team; motorists pull off the road, stretch their legs across the front car seat and nap; and fishermen cast line after line with a poetic symmetry that’s impervious to humidity, black flies or passing moose.
While boats the size of Navy battleships and noisy jet skis jostle for space in the Lakes Region, fishing craft on the Connecticut lakes drift along unhindered.
Fishermen without boats happily accept the alternative spots: anywhere along the Connecticut River. The mighty river is seen in its infancy here as its starts its four-state journey from the Third Connecticut Lake to Long Island Sound.
Sal Coco and his 11-year-old grandson, Nick Johnston, search for brook trout just yards away from where the river departs the Third Connecticut.
Coco, a Manchester resident, owns a small gun shop in Auburn. His revolver fits snugly in a holster slung around his back; a gun permit is tucked into the front of his baseball cap.
They’d like to snag trout about 14 inches long. “There are bigger guys in the lake,” Coco says. “But the fun is hitting the thicket and reaching the river.”
Coco’s Italian grandfather emigrated to Manchester and established a horse farm, where the Mall of New Hampshire now sits. “They spoiled the whole thing,” he says of developers. “Fortunately, my grandparents never saw those changes.”
On the border
John Easton has a nose for trouble.
Easton is a U.S. Customs inspector. He examines the nearly 130 cars that pass the American-Canadian border daily.He chats with locals who make regular trips into Canada for prescription drugs and groceries, and determines whether the unfamiliar faces entering the United States have legitimate business or dubious intentions.
Starting this month, an inspector will not work the border during early morning hours. Instead, a video inspection system will accept only local residents who have previously entered their data. All other traffic must drive to the Beecher Falls, Vt., crossing 32 miles away.
Normally stationed at Minneapolis’ busy airport, Easton requested the Pittsburg assignment for a change of pace. He’s prone to see more animals than people during his two-week stay.
Easton spots about 14 moose a day and a smattering of foxes and coyotes. An inspector who normally works the Pittsburg station regularly feeds a fox, but Easton doesn’t believe in handouts. The fox, apparently offended, now comes right up to the window of the station and stares at Easton.
From his window, Easton can see the Canadian border patrol station about 75 yards away. Once motorists gain clearance into Canada, they enter a land in complete contrast to the north woods.
Just a few feet past the patrol station, the forest disappears, and the agricultural region of Chartierville, Quebec, spreads out for miles.
The Canadian border patrol inspector points tourists to Magnetic Hill, a spot in Chartierville that makes motorists feel like gravity is pulling their idling vehicles up a slope. The inspector cannot grant an interview — it’s government policy — so it’s not known if he asks passing moose to declare their citizenship.
Utility lines end shortly before the Second Connecticut, forcing the U.S. Customs station to use the Canadian power grid and phone service. The last Pittsburg home with utilities also marks the start of a 12-mile stretch of Route 3 known as George Roberts Park, or more simply, Moose Alley. When the alley ends, Canada begins.
Amidst thick roadside brush, a simple white cross recognizes the death of a unidentified man who slipped across the U.S. border in 1940 and survived only a few months in the wilderness.
Shortly after a tourist reads the inscription on the cross, a playful cow moose makes a public appearance. She peeks her head through a clearing in the trees, realizes the tourist won’t harm her, jumps over a guardrail, and casually trots across the road.
Moose frequent this area like cattle in a Texas plain. Well, not quite like cattle, but three moose per-square-mile seems plentiful to city folk out for a peep.
As dusk envelopes the sky, a line of cars will drive slowly along Route 3 — looking like a funeral procession that lost its way — searching for moose.
Moose hang around the roadside so they can feed off salt deposits and the growth of hardwood trees, says Chris Bontaites, moose project leader for the state Fish and Game Department. A bull moose, the male, covets salt to help grow antlers; a cow moose, the female, uses the mineral to produce milk for her young, Bontaites says.
Dawn and dusk are prime moose viewing times. Because most peepers aren’t early risers, they wait until evening to poke along the road, occasionally shining spotlights in the woods. Or they stop their cars, stand in the breakdown lane and stare blankly into the trees.
Peepers also drive down a dirt logging road that leads to Magalloway Mountain. The trail seems to run on forever, revealing numerous patches of land cleared of timber. In other spots, weak poplar and ash trees slowly climb from the rubble in hopes of reclaiming the land.
Two men peeping along the Magalloway trail one recent morning spotted a bull moose for the ages. He weighed at least 1,200 pounds and had antlers stretching as wide as the Grand Canyon. No one disbelieves their sighting, but nobody really accepts it, either.
Although moose look clumsy, they are actually quite nimble and fast, Bontaites says. A moose can reach speeds of 30 mph, but its vision isn’t entirely great, she says.
Motorists should drive 55 mph or slower in moose zones, Bontaites says. Drivers need time to react because once a vehicle strikes a moose, the animal’s legs will falter and the body will come straight at the driver, she says.
“It’s not like hitting a skunk,” she says.
They don’t ‘go below’ often
Claudia Foret bartends at Buck Rub Pizza Pub. The place is named after the process in which a male deer rubs the velvet on his antlers onto trees — a good sign for hunters tracking their prey.
The pub is a log cabin converted into a tidy bar with stuffed bears on the walls. Foret will quickly fill a thirsty tourist’s mug and share tales of her life in North Country.
“I’ve seen stars here that I never knew existed,” Foret says. “Cell phones don’t work up here, so we have less sterile men.”
Foret’s husband, John, accepted an early retirement package from the University of New Hampshire, where he worked as the chairman of the zoology department. He couldn’t wait to leave academia for a life of fishing and hunting.
Nuzzling a beer mug at the corner of the bar, an unidentified man reminds Foret of Pittsburg’s obvious disadvantage: the lack of employment opportunities. You either haul lumber, own a motel, or you’re out of work, the man says.
Foret slightly acknowledges his statement, but speaks of how most residents made a conscious decision to live here. They eschewed material gains so they could leave their homes unlocked and keep their keys sitting in the car ignition.
She trusts people here, something she couldn’t imagine doing in the Seacoast. Her favorite Pittsburg Samaritan story is about the night she didn’t have enough money to pay a tow truck driver who pulled her vehicle from a snowbank. The driver didn’t even want to know her name; he told Foret to pay him later.
The people of Pittsburg truly come together, Foret says.
They apparently share in the sacrifices required of small-town life. They also share a need for the pastoral, a wanting for a unique existence.
“If we go down below,” Foret says of any journey south of North Country, “my husband and I are ready to kill each other with all the traffic lights.”
Stories published in three installments, August 12-14, 2001.
Copyright 2001, 2004 The Telegraph, Nashua, N.H. All Rights Reserved.