The choice for town eleven of my This is America Too project can be traced back to nearly half-a-year before visiting it. I was exploring the Outer Banks of North Carolina, taking time to relax after finishing four towns in the southeast, when I got a text from a close friend in Maine. He knew I was planning to spend the summer in the region and one night at work he met a guy looking for a roommate. He passed on the information, I contacted the potential roomie, and although I didn’t think it was really going to pan out, three months later I was in the tiny town of Bath, Maine living with Christian.
The three months I stayed with Christian had its ups and downs, more for him than me, but over that time we got to know each other pretty well. One night, midway through living together, we were talking about Henniker, New Hampshire where his family was from. He had recently returned from his grandfather’s memorial there and talked with pride about it. His enthusiasm peaked my interest and I thought I should look into making Henniker a part of the project. That night I did some research and decided it would be my next town.
The morning I drove to Henniker was also the day I officially left Bath. It had been nearly half-a-year since I was on the road, living out of Bessie and working on the project. I was excited and nervous. As I packed the van, it felt familiar. I was making it a five hour drive and had planned to meet Kate in the late afternoon, a contact I made after reaching out to Henniker’s Chamber of Commerce. I had everything ready to go by 10:30 and said goodbye to Christian.
The trip was lovely. I shot west to Conway, New Hampshire, just past the border with Maine, where I was able to take the very scenic Kancamagus Highway through the White Mountains. The leaves were just turning colors, shades of red were splattered across the land that lay before me. I wished it was the peak of the color change, imagining what that would be like. In Lincoln, where the Kancamagus ends, I headed south to the Curry Ives byway. I loved passing through the townlets that dotted the countryside and it felt great to be back on the road. Entering Henniker, my first impression was that it seemed very New England, with its colonial architecture, and quaint downtown surrounded by nature.
I parked and called Kate who told me she was free to meet. When I arrived at her gorgeous bed and breakfast, the Henniker House, I was greeted and invited in. She had a friendly demeanor and brought me into the back dining room to talk. The view was stunning, with the Contoocook River running at the edge of the back yard. I couldn’t imagine a more picturesque setting for a guest to sip their morning coffee to. I began to explain my story when a potential guest showed up at the front door and a current guest returned from work. The inquiring patron came and went, but Jim Owens, a professor at the local NEC (New England College), sat down to chat. As Kate did a bit of work, I learned about the dogs he and his wife had just rescued from Spain, and how they recently bought a home there, looking to retire soon. He was living my dream and I was a little jealous. When Jim eventually left, Kate began to tell me more about her story and Henniker’s.
She was an accountant working in New England when she decided she wanted a bed and breakfast. After searching, her and her husband found the place in Henniker; the view of the river from the back porch sealed the deal. The house is from the late 19th century and originally built by a blacksmith. It was later owned by a woman who ran it as a birthing house and Kate mentioned she loved meeting older folks in town who were born there. She also shared the story of how the town was the only Henniker on earth, explaining that family members of the founder, John Henniker, still visited from England to see the town that shared their name. We talked about architecture I’d see, places I should explore, and finally she gave me some names I might want to try and contact. Our conversation and her help were a very positive start to my stay. We were wrapping things up as her husband and a friend returned home. I introduced and then excused myself, but not before Kate gave me some literature to look over while in town.
It was getting late in the day and I still needed to check in at the Mile Away campground. The grounds were nice, located on the outskirts of town, and for twenty-nine dollars a night, it was the best deal around. In the office, I filled out all the required paperwork with the amiable woman working the front counter. There were a handful of tent sites but for some reason they put me next to what looked like the only other tent-campers. I didn’t think too much about it as I set up, and when I finished it was time for dinner.
I decided on Daniel’s for my first meal which seemed appropriate since the restaurant was once the home and printing shop of Christian’s grandfather. I took a seat at the bar, got a menu, and ordered a beer. Unfortunately, judging from his demeanor towards me, I felt I aggravated the bartender and owner Kevin before even getting to take the first sip of my brew. I wasn’t sure if I took too long ordering, or he was just having an off night. Either way, I was hoping to meet with him and thought I may have ruined the opportunity.
On the plus side, my new friend Jim was also dining at the bar and I got a chance to know him better. It was a delight chatting, and I got lost in our conversation. We covered topics from Confederate pride to racism between Kurds and Arabs in Iraq where he taught for a couple years. We moved on to the need of suffering to learn in life, war, death, and of course Henniker and the NEC where he taught. I eventually did get food and scarfed down a good sized, well priced, and tasty opened faced turkey sandwich. I was impressed and knew I would be back. I finally said goodbye, got Jim’s contact info in case I was ever in Valencia, Spain where he had his retirement home, and hinted at putting in a good word with Kevin for me.
Back at the campground I met my neighbors, a bunch of younger guys from Maine who worked in telecommunications doing installation of some sort. I talked with them for a short moment before returning to my site to relax. It was great to be back at it and I was feeling positive about Henniker so far. The thought of exploring the next day and searching for interviews excited me. I wasn’t up long before crawling into my tent.
My neighbors left early in the morning, and since I had the place to myself I lounged and got some work done. I made a couple of calls to possible contacts Kate gave me. Of the two, I was able to reach Martha Taylor who once headed the historical society. She was kind and agreed to meet with me, however, she was just about to enter a meeting so we decided to secure plans later. Feeling I had a productive morning, I finally left to take photos.
The day was warm, and the town was bustling with college kids in the first weeks of the semester. I walked to the campus, crossing over the Contoocook River, and got some nice shots of the main bridge, river, and covered bridge from a far. I then wandered the campus, moving towards the Henniker Bridge, and when I reached it, I found it even more picturesque up close.
The Henniker Bridge is an iconic wooden, 136’, covered bridge made in the style of a Town lattice truss. This method of bridge building was first patented by an American architect named Ithiel Town in the first half of the 19th century. It gave me the sense it was a relic from that time, when motorized vehicles didn’t exist, and I could imagine it being traversed by horse and buggy. However, this bridge was actually built in 1972 by Milton Graton and his son, but they did so using traditional means, even utilizing a team of oxen for pulling power. I spent some time getting photos and examining the structure before returning to the campground.
Back at the grounds I had a mission. I didn’t really mind my neighbors, but I thought it might be nice to be in a site further away for both our sake. I went to the office to inquire about switching and there was a new woman working, just as nice as the other. I told her why I wanted to relocate, stressing it was not because of the boys, and she had no problem with the move. Once I was set up in my new site I lounged in my hammock waiting for a call from Martha. I didn’t wait too long before deciding to check out the Henniker Brewing Company just a mile down the road.
I parked, went in, and discovered it was a true brewery, no food. It has a large, welcoming, tap room and a nice little outside area. It’s clean, sterile, and industrial looking just as one would expect from a brewery. They offered 4oz pours of their different brews that ranged from a dollar to three. I sat down and struck up a conversation with the bartender Alec. He was a nice kid who was working on an MBA at the NEC. I sampled about a pints worth of different beers while we talked about small town breweries, New England, Henniker, and the NEC. He told me that the founder, Dave Currier, a Henniker native and longtime state politician, had retired a medical device company he ran in the location and decided to take advantage of the microbrew craze. That was four years earlier and they seemed to be doing well. The beer was delicious, I was especially fond of their Hop Slinger IPA, and I signed up for a brewery tour that Saturday. While I was there I got a call from Martha and we agreed to meet at the historical society the following morning. Finally, I said goodbye and drove downtown for a little more exploration.
I strolled Main Street to get more photos and then had an idea. One of the people Kate mentioned I might want to talk with was the town’s pharmacist Sarah, so I stopped into the pharmacy to see if she was working. It’s a huge red colonial building that sits in the middle of town and reminded me of an oversize barn. Walking inside was like stepping back in time, the products, décor, and setup all gave me a flashback of going into Woolworth as a kid. The only thing it was missing was the soda fountain. I talked with Tom, the pharmacist on duty, and was told Sarah would be there the following morning. I thanked him and moved on.
All my wandering had worked up a thirst, so I stopped at Daniel’s to sit on the patio overlooking the river, which seemed like the best spot to drink a beer on a late summer day. When I arrived I checked to see if Kevin was in, hoping to ask about an interview, but he wasn’t. Outside I ordered one of the Henniker Brewing Company’s ales, which seemed appropriate, and struck up a conversation with my waitresses. She was from Southern California originally and going to school in town. I wondered what someone from such a different world thought about living in little Henniker. I didn’t ask. The weather was perfect, the setting ideal, and I sat contently sipping my beer, but after one I got the urge to move on and find food.
I weighed my options and chose the restaurant Country Spirt. Walking up from the parking lot I thought it looked like a roadhouse you might find in Texas. Inside the place seemed to have a split personality disorder. To the right was a country restaurant with a wholesome family feel, but to the left was the bar that resembled a dive, complete with the classic dollar bills attached to the ceiling. Of course I went left and found a seat.
I instantly got a sense it was a local watering hole with a blue-collar vibe. I was attended to by a very friendly bartender and ordered a beer. The main dishes on the menu were more than I wanted to spend so I went with a barbeque appetizer and side of coleslaw. As I waited, I eavesdropped on the conversations among locals, getting a little insight to Henniker’s daily life, taking in the stories you might hear in any small town. The food was delicious and more than enough for a meal. I wondered how big the mains were. I had a second beer, enjoying the atmosphere, and then departed to my temporary home.
On the way back I stopped at a couple of spots to grab quick photos. At the grounds I kicked back in the hammock and was doing a bit of reading from one of the history books Kate had loaned me, when one of the grounds people rolled up in his golf cart and asked me about moving sites. I assured it had nothing to do with the guys I was next to, just that it seemed unnecessary to be so close. He seemed satisfied with my answer and before he left I asked about the owner Bobby, whom I was told by Kate might be a good contact. He surprised me saying he was Bob so I awkwardly told him why I wanted to meet him. He said he wouldn’t mind and suggested I get in contact with him the next afternoon. I spent the rest of the night relaxing and went to bed pretty early knowing I had to be up in the morning to meet Martha at the historical museum.
When I woke I lounged a little, not knowing exactly when I was supposed to be at the museum. Around ten I drove over, parked, and went into the historic building that looked like it could have been a church or old school. I heard conversation from a room to the left so I walked over and gave a little knock as I entered and introduced myself. I was told they had seen the email I sent and wanted to learn more about the project. I gave a brief description and mentioned I was supposed to be meeting Martha. They texted her and got a reply that she would be there shortly. While I waited I started talking with Ellen who told me how she and her husband ended up in Henniker from Texas. She then offered me a tour of the museum which I gladly accepted.
We went into the back room where the museum was located and I was informed the building was originally the Henniker Academy, a high school built 1836. At one point the NEC took it over and used it as offices, eventually offering it to the society as a headquarters and museum. The place was in disarray because just under a year earlier the furnace blew back a ton of soot, covering everything in the museum, a nightmare I imagined. Each artifact had to be cleaned, and some at exorbitant amounts due to the severity of the situation.
I got the background on some of the more famous figures in town, starting with Leander Winslow Cogswell, a Civil War vet born in Henniker. He led a regiment of New Hampshire volunteers at Fredericksburg, and during the Mississippi and Tennessee campaigns. After spending so much time in the South, and having been exposed to the small town view of the Civil War there, it was an interesting juxtaposition seeing the way it was remembered in small town New England. Ellen also talked about Amy Cheney Beach, the first female American composer who reached a worldwide level of fame. She was born in Henniker in the middle of the 19th century, recognized as a prodigy very young, and by the end of the century her work was already being played by orchestras like the Boston Symphony and the Handel and Haydn Society.
The best story however was about Ocean Born Mary. Mary was born in the 18th century on a ship coming over from Europe. It was attacked by pirates during the journey and when the captain discovered the baby, he offered to spare those on board if they named the child Mary after his mother. Of course no one objected. He also gave a roll of green silk for the child’s future wedding dress and the museum had some of it displayed. Mary died in Henniker at the age of 93. Although an interesting story on its own, Mary’s real fame came when a huckster named Louis Roy bought a home one of her sons lived in. Roy created a story involving Mary’s ghost haunting the place and the pirates returning and burying treasure there. Although false, since Mary never even lived in the house, the story spread, Roy made a good amount of money giving tours, and even famous ghost hunters like Hans Holzer visited the home, helping to solidify its fame.
Martha arrived just as we were finishing up, and after introducing myself I joined the ladies back in the office. She was still looking for the cassette tapes with the oral history interviews they had done a few years back, and they all talked about where they might be. The conversation then shifted to whom would be best for me to talk to and they decided the couple Arthur and Sally were a must. They also talked about a woman named Bertha but weren’t sure if she would be up for it. One of the volunteers, Christin, offered to take me to either of the homes if we could get a hold of them. First Martha tried Bertha and she didn’t answer. She wanted to wait on Arthur and Sally so we sat around talking more Henniker history.
The subject turned to the mystery of the Magnetic Springs. Legend has it that there was once a spring in town where “spiritual water” flowed and was bottled. The museum had an old bottle the water came in but exactly where the spring was located has yet to be found. Martha was particularly interested in its location and we talked about different possible methods to find it. I really enjoyed getting a chance to be there talking history with them and I was learning some fascinating stories about Henniker. Eventually Martha gave Arthur a call, he answered, and agreed to meet me at two. I had my first interview set up! I spent a bit more time waiting to see if Bertha would call back but finally headed out, telling Christin I would return.
I wanted lunch before the interview so I parked downtown and walked over to St. George’s Café. It’s a cute little spot which serves sandwiches, wraps, and pastries. I could tell it was popular with the college kids and located practically on the campus. I ordered a turkey and bacon wrap which was a good size for the price and very tasty. Between the vibe, food, and prices, I understood why it was so popular. There also didn’t seem to be many choices for coffee in Henniker which was odd for a college town, but another boost for St. George’s. When I finished I decided to stop at the pharmacy to see if Sarah was there.
I stepped into the location and there was Kate talking with Sarah. I couldn’t have come in at a better time and I waited until they were done before I greeted Kate. She gave me a friendly hello and as she was leaving told Sarah she should talk with me. It was perfect, I introduced myself and explained why I was in town. I didn’t want to hold her up so I cut right to the chase and asked if she would sit down to talk with me. She mentioned the old pharmacist might be a better interview but I assured her that I was interested in her story. After a moment, she agreed and we planned to meet back there the next morning at nine. I thanked her and left in great spirits having locked down another interview.
I still had a lot of time to kill before two, so I returned to the NEC campus, this time looking to explore it a little more in depth. The story of the university is intriguing and began just after the end of World War II. An entrepreneur from the south east named Boone Doudy Tillett saw a growing need for schools that could provide for the large number of veterans returning from the war and looking to utilize the government’s new G.I. bill. Tillett was scoping out New England and locals from Henniker recognized the economic boost a university might bring to the small town. Within a year of opening the doors, financial problems forced Tillett to cut ties with the school and control was handed over to a local board. The school was on the brink of ruin when money from the veterans dried up in the early 50s, but somehow survived and thrived. Today there is no doubt that the university plays a valuable role in Henniker’s economy and has become an important part of its identity and recent history.
I wandered the campus that doesn’t seem to have defined boundaries, and is fairly integrated into Henniker. I stopped at the town hall and then headed to the Old Center Cemetery, both right on campus. As I strolled the university grounds, I became more aware of how diverse the school was. In fact, it claims to have the most diverse student body in New Hampshire, and that in 2018, 36% of the students were from underrepresented populations with international students coming from as far away as China and Zimbabwe. This diversity is especially glaring set against the backdrop of a very white small town in New England. I wondered what an international student, or one from a major city in the U.S., must think when they first arrive in little Henniker.
After the campus, I walked the streets of town a little more, but it seemed that time was crawling, and even after all my exploration it still wasn’t close to two. I thought I might stop at Daniel’s to see if I could meet Kevin and as I walked up he just happened to be standing in the restaurant’s doorway. I greeted him and he told me he remembered me from the previous night. I explained what I was doing and that I hoped he might be able to sit down with me. At first he seemed a bit hesitant, telling me that it was alumni weekend and he was far too busy. I said I understood and that I was only interested if he had the time and felt comfortable sharing it. He thought about it a second with a look of stress, told me he wanted to help, and then finally said that if I came Sunday morning before he opened he could do it. We agreed on 8:30 and I thanked him. I returned the van and did a little reading on Henniker before it was finally time to meet with Christin.
Back at the museum Martha showed me that they found the interviews they were looking for. Christin had also dug up some info on my roommate’s great grandfather Diamond, but since we had to leave right away I told them I would look over the info when I returned on Saturday. Christin and I departed and drove over to Arthur and Sally’s house for my first interview.
Sally greeted us at the door and invited us in. We went back to their covered porch where Arthur was waiting. I talked about why I was in town and why I chose Henniker. To my surprise, when I brought up the name Diamond Maxwell Sally’s face lit up. One of her best friends for as long as she could remember was Janice Maxwell, (one of my roommate’s great aunts I believe) and she was sitting where I was just the night before. Sally had always been close with the family and I think that connection added something special to the interview.
We began talking family history and Sally explained, “her [mother’s] maiden name was Cushman, and Robert O. Cushman sponsored the Mayflower, which is a descendant of her.” It’s not every day you get to talk with people who can so easily draw a connection to the Mayflower, especially to someone who played as important a role as Cushman, a key organizer and leader of the ship’s voyage. In total, around the region Sally was six generations deep on one side of her family and ten on the other, impressive.
Our conversation moved to growing up in town, and Sally mentioned back then there were only 1,500 people in Henniker. Arthur piped in, “it was like a family…we knew everyone in town, even the name of their dog.” In his early teens Arthur worked at his father’s store downtown and Sally remembered how every day she would pass the store to go to school, “I was, what, eight years old and he was fourteen and he had eyes for me…and when I was twelve, he was nineteen, he told my mother he was going to marry me.” Of course at that age they weren’t dating, and only knew each other from around town, but Arthur stuck to his word and married Sally when she turned eighteen. Their story was a testament to how much things have changed in just a couple generations, and there is no doubt they both cherished those times. Sally told me, “it was such a wonderful life, I feel sorry for the kids today.”
The two of them moved to New Jersey in the mid-50s for a job Arthur was offered and stayed for twenty-one years. It was a big change for them, Sally’s first thought was, “wow what an experience for us two little country hicks.” And although the time there was “a wonderful education,” Sally said, “we always knew, if we could, if everything worked out right, we would come back.” When they finally returned, they brought all they learned back and eventually got into the restaurant industry, opening Country Spirit, the place I had eaten at the night before. In 1986 Arthur even won restaurateur of the year in New Hampshire, quite a feat considering they didn’t have much experience. The place had been opened thirty one years, and although they no longer owned it, it was testament to what they built, and likely what they learned living outside of Henniker.
To wrap up the interview we talked about the New England College and its contributions. Sally told me, “it made the town, there’s no doubt about it,” while Arthur explained, “it kept us alive” going on to say “a lot of town’s people were against it…but it came through, and thank god they’re here.” One side effect of the university that I didn’t think about was how many people who came for school ended up staying and becoming business owners. Something I found funny was, as Sally put it, “the kids at New England College were richer than the kids at Dartmouth, but the kids here couldn’t get into Dartmouth.” And some very rich kids attended the school, such as the son of the man who owned Johnny Walker at the time, and who drove around town in a Rolls Royce.
We talked for about an hour and I found them to be an interesting and humorous couple. By the time we were done I felt like I had a much better understanding of Henniker and their history. Before leaving they showed me a painting my roommate’s grandfather Diamond had done for them, and an old desk that was once a family heirloom, had left family hands, but through fate returned to the couple years later. I left feeling great about the first interview and still amazed I found someone so close to my roommate’s family.
We stopped at Christin’s house quickly and then she offered to give me a tour of the countryside. We drove first to the old Quaker district to see some of the historic buildings there, and I received some background on it. She had been working on an old diary from a young man who once lived in the community, and as we explored she shared some of his stories. We continued on to Pleasant Pond, a popular swimming spot, and ran into Kate, her husband, and a friend just leaving after a dip. After saying hello, we drove deeper into the countryside where she showed me old Quaker roads that were now only accessible by off road vehicles. One of the things I have been most grateful for over the course of working on the project are people like Christin who are willing to take time and show me their towns. Back at the museum I let her know how much I appreciated the tour and that I would see her Saturday.
It was still early, and I wanted a beer to celebrate the day’s progress. Considering I spent some of the afternoon listening to Sally’s stories of how Daniel’s was once the home of her closest friend, it seemed like the logical choice. The back patio was another draw and it was oddly empty when arrived considering how beautiful the weather was. I ordered a beer and sat alone, daydreaming, watching a heron perched in the river looking for lunch. Halfway into my beer it dawned on me that I was still supposed to check in with Bob at the campground so finished, paid, and returned home.
When I got back I walked over to see if Bob was free. The woman working called him and I was told he would meet me at my site. I went back to wait, relaxing in the hammock and reading. As the evening turned to night, I got the feeling he wasn’t coming, which was fine at that point. I cooked up dinner, ate, and then went back to lounging. He never showed and eventually I got into my tent to catch some sleep.
The next morning I was supposed to be at the Henniker Pharmacy by nine to meet Sarah. I was up early enough to waste a bit of time and have a tea before driving into town. At the pharmacy Sarah greeted me, explained that the other pharmacist was running late, and asked if we could meet in an hour. I told her no problem. It was a rainy morning so I just went to St. George’s café to do some work. The hour passed quickly as I wrote and watched college kids trickle in and out of the café. I dropped my computer at the van and returned to the pharmacy.
Sarah was still a little busy so I sat patiently waiting like I was a customer getting my meds filled. It wasn’t long before she came out and we discussed the best spot to interview. The café I just left was too noisy and the weather kept us from taking up a bench outside. We ended up downstairs on the floor in the toy shop, by far one of the oddest places I have conducted an interview. However, it worked and only a few customers ventured down during our chat. It must have been an interesting site to see two adults planted on the floor of a toy shop talking about life.
The interview went well, and she started by letting me know exactly how much she was connected to Henniker. Her parents still lived in the house she grew up in, she only left New Hampshire for six years to go to college in Albany, New York, and she told me “this town is, everything I know.” Her father was the only plumber in town, and she now owned the only pharmacy in Henniker so, “between now having this job, and the fact that as a kid I rode around in a plumbing van, I know pretty much everybody in town.” But it was more than just being a part of Henniker, it was about New Hampshire, New England, and what small-town rural life meant in that part of the country. As children “our time was spent on my grandparent’s farm…there was always wood season…they did hay for all of the animals,” and there were “huge gardens, everything was canned, nobody bought anything.” She went on, “and that’s still very much the way my parents are and if I had a bigger kitchen that would be the way I am.”
In speaking about her family, one of the subjects brought up was how land had been taken from many in the region through eminent domain. It seemed to be an important part of the town’s history during the second half of the 20th century. Her mother’s family lost their farmland on the Contoocook River because of a flood control project, while her father’s parents lost their farm because the highway was put in. It hit her father’s family harder, as she explained, “they didn’t have the ability to rebound, they got very little, my grandmother ended up living and dying in a trailer park in West Henniker.” It was shocking to me but I guessed there were many stories like the one I was hearing. As Sarah said, “there was no question, there was no lawyers, there was no I’m gonna fight, it just was what it was.” It made me think that what we considered “our” land is not as black and white as we like to believe.
We finally moved on to her career and how she ended up owning and running the place we were sitting in. She started working as a pharmacy tech while still in high school and when people asked if she was going to go to school to be a pharmacist she said to herself, “well I hadn’t really thought of anything else, why not.” After looking at different schools she chose one in Albany, New York and “never really looked back, I was like, I guess I’m gonna be a pharmacist.” After school she believed she “was never going back to New Hampshire,” but, “I was back within a year of practicing.” In New Hampshire she worked for CVS and then ended up taking over the fulltime position at the Henniker pharmacy. That was twenty-two years ago and then “dammit all, ten years ago, I bought it…I will officially own it and have paid off my loan in May .”
However, there is a dark side to owning the pharmacy and she told me that “when it comes time to sell, there isn’t going to be a me like there was a me for Joe, and I’m going to have to sell to a chain, and I will be run out of town.” She told me this with tears in her eyes, explaining, “I won’t even want to have a house in this town, this town I have grown up in my whole life…I will most definitely be the devil when this is all said and done.” It was something that hadn’t dawned on me but made perfect sense when she explained it; she would be put out of business by a chain and then be blamed when she did what she needed to survive. I couldn’t imagine what that felt like for someone who was so attached to her home town. Sadly our interview was cut short by business she needed to attend to. I thanked her for her time and left content with our talk.
The day was still fresh and I thought I would try Bob again back at the campground. I waited at my site until the office opened and when I walked in I was greeted by yet another employee, wondering how many people worked there. She was friendly like the rest and told me Bob was in the other room. I went in and he and a friend were working on wiring a light. I said hello and told him if there was a better time I could return but he said he was free. I explained I had to grab my recorder and would be right back.
When I returned he was alone and I sat across from him. The conversation didn’t flow as easily as the one with Sarah but better than some I’ve had. I started asking about family and growing up in Henniker but I couldn’t get much out of him. When the conversation turned to work he opened up a little and told me that by the time he was eight he was already working with his father who was a surveyor. From what I gathered he worked since then and had a number of jobs over the years, all in Henniker or the surrounding region. At the turn of the century he decided, “I wanted to work for myself, I didn’t want to work for somebody else, and I was working other places for seventy, eighty hours a week.” In 2001 he bought the campground and it was clearly an important part of his life, something I could get him really talking about. He was once on the regional camp association board of directors, knew the other grounds owners nearby, and explained that in the industry, “everyone thinks you’re in competition but you’re always cooperating with each other.” I also got insight on the renovation he had to do after purchasing the grounds, a consequence of state laws and the growth of the R.V. boom. He even mentioned he met his wife there when he was an employee a decade before he bought it.
Another aspect of Bob’s life he was proud of was his participation and connection to Henniker. In many towns I have come across there is usually some elected board that acts as a mayor of sorts. I’ve heard them called town fathers, alderman, or in Henniker it’s selectmen. Bob was one of current five selectmen. He was also part of the committee putting together the 250th anniversary celebration happening the following year and told me, “the fun thing about this was back fifty years ago when they had the 200th anniversary, my father was on the committee and I went to [the celebration] at four years old.” I sensed the pride he had in getting to walk in his father’s shoes. The last event he mentioned he participated in was Music on Main Street, an annual event that started back in 2010. Bob was a part of Henniker and rightfully prideful of his home town.
When the interview ended he offered to give me a tour of the campground and we hopped in a golf cart. I was impressed by how big it was, something I wouldn’t have known without exploring it. It was a little cluttered and I got the sense Bob liked to keep things. He showed me the very large carnival game that he and his daughter made and used for a raffle during the Music on Main Street festival. The tour was a nice addition to the interview and when we returned to the office I thanked him for taking the time to spend with me.
Afterwards I was ready for some lunch. I went to Sonny’s Main Street Pizza to try another Henniker establishment and found the place spacious, with a huge menu. It reminded me of the common family style pizzeria one would take the kids to after a ballgame. Everything on the menu was what I expected, pizza, subs, and calzones. I got a simple but tasty and well-priced cheesesteak that did the job. I didn’t have high expectations and my meal was better than I imagined it would be. Satisfied, I planned my next move.
I stopped first at the Tucker Free Library just down the road on Main Street. It’s located in a gorgeous building built in 1902 with a donation left by George Tucker, a Henniker native who made riches in the lumber industry. I strolled around the inside looking at the elaborate woodwork, chatted for a moment with the librarian, and then moved on. Next, I drove to Hillsboro about ten minutes south of Henniker. I took back roads following the river and passed a few rundown homes and a large trailer park, the first signs of poverty I saw in the region and still not too dire. In Hillsboro, I parked downtown and explored on foot. It’s a bit bigger than Henniker and also less affluent. There were a few decrepit homes and I got the vibe it was more blue-collar. There were also a number of large, beautiful homes, churches, and other buildings that told me there was also money there or once had been.
When I left Hillsboro, I was in the mood for a hike and drove back through Henniker to the Craney Hill Pond trailhead. The hike up was along an old road that more resembled a large ditch. The humidity from the earlier rain was worse than I thought and I was quickly drenched in sweat. I passed some chairlifts on Pats Peak that seemed to be waiting for winter’s arrival and rested. At the pond I was alone and sat, taking in the peace. The still water was a mirror reflecting the surrounding trees and passing cloud cover. I understood why people are drawn to the beauty of New England and the nature that seems to surround you at every step. I sat for a good minute taking it in before returning to the van along a much easier downhill trek.
After the hike I had a craving for the barbeque I ate at Country Spirit the night before. The place was much busier than my first visit and I remembered it was alumni weekend at NEC. It was also Friday night but I could tell many of the patrons were from out of town. I found a spot at the bar and ordered the same beer and the same plate. I sat taking in the atmosphere; it was quite cramped between those waiting for tables and groups just drinking. There seemed to be a lot of money in the room based on how people were dressed. The locals still had their spots at the bar and it was an interesting mix. My food came after a bit and was just as good. I stayed for a second beer but then paid and got out of there feeling a little overwhelmed. I spent the rest of the night relaxing back at the campground.
The next morning, with time to kill before returning to the historical society, I thought it might be nice to get breakfast. I first stopped at St. George’s Café but the line was almost out the door, so I tried the Intervale Farm Pancake House near Pats Peak. It too was pretty busy but I was able to find a spot at the bar. It has a large, clean, interior that makes you feel that you are in a lodge. The server was very friendly and I ordered a simple breakfast and tea. Interestingly the place has farm in the name, is in an agricultural region, yet they still use pre-packaged processed jelly. The breakfast was decent and I didn’t leave hungry.
After, I drove over to the historical society to find Christin and Susan already there. We chatted a bit and then I helped Susan move an old wagon wheel that had recently been fished out of the river by some kids. They believed it dated to the mid-19th century which I found very exciting. Christin already had the archives on my roommate’s great grandfather Diamond Maxwell out so I took photos of the articles. I also listened to the tapes that Martha had dug up of oral history recordings taken years earlier, but sadly the quality was bad and my recorder wouldn’t pick them up. Before leaving, I spent a little more time in the office listening to stories like the one Christin told about treeing a bear in her backyard one morning and not even realizing it was there, with her cubs, until an hour of gardening had passed and the bear finally decided to come down. I hadn’t realized black bears were so present in the region and it made me feel a little silly for having hiked alone the day before.
After leaving, the only other thing I had planned was a tour of the Henniker Brewing Company later in the afternoon. I wanted to eat before the tour so I stopped at one of the few places I hadn’t tried yet, Western Ave Pizzeria. The menu looked just like Sonny’s where I had eaten the day before and not what I wanted. Instead it was back to Daniel’s to take advantage of the patio one last time.
After parking, I felt I should first go to the Henniker House to drop off the book Kate loaned me, also hoping to say goodbye. Sadly, no one answered and I left the book where she mentioned I should if she wasn’t around. At Daniel’s I was greeted by Kevin who asked me my name again, brought me back to the patio, and then confirmed with me that we would be meeting the following day. I sat down and ordered a beer and a burger. I chatted with the waitress and she told me how busy it was the previous evening and how it really tested her. She mentioned the crowd was particularly rude which I attributed to most of them being NEC alumni. From what I learned it was a school that took money to get into, not grades, and I wasn’t surprised the alumni might act privileged, something I have dealt with a lot working in the restaurant industry. Finally my burger came, I happily devoured it, and with a full belly I made my way to the brewery.
When I arrived it was also busy. I shuffled past everyone and went to ask about the tour. It had already started so I hurried back to join. I caught Alec in the middle of an explanation and he gave me a wave. The tour had about a dozen people on it and I stood in the back taking it all in but asking a few questions. Alec did a good job and I could tell he integrated what he had been learning at school with his experience at the brewery. It seemed everyone was pretty happy with the tour and after I took a few photos. I also got a chance to meet the founder of the brewery briefly and if it hadn’t been such a busy weekend I might have gotten a chance to interview him. I chatted a little more with Alec, had a few of the samples, and then moved on.
I wanted to take one last stroll through the campus to see if there were any festivities for the alumni weekend so I parked near the sports field and walked along the river. I passed what looked like a ladies rugby game and found it fitting at a small New England college. I heard another game going somewhere in the distance and realized the alumni weekend was really just a chance to do what many of them did while they attended: party, fraternize, and watch sports. I returned to the van and then the campground for the rest of the evening. Sometimes I find hanging in town enjoyable when I’m working on the project, but I didn’t think it was my type of crowd that weekend, and the silence of my campsite was wonderful.
At the site I just kicked back in the hammock, put on some music, and enjoyed the weather and peace. I took the time to reflect on the week I had and the people I met. I was wondering how my last interview would go with Kevin as he seemed a bit intense the few times I met him. It had been a long summer of working in Maine and I put in a lot of hours, I was very content to be back working on the project and enjoying nature. I ended up going to bed pretty early since I had to be up by 7:30 the next morning.
I was up with enough time to make a tea for the road, and drove to town for the last interview. It was a gorgeous morning and Henniker was quiet. I parked and walked over to where Kevin had agreed to meet. I was a little early so I just sipped my tea and took in the stillness. At 8:45 I gave a knock, walked up and down the building to see if anyone was inside, but got the feeling I was stood up. I didn’t give up and returned to sit and wait. After another ten minutes, I gave the building another round, another knock, but nothing. I went to the van, got some paper, and wrote a simple note saying I stopped by and was disappointed we didn’t get to meet. It was a little annoying that I was up early for nothing, but it wasn’t the first time I had been stood up for an interview. I also wasn’t totally surprised judging from the short interactions I had with him and the reputation he had earned in town.
Back at the campground I relaxed a bit, took my time packing, and finally got on the road. Leaving New Hampshire, back towards Maine, I began to think about how I originally choose Henniker that night with my roommate, and how I was able to learn so much about his family there. It reminded me of my visit to Hart, Michigan a year earlier where I was looking to learn about my own family’s past. I thought about how a geographical region could also be piece of your family and intertwined into one’s history. I was also pleased that after five months off I didn’t feel like I lost a step. I made great connections and learned a good deal about the only Henniker on earth, exactly what I was looking for from the project. It was the first of what would be a four town stint around New England and I looked forward to where the road would take me next.