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'Our Town': The Likely Candidates

August 09, 1987|MICHAEL SCHUMAN | Schuman is a Keene, N.H., free-lance writer.

HANCOCK, N.H. — You come up here on a fine afternoon and you can see range on range of hills--awful blue they are. . . . And of course, our favorite mountain, Mount Monadnock's right here--and all around it lie these towns--Jaffrey, 'n East Jaffrey, 'n Peterborough, 'n Dublin, and there, quite a ways down, is Grover's Corners. Yes, beautiful spot up here.

--"Our Town" Thornton Wilder, 1938

The towns in southwestern New Hampshire's Monadnock Region have grown a bit since Thornton Wilder's omniscient stage manager first spoke those words on a Broadway stage almost half a century ago.

But the feel of this part of New England is still small town. The roads in the Monadnock Region are two lane; clapboard homes and white-steepled Colonial churches endure the elements, standing squarely like silent sentinels guarding town greens as they have for 200 years.

The towns of which the stage manager spoke, with the exception of Grover's Corners (a creation of Wilder's imagination, though area historians swear he based his characters on the people of Peterborough), really do exist.

The ranges of hills are still a deep, distant blue. In the fall they are fronted by reds and golds and oranges. And the whitewashed churches and houses become a pristine backdrop for the maples and birches as they change colors.

This is the uncommercialized, unhurried place that people have in mind when they think of New England.

The creeping megalopolis has entered New Hampshire, but mercifully it is far to the east, encompassing the new high-tech havens around Nashua and Manchester. It will continue to creep north long before it spreads west.

Still Little Changed

The Monadnock Region has not yet turned into a high-price resort area such as farther north in the White Mountains and in Vermont's Green Mountains, with their major ski areas, masses of condominiums, cookie-cutter motels and lodges with false Alpine stylings.

The Monadnock Region is sincere New England. It is warm and genuine, unfeigned and unassuming.

Hancock (population 1,186) is at the junction of New Hampshire 123 and 137. A few hundred feet east of town center is the Greek Revival-style John Hancock Inn, serving hungry and weary travelers since 1789. Hancock's town meeting house (circa 1820), was built on the town green and moved across the street 31 years later.

A brown-and-white bandstand sits on the green. Up Norway Hill is the Norway Hill Orchard, which offers visitors the chance to pick their own ripe, crisp apples; owner Marguerite McLeod says fall foliage seekers are among her best customers.

Said one visitor, while gazing at the orchard, country inn, bandstand and meeting house: "Hancock looks just like New England should look."

Out-of-towners may not say that about nearby Harrisville, although it too captures a special New England flavor. But its center differs from popular images; the prevalent building material here is industrial red brick, not familiar white wood.

The mills that were here are long gone, but the buildings that housed them are used for both commercial and residential purposes. The reflection of the sturdy brick buildings in the mill pond fascinates camera buffs.

Then there's Dublin Lake, west of Dublin and by the north slope of Mt. Monadnock. At different times of the day you'll be blessed with varied visions. The noon sunlight does a tap dance on the lake's ripples. In late afternoon the bordering trees reflect in waters that appear misleadingly dark and deep. The sight of the evening sun setting behind the mountain takes your breath away.

Of course, residents of Jaffrey will tell you that there is no view of Mt. Monadnock like that seen while heading east toward their village on New Hampshire 124. It's a commanding vista, and those who meander down this road without knowledge are often stunned by the melange of color fronting the south face of the imposing peak.

The people of Jaffrey, like those of Hancock, are proud of their meeting house. This one was being constructed on June 17, 1775, at a time when, just 70 miles away, the Battle of Bunker Hill was raging in Boston. Tradition has it that men working on the structure could hear the sounds of the battle. A sign on the south wall facing the common reads:

Original Meeting House

Town of Jaffrey

Erected 1775

Raised the Day of the Battle of Bunker Hill

You can't hear the sounds of Boston from the Monadnock Region today but on a clear day you can see the sights. It takes two or three hours to climb 3,165-foot Mt. Monadnock, which, locals say, is the second-most climbed mountain in the world. (They credit Japan's Mt. Fujiyama as No. 1.)

No climber will ever be lonely there in fall. To avoid the biggest crowds, get an early start. And to be safe, take plenty of liquids and a Windbreaker or jacket, regardless of how warm it is at the base.

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