Discovering Henniker

An easy ski getaway in the "North Conway of the South"

Pats Peak is an accessible mountain suitable for the whole family. Photo by Stillman Rogers

We always seem to go to Henniker in the winter. That’s because we think of it as southern New Hampshire’s ski town, the North Conway of the South. Maybe it doesn’t have the variety of nearby slopes that North Conway does, but it does have all we need for a weekend or a midweek break: Pats Peak’s well-groomed trails, an inviting lodge, affordable lift tickets, a good choice of nearby restaurants and a lovely country inn to return to after a day skiing. The double Jacuzzi in the corner of our room at the Colby Hill Inn doesn’t hurt, either.

The last time we went, though, we had more than skiing on our minds. Family lore on the Rogers side holds that the current generations are umpteenth cousins of George Washington. Right. And I’m descended from an English king. I take family lore — his or mine — with a grain of seasoned sea salt. But this one, my in-laws insist, has proof and it’s in Henniker.

Supposedly there is a tombstone that identifies the Rogers ancestor, interred as a cousin to George Washington. The quest for that cemetery, a day’s skiing at Pats Peak and the prospect of dinner at The Grazing Room was all the excuse we needed. The skiing and dinner were smashing successes.

The triple chairlift at Pats Peak, newly opened this season, doubles the capacity to the summit, further cutting the already-short lift lines. It accesses the Cascade Basin Expansion, a new area on the backside of the main mountain that opened in the 2013-14 season. Its glades and six trails have 100-percent snowmaking coverage.

We love the fact that Pats Peak is a family operation and has been from the start, when the four Patenaude brothers, with the help of family and friends, built the lodge from timber cut on a mountain their father owned, cutting the beams at the family’s sawmill. Skiing began the next year, in 1963, on five trails and three open slopes. They quickly built a local following with their after-school programs, and they installed some of the first snowmaking equipment. New lifts followed, then more trails, night skiing, a terrain park, tubing, groomers, snow biking and the new set of trails on the back of the mountain.

The triple chairlift at Pats Peak isn’t the only thing that’s new since we were last in Henniker. In 2016, the Colby Hill Inn was bought by new owners, one of them Chef Jefferson Brechbühl, who immediately began plans for a new locally sourced restaurant. The Grazing Room, which relies whenever possible on foods grown or produced no more than 150 miles from Henniker, quickly became a destination.  

The ingredients are local, but the inspirations for dishes come from many different food traditions: goat cheese and figs fill pierogis, Korean-style fish and chips includes crisp nori and kimchi, smoky cheddar grits accompany the braised pork shank. Suggested pairings include wines from Jewell Towne Vineyards in South Hampton and Contoocook Sparkling Cider from nearby Gould Hill Farm.

The décor of the restaurant, which overlooks the inn’s large backyard with its weathered barn, follows the same ethic as the food sourcing. Local furniture maker Gil Misiaszek is creating new tables from wood salvaged from a 1740 barn, and the owners have commissioned a mural in the style of Rufus Porter, based on drawings of town buildings on an 1803 map of Henniker.    

The mural reminded us of our quest for family history, so we turned to the Henniker Historical Society in the 1836 Henniker Academy building for a look through the fascinating “History of the Town of Henniker.”

The Colby Hill Inn offers fine, locally sourced dining in The Grazing Room. Courtesy photo

In the course of discovering that John Rogers was indeed a second cousin of George Washington and was born the same day — February 22, 1732 — we got sidetracked with other engaging bits from Henniker’s history. Some of it bordered on 18th- and 19th-century gossip (great fun to read), and others noted landmark events, such as the first cook stoves in town (four families got these in 1832), the first stagecoach line through town (1824), the first brass band (1856), the first puppet show (1814) and the first elephant exhibited here (1815).

The book also illuminated events from the town’s past, including the “poverty year” of 1816, when it was too cold for crops to mature, and a memorable July 4 celebration in 1811. Henniker invited neighboring towns to a banquet that filled tables stretched for “90 rods” (about 1,475 feet) covered with “an immense amount of meats, white and brown bread, pies, cakes and great quantities of cheese.” The centerpiece was an entire roast calf with a pickle in its mouth. “None were known to go away hungry,” the writer assured us.

Putting the town history together with the list of burials in town cemeteries, we surmised that the stone we were looking for was that of John’s second son, Obadiah, who died in 1862 and lies in Plummer Cemetery. Finding the tombstone will have to wait until spring, as will tracing to see if it’s the same family line. Fortunately, the Henniker Historical Society has an active genealogy program, so we’ll enlist their help. Whether or not John and Obadiah are in the family past, it was a great excuse for a winter weekend in Henniker.

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