Meandering Around Madison
Exploring the historic town where glaciers left their mark
Three unique natural areas and a favorite family summer camp took us to Madison for a summer weekend.
All three of Madison’s natural landmarks, like so many others in the state, were created by the glaciers that covered northern New England and melted away between 10,000 and 18,000 years ago. Their departure scoured and reshaped the landscape in endlessly interesting ways.
The most fascinating of these phenomena are glacial erratics — glacially deposited rocks different from the native rocks found in the area they’re located — and the grandaddy of them all is the Madison Boulder. The largest known in the Americas, this immense rock is 83 feet long, stands 23 feet above the ground and weighs about 5,000 tons.
The boulder’s exact source is unknown, but thought to be Whitton Ledge about 2 miles north; other geologists have suggested as far away as Mount Willard in Crawford Notch. Buried about 12 feet in the earth, it always reminds me of a beached whale. The Madison Boulder Natural Area features an easy, level walk through mixed woods protected by the Nature Conservancy.
The environmental nonprofit protects another unique landmark not far away. Ossipee Pine Barrens (it extends into several towns) is New Hampshire’s last intact pitch pine and scrub oak woodland, a rare forest type anywhere in the world and one of the state’s most endangered ecosystems. As glaciers melted, the runoff water carried debris gathered by the ice, dropping the larger bits on higher land and leaving finer sand and gravel to accumulate in depressions where melting waters gathered — in this case, the depression that became Silver and Ossipee Lakes.
As the lakes receded to their present shapes, the sandy lowland between them was unable to support mixed forests, instead hosting stunted pitch pine and scrub oak that survived in the poor, acidic glacial till. Threatened bird species such as whippoorwills make their homes here, along with rare butterflies. The Pine Barrens Loop is a relaxed trail through this unusual forest, at the southern shore of Silver Lake.
Madison’s third notable gift from the glaciers is an undisturbed and accessible esker. Formed by sand and gravel deposited by a stream flowing underneath or inside a melting glacier, an esker is a long, narrow, winding ridge of sand. These can be as tall as 100 feet and often a mile long. Because of their poor soil, eskers predominantly grow white pine.
While not unusual in New Hampshire — one of the largest runs along the east side of Route 16 in Ossipee — most easy-to-reach eskers have been quarried as sandpits. All or part of these quarried eskers have gradually found their way to construction sites, roadbeds or spread along highways in the winter.
But running alongside Purity Lake, inside the Hoyt Wildlife Sanctuary and overlooking Purity Spring Resort, is a classic and undisturbed esker, with a hiking trail along its crest. The yellow-blazed Esker Trail overlooks another glacial remnant — a classic kettle pond — and continues down to circle around it.
Other trails in the sanctuary lead past cellar holes, stone walls and a tiny cemetery that tell the story of early settlers who farmed the land from the 1700s until the mid-1800s. These settlers dammed the lake (or re-dammed it, since beavers had already created a lake) and built a mill that formed the nucleus of East Madison. In the late-1800s, water from a spring near the mill was bottled, and Purity Natural Mineral Spring Water made its way to homes in Boston and New York.
The Spring House is still there, part of Purity Spring Resort, founded in 1911 and still owned by the same family. The Hoyts have expanded the resort over its century-long history from a small country inn to a year-round family resort, with lodging, dining, beaches, water sports, an indoor pool and outdoor activities. In the winter, King Pine Ski Area opens for downhill skiing, with cross-country trails, a tubing hill and ice skating at the resort.
As East Madison grew around the mill, a larger community was forming at Madison Corners, where the road leading from Dover to Conway (now Route 113) met the road from Saco, Maine, to Conway. Madison became a stagecoach stop, building a tavern in 1824.
In 1870, the Portsmouth, Great Falls and Conway Railroad line opened, running alongside Silver Lake, with a station at the head of the lake. Silver Lake House opened four years later and other lodgings welcomed summer tourists. The Madison Railroad Station (aka the Silver Lake Railroad) still stands at the head of the lake and, until recently, was the terminus for a scenic rail trip along the shore.
Madison Historical Society Museum offers a refuge to learn more about the town’s past, turning impressively well-organized and labeled collections into curated annual exhibits. This year’s “Memories of Madison” focuses on the town’s wartime history.
The museum also displays artifacts relating to acclaimed poet E.E. Cummings, who spent summers at Joy Farm on Silver Lake (which is on the National Register of Historic Places but not open to the public). Cummings, we learned, was an accomplished artist, although his fame came from poetry.
A good time to visit the museum — typically open Tuesdays from 2 to 4 p.m. in the summer — is during Madison’s Old Home Week, when it will be open daily. Occurring each year during the second week of August (August 6-12, 2023), Old Home Week celebrates Madison with a litany of town activities, including yard sales, tournaments, contests, a pancake breakfast, a beach party, a fireman’s muster, log rolling, vintage cars, a parade, a dance, live music, a craft show, a bean hole supper and a chicken barbecue.
The week-long block party gives former residents a real reason to come home to Madison. Everyone is welcome, and you can go home wearing a “Madison Rocks” T-shirt (sold at the Historical Society Museum).
More New Hampshire towns and cities to explore
The map below reveals the towns that have been examined and reported on in the “Our Town” department of New Hampshire Magazine over the past decade or so by two writers who have contributed to New Hampshire Magazine for most of it’s existence.
Click on a marker to display a link to learn more about a particular town.