Readers Remember the Old Man of the Mountain, 20 Years Later
My Editor’s Note in the May issue of New Hampshire Magazine stirred up a little controversy when I confessed to not really “getting” the appeal of that rocky icon when I moved to the Granite State 35 years ago. Fortunately, as I got a little older myself (and my own head grew a little harder), I did start to appreciate him as both a symbol and a player in the life of the land of Live Free or Die. To give others a chance to state their own cases for the true legacy of the Old Man, I invited readers to submit short stories about what he meant (or still means) to them and got some wonderful responses.
Here are some of the best, with links to aid anyone seeking more of the “life story” of the Great Stone Face.
Best Face Forward
Your Editor’s Note in the May 2023 issue of “New Hampshire” sent me on a trip down memory lane! My late husband, John, was working in the Bridge Design office the NH State Highway Department in the late 1950s when he and a colleague (whose name I do not recall) were sent to the Old Man of the Mountain’s head to install strain gauges in the steel tie bars that had been inserted into the rock formations that were the Old Man’s head in order to stabilize those rocks.
Once the strain gauges were installed, John and his colleague made periodic trips to the Old Man’s head to read any movement recorded on the gauges, however minute, that had occurred. To reach the Head, they rode the tramway to the top of the mountain, hiked down and out onto the Old Man’s head. John always said the view from there was wonderful!! At the end of the day, they hiked back up to take the tramway back down. Needless to say, it was always a huge relief for me to have him arrive back home to Canterbury at the end of those days! He was a good swimmer, but swimming in the lake beneath the Man’s head was not advised!
Jan Sanborn, Exeter
A View From the Top
My favorite Old Man memory took place about three years before he fell, during a group hike of Cannon Mountain.
We climbed to the top of the Old Man. The view was phenomenal, including looking down to see cars that appeared to be matchboxes driving through Franconia Notch. Like you, I was fascinated by the turnbuckle system to keep the face in place. It was even more impressive to see it up close and touch the huge bolts. Well, I guess if Joan Rivers could have her “plastic surgeon to the stars,” the Old Man of the Mountain could have the Nielsens (https://newengland.com/yankee/history/oldman/).
I was also taken by the cut made in the side of the face to allow runoff when it rained and reduce erosion of the nose. It looked for all the world like one of Elvis’s sideburns!
Not lost on me was that this was, as mentioned, just three years before the collapse. In “rock years” (sort of like “dog years” but the reverse), three years is the blink of an eye to a structure that stood since the tectonic plates combined to force upward into the creation of the White Mountains. I’m no geologist, but imagine the collapse could have just as easily occurred while my hiking partners and I were standing on it.
I’m happy to have survived that experience and keep the memory.
Cary Gladstone, Concord
“G’night Old Man. Wherever You Are.”
I remember the day the Old Man fell because it was the day of the preview of the restored Wentworth By the Sea Hotel, for which I was handling the PR. When remarks were made, standing in the driveway in front of the not-quite-completed restoration of the grande dame, someone said, “The Old Man may be gone, but Wentworth By the Sea is back!”
My favorite story though is that Dick Hamilton, the storied president of White Mountain Attractions, after turning off the lights and heading home at the end of each day, would look up Franconia Notch and say, “G’night, Old Man.” On the night of May 2 he said, “G’night Old Man. Wherever you are.”
They say in Japan that when clouds cover Mt. Fuji it’s because “she’s not there.” The mountain spirit has gone walk-about. Maybe the Great Stone Face still walks among us.
Stephanie Seacord, Leading Edge, Newfields
A Portrait of the Old Man
I am a lifelong resident of New Hampshire, growing up visiting the White Mountains every summer with my parents and us four kids. My dad would always stop anytime we would travel to Kancamagus Highway or camping at White Lake, or on the way to Canada. Mom would make a picnic lunch and we stopped at Profile Lake to enjoy the picnic in the presence of the Old Man of the Mountain. I was always amazed and so admired how he seemed to watch over us with a stately manner. It was such a big part of growing up in NH, and our children also had that connection.
I remember the heavy feeling of loss we all felt on May 3, 2003. It was a horrible tragedy, and a big part of our heritage was gone. A week later, I was commissioned to paint the Old Man of the Mountain as a remembrance of his grandeur for a co-worker of my husband.
My dad had old photographs that he had taken, and postcards as well. I referenced both, and painted the image in pastel. It was greatly received and I decided to have the original professionally scanned, and printed giclee prints which I sold in future years at the art shows I exhibited at throughout New England.
I have a large print 32”x44” available that I would love to donate to an organization. If you should know of anyone, please forward my email to them. Thank You! [Editor’s Note: Send queries about this print to email@example.com.]
Doreen Boissonneault, Manchester
A Song of Farewell
It takes a brave man to admit he didn’t “get” the Old Man at first. (My Minnesota wife has been known to say, “It was a rock!”) At any rate, here’s how I came to write what may be the unofficial anthem to the Old Man of the Mountain, perhaps fodder for your memorial project.
On Saturday morning, May 3, 2003, I turned on the radio and heard the news that the Old Man of the Mountain had fallen. I realized pretty quickly that this was going to be hard for people and starting jotting down some thoughts. As sometimes happens, the thoughts seemed to organize themselves into the words of a song, “Goodbye, Old Man.” I picked out a melody on the guitar and decided to record it in case it might help comfort those feeling the loss. I sent the song to a contact at NH Public Radio and they played the song as part of their story that morning. That, I thought, would be the end of that.
The next day, I got a call from State Senator Sylvia Larsen, who asked if I would be willing to sing the song for the Senate. Needless to say, I was nervous but honored to sing in that historic chamber. Later, I was invited to perform “Goodbye, Old Man” at the Family Remembrance Day service for the Old Man of the Mountain in Franconia. Then the song was included in the introduction to the manual for General Court for that year. It was also nominated to become an official “state song.” [Note to Editor: I think there are nine or ten official state songs at last count, but mine was voted “Inexpedient to Legislate.” Maybe you can pull some strings and do something about that.]
In the years since the Old Man of the Mountain’s passing, I’ve had occasion to perform “Goodbye, Old Man” across New Hampshire and the rest of New England and have been surprised at the outpouring of emotion that always accompanies it.
Ken Sheldon, kensheldon.com
P.S. Here are just a few of the comments I’ve received over the years:
I can’t tell you in words what’s felt in my heart when I hear this song and read these words.
Having lived in New Hampshire most of my life it was as if I had lost an old friend when the Old Man fell. Your song expresses the feelings of many of us in a wonderful way.
I have an early morning show on WMOU, and my listeners have constantly requested it since I first played it… Thanx again for capturing the essence of the old man.
You captured what a lot of New Hampshire-ites are thinking or feeling right about now about the old man. Mike
It made me cry. You really put into words what so many of us must be feeling right now.
I am sitting here listening to you sing about “My Old Man” with tears and just wanted to thank you for putting the words that are in my heart to music that will last forever.
Thank you for helping us deal with the loss of New Hampshire’s masterpiece.
Another Song of Farewell
Grammy-nominated songwriter and New Hampshire native Rick Lang and friend Evan Richert collaborated on the song “Great Stone Face” to offer a musical tribute to celebrate the legacy of New Hampshire’s “Old Man of The Mountain,” which was one of the best-known natural rock formations in the country. Lang has now accepted an invitation to perform the song at the New Hampshire State House on May 3, 2023, for the invitation-only Old Man of the Mountain Remembrance Event that will commemorate the 20th anniversary of the collapse of the “Great Stone Face.” Also, during the event, New Hampshire Governor Chris Sununu and Council will officially proclaim May 3rd “Old Man of The Mountain Day.”
The Old Man of the Mountain Remembrance Event will be available to the public online beginning at 11 a.m. at oldmannh.org [official website of the Old Man of the Mountain Legacy Fund. Presented by the Museum of the White Mountains in Plymouth, attendees will learn how The Old Man shaped New Hampshire’s identity from its first recorded discovery in 19th century until today. The cultural part of the program includes personal stories about the Old Man and poems from local students, with Lang presenting his new song “Great Stone Face.” In addition to his performance, the ceremony will include the debut of Lang’s “Great Stone Face” music video.
A free download of the recorded track, featuring the stellar vocals of two-time Grammy Award-winning artist Josh Shilling, will be available at RickLangMusic.com. Lang said his co-writer, Richert, found inspiration for the song from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short story, “The Great Stone Face,” published in 1850, and suggested we follow the storyline for our song.
About an Hour from Home
I was only able to start reading this month’s NH Mag this morning and quickly put this document together after reading the Editor’s note. Hope you enjoy it.
Although I am a first generation born American, I consider myself mostly Canadian due to the amount of time spent in the country my parents “moved away” from. From the age of 4 months, and at least once a month, my parents and I would drive the four hours to Quebec (five hours if we were going to Montreal) visit and stay with the many family members they had “moved away” from. Starting from Manchester’s West Side, we hopped on 293N to quickly join 93 and in a little over an hour I’d get to see the Old Man of the Mountain. Sometimes it was difficult to stay awake for that hour, but I would become upset with myself if I was unable to turn my head and wave to him. When traveling back to Little Quebec (aka West Side of Manchester), I would allow myself to doze, but only if my parents had promised to wake me when we were near Franconia so that may see the Old Man. After staring at the magnificent formation in the sky for only a few seconds, or minutes if there was traffic, I knew I’d be home in a little over an hour.
My Covid Old Man tattoo (that’s another story😉)
Run the Old Man up the Flagpole?
The New Hampshire State Legislature has established an annual Day of Remembrance for our iconic “Old Man of the Mountains” that fell 20 years ago on May 3, 2003. State officials should also consider updating the state flag, giving it a new look, possibly incorporating our symbol of the Old Man, recognized by many across the world as being uniquely from New Hampshire.
The centerpiece of our current flag is an image of a Revolutionary War ship: the USS Raleigh. The ship was named after famed English soldier and explorer Sir Walter Raleigh, who brought potatoes and tobacco to England. He is also mythologized as placing his coat over a puddle to prevent Queen Elizabeth I from getting dirty when she crossed it. He became one of her favorites. After she died, her successor, King James I, accused him of treason, based on very flimsy issues, and had him beheaded.
Few people know that the USS Raleigh is purported to be the first ship to go into battle flying the newly designed American flag. Pretty noble, for sure. The Royal Navy forced her to beach herself, removing her from the American fleet. The RN refloated the ship and commissioned it into its own fleet. The HMS Raleigh took part in the attack on Charlestown, South Carolina — probably not appreciated by South Carolinians. The RN decommissioned the Raleigh in 1781.
The North American Vexillological Association judges and rates flags on a number of categories. It rates New Hampshire’s state flag at 63 out of 72 state flags (some states have more than one). Perhaps a new state flag design is needed. Art students (college and high school) could design possibilities. And a committee could choose one.
Ronald N. Dube, Mason
When traveling on vacation down in St John, US Virgin Islands in Feb, we came across a favorite stop called “THE WINDMILL BAR”
The windmills in St John are historically famous for grinding sugar cane, this one was erected around 1780 – 1800.
When looking up at the top of the windmill, I noticed a somewhat familiar figure’s profile! It seems that New Hampshire’s famous OLD MAN OF THE MOUNTAIN did not actually perish back in May of 2003! He simply decided to retire to a warmer climate!
Bruce & Jeanne O’Hurley, Brentwood
Marshall Hudson Responds
Thought you might like to hear my knee-jerk first impressions from what I’ve read so far: Your column says you are from out of state and then says… “Aint we all?” Nope. Some of us were born here from ancestors that have been here forever.
You inquired where we were when learned that the Old Man fell. I was at Pease Air Force Base. I was in an Engineering Squadron and the question came to us/me if rebuilding it was an option. I answered that with enough time and money you can build anything, but realistically…forget it. I had hiked up and stood on top of the Old Man before he fell and seen the turnbuckles holding him together and the massive blocks and dizzy heights. Hauling those blocks back into place would have been a challenge.
[Note: Hudson writes the regular “What Do You Know” department in New Hampshire Magazine]
How the Old Man Fell
Boston.com ran an excellent summary of remarks about the loss of the Old Man in 2018 to mark the 15th year since his demise and among other useful and interesting features is a vivid description of the way the Great Stone Face most likely came apart provided by two “witnesses” who heard it happen and a geologist’s visualization. [Warning: Images could be upsetting to some, so view at your own risk.]
Two rock climbers — Matt Shannon of Sanbornton, New Hampshire, and Jacob Hadden of Montpelier, Vermont — told the Associated Press at the time that they were sleeping in a van in the Profile Lake parking lot when a long rumbling sound woke them sometime around midnight Saturday morning.
Hadden: We heard a loud rumble.
They said the sound lasted about 5 to 10 seconds, but they thought nothing of it and went back to sleep. Seismologists say that a 2002 earthquake in the Adirondacks probably loosened the rock — specifically the Old Man’s jaw — and that the weather conspired to eventually cause the entire face to collapse and slide down the mountain.
It wasn’t until the sun came up that Saturday morning that two Franconia Notch State Park rangers noticed the Old Man was gone.
Old Man Insurance Policy
[Editor’s Note: The following note from Megan MacLeod inspired this whole effort]
My dad was one of the founders of New Hampshire Profiles magazine in the 50s. I thought you might be interested in a fun fact concerning the magazine.
After Profiles was set up and running my father, Art Moody, went into Slawsby Insurance in Nashua and took out an insurance policy on The Old Man of The Mountain, since this was the logo they used for the magazine.
About a year after the Old Man collapsed in 2003, we were going through a box of my father’s and we found a press release from the Nashua Telegraph about the policy. We figured we would see if we could cash in on the demise of The Old Man. As you might imagine we ran into a lot of obstacles, insurance companies had changed or gone out of business, no one could find the actual policy, only the article and a picture of my dad holding it. Eventually we had to come to the conclusion that there would be no check in the mail!
The policy as you can read was taken out with the NH Fire Insurance Co. through Slawsby. The picture attached is from the Telegraph. My father is the second from the right holding a portion of the policy, I don’t know the other men. At this point this is the only information I can find on the policy. I will talk to my sister to see if she remembers anything about this as she is six years older than me and my father passed away in 1959, when I was 7.
It is certainly an intriguing story, but hard to find any information since it occurred so many years ago.
Meg Moody MacLeod, Franconia
Notes from the Curator of the Museum of the White Mountains
In researching the history and importance of the Old Man of the Mountain in New Hampshire’s history, I’ve discovered a few things.
The Old Man of the Mountain is closely identified with New Hampshire – its emblem, the state quarter, road signs etc. feature the Profile. At first one might think that, like other states, an engaging tourist attraction or identifiable connection with history had been chosen (like the Massachusetts’ Minuteman or the Charter Oak in Connecticut). But what I’ve learned is that the Old Man means far more than just a natural curiosity to so many people. When 19th century tourists came to the region, they already had anthropomorphized the Profile – Hawthorne had written about him as a benevolent overseer of the people who lived below, artists painted him as though surrounded by a halo of clouds (after all, he was created by God), poets wrote odes to him. When the Old Man was written about, he was given the characteristics of what could generally be thought of as New Hampshire qualities and values – rugged individualism, stoic, steadfast, able to weather anything, unique, etc. Daniel Webster (he didn’t say it – but it is attributed to him) claimed that the Profile was God proclaiming that in New Hampshire “he made men”. (Quote below) Later, when Franconia Notch was for sale to timber companies, the state, the Forest Society and the Federation of Women’s Clubs, rallied to raise money for a state forest and memorial park. The central messaging was that the Old Man must be saved, and saving him was a patriotic act. Later, when plans for the Interstate through the Notch were challenged, in the 1960-80s, again, the concerns for saving the Old Man were at the center of the debate. Certainly tourism was a concern, as were environmental protections. But the rhetoric around all of this seemed to go beyond saving an interesting rock formation and to saving an icon of New Hampshire identity.
What most surprises me is that even today the Old Man is still present — evoked in political campaigns, protests, advertisements, art and tourism.
Governor Chris Sununu’s latest campaign featured the Old Man’s profile on his signs. A trans-rights protester held a sign with the Profile at a state house rally in March. A recent letter to the editor in our local paper brought up what the Old Man stood for and how we should return to those values; tourist stops still feature tee shirts, mugs and caps with the image, and beer and alcohol companies still name their brews after the Profile. We still have the Old Man on our license plates, state road signs and other state-issued material. When I mention I am working on this exhibition people want to tell me either how they felt the first time they saw it, or where they were when they learned it fell. There are a few exceptions – but most people tell me they feel something of a loss and like to discuss why that is.
Inez McDermott, curator of the Old Man exhibit
And one more that just squeaked in at the deadline:
I may have missed the deadline, but a story on Chronicle reminded me I’d wanted to share.
That Saturday in May of 2003 was my daughter’s graduation at UNH. It was a rainy, blustery day. The news came on. I felt sad, as we’d looked for the Old Man with our two daughters on annual ski trips through their lives.
Meryl Streep gave the commencement address that day — her nephew was also graduating. She rolled the news into her speech, ending with a comment something like, “Take heart. It may mean that it’s now women’s time in NH.” Of course, the female grads roared their support and it seemed a good way to take the event. (Though I still miss the Old Man).
Old Man Remembrance Day Events
Here are some of the upcoming exhibition and events commemorating the 20th anniversary of the demise of the Old Man of the Mountain on May 3, 2003.
The Museum of the White Mountains (at Plymouth State University in Plymouth, New Hampshire) will explore the iconic rock formation’s history and lasting influence with a new exhibition, called An Enduring Legacy: The Old Man of the Mountain, from June 3 to Sept. 15, 2023.
The museum is also partnering with the Old Man of the Mountain Legacy Fund, which is hosting a 20th Anniversary virtual commemoration on Wednesday, May 3, as well as a summer-long scavenger hunt, which concludes on Thursday, Aug. 3 with a “family fun day” at Old Man Plaza in Franconia Notch.
The exhibition in Plymouth will feature several items that examine the Old Man from many different historical lenses. They’ll look at how it became a symbol of NH and helped shape the NH identity, as well as efforts to preserve it from the late 19th to early 20thcenturies.
An Enduring Legacy: The Old Man of the Mountain will feature early drawings, prints, photographs and paintings as well as objects and ephemera that have been selected to tell the story of the profile’s central role in tourism and successful conservation efforts; its emergence and use as a state symbol; and its many appearances as a commercial and political icon. The museum will also take a careful look at the geological properties of the Old Man, the efforts to keep it perched on Profile Mountain and explore the stories of those involved in those efforts.
Items will include some of the earliest photographs from 1841, tourism pamphlets of Profile House, the former grand hotel that was destroyed in a fire in 1923, a potato chip dispenser that belonged to the oldest potato chip company in the country and used the Old Man in its logo, a painted Concord Coach door, which uses the profile image for its logo, and more. During the exhibit, there will also be a speaker series of experts who will give talks on its history, lore and science.