Step Back in Time in New London
The Merrimack County town knows how to preserve the past
New London has been hiding a secret that it’s just recently shared with the world — a garden designed by the firm of master landscape designer Frederick Law Olmsted. Olmsted is best known for designing New York’s Central Park and Boston’s Emerald Necklace, but he and his firm also designed public and private gardens all over the country. New London benefactor Jane Tracy commissioned this one in 1926, to be placed behind the library and community center that she also gifted to the town. Her commission to Olmsted specified: “No gravel or brick walks, only beautiful turf and flower beds of the old garden varieties.”
The decades took their toll on the garden, and a 1991 addition to the library altered the grounds. Ten years later, members of the New London Garden Club seeking to restore the space tracked down the records of the garden from Olmsted’s firm. Following the original layout and plant list, restoration began in 2002 on the Community Garden at Tracy Memorial Library.
The garden we walked through has now matured into a landscape that Olmsted would recognize: Small, formal flower beds around a pool give way to a grassy expanse surrounded by a shade garden under tall maples and Norway spruce. A rose arbor stands between the formal gardens and semi-shaded lawn; alongside it, a rose garden is backed by a hedge of spirea. Under the trees, benches invite us to pause and smell the roses.
The only thing Olmsted wouldn’t recognize is the striking contemporary fountain among the peonies and delphiniums of the formal beds. It was designed for this garden by metal artist Dimitri Gerakaris of North Canaan, whose Eagle Square Gateway adorns downtown Concord. The fountain’s design reflects the graceful curves of water plants, and, in Olmsted’s absence, we approve.
Preserving the past is not new in this town of 4,400 residents near Lake Sunapee. Since the New London Historical Society’s founding on the town’s 175th anniversary in 1954, it has set about collecting and preserving items significant to local history. As collections grew, donors stepped up with land, buildings and funds for the society’s long-term goal, a historical village.
Before setting off to find it, we stop for lunch at Peter Christian’s Tavern — itself a bit of local history, having been there since 1975. Their menu modestly affirms this with “It’s more than a restaurant. It’s a New Hampshire icon,” and we have to agree. From the sandwich list, we choose the Peter’s Mother’s Favorite — baked ham, roasted turkey, Vermont cheddar and tomatoes with house mustard — and Peter’s Uncle Reuben, a tower of corned beef with PC’s mustard sauce and sauerkraut from Henniker-based Micro Mama’s. The California BLT with fresh avocado, red onion and Boursin cheese on toasted focaccia was in the race, but it would be a shame to miss the mustard that made Peter Christian’s famous.
The scenic, eight-acre property where New London Historical Village now stands was donated in 1963, and, since then, 18 historical buildings have been moved or built here. Each houses related displays and artifacts and often hosts demonstrations, as well.
The Griffin Barn, Pleasant Street Schoolhouse, and privy/woodshed are all from early 19th-century New London, as are the country store and Eagle Hose Company buildings, which started their lives as a schoolhouse and a corn crib. Other buildings have been moved from nearby towns: the carriage shed and blacksmith shop from Sutton, the 1835 Scytheville House from Elkins and the 1830s Phillips Barn from Penacook.
A few are reproductions, most notably a meeting house faithfully patterned on one in Maine. The custom-designed transportation building displays a collection of horse-drawn vehicles that includes 30 carriages, buggies, sleighs and fire pumpers. The star attraction is Concord Coach #425, in local use until 1911.
As fascinating as all this history is, I can’t resist a bog, and New London has my favorite. The Philbrick-Cricenti Bog, just north of town on Newport Road, is a genuine quaking bog, the kind you could fall into and be sucked up and never seen again. Such a fate has befallen cows and even a horse that failed to read the warning signs along the boardwalk trail. We are more careful and resist the temptation to step off into one of those nice grassy patches. But, of course, we jump up and down to watch the thin layer of moss and tundra plants jiggle beneath us. The bog began about 10,000 years ago, give or take a few, when roots of plants entwined in a layer over a pond of glacial meltwater. From this mushy web, peat began to form and, at the edges, finally built a base solid enough to support forests. But the center still floats and quivers as we walk across it to admire the insect-eating pitcher plants and Venus flytraps.
We finished off our trip with an evening at the New London Barn Playhouse. If you’d like to take in a play here, then we suggest “Crazy for You,” an update of George and Ira Gershwin’s classic “Girl Crazy,” playing from Aug. 10-21. The summer stock playhouse has been here since 1933, and its 2015 season swept the New Hampshire Theatre Awards with a record-breaking 12 wins. We’ve always thought it was a winner.