The King of the North Country

Meet legendary Colebrook newspaperman John Harrigan

From my vantage on a porch atop South Hill in Colebrook, the sun is an hour from setting. The occasional coo of a mourning dove rises from somewhere down the valley. A robin, squeaking, hops across the lush early-summer grass carrying a worm. The neighborhood hummingbird hovers by its feeder, then darts off and disappears into the ether.

To the southwest, across the Connecticut River, stands Mount Monadnock. “Our Monadnock,” they say here. Farther east lie the long ridges of Baldhead and Dixville Peak under a downy green blanket. A hundred anonymous chirps and warbles and hisses are suddenly silenced by the drawn-out song of a white-throated sparrow. The faintest rumble of a motorcycle racing along the valley floor, three miles distant, is the only human sound.

Until, that is, the screen door yawns open behind me and John Harrigan, owner of the porch, pokes his head out. “Ah,” he says, “the shank of the evening!” Later, telling stories over thick-cut steaks cooked to rare perfection in his #10 cast-iron skillet, he recalls the time a friend’s snowmobile broke down way out in the woods. “He was so fed up that he told everyone to stand back, drew his .44, and popped it right in the brisket.”

Curiously, considering his imagery, Harrigan has never been a butcher, but he’s done about everything else.

Many New Hampshire newcomers may not know this man, but they should. He’s a Granite State legend. I know him from stumbling on his long-running “Woods, Water and Wildlife” column over the years since my childhood — always good for some outdoor trivia and a chuckle or two — from hearing his familiar voice calling on the radio to give an opinion (of which he has no shortage), and from the fact that we happen to share a few hobby horses: a distaste for No Trespassing signs, a wish that air-conditioning would go back to wherever it came from, and a hope that railroads will come back from wherever it is they’ve gone. As the publisher of the Coös County Democrat in Lancaster and The News and Sentinel in Colebrook, Harrigan earned a reputation in the ’80s and ’90s as a widely respected spokesman for the state’s north.

My first visit to Harrigan’s place is in late winter. When he opens the door, I’m surprised to see a man considerably shorter than I am. In every picture I’ve ever seen of him, he appears tall. But here he stands, not more than 5ʹ7˝and carrying more weight than he ought to be. He later explains that his arches have recently fallen, thanks to years of running. This has brought a slew of complications, and his doctor has ordered him off his feet. Consequently, he’s put on 30 pounds and shrunk several inches. It’s obvious that his spirits are suffering for his immobility.

We sit in the living room in front of the fire this late-March morning. Recent issues of The Atlantic, The New Yorker and Northern Woodlands, various newspapers, and a few books, mostly on New England history, lie about. A large black-and-white photograph of a gaunt man wearing glasses and a tie looks down from the mantel as if ready to jump into the conversation. This is Fred Harrigan, Harrigan’s late father.

Not long after we start talking, the phone rings.

“Excuse me,” he says, and picks it up. “Harrigan, South Hill.” The tone of the exchange is playful, jaunty. Andy Warhol comes up.

“That was my older sister, Susan,” he explains after hanging up. “I call her Hanoi Jane. Her politics are somewhere to the left of Jerry Brown’s.” From the way he says Jerry Brown you’d think he’d said Ho Chi Minh. “She’s good at what she does, though,” he adds with a kind of resignation. Susan Harrigan has spent her career reporting for metropolitan dailies like the Toronto Star and the Miami Herald. It’s a path Harrigan might have gone down too — had he not been John Harrigan.

Harrigan at work in the newsroom of the New Hampshire Sunday News in the ’70s.

When he was working full-time as a reporter for the New Hampshire Sunday News in the ’70s, he got a call from longtime Boston Globe editor Thomas Winship, who offered him a contributing editor position. “It’s significant when they call you. Usually it happens the other way around, you know.” Understandably flattered, he toyed with the idea. “But then I pictured Joe Green up in the WBZ traffic helicopter,” he says, “his voice shaking, talking about backups on the Alewife Brook Parkway. And I’d have been down in that mess, earning a good salary, sure, but working all year to spend two weeks up here each summer. That’s when I decided to come home.”

By then, he already had a track record of defying expectations. Although his parents ran Colebrook’s newspaper, young Harrigan had no taste for the journalism business. He loved the woods. So, at 13, he left his family in town, not for any fault of theirs, to live with Rudy and Joan Shatney a few miles up the road at Clarksville Pond, where they ran a full-service sporting camp. He was responsible for the menial duties of camp life: cutting and hauling firewood, packing lunches for sports, cleaning outhouses and dragging kills out of the woods. Thanks to this last chore, he likes to say, his right arm is longer than his left.

After school he went west to New Mexico State University, where he lasted less than a year. College didn’t agree with him. He tells me the story of several nights spent in a Mexican jail and of being bribed out by an indulgent El Paso priest. He returned to New Hampshire and was soon joined by his New Mexico girlfriend, whom he married in short order, much to the dismay of his father, who would have preferred he look after his education and career first.

“Down below they used to recruit labor from north of the notches,” Harrigan explains, “because we had a better work ethic up here — still do.” The now defunct Lorden Lumber Company in Milford recruited Harrigan, and, before long, he was a certified softwood grader. “Well, after a while, I got sick of having to go outside in 30 below when the mill stopped because there were bullets or nails in the wood. I went to Nashua and walked down Main Street looking for any job I could find. The Telegraph office was the last place I came to. When I got to the editor, I was young, cocky and arrogant enough to tell him, ‘You give me any job for this paper, and I’ll do it better than anyone else can.’” The editor, impressed by such boldness, asked around and was told they could do with some help in the dark room and with typesetting. And there — not with his parents — began a newspapering career that would go on to encompass literally every aspect of the industry.

Harrigan asks me if I’d like some coffee. I always say yes to coffee. He asks if I mind it being heated up in the microwave, and I say no. I excuse myself to the bathroom, where I find a sign imploring me to be a self-respecting male and keep the place tidy. On the windowsill, under a pair of reading glasses, is volume one of the complete works of Francis Parkman. When I come back, Harrigan hands me my coffee and dismisses himself for a moment to attend to his correspondence. He famously responds to all his mail. “I spend a lot more time writing back than I do writing,” he says.

Getting to know John Harrigan is largely about getting to know the man’s habitat.

When he’s done with the morning mail, he suggests we go for a drive — because getting to know John Harrigan is largely about getting to know the man’s habitat. After climbing into his truck with his dog Millie, who quickly finds her way to my lap, we turn right out of his driveway, up South Hill Road toward Stewartstown.

As we drive, he tells me about his neighbor’s tree farm and about various ways local people have tried to make a living in a difficult economy. The railroad arrived in Colebrook in 1887, and Harrigan likes to talk about settlement fanning out from there. In the early days, most people cleared the land for sheep farming. Harrigan and his second wife kept a flock themselves for a dozen years. The locavore movement may hold out some promise, he says. There are people raising beef, but unfortunately there’s no local slaughterhouse. He wonders why potato farming has never taken off, as it has in northern Maine. Now, with horse farms popping up across southern New Hampshire, there’s a burgeoning market for northern hay.

But the natural beauty of the place is, for better or worse, the biggest economic driver. As we move along Bear Rock Road, conversation turns naturally to Northern Pass, one of Harrigan’s major talking points in recent years. Opposition centers on the threat it poses to the landscape. The cause has brought together the independent-minded people of northern Coös County in ways Harrigan himself could not have foreseen. He tells me how he boarded a bus with a delegation of concerned citizens and went down to Concord to testify in support of a bill prohibiting the use of eminent domain for purposes other than the public good. He proffers an imaginary headline to describe the incident, a favorite Harrigan rhetorical device: “Well-known Regional Writer (that would be me) and His Still Better-known Dog (that would be Millie) Evicted from Statehouse.”

He’s warming up to his subject. “I tell people, ‘I’ll take you around northern Québec and show you the destruction: ancestral burial grounds flooded, displaced villages, 7,000 Indians forced to leave their homes.’ Hydro-Québec doesn’t give a damn about us, and none of the power stays here anyway. It goes to the big suburban markets, where not enough attention is paid to conserving energy.” He likens the Northern Pass project to a neighbor traipsing clear through his house without asking or deigning to remove his mud-caked boots.

It’s mud season now, speaking of mud, and low clouds hang over everything. There are a few inches of wet snow left on the ground. “Every day has its uses,” Harrigan says. “This is a good day for camp haunting. If you slow down enough when you’re driving by someone’s place, they’ll usually invite you in for a beer.” We have no such luck today. Driving down into the valley of Bishop Brook, which feeds the Connecticut, he points at a nearby hill and tells me it’s in Canada.

On an unplowed road, we pull up alongside a lonely cemetery in a meadow. Harrigan wants to show me a grave. Metallak is one of those figures who straddles history and legend. Said to have been the last lone survivor of the Coashauke Abenaki (whence Coös) in the Upper Androscoggin, he has become a symbol of the wild and free spirit of the North Country — perhaps, too, of its vulnerability. Harrigan tells me where the tombstone is and excuses himself to pee in the woods while I go on ahead. I find the grave in a back corner of the yard, festooned with kitschy Native American-themed paraphernalia, feathers and forest detritus and dime-store talismans. Harrigan walks over and tells me that locals don’t know who decorates the stone, that no one has ever seen them. He suspects visitors belonging to the St. Francis band of Abenaki in Vermont and Québec come to honor their ancestor quietly.

We drive south along the Connecticut into West Stewartstown, across the river from Beecher Falls, Vermont, where Harrigan worked for a stint at the original Ethan Allen furniture factory half a century ago. “That’s where I learned to work. I learned how to move efficiently, which is how you make money doing piece work. I still find myself using those lessons every day.” The factory, where the global giant began manufacturing furniture in 1936, closed its doors for good in 2009.

Harrigan knows about the places most people simply drive past. Ever the reporter, if something piques his curiosity, he follows it. When we see an unassuming powerhouse along the river, he tells me about the time he walked in and started asking questions, baffling a utility worker. He relates with excitement the beautiful intricacy of an engraved ornamental cap he discovered on the end of a dynamo axle inside. “I’m a nosy bastard,” he says with a laugh.

We have lunch at a place called the Spa Restaurant, a local institution. Tradition says the French-Canadian family that founded the restaurant made its money smuggling. Harrigan entertains me with stories of an imaginary pair of cousins he calls Marcel and Gaston running washing machines through the woods, one machine slung on either side of a horse’s back, a whip crack to the haunches to make it go, and a prayer that the delivery will come out safely on the other side. Several of the restaurant’s clients are speaking French, and there are Québec plates on the cars in the lot. The border crossing at Beecher Falls is two miles away. Surrounding towns, even on the US side, still have sizeable French-speaking populations.

After lunch, we park across from The News and Sentinel office in downtown Colebrook. We walk across the wet road with the sound of splashing car tires in our ears and into the office. “Hi, John,” everyone says. I meet his daughter Karen, who now runs the paper, “the only other Harrigan in town.”

She fills her father in on a request she’s just received to write an obituary: “I was told not to mention X and Y.”

“I wish I had more family in town so I could do that,” Harrigan says without skipping a beat.

Many photographs and cards decorate Harrigan’s Colebrook home.

On our way out the door, he grabs a copy of The News and Sentinel and hands it to me. I see that the paper is brittle and yellowing, that it’s an old number, and understand immediately what I’m about to read.

The Colebrook News and Sentinel, Wednesday, August 20, 1997:

“It was a crime of unbelievable proportions that left at least five people dead, a newspaper and a police fraternity in shock, and a community stunned to its core. On yesterday afternoon, Tuesday, an enraged gunman wielding a semi-automatic rifle loaded with multi-round clips of bullets snuffed out the lives of two police officers, a lawyer and a newspaper editor before dying himself as he fled a region-wide dragnet.

“Known dead as of press time last night were state police officers Scott Phillips and Les Lord, attorney and judge Vickie Bunnell, and Sentinel co-editor Dennis Joos. Attorney Bunnell’s last words and deeds saved the lives of many newspaper staffers in the building. The heroic effort by Dennis Joos to grapple with the gunman and stop the mayhem cost him his life.”

These words made Harrigan a Pulitzer finalist for Breaking News reporting in 1998. To be sure, their lapidary efficiency is the admirable stuff of yesteryear’s newswriting. But what really astounds remained unwritten — that Vickie Bunnell, attorney and judge, might well have become Harrigan’s second wife, had it not been for that enraged gunman.

The drive home is silent.

Back in the kitchen, pans hang against the wall. Harrigan is tired and not as talkative as he has been all day. I’m not sure what I’d say, now, even if he did feel like talking. I hear the sound of a clock ticking. He tells me he never changes it. He doesn’t believe in daylight saving time. Although he had tentatively invited me to stay for dinner, he says I’ll have to take a rain check. “I’m sorry,” he says, leaning over the counter on one forearm. “I just don’t have the energy I used to.”

It’s early June when I return to Colebrook. The grass is green, the leaves are out, the air resounds with birdsong and the peeping of frogs. Since we both like to take things as they come, I’ve told Harrigan I’ll call when I get to town.

“Harrigan, South Hill.” His voice sounds chipper.

“Are you at home?” I ask.

“No,” he says. “I’m in Manchester. I’ll be back this afternoon. You going to spend the night?”

“Sure,” I say. “Thanks.”

“Great. I’ll grab some horse’s ovaries on the way then. We’ll cook up some steaks for supper.”

Horse’s ovaries? Oh well, I think. It must be some Old World delicacy that has survived up here in the unsqueamish North Country, having died out everywhere else.

He waits for a second and, when I fail to produce laughter, explains: “Horse’s ovaries is camp lingo for hors d’oeuvres. See you later.”

Such is the hold of this place on Harrigan that he answers his cell phone by saying “South Hill,” even when he’s in Manchester. He’d answer it the same way in Kathmandu, no doubt.

As we enjoy “the shank of the evening” (to revive that meaty metaphor) from South Hill, we look out over the open land, where fences and No Trespassing signs and even roads are scarce. Harrigan has a camp 20 miles north of here. Friends ask him why he keeps one, since he runs his house like a camp anyway. “It’s one of the few walk-in camps left,” he tells me. The mostly unbroken forests of New Hampshire’s far north were laced with roads in the 1970s in a race between logging companies and the spruce bud worm. It’s fitting that Harrigan’s camp should have been spared.

After dinner, we climb up to a rooftop deck to gaze at the night sky. Harrigan brags that from his house you can only see one other light, “and it’s the flashing one down at the Colebrook International Airport.” He tells how his neighbor just down the hill for years burned an all-night light outside his house. “Now, there is no logical explanation for that, especially here. There’s this smart little thing called a switch. But I think the problem is simple. People are afraid of the dark, literally afraid of the dark.”

John Harrigan, his dog Millie and his Willys jeep, manufactured the year of John’s birth, at his hilltop home in Colebrook.

Donald Hall once published an essay titled “Rusticus: Notes on Class and Culture in Rural New Hampshire.” It’s an attempt to trace the ways in which the culture of northern New England diverges from that of the American mainstream. Although it has aged somewhat in the 30 years since it was written, Hall’s essay pushes its way into my mind when I try to corner the allure of Harrigan.

Rusticus is Hall’s Latin name for the rural New Hampshire type, about whom he writes in the third person, since Rusticus does not normally write about himself. He is presumably too busy working to trifle with such nonsense. Not Harrigan: “Have you ever met a French-Irishman who didn’t enjoy talking about himself?” he says. Harrigan writes Rusticus in the first person, giving a lively voice to a New Hampshire that is fast dying but is not dead yet (and don’t you forget it!).

In short, he’s the kind of person who might actually rather die than not live free — although slogans are not his cup of tea. When he’s about to say something that could come off as commonplace, he apologizes beforehand. The vision of freedom in question is radical, earthy. It is not the freedom of the consumer, but something more like the freedom to walk out, to breathe, to be eccentric. Most people today would probably call it unrealistic or naïve. But it isn’t — not up here anyway. This, in pocket form, is the gospel of Harrigan.

“Rusticus lives where he does because he wants to,” Hall writes. He prefers “land, place, family, friends, and culture to the possibilities of money and advancement.” Above all else he values “proud independence,” with the good and bad that it entails. Hall also notes that “all political labels falsify,” when trying to define Rusticus. Convention would doubtless call Harrigan a “conservative” (his best-known column, after all, sat on page two of a newspaper many regard as reactionary), but the term fits only up to a certain point. “To characterize New Hampshire’s politics as right wing is unhistorical,” observes Hall. Rusticus is conservative in the sense that he is profoundly connected to a past that persists around and through him. He will think twice, to borrow a final image from Hall, before tearing down an old house. Subdivisions make Harrigan sick to his stomach.

If you use the map by which the mainstream navigates, Harrigan’s views are all over it. His friend, Union Leader publisher Joseph McQuaid, staunchly opposes the extension of rail service from Boston to Concord. “Forget Concord!” responds Harrigan. “I want to see a train to Plymouth.” “Americans want choices,” says McQuaid. “Then let them choose to ride the train.” When people cry for air-conditioning, he says move to Antarctica if you don’t like summer. When trappers insist on a bobcat season on a statewide population of 200 animals, Harrigan asks if they have a taste for bobcat meat, then demands that Fish and Game change its rules to allow non-hunters and non-fishermen to hold leadership positions. While some people say the North Country lost when the northern stretch of I-91 was routed through Vermont, Harrigan considers it a victory.

No, the usual road maps don’t apply to his world, precisely because he favors backroads to highways, and finds winding forest trails better still.

Up on the roof, under the vault of a million stars, Harrigan is beginning to doze off mid-conversation. It’s nearly 1 a.m., but he’s got one story left in him. “The old boys used to tramp off through the woods to go visit other camps,” he says. “They thought nothing of setting off from this side of the Magalloway and walking over to Maine, 20, 25 miles. Whenever they met someone else walking through the woods — and they did more often than you’d think — it was customary to stop, build a little fire, and boil tea or smoke a pipe together. Just for a few minutes, and then they’d be on their way. But it was important — that little interaction.”

It occurs to me, lying in bed and listening to the frogs through my open window on South Hill, that Harrigan has made a life that is full of such small but meaningful exchanges. He’ll often start a sentence by saying, “New Hampshire’s still small enough that …” The ending is always different, but what it comes down to is this: There’s still a human scale here, and he doesn’t want to see it disappear. In fact, reading one of his columns is a bit like meeting the writer in the woods, standing by as he kindles a quick fire for tea, and then sipping quietly while he spins a yarn. It doesn’t matter if you’re Joe McQuaid, Hanoi Jane or a magazine writer on assignment from down below.

Then he snuffs out the fire, turns with a wave, and walks on, confident our paths will cross again.

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