The Women of Monadnock

The thing that signifies the Monadnock Region is the mountain that stands alone in its midst. Mount Monadnock, in all of its rugged beauty, inspires a special kind of people to form community around it — many of them women we think are remarkable.

Mary Ann Kristiansen started Hannah Grimes Marketplace on Main Street in Keene back in 1997, putting her at the leading edge of the Buy Local movement. Photo by Michael Moore

It is said that Mount Monadnock is one of the world’s rare power centers, a sacred summit where the ley lines of Earth’s energies cross. Skeptics would scoff. But others think that might be why so many of the women who live around the mountain are like-minded, pulled toward that energy, toward nature, toward healthy living, toward artistic expression, toward community.

Take Beulah Hepburn Emmet. In 1942, she founded one of the country’s first Waldorf Schools in Wilton, one of the 40 communities in the Monadnock Region. The philosophy of the school, called High Mowing, was revolutionary in Emmet’s day. Education would be holistic, nurturing the whole student. Yes, excellent academics, but integrated with the arts. Plus, a reverence for nature through environmental awareness and stewardship, and a dedication to sustainable agriculture, healthy food and the importance of community.

All of the above are no longer revolutionary. The school, crunchy way before that even became a term, anticipated what would become the dominant character of the countryside — and no doubt profoundly influenced it as its green students became adults, and lived and worked in the region.

Another influential phenomenon began in the early 1990s, miles to the west, in Keene, the region’s only city. There, Mary Ann Kristiansen was hand-making soap that she couldn’t sell, at least not in Keene. It sold in San Francisco, New York and even Japan, but in Keene, people preferred Dove and Dial. “It was a sign of affluence then that you could buy things that weren’t homemade,” Kristiansen says.

But a Buy Local movement was about to be born. Thinking about the experience with her soap and seeing “all this beautiful stuff” being created by people in her spinning group and elsewhere, Kristiansen decided to create a way to get locally made products to market. In 1997, without a stitch of retail experience, she set up Hannah Grimes Marketkplace on Keene’s Main Street.

Since then, the store has been selling thousands of products that are “grown, sewn, beaded, knit, carved, blown, fired, written, printed, cured, baked or painted” by area artisans. “It was an idea whose time had come,” Kristiansen says. “It was bubbling up, ready to happen.”

But she didn’t stop there. The Marketplace also offered training in business skills, a venture that eventually expanded into the creation of the Hannah Grimes Center for Entrepreneurship. “We realized that we needed a deeper experience in business for some of our makers and growers, as well as for other types of businesses,” Kristiansen says.

Along with training in business skills, the new endeavor, begun in 2006 at a separate location, acts as a business incubator and work space, with offices, co-working areas, nooks, cubbies, conference rooms and kitchen. And, especially important for rural businesses, access to the internet.

The focus on the needs of rural businesses, especially farms, again puts Kristiansen at the leading edge of a new movement. In partnership with the local newspaper, The Keene Sentinel, an annual “Radically Rural” program was begun.

It started with two-day event that took place “all over town,” with each location offering training in a different aspect of rural entrepreneurship. More than 500 people from 21 states showed up. The obvious interest has inspired Kristiansen to think about setting up a Radically Rural institute that would make the training available year-round.

“We’re building off of what we started,” Kristiansen says. “We’ve been creating rural programs for 22 years. We’ve got some experience, some history, some things to share.”

One of Kristiansen’s partners in the quest for a viable rural economy is Amanda Littleton of the Cheshire County Conservation District. A major component of that quest is to help farm businesses become more profitable. “We care a great deal about that,” Littleton says. “Farms are stewarding the natural resources they have on the property, contributing to the local economy, and providing products that are important to the health of the community.”

Amanda Littleton of the Cheshire County Conservation District enjoys some mountain air.

Littleton says there are “a suite of challenges” for farms — low profit margins, lack of markets, expensive equipment and the vagaries of the weather among them. The work of the District to assist with those challenges is wide-ranging, with equipment rental programs, education and technical assistance a major part of it.

Key to a farmer’s success, Littleton says, is soil health, especially with the disruptions that climate change is likely to bring: “Keeping the resources intact and in good shape is important, for now and for future generations.” Resilient soil, she adds, can better resist erosion, as well as produce healthier food.

Food producers who are dependent on bee pollination face an additional challenge because of the steep decline in the bee population. So, for the past three years, Littleton has led a program to educate farmers and the public about the issue, and to create habitats for bees in a range of locations to determine which environment is most beneficial. Free seeds were offered to encourage bee-friendly plantings. “The beautiful thing about pollinators is that everybody can make a difference,” Littleton says.

Also making a difference, a farm fund started three years ago in partnership with the Monadnock Food Co-op that’s aimed at supporting farms that want to diversify their markets, moving beyond farm stands and farmers markets to wholesale. Financial grants have been given to nine farms for the tools — branding, packaging, storage and so on — to move into that market.

Much of the money for the grants came from donations by the Co-op and the 1,000 or so customers who go through its checkout every day with their carts full of healthy, locally grown food. The Co-op has been serving the Keene area since 2013. Jen Risley, a founding board member and now marketing manager, was an early organizer.

Jen Risley of the Monadnock Food Co-op. Photo by Greg Pregent

Having shopped at co-ops in other parts of the country, Risley felt the lack of one when she came to Keene in 2002 to attend graduate school. “I had seen how co-ops draw the community together and help build the food system,” Risley says. “They’re a critical link in the system.” They not only distribute the food that’s produced locally, but provide education to the public about the benefits of spending a bit more for the healthy food it offers.

To help people who can’t afford it, the Co-op has a “Healthy Food for All” program, which offers a 10 percent discount to participants in the SNAP or WIC program, as well as others. “It’s a helpful way to give back,” Risley says. “And we want to do more — we’re working on another program to provide more fruits and vegetables.”

The Co-op is also working on a crowdsourcing program so entrepreneurs can raise money. “Everyone has all these great ideas, but they don’t necessarily have the money to fund them,” Risley says. The program, called The Local Crowd Monadnock, TLC for short, supplies the know-how for designing a fundraising campaign and getting the word out.

To accommodate the growth of the Co-op’s services, the facility will soon almost double in size. The expansion will include bigger departments in the store, a larger café and a public meeting space.

Anyone can own a piece of the Co-op. What are called member-owners pay $200 to support the work of the Co-op, have a voice in its management, and get discounts, even a share of the profits, if there are profits. When Risley started, there were 500 member-owners, today there are 3,500.

Cornucopia Project founder Kin Schilling walks her dogs. And sheep.

Though Kin Schilling’s efforts to encourage healthy eating would also impact many people, she started alone on a patch of land in Hancock, in 2005. “This triangle of land, an acre, belonged to a friend,” Schilling says. “I told them I’d like to do a garden there, and they said, ‘Do it, it’s yours.’”

She did, and soon the neighborhood kids began to come by, wanting to help. The garden grew bigger and bigger. Eventually, Schilling took the project — what she would call the Cornucopia Project — into the ConVal school district. First, it was the elementary schools, then the middle schools, then the high school.

Depending on the age, the kids hauled soil for raised beds, grew greens they’d sell to the cafeteria, learned about seeds, cooked with healthy ingredients, and acquired skills that are needed for the business of farming and for leadership in general.

“It connected kids to where their food comes from and helped them make healthy food choices,” Schilling says. “It was a magical time.”

But she wasn’t finished. She turned her attention to creating a community garden with a grant the Cornucopia Project had received. Schilling says, with scores of volunteers and borrowed equipment, “a fabulous garden” was created. The bounty of the garden was donated to the food pantry.

In 2014, she left the Cornucopia Project in other hands and began to focus on bees. “If we don’t have bees, we don’t have food,” she says. She and her friend Melissa Stephenson set up the NH Bee Initiative. Their goal — awareness, education, change. Among their projects, getting a muralist, Matt Willey, to paint foot-long honey bees, 187 of them, on a wall at the community center to raise awareness of honey bees’ role in the food system.

Matt Willey painted 187 honey bees on a mural for Kin Schilling and Melissa Stephenson’s NH Bee Initiative to help raise awareness of honey bees’ role in the food system.

Though she’s now 75, Schilling has set her sights on making sure there are pollinator plants in the community gardens in both Peterborough and Jaffrey. “Can I still do this?” she asks. “Yes, I love it. I’ll never stop.”

Down the road from Peterborough’s community garden, there is a place where the concept of community is a bit larger, encompassing the whole world. At the Mariposa Museum and World Culture Center, you can find folk art from six continents, with musical instruments to play, costumes to try on, books to read, workshops, speakers, changing exhibits, and demonstrations by people of other cultures, like the Tibetan monks who come to create — and wipe away — a mandala.

The museum’s executive director Karla Hostetler brought her experiences from extensive world travel and international development to enrich the museum’s work. In the seven years that she’s been there, she guided a significant shift in the museum’s focus from exploring world cultures through the lens of the past to, as she says, “looking at cultures in a more present-day sense, cultures interacting through a broader variety of media.”

One present-day theme now being presented is “Hello, Dear Enemy,” with a focus on prejudice, the existence of war, and peacemaking as addressed through children’s books from around the world. “It’s the issue of our time,” Hostetler says. “We always try to be positive in our approach, but also be a place where parents, children, students, teachers, people of all ages, learn and think about what unifies people and the forces that can divide us, and what we can do about that. … Ultimately, we have to find ways of coming together if we’re going to save the planet.”

The museum has a strong outreach to schools to further its mission of fostering peace and understanding across cultures, providing programs and free resources for teachers to use. Hostetler says, “We try to be not just a brick and mortar place, but a series of experiences that people can have.”

All this taking place in the small town that inspired Thornton Wilder’s famous play. Hostetler sees no irony in it: “In many ways the world is becoming a small town, isn’t it? We all know each other in a way that people didn’t know each other in Wilder’s day.”

Thornton Wilder got acquainted with Peterborough during his stay at the nearby MacDowell Colony, where artists, writers and composers are offered a retreat for creative work. Earlier, artist and naturalist Abbott Handerson Thayer had founded what would become known as the Dublin Art Colony.

Working in the shadow of Mount Monadnock, Thayer saw the mountain as “my totem.” Some years before Thayer’s time there, fellow Transcendentalists Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau were also drawn to the magic of the mountain, writing about their climbs to the summit. For Emerson, there was a “quiet sense conveyed.” Thoreau felt it had “some vast, titanic power.”

Jessica Gelter at Arts Alive! with the painting “Corn Dogs” by Peterborough artist Lee Dunholter. Photo by Michael Moore

With its long history in the arts and a surge of new creative energy in recent years, the region has come to be known as New Hampshire’s “cultural corner.” No doubt, says Jessica Gelter of Arts Alive!, its natural beauty and rural peacefulness has provided inspiration for creative people.

To enhance the richness of the region, Arts Alive! was formed as a nonprofit to bring the people of the cultural community together. It would support creative businesses and help build the creative economy. Celebrating its 10th year this month, it has a successful track record of helping hundreds of creative enterprises get started and to keep them going.

That support comes with training workshops, grants, fiscal sponsorships, data on trends, advocacy, information about venues and more. Gelter has been at the helm for the last five years, often working with partners that she says “add weight to the quality of what we’re offering.” Among the partnerships — the promotion of cultural tourism with the Monadnock Travel Council, training in business skills with the Hannah Grimes Center, and celebrating excellence at the annual Ewing Arts Awards with The Keene Sentinel.

A new initiative, this one with the Center for Population Health at the Cheshire Medical Center, is the promotion of biophilic design, bringing natural elements — from something as simple as plants to large-scale water features — into living spaces, whether workplaces, schools, hospitals or homes, to increase well-being. There are plans to create a catalog of local artists who can implement that innovative design.

All told, Gelter says, the businesses in the Monadnock Region’s creative community — both nonprofits and not — have had an economic impact of close to $85 million.

“From what I hear,” says Gelter, “people at the state level are getting jealous about what we have here, a serious envy that we have something that’s pretty special.”

One of those special things is Machina Arts. Machina is pronounced like a feminized machine, which is what the name means. “It’s a made-up word,” says Rebecca Hamilton, one of two women who founded the organization. Danya Landis is the other. The name came to them when they staged their first event in a machine shop, once active, now with the machines silent and all brightly colored.

It is that kind of unique presentation that Landis and Hamilton strive for in their business of art-inspired events and design, a business that got its start at the Hannah Grimes Center for Entrepreneurship incubator. In its own space now, it has a broad range of offerings: arts events, gallery openings and live music with DJs among them.

Landis and Hamilton both bring big-city sophistication to their work. Landis, who lived in New York before she moved to New Hampshire, and Hamilton, who lived San Francisco, struggled with whether a rural environment was right for them. A lot of young people like them say it’s not and leave New Hampshire, a phenomenon that’s contributing to the state’s aging population.

Danya Landis (left) and Rebecca Hamilton, co-founders of Machina Arts in Keene. Photo by Nathan Ekis Photography

But Landis and Hamilton decided it was the right place. Whatever culture was lacking, they felt they could create themselves. It helped that, in a meant-to-be way, Landis met both her future husband and Hamilton in the first few hours of her first visit here. The business was born shortly after.

Both women are artists, Landis, a metal sculptor; Hamilton, a fire dancer and aerial silk performer. And both have spatial design skills that incline them toward large artistic expressions, like interactive themed installations. “We figure out a cohesive story line behind the space and how to create an experience when you walk into it,” says Hamilton.

Expect to find installations at their new venture, a restaurant offering locally sourced small plates with French and Asian influences, a craft cocktail bar, an art bar with a gallery, and live music. They say it’s a way of supporting the ecosystem along with promoting community.

“We’re nothing without each other,” Landis says, “nothing without community. Each of us is a collaborator. We make each other better.”

It could be said that that’s the philosophy behind 100+ Women Who Care Monadnock as well. “You can have a big impact together,” says Karen Hatcher, who is one of the women who has helped to build the organization into a powerful financial force in the region.

In its over five years of operation, 100+ Women Who Care Monadnock has donated almost $200,000 to area nonprofit organizations. The money is raised by women — now 245 of them — who pledge to write a $50 check four times a year. Often, it’s for more. Members vote on which of the nonprofits nominated will get the donation. The effort is managed by a volunteer steering committee; Hatcher is one of the eight members.

“The beauty of it,” she says, “is that it’s unrestricted money, which is like gold for nonprofits.” The only proviso is that the nonprofits report on how the money is used. 100+ Women Who Care Monadnock funds a wide variety of groups, ranging from those that deal with homelessness and food insecurity to arts and conservation organizations.

The organization, which is not structured as a nonprofit (“it’s very much organic”) is also helpful for the women who donate. They may not have the time to investigate where their money will make the most difference. Hatcher emphasizes that anyone willing to make the pledge of money is welcome to join at any of the four meetings a year. The hopes are that the group will reach 300 members.

Hatcher, who is also the current executive director of the Cornucopia Project featured above, sees the challenges of nonprofits from both sides: “I run a nonprofit. I know the impact these donations have. That’s why it was so compelling for me to be a part of it.”

100+ Women Who Care Monadnock serves 14 towns in the region; a newer group that formed three years ago, 100+ Women Who Care Cheshire County, with more than 250 women as members, serves mainly Keene and surrounding towns. Last year, among its donations, that group gave more than $13,000 to Linda’s Closet in Keene.

Linda’s Closet provides free professional clothing in good condition to women who need it, mostly for job interviews, in a county where nearly a third of the people earn less than $25,000 a year. “It’s fantastic when they come in and try something on, and that smile just comes across their face,” says Kathleen Birch, who is the board co-chair. “They feel like a million bucks, and they should. I love it.”

“We’re nothing without each other, nothing without community. Each of us is a collaborator. We make each other better.” — Danya Landis

Feeling like a million bucks boosts self-confidence and makes getting a job more likely, but Birch says the need doesn’t stop there. Many women don’t have the enough professional clothes for a full-time job, so Linda’s Closet will provide an additional 10 free items at each visit, items that can be mixed and matched to extend their wardrobe. It also provides scrubs, and khaki pants and red shirts for work at Target.

The clothing doesn’t have to be work-related. Birch says it could be that someone wants to look good at a teacher conference or at their son’s wedding, or that they’ve lost or gained weight. Other situations may be as serious as a woman needing to have a wardrobe replaced after fleeing domestic violence.

Linda’s Closet started in memory of Linda Oliver, who wanted the clothing left in her closet after her death used to help women. Birch says the effort started in a box next to a desk, evolved into a bus driving around town, and finally into a church basement. But no longer, the money from 100+ Women Who Care Cheshire County was used to move Linda’s Closet into a building that Birch says looks like a high-end boutique, and has brands like Chico’s and Talbots.

“We want it to be a special boutique experience for every woman who comes through the door,” Birch says. “We don’t want people to feel they’re walking into a basement and picking up someone else’s leftovers. Here, everything is beautiful.”

Another woman helping women is Jacquelyn O’Connor, founder of Hike Like a Woman Monadnock. “I just want women to get outside and experience the joy and relaxation of being in the woods,” she says.

Jacquelyn O’Connor (third from the left) on a Hike Like a Woman Monadnock excursion

O’Connor, who says she has been “basically living in the woods most of my life,” came to realize that other women didn’t have the same comfort level being in the woods that she did, and that, while she’s OK with hiking alone, most women aren’t.

To her, the answer to that was to get women to hike as a group. She searched for local groups and found nothing, so she contacted an international group based in Wyoming she found online. Hike Like a Woman certified “ambassadors” to set up local groups that, as O’Connor says, “empower women of all shapes, sizes and abilities to get outside and hike more.”

Fear of hiking alone is just one of the reasons women don’t hike more. “I’ve found that women are self-conscious about hiking,” O’Connor says. “They’re either worried about not being in shape or being able to navigate the trail, or just the overall safety of being on the trail.”

She provides the expertise and support to overcome those fears. “One of the things I hear from people, ‘Aren’t you worried about wild animals?’ I say no, because we’re way too loud.”

The first group hike was set up in the fall of 2017. “From there, it just took off,” she says. There are now more than 300 women registered on her Facebook page for hikes, though she can only accommodate about 15 per hike. The hikes take place on a mixture of trails within an hour radius of Peterborough.

O’Connor, now manager of group hikes for the Hike Like a Woman umbrella organization, says hiking is “a way to leave your problems at the car, and just come out and have a good time.”

Hiking trails will be part of a new real estate project that will be unlike any in the country, led by a Jaffrey woman who says she has committed her professional life to doing something beneficial for the planet.

Amelia Tracy is leading the development of a regenerative agrihood, a community that goes beyond “green,” in Peterborough where a 100-year-old stone barn still stands (see below). Photo by Annie Card

“This will be the very first regenerative agrihood in the United States,” Amelia Tracy says. It is a neighborhood that goes beyond our usual concept of “green.” It’s a living system that contributes to ecological integrity and human well-being, and creates a closed loop that gives more than it takes.

It’s being built on 32 acres of land in Peterborough where a 100-year-old stone barn still stands. It’s one of just two stone barns left in the state. Thirty-two net-zero homes, condominiums, will be built in and around the barn, leaving most of the acreage available to farm.

“There will be veggies, flowers, chickens, orchards, berries, all the things you can think of,” Tracy says. “Through farming, we can help reverse global warming. The idea is that the photosynthesis of plants takes CO2 out of the atmosphere and pumps it underground. We need to create that vacuum organically and naturally in the landscape.”

The agrihood is a way, Tracy says, to get farmers on land that is “free into perpetuity,” offsetting one of the huge costs of doing farming, buying the land. It also allows the building of soil fertility and biological health so that food that’s grown on the land is more nutritious and the soil better able to withstand the effects of climate change. “It’s just a beautiful, beautiful, functional thing.”

One of the many other amenities is a CSA for residents, where they can buy the farm’s products. They’ll also be available at a farm-to-table café that will be open to the public.

Another plus — there’s a clear view of Mount Monadnock from the property. That was an aspect of the property that sold Tracy on it. “The mountain has impacted my life so dramatically,” she says. “It has a very intense feeling of energy. I call it grandmother energy. It kind of looks out for you.”

Categories: People, Remarkable Women