Discover art, poetry and history in this small town
We were staying at Adair Country Inn in Bethlehem when our host asked if we had heard of Franconia’s new sculpture trail. We had not, so she gave us a color brochure with a map identifying 22 sculptures that are along or close to Main Street.
The sculptures and the story of how this relatively small town (population just over 1,100) came to have them led us to give Franconia a closer look. There was a lot to see. The Franconia ArtWalk took us on a milelong walking tour of Main Street and along the bank of the Gale River that revealed not only the art but gardens, architecture and riverscapes.
We began at the Lafayette Regional School, where the students created a sculpture garden and a set of six mosaics that represent different aspects of local life and landscapes (we especially liked the use of mirror glass for the skier’s goggles). The rest of the sculptures represent a variety of styles, from the brightly colored modernist works of David Skora to the welded chain-link sculptures by Philip Reeder of Bethlehem, New Hampshire.
Also from Bethlehem, Valery Mahuchy is represented by two pieces with flowing curves that remind us of art nouveau sculptors. “Ceramic Totem,” a collaborative work by the Littleton Studio School, is a whimsical stack of colorful pottery teapots and vases with metal accents. Some of these decorate the lawns of businesses and public buildings; others are in parks or almost hidden in the woods along the river trail.
The Franconia ArtWalk Association began in 2018 to encourage and promote the arts, and this is their first project. The collection is seasonal, but working with other local arts organizations, they plan to develop future programs and more attractions that feature the creative talents of the community.
The ArtWalk is also a good chance to find out more about Franconia’s history, as it begins right across the street from the only remaining iron smelter in New Hampshire. Alongside the Gale River is the Besaw Iron Furnace, an impressive 32-foot octagonal structure of local granite. Rebuilt several times — the original predates 1805 — the furnace reached its present size in the 1840s.
The furnace produced pig iron, bars of iron smelted from ore extracted from several mines on Ore Hill (hikers and skiers on the trails of what’s now Sugar Hill still need to be wary of remaining mine pits). But the furnace’s life was a short one, as iron production dropped with the depletion of the forests needed to produce charcoal to keep its fires blazing. Those who have not seen the furnace for a few years will be pleased to see it today, its exterior freshly restored from near-ruin.
Well-illustrated signage, along with exhibits in the glass-fronted interpretive center, explain the smelting process and the furnace’s operation. There’s a scale model of the furnace and the shed that originally surrounded it, and artifacts on display include a rusted ore cart, tools and a stove, as well as chain and other items made from Franconia iron.
Almost across the street is the eponymous Iron Furnace Brewing, which is open with limited hours and seating at this time. Still, if you can find a spot (seating is first-come, first-served), there is always something new and interesting on tap.
The Franconia Heritage Museum on Main Street has more information about the furnace and ore mining, as well as on former hotels and local history. Housed in an 1878 farmhouse with an attached barn and sheds, the museum displays furniture and household implements, farm equipment and changing exhibits; it is open seasonally.
Also on Main Street is the elegant Abbie Greenleaf Library, a Gothic revival building with Richardson Romanesque features, built as a memorial to his wife by Charles H. Greenleaf, owner of the Profile House, a grand hotel that overlooked Echo Lake at the head of Franconia Notch. Step inside to see the mosaic floors, stained glass and finely detailed mahogany woodwork. It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
The ArtWalk is not the first ambitious arts-related project Franconia has undertaken. In 1976, the town voted to purchase the farmhouse where Robert Frost had lived for five years and summered for 20 more. The modest little farmhouse on the side of Ore Hill is still owned by the town and, since 1977, The Frost Place has awarded a fellowship each summer to an emerging American poet, who can live and write in the house for several months.
Visitors are welcome to tour the house, climbing to the second floor to see Frost’s writing desk by the window and enjoy the view that inspired him and prompted him to buy the house. Frost was already familiar with the area, having spent an earlier summer in Bethlehem, and he roamed the trails and backroads of Ore Hill looking for the view of the peaks overlooking Franconia Notch.
With this as his muse, he wrote several of his best-known poems here, including “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” “Fire and Ice” and “Nothing Gold Can Stay.” These were included in his collection titled “New Hampshire,” which earned him the first of his four Pulitzer Prizes.
Frost’s legacy continues here, as each summer The Frost Place sponsors the Festival and Conference on Poetry, where writers and teachers can join conferences, classes and workshops with a faculty of recognized poets. The house is not open in the winter, but visitors are welcome year-round to enjoy the views from the front porch, and to walk the trail behind the house, where signs quote from Frost’s poetry.