Rebuild the Old Man of the Mountain? Many say let him be

  • New Hampshire Gov. Craig Benson looks at Cannon Mountain on Saturday, May 3, 2003, in Franconia after the historic “Old Man of the Mountian” broke off. AP file

Monitor staff
Friday, May 04, 2018

Rest in pieces, Old Man.

That’s what I was told Thursday, which marked the 15th anniversary of the day the Old Man of the Mountain crumbled during an early-morning fog.

Not out of disrespect. Quite the contrary, this opinion grew out of love and respect for the symbol that remains on Granite State road signs.

Leave him be. Don’t replace the irreplaceable. It’s not nice to fool Mother Nature. Or at least mess with her artwork.

Not everyone agreed, mind you. A few people longed for the old days, the drive up the Kancamagus Highway, when kids and adults alike leaned over and looked up, searching for an old friend who spoke to them in ways that were hard to put into words.

He was there, always, and it felt good. But Nancy Foote wasted no time moving her head back and forth, a definite “No” when asked if the time had come to put the Old Man back on the mountain.

“It would not be the Old Man,” Foote told me. “It would just be a different set of rocks.”

The Footes, Nancy and Charlie, were in Franconia Notch State Park for the ceremony marking this occasion. It was held at Profile Plaza, the publicly funded memorial dedicated to the Old Man, which features granite stones and benches inscribed with donors’ names, plus a series of seven tall, black “profilers.”

If you stand just right, placing your feet on a stone tablet labeled with your height, and look up at the end of the profiler in front of you, the Old Man returns to his former home, high atop Cannon Mountain.

And there he was, chiseled features and all. The long chin. The protruding forehead. The flat top. The Old Man always looked good for a man of his age, which geologists put at 10,000 years old.

It’s a nice gimmick, and, for a moment, it makes you forget what you’re really looking at: A nondescript hunk of jagged rock formations with a pair of turnbuckles, needed in the past to keep the big guy alive, sticking out.

And I was told that was good enough.

“Anything is possible if you put enough money into it,” Charlie Foote said. “But I just have to say that it wouldn’t be the same.”

The turnout for the ceremony was disappointing, perhaps because of threatening skies, which opened midway through the event. Among 16 people, only the Footes – and later a family of four from Delaware – were legitimate visitors not connected to officials who were there to promote the plaza, or media representatives there to cover the anniversary.

Dick Hamilton, a past president of the Old Man of the Mountain Legacy Fund, said the plaza is “an eloquent, simple memorial to remember how important the Old Man was. It’s not done yet; we still have more work to do.”

That would include more pathways, but not a replica of what once was, which was fine with the folks I met a few miles south, in Lincoln.

Pat Burkard of Otisfield, Maine, compared the Old Man scenario with that of the Indian Petroglyphs, ancient rock carvings that are slowly eroding in Maine.

“There’s some controversy about saving them,” Burkard told me. “But some stuff is meant to disappear. It’s like having your grandmother or grandfather stuffed and putting them on display.”

“Let it go,” added Burkard’s friend, Kathy Bolak of Vermont. “It’s gone.”

And this from Burkard’s husband, Dwight Burkard: “It’s a natural thing to decay. If you put up a facsimile, then the symbolism is based on something that’s not natural.”

Natural. Genuine. Even sacrilegious.

Those adjectives surfaced a lot. “Keep the thing natural,” said Marilyn Sanderson of Lincoln, who was eating at the same fast-food restaurant as the Burkards. “Nature in New Hampshire is Important. Natural landscape is important. Don’t commercialize it.”

And while Sanderson’s friend, Donna Currier of Lincoln, disagreed and liked the idea of a replacement – “I grew up here. I have a bobblehead of the Old Man.” – she was in a the minority.

Brittany Smith of Gilmanton, walking through Bicentennial Square with her mother, Diane Smith, and aunt, Denise Perron of Loudon, suggested carving an Old Man profile out of wood or metal and putting it back in place.

“Not out of rock,” Smith said. “Nature made it, nature took it away. Don’t mess with it.”

Perron remembered her childhood, when her family didn’t have much money and vacations consisted of picnics and visits to the Old Man.

“I’m looking at my sister, and I’m getting pretty emotional,” Perron said. “But putting it back on the same rock might be sacrilegious. Don’t put it on the same spot.”

By then, I had spoken to people in their 50s, 60s and 70s, other than Brittany Smith, who was 29. So I widened my net and spoke to high school kids, none of whom had ever seen the big guy in person.

Bow High School senior Mats Dartnell said, “I say put it back up. It’s significant to put a landmark back again. It’s an attraction people would want to see but they’re not able to.”

Over at Concord High, freshman Rachel Pauley and senior Paige Weatherbee thought the Old Man should remain food for thought, 1,200 feet down, despite never having seen him.

“It’s not genuine, so why would they fake something like that?” said Pauley, 15.

“I don’t think we need to put it up because it happened naturally,” said Weatherbee, 17. “It’s not like they took it down.”

I agree. The Old Man was alive to many generations, speaking to people, welcoming them, comforting them in a very real way. Some estimates say he’d been around for more than 10,000 years.

He lived a good life.

Joanne Payne of Wolfeboro, whom I met at a
local coffee shop and who remembered school trips to the Old Man in the 1980s, thought for five seconds before releasing these words:

“His face falling off was part of a natural process that could be symbolic. Trying to replace the Old Man of the Mountain would be like replacing our fond memories of growing up in this state.”