A Snowy Winter Through the Years
By Kathi Caldwell-Hopper
Did you know the 1941 Winter Carnival drew large crowds to the 60-meter ski jump on Belknap Mountain’s Recreation Area in Gilford? Or that for hundreds of years, ice was harvested from Lake Winnipesaukee during the winter months and stored for use during the warmer monts? These many interesting facts take the viewer (who may have grown up in the 1940s to 1970s) back to childhood years when winter really did seem long…and to a kid, delightful.
I grew up loving winter, and saw any potential snowstorm as a chance for a snow day with lots of outdoor play, including taking to the snowy hills with a silver flying saucer or flexible flyer sled. I didn’t grow up in a family that skied, but now and then we piled into the family station wagon to travel to Belknap Recreation Area (today’s Gunstock) to watch the skiers zip down the groomed trails. Skating was more my thing, and when I got skates for Christmas one year, I headed to a neighbor’s pond where the elderly lady of the house taught me to skate just as she had learned to as a child.
These many years later, winter isn’t met with the excitement I felt as a child, but now and then I see something that takes me back to the halcyon days of my childhood.
When I was returning books to the Laconia Library recently, I thought I would stop by the upper gallery level to see if there was a new display. The area is the place where the Laconia Historical and Museum Society offers interesting exhibits on a variety of topics to the public throughout the year. I love the exhibits which fill the rotunda area. Smaller items are displayed within glass cases with information on the history of each piece. The larger areas outside the cases are used to display other items.
I was happy to see a new exhibit on display, and it is titled “Celebrate Laconia Winter.” According to information at the Society’s website, “the exhibit tells the story of people and events upon the land, originally settled as Meredith and Gilmanton in Strafford County. Pictures, souvenirs and representations will take the viewer back to 19th-century winter days as well as numerous very cold sporting competitions.
Pat Tierney, executive director of the society, notes that, “Most residents of Laconia have spent some time enjoying winter in this city. Many are unaware of these many stories and events of another day.”
“Perhaps no one property in Laconia has escaped the wrath of snow, yet thousands of people have been entertained here enjoying any number of outdoor recreational experiences.” The exhibit will be on view through March.
Of course no exhibit on winter in the Lakes Region would be complete without a nod to skiing. It seems that at one time, a winter carnival brought those who wishes to celebrate winter, a great event at the Belknap Mountain Recreation Area (today’s Gunstock). Perhaps the most thrilling aspect of the carnival was the 60-meter ski jump. Old black and white photos show the crowds and the thrilling jump. The jump was constructed beginning in 1935 and by 1939, when the Eastern Ski Championships took place, the jump was complete and ready for use. It was in 1939 that Torger Tokle tied for first place; Tokle went on to set the hill record of 251-ft. on the 60-meter jump in 1941. By the early 1970s the jump was expanded to 70 meters so that it could conform with International Olympic standards. The jump saw its last use in 2004, but it lives on in the old photos.
The history of local skiing would be incomplete without mention of Olympic champion Penny Pitou. She graduated from Laconia High School in 1960, according to poster information at the exhibit. It can be assumed that Penny spent a lot of time skiing as a child and teen, and her skill was well known. But imagine becoming the first American skier to win an Olympic downhill medal the same year you graduate high school! That is indeed what Penny did, and in 2001 she was inducted into the New England Women’s Sports Hall of Fame. There she is, in a large black and white photo, skiing the slopes, dressed in a patterned winter sweater, a look of determination and joy on her face.
The exhibit is chock full of interesting information that I might not otherwise have known about, such as the odd photo of a huge snow sculpture of a dog towering over downtown Laconia. The sculpture of a Husky Dog was created by Belknap College students in 1966 for Laconia’s winter carnival and was quite an eye catcher during the sled dog races that year.
Information and old photos on ice carving are given display space, because at one time, locals made good use of all that frozen lake water by cutting it into huge blocks and storing it to be used in the summer. A poster tells the method for ice cutting and also gives the story of the Laconia Ice Company, founded 1913.
And speaking of ice, the exhibit covers ice sailing as well, and then it’s on to the history of the beloved ice fishing derbies that have taken place over the years, I love the old photo of a grinning boy holding a huge fish, a catch that surely brought him a prize.
The World Championship Sled Dog Derby has been held in Laconia for many years and the exhibit doesn’t skimp on memorabilia from this event that has brought many competitors and spectators to the area each year. Old derby pamphlets, collectible tumblers and derby buttons span many years. The derby kicked off in Laconia in 1929 and is one of the oldest events in the country. I loved all the sled dog collectibles, including a poster surely from the 1960s that touted the derby as “The Greatest Show on Snow”.
For those who like to ice skate, the portion of the exhibit dedicated to this sport is of interest. Also on display is a nice section on sledding in the winter in Laconia. We are told that a dead end road has a 130-acre park with a giant hill that has been used by locals for decades. The hill has been lit until 9 pm during snowy winters so that kids can enjoy sledding. Old photos of sleds and the beloved silver flying saucer sled will bring back childhood memories to many.
Information on snowmobiling rounds out the exhibit. From days gone by when it was a big deal to pile into the family car and drive to Gilford to watch the ski jumpers to the gentler pastime of sledding on the nearest hill, everything and anything about winter is covered in the Historical Society’s exhibit. It is definitely worth a stop to see…and to bring back the days of your youth when winter meant snow days from school and a lot of outdoor fun.
For information on the exhibit at the Laconia Museum and Historical Society, call 527-1278. The Laconia Library is located at 695 Main Street in Laconia, NH. Call the library at 524-4775.