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Day Tripping-Loving Laconia

The Laker - October 10, 2017

Story & photos by Kathi Caldwell-Hopper

Loving Laconia…that seems like a weird headline for a day tripping story about wandering to Weirs Beach and browsing the exhibit at the Laconia Library, but it really does describe how I felt about the area after a recent day trip.

It was a quiet Monday in early October when I was on my way to run some errands. As I approached Lacomia, I remembered there was a new exhibit at the Laconia Library on North Main Street. It had focused on something to do with Opechee Park, as I recalled, and was curated by the Laconia Historical and Museum Society.

I love the Society’s exhibits because the staff always seems to find something unique about the area to focus on for an exhibit. Old photos, funky accessories like wooden water skis, firemen’s hats, theatre playbills and much more offer a glimpse into life in the area long ago.

Opechee Park has been around as long as I can remember; it’s just one of those places I take for granted. Sitting at the far end of North Main Street, the park has a beach, a track for runners and walkers and a playground. I drive by it often, but like so much else in life when we are busy, I sort of take it for granted.

Thus, I was happy to learn about the exhibit, which was focused on the history of Opechee Park. I thought it worth stopping to see the exhibit. The Laconia Library hosts the exhibits put together by the Historical Society – the displays are exhibited on the second floor rotunda area of the library.

The exhibit is titled “The History of Opechee Park” and it runs through December 21. Information on the exhibit says it “celebrates an iconic gathering spot presented by the Laconia Historical & Museum Society.” We are also told that in 1871, Martin Haynes, the publisher of the Lake Village News proposed a new name, Paugus to replace the already named Long Bay in the area. Paugus was the name of an Indian chieftain who once lived in the area. The name Opechee would replace the water in the area known as Long Bay. Thus, the name Lake Opechee.

The exhibit is laid out around the rotunda area in glass cases and on the walls. One of the first glass cases held such interesting items as a hand-written legal document, fragile and yellowed with age. It was for the transfer of a large parcel of land that would eventually become Opechee Park. The year was 1810 and the land was transferred to a Mr. Perley. The land eventually came into the hands of Stephen Lyford, a Laconia-area businessman and attorney. He wanted to make local commercial boat transportation viable, popular and profitable. It seems to make sense due to the fact that transportation was limited in the area and the lakes could move people from one place to another with speedier service than horse and wagon.

As part of his plan, Lyford had the Weirs Channel dredged in 1833, and this led to the eventual discovery of Endicott Rock. It must have been quite an exciting discovery when the rock, inscribed with lettering chiseled on the surface in 1652, was discovered. It was inscribed by surveyors for the Massachusetts Bay Colony and provided Lyford with evidence of one of the earliest appearances of white explorers to the area.

Horse boats ferried passengers, livestock and packages across the waters of Winnipesaukee as well as Opechee. By 1900, the once popular horse boats had fallen out of use.

Information, on the park’s Trotting Track, is interesting and told me something I didn’t know: the ½-mile track at Opechee Park attracted isitors in buggies or on horses. They came dressed up to socialize and to be seen. Later, the track was replaced with a ¼-mile running track.

Occasional harness races also took place on the track in its heyday. Interesting old photos show the harness racing and maps of the area.

Many special clubs and groups, as well as the general public, have made use of Opechee Park over the years. I loved an old photo of a large group from the Saint-Jean Baptiste Society. It was of the club’s Field Day and members were all smiles as they posed for the camera. The exhibit tells us that the group had a large membership in the late 1800s and was associated with the Sacred Heart church. The French Canadian population was large in Laconia and the club had a mission of keeping alive the traditions and language and customs of those who had relocated to the Laconia area. The group often took part in events at the Fairgrounds at Opechee Park.

Speaking of fairs, the park was first called The Fairgrounds at Opechee Park until the name was shortened to Opechee Park. The Fairgrounds saw hot air balloons, exhibitions in the late summer, comedy acts and bands. I was amused by the old photo of the Elks Circus in July of 1911. Circuses meant live animal acts at Opechee, and elephants were among those brought to town. The elephants were marched through downtown Laconia, and must have given the locals quite a thrill!

I remember when the large carved Native American sculpture was placed in Opechee Park in the 1980s. It created quite a local stir and there were news stories of the giant carving. Photos and information in the exhibit tells us that the statue weighs 24,000 pounds and is carved from a native 36-foot red oak. It is now in need of repairs to prevent further rotting from the inside. The creator of the statue has offered to volunteer his time to do the necessary repairs, but around $7,000 is needed for materials. (Those interested in donating can contact Parks and Recreation Director Kevin Dunleavy at 603-524-5046.)

The annual sled dog races have been a big part of Laconia’s winter scene for years (dating back to 1929) and the derbies are part of the exhibit. Old photos, buttons, souvenir tumblers and other memorabilia dating back a few decades are shown.

Also commemorated are the water ski competitions once held at Opechee Park. I had no idea the area was used for water ski competitions, but old photos and posters tell of competitions dating back to the 1950s. The Weirs Ski Club formed in 1949 and grew to become the largest water ski club in the country with 350 members. The National Water Ski Championships were held on Lake Opechee in 1954 and again in 1959. (I was enchanted to see an old Championship poster dated 1959, sponsored by “The Boston Herald-Traveler”.)

From fireworks displays to sled dog racing to circus acts and much more, Opechee Park and the waters in the area are interpreted in all forms in this marvelous exhibit.

As I headed to my car I got thinking about Endicott Rock at Weirs Beach. It was now late afternoon, but the day was warm and sunny and I thought it couldn’t hurt to drive the few miles to Weirs Beach to see the old rock.

Parking at the beach area was easy on an October afternoon and few people were about. I saw the small stone building that protects the rock housed within the building. It keeps it safe from time and human hands.

I could see the carving on the stone and marveled that it was done so long ago (1652 to be exact). The Massachusetts Bay Colony surveyors tell us the governor was John Endicott; the initials of the surveyors also were included.

I sat on a nearby picnic table and watched the late afternoon boat traffic drifting slowly through the Weirs Channel as the sun sank lower in the sky. The statue atop the enclosure is of a Native American standing proud and helps us remember those who lived here for centuries long before white explorers came to the area.

These little reminders of the past and the area’s history are all around the Laconia area if you take the time to look. It is one of the many reasons, along with the Opechee Park exhibit, that I find myself loving Laconia.

(For information on the Laconia Historical and Museum Society exhibit at the Laconia Public Library, call 603-524-4775 or visit the library at 695 North Main Street in Laconia. The exhibit is free and open whenever the library is open and all are welcome.) 

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