In the past, plenty of everyday folks indeed lived on the islands of Winnipesaukee and their reputations and stories are great local folklore. So also are the stories of the islands long before they became an exclusive summer home retreat of many.
It is said there are 365 islands on Winnipesaukee – one for every day of the year. In reality, there are about 275 inhabitable islands. During the late 1700s, it was decided to make a survey of the lake’s many islands (this may have been by the order of famed Governor Wentworth, who took Winnipesaukee’s Governor’s Island as his own). In 1780 or thereabout, 15 appointed proprietors of the islands (they were assigned this title and island ownership by Governor Wentworth) met to divide the property; by 1812 many of those original proprietors had sold their island holdings. Why? Because most businessmen lived in the busy Portsmouth area and Lake Winnipesaukee was no-mans land with few inhabitants and for those who resided here, little or no way to conduct business. Thus, why own an island when it was proving useless to a seacoast area businessman?
As early as 1800, some islands had been named. Cow, Long, Bear and Barndoor Islands and soon after Diamond, Timber, Eagle, Thompson’s and Fisher were thus dubbed.
As was often the way of exploration in those early days, timber was cut off island property to be used for sailing ship masts. After the Revolutionary War, the remaining island timber was burned to make way for pastureland.
Farmers saw the islands as free grazing land for their cattle. All one had to do was get cattle across the lake to the islands and the cows could be left there for the summer in open, safe pastureland. The first herd of Guernsey cows in America was quarantined on a Winnipesaukee island – thus the name Cow Island. Grazing land for cows and sheep was plentiful on Bear, Mark and Timber Islands at that time.
By the mid 1800s, the Lakes Region was becoming a destination for those who wanted to vacation but did not mind roughing it at local farms and hotels. It didn’t take long for these vacationers and visitors to be drawn to the islands. In the Squam Lake area, a Boston businessman, Milton Richardson, purchased three islands with the fanciful notion of naming them for his three daughters, Mildred, Harriet and Louise. Always the businessman, Richardson soon advertised rentals on one of the islands at a rustic cabin that would sleep eight to 10 people.
Also in the Squam Lake area, the well-known Coolidge family purchased an island in the 1890s. According to Squam by Rachel Carley, Harold Jefferson Coolidge claimed ownership to Utopia, Long and Duck Islands; on Long Island, Coolidge took over the pre-existing Camp Wonalanset. It is said Coolidge loved the rustic camp setting and welcomed hundreds of guests to his summer island haven over the years.
In 1893 the Coolidge family purchased Hoag Island for the low sum of $35 after it was seized from the previous owner for back taxes. It was passed down through the family for many years of vacation use.
It’s quite unusual to find a Lakes Region island where human habitation is discouraged, but that is indeed the case with Stamp Act Island on Lake Wentworth in the Wolfeboro area. The island sits in the middle of Lake Wentworth and was protected by the Nature Conservancy, a national conservation group that manages large tracts of land in NH.
Stamp Act Island is well looked after; many residents and visitors have donated funds to ensure that the land will not be sold, developed or exploited. In the mid 1970s, the Conservancy purchased the island and those who live nearby and visit the lake vowed to make sure the island would forever remain a natural area. Many species of birds and animals native to Lake Wentworth’s watershed live in this protected habitat. The island is the largest of those on Lake Wentworth, comprising about 100 acres of land, and it is 4,000 feet in length with 12,000 feet of shoreline.
There are about 10 islands on Lake Wentworth; Stamp Act Island is the largest with smaller islands including Mink, Cate, Goose, Bass, East and West Jockey Cap, Triggs, Turtle and Brummet Islands. A group of rocks is called the Seven Sisters Islands.
A story that has been retold for years is that of Rebecca, a young woman who resided in Center Harbor many decades ago. It is said she had the sweetest disposition of her sisters. While her sisters were spoiled and on the lookout for rich husbands, Becky enjoyed life’s simpler pleasures, most importantly gardening. Her garden was her pride and joy and she was saddened when the family’s herd of cattle got loose and trampled her flowers.
To appease Becky, her father offers her the pick of any Lake Winnipesaukee island she wished. Her selfish sisters demanded islands as well, and their father, who by this time was probably worn out by all the bickering, relented and made gifts of islands to all his daughters. Becky, however, was given first choice; she felt sorry for her sisters and thus chose the smallest island on the lake, leaving the larger ones to her sisters. The island chosen by Becky was merely a pile of rocks with bushes growing here and there.
Becky’s generosity became a folk tale spread far and wide. A wealthy young man, so legend says, just had to see Becky. Upon doing so, he fell in love with the sweet country lass, they were married and indeed lived happily ever after. (Her sisters, however, were unhappy and lived as lonely spinsters on their larger islands.)
Those who built cottages on the land inhabited some of Winnipesaukee’s islands; those who wished to spend their vacation on an island but did not own property could stay at one of the hotels that sprang up on Lakes Region islands.
Bear Island House was probably the best-known island hotel. What started as a rooming house for overnight guests on the island in the 1870s soon became a full-fledged hotel with tennis courts, boating, swimming and outdoor pleasures such as hiking and picnicking. The hotel was popular and many guests stayed for most of the summer, waited on by a large staff. Sadly, the hotel burned down in the 1930s.
Long Island had a wonderful hotel that catered to summer tourists. The Brown family built the Long Island Hotel in the 1800s. It had a great view of the lake: An avenue of trees led down to the wharf where the Lady of the Lake and Mount Washington could be seen plying the waters and bringing mail, provisions and guests to the hotel.