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Madison’s Marvelous Boulder Is No Ordinary Rock

Kathi Caldwell-Hopper - October 4, 2011

Kids love to collect rocks. My son Dan had a rock collection he kept locked in a fishing tackle box. I well recall moving (actually dragging would be a better description) the very heavy box when I vacuumed his bedroom. He never wanted to part with the rocks that any adult could see were worthless. But to a child, each and every rock might be filled with gold or rubies if only they were strong enough to crack it open and expose the gems. Better to hold onto the rocks just in case, was Dan’s reasoning.

I have no idea what happened to Dan’s rock collection (it could still be hidden in his closet for all I know!). But there is no doubt that kids love rocks. Adults too can become fascinated with a rock; after all, these objects have been around for many, many years and if they could talk, the stories they would tell.

If you live in New Hampshire, you know why it’s called the Granite State. Rocks are everywhere and boulders also dot the landscape. I’ve seen lots of big rocks and boulders, but I had never seen a giant of a rock until I visited the Madison Boulder.

I’ve seen pictures of the Madison Boulder and always wanted to visit. An old postcard  I have seen shows a Model-T parked next to the boulder and it’s pretty clear any vehicle looks like tiny beside the mammoth Madison Boulder.

On a beautiful Saturday in September, my husband and I headed out for some late-summer yard saling. My favorite type of yard sale trek is to just get in the car and go. Don’t look for yard sale ads in the newspaper. Simply pick a route and drive. I’ve found some of my best and most treasured antiques and weird stuff using this method. It adds to the fun and adventure of the reason many of us yard sale – for the thrill of the hunt.

We drove through the Sandwich area and took a lot of winding, snaking back roads (I must admit I lost count) and finally found ourselves in Madison. It’s a very pretty town this time of year when the leaves are starting to turn. We scored some wonderful older items along the way and Madison too had enough yard sales to keep me happy.

“Come to think of it,” I said to an older gent running a yard sale in Madison, “is this the town with the big boulder?” “Yup,” he replied, jerking his thumb in a northerly direction. “Go up there a ways and turn left. You’ll see signs.”

The boulder must have been beloved to this yard sale man-of-few-words, because he opened up enough to say, “It’s not just any old rock. You should go see it.”

With directions to the Madison Boulder jotted down on a piece of paper, my husband and I were off to find this amazing rock. After years of day trip adventures, not much surprises my husband (or my kids, who grew up tagging along when I visited unusual places for newspaper stories) but I had a feeling the Madison Boulder just might impress. We drove through the village of Madison and took a left onto Rt. 113.

We were greeted with more scenery and beautiful views of the not-so-distant White Mountains dappled with early foliage color in the late afternoon sun.

After driving a few miles we took a left onto Boulder Road. About a mile on this road, we came to a right-hand turn and a big sign that told us we’d reached the Madison Boulder area. We drove carefully down the dirt road and stopped to read a sign that gave information about the boulder and the short hike.

Luckily the road was very passable and we took it about a 1/4 of a mile to a large parking area. Suddenly, there was a mammoth rock up on a rise among tall pine trees.

“Wow!” was about the best thing I could say to describe what we were seeing. This was no ordinary boulder. I am used to seeing big rocks (who isn’t in the Granite State?), but I had never, ever seen anything like this. A wooden sign gave information about the boulder, which said it was a gift to the State of NH in 1946 in memory of James O. Gerry and A. Crosby Kennett.

The area is state owned and kept very clean. Although it was reaching late afternoon by the time we arrived, we decided to take the short path to the boulder. Looking up and up and up at the rock, I felt that slightly dizzy sensation I always get when looking up at skyscrapers in the city.

The path winds completely around the giant boulder; I was left wondering what those who originally discovered this amazing rock had felt upon first seeing it. Surely at one time, trees would have grown right up around the rock instead of the cleared path and well-kept area I was now seeing?

The story of this giant rock goes like this: the Madison Boulder is thought to be the largest known erratic in New England, and among the largest in the world. The huge granite rocks measures 83 feet in length, 23 feet in height above the ground, and 37 feet in width. It weighs upwards of 5,000 tons and part of the roughly rectangular block is buried, probably to a depth of 10 to 12 feet.


Historically, the 17-acre Madison Boulder site was acquired by the state in 1946. In 1970, the Madison Boulder was designated a National Natural Landmark by the U.S. Department of the Interior because the enormous erratic, “is an outstanding illustration of the power of an ice sheet to pluck out very large blocks of fractured bedrock and move them substantial distances.”

Madison Boulder is made of fine-grained feldspar and larger quartz crystals that welled up under great pressures from a molten mass deep in the earth over 200 million years ago. Upon cooling, the molten rock hardened. Over the millions of intervening years softer materials on the earth’s surface were removed by erosion from wind and water. Not so with the granite of New Hampshire.


In about 1835, geologists believed that huge boulders like Madison Boulder, which are isolated in their surroundings, had been washed to their present locations by great floods, which were believed to have occurred in ancient times. Due to the lack of deep scientific knowledge that we have today, these early geologists made a guess that would have made perfect sense at that time. They knew little to nothing about the ice age and the fact that it once covered so much of the area.


oday, most authorities trace Madison Boulder to the Whitton or White ledges 12 1/2 and four miles respectively, to the northwest. However, a few maintain that the boulder so closely resembles one of the four types of rock that form Mount Willard in Crawford Notch, 24 miles to the nothwest, that the ice sheet must have brought it from there. Madison Boulder lies on “glacial drift,” unsorted sediments left by the retreating ice sheet.

It’s not unusual to spot boulders all over the state left by the ice age. Some of the big rocks are made of granite and others are composed of different materials. Interestingly the Madison Boulder is of the same texture and composition as those that form the White Mountains.

The 17-acre site upon which the boulder sits changed hands over the years, until in 1946 the Kennett family donated it to the state of NH in honor of J. Crosby Kennett, a local resident of some fame.

Unlike my son Dan, the childhood rock collector hoping to score a million dollar gold nugget, I am not particularly interested in the science of rocks. However, I like the fact that the Madison Boulder has sat upon this secluded spot for hundreds of years. I also am fascinated that at one time it was part of the mountains to our north until the ice age plucked it up and dropped it into such an unlikely spot.

We could have stayed much longer at the Madison Boulder, but by this time the late afternoon dusk was turning the forest nearly dark. I took one last look at the hulking boulder sitting quietly among the trees as it has done for year upon countless year.

“Let’s come back again when we find ourselves in this area,” I said to my husband. Smiling, he answered, “Yes, let’s do that. I don’t think the Madison Boulder is going anywhere!” 

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