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Yesteryear: Town Bandstands

Kathi Caldwell-Hopper - August 12, 2013





Moulton's Band

Moulton’s Band performs in a summer outdoor concert at the Rotary Park/Belknap Mill in Laconia.

These days, many towns and villages across New Hampshire have bandstands. We all know what bandstands look like: They are usually whitewashed, circular in shape, with open sides and maybe an ornately shingled little roof with a weathervane topping the structure. Many were built in the late Victorian era when gingerbread trim and heavy decorative touches were in vogue.

Town bandstands come into their own in the summer and it has become increasingly popular for towns and non-profit organizations to present summer bandstand concert series for the public. Often, taxpayer money or donations from businesses and individuals fund a music series. The concerts are free; how could anyone present an open air, public concert and expect to charge admission?

Those who enjoy summertime outdoor bandstand concerts may not be aware of the age of some New England bandstands and how long-lived the practice of town band musical events has been.

A good place to start when delving into the history of Lakes Region town bandstands is in the lakeside town of Center Harbor. Travel Route 25 into the town and you cannot miss the pretty little bandstand sitting atop a rise overlooking Lake Winnipesaukee. The bandstand is where it’s at in the town all summer, from the free concerts to offering a great place to watch the Fourth of July fireworks.

The town is old: It broke off from Moultonborough in 1823.

Music has been important to townspeople for years and the Center Harbor Town Band, established in 1878, is considered among the oldest musical groups in the state. Records are sketchy as to where a previous bandstand stood, but there must have been a structure for the town band to play during the summer months.

On Center Harbor’s 200th anniversary, residents and surrounding towns decided to build a new bandstand. The unique structure cost $65,000 to build with the costs met by private donations. It was designed and constructed to be as close as possible to a 19th-century bandstand that had been at Weirs Beach. With a raised front providing sound protection from busy Route 25 traffic and a dropped rear roof, it is a very attractive structure. The plan was to use the bandstand as a stage, as well as for band concerts; a removable railing allows for the structure to become a stage for plays.

At the edge of the Lakes Region, the quiet town of Freedom has a simple, yet beautiful village bandstand, built by 1902. The bandstand has been the place for Freedom Old Home Day concerts for more than a century. The structure has the distinction of being added to the NH State Register as part of ongoing work to document the history of Freedom’s Schoolhouse Hill. It has been the center of town events since its construction.

Belmont once was a busy mill town. Residents worked in the mills that dotted the town’s waterways. The town center also was very busy, with shops and trading a daily occurrence. Farms were many and farmers brought produce into the town for trading and selling.

Busy mill workers needed a way to socialize and relax. To that end, a bandstand was designed and built in about 1908 near the downtown factory area. Volunteers did the construction because everyone wanted to have a place to enjoy the local band on a summer’s evening and none were shy about swinging a hammer and lending a hand to get the bandstand up and running. When completed, it was a piece of Victorian-era architecture of which the town could be proud.

Times changed and the mills closed. Like many once-thriving mill towns, Belmont’s population decreased and, with it, interest in the bandstand and outdoor concerts fell away. The pretty, ornate bandstand with the tall roof fell to disrepair over the years.

In recent years, an ambitious Heritage Commission worked on rebuilding the once-popular bandstand. Now completed, it has been considered among the best examples of Victorian-era bandstands.

Not far from Belmont, the town of Tilton also was a thriving mill community at one time. It had the distinction of being the home of a very wealthy man, Charles E. Tilton. He embellished the town with statues and built the hulking Tilton Arch which sits high atop a hill in neighboring Northfield, overlooking the area.

Charles Tilton must have loved ornate, heavily carved stonework, iron railings, and buildings because he built just such a structure on Tilton Island Park. The island sits in the middle of the Winnipesaukee River that separates Tilton and Northfield, and Mr. Tilton converted the land into a park after he purchased it in 1865. He built a decorative Victorian summerhouse and statuary for all to admire. Over time, after Mr. Tilton’s death, the park fell into disrepair. The summerhouse and statuary eventually were gone. In the 1990s, a gazebo was donated with the idea of summer outdoor concerts being held on the unusual and pretty island. (Concert attendees could reach the island by a footbridge.) The project was successful and the Alan and Savina Hartwell Memorial Bandstand is the site of a summer outdoor concert series.

Alton Bay is a quiet town off-season, but in the summer, the bay area is heavily populated with vacationers and boaters. As boating came into vogue in the 1920s, a group of local men formed a racing association. They wanted a great spot where people could view their daring boat races and so decided  to erect a bandstand in the middle of the bay water. It soon became a spot for band concerts in the summer as well as a viewing area. The bandstand still sits in the water to this day, and is a most unusual sight. It did not take long, however, for racing club members to realize it was a logistical nightmare to get the bands and all their instruments to the bandstand, given its location in the middle of the lake water. A new bandstand was built on town shorefront property in the late 1940s. The bandstand is square with eight posts and a pyramid-shaped roof.

As with most public structures, the bandstand saw wear and tear and, in 1988, the Alton-New Durham Lions Club had it reconstructed. The bandstand is the gem of the Alton Bay area and is home to many free outdoor summer concerts.

Barnstead has the distinction of having two bandstands, both quite old. The town’s first bandstand was built in about 1923 near the center of town on a large plot of land called the Parade Grounds. Built to hold large groups for summer concerts and other events, the stand often accommodated a popular town band. The local mail carrier in Barnstead, John Jenkins, helped build the bandstand and was the bandleader at the time.

Facts are sketchy as to why Barnstead built two bandstands, but it may have been because the town was spread out and transportation unreliable. If you wanted to play in a band or listen to a band concert, you would want to go to the one nearest you if you lived on one side of town. The second bandstand was built in Center Barnstead and is quite a bit more ornate than the other structure. It is octagonal with paneled concrete walls, wooden columns with molded bases, and an octagonal roof. The bandstand was built in the late 1930s and it is thought that John Jenkins was a driving force in the building of the second bandstand. There was room, at one time, for a small basement with a refreshment window where snacks were sold to the public during the concert, making this an unusual bandstand.

Historically rich Sanbornton also is known for the bandstand concerts that take place each summer. The town’s popular Moulton’s Band was founded in 1896 and is among the oldest continuously playing bands in New Hampshire. The band members in the early 1900s dreamed of a bandstand near the town center where they could play concerts during the summer months. In 1909, the bandstand was erected and a rousing concert and ice cream event marked the celebration.

Another bandstand in Sanbornton has a beautiful view of the Lakes Region from its location by the Bay Meetinghouse. The bandstand was built in the 1940s and is a simple octagonal shape.

Other Lakes Region towns have bandstands; all one need do is drive around the area in order to spot many of the charming structures. Newer bandstands are being built now and then, such as the gorgeous Cate Park Bandstand in Wolfeboro and the bandstand in Rotary Park in Laconia. 

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