Gazing Back, Charging Forward
Belknap Mill Fuses History with Contemporary Culture
By Mark Foynes
The Belknap Mill in Laconia stands astride the centuries. It has a legacy that stretches back nearly two centuries. It’s a temple of the Granite State’s industrial heritage, a present-day landmark to civic engagement, and a beacon for those seeking to advance culture in the Lakes Region.
While the area is best known for its summer diversions, the Mill develops programs that are enjoyable, thought-provoking, and just plain fun - year-round.
Tara Shore is the Mill’s operations manager. She described the Mill as one part museum, one part arts and cultural center, and one part town hall where a broad variety of speakers can discuss the critical issues of the day.
Shore, who has been on the Belknap Mill’s staff for about three years, said her duties entail a little bit of everything, “from soup to nuts” approach. In addition to tending to several day-to-day details, she is also in charge of planning and managing the Mill’s programming. Events at the mill range from the scholarly to the culinary.
“It’s the gem of Laconia,” she noted with pride. Shore added that the Mill also provides a platform from which artists, scholars, and others can present their ideas and creations to a diverse public.
Initially, the Mill, built in 1823 had a singular purpose: it was a center of production. Shore said it’s the oldest unaltered brick textile mill in America. She did somewhat qualify that statement to note that it had wiring, HVAC, and ADA-compliant features added to the interior over the years.
While somewhat modernized to meet repurposing needs, the building itself is a textbook example of historic preservation.
“The exterior looks pretty much the way it did 175 years ago,” she explained. She also noted that every modern update takes preserving the original fabric of the building into consideration.
The outside - and even key elements of the interior - are so intact that the N.H. Preservation Alliance chose the Mill for the location of an important historic preservation conference some years ago.
Shore explained that the water-powered mill on the Winnipesaukee River originally produced woven textiles but switched to knitted hosiery shortly after opening.
The game changer for the Belknap Mill was the invention of a knitting machine devised by the Aiken family of Franklin, which would succeed in obtaining a dozen U.S. patents. Shore explained that the original knitting machine models were intended for home use, but that the Aikens always looked for ways to make things bigger and better.
Boston University professor Richard Candee and architectural historian said of the Aikens, “They were the classic Yankee innovative family.” Candee was instrumental in the preservation of Strawbery Banke and the N.H. Farm Museum, as well as other significant structures.
(As an aside, the Aikens later also devised a cog-based rail system that would allow a locomotive to ascend Mt. Washington; seeking permission from the legislature, lawmakers thought the notion so preposterous that they laughingly granted them permission to construct a “railway to the moon.” As history shows, the Aikens had the last laugh).
The Aikens were both inventive and opportunistic. They saw the changes afoot in the Antebellum Period during the early Industrial Revolution. They knew their home-based knitting machine was a success. The ‘killer app’ would be to go to scale and apply it to the water-powered turbine model that shaped industrial centers like Lowell and Manchester.
The owners of the Belknap Mill saw promise in their vision and switched over production from weaving to knitting several years before the Civil War - a legacy that would persist for perhaps a century.
“The Mill supported other local industries, too,” Shore explained. She cited the presence of a local firm that manufactured knitting needles, as well as the machines themselves.
“There were mills and factories everywhere, in Laconia and really anywhere there was water power,” she noted.
But eventually competition from the South and overseas bit into profits. The 20th century marked the death knell for much of the region’s manufacturing. Although much smaller, the Belknap Mill outlasted the state’s largest textile maker, the Amoskeag Company, which went bust in 1936. The Belknap would persist, however its years were numbered. To be sure, the inevitable is the inevitable, and eventually the Belknap went under.
With a hulking, prominent, and beautiful building threatened to fall into disrepair, local preservationists - and even statewide leaders - endeavored to find a way to repurpose the defunct factory.
The first step was to make the case that the building was worth saving. Mind you, this was in the shadow of Urban Renewal: Knock down the old, make way for the new.
Laconia said, “No.” But what to do with the building?
Much of the hardware was still in place on the lower levels. There was the notion that they could be used as intact educational exhibits. Nowadays, hundreds of school children learn up close about the Industrial Revolution, and relatives of past employees could see where their parents toiled. There was a will. And so it would be.
Upper stories boast beautiful hardwood floors and high ceilings - perfect for meetings. So local boosters promoted the central N.H. locale as an ideal gathering place for civic events. Per a 1970s gubernatorial decree, Governor Meldrim Thomson designated the Mill as “The Official Meetinghouse” for the state of N.H. Since then, countless social and policy sessions have been held at the Mill. As an example, NHPR recently did a remote broadcast of its “Exchange” program from the Mill. There was a vision to create a civic space. There was a will. And so it would be.
Recognizing the Mill’s broader connection to the Laconia community and the Lakes Region community, planners envisioned the space to be used as a way to feature cultural leaders locally and regionally. Concerts. Art shows. Lectures. More. There was a will. And so it would be.
Not satisfied with its current levels of service to denizens of the Lakes Region, the staff and board of the Mill are constantly pushing the envelope.
For example, some years back, the Mill organized the “Music on the River” summer series to complement its fare. The concerts provided a literal platform for local performers and provided free entertainment for area residents. Operations manager Shore noted that the concept was recently broadened and re-branded as “Arts in the Park” to include the visual and cinematic arts. She acknowledged funding from the Laconia Putnam Fund, as well as a partnership with the Bank of N.H. Pavilion. In addition to displays of local visual artists, there were performances by the likes of the Rockin’ Daddios, Carter Mountain Brass, and a children's’ concert by Wayne from Maine.
“He was a huge draw,” she recalled.
The musical component also includes local talent such as Gilford’s Katie Dobbins.
“She has a real devoted local following, and there was a great turnout,” Shore recalled.
Also in the past year, the Mill helped organize a city-wide scavenger hunt in collaboration with Celebrate Laconia, and the Library and Historical Society.
“It’s a fascinating place with a lot of amazing places to visit and see,” Shore explained.
She noted that the partnership was a way to promote the organizations, but, more importantly, to get folks out to see the special places the city has to offer.
Shore said there were perhaps 60 locations that scavenger hunters were asked to locate. They included the Colonial Theater, the three Indian statues, and the iconic Weirs Beach sign. So locations included those in the midst of downtown and many other areas in the city.
Also earlier in the season, the Mill was an integral part of Bike Week. The site was an essential stop for motorcyclists traveling a loop partially designed by Bike Week co-organizer and Mill trustee Jennifer Anderson.
“We definitely got a lot of traffic as a result of that,” recalled Shore.
To help connect 2018’s bikers connect with the event’s long heritage in Laconia, there were special displays of historic photos of past Bike Weeks, and the works of several tattoo artists. (In an askew way, the tattoo component makes sense - knitting stockings in the 1860s and tattooing in the 1960s both involved needles and dye).
Looking ahead, Mill operations manager Shore sees opportunities for continuation, relationship building, and growth.
In the immediate future, Shore cited the upcoming multicultural celebration over the course of September. She said there will be a parade of flags that will culminate with a stop at the Mill, where there will be a ‘hall of flags’-type display, featuring the many nationalities that shaped the city’s past. Shore said the flags will be enhanced by an exhibition of original paintings and photography that will help present a diverse tapestry of the diverse folks who helped shape Laconia’s unique character.
Shore said that many European immigrants were destined for the city in the late 1800s and early 1900s. She also noted the pivotal role played by French-Canadians, who arrived by rail mostly from Quebec.
“It’s a way to recognize an ongoing tradition where new people come in and become part of the community,” she explained.
Shore said that the works of photographer Alan MacRae and painter (and artist-in-residence) Larry Frates will play a key role. Shore said that after the flags are installed, they will be viewable proximate to landscapes and peoplescapes depicting life in lands whence Laconia’s residents travelled.
“We know our city, but this will give a sense of where our neighbors and their families came from,” Shore said.
Another initiative of the Mill is “Legacy of the Lakes Region,” which will take a broader geographic scope of the Laconia area. It will also be a multi-media endeavor involving literature, cinema, and other means of expression.
A highlight of the fall season will be readings from M.J. Pettingill’s famed debut “Etched in Granite.” This will take place in September.
Shore said that the Mill will screen more films based on local topics, hopefully, in the future. She noted a very successful recent showing of a film based on the very prominent local Bolduc family as a potential model.
“People really responded because they did so much locally here,” she noted of the Bolducs.
Shore added, “Things are in the fire and we’ll be starting on 2019 soon.”
The operations director summarized, “Our ultimate aim is to combine history, civics, arts, culture, and a sense of the importance of this place and our area - and help people appreciate that.”
Shore acknowledges the Mill’s goals are lofty-sounding. But she acknowledges the Belknap Mill, a non-profit entity, is all about providing a gathering space where people can either exchange ideas or share experiences that bring Granite Staters together.
An excellent example of how the Mill creates bonds between others is the growth of its popularity as a wedding or reception venue. A trend in the bridal industry is tying the knot in unique locations.
As with similar institutions, admissions and grants don’t make budgets whole. So organizations like the Belknap Mill Society have taken an entrepreneurial approach to generating income. Revenue vectors for weddings and private functions for venues like the Mill and the Castle in the Clouds are on the upswing.
“It’s a wonderful location for a wedding,” Shore noted. Indeed, there’s a certain magical feel that accompanies the first step to forging a future while stepping back into the past.
The Mill was also essential to Laconia’s adoption of the N.H. Pumpkin festival; this is the event that used to be held in Keene.
While not a key organizer of the overall event, the Mill is a key participant. There are a number of events that will take place on site this October.
The most delectable will be the second annual Pumpkin Cook-off. (As an aside, the pumpkin is officially the Granite State’s official State Fruit, per an act of the legislature. Seriously. A group of 4th grade students from down in the Harrisville/Nelson area made this happen about 15 years ago).
The $5 admission to the cook-off allows attendees to taste some of the most inspired pumpkin-inspired recipes of the city and region. You can enjoy dinner-like-entries (ravioli); and there are the deserts, too.
“Last year we had a mousse that was divine, and, believe it or not - even an ice cream that was just delicious,” said Shore.
On the same day, there will also be a Duck Derby on the river.
“It's fun to watch them, but it’s not a super long course, so you don't have to devote a huge chunk of your day to watch,” Shore noted. She added that participants, purchasing a $5 rubber ducky don’t need to be present to win. She directed interested folks to the Belknap Mill website for details.
The Mill is a deeply integral part of the community locally and among other nonprofits. For example, in the fall, the Mill’s gallery will partner with the American Cancer Society’s Great Strides campaign against breast cancer. The OctoBRA exhibit will feature brassieres that anyone can decorate and donate to be considered for inclusion in the display. The website lists artist-in-residence Larry Frates as the point of contact - 387-3687. The Mill’s website also notes his affiliation with Real Men Wear Pink.
Looking ahead, Shore said, “Expect a lot as we continue to integrate the Mill’s mission with the needs of the community.”
Shore said that winter seasonal events, as well as a 2019 calendar, are in the works.
“We’re keeping busy, to be sure.”