From Baseball to Summer Hotels to Corkscrews at the Alton Historical Society
Story and Photos by Kathi Caldwell-Hopper
For those that read the title of this story and thought, “I have no interest in history” and turn away from the word ‘Society,’ let me assure you there is nothing dusty or boring about the Alton Historical Society.
If you visit, all you need is a good sense of humor, some curiosity about people, and it wouldn’t help to like funky old items because there are a lot of those at the Alton Historical Society. And, it would help if you set aside an hour or two, if Bob Witham, an officer with the Society and a longtime Alton resident, just happens to be at the museum when you visit.
The Alton Historical Society is open limited hours in the winter, so you can plan your visit accordingly or give them a call and they will arrange to have someone open the museum so you can look around.
Luckily for me, a call to Bob Witham allowed a visit on a winter’s Friday afternoon. Bob met me at the Alton Library on Main Street in the downtown Alton area; the museum is on the basement level of the library. With a patient nature and a willingness to share his many memories, Bob is one of those local residents we all want to know when we have “hey, what ever happened to such-and-such?” or “who around here knowns the real story and history of that place or happening?
Bob knows a lot about Alton’s history and is a walking who’s-who of information because he was the local rural mail carrier for years. He chuckles as he recounts, “I was a brick layer and I also did heavy construction. Then I was the rural mail delivery carrier all over Alton. I drove a VW Beetle for the entire route and the roads were not in such good shape back then! But I always got the mail delivered.”
Perhaps it was all those mail deliveries on remote roads to old farmhouses and rural businesses that gave Bob a lot of background and history about the town. However he acquired his knowledge, he certainly knows a lot and loves to tour the big museum room with visitors, picking out an item here and there to talk about and relate to Alton’s people, places and happenings over the years.
“I like anything old!” he adds. “I have photographed a lot of the old homes in Alton and I am photographing the old barns in Alton now.”
When asked, as we stand in the museum room that is chock-full of fascinating old items, about Alton’s early history, Bob says he thinks Joseph Pierce built the first wood-framed building in town and then he built a big Colonial home and eventually went on to become a Congressman.
Like many towns in earlier days, Alton was once a thriving industrial area, with a large corkscrew factory run by Rockwell Clough. “It was the largest corkscrew factory/company in the world at one time and it was located in downtown Alton. Clough invented a machine to help make corkscrews,” says Bob. Eventually, as was the case with many large wooden structures in olden days, the barn of the factory burned and the business died out.
A tour of the museum is not just a look at old items donated by locals, but with Bob along for the walk-through, each museum item becomes a chance for a fascinating story or a memory of a time past. He really paints a picture with words of how things were done way back when, and who did what and what contributions they made to the town. As we look at old photos of an inn, he recalls, “That was the Oak Birch Inn and it was built in the early 1900s as a summer hotel. It was lavish and it catered to the elderly who wanted to spend the summer near the lake. I recall there was a restaurant, a movie theater and a bowling alley. I remember one lady who would come and spend the whole summer at the inn.”
An old photo of the Alton Town Baseball Team brings back memories of various players on the team and then we find ourselves talking about Helen Nordquist, a local woman who played for an all-female pro softball team from which the movie “A League of Their Own” was based.
An area with old medical items leads Bob to mention, “There’s a picture of Doc Tuttle. He practiced medicine in town for 50 years.”
One of the gems in the museum is a huge clock and Bob tells me it was an original clock face on the Alton Town Hall. It cannot be missed when touring the room and is a definite conversation piece due to its mammoth size!
An exhibit area features all sorts of items from the Alton school system and you needn’t have attended school in the town to enjoy all the old items. An Alton High School Band drum stands among the items, which include old class photos, sports uniforms, a 1960 basketball schedule (having grown up in a small NH town, I can attest to the fact that in the dead of winter without much else to do, basketball games provide popular entertainment for locals), and a circa 1901 Alton Central School black-and-white photo.
If you love old banners and signs, this is a great place to visit. I particularly love the old and huge pennant that hangs from a wall hook with the words Bay View Pavilion Dance Alton Bay. It is old and rustic but speaks of a time when a nice summertime dance at the Alton Bay Pavilion might see any one of a number of well-known big bands performing in the area.
Lake memorabilia includes an early-framed sign with wording, “See Lake Winnipesaukee from the U.S. Mail Boat Tonimar” with Capt. Lawrence P. Beck.
I was surprised to see an old poster advertising the Reptile Zoo at Alton Bay with living reptiles and baby wild animals. The zoo was said to feature snakes, lizards, giant African Land Snails, Bird Eating Spiders and even a chance to see Maggie the Baby Chimpanzee riding her bicycle! Admission for a gander at these delights was just 20 cents for adults and 15 cents for children.
One fun thing about touring the museum with Bob is the fact that although you would assume he’s seen it all, he stops now and then to marvel over something in the collection he hasn’t seen before. And often that means a memory of something fascinating associated with a photograph, an old poster or another item.
We got chatting about when fishermen started visiting the Lakes Region to pursue the sport of ice fishing. I assumed it was a fairly new pastime, but Bob says, no, some of the big homes on Route 11D that hug the waterfront rented out rooms to ice fishermen many years ago.
That led us to talking about outlying areas of Alton, which, after all, is a large town geographically. We spoke of the West Alton area, and such places as The Pine Cupboard, a snack bar and other railroad station stops and older, architecturally interesting homes in the area that was far enough from the downtown Alton community to have created its own community center, summer cottages, and a few stores.
Bob also mentions the Clay Pipes made in East Alton, but by this time, my head was spinning with all we had talked about and seen, so I will leave that story for another day.
I should mention, before ending this day trip adventure, that those who love old lake artifacts will want to visit the museum if only to see the long wooden roller which was original to the M/S Mount Washington. It is a mammoth thing and an important piece of Lake Winnipesaukee history, showing as nothing else can, how the steamboat in the early days was “rolled” onto the lake.
If you want to hear about ice delivery (in summer as well as winter), Bob knows all about that too and has some stories to tell. If you are doing some family history research, Bob likely will know your family and probably delivered mail to them in the past. (He also says there are a lot of people tracing family history these days and the Historical Society has lots of written records that might help in searches.) If you are looking for an old barn or homestead, Bob may have taken a photo of the structure.
The Alton Historical Society is anything but a dull-as-dust place. It is full of stories and happenings and the people who came before us that contributed so to the area. You don’t have to know the people to appreciate their stories and the items they donated to the museum.
That was probably the mindset of a local minister who wanted to preserve Alton’s history when he started the local historical society in the 1950s. The society first was housed in a log cabin, but these days has a wonderful, permanent home within the Gilman Library on Main Street in downtown Alton. It is open from 9:30 am to 12:30 pm on the third Saturday of the month or other times by appointment; visit www.altonhistoricalsociety.org for contact information. During the summer months, the Society offers meetings the third Tuesday of each month, April through September, at 7 pm, followed by a carefully-selected program on local history that is open to the public.