One of Belknap County’s Favorite Places
By Kathi Caldwell-Hopper
We all have favorites. Beloved places we visited and fell in love with; places and activities that evoke fond memories of favorite people and even foods.
A new exhibit on view at the Laconia Public Library is chock-full of fond memories of a favorite ski area - Gunstock in Gilford. The recreation area has a long and fascinating history. The introductory poster at the start of the exhibit tells us Gunstock is “one of Laconia and Belknap County’s favorite recreational areas.”
The displays are the work of the Laconia Historical and Museum Society, and it all takes place in the upper level rotunda area of the library.
I love the exhibits at this space and I have seen many displays in the rotunda that interpret everything from local dignitaries to health and clinics and the hospital to local theatrics. Every exhibit is heavy on old photos, posters, and memorabilia depending upon what the subject may be. The exhibits never disappoint and you are sure to find items such as old ski boots or a stage curtain that once graced a local theatre that bring back memories of your “favorite” happenings from the past.
The current exhibit opened on December 20 and will be on view until March 21 and admission is free. Many Lakes Regioners and those from outside the area have skied at Gunstock but perhaps not as many know of the beginnings or history of the recreation area.
Gunstock, originally known as the Belknap Area, began as a solution to an economic need. During the Great Depression, Lakes Regioners suffered financial losses right along with the rest of the country. People everywhere were subsisting; unemployment was high, jobs non-existent and many people were barely surviving.
President Franklin Roosevelt created the Works Progress Administration (WPA) to put unemployed people back to work. One such project that employed many people for a number of years was the creation of the Belknap Area.
The exhibit tells us that the Belknap County Legislative Delegation, through the Congress and Senate, received WPA support. This meant that for every dollar put into the project by the county, the federal government would put in six. It was an ambitious project and over the next three years, roads were built to give access to recreational areas on the property, which could be used for campsites and skiing. The project focused on skiing and chairlifts, four rope tows, cross-country ski trails, as well as hiking trails, a huge main lodge and smaller buildings.
The main lodge opened in 1937 and was designed to echo the rugged, outdoorsy look of the entire area. An old photo in the exhibit shows the lodge under construction; even half completed, it is easy to see this would be a rustic, yet huge structure.
In 1936, the ski jump on nearby Mt. Rowe also was under construction. The exhibit offers this information: the jump was all-important at the time and it was the focal point round which the county, town and federal government were creating the $350,000 recreational center.
Within the many glass exhibit cases, visitors can browse the newspaper clippings that tell the story of how the area was formed and the growth of the ski industry in the Lakes Region of NH.
Old snowshoes, a rustic wooden Belknap sign, ski boots from years ago, a knitted scarf and much more adorn the cases.
I loved an old newspaper clipping dated February 19, 1936, with the title “Large Parties of Skiers to Use All Available Rooms.” The subhead tells the reader, White Mountain Runners to Hold First Annual Ski Gambol in Gilford; Masquerade Ball a Feature. It must have been a popular wintertime event, because the article stated that reservations were pouring in for weekend accommodations in Gilford and Laconia.
Summer activities at Gunstock, known in the early days as the Belknap Area, are not forgotten in the exhibit. The Gunstock Hillclimb is a classic Bike Week tradition that dates back to around 1938. It makes sense that motorcycle races and the daring Hillclimb took place at the Belknap Area, because there was tons of outdoor space for competitions and spectators could camp right at the area’s campground.
One of the best things about the exhibit is the many old photos and there is a gem in the Hillclimb display, dating from the 1950s. It is a black-and-white photo and shows a large group of enthusiasts milling around outside the lodge with a few motorcycles of the era parked at the entrance.
There are lots of general skiing photos and one stands out of two female skiers, with the parking lot and cars of the (I am guessing) 1940s and that huge lodge in the background.
Running a large recreation area is expensive and if the winter is fickle with little snow, it can make finances tight indeed. One poster explains how Belknap County stepped in to help the area when it was financially in need. With that in mind, the Gunstock Area Commission has taken steps to increase year round revenue by diversifying activities at the recreation area. With winter skiing in place, the Commission has turned its efforts to summertime activities, such as the popular Ziptours, Treetop Adventures, and Segway Tours, to name the most popular additions.
I enjoy the personal touch in historical exhibits and the Gunstock displays feature one area with photos of one woman’s many ski passes. Mac Emerson of Laconia loved to ski at Gunstock and she presented the framed display of her passes from 1961 to 1997 to Gunstock. In turn, Gunstock loaned it to the Historical Society for the exhibit.
To show that other activities took place at the area, one display shows a 1982 poster for the 2nd Annual Gunstock Maple Sugar Festival with a fun sap bucket run!
Ski jump enthusiasts will enjoy the clipping from a newspaper and information on Torger Tokle, who considered Mt. Rowe’s ski jump “his hill.” He was a much-admired athlete and everyone looked forward to his displays of skill in Gunstock/Belknap Area competitions. With his athletic ability, it seemed natural that he would be assigned to the famed 10th Mountain Division to fight in World War II. Sadly, he was killed during the war and the loss was hard for locals to bear. The following year, the Mt. Rowe leap was dedicated in his name with a ceremony. Torger established ski jump records all over the country, and one can only speculate what he would have gone on to accomplish had the war not ended his life prematurely. An early photo of Torger wearing his ski competition bib and holding his skis, his cap at a jaunty angle, is quite poignant.
A poster gives a good timeline of all that transpired at Gunstock over the years, taking us from the post-Depression time period, through the 1950s when the area needed a full-time team to operate and manage the area which was growing steadily in popularity. By the 1960s, expansion was continuing with the addition of a summit chairlift, three t-bars, and a new trail complex. In 1964 a second summit chairlift was added. The 1970s saw the Pistol complex developed with four new trails and another chairlift. A second base lodge, the Stockade, was added, as well as snowmaking.
In 1986, a $10 million project began to modernize Gunstock. After all, the area had seen great usage and thousands of people camping, skiing, using the lodge, watching or taking part in Hillclimbs, ski jumping and much more. At that time a more sophisticated snowmaking system was installed, the base complex was expanded, and existing trails were renovated.
Old photos show the Gunstock riding stables, with horseback riding popular in the summer. Cross-country skiing photos in winter, camping in summer and ski jumping photos from the past are a lot of fun to view.
A lot has taken place at Gunstock over the years, including the Eastern Ski Championships in 1946. It can only be imagined the number of people who came to the area and found local lodgings so they could be at the recreation area to watch the awe-inspiring ski jumpers soar through the air. The jump was among the best in the eastern United States and thousands of spectators would crowd the stands to watch the jumpers.
Display information tells us the jump installed at Gunstock in 1937 was almost 200 feet. It was here at Norwegian immigrant Tokle set the record of a 251 foot jump in 1941. That amazing record stood for 35 years until the hill was enlarged.
The jumps eventually fell into disrepair, but the Gunstock Mountain Historic Preservation Society is bringing them back to life and ski jumping, it is hoped, will find popularity at the area again.
No exhibit of Lakes Region skiing is complete without a display on Olympic ski champion Penny Pitou of Gilford. A poster at the exhibit tells us that courageous Penny, as a freshman at Laconia High School, ignored the no-girls-allowed rule and joined the boys’ ski team! Her skills were legendary and she went on, in 1960, to become the first American Alpine skier to win an Olympic downhill medal; she won the silver in both downhill and giant slalom. Later, she opened the Penny Pitou Ski School at Gunstock. In 2001, she quite deservingly was inducted into the New England Women’s Sports Hall of Fame.
Certainly, if President Roosevelt had lived to see his WPA idea in full bloom in the little town of Gilford, NH, he would have been quite proud. He could have witnessed a forested mountain area transformed, over the space of a few years, into something exciting, where skiing would boost the local economy. And he would have witnessed such talented athletes at Torger Tokle strap on his skis, push off and soar high over the area, as well as determined Penny Pitou who learned to ski on the slopes and went on to win an Olympic medal.
The exhibit interpreting the long and fascinating history of the Belknap/Gunstock area is well worth stopping by the Laconia Library to view. I wouldn’t be surprised if it teaches you some things you didn’t know, and brings back fond memories of everyone’s favorite area.
The Gunstock exhibit is free and open to the public on the top floor rotunda area of the Laconia Public Library at 695 North Main Street in Laconia. It will be on view until March 21. For information, call the library at 603-524-4775.