by Nat Scrimshaw
Originally appeared in Whole Terrain, vol. 7: Transience, Permanence, and Commitment
Early in the 19th century Nathaniel Greeley discovered that it was more profitable to rent out rooms to the growing number of fisherman and Bostonian transcendentalists seeking nature in New Hampshire’s White Mountains than it was to scrape out a living farming the rocky soil. Masses of tourists flocked to the mountains from New England’s cities and developing suburbs. Greeley’s Inn in Waterville was a modest affair in comparison to the elaborate structures of the grander mountains to the North. A gleaming white building in an expanse of green fields, it was still part farm, with barns and pastures.
The Inn’s greatest presence was its porch, which grew larger as time went on, eventually stretching around three quarters of the building. There, visitors sat and gazed at the slopes of Sandwich Mountain, Noon Peak, Mount Tecumseh, and Jenning’s Peak; young lovers flirted, and old people rocked in green-painted rocking chairs. On the porch, games of cribbage and cards occupied afternoons.
After the tourist boom of the middle and late nineteenth century, many of the White Mountain inns fell into disrepair. Maintaining the wooden behemoths became more difficult as profits diminished. To the owners of the cluster of cottages that had grown up around the Waterville Inn, the valley had become more than a tourist destination: it was a place that seemed more home than their homes to the South. This feeling evolved slowly, through a process of recurring and strengthening intimacy. Originally none of the cottages had kitchens, and everyone ate together at the Inn. During meals the comfortable hum of many familiar voices mixed with the clinking of silverware and glass. The Inn combined dormitory, kitchen, meeting house, and church in three stories with two great gables at either end. Square dances whirled inside, conversation ebbed and flowed from rocker to arm chair to rocker, children scurried though the common rooms, teenagers hung about. On Sundays people gathered to sing hymns. The pastures in front served as the village green where one strolled, played croquet, and met friends. Toward the end of his life my great-uncle wrote this of Waterville:
“There is something about this place that has drawn people to return year after year, and their children also, their grandchildren, and now even their great-great-grandchildren . . . In essence it may be put this way: in a world of change and upheaval, in times when so many shift from place to place till they have no roots anywhere, Waterville has come to seem one place that is home to them, is changeless. Superficially it changes, as all things must, but basically it remains the same; mountains, forest, peace; old friends, a welcoming inn with familiar ways. It comes down to this: Waterville is continuance.”
So it was that the Inn evolved into something more than a place of business. It was the architectural heart of Waterville, and in its creaking timbers and dusty rooms dwelled the spirit of Waterville’s summer community, a community that somehow was stronger and more real than places people came from and returned to each year. When tourism declined, the Waterville cottage owners bought the hotel and the surrounding lands and formed the “Waterville Association” to maintain the building and farm, and by doing so, the community they so loved. The families struggled through the Depression and into the second World War, only giving up the collective effort when the war sapped even further the tourist base that paid the bills for paint and repair. In 1948, the Inn was sold to a man all hoped would be a “good inn keeper,” maintaining Waterville’s values along with the Inn’s white clapboards and green shutters.
My first and clearest recollection of the Inn is also my most vivid memory of my grandfather, Hubert. I was four years old. We were together on the porch holding hands during the early evening. Stars, a half moon, and scudding clouds combined in the night sky. I was confused and awed: “Granddaddy, I thought stars and moon were for night and clouds were for day!”
My grandfather laughed in his resonant, cello-like voice and told me that clouds could be at night too, thus upsetting my first understanding of the cosmos and its order. His laughter was gentle and comforting rather than ridiculing. Later that summer he had a heart attack and was rushed to the hospital. The next day, I went out back to the woodshed and took a hatchet and began swinging at kindling as I had seen my three brothers do. My mother rushed out and snatched the hatchet away from me. When I asked, “why” (for I had merely imitated the chores of my brothers), she answered “you’re too young!” Somehow the story of my wood cutting got to my grandfather in the hospital and he drew a picture of the four boys in the family, each successively taller, each at a chopping block with hatchets of increasing size. I was the last, a tiny figure with a small hatchet. I was very proud of this picture, for I felt my grandfather recognized my right to join the older boys. He died a few days later.
The Inn perished too, in 1961. It was its first season after being taken over by a young ex-Olympian ski racer who had grand plans for Waterville as a ski resort-far grander than anyone at that time imagined. A grease fire in the kitchen spread and the dry, one-hundred-year-old building burned to ashes in a few hours.
That weekend my father and brothers had gone to Waterville to ski. I had been in a petulant mood and had insisted on staying home with my mother in our house outside of Boston. We were curled up together watching the television news when a bulletin came on reporting the burning of the Inn. I remember my mother crying out, “Oh my God!” and clasping her hand over her mouth. In memory I see the flames on the television screen, but I don’t believe the burning was filmed: the picture of fire, without seeing it, grew vivid in my mind.
We heard the story from my father and brothers later: there was a snow storm and the fire trucks could not make it into the valley in time to do more than dowse the jumble and charred debris the Inn had become. Before all was lost they had helped pull out a small number of historical artifacts. The staff had chosen to rescue almost exclusively cases of liquor. I recall visiting the site in the weeks that followed, holding handfuls of coal and ash, sifting through fused fragments of glass and melted, distorted twists of what once had been cutlery.
The burning of the Inn was only the first in a continuous series of shocks for the Waterville community. The aging second generation of Waterville “cottage owners,” and the scattered and youthful third generation, didn’t know what they had done when they waived away their right of first refusal to purchase the Inn and the 600 acres of field and forest around it-the rest of Waterville’s 30,000 acres had gone to the White Mountain National Forest earlier in the century. With the Forest Service’s blessing, the east face of Mt. Tecumseh was blasted and bulldozed into broad clearings. This was expected, for the young man had said he planned a ski development, but it was still a shock to hear the explosions and see the scars on the familiar visage of the mountain.
When the first cluster of condominiums and new inns mushroomed in the south end of the Valley, few were accustomed to the new architecture. This development was a mile away, however, and hidden by trees. Those who suddenly were known as “old Watervillians,” or sometimes “North Watervillians,” made an effort to welcome the new people. As the years passed, more condominiums carved their way into the woods, and the old familiar trails on the valley floor began to disappear. In a community meeting reviewing a new development, an “old Watervillian” noted that the condominiums sat smack on the River Path, and reminded the owner that he had promised not to build on any of the valley’s network of walking trails.
“The River Path doesn’t exist,” the young owner replied.
The Old Waterville people sat in stunned silence. It doesn’t exist? Someone had walked on the trail only yesterday, but the young man would accept no amount of protest. His declaration, with its tone of divine determination (or rather negation) was the Word. The trail, and all the history behind it, was erased.
I was at that meeting, only a boy, but I felt a chill when he spoke those words and an aching in the pit of my stomach that is still with me today. It doesn’t exist? What did he mean? As the years went by, it became clear what he meant. That which did not fit into his vision did not exist. And the young man’s vision was powerful, both in its determination and in the financial and political backing he had to make it real.
A few old Watervillians protested some of the more startling decisions, but the furious pace and single-mindedness of change was so foreign to Waterville’s traditions, it was hard to know what to do or say. And it was in line with the times. It was economic development, providing jobs for builders, bulldozers, chambermaids, waitstaff, ski lift operators, cooks, and for the better trained, a growing list of executive and administrative positions in the new “Waterville Company.” The young man (now decidedly edging toward middle age) was only doing what he thought was right, what he knew was right. In one newspaper interview he described the Waterville he found by flying over the mountains as “dead.” His development was an act of resurrection or rebirth in his eyes, a gift of economic life.
My grandmother Clara was one who did not give up trying to articulate a vision of old Waterville, and it was certainly the case that the report of “Old Waterville’s” demise was greatly exaggerated in her case. Clara was anything but dead. But she was old.
Born in 1888, Clara first visited Waterville shortly after World War I. She had met Hubert when they were both in graduate school at Columbia University. Hubert brought his bride to Waterville to introduce her to family and the mountains-she was from Hingham, Massachusetts, and was of the ocean rather than the interior hills of New England. I think that for my grandfather his future bride’s approval of the mountains was as important to him as the family’s approval of his choice of bride. She took to the mountains quickly. There are photographs from early on in their marriage showing Clara, hands on hips, standing by cairns or atop peaks and looking off in the distance with a broad smile on her face. The hands-on-hips pose was familiar to me. I last recall it when in her early eighties she stood in our kitchen in Waterville and declared with a great smile on her face, “You know, Nat, I’m a liberated woman.”
Clara did not live to be 100, and in her last year progressing blindness and deafness gradually closed off the world. She was only a minor nemesis to the young man (even in his middle age he was always a young man to her). Her most eloquent defense of Old Waterville was also the clearest indication of the hopelessness of any dissent. It came as a response to the surprise announcement of the building of ten new tennis courts to accommodate the Laver-Emerson tennis camp right smack in the middle of the green in front of the not-so-long-gone Inn.
Clara’s essay “Our Village Green” was a simple articulation of the importance of that acre of field to “Old Waterville.” She talked of the importance and significance of village greens for a New England community. On that patch of grass people walked to and from the old cottages, played soccer and capture the flag, strolled to get the mail in a tiny post office, and met and talked on a sunny day. For many people, this green had taken the place, in a diminished but still very important way, of the role of the Inn-the physical heart of the Valley. It was without parlor, porch, or rockers, but somehow it seemed that the spirit of the Inn was there. But it was ephemeral, like the ghostly-felt limb of an amputee. And the graying young man made no delay in reminding us of the reality of our loss: “Village green?” he replied in his rebuttal essay. “We’ve never thought of it that way.” The rest of his piece was filled with a description of Waterville’s “Master Plan” in which a new “Village Core,” complete with “green belts,” was anticipated in the future. Old Waterville just wasn’t part of the plan.
I remember my bitterness as I felt the rumble and heard the droning growl of bulldozers carve out the new courts. My grandmother, now living full-time in Waterville, grew older, deafer, and blinder. As a family we retreated into our cottage with its old photographs, hand drawn maps, and cupboards filled with mementos from a hundred years of habitation. We could imagine, when inside our cottage, or in the woods outside the valley floor, that Old Waterville still existed.
When my grandmother was near death she often recalled to me her dreams. I had become used to hearing her stories during the years my brothers and I helped care for her in Waterville. In the beginning, her storytelling was clear and she loved describing her early years in Hingham. I came to know Mrs. Bundy, the tail-less carriagehouse cat, what it was like to take a sleighride to the train station, or a trolley ride in Boston during winter when you kept warm by huddling around the coal stove in the back. She could (and would) recite the entire “Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” which she had learned as a schoolgirl while walking the five miles each way to Derby Academy. So vivid was her description of her father dancing a jig to the sailor’s hornpipe, the image is indelibly marked in my mind, though I never saw it myself. I heard, many times, the story of an 1892 Thanksgiving (when she was four years old) at her Grandfather Crosby’s house in Roxbury, and shared the wonder she felt at seeing gray squirrels with their big bushy tails in his yard-there were only small red squirrels in Hingham.
As she grew older and weaker her stories became more fragmented. By the time she entered a nursing home she was nearly blind and deaf. Her skin was transparent and thin, so like crinkled tissue that she seemed loosely wrapped in her cadaverous frame. Amidst the sour smell of failing bodies and disinfectant I learned something very important: while the sequence of her stories came apart, the pieces were all there. For those who had known her as a vibrant woman-especially my mother and uncle-her personality was gone. To a grandson who knew her only as an old woman with wondrous tales, she had simply slipped into another mode of storytelling. During our conversations time lost its linearity and we freely traversed her life.
The final recognition of our loss came in 1980 not as a result of the young man, but because of the wind. “The Big Blow,” as it was christened afterward, was a fist of wind that roared through the valley for 24 hours. The wind reached over 100 miles an hour in a corridor through the center of the valley. When it was over, a swath of trees on the valley floor and on the surrounding hills lay on the ground like jack straws. The great red pines my grandfather had planted were uprooted. The Nelson path, the last of our untouched trails, had wandered through a stand of ancient pines for 100 years. It was now buried under a jumble of those same trees. And we could see from the windows of Goodrich Cottage row after row of condominium over the waste of blowdown.
My grandmother’s death, long anticipated, long dreaded, long desired by herself and by others, came only a few weeks after “The Big Blow.” I recall the phone ringing in the hall, and then my mother coming and telling me Granny had died. I used to sleep in icy coldness, without heat in the oldest part of the house under mounds of blankets. I remember the cold seemed commensurate with my sense of emptiness. Here it was, the moment we knew would come, and all who had witnessed the shrunken body with only flickers of awareness that my grandmother had become, had hoped for. I felt guilty wishing her dead, and guilty at my lack of remorse. Then I was taken by a wave of sadness. The landscape outside our house seemed to be a part of the emptiness of death. Or was the wind’s destruction Granny’s last hurrah, a stubborn gesture in defiance of the Waterville Company? The house seemed to be such a fragile, thin shell, an illusion of Old Waterville, our failed prophylactic against the forces that had brushed aside our values.
Something else happened on that cold, moonlit December night. The midnight call with news of death, the ruined landscape through the window, the frigid house, all so absurdly and obviously drained of familiarity and warmth, and filled instead with sadness, seemed almost a parody of despair-it was too much. I was warm under a large down comforter and the silver light was beautiful. My grandmother was free at last of her useless body, and the condominiums gleaming in the distance over the fallen trees were so obviously there. Old Waterville-to use the word of the young man-didn’t “exist” no matter how much we wanted it to.
And yet in some way it did. Old Waterville wasn’t a place any longer, it was a story, or rather many stories. There were colorful characters (like my great-grandfather with his handlebar mustache) and heroines (like my grandmother) and villains (the logging barons and the young man), dramatic events-who could ask for more than the fire that burned the Inn or the hurricane of ’38, or 80’s “Big Blow”-metaphors, allegories, and symbols could be found everywhere: hidden in the nooks and crannies of the inn, the mountain trails and the mountains themselves, and in memories both coherent and incoherent.
It was in this moment of recognition that my vision of Green Mountain was born. I did not have the name yet, and perhaps the name doesn’t matter-though I don’t think names, even when they are by chance, ever don’t matter. What is Green Mountain?
Green Mountain is an attempt to rediscover a mythical community at the base of a mountain, to sit again on the porch of a familiar inn with welcoming ways on a starry night with a man whose voice is a cello. It is a place where friends meet on the village green and a community sings hymns together. Green Mountain cannot be reached even when glimpsed from afar. But there is a trail to there, I am sure of it. Green Mountain is continuance.