NH News
6:30 am
Fri December 27, 2013

Woodstock: 250 Years In The Making

“This is my great grandfather, my great grandmother, my grandfather and his sister Edna and they are in this surrey and they’re going for a ride around the mountains… this is 1908, wow!”

Sign welcoming you to Woodstock
Sign welcoming you to Woodstock
Credit Keith Shields, NHPR

Visit Jim Fadden’s house and you’ll find a treasure trove of Woodstock history.  There are old signs plastered along the walls, turn of the century programs and town records on top of desks and stuffed inside of drawers are tons of old photographs showing the famous and sometimes forgotten places and people that made this town what it is today.

“This guy is known as Sheff, the gunman and Sheff was known worldwide for his proficiency with firearms and his knowledge of firearms.  This is inside of his gun shop, (Oh my God, that’s a lot of guns) Yup!”

Sheff the Gunman, worldwide known gunman who lived in Woodstock
Sheff the Gunman, worldwide known gunman who lived in Woodstock
Credit Keith Shields, NHPR

Fadden is the 6th generation of his family living in Woodstock and it’s hard to go anywhere in town without running into him. He’s a selectman, runs a construction company, and owns the family’s General Store that dates back to 1896. He’s also the chairman of this year’s 250th anniversary celebration, and the backroom of his store serves as ground central.  Stop by and you’ll see the signs of how Woodstock has been a center for transportation, logging and tourism…

But out of the thirteen towns that turn 250 this year, Woodstock probably experience the slowest and roughest start. 

“Well a difficult place to get to, there were no highways, just trails. Also the valley is very narrow when you get to here, so it’s very difficult to chisel a trail through the woods.  It’s steep, the soil is very poor, the only crop that you can really grow is potatoes.” 

So Woodstock had to be granted three times before it was finally incorporated as a town. In 1763, proprietors called it “Peeling”. The second time Connecticut grantees renamed it as ‘Fairfield’ then the original settlers returned and changed the name back to Peeling.

It would take until 1800 for Peeling to have its first town meeting. But as residents began to settle into the area, one part of town was not settling as well… the name. No one really knows where the name Peeling came from, there are several theories but according to Woodstock resident Barbara Avery who works with the Upper Pemigewasset Historical Society, many people found the name Peeling, unappealing.

“I think that Peeling in a way had kind of the connotation of you know peelings, apple peelings, orange peelings which is sort of unpleasant but it was obviously important to some people to have preached sermons about it”

The Reverend Benjamin Ropes is said to have preached all afternoon urging town folks to “peel off this inappropriate appellation“. These sermons must have been convincing enough because in 1840, the town name was officially changed, to Woodstock.

Since it was tough to farm here, and the Pemigewasset River ran right through town, Woodstock turned to logging and became one of the first serious commercial logging towns in the state.

Soon the land would be clear cut of trees. But unlike the environmental devastation that this brought many other towns, Plymouth State University history professor Marsha Schmidt Blaine says, it also brought opportunity to Woodstock, especially its Northern end.

 The Fairview House one of the grand hotels in North Woodstock
The Fairview House one of the grand hotels in North Woodstock
Credit Keith Shields, NHPR

“Go to North Woodstock, imagine it with the trees cut down and you can see Franconia Notch. So all you have to do is go up on a hill and you’d have this gorgeous view. So, the logging industry actually was working for the tourist industry in that they could open the entire area and be able to have people have gorgeous views.”

When the railroad came into Woodstock, the town built its first hotels so that when trains brought giant logs down to Boston, they could then bring back up tourists. At that time, the railroad couldn’t cross the mountainous terrain that lay to the north, west and east of town and so if you wanted to vacation in the White Mountains, the closest you could get, was Woodstock. Jim Fadden says his grandfather used to tell him stories about that time.

“The trains would arrive with people and people had no place to stay and of course just like any other business opportunity people noticed that this was happening and pretty soon there were restaurants and there were hotels and then there were people that established daily excursions with wagons and so forth to take people on trips all over the mountains and basically created a tourism industry here.”

Photo of the WW2 Victory Ship, the SS Woodstock
Photo of the WW2 Victory Ship, the SS Woodstock
Credit Keith Shields, NHPR

Woodstock remained a center for tourism into the 20th century, so much so, that a World War two victory ship was named after it in 1944. But as transportation improved, it changed Woodstock significantly. According to Jim Fadden, the most important change was the development of Interstate 93. That meant you could drive right through town at 65 miles per hour and barely notice that you did.

“When I 93 came thru, all those little mom and pop stores that were along Route 3, all dried up and pretty much all went away.”  

But tourism still runs this town. Currently 87% of Woodstock is owned by the State or the Federal government. This keeps the population low and the attractiveness of the White Mountains high. Considering that, Woodstock’s 250th celebration was strategically placed after the fourth of July but before the season really picks up again in August so that more of the townspeople would be free to participate.

Commemorative license plate made for Woodstock's 250th anniversary
Commemorative license plate made for Woodstock's 250th anniversary
Credit Keith Shields, NHPR

Fadden said that he and his committee planned a week where residents could stop from their busy summers and take pride in a town that had a slow start, but has seemed to have found its stride

“I know that the air is clean and the water is good to drink here and we have a wonderful quality of life and I think that that’s what keeps us all here.   It’s a wonderful place to raise your children, sometimes a difficult place to make a living but there’s no better place to live on earth than right here.”

For New Hampshire Public Radio, I’m Keith Shields