You Asked, We Answered: What is the Percy Summer Club?

Aug 4, 2017

The gate to the Summer Club Road
Credit NHPR/Hannah McCarthy

Ever walk past a private driveway with no end in sight and wonder... what's down there? Or glimpse a building through some trees and wish you could get up close?

Well, one listener wrote in about a place that she'd never seen... only heard of in passing. A place tucked into the trees in the Great North Woods. A New Hampshire institution. And chances are, you've never seen it either. 

Continuing our Only in New Hampshire series, we went in search of a place so private, even the locals are out of the loop. This query comes from Emily Burack.

A friend said there was something called the Percy Summer Club in Northern NH, which was fairly close to where I grew up in Northern NH -- and I had never heard of this place!

The audio version of this story will be posted shortly.

In his collection of essays entitled, "Forty Years an Advertising Agent," George Rowell writes about his friends, a group of like-minded fisherman, "the most charming and successful little association of sportsmen it has ever been my fortune to know about."

So Rowell was an ad exec from New York City, and his friends were titans of industry from Washington D.C.. But in their free time, they loved tramping through unspoiled woods, looking for the perfect fishing spot. And one day they found it.

The way Rowell describes the fishing, it sounds almost mythic, “I and a less experienced companion brought into camp three hundred and sixty-four brook trout, and regretted, after the count, that we have not taken one more to correspond with the days in the year.”

So, Rowell finds this fish-filled lake and this undeveloped forest land all around it, and he invited those fellow wealthy sportsmen to join him in purchasing over 350 acres in Stark, New Hampshire. Including, of course, the lovely North Lake (soon to become Christine Lake, named for the first lady visitor to the camp).

The sportsmen came to stay every summer, and eventually brought their families. They grew from one shared lodge to seven, brought in cooks and laundresses and groundskeepers. But their exclusive rights to the place were almost immediately challenged. 

Because the people of Coos County loved fishing in Lake Christine, too. And they weren’t about to stop… even if wealthy outsiders had renamed it and bought it as their own.

Eventually, the conflict lead to the courts – and the Club was involved in litigation to keep Lake Christine private for over 25 years.

But Percy Summer Club lost. And the whole episode helped to shape state law. Now any body of water over ten acres is public water, requiring public access.

The public beach at Christine Lake
Credit NHPR/Hannah McCarthy

Things are pretty copacetic between the club and the public now. But the club is still fighting to preserve their land. To get the rest of the story, of course, I had to visit.

Through a gate and down a long, private road, there are seven rambling lakeside cottages looking just as they did at the turn of the century, canoes and kayaks at every dock, kids shouting to each other across the lake...The Percy Summer Club.

Idyllic is an understatement. So how does someone get into this club?

Well, in all likelihood, you don’t. Most houses and memberships are inherited.

I met with Field Rider and Susan Percy, members who lucked into a spot in the Club about thirty years ago. Sitting on their porch, looking out at Lake Christine, Susan explained that membership comes with a responsibility to conserve the land.

"We can walk out our backdoors and be in the mountains and reflect on the fact that we are surrounded by the Great North Woods the way they used to be," Susan says, "and our job is to keep it that way." 

That job has gotten more complicated recently, thanks to one of the most contentious issues in the state right now. An energy project that would bring transmission lines through the Kauffman Forest and passing over club land… also known as Northern Pass.

"Northern Pass development," Field said, "is absolutely running 180-degrees against the momentum, and the economic development and the just intrinsic value of the place that is being recognized by so many people now. It just seems foolish to do."

So, in line with the club’s conservationist spirit, Susan has become an official intervenor in the Northern Pass conversation.

"We’re looking at it," says Susan, "that the public -- our responsibility to the public -- to ensure a legacy that the club members started way back in the 1800s, is preserved."

Percy Summer Club lodges, seen from Christine Lake
Credit NHPR/Hannah McCarthy

Percy Summer Club has always protected what they have. But in the face of Northern Pass, the group is taking a more public role – using their clout to help others in New Hampshire preserve the view.

Of course, there are some views that few will ever see. Like that from a private dock at the Percy Summer Club.