You Asked, We Answered: Why Is N.H.'s Branding Still Focused on the Old Man of the Mountain?

Sep 1, 2017

According the New Hampshire Department of Safety, there's no push to remove the Old Man from the state's license plate, despite the fact that he fell off his mountain a decade and a half ago.
Credit NHPR Staff

It's been fourteen years since the Old Man of the Mountain collapsed, but New Hampshire residents are still used to seeing him all over the state. One of listeners is asking, "Why?"

As part of our series Only in NH, in which we answer questions from around the state about New Hampshire oddities, producer Taylor Quimby tries to get to the bottom of that question.

When Henry Jackson moved to New Hampshire four years ago, he couldn’t help but notice a certain rocky profile...on his driver’s license...on road signs…even on his marriage certificate.

"I have friends come visit me and they’re like, 'What’s that weird rocky thing on the highway signs?' And then you have to explain it’s nothing anymore."

That's what prompted him to submit this question to Only in NH:

Why is the state branding still focused on the Old Man of the Mountain? It's weird.

It's actually a question people have been asking since the day the Old Man fell, back in May of 2003. NHPR's News Director at the time was Mark Bevis, and he spoke with then-governor Craig Benson.

"I think it’ll be with us for many many many generations to come," Benson said.

"So you don’t see taking it off ad brochures, or license plates, or road tokens."

"No. It won’t come off of anything."

Producer Taylor Quimby *would* ask the Old Man what he thinks about being the symbol of New Hampshire, but he fell off his mountain in 2003.

In truth, the state’s branding has moved on. In 2012, the New Hampshire Division of Travel and Tourism launched a new ad campaign and website, aimed at modernizing the state's outward brand for potential visitors.

Open the website visitnh.gov and you’re greeted with upbeat music, and a video of people hiking in the whites, zip-lining, and playing in the waves on the coast. 

The state's division of travel and tourism doesn't feature the Old Man in any of its branding.

What you won’t find is a single image of the old man of the mountain.

But road signs and license plates? Those are another matter.

Michael York is the New Hampshire State Librarian.

"When New Hampshire started to develop its roads it was used to identify New Hampshire. so you’d have a road sign with the outline of the Old Man, and then a route number."

But that kind of infrastructure isn’t really part of the state’s branding per se, it’s more like a form of i.d. and not easy nor cheap to change.

Larry Crowe is public information officer at the Department of Motor Vehicles.

"There’s no plan to redesign the plate. There is no push for that, nor has there been. We don’t like to do it very often, because it is an expense and we try to minimize expenses to the public."

Crowe says the Old Man has been used on our license plates in some way or another since 1987. Except for the state’s special antique plate, he says, there’s nothing on the books that says the Old Man has to be used - so technically, the day could come when our license plates get a re-design.

"When and if in the future it does need to happen, it’s going to involve a lot of people...the DMV, the Department of Safety, the legislature, the governor’s office... I’m reticent to predict what will happen, but right now everybody is very happen to see the old man on the plate of the car in front of them."

A vintage pennant flag features an image of the Old Man.
Credit Taylor Quimby for NHPR

Separate from our license plates and road signs is our state emblem - a depiction of the Old Man that was adopted into law in 1945. In 2017, with more than seventy years of history behind it, changing that symbol would require an act of legislation.

I asked state rep Gene Chandler how likely that would be. He said it wasn't likely at all.

"Don’t take this personally, but I wouldn’t waste my time thinking about it myself because I would so strongly oppose anything else, I wouldn’t even given it any of my time."

In other words, it would take a strong public push to replace the Old Man as our official - and unofficial - state symbol, and fourteen years later, the memory of the famous profile is still holding strong.

What listeners think: Should NH dump the Old Man?

Note: our social media survey got 162 responses from all over New Hampshire.

Bob Nunes is a volunteer at the Old Man memorial site in Franconia Notch. He wanders the grounds, sharing folklore and chatting with tourists - and he looks like he’d make a good Santa Claus.

Nunes showed me a walking stick he carved himself - there’s an inch-long profile of the old man right at the top, and I asked him whether he thinks it will be ever time for the state to move on.

"It’s like our family before us. You don’t throw away all the pictures after they die. you keep them in your heart."

Bob Nunes shows off his Old Man walking stick
Credit Taylor Quimby for NHPR

As I walked across the grounds and climbed up cannon mountain, I met a few tourists who had never heard of the Old Man, but most people had an opinion about whether we should keep him around for a few more years, or replace him altogether.

"Maybe in 100 years," one man said.

I guess we’ll just have to do a follow-up in 2117.

Do you have a question about New Hampshire or a quirk of your community? Submit it to Only in NH right here

To hear the longer version of this story featured on Word of Mouth, Click Here.

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