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  • by Chris Stewart

The Notch Through the Ages - AMC exhibit Showed a Colorful History

It won't rival Boston's Museum of Fine Art, but the Crawford Notch Exhibit will give people in the North Country the opportunity to see a part of New Hampshire's heritage brought back to life. Based in the Crawford Depot, the exhibit will feature photographs, diaries, artifacts and collected memorabilia dating from the time of the earliest settlers to the present day, an era that includes the coming of the Crawford family, the building of the Portland and Ogdensburg Railroad as well as the construction of the world famous Crawford House.

According to Barbara Wagner, the Appalachian Mountain Club's Education Coordinator and the Project Director of the Crawford Notch Exhibit, the idea for this small scale museum depicting the area's past started when people began to ask questions. Since the AMC had purchased the 27 acres in the former Crawford House Site in 1979, one of its goals was to set up a Visitor Information Center on the property. Here, during the summer, passers-by would be able to find out about hiking trails, accommodations, roads, the forest and anything else they wanted to know. When the AMC opened their Visitor Information Center at the Crawford Depot in the summer of 1980, however, they discovered that people were very curious about the past.

"When we began our pilot program operating the Visitor Information Center at the Depot," Wagner recalled, "the program was well received. But we also found that people were more interested in the history of the Crawford Notch area." Former guests at the Crawford House, Wagner explained, inquired about what had happened to the area, and others who came to the Center had questions about everything from the location of the Crawford Family cemetery to the burning of the Crawford House ( the result of a mysterious fire in 1976). "Some visitors remembered seeing the hotel and wanted to know about its background, and other were former passengers on the Maine Central Railroad who asked about the old trains."

This deluge of questions helped to convince Wagner that the AMC needed to do more with the building than simply offer information. Opening an historical exhibit seemed to be the only logical course to take. "This area lends itself to social history," Wagner said. "From that perspective, it's probably one of the most significant places in the White Mountains. The buildings have an old look, and people naturally want to know who built them and what purpose they served, and because the Depot sits next to the railroad tracks, people also had questions about how the tracks were built and who started the line."

At the end of the summer of 1980, Wagner began to investigate the chances for funding the project at the Depot. "We spoke with people at the New Hampshire Council for the Humanities and learned in January that we could apply for a grant to finance the construction of a social history exhibition," Wagner recalled. "By April 14th this year we had complete a preliminary application." With the help of William Taylor, a Professor of History at Plymouth State College, Susan Olney, the Director of the University Art Galleries at the University of New Hampshire and other, Wagner submitted a final application for funding on May fourth, and before the end of the month, the Council for the Humanities had approved it.

Combined with generous contributions from the Samuel P. Hunt Foundation and the AMC, the funds from the NHCF will permit not only the development of a social history exhibit, but the creation of a traveling slide show and pamphlet (describing the exhibit) as well. "One of our aims in this project is to make the exhibit as accessible as we can" Wagner explained, "so we've scheduled a series of five slide shows to reach the people who may not come into contact with the exhibit." Beginning later this fall and continuing through to next June, William Taylor and other historians will present the show (consisting of 60 to 80 slides) in Littleton, Concord, Durham, Plymouth, and North Conway.

Aside from creating an accurate and interesting display of Crawford Notch life over the years, the Exhibit hopes to expand the view that people have of the area today. "We want to portray the history of the Crawford Notch region in order to show the public how the events of the past have transformed the notch for good or ill," Professor Taylor wrote. "It is anticipated that by reviewing the history of the Crawford Notch area, we shall profit from previous errors and poor judgement and also be able to preserve the essential elements that have attracted people to it for so may generations."

"We want to use the Exhibit as an educational took." Wagner added, "to give the public a complete picture of what has happened there. We'll have information about timber cutting, the railroad, and the hotel era; we want to show what effects each of these developments have had on the land and, with luck, what this means for the future."

In the same way that the project aims to reach North Country residents, it has depended on these people and others throughout New England in gathering material for use in the Exhibit. Bartlett Elementary School teacher Benjamin English, and historian and author C. Francis Belcher have helped with researching Crawford's past along with the Historical Societies of Conway, Franconia, and Boston & Maine. The project has also been assisted by the North Country Council, the United Stated Forest Service, the AMC New Hampshire Chapter, the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests and dozens of individuals who donated time, paintings, photos, diaries, and other pieces to the Exhibit's collection.

Though the AMC will continues to operate its Visitor Information Center at the same location, the completion of the Exhibit is expected to make the Depot an even more attractive stopping off place, with an estimated 10,000 guests expected next summer. When they arrive at the VIC after June, they'll find four two-by-six foot wooden and glass cases, and plywood room dividers in the main room filled and covered with artifacts, photographs and other historical material.

"The exhibit will be arranged in a chronological five step sequence, beginning with the early discovery and exploration of the Notch," Wagner said. "There'll be a section devoted to the first days of tourism, transportation and early recreation, logging and the efforts to protect the land, and finally a section dealing with the 20th Century perceptions of the area and its current uses."

The focus of each of these five sections, as Wagner pointed out, will be to give the visitor a feeling for the way people in the past felt, acted and thought about the Notch, "In the Exhibit, we've tried to reconstruct what people's perceptions of the Notch were," she noted. "By looking at diaries, letters, newspaper stories and other accounts of people who visited and lived here, we hope to come as close as we can to what life was really like."

The process of seeking out information, however, doesn't simply end with the collection of available data. "Hopefully, we'll also include interviews with people who have recollections of life in the Notch during the more recent years," Wagner continued, "the people who stayed at the Crawford House or rode the railroad."

In any case, the list of contributors is already impressive. The writings of Lucy Crawford and William Oates, a copy of Nash and Sawyer's land charter, Belknap's maps, copies of paintings by Thomas Cole and etchings by Currier and Ives will be on display along with a large assortment of stereoscopic slides from the 19th century. Presidents Pierce, Grand Hayes, Garfield and Harding, writers including Longfellow, James Russell Lowell and Henry Ward Beecher, and characters like John D. Rockefeller, William Gould, William K. Vanderbilt and even Diamond Jim Brady will be included in the story of what happened in Crawford Notch. Indeed, this history, as Professor Taylor wrote, deserves to be preserved.

"The Crawfords and others helped open the region in the early years of the nineteenth century," he noted. "Early travelers and tourists came to a still wild and relatively pristine wilderness. The completion of the Portland and Ogdensburg Railroad in 1875 made the region easily accessible and ushered in the era of the great summer hotels. This lasted for about half a century until the automobile brought a new form of transportation and tourism . . . all of this we see as important so that the history of the region can aid the public in understanding why this locale has, since the early 1800s, been such a popular site for visitors of all types."

While Wagner will be busy in the coming months with the collection and organization of material, she noted that no one's help would be turned down. "If people want to contribute or if they have ideas, photos, early journals or whatever, we are very interested in meeting with them. Whether they are able to loan material or allow us to reproduce it, we'd like to include as much as we can."

Editor's Note: This link offers some interesting history, old photos, and postcards from Crawford Notch--


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