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Excerpts from Center Harbor Memories

By Thomas Visser

Sometimes our richest memories spring from places we knew when we were young.

Located on a gentle bluff overlooking the northwestern bay of Lake Winnipesaukee and surrounded by foothills of the White Mountains, Center Harbor village gained distinction as a fashionable summer resort destination in central New Hampshire during the 1800s.

Boasting several grand seasonal hotels during this period, the most prominent was the majestic Colonial Hotel that offered sweeping views of the lake and mountains. As had so many other large wooden resort hotels of the era, this local landmark was destroyed by fire in the early 20th century, leaving a discomforting gap in the village’s street-scape and as well as its memory landscape. Yet despite this tragic loss that was thereafter rarely mentioned, the village continued to serve as a destination for summer visitors from East Coast urban areas, especially as automobile travel became increasingly popular during the mid-twentieth century.

It was then that I first became acquainted with Center Harbor, when in 1957 my family moved to a small white cape about a mile east of the village. Although the house was actually located over the town line in Moultonboro (as it was then modernly spelled without its formal “ugh” ending), both our mail and telephone addresses were listed as Center Harbor, and it was to this village that we identified most closely. To there we walked or drove for shopping, swimming, church and entertainment. Tempered now by over a half-century, these are some of my childhood memories of Center Harbor.

Surrounded by the Nichols Library, Nichols Variety Store, the Coe Mansion and E. M. Heath’s store, the community hub of Center Harbor village was then up at the Square, located at the intersection of Main Street and Plymouth Street (Route 25B). Here in 1907, the Kona Fountain, a beautiful round granite horse-watering trough with a bronze naked Indian boy holding a flapping goose, had been installed in the center of the three intersecting streets.

On the north side of the Square, Nichols Variety Store housed the United States Post Office in its east wing until around 1959. There, as elsewhere in Center Harbor, a way of life from earlier decades seemed to linger with solemn grace. With her grey hair tied in a tight Victorian bun and standing tall in her laced, black high-heeled shoes and black-seamed stockings, Mrs. Minnie Nichols reigned sternly over her high-ceiling store from behind its long marble soda fountain counter with brisk efficiency, while her short white-haired assistant, Miss Gilpatrick would be sure to share a few pleasantries with a sweet smile and a twinkle in her eyes.

It was here at Nichols Store that we enjoyed five-cent-a-scoop ice cream cones on hot Saturday afternoons and where we picked up the Boston Herald (for Dad) and the New York Times (for Mom) before Sunday services at the nearby Center Harbor Congregational Church. Although gasoline could be purchased from the red-and-white pumps by the front curb, rarely would such customers be seen.

North of Nichols Store on Plymouth Street stood the flat-roofed, four-story Garnet Inn. This white clapboarded hotel was connected to the earlier gable-roofed section of the inn by a long wooden veranda that would be lined with wooden rocking chairs. During the late 1950s, the Garnet Inn served as a summer home for many musicians with the New Hampshire Music Festival.

In the 1960s it became a dormitory for Belknap College, a short-lived school said to be popular with some avoiding the Vietnam War draft. Sadly, both sections of the Garnet Inn were demolished in the 1990s, leaving another discomforting gap in the streetscape and memory landscape of Center Harbor village.

Across from the Kona Fountain on the south side of the Square, E. M. Heath’s store (“Dealer in Most Everything”) had groceries shelved in open aisles with squeaky oiled wooden floors sprinkled with sawdust. Everett Heath did his own butchering in the small room behind the meat counter wearing a white shirt and dark tie, a long white apron and thick black leather gauntlets on his arms. In rooms to the rear and side, he also stocked hardware, Benjamin Moore paints, Lee dungarees and plaid flannel work shirts. Freeman Brooks (better known as “Brooksie”) ran a small barber shop upstairs above Everett Heath’s store during the summer months. Perhaps best known for his style and his humor, Brooksie would finish off our “whiffles” by flipping up our hair in front with his comb and running a stick of wax across the tines to hold it in place.

West of E.M. Heath’s store was a sloping hayfield on what had been the site of the Colonial Hotel. Opposite this on the north side of the old main street that led to Meredith and to Garnet Hill Road was a broad space between the Nichols Library and the Center Harbor Congregational Church. This sandy area in front of the white wooden firehouse of the Center Harbor Fire Department served as a gathering area for many public events, including the cuing up of participants in the annual Memorial Day and Fourth-of-July parades.

On the west side of this space by the firehouse stood the Center Harbor bandstand. Shaded by tall American elm trees, this eight-sided white wooden bandstand was raised above the ground to provide a space for storing the musicians’ folding wooden chairs beneath. Its deck was surrounded by an open railing with posts at the eight corners fitted with bare light bulbs. During July and August, the Center Harbor Band offered weekly free outdoor evening concerts here.

For a more memories of Center Harbor, read Thomas’s entire story found here: http://www.uvm.edu/~tvisser/memories/centerharbor