WORK AND PLAY ON MONTICELLO LAWN

Sanford “Sandy” Wilbur

July 2019 

    My father-in-law, Stuart K. “Slim” Harris, took this photo about 1942. It’s a little obscure, but you can probably imagine that it is a picture of a lawnmower, one planted upside down in a pile of rocks. The location not seeming to be one where one would expect to see a lawnmower – upside down, or otherwise – you might wonder where it is, why, and when. The “where” is Monticello Lawn, a semi-flat and semi-grassy plateau at an altitude of about 5,000 feet, just below the summit of (appropriately) Mt. Jefferson, in New Hampshire’s Presidential Range. The “why” is a little obscure, but was probably explained adequately by Joe Dodge in 1942, when he said “one of those crazy goddam kids on his day off, put that old rusty lawnmower (there).”[1] His “crazy goddam kids” were those young adults working at the Appalachian Mountain Club trail hostels. Their purpose in planting the mower?: likely, just for the hell of it. The “when” is uncertain, but I suspect it was not long before Slim took the photo. At least until about 1949, the writing on the accompanying sign was still legible: ‘This sentinel guards the plateau of Monticello Lawn in tribute to T. Jefferson.’[2]

   Each year, thousands of people hike over Monticello Lawn on the popular Gulfside Trail or on one of the routes over the summit of Mt. Jefferson. After 1950 until the mid-60s, I couldn’t find any reports of people seeing the lawnmower, and haven’t found any photos of it except Slim’s. I assumed it was long gone. Then, in a 1967 issue of Appalachia, I found the following: “The flat area on the southern and southeastern slope of Mt. Jefferson has long been known as Monticello Lawn. In keeping with the name, some hiker who was willing to assume the burden in return for the rewards in laughter and astonishment many years ago placed an old, rusty lawnmower there, perched above a dry-ki. At some time in the past few years it disappeared, the victim, apparently, of one of the souvenir hunters who roam the mountain country looking for anything movable.”[3] Three things caught my attention: one, the lawnmower had survived well into the 1960s; two, I’d never seen the term dry-ki applied to a rock pile, just to piles of decaying timber; and three, I couldn’t imagine anyone purposely stealing an old lawnmower and carrying it all the way down to civilization. It seems more likely that it fell down on its own, and somebody moved it out of sight. Alternatively – and maybe a better bet – somebody found it objectional at such a scenic location, and dumped it down a ravine or into the krumholtz out of sight.

   But the lawnmower story didn’t end then. Continuing with the Appalachia article:  “But last summer {1966}, the lawn got another lawnmower. It was borne to Monticello Lawn by a party headed by Roger Putnam of Springfield, Massachusetts, and duly put on display after a few runs through the Juncus trifida.” I couldn’t find any records after that, so have no idea how long Lawnmower No. 2 lasted. My first hike on the Gulfside Trail wasn’t until 1975, by which time there was no trace of it.

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      During my research on the lawnmower story, I learned of an earlier attempt to use Monticello Lawn for more than just its scenery. The lawnmower was never intended for work, but 35 years earlier the idea was definitely about play. Here’s how it was described in a 1907 Boston newspaper: “That veteran of mountain climbers, Mr. Warren W. Hart, who has climbed over Mt. Washington winter and summer, in every month of the year, has long extolled the beauty of this view. He paused one day on the Monticello lawn, and while sitting on a convenient rock overlooking the grassy flat, conceived the idea of putting in a croquet set. The idea grew as he crossed the range and no sooner had he reached the end of his journey in Gorham, then he proceeded without delay to put his plan into execution. A croquet set was procured at a local store. Mr. Hart strapped it on his back, box and all, in place of the regular mountain pack, and started up from the Ravine house in Randolph. Not content with the regular path to the Madison hut Mr. Hart took the trail up King’s ravine, and the croquet set nearly met an untimely end in the struggle with the giant bowlders in this huge chasm. It arrived, however, in safety at the hut, and from there the journey was without event. A convenient ledge of rocks nearby made a resting place for the box and the register for the visitors names. The set was laid out according to regulations and scarcely had the finishing touches been put on when a party of laughing girls arrived and were invited to christen the game”.

   Continuing with the news story: “The game had not far advanced when it was seen to be impossible to play in the ordinary way, for the ground between the wickets was dotted with rocks which interfered with any long distance shot. Nothing daunted, he proposed to play the game ‘a la golf,’ and this custom has been followed since. Each blow counts a stroke, and the object is to cover the ground in the croquet order of wickets back to the first post in as few strokes as possible. The bogy for the course is 23 and has not yet been broken.

   “The first wickets were much too light and a mountain zephyr blew some out by the roots. Mr. Hart replaced these by heavy iron ones, painted white, so as to be easily seen at dusk. While these wickets stood the wind without trouble, the paint wore off long before the end of the season.”

   Unlike the lawnmower story, there seems to be no question as to who started the croquet games. When they began is a little more conjectural. Later references cite 1907 as the inaugural year, but was it? The newspaper account, published 15 September 1907, described what appears to be a full season of activity. Did the story get to Boston that quickly, or did the games perhaps begin a year earlier?

The Boston Globe Sun  Sep 15  1907

A poor newspaper photo of the first croquet match


   When croquet was last played on the Lawn is open to speculation, also. An October trip, reported in March 1914, probably occurred just a year or two previously: “Here on Monticello’s Lawn, exposed to the wintry blasts, is a complete croquet set which some ambitious person had lugged up and left for the amusement of future travelers. As we approached the well-remembered place the wickets protruded plaintively and invitingly through the snow, but the sharp wind warned us that a game here at 5200 feet, however pleasant on a summer day would now mean frosted hands and feet.[4] A 1923 description, which appears to relate to a recent event, would move the games another ten years forward: “The Monticello Lawn, on a shelf of the mountain is a bit disillusioning to one who really believes in lawnmowers; but some enthusiast or fanatic has actually toted a croquet set to this spot and set it up in the midst of the lank grass and rocks.”[5]After that, the record goes cold.

   Even in 1907, there were complaints about croquet in the heart of a more or less pristine alpine area. If I had been around then, I might have joined the dissenters, having always wanted my wildernesses to be as  wildernessy as possible. But I’m looking from a 2019 perspective, when trail hikers are numbered in many thousands rather than hundreds, and where we are constantly discussing how many mountain bikes, or drones, or whatever, can be allowed in areas like the Northern Peaks without destroying their whole meaning. In 1907, the creator of the Monticello Lawn croquet grounds was (at least according to the newspaper) unrepentant. “Meanwhile, Hart smiles on serenely in spite of the controversy, for no one can miss his favorite view.”

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[1] Peterson. W. L. 1986. Joe Dodge. Canaan, New Hampshire: Phoenix Publishing.

[2] Magnuson, P. 1950. The earth is ours. Nature Magazine 43(5):258-261.

[3] Anonymous. 1967. Monticello Lawn. Appalachia (New Series) 33(7):571.

[4] Whiting, E. B. 1914. Across the top of New England. The Photographic Times 47(3):83-87.

[5] Doe, J.   1923. The highest path in New England. Granite Monthly 55(6): 259-267.


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 © Sanford Wilbur 2019