The Little Heritage Park In The Big Northwoods

May 2000

[This essay, written nearly 20 years ago, is not so much about Federal lands, as it is about what communities located near Federal land can do to enhance their economic status and their chances of survival. Berlin, New Hampshire, lies just a few miles north of the White Mountain National Forest, a relatively small area of Federal land that receives more public use than many national parks. Berlin was receiving almost no benefit from all those tourist dollars, having no particular point of interest and almost no tourism facilities. Here was one attempt to breathe new life into the community without changing community values.]

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The latest issue of "Yankee" magazine has a full center column announcing this year's Norwegian festival at Berlin, New Hampshire. Any notice in "Yankee" is good, but a center column announcement is almost a guarantee that attendance at the event will be high. Chalk up another win for Joan Chamberlain and the Northern Forest Heritage Park, in the continuing battle to put Berlin and "the North Country" back on the New Hampshire map.

In 1969, when I first came to the North Country, Berlin wasn't a boom town but it was very much alive. Large signs at the city limits welcomed you to "Hockey Town U. S. A." Converse Shoes had a busy plant and outlet store on the Jericho Road. Brown Company not only ran a prosperous paper mill, but also was a benevolent and active part of the community. There were few empty store downtown.

Skip ahead ten years. The hockey teams were gone. The Converse Shoe factory was empty, as were many downtown shops. Brown Company was no more, their land holdings in one ownership and the mill in another, with neither of these nor any of the subsequent owners [of which there have since been a half-dozen or so] caring much for the North Country except for the money that could be generated for their CEOs and stock-holders. People were moving out, to look for opportunities elsewhere, and Berlin seemed on its way to becoming a "ghost town."

We watched Berlin decline through the '70s and '80s, followed local events on "Forum" [the WMOU talk show] and in the Berlin "Reporter," and wondered each time we went to town what grocery store would still be open. The people of the town seemed to be helpless. They had depended for years on "The Mill" and "The Woods," not realizing that what they had really depended on was Brown Company. They expected the new "outsiders" - James River, Boise Cascade, Crown Vantage, Mead - to care about them like their good neighbor Brown Company had. Because many local people continued to be involved in the daily operations at the mill and in the woods - people who were good neighbors, just like always - it seemed all the more bewildering when the mill closed and opened and closed and opened again, got bought and sold, layed off workers, and fought with the town over taxes. They couldn't bring themselves to blame their presumed benefactors, so they blamed the spotted owl and the environmentalists and "the economy." Like communities all over the United States that have had only one economic reason for being, Berlin was dying.

Some time in the '90s, some Berlin citizens decided that they weren't ready for their town to die. I wish I knew who to give credit to, but I don't. I only know that suddenly there was talk about downtown redevelopment and economic diversification. There were people talking about saving the old historic buildings, and there was talk about developing a "heritage park," to celebrate and explain the history and culture of the area. There was - and still is - a lot of grumbling about some of these projects ["we don't have the money," "why do we want that old building," "why do we want tourists?"], but a number have gone forward. So far, the Northern Forest Heritage Park is turning out to be the big success story.

A Log Drive on the Androscoggin River, 1940s

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Operating out of the old Brown House, and with a piece of property on the Androscoggin River north of the paper mill, Joan Chamberlain and her Heritage Park staff  made strides in only a few short years that can legitimately be called phenomenal. A replica of a logging camp is being built on the river site, and has already become the hub of many North Country activities. Logging events have been staged there that have attracted international contestants and been broadcast on national cable TV. Festivals have used the facilities to celebrate the French, Scandanavian and other ethnic cultures of the area. Tours of the mill and of the town have become popular with both tourists and the local folks. Evening programs sponsored by the Heritage Park have covered such subjects as logging, history, genealogy, Native American arts, wildlife, and folklore, and have been complemented by a variety of musical presentations.

Will the Northern Forest Heritage Park "save" Berlin? Certainly it won't, by itself, and right now there's probably more money going into development than there is being generated for the community. Still, I think it can be pointed to as an excellent example of what communities can do for themselves, something that "fits" with local values:
(1) It really is a local project. Most of the benefits - both revenue and goodwill - stay with Berlin and the North Country, and don't go off to a corporate office in Ohio or Arkansas.
(2) It reflects the local environment. It is "selling" the North Country, not trying to be Disneyland or Cape Cod or Las Vegas.
(3) While it emphasizes the logging heritage of the area, it also brings in the other social, environmental, cultural and economic aspects of the region.
(4) It is already serving as the hub of, and catalyst for, many other local projects.
(5) It doesn't require that the community become something different. It may not generate as much income as a gambling casino or a village of outlet stores, but it doesn't sacrifice the small-town character that most residents appreciate about Berlin.
(6) It doesn't require a lot of infrastructure. A nice motel and a couple good restaurants would be desirable adjuncts to make the Park more useable, but they would also be good money-makers for local entrepeneurs, and would serve local residents as well.
(7) As has already been shown, the Park is good for tourism, but it is equally good for those who live locally. Educational, recreational, and cultural opportunities are already being well-used by North Country folks.

Here's to good ideas, and to the right people to put them into operation!

[POSTSCRIPT - 2017: It's been several years now since I've been back to northern New Hampshire, and I don't know a lot about the current situation. Even before the Nation's economy went south, Berlin was in deep trouble. The paper mill finally closed altogether, and it was demolished,  ending dreams of any potential "rebirth," and taking with it into the rubble the pensions of local folks who had worked for the mill their whole careers, and leaving the City out of luck on recovering the millions of dollars the last owner owed to them.

Like the town, the Heritage Park suffered through the down times. They kept going for awhile, but about 2013, I noticed that their website wasn't being kept up to date. Since then, the park has come under the sponsorship of Service Credit Union, and the Androscoggin Valley Chamber of Commerce seems to be managing the local affairs. The Park is open for various gatherings, you can rent the log cabins, and it seems to be a pretty popular place, locally. Unfortunately, it looks like the "heritage" part of the original concept has suffered, and there doesn't seem to be a lot of emphasis on history and education. Still, I'm glad the park is still alive and a local asset.]

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