Let’s not Take the Old Man
of the Mountain for Granite
Words By Marty Basch
Cover art by Lisa Middendorf
Do you remember where you were when you heard about Old Man of the Mountain falling? I don’t. It’s not like it was 9-11 or the day John Lennon was shot, or other comparable events—depending on your generation. I remember where I was on those days. Nonetheless, New Hampshire was crestfallen on May 3, 2003, the day he crumbled into rubble, a landmark ambassador no more.
Word of his passing traveled quickly in the internet age, and soon his admiring mourners made their way to Franconia Notch and its fallen mecca, placing remembrances like flowers and such as a tribute to New Hampshire’s most famous face.
The Old Man of the Mountain and his demise is a case of legend with many Valley connections over his modern lifetime, which came crashing down 20 years ago this spring.
The Old Man’s legacy remains a stoic symbol of the jagged land by Profile Lake he once oversaw. Old Man memorabilia is as ubiquitous in New Hampshire as Granite State granite. The image of his old self is on shot glasses, license plates, quarters, t-shirts, key chains, among others, all bound for that kitchen drawer of knickknacks. There’s even an Old Man of the Mountain bonded bourbon crafted right here in the Valley in the heart of Tamworth at Tamworth Distillery. The Valley’s perennial craft brewery, Moat Mountain in North Conway, produces a seasonal bourbon barrel-aged Old Man of the Mountain Belgian tripel, due out this fall.
Though I have yet to see any Old Man of the Mountain cannabis offerings. Who wouldn’t want profile-shaped gummies and chocolate? Can you imagine tapping your inner George Thorogood by having one bourbon, one gummy, and one beer? Now that’s getting stoned.
Kudos to The Man who looked fabulous until his demise. No shots of botox for that rocky dude. It was cement, chains, rods, and whatnot for an uplifting facelift that led to his rugged looks. The Man was manicured too, his al fresco alpine styling staff sprucing him up with a garden hoe, at times, to clean out his ears.
But he was no spring chicken. Though his true age is cloaked in mystery, a couple of surveyors first took note of the formation in 1805, making him at least 198 when he fell. But American Indian legend traced back to the early 1600s says that by following the Great Merrimack River north you’ll find a mountain with a stone face. However, some geologists peg him at about 12,000 years old. The Old Man, though, never talked about his age.
His good looks were secured by admirers, dating to the early 1900s, when observers noticed his forehead start to slip. So they turned to cosmetic geology on the five ledges that comprised the lodestar by using a turnbuckle to secure the rocks. That started the tradition of alpine caregiving to keep him youthful and steady.
Whether he was hundreds, or thousands of years old, it makes no matter. The man had way more birthdays than you or I, even if we combined our ages. Now remember those two youthful blokes who gave the Old Man whiskers? Seems the facelift was soon discovered, and the trees removed in advance of the monolith’s 150th birthday in 1955, which attracted a wealth of luminaries—from state officials to congressmen to President Dwight D. Eisenhower giving a speech in the partly cloudy notch that day. When Ike was asked what he thought of the icon, he gave a natural response of remarkable, wonderful, and interesting … but also added, “What does the Old Man of the Mountains (sic) think of us?”
That is something we will never know.
But what we do know is that aside from Eisenhower, there were plenty of other famous faces who gazed upon the geezer, but perhaps those not getting enough headlines were those who kept the face famous. It wasn’t until the early 1900s that he started receiving some TLC from Rev. Guy Roberts of Whitefield and Massachusetts quarryman Ed Geddes, when he started showing his age.
Enter the Neilson clan. In 1960, Plymouth’s robust Niels Neilson Jr., who first saw the rock in 1947, became the first official caretaker of the Old Man. He oversaw the man’s face, sometimes hanging from a boatswain’s chair, to give him a shave and a haircut as he called it. Thankfully, he didn’t give him a side part with a small quiff! Neilson, who later enlisted his son David and David’s wife Deborah as part of the team, sealed cracks and kept stock of the Old Man’s movements. Niels worked on him for nearly 30 years.
After he died in 2001, some of his ashes were buried in the Old Man’s left ear.
Though the Old Man is gone, his heritage lives on through the non-profit Old Man of the Mountain Legacy Fund. The fund did its due diligence in creating the Old Man of the Mountain Profiler Plaza in Franconia Notch, dedicated some eight years after his fall from 1,200 feet above the sparkling and apt-named Profile Lake.
There, visitors walk among the 1,000 paver stones etched with names and memories of the Old Man, and can also gaze up through seven “profilers” to see the face live on.
The Valley’s presence is felt there, too. One of those stones is engraved with the name of longtime Story Land owner, Stoney Morrell. A man who spearheaded the memorial was none other than Mr. Tourism himself, the late Conway-born Dick Hamilton, a Kennett High School graduate.
Another prime player in the Legacy Fund is its president geologist Brian Fowler. He’s a Mount Washington Observatory trustee who lived in Madison for a spell. When the Old Man collapsed, Fowler surmised he fell first from his chin, which led to the end of those famous ledges New Hampshire never takes for granite.
Artist, Lisa Middendorf, will hold a Paint & Sip event, themed “Old Man on the Mountain, Anniversary of the Fall”.
The event will be on May 5, 2023, 6-8 p.m. for $30. Held at the Littleton Studio School at 23 Ammonoosuc St., Littleton, NH.
Tickets may be purchased online at www.nh.stirupthepaint.com/event. For more information, email Lisa at firstname.lastname@example.org.