Franconia: Quiet mountain town offers new ventures, recreation

Special to the Union Leader
September 14. 2018 7:35PM
Beyond downtown, the recreational opportunities in Franconia abound. Here, the Appalachian Mountain Club's Greenleaf Hut sits just below the summit of Mount Lafayette. The summit station of Cannon Mountain's tramway is visible in the center background, and Lonesome Lake, a popular hiking spot, to the left. (Meghan McCarthy McPhaul)

FRANCONIA -- The buzz surrounding Iron Furnace Brewing is a welcome sign in Franconia. The brewery opened in August after months of anticipation by residents, who have watched the smattering of Main Street storefronts grow mostly dark over the past two years. Iron Furnace - and a couple of other new or coming-soon businesses - seems to signal a change here: a promise of good things to come.

With a population hovering around 1,100, Franconia is snugged into the western White Mountains, comprising portions of the White Mountain National Forest and Franconia Notch State Park. It's the kind of place - like many small towns - where it can take half an hour to pop into the post office or the Village Store, because you'll likely run into friends and neighbors with insight to share on everything from the weather to what's on the Town Meeting docket.

It's been a farming town and an iron works town, and since the 1930s, it's been a ski town. Maybe you've heard of olympian Bode Miller. Well, he's not from here; he grew up a few miles down Route 116 in Easton. But the two towns, along with Sugar Hill, are closely connected, sharing a transfer station, an elementary school and recreational facilities.

Like a multitude of skiers before and after him, however, Miller was raised on Cannon Mountain, part of Franconia Notch State Park, which sits partly in Franconia and partly in Lincoln. Cannon's history is intricately woven into the fabric of Franconia. Since the tramway opened in 1938, the ski area, along with the rest of Franconia Notch State Park, has been a major employer in the area.

There are other ski towns in New Hampshire, of course. Lincoln, just south of the Notch, is a year-round bustle of activity, with a summer theater, tourist attractions galore and many condominium developments.

You won't find that busyness in Franconia, despite the mere 15 miles of I-93 separating the two towns. Nor will you find the shopping outlets and bustle of North Conway. That's partly due to zoning restrictions in Franconia, and partly because the ski area in this ski town is surrounded by land protected from development, separated by a few miles from its diminutive downtown.

But the relative quiet of town is also what draws many people here to live and to visit.

"We want to bring people here," said Jill Brewer, chairman of the town's select board. "But we don't want to lose the peace and quiet."

That's a balance Franconia has struggled with over the past few years, as its downtown has gradually shifted from quiet to nearly silent.

Closed storefronts

In recent years, residents have watched as businesses changed hands, closed or downsized.

In 2015, catalog company Garnet Hill, established in Franconia in the 1970s and now owned by HSNi (Home Shopping Network, Inc.), announced it would transfer 40 corporate positions from its Franconia headquarters to new offices in Exeter. Although some 160 jobs - the majority of its employees - are still based in Franconia, the move sent shockwaves of concern through town.

Soon after that, a longstanding real estate office closed. Then the Franconia Sport Shop, a Main Street mainstay since the mid-1970s opened by Olympic skiers Paul and Paula Kann Valar, also closed its doors. A downtown café and pizza shop with a decidedly funky vibe closed last year, and the sole remaining breakfast and lunch spot vacated another downtown building when its owner moved out of town.

That left Mac's Market, the Dutch Treat Restaurant, the hardware store, the Franconia Village Store and, further down Main Street, Chef Joe's Bistro still open.

While Littleton to the north and Lincoln to the south provide shopping, dining and entertainment options, Franconia folks started to feel a void.

"There's definitely more empty storefronts than we want for a healthy, vibrant community," Brewer said.
Franconia Hardware and the Franconia Village Store sit amid vacant storefronts that residents hope will be filled someday soon. (Meghan McCarthy McPhaul)

Shift to recreation

There are no waterparks in Franconia, no vintage train rides or zip lines, no trained bears (although plenty of wild ones) or petting zoos. The attractions here are less conspicuous, quieter.

Robert Frost's former home, tucked along a backroad that's easy to miss, is open during the summer and fall as a museum and poetry center. The New England Ski Museum is nestled into a former maintenance garage near the base of Cannon Mountain's tramway building. The town's Abbie Greenleaf Library is vibrant place for readers of all ages.

And there are, of course, the mountains, the woods, the semi-secret swimming holes. Hiking abounds in Franconia, and the Appalachian Trail crosses through town on its way from Georgia to Maine.

There's a small but growing movement in town to develop more trails for mountain biking, including family-friendly options, both to attract more out-of-towners to visit to bring a bump to the economy and to provide a wider array of options for the folks who live here.

"We're all here because we love to hike and bike and ski, too," Brewer said. "Recreation and the outdoors are really valued in our community. I think Franconia really needs to embrace that."

It seems the town is trying. The last Master Plan, crafted in 2008, indicates a focus on enhancing recreational opportunities, from continued improvements at the town's Dow Field to bike lanes along major state roads and creating more "green space" along Main Street.

"We were drawn to Franconia for the sense of community," said Beth Horan, who has lived in town for 29 years and works as a real estate agent at Peabody & Smith. "The kids were 1 and 3 when we moved here, and we wanted to transition out of a more transient community."

Although both her sons are grown now, Horan said she and her husband can't think of anywhere else they'd rather live. They've become a part of the community that drew them in all those years ago, serving on various committees and helping to maintain a garden bursting with flowers near the town's main intersection.

"I just thought that area should look pretty," said Horan, whose office window faces the garden, "for all of us - people driving by, bringing their kids to school, going to work."

A combination of community and access to outdoors recreation is what inspired Tim Clough and his three partners, lifelong friends who grew up in nearby Lisbon within shouting distance of each other, to open Iron Furnace Brewing here. They've already drawn in the locals, folks who have been watching and waiting as the building took new shape.

They're starting to see out-of-town recreationalists swing in, too, from folks who are hiking locally to mountain bikers stopping by for a beer and a sandwich before or after hitting the trails. Clough said he hopes Iron Furnace Brewing will become an après-ski spot during the winter, too.

"Franconia was ripe for an additional venue," Clough said. "It's a big recreation town with hiking, biking, skiing. We want to be the recreationalists' brewery."

Of course, people are welcome to just come for the beer and the atmosphere, including the handmade bar and tables as well as a giant silhouette of the Old Man of the Mountain on the main wall. With Shilling Beer Co. down the road in Littleton and rek'-lis brewing in Bethlehem, the area is becoming something of a beer-lover's destination.

"People do travel for beer," Clough said.

At the other end of town, Plain Kate's Riverside Saloon opened last year and has been gradually building a loyal following. And in one of the downtown buildings vacated over the past two years, Jeremy Bressette, who has for the past 10 years owned the Bagel Depot in Littleton, is working toward opening a new breakfast and lunch place this fall.

He said he hopes it will become a local hangout, like its predecessor was.

"People keep saying Franconia is the place to be," Bressette said last week as he took a break from putting a fresh coat of paint on the walls. "This feels good."

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