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1980 American Women Olympians | A Dream Renewed on a Holy River

1980 American Women Olympians | A Dream Renewed on a Holy River
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Every competitor at the Head of the Charles rowing Regatta comes with a story. But none is quite like the story of the 1980 American women Olympians. When the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, President Jimmy Carter declared a boycott of the Summer Games in Moscow, and the team’s chance to make history ended, forever.  Now, once a year, on the Charles River in Boston, they catch, even if only briefly, the sense of what they once were, what they had once thought possible.

 


* * *

The wind woke Holly Hatton, rattling the windows of her Cambridge home in their casings. Rain followed, flung against the panes like handfuls of pebbles. Carol Brown, staying with friends in Boston, awoke to hail clattering against the skylights in the guest room. A mile away, Bets Kent felt the rumble of thunder rolling in from the river. They all lay awake thinking about the Charles, wondering if once again they’d be denied their chance on the water.

The women were among the 10,000 rowers, coxswains, and coaches gathering at the Charles River over the third weekend in October 2012 for the world’s largest rowing regatta. The Head of the Charles had become a fall tradition in Boston, drawing more than 300,000 spectators to its riverbanks and bringing together athletes from around New England and across the country, and from New Zealand and the Netherlands, Azerbaijan to Zimbabwe. Standing by were 1,400 volunteers who were running the event, and scores of vendors and sponsors who were helping to finance it. There were many reasons to worry about the weather.

Hearing the thunder, Kent remembered 1996, the only time in nearly half a century that the regatta had been canceled. It wasn’t uncommon to hold races in snow or driving rain—late October was always dicey in New England—but that year a hundred-year storm had blown through, piling up standing waves in the basin. Kent, volunteering on the race committee, had huddled with coaches and officials in a gale-whipped tent while the race director shouted above the wind, “Have any of you ever made a boat rescue in weather like this?” No hands went up.

In any weather, the Charles was a holy river among rowers, right up there with the Thames, and the Head of the Charles was both annual pilgrimage and gathering of the tribe. The regatta attracted the best rowers in the world at every level and every age. Yet because roughly half the entries were chosen by lottery, less-experienced participants—even rank novices—could row alongside decorated champions and feel a part of the clan. There was nothing else like it, in any sport.

At 4:30 a.m. Hatton sensed the wind slackening. She got up and checked the regatta Web site. The weather conditions had just been updated and an announcement added: The regatta would be held as scheduled. The women could return, again, to the matter of their unfinished business.

Every competitor at the Head of the Charles arrived with a story. Hatton and her teammates, who had devoted much of their lives to rowing and had helped change the face and future of the sport, shared one such story: one that went back eight Olympic cycles, to the source of their pride and pain.

A Dream Denied

Holly Hatton came to rowing late in life, but at the earliest possible moment to leave her mark on it. She had already graduated from art school in Philadelphia when she went down to the Schuylkill River and slipped into one of the few pockets where women in 1973 were rowing competitively. Small and fine-boned, more artist than athlete, Hatton had quickly discovered that the physics of rowing favored size and strength, muscle mass and long levers. But the bigger “sweep” boats, especially the 60-foot shells powered by eight rowers, offered a way in—as a coxswain.

If rowers are the legs, back, and arms of the boat, the coxswain, facing forward, is its eyes, ears, and brain. A good coxswain acts as an on-the-water coach, directing the boat’s course, setting race strategy, correcting technique, and motivating eight individuals to pull as one. It’s a position without analogue in team sports. And Hatton was built for it. It gave her an outlet for a fierceness she hadn’t known she possessed.

Hatton moved to Boston in 1975 to chase a dream. Three years earlier, federal Title IX legislation had opened the floodgates for women athletes. Rowing would be an Olympic sport for women for the first time at the 1976 Summer Games in Montreal. The selection was run by the Harvard men’s crew coach, Harry Parker, a recent convert to the idea of women’s rowing. A few years earlier, Parker had refused to help Radcliffe students start a crew at Harvard, believing that women couldn’t handle the intensity of the training. What he saw in those camps changed his mind about the female capacity for hard effort. He was surprised, he told a reporter, by the women’s high tolerance for pain. But he didn’t pick Hatton for the Olympic crew.

Hatton got her chance in 1977, starting a three-year run as coxswain of the U.S. national team. She was working with women fresh off a bronze medal in Montreal who knew the size of the gap still separating them from the dominant crews of the Soviet bloc. The boat’s six-foot-one-inch hammer was Carie Graves, whose violent stroke seemed to come from some wild and ungovernable source, and whose raw power balanced precariously against her rough technique. There was steady, indefatigable Carol Brown, who had powered Prince­ton’s crews from a seat in their “engine room,” but who was learning to follow from her new position in the bow. Carol Bower was a natural athlete new to the team and relatively new to the sport. In the final strokes of the 1979 world championships in Bled, Yugoslavia, Bower had dropped her oar into the water just a few degrees off-angle. The blade instantly jerked underwater, slamming a brake on the boat, and the East Germans and Soviets pulled across the line ahead of the U.S. women.

Despite the loss, Hatton knew they were getting closer. And as the 1980 Olympic year began, the team grew closer as well. Hatton was mastering the nuances that made a boat go fast. The rowers responded to her intensity and desire to win. They learned to trust completely that when Hatton asked them to give her everything they had for 20 more strokes, she would not need 21.

The women navigated uncharted, often unwelcoming, waters. At Princeton, Carol Brown had rowed on a women’s crew that wasn’t allowed inside the boathouse when men were present, or to use the bathrooms at all. Carie Graves was named coach of the Radcliffe crew after Montreal, but still had to share a one-bathroom third-floor walkup in Watertown with four other rowers. Carol Bower was training for the Olympics while also finishing her degree at UCLA and renovating houses to fund both dreams. Holly Hatton began the New Year too heavy by 27 pounds. She had moved into a tiny, drafty room on the third floor of Harvard’s Weld Boathouse, and was methodically starving herself to get down to racing weight.

They were all driven by the quest for an Olympic championship.

That winter, President Jimmy Carter  declared that the U.S. would boycott the Moscow games in protest over the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan. Women rowers led the effort to overturn the boycott. As Carol Brown put it, “We were used to fighting for the chance to row.” They knew that the U.S. Olympic Committee, not the administration, held the authority to send athletes to the Games or to keep them home, and they believed that the ideals of the Olympics transcended politics. Brown joined a lawsuit against the USOC, along with Bower, Graves, and Hatton. Government officials threatened to pull their passports if they kept pressing for the right to compete.

The women continued to train even as they continued to protest. In the weeks leading up to the Moscow games, the men’s and women’s crews competed in Europe, as scheduled, hoping for a last-minute reprieve. In Lucerne, Switzerland, the U.S. women’s eight, coxed by Hatton, who was down to 102 pounds, pulled from behind to beat the East Germans—the first time that that powerhouse crew had been bested by a non-Communist country. Every woman in the American boat had fought through every last stroke. The Lucerne victory was an affirmation. Carol Bower wrote in her journal: We are as close to a gold medal as a U.S. rowing team has ever been …

Then it was over. After their final race as the U.S. Olympic team, which they won handily, the women in Hatton’s eight lingered on the water after the finish, sobbing. The East Germans would go on to win the gold medal. Although 65 nations joined the U.S.-led boycott, it would end up having no discernible political effect. The Soviet Union would occupy Afghanistan for another eight years.

Bets Kent and Holly Hatton were among the nearly half of the U.S. athletes, across all teams, whose Olympic dreams began and ended with Moscow. They never competed in another Summer Games. They would win no medals, appear in no lists of Olympic athletes. It was as if they’d never existed.

But, of course, they did. And now, what would they do with all that  bottled-up rage and grief and competitive drive? They decided to take it out on the Head of the Charles.

They never imagined that over three decades, their personal reunion within the larger tribe would become a necessary marker of their years. At the time, they just needed to get on the water.

Race Day

Shortly after daybreak, Holly Hatton pedaled her bike down Memorial Drive along the familiar, sinuous half-mile of river between the Cambridge Boat Club and Weld Boathouse. Her route was layered with history and personal meaning. In the pale, brassy light of the morning sun, she saw early risers walking and jogging along the green banks of the river and volunteers coming into positions at the big turn near the Eliot Bridge, named for the 19th-century landscape architect Charles Eliot and his father, Charles W. Eliot, president of Harvard University. The shade trees and grassy shoreline—even the river’s signature serpentine shape—reflected the younger Eliot’s vision. He and other progressive Boston Brahmins had reinvented a tidal estuary that for centuries had been an open sewer and industrial dumping ground. They had dredged and filled and sculpted it into a public park—creating, in the process, a nearly ideal river for rowing.

Hatton rode past Harvard’s stately brick residential houses and on to the university’s private, century-old mansion on the river. She wheeled her bike through the front door, beneath the elaborately sculpted ship’s prow that paid homage to the clipper-ship fortune of the building’s benefactor, George Walker Weld. The boathouse had served as Hatton’s refuge after her return from Europe. She was living again on the third floor, broke and adrift, when an offer had come from two miles downstream to coach novice women at Boston University. Her bitterness and sense of betrayal simmered. “I look back and feel like I owe those early rowers at BU an apology,” Hatton would say later. “I took all that out on them without being aware of it. I’d get so mad I’d throw two or three megaphones out of the launch each season. I wasn’t an angry person before, but I was after.”

Coaching had set Hatton on her life’s course and established the Charles as her home river. For nearly three decades, she shuttled between Radcliffe and BU—back to Radcliffe as novice coach, then down the river again as head coach at BU, leaving only for short stints coaching national and Olympic teams. She came to know the water in all seasons and all moods. It was in October of her first year coaching at BU, 1980, that the Charles became something more than her home river and became something akin to a home.

After the crushing disappointment of Moscow, regatta organizers had invited Hatton and the rest of the 1980 Olympic team to race at the Head of the Charles. Still angry, still needing to prove themselves as champions, the team showed up in force. Coming together in Boston eased the pain. Olympic rowers held a special place at the Head of the Charles, and the 1980 women felt lifted up by a community that knew exactly how close they had come to glory. They returned the next October. And the next. And the reunion became a ritual.

Hatton gave them a name, the “1980 Rowing Club”—shorthand that everyone in the tribe recognized and understood. She set the lineups each year for the sweep rowers who’d been selected to compete as the U.S. eight in Moscow. Other women and men of that 1980 team—the scullers, pairs, doubles, fours—made the annual trip as well, all of them bound together by what they had been denied.

For her own boat, Hatton focused less on preserving an original lineup than on maintaining a strong presence in the championship events. Over time, as some of her teammates stepped back or stopped rowing altogether, Hatton, in the Olympic spirit of competition, filled out her boat with other women, including some who had rowed in Moscow, such as East German Gabi Cipollone, whose only loss in an international career had been to the 1980 Americans, and who had cried, herself, at the Soviet-led boycott of the Los Angeles games in 1984.

In the 1990s, Bets Kent and teammates from the smaller boats—some of whom called themselves “little scullers” to distinguish themselves from the “big sweepers” in Hatton’s boat—switched to the regatta’s expanding masters events. Hatton and her big sweepers stayed in the championship race, now lining up against college rowers who could have been their daughters. Hatton’s eight held their own against the regatta’s elite athletes until 2000, when their 20th-anniversary reunion entry finished nearly last, and even Hatton had to admit it was time to move up. To improve their chances of qualifying for the masters event, Hatton picked a new name for her big sweepers: États-Unis, French for “United States,” from one of the languages of Switzerland, where the 1980 women had discovered just how good they were.

In 2001, for the first time since they’d competed for spots on the national team, the former teammates raced against one another. For 10 years the contest was one-sided. États-Unis won every match-up, first in masters races, in which crews’ ages averaged 40 years, and then for older athletes, in senior-masters races.

In 2011, though, the little scullers in the 1980 boat had upset the pecking order, beating the big sweepers for the first time. And so a new, unexpected feeling of rivalry added to the complex of emotions that Holly Hatton and the others felt as they reunited on the Charles in 2012.

Inside Weld Boathouse, Hatton collected her rowers and directed them to the second-floor weight room to warm up. Rowing machines called ergometers faced mirrored walls in neat lines. The États-Unis women, in motley shades of pink, joined the rowers from the 1980 boat, already on the ergs, and set the flywheels whirring.

The mirrors reflected the passage of years: waists thickened by age, faces weathered by thousands of hours on the water, hair graying. In their street clothes or at rest, only statuesque Carie Graves, as imposing as ever, might have stood out as a former Olympian. But on the machines, sliding forward and accelerating back in strong, fluid motions, their skill and their power became clear.

Graves, wearing a neon-pink turtleneck branded with a longhorn from the University of Texas, where she now coached, was a study in aggressiveness and concentration. She exploded on her slide, coiled, exploded again, her eyes narrowed, her mouth pulled back into a tight, contorted line.

Carlie and Judy Geer, little scullers paired in the bow of the 1980 boat, pulled on side-by-side ergs. Carlie, watching her older sister compete in Montreal, had vowed to one day join her as an Olympian. In Los Angeles she’d won silver in the single scull. The corded muscles of the sisters’ shoulders and arms rippled together as they pulled back on the handles. Their similar spare builds and sinewy limbs were a definition of shared genetics and passion.

As pioneering Olympians, the Geers, Graves, and the others had broadened the Olympic ideal and given it a woman’s shape. They’d grown accustomed to ignoring limits set by others. Now, after a lifetime of defining what it meant to be a strong woman, they were challenging limits set by time and age.

They called themselves the team of no results, but the results of their efforts were everywhere. The women of the 1980 team continued to expand the world they’d helped create. Many, like Hatton, had become coaches. Judy Geer had helped turn Vermont-based Concept2 into an industry leader. Every rowing machine in the Weld weight room, and in most gyms around the country, was made by the company; its redesign of oars had swept the sport. Carol Bower, coaching at Penn, had taken the university to court over Title IX compliance, and won. Anita DeFrantz, who had led their lawsuit in 1980, had used her role on the International Olympic Committee to make the 2012 Summer Games in London the first time that female athletes were included in every Olympic delegation. Some called her “the most powerful woman in sports.” Carol Brown had strengthened USOC barriers to future boycotts, which would now require a significant majority vote of the committee.

Brown cranked up her stroke rate and finished off the workout. The flywheel slowed. Sweat streamed down her face, dripped onto muscular thighs.  She stood up gingerly and stretched her back. She had stopped rowing when her son was born and had returned to the sport seven years later at Hatton’s prodding. She’d joked that her goals for the Head of the Charles had simplified tremendously over the years: Now she wanted only to train and race without getting injured, and be able to get out of the boat again back at the dock. All the same, she said, “Every year I appreciate it more.”

The old teammates finished their warm-ups and drifted down the wide staircase. Hatton turned to one of her rowers and confided some complicated feelings. “I don’t look forward to the Head of the Charles anymore,” she said. “I dread it. I’m a Type AAA person. It’s hard to come in just one day and compete when you used to be really good.”

Both crews had held to their unwritten rule of practicing just a single time ahead of the race—an Olympian, hand-tied-behind-the-back concession they’d made to rowing against mere mortals. Each year it was harder to row a good race. During a lackluster practice on Friday afternoon, Hatton had yelled at her crew. “I don’t know,” she said at the bottom of the stairs, “if I want the stress of not knowing if we can pull it off again.”

She followed her teammates into the cool, ancient wooden bays where the racing shells were stored. Sunlight shafted through the arched doorways that led out to the Charles. “Hands on,” Hatton said. They slung the shell up to shoulder height and carried it down to the water, ready to row.

On the Water

The Head of the Charles is a coxswain’s race. It demands skill, finesse, strategy, and a dose of gamesmanship to navigate a long, winding course that squeezes through seven bridges over its three-mile length. In the two most challenging sections, bridges and curves converge. At the Weeks Footbridge, near the race’s midpoint, the wily river turns sharply left. Approaching the Eliot Bridge, it deceives more convincingly, steepening a seemingly shallow curve until the river nearly bends back on itself, before twisting in the opposite direction just as it passes under the bridge. It was a course made for Holly Hatton.

Leaving Weld Boathouse, the boats paddled two miles down the river, toward Boston Harbor and the dammed mouth of the former estuary, made a wide turn in the basin, and pointed themselves back upstream. The heavy current of the rain-swollen river pulsed below the thin shells. Cloudless pale blue framed the familiar landmarks of the Boston skyline—the neon Citgo sign high above Kenmore Square, the towering Prudential and Hancock buildings—and the broad basin sparkled in the morning sun.

Hatton swung the États-Unis boat into line for the start of the senior-masters women’s-eights race. The shell’s tapered bow displayed a large “4,” marking its place in the line. At the front, just ahead of the 1980 crew, who were in position 2, paddled an eight from Marin, California, one of the few clubs that had beaten the 1980 Olympians in a masters race. The women in the Marin boat practiced together year-round and had fought for spots in the Head of the Charles lineup through seat races back home. Having once survived the Olympic version of that selection process, the 1980 rowers shared Carlie Geer’s sense: “Been there, done that.” It wasn’t lost on them, either, that their crews averaged 55 and 56 years old, while the Marin crew hit 50 exactly. Their focus was almost completely on their internal rivalry. Still, not one of them could come to the starting line without feeling the old desire to win.

Just ahead of the start at BU’s DeWolfe Boathouse, Hatton said to her rowers, “Full pressure.” A race official called, “Give ’em a good ride, Holly!”

Everyone on the Charles seemed to know Holly Hatton—though it had been four years since she’d been a regular fixture on the river, bulky in a long hooded jacket in faded BU red, her cackle easily heard over the motor of her coach’s launch. Hatton had lost her coaching job at BU in 2008, just as the global financial crisis hit, and had been unable to land work at another university. She was on unemployment when she heard that a small community program outside Boston—Bromfield Acton–Boxborough Rowing—was seeking a part-time coach for its girls’ team. She now directed the program.

“États-Unis, you’re on the course.”

Like jets taking off from a runway every 15 seconds, the boats crossed the starting line at DeWolfe. The rolling start was nothing like shorter Olympic or collegiate racing, in which crews sprinted off a line together and the winner crossed the finish line first. In a head race, boats followed one after another in a staggered start, racing against the clock, and a boat crossing the finish line far back in the pack could claim the fastest time. The rowers themselves wouldn’t know who’d won until all the times were posted.

Hatton’s crew began moving almost immediately on the boat that had started third—bow 3—Watercat, a “composite” club that brought together rowers from three countries. Hatton was relieved to feel her rowers swing together, without any of the heaviness of the previous day’s practice. Coming up to the Western Avenue Bridge, knowing that the swollen current would funnel down the middle of the river, she steered a wider, seemingly less-efficient line through the arch closest to the Cambridge shore, and picked up precious seconds on the boats ahead of her.

In the bow of the 1980 eight, Carlie Geer sensed the boat still trying to find its rhythm. She glimpsed États-Unis pink, thankfully still behind Watercat.

Hatton could see the Weeks Footbridge looming ahead. États-Unis had moved up enough on Watercat that she thought they could pass before the bridge. She called out to the Watercat coxswain, asking him to give way. Her request followed racing etiquette, in which “failure to yield” to a passing boat was enshrined in the regatta rulebook as a serious infraction. The other coxswain, possibly not hearing Hatton, stayed his course.

When the Watercat coxswain didn’t move aside, Hatton decided not to risk the unforgiving physics of passing another boat through the 90-degree turn at Weeks. She called to her rowers to ease off. She knew that falling behind could position them for a later gain. She waited, then said into her headset, “Starboards, I need it all now.”

Carol Bower, in the seven seat behind the stroke, led the starboard side in powering the boat’s pivot through Weeks. Halfway through the race and she was feeling great, despite an old knee injury. Coaching now at Bryn Mawr, she’d taken up cycling and had recently started working out on roller skis. Training for the Olympics had punished her body; her memories were pained not only by the boycott but also by the pervading exhaustion she’d felt. She felt less strong now, but happier when she rowed.

Passing the dock at Weld, through the Anderson Bridge and past Newell Boathouse, members of the tribe cheering them on, Hatton kept trying to overtake the boat ahead of them. She yelled ahead, but the coxswain still did not move aside. Hatton refused to lose seconds swinging around him. She held their line, keeping her rowers apprised: “Three is not giving way.”

In the middle of the boat, Carie Graves felt the old familiar wildness stir inside her. She grimaced with each set of her blade into the water, looking inward. Controlling her rage, channeling it. Don’t hold us back. Later she’d be glad she could still reach down and touch that source of her power, grateful it was still there.

Boats that had competed in the men’s senior-masters race, immediately before the women, had pulled over to watch. The eight who had won Olympic silver 40 years earlier in Munich had returned to the Charles for their own annual reunion, calling themselves Alte Achter, German for “Old Eight”; now they saw the Watercat eight obstructing the États-Unis boat. One of the men screamed at Watercat’s coxswain to let Hatton’s boat pass: “Give way! You’re going to pile up a mess of penalties!”

Hatton felt the frustration rising in her boat as it pulled into the final mile, facing the course’s most difficult challenge. The big turn before the Eliot Bridge snuck up on unprepared coxswains, who suddenly found themselves making a 120-degree turn within a very short distance. Here, too, faster boats often caught up to slower boats. More collisions and near-disasters occurred through the Eliot turn than anywhere else on the course.

She had held back at Weeks. Now she made an audacious move. She tightened the line between Watercat and the inside of the curve, warning her port-side rowers, “You’re going to have buoys under your oars.” She pressed their bowball against the other boat’s hull. The blades of the starboard rowers flashed between Watercat’s port oars. What Hatton was attempting would have been crazy for any less-experienced coxswain. Risking collision and a devastating penalty, counting on the fierceness and skill of the women in her boat, trusting them as she knew they trusted her, she used the tip of États-Unis to nudge the other boat aside.

Just ahead, officials and guests lining the bunting-draped balconies of the Cambridge Boat Club and the crowds three deep on the Eliot Bridge saw Holly Hatton’s boat prying an opening where none had existed moments before, inscribing the 120-degree arc as if held to it by some internal force. An announcer called out excitedly, “États-Unis is giving no quarter!”

With each stroke, Hatton’s boat pulled ahead. In the bow of the 1980 boat, already pulling under the bridge, Carlie Geer caught a flash of pink in the sunlight, and thought, Oh my God, they’re close.

Seconds later, Hatton took the main arch of the Eliot Bridge on a diagonal—a perfect line. Carol Bower was spent. She reminded herself to sit up, match the stroke. Not going to fail. She could hear Carie Graves grunting behind her. Carol Brown heard Hatton call, “Ten more strokes,” and gave it everything she had.

Into the Future

Later, the big sweepers and the little scullers would stand together in the warm sun back on the docks at Weld, waiting for the results of the race. Holly Hatton thought it might have been one of the best Head of the Charles courses she’d ever steered.

When the times came in, they would show that États-Unis had regained the thinnest of bragging rights, edging the 1980 boat by .99 of a second. The women would learn that Marin had beaten both boats by more than 30 seconds, and none of them would care. Watercat would receive a full minute’s penalty, dropping the club to 22nd of the 35 boats in the race, costing them their automatic entry for 2013.

On Sunday evening, a lone trumpeter would stand on the roof of the Cambridge Boat Club, seconds after the Radcliffe lightweight crew had won the regatta’s final event, and play “Ode to Joy.” The navy blazers that had colored the boathouse’s balcony would be long gone; the vendors and sponsors would be packing up, along with the hundreds of boat trailers headed out to every corner of the country. By nightfall, clouds would gather for a storm carrying winter’s bite. Only the volunteers would remain. Each boat from every race would have a new story.

In a few months Holly Hatton and Bets Kent would start checking on who’d be returning to Boston for the 49th running of the Head of the Charles. They would soon learn that their colleagues from the Alte Achter boat, after placing near the bottom of the men’s race, would not be coming back. The question of endings was already on their minds, if not yet on the table for discussion. How much longer would they keep rowing, individually and together? What would be the sign to stop?

But all that was in the future.

Now, having crossed the finish line, they turned around and headed back downstream. They glided under the Boston arch at the Eliot Bridge, feeling the warmth of the sun on their sore muscles, surrounded by their tribe, doing what they were meant to do. The years swirled together with each dip of their oars. On that holy river, they touched what they could have been, what they had been, who they were now. Each surge of each boat left eight pools of whirling energy. Facing the past, they could watch the swirling rings ripple out into the distance. They rowed into the future with the courage of pioneers. They reached inside themselves for their strength and their commitment, pulling hard, pulling together, joyous in the present moment.

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Head of the Charles: A Young Coxswain’s Dramatic First Race

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