Old Man of the Mountain fell on May 3, 2003. What now?
By the end of 2008, the Legacy Fund had hit a wall. It had few donors, and public interest had all but dried up. To save the project, committee members reluctantly took a step they knew would move them further from what the Old Man had represented: They asked the state for money. Their reasoning was simple: After all the money the state had made on the Old Man, it was time to pay a little back. Besides, it was an investment–something to bring back the tourists. “This thing is the right thing to do emotionally,” Nielsen says. “This thing is the right thing to do financially.”
The right thing? Perhaps. But like everything else with the Old Man, that’s a matter of perspective.
By the time the Legacy Fund found its way to the halls of the Legislative Office Building in Concord, what exactly it was fighting for had become a matter of some confusion. What was this legacy? Was it a monument or a memory, and did one truly require the other?
The bill requested $2.5 million and would make the Fund a part of the state government. With the recession in full swing, members expected a budget fight, but were blindsided when their most bitter opposition arose from a freshman representative with a monument design of his own.
Kenneth Gidge’s first act as a legislator was to file a bill calling for a copper likeness of the Old Man to be built on top of Cannon Mountain. It was a shot across the Fund’s bow. The group’s detractors rallied around Gidge and hoped his challenge might strip Fund members of their sole right to build at the park.
But Gidge’s bill was weak. He had no blueprints and no funding plan, but he made up for that with populist rhetoric. Gidge had been a longtime talk-radio host, and he knew how to get people’s attention. He attacked the Fund on the core issue–money–arguing that no monument built on the ground would ever bring in as many tourists as one on the cliff. He cast the Fund as a group of out-of-touch purists who were too emotionally attached. “And there will be no Vermont granite,” he vowed. “I promise you that.”
But all of this drama was but a tempest in a teacup. Recessionary budget cuts were shutting down prisons and eating into subsidies for foster families, and no legislator wanted to be seen as favoring some monument over that. When news of the two bills broke in the Union Leader on January 16, 2009, public backlash was swift: “GET FOCUSED, PEOPLE!” implored one writer from Derry. “It’s nice to see our lawmakers are focusing in on the important issues of our time, when the state is facing huge deficits and people are losing their jobs by the thousands.” Another writer added, “I am saddened that my children will never gaze upon the Old Man, but the New Hampshire he once represented is long dead.”
The legislative committee rejected Gidge’s bill overwhelmingly. The Fund scrambled to remove its request for money but still hoped for state recognition. Just before the hearing, a rumor spread that an amendment would be added, barring the group from ever receiving state funds. Rather than face that, members removed their bill from consideration. The mood in the State House could be summed up by a remark from Representative Cynthia Sweeney: “People won’t forget the Old Man. It’s just not there anymore.”
Back in Franconia, another summer passed without construction. As the snow began to fall, the Fund tried to reinvent itself. Members abandoned the corporate fundraising approach and changed the group’s name to “Friends of the Old Man of the Mountain/
Franconia Notch,” broadening its mission to include advocacy for the entire state park. They hope now that the move will help them sow the seeds of a grassroots movement among the loyal tourists and locals who were always the Old Man’s base, though it may prove too late for that. New Hampshire has survived almost seven years without its icon; the sense of urgency and necessity is gone. Without the legislators and millionaires, it’s now up to the people of New Hampshire to decide whether a monument is really worth it or whether it’s enough to just stand by and let the legacy of the Old Man of the Mountain speak for itself.