House for Sale: Bethlehem, NH
When one thinks of Bethlehem, one of course thinks of Christmas. And as in all the Bethlehems around the country (like Connecticut’s, for instance), the post office in Bethlehem, New Hampshire, accommodates literally thousands of people who come every December to have their greeting cards postmarked.
But Bethlehem, New Hampshire, once known as Lloyd Hills, used to be much more famous in the summer. In fact, there was a time years ago when as many as seven trains came to Bethlehem every day, chock-o-block full of people — most of whom were sneezing and wheezing and wiping their runny, itchy eyes.
You see, there were no antihistamine medications in those days. If you had hay fever, you simply had to suffer or go to Bethlehem, New Hampshire. Oddly enough, many of those visitors were Hasidic Jews from New York because, it was said, Hasidic Jews suffered from hay fever more than anyone. Do you believe that? Anyway, it is true that there was something about the surrounding forests and mountains in Bethlehem that kept this town on the western edge of the White Mountains, just above Franconia Notch, almost totally free of pollen. And if anyone in Bethlehem spotted a patch of goldenrod, well, it was destroyed within seconds.
Today, although the big establishments have given way to inns and B&Bs, there’s still a small group of Hasidic Jews who stay each summer at the Arlington Hotel, supposedly the only kosher hotel in New England. They say Bethlehem is still pretty much pollen-free, but that’s no longer the big drawing card. These days, people come to hike, fish, play one of the two Donald Ross-designed championship golf courses, ski nearby Cannon Mountain and Bretton Woods, or simply enjoy the scenery and hospitality at places like The Wayside Inn (excellent Swiss cuisine) and The Mulburn Inn. And, of course, there are still plenty of those who come to mail their Christmas cards.
So what brought us to Bethlehem one recent rainy late-summer day? Well, it was to visit a very special house for sale on Strawberry Hill in downtown Bethlehem, a house with which we’d been familiar for some time, having enjoyed Bryant F. Tolles Jr.’s popular book, published in 2000, titled Summer Cottages in the White Mountains, in which it’s featured. Owners Len and Joan Reed had recently written us a letter — yes, some people still write letters — saying that after 30 years of living in the beautiful Bethlehem home in which they’d raised their four children, they’d decided to “downsize.” (They’re asking $402,900.)
After we parked in front of the attached two-car garage, Len and Joan greeted us on the full-width, tile-floored, covered verandah overlooking a huge lawn, extending down to the street. Must be almost an acre. The well-manicured plantings and huge old maples looked beautiful that morning, even in the rain.
Minutes later, after admiring the superbly equipped kitchen and adjoining dining room, with its dramatic stained glass at one end, we settled near a fireplace in the living room, enjoying hot coffee and the fresh raisin scones Joan had picked up earlier just down the street. Particularly impressive to us were the quarter-sawn oak paneling, the ceiling beams, the custom-hammered bronze ceiling light fixtures and wall sconces, and the large picture and bay windows. Overall, it was evident that when master architect and contractor Sylvanus D. Morgan, who later became quite widely known for his work, built this place in 1918 for one Karl Abbott, prominent in the New England hotel and hospitality business, no expense was spared. In fact, one of the first things that caught our attention as we were walking in were the hand-blown, brass-mounted crystal doorknobs and drawer pulls everywhere. Quite dazzling.
Turns out that neither Len nor Joan are Bethlehem natives, although Joan comes close. Raised in Concord, New Hampshire, she spent a summer waitressing in one of the hotels in Bethlehem. No, she didn’t meet Len that summer. That came later, when, as a student at Colby Junior College (now Colby Sawyer), she traveled with a group of girls to West Point for a gala weekend. There she had a couple of dances with, among others, Len, class of ’54, who told her he was off to Korea shortly and asked whether she’d mind receiving a letter from him once in a while. He wanted someone to whom he could write. She said fine. Well, the “once in a while” turned out to be every single day throughout his tour of duty. And she wrote back every day, too. Upon his return home, Len drove his new Olds from Chicago to Boston and met Joan with a small box in his hand. In it was a ring. How romantic is that?
So Len and Joan married and spent some years in Washington, D.C., and overseas until Len retired from the Army in 1974. They had three daughters and a son. When Len was offered a position as director of development at a prestigious hospital in Littleton, New Hampshire — just northwest of Bethlehem — in 1978, they jumped at the opportunity to live in Joan’s native state.