NH Honors Old Man Icon A Decade After Its Demise
CONCORD, N.H. (AP) — Edward Geddes already had spent two long days on the mountain when the weather turned. Battered by wind and soaked by rain — “like shower baths of ice water” — he clung to a rope and pressed on, even after the rain turned to ice that coated his clothing and left two of his fingers crooked for the rest of his life.
It was 1916, and the crew assigned to help Geddes rescue New Hampshire’s Old Man of the Mountain had given up. But Geddes continued the work alone, drilling 11-inch holes into the granite and installing turnbuckles and rods to hold the ledges in place.
“When the men Col. Greenleaf had hired to help me all deserted, I did not intend to be beaten. I leave it to you to judge whether I had time to play or not,” he wrote when the work was complete.
Thanks to Geddes’ efforts and those of others who followed, the 40-foot-tall natural rock formation that resembled an old man’s face remained suspended 1,200 feet above Franconia Notch until May 3, 2003, when it smashed to the ground. Over the years, it became the state’s most recognizable symbol — the Legislature adopted it as the state emblem in 1945, and it still appears on the state quarter, highway signs, license plates and countless souvenirs.
A decade after the Old Man’s demise, the famed stone profile is little more than a historical footnote to the state’s youngest residents. But it remains a beloved family member to others, including the descendants of Geddes, a granite quarry superintendent from Quincy, Mass., who performed the first repair work on the Old Man nearly a century ago.
Ronald Geddes, 71, was a toddler when the man he knew as Uncle Ed died in 1944. But his father — Edward Geddes’ nephew — was close to him, and Ronald Geddes grew up hearing about his connection to the Old Man.
“He was very focused, very wiry, and he was fearless,” Geddes said of his great-uncle. “He suffered, and he prevailed.”
Geddes, who lives in Boston, visited the Old Man many times growing up and as an adult. And while his first thought was always how proud he was that “someone in our family actually did that,” he also understood what drew countless others to the site.
“It became a symbol of something. It had a magical, spiritual quality,” he said.
Although no one knows how old the Old Man of Mountain was before it fell, several groups of surveyors working in the Franconia Notch area took credit for discovering it in 1805. It quickly became a popular tourist attraction and inspired many works of art and literature. Statesman Daniel Webster compared it to the signs hung outside shops to indicate specific trades: “Shoe makers hang out a gigantic shoe; jewelers a monster watch, and the dentist hangs out a gold tooth; but up in the Mountains of New Hampshire, God Almighty has hung out a sign to show that there he makes men.”
Edward Geddes, who returned to the mountain in 1937 amid rumors that the Old Man was about to topple, offered a slight tweak to that quotation after his measurements showed the rocks had not moved even a sixteenth of an inch in 21 years.
“I came to the conclusion that the words of Daniel Webster should be extended to read that once in a while New Hampshire as well as producing men produces a few ‘liars,’” he said, according to an article published in the Quincy Patriot Ledger at the time.
Although Geddes was followed by other equally devoted caretakers who protected and patched up the Old Man in later years, Mother Nature had the last word.
Soon after the profile’s 2003 tumble, a nonprofit volunteer group began raising money for a $5 million multiphase memorial dedicated to the Old Man, but donations dried up after the first phase was completed in 2011 and no further work will be done, said Dick Hamilton, a board member of the Old man Legacy Fund.
More than 25,000 people visited the memorial site last summer, but it’s unclear whether it will continue to attract visitors. Some visitors who left reviews on the travel website tripadvisor.com said they appreciated learning more about the Old Man’s history, but others complained that it wasn’t worth the trip.
At a Concord playground Thursday, 8-year-old Alexis Tramontozzi of Goffstown paused for a moment when asked if she had ever heard of the Old Man of the Mountain before replying with a definite “no.” Her grandmother, Eloise Frank, said her family always stopped to see the Old Man when they took vacations in the White Mountains when she was a child, but she is unlikely to ever visit the memorial site.
But that doesn’t mean she wants the state to find a new symbol.
“I think it should stay,” she said. “What would you change it into?”
In 1955, President Dwight D. Eisenhower and 5,000 others attended a 150th birthday party for the Old Man at the Cannon Mountain tramway parking area. On Friday, a much smaller ceremony is planned to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the Old Man’s fall.
Ralph Geddes, another great-nephew of the profile’s first repairman, will be driving up from his home in Raynham, Mass., much like he did a decade ago.
“The morning I heard he fell, I went straight there,” he said. “I needed to do it. It was in my family.”
Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.