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You Can’t Replace The Old Man

Vivek Rao

New Hampshire, our sometimes beloved, sometimes disparaged neighbor to the north, is a state that conjures up a variety of perceptions and images for people living in the Boston area. From Republican primaries to tax evasion, motorcycle gangs to serene lakes, this small state of just over a million residents is surprisingly diverse and varied, with a range of features that is sure to both attract and repel visitors.

Yet there is one Granite State symbol that stands head and shoulders above the rest, even earning the coveted rights to the backside of the state quarter. That symbol is the Old Man of the Mountain. Or rather, was.

This past week, one of the nation’s most famous rock formations, resembling a grizzled old man, collapsed from its perch high above Franconia Notch. Long an object of New Hampshire pride and spirit, the natural monument greeted visitors to the state’s White Mountains and foliage-laced forests. Gracing license plates and road signs, the Old Man was perhaps as synonymous with New Hampshire as any other place or object.

Among the various places of interest in New Hampshire, a number stand out. The Presidential Range in the White Mountains provides some of the tallest and majestic mountains in the eastern United States. Lake Winnipesauke is one of the largest in the northeast, while the state has a number of smaller lakes that are even more beautiful and pristine. In the fall, New Hampshire provides some of the most picturesque foliage in New England; in the winter, some quality skiing and snow sports; and in the summer, perfect weather and setting for vacations.

Yet no natural attraction in New Hampshire was as memorable and impression-making as the Old Man. Composed of red granite, five ledges on Profile Mountain combine to form the image of a side view of a man’s face when viewed in an easterly direction. There was always something impressive about the site, causing a number of people to assign the Old Man importance and symbolism not ordinarily reserved for inanimate structures.

Some have viewed the face as philosophical and pensive; others stern and solemn; and still more rigid and tyrannical. Few, however, doubted that beauty and grandeur of the monument. Perhaps the most famous characterization of the Old Man came from the famed Daniel Webster: “Men hang out their signs indicative of their respective 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 He makes men.” While the orator Webster may have been letting his mouth flow a little too freely on that particular day, his respect for the Old Man was unmistakably shared by the entire state of New Hampshire, and by most visitors to the site.

Now that the Old Man is gone, Governor Craig Benson has announced that a task force will be assembled to determine what to do to memorialize the spot, with one of the primary options being to rebuild the face. That would be a slap in the face to much of what the monument stood for, since the profile was particularly special because it was natural. It embodied the innate beauty of New Hampshire, New England, and the United States, and replacing it with a manmade replica is pure folly. There was nothing contrived or rigged or planned about the Old Man; it was simply a product of nature, and that contributed an awful lot to its aura.

There are certain landmarks that simply are not meant to be duplicated. The World Trade Center immediately comes to mind. So, too, does Fenway Park. Yet the case of the Old Man is far more clear-cut than those two. Before it makes a big mistake and disgraces its state emblem, New Hampshire should reflect more carefully on what exactly the Old Man represented, and a better path than rebuilding will no doubt present itself readily.