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New England travelblog: Driving through an art museum

The setting sun illuminates New Hampshire's foliage. (Photo by Tricia Tramel)
The setting sun illuminates New Hampshire's foliage. (Photo by Tricia Tramel)

I called it driving through an art museum. Trish the Dish, who is not quite as reverent, called it “God showing off.” 

Thursday morning, we were on our way to the Monadnock Region loop, another New Hampshire foliage trek, this time in the southwest part of the state.

It was about a 45-minute drive from Manchester to Greenfield, where we could start the loop. And long before we got there, we realized that New Boston Road, which becomes state highway 13, was its own glittering display of brilliance.

We had discovered our own scenic byway en route to an official scenic byway.

Such is the splendor of New England. Doesn’t matter where you go, apparently, you will be bathed in beauty.

The colors we saw Wednesday in the Lakes Region farther north were trumped by the colors we saw Thursday.

Remember what I said about how orange and red seemed to dominate yellow up north? Yellow made a resounding rally in the southwest.

And we saw it on highway 13, a winding forest route past homes and barns.

The colors were brilliant. Green was in the minority. The flash of fall overtook all. Majestic trees and even bushes conspired to paint a picture that was indescribable. Even before we reached what was supposed to be the focus of the day.

Amazing. New England has not disappointed.

You don’t need a map or a guide to be wowed. Just open your eyes and drive. It’s spectacular in every direction, at least the big chunk of New Hampshire we’ve seen so far.

But here’s what the scenic byway did for us Thursday. It took us to a variety of charming towns and villages we might otherwise have missed.

Remember “Funny Farm,” the Chevy Chase comedy set in Redbud, Vermont, a charming New England village with a bunch of kooky residents? I have no idea if New Englanders are kooky or not. Haven’t interacted with enough to know and won’t, because of all this COVID stuff. But I can tell you, the villages look as charming as they’ve been billed to be.

The Francestown meeting house, built in 1801.
The Francestown meeting house, built in 1801.

Approaching the village of Francestown, we pulled over to shoot a photo of what appeared to be a vintage church in the distance, framed by gorgeous trees.

Turns out it was the town hall, built in 1801 as the meeting house/church, a common combination in colonial days. I know this because two older gentlemen were sitting across the street, in front of the much newer town hall, which was built in 1846 as an academy.

They were delightful men. One was informative, the other inquisitive. Two of my favorite kinds of people.

Francestown is a village of about 1,500 people, incorporated in 1772. It takes its name from Frances Deering Wentworth, the wife of colonial governor John Wentworth. Theirs was a somewhat scandalous marriage, because Frances wed Wentworth a mere 14 days after she was widowed.

Francestown is known as the home of former governor and U.S. Supreme Court justice Levi Woodbury. During the early days, Francestown was known for its turnpike -- it was on the only route known between Vermont and Boston. A one-cent-per-mile toll was enacted for travelers.

And here’s what’s great about New Hampshire. Those kinds of stories are in EVERY town. History that goes back to the 18th century. Regal buildings more than 200 years old.

All set against a backdrop of rivers and hills and trees that only nature could design.

The leaves are the star of the show in New Hampshire, but its charm goes far past autumn. I have to believe Francestown would be stunning in winter and charming in summer. And the stories! My information guy, sitting in front of the town hall, said the meeting house eventually was taken over by the Unitarian Church, “until they ran out of Unitarians.” So it was deeded to the town.

That kind of stuff is available in every hamlet.

The Greenfield Town Meeting House, built in 1795.
The Greenfield Town Meeting House, built in 1795.

In Greenfield, where the loop in theory began, we encountered the Town Meeting House, billed as the oldest original meeting house in New Hampshire serving both church and state. Built in 1795. Building two such structures was too laborious a task in colonial days, so residents built one building to serve the dual purpose of church and government. “This fine old structure,” reads the plaque out front, “has served the people of Greenfield continuously since that time as a gathering place for them to worship their God, to legislate their town’s civil affairs and to enjoy the good company of their neighbors.”

The shops of Peterborough, New Hampshire, are built among the glorious trees.
The shops of Peterborough, New Hampshire, are built among the glorious trees.

We rolled into Peterborough, having no idea that it was a thriving arts town of about 6,000 that is a haven for well-off retirees. The Contoocook River rambles through the middle of the charming downtown.

Art studios and cool shops and cafes are in abundance. We ate outside, at Nonie’s Bakery, which was established in 1950, which in New Hampshire makes it a rookie. The Dish had a big pile of breakfast and I had a club sandwich. 

The weather was perfect, 65 degrees and a light breeze. And Peterborough was awash with the same colors you saw driving through the byways.

We stopped in at Steele’s Stationers, a sort of office supply/gift shop store, which opened for business in 1860. But forgive Steele’s; it’s only been at its present location since 1871. But the store makes up for being only 149 years old by retaining the original tin ceiling and classic wood floors.

And so it went. One town after another, rarely more than five miles apart.

Through Jaffrey, Marlboro and Keene (home of Keene State College and a Main Street billed as the world’s widest, though I didn’t have the heart to tell anyone it’s not nearly as wide as Lubbock’s).

The Franklin Pierce Homestead in Hillsborough, New Hampshire.
The Franklin Pierce Homestead in Hillsborough, New Hampshire.

Through Gilsum, Marlow and Hillsborough, where we stumbled upon the homestead of Franklin Pierce, the 14th president of the U.S. Piece is one of the 19th-century, pre-Civil War presidents who I know little about. Part of the Millard Fillmore family of presidents. There is no Franklin Pierce Presidential Library; the homestead will have to do. Alas, it’s closed on Wednesdays and Thursdays.

Then it was off to a different scenic byway, nearly adjacent, through Henniker (home of New England College and Pats Peak, a ski resort), 

Hopkinton and Contoocook.

Through Warner, Webster and Boscawen, the latter settled in 1734.

All with the timeless church/meeting houses, all with their specific charms and all against the backdrop of fall foliage that stops you in your tracks.

I pulled over a dozen times in our rented GMC Terrain so the Dish could shoot photos of lakes and rivers and waterfalls and bridges, all set amid God showing off.

Between 5-6 p.m., when the sun was setting and shadows lengthened, I figured the best color was behind us. But turns out, the sun and the shadow conspire to illuminate even more vibrancy. When the sun comes in nearly sideways on some settings, it’s like Dorothy stepping out of Kansas and into Oz.

But fingers of night remain undefeated, and at sunset we jumped back on the interstate. We returned to our Manchester hotel and didn’t even eat dinner, quite content with our lunch, and quite content with having driven all day through an art museum called New Hampshire.


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Berry Tramel

Berry Tramel, a lifelong Oklahoman, sports fan and newspaper reader, joined The Oklahoman in 1991 and has served as beat writer, assistant sports editor, sports editor and columnist. Tramel grew up reading four daily newspapers — The Oklahoman,... Read more ›