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Saturday, June 28, 2014

Greenfield State Park at 50: Smaller, but as good looking as ever

Dean Shalhoup

How is it possible it’s been 50 years – a whole five decades, a full half-century, two score and 10 years, and five-sixths of my entire earthly existence – since that hot weekend that I first (helped dad) pitch our gigantic and oh, so heavy canvas tent in a spacious, pristine clearing in this faraway forest called Greenfield State Park?

I did the math a few times, and alas, the answer doesn’t change, so I guess it really was that long ago that I first set a PF Flyer-clad foot in the no-utilities, no-frills campground that I grew more attached to every time I visited. ...

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How is it possible it’s been 50 years – a whole five decades, a full half-century, two score and 10 years, and five-sixths of my entire earthly existence – since that hot weekend that I first (helped dad) pitch our gigantic and oh, so heavy canvas tent in a spacious, pristine clearing in this faraway forest called Greenfield State Park?

I did the math a few times, and alas, the answer doesn’t change, so I guess it really was that long ago that I first set a PF Flyer-clad foot in the no-utilities, no-frills campground that I grew more attached to every time I visited.

Surely I’m not the only boomer in these parts with fond memories of summer weekends among the pines and oaks and maples, racing over crude paths to the mud pond or the swimming area champing at the bit to do things kids did in the halcyon days before electronic gizmos became human appendages and “play outside” came to mean an hour or so cocooned in some boring activity scripted by adults with good intentions but that pervasive fear that letting kids be kids would almost certainly have dire consequences.

I got to thinking about good ol’ Greenfield – and days full of unscripted fun – the other day when I spotted a news release announcing the state park folks decided to do away with nearly 40 percent of those spacious, remarkably level campsites.

At first blush it was an “Oh, no, condos and strip malls are invading my beloved Greenfield” moment, but upon further review, the decision seems to be a pragmatic approach to a problem nobody could have ever imagined 30 or 40 years ago: Fewer campers are camping out at Greenfield, meaning too many sites are going unused for the entire season.

That’s quite a contrast to 20 or so years ago, when Greenfield was among the state camping parks that began accepting reservations. That’s around the time I began resurrecting my Greenfield camping trips, this time with a bunch of friends who had made Memorial Day weekend an annual Greenfield camping ritual.

But lots of other campers, we would soon find out, had the same idea. I remember more than a few would-be campers – we among them one year –
turning in to the park, only to be greeted with the dreaded “campground full” plaque hanging menacingly under the big “Greenfield State Park” sign.

So began the annual game of Thursday night hurry-up-and-wait: Pack early, rush at the last minute, fly home from work, hitch up the popup and speed off toward Greenfield, praying all the way that enough other campers got flat tires or lost their way or whatever it took to let you get ahead of them in that registration line from hell.

Thirty years after I first set eyes on that really cool, A-frame registration building that once brought big smiles and cheers of “We’re here!” it had become nothing more than a backdrop for the long lines of disheveled, testy parents inching up that multilevel staircase to secure whatever sites were left.

If I remember, it wasn’t enough to just book a site, then come back after school and work Friday and set up. You had to set up camp, or make it look that way, when you registered.

As things do, our Memorial Day tradition waned after awhile; some folded down the popups for good, others followed other pursuits as family dynamics changed.

Rain or shine, frosty or muggy, those Greenfield weekends were a lot of fun. Especially so for the kids, who to this day don’t miss a chance to remind the parents among us how silly we acted, assuring us that they knew, even then, that it was all those brown bottles that made us that way.

Still, my favorite Greenfield memories are of my own kidhood rambles and romps over the streams and through the woods of a natural playground that seemed boundless.

Mom rarely made the trip; Pop liked to mutter, “Your mother will come camping when the tent gets running water and central heating.” She did agree to tag along for the one-week stints we did each summer for a few years, perhaps out of worry that a steady diet of hot dogs, chips and gallons of soda wouldn’t be in my and little sis’s best interest.

Wondering what, if any, coverage The Telegraph gave Greenfield’s opening, I found a little feature story that ran in July, about a week after the park’s late-June official opening.

Written by reporter Mike Michaud, it describes how Greenfield came to be, a process that dates to the late 1950s when the state Division of Parks – Russ Tobey was director then –
bought a large chunk of the property from the town, which for years had operated a small beach and picnic area called Otter Lake Park.

Otter Lake continues as the name of the pond with two beaches, one for day visitors and the other for campers.

“Word spread quickly,” Michaud wrote, adding that within days of Greenfield’s opening, “thousands – in and out-of-staters – have flocked to the area.” With 252 sites and five group areas, Greenfield was not only the newest, but also the largest state park, the flagship of a network that was in the midst of a healthy growth spurt fed by the governor and Executive Council’s realization that Granite Staters and their neighbors were becoming increasingly mobile and desirous of nice facilities for recreating.

I gleaned some data from a 1980s report called “key events and acquisition timeline” of the state park system, an interesting compilation that traces the evolution of today’s N.H. Division of Parks and Recreation from its roots as the State Forestry Commission. That commission was established in 1893 with members of a “Board of Inquiry” convened in 1881 “to investigate indiscriminate timber cutting” in the state.

I also listed some events Greenfield and other state parks are planning for this summer to celebrate Greenfield’s and several other parks’ golden anniversaries – Wallis Sands State Park in Rye, Mt. Washington State Park in Sargent’s Purchase and Clough State Park in Weare also hit the big 5-0 this year.

Dean Shalhoup’s column appears Saturdays in The Telegraph. He can be reached at 594-6443 or dshalhoup@nashuatelegraph.com. Also, follow Shalhoup on Twitter (@Telegraph_DeanS).