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Meredith's 'Archie' statue to honor Bob Montana

By BEA LEWIS, for THE LACONIA DAILY SUN

MEREDITH — To Lynn Montana, her father's job seemed fairly typical. It was only after she got to boarding school and friends learned what her father did for work that she realized her father's job as the cartoonist who created the Archie comics was unique.

Bob Montana drew the first comic book featuring Archie Andrews, the clean-cut teen with a toothy grin, while renting a cottage on Lake Waukewan in 1942. Four years later, he developed the Archie comic strip that would become a staple in newspapers nationwide.

In 1948, Montana, who could have lived anywhere in the world, decided his home port of call was the lakeside community of Meredith, and bought a 60-acre farm on Meredith Neck.

"He always said, 'Why go on vacation? We already live in the middle of paradise'," Lynn Montana recounted of her late father feelings about Meredith.

Forty-one years after his death, the Town of Meredith is planning to honor the cartoonist by commissioning a bronze sculpture of his brainchild Archie, one of the most durable characters to emerge from American pop culture.

"He was humble and not driven to be in the spotlight. Archie was famous and that's the way he liked it," his daughter said.

In 1967, the artist bought the former Esso service station on Main Street from Brad Sprague, that frequently appeared in his strip as "Sprigs." He hired local architect Ralph Flather to recast it into an art gallery and framing shop, thinking he could quietly create his cartoons there.

He ripped up the sea of pavement that ringed it, put in a lawn and planted trees, the first to return to Main Street after Dutch Elm disease had denuded similar thoroughfares nationwide. He convinced abutting property owners to plants trees of their own, helping restore the village character.

But a steady stampede of visitors would cause Montana to retreat to the farm, leaving wife, Peg, to field the endless questions and wait on customers. Meanwhile, the artist would have spent the early morning at his drafting table, then enjoyed a swim in the lake, before returning for a few more hours of work. He'd conclude his work day by finding a comfortable chair on the porch and sipping a cocktail.

Lynn Montana recounted that her father attracted an icy stare from her mother when she got back to the farm after spending all day at the gallery, found him enjoying a drink and would be cheerily asked, 'What's for dinner?'

"He took an iconic situation and put it in a strip," Montana said of her dad's recipe for success.

For him, the comic strip did two things: It reached lots of people beyond his immediate sphere and it made people laugh.

She credits her father's ability to capture the slightly sex-tinged high jinx and angst of high school with his fondness for his own years in the classroom.

As the son of a world-famous banjo player and a Ziegfeld dancer, Montana grew up in the wings watching the leading comedy shows of Vaudeville. That early exposure to brilliant comedy routines helped shape Montana's ability to seamlessly blend dialog and art. Cutting his teeth as a de facto gypsy traveling the Vaudeville circuit with his parents, Montana didn't have the chance to form lasting friendships with kids his own age. He'd make up for that in high
school, when his peer-to-peer interactions provided the fodder for his strip.

Vaudeville's demise began with the growth of lower-priced cinema in the 1910s that siphoned off some leading performers and the footlights twinkled out permanently after the crash of 1929.

Montana's parents, who had discovered Meredith in 1924, made the decision to return and opened a restaurant, of course called "Montana's," which featured a banjo-shaped sign.

It was while sitting at the counter in the restaurant that Montana's artistic talents first bloomed, his daughter said. Given paper and pencil to keep himself entertained while his parents worked, it wasn't long before Montana, then about age 7, began sketching caricatures of the customers.

In 1931, the restaurant known as Montana's closed, a victim of the deepening Depression. The family headed south, landing in Boston where they opened a new eatery called the Rancho, which became a popular and profitable nightspot when Prohibition was repealed.

Following his father's sudden death, his mother remarried, and they moved to Haverhill, Massachusetts, where Montana spent his high school years that would later be depicted as Richmond High in his strip.

"He could take the most ordinary thing and turn it into an adventure. When we were traveling, he could always pick the best spot to stop and have a picnic," Lynn Montana said.

She remembers one impromptu roadside lunch in Italy and running around in an olive grove after eating tasty local foods, or spending the afternoon at a scenic beach in Cornwall, during a foray to England.

She also has fond memories of her father orchestrating apple picking with her and her siblings, Paige, Ray and Don. After pressing the fruit into cider, it would be sold roadside at the farm. The proceeds of a day's work spent outside with family allowed them to buy their own Christmas presents.

Montana said her father frequently said the best thing he ever did was to raise his family in Meredith.

The four Montana children hope to kick off the campaign to raise around $65,000 needed to create the bronze Archie statute by auctioning off a dozen or so of their father's original Sunday pages from their personal collections and make a donation they hope will be close to $5,000.

Montana said she looks forward to seeing how the artist chosen to create the bronze sculpture will take a one-dimensional character and turn it into three.

"I'm immensely honored that the town will do this as a tribute to my father. He really loved this town. It was his home."

11-11 Best Archie

Lynn Montana, right, and Leah Storey hold an original Archie comic strip drawn by the late cartoonist Bob Montana, a copy of Carol Lee Anderson's book, "The New England Life of Cartoonist Bob Montana," and an Archie cutout that the artist made for Lynn, his daughter. (Bea Lewis/for The Laconia Daily Sun)

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CIty budgets $144k for code enforcement; is it enough?

LACONIA — Since 2009, when amid a severe recession the city was littered with foreclosed and abandoned buildings, the maintenance of private property and enforcement of building codes has been among the highest priorities of city officials. But, Hamilton McLean,a member of the Planning Board, who twice in as many months has goaded the City Council to step up the city's efforts.

McLean told the council that when he helped his daughter and her husband search for a rental unit he was "appalled at the quality of rental housing, saying he found "many, many substandard homes " and described conditions in many apartments "deplorable."

City Manager Scott Myers explained that the city employs a full-time building inspector and a part-time property maintenance clerk who, together with a secretary, work in the code enforcement department under the direction of the Planning Director. A zoning technician in the Planning Department is responsible for addressing violations of the zoning ordinance. Moreover, the Fire Department allots time to inspect multi-family buildings.

The city has budgeted $144,284 for code enforcement, of which salaries represent $133,534, which does not include the cost of inspections undertaken by the Fire Department.

Myers said that when life safety issues arise they are addressed immediately. Otherwise he said that city officials try to work cooperatively with property owners to resolve maintenance issues. When compliance cannot be achieved voluntarily, property owners are cited for violations and, if necessary, taken to court. However, Myers said that the cost of preparing and pursuing litigation is significant and noted that "there are challenges with the court." He said that the court is not especially supportive of municipalities, but "is apt to be cautious and allow property owners time to bring their property into compliance," which he remarked could be "frustrating."

Since 2011, the code enforcement team has conducted more than 6,000 inspections and pursued nearly 600 cases. The Fire Department inspected 132 multi-family buildings in fiscal year and aims to inspect them all every two years while inspecting all the schools and public buildings every year.

 

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Gilmanton will use $171,300 of 'rainy day' fund to lower 2016 tax rate by $1.28

GILMANTON — Selectmen voted yesterday to use $171,300 of the town's undesignated fund balance as revenues to offset the 2016 property tax commitment, which should lower the total rate rate from $25.94 per $1,000 of appraised value to $23.91 per $1,000 of appraised value.

The decision will leave about $1.16 million in the "rainy day" fund, which is 10.2 percent of the estimated $12 million 2017 budget the town is expected to present to the Budget Committee. The Department of Revenue still must review the final product but selectmen said there is a meeting scheduled for next week.

In January, the board voted unanimously to maintain an undesignated fund balance of no less than 10 percent of the town's approved budget, said administrators.

“I think you all did a great job,” said Chair Steve McWhinnie to the three staff members, including a new finance director, who managed to get the balance sheets and appropriate draft documents to the N.H. Department of Revenue Administration plus get a new financial software program up and running while working only part time.

The decline in the municipal tax rate should come as good news to the Gilmanton residents who saw a nearly two dollar spike in the rate set in 2015 after the town neglected to use some of the undesignated fund balance as added revenue or, as it is commonly known, to “buy down the rate.” Total assessed property values have increased only slightly from about $433 million to $435 million, which should have only a slight impact on the final tax burden.

The town was one of the last in the state to submit the necessary documents to the DRA this year, largely, according to emails between the town administrator and the town's auditor, because some information coming from the town was not being provided to the auditor so he could finish the 2015 audit. To date, it is still not completed.

There is plenty of finger pointing between the town administrator, members of the Budget Committee and the auditor. In the interim, the selectmen have agreed to issue a request for proposals for a new town auditor and judging by his replies, he doesn't seem all that upset about losing Gilmanton's business.

As of Wednesday, the Budget Committee does not have a complete 2017 budget proposal to review, although the administration has sent some of the individual department budget for line item review.

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