Winnisquam Shoreline looking south
By Gordon DuBois
Walking along the shore of Winnisquam Lake in Ahern State Park, I reflected on my past work at Laconia State School. When I worked at the institution from 1977 to 1991, I would often jog to the lake on my lunch breaks and take a dip in the beautiful, clean water. As I meandered along, memories of this past rushed through my head: the wonderful people who lived there, the dedicated, committed staff who gave of themselves to make life better for people who were rejected by society. Now most of the buildings and grounds lie abandoned, being swallowed up by time. It's an ugly scar within the city of Laconia. The state has neglected the property for years. What the future holds is anybody's guess. But for the moment I live in the present, thankful that Ahern Park belongs to the people of New Hampshire and is located in Laconia.
A short distance from the abandoned grounds of Laconia State School lies Ahern State Park, an oasis of beautiful woods, sandy beaches, biking/hiking trails, and remarkable views of Lake Winnisquam. I return often to my former stomping grounds. I love to hike the numerous trails that wind along the hillside of the lake, take in the views and watch Reuben prance along the shore, sticking his nose in the crevices of rocks. When he gets the urge, he'll jump in the water to cool off and chase the sunbeams as they sparkle in the water. Ahern provides a place for solitude and reflection. I wonder why so few people visit this state park. Every time I'm here I see only a handful of visitors: people walking their dogs or sitting on the beaches. This is a gem in the city of Laconia. Nothing exists like this park in the entire Lakes Region. Yet it appears to me that it's similar to the abandoned institution on the hill above, desolate and forgotten.
The sign, "Ahern Park" is like other state park signs, but the feeling driving into the park is one of abandonment. I parked my truck at the upper gate and began my hike on the Alcatraz Trail. The trail system was built primarily for single track mountain biking. The trails take many twists and turns and I needed to study the trail map on the kiosk carefully to plan my hike. It was then I then noticed that the plaque stating "Ahern Park" was missing. It was once anchored to a large rock and had been removed. The plaque listed members of the Governor and Council from the 1920s. I believe William Ahern was a prominent member of New Hampshire's state government, but there was no recognition of him at the gate. The plaque was gone, perhaps stolen by a souvenir seeker.
The park is comprised of 128 acres and has 3,500 feet of shorefront on Winnisquam Lake. When the Laconia State School closed in 1991, the state was left with a decision: what to do with the land and buildings? What we know today is that Ahern Park was once part of the Laconia State School property. Fortunately in 1994 the state determined the parcel of 128 acres should be set aside and it was christened as Governors' State Park. In 1998 the park's name reverted to its original title as Ahern Park in memory of William Ahern.
As Reuben scampered ahead of me along the Alcatraz Trail, I was amazed at the immense white pine, beech and oak trees rising above the trail. Perhaps this forest never heard the sawyer's ax or the buzzing of a chain saw. John Muir came to mind, "Between every two pines is a doorway to a new world." Continuing on this trail, I came to an intersection and I recognized the old tote road that led to the grounds of the State School. I followed this road until I came to a clearing near the Spear Building. The building was named after Eva Spear, a prominent citizen in New Hampshire politics and social services. I stood overlooking the other large brick buildings that housed hundreds of people labeled disabled: Baker, Blood, Keyes, Felker and Powell in the distance. My mind suddenly brought me back to the 1980s, when I worked in the Blood Building. Memories shot through me, most good, others not so good. After pausing for several minutes to reflect on my work in the structures below, I resumed my journey. I wandered over to what remained of the upper farm: old storage sheds and chicken coops.
The State School property once belonged to William Crocket. He and his family settled here in 1770. They built their first home, a log cabin, close to what is now the corner of Old North Main and Parade roads. The log cabin was replaced later by a framed farm house, built by William's son Joshua. Over the years the Crocket family lost interest in farming and moved away. In 1901 the state was looking for land to build The New Hampshire Home for Feebleminded. They found the perfect spot, 250 beautiful acres of farmland. In 1901 the legislature allocated $60,000 to purchase the property, construct a residential hall, MacLane, and a school house. The institution opened its doors in 1903 and until 1991 it served to house thousands of children and adults with disabilities.
I left the farm buildings behind and made my way down the old tote road to the water front, arriving at Cottage Beach. The cottage is gone and the beach is growing in with weeds. The cottage was once used as a rest camp for employees, later for residents of the State School to enjoy a swim, picnic and a day away from the crowded conditions of institutional life. It was alleged that the restless ghosts of two nurses, murdered by a lunatic employee of the institution, haunted the cabin at night. (This story is true and a full account of the incident can be found in the records of the Laconia Democrat located at the Laconia Public Library). No wonder the cabin was taken down.
I continued my ramble along the shore road leading to the much larger Sandy Beach. I thought the beach would be crowded on this hot and humid day, but there was no one in sight. I continued my journey along the perimeter road, running along the shore and then headed into the woods on the Backbone Trail. This trail along, with the Lower James Trail, would eventually lead me back to my truck. This short jaunt of two hours was as enjoyable as ever. As John Muir stated, "In every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks." I hope that others will take the opportunity to explore the trails of Ahern, whether it's on bike or on foot. It's a gem waiting to be discovered.
Small beach on Ahern Point, just off the trail
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