MEREDITH – Bear Island was so popular with tourists 160 years ago that as many as 350 would board the 7:45 a.m. Boston, Concord and Montreal train in Concord for the ride to the Weirs. Once there, they boarded the Our Lady of the Lake steamboat and were taken to the island, where they spent the day strolling around, taking advantage of many activities, including a bowling alley set up in a barn.
After enjoying a "bounteous lunch", they listened to speakers and enjoyed music provided by a choir and the Belknap County band before making the return trip on the Our Lady of the Lake to the Weirs at 4:30 p.m. for the train ride back to Concord.
That took place in 1858 and the trip was featured in the Sept. 16, 1858 edition of the Independent Democrat of Concord.
It is just one of many Bear Island experiences described in a new book on the history of the island written by John Hopper, who has spent every summer since he was born on the island
The product of three-and-a-half years of work, Hopper says he is proud that the book is one the few regional histories that is based on in-depth original research into real estate deeds, proprietor minutes, town tax records, newspapers and genealogical information.
Today the island, the second largest on Lake Winnipesaukee, is home to nearly 190 summer vacation families and two children’s camps (Camp Nokomis and Camp Lawrence).
Hopper, 72, is a retired banker who lives with his wife Linda in Center Harbor. They own a cottage on Bear Island that was first purchased by John’s parents in 1945.
He said his father, Stanley Hopper, was an ordained Methodist minister who taught at Drew University in Madison, New Jersey, and was introduced to the island by a fellow professor.
"He really liked it here and I grew up with some wonderful experiences here as well as other parts of the lake. I remember that we had a baseball team that used to play games against the Camp Idlewild team from Cow Island," Hopper said.
He recalled that his father headed the Bear Island Chapel Association and, in the 1960s, led the transition from an Episcopal church to a non-denominational place of worship.
"I've always been fascinated by the colorful history of Bear Island and the many remarkable people who lived here. I've tied to tie the history of the island to what was happening in the rest of the state and on Lake Winnipesauke at the same time, so that it shows how changes were shaped in a larger context," Hopper said.
Despite his career in banking, Hopper is a historian by training. He received a bacherlor's degree in U.S. history from Wake Forest University; an master's degree in African history from Ohio University; and a Ph.D. in southern African history from Yale University. His first book, The Bear Island Chapel, was published last year on behalf of the St. John’s-on-the-Lake Chapel Association.
His latest book contains a treasure trove of information, not only about Bear Island, but other aspects of the lake, too.
The historical linkage traces back to the founding of the New Hampshire colony; follows the ups and downs of the colony through the founding of the town of Meredith in 1768; and then shifts into the settlement of Bear Island around 1801 by one of Meredith’s first original settlers, Robert Bryant.
During the 1800s, Bear Island was home to a half-dozen permanent farms and a similar number of other farmers who transported their livestock seasonally to the island during the ice-out months.
The names of these farmers resonates in the annals of the town: there were Bryants, Bickfords, Nichols, Dockhams, Meloons, and Lovejoys. There were also Meads, Gilmans, and Batchelders. All of these farmers benefited from the era of the sheep craze that dominated New Hampshire farming until the mid-1800s.
But by the 1860s, there was only one permanent farmer left on the island as New Hampshire’s economy began to undergo a radical shift from farming to manufacturing following the Industrial Revolution. Nearly all of the island’s permanent farmers moved to Meredith Neck, although they still used Bear for seasonal grazing.
As the permanent farmers moved off of Bear, the latter 1850s witnessed the beginning of the tourist era on the lake and the island. The launching of the Lady of the Lake in 1849, in conjunction with the arrival of the railroad at the Weirs the same year, brought large numers of tourists to the region. Bear Island was one of the most important early stops for tourist parties, hosting as many as 600 people at a time.
The tourist era shifted into a full-blown vacation mode during the 1880s. Working Americans increasingly were granted week-long (or more) vacation time from their jobs, and they increasingly traveled north from southern New England to spend their time among the beautiful lakes and mountains. Some bought lots of land on Bear where they built summer cottages. Others booked extended stays at the Bear Island House, by then one of two hotels located on the islands of Winnipesaukee.
The Bear hotel was established by Solomon Lovejoy in 1886, about the same time he bought and developed Lovejoy Sands into a Meredith Neck landing for the island. This location became Shep Brown’s Boat Basin in the 1920s.
Thanks in large part to the hotel, the summer vacation population on the island grew continuously after it was established. The growth was relatively slow during the first half of the 20th century, blunted by the three perils of World War I, the Depression, and World War II.
Beginning in the mid-1950s, summer vacationing really began to take off, fueled by national trends that included rapid population growth, economic prosperity, the evolution of the automobile, and the development of reliable and affordable family boating. As a result of these trends, more than half of the island’s summer vacation places were established between 1955 and 1980. Fewer than 10 were built after that.
"As is apparent, the history of Bear Island is a little slice of Americana that reveals a far bigger tale." said Hopper.