Tuesday, November 28, 2023

Wednesday, March 1, 2023

In Laconia, A Park by Any Other Name is Just as Cool...

Ahern State Park, Lake Winnisquam, Laconia, New Hampshire

A brief story in the Laconia Daily Sun, February 4, 2023, recently indicated that Ahern State Park on Lake Winnisquam was originally named Governor’s Park, with the observation, “but no one knew why.”

Indeed, “Governor’s Park” was the original name of this sometimes overlooked Lakes Region gem, and frankly its genesis and name are worth explaining before even the most diligent of local history buffs are forever perplexed.

In 1983, as a freshman state representative elected from Laconia's Ward 4, I sponsored House Bill 598: “Relative to the establishment of a state park on state-owned land in the City of Laconia in honor of all former governors of the state.” 

I enlisted some fellow area legislators to be co-sponsors, including friends Gary Dionne, Dennis Bolduc, Dave Whittemore of Laconia, and Senator George Freese of Pittsfield. And I must say, Representative Dionne did a fine job ushering the bill through the house State Institutions Committee, of which he was a member.

I tagged it “Governor’s Park” because in a hurry to get it filed, I couldn’t think of anything else to call it. Seemed appropriate since most of the school buildings there were named for whoever was governor when authorized or built at the time: Tobey, Dwinell, McLane, Felker, Powell, Peterson, Spaulding, etc.

The goal: since the school was still fully operating, if it ever closed or moved, this defined area would still be preserved for future generations to enjoy.

Therefore, the bill called for about half the total school property, arguably the best part, to be set aside as a state park, preserving some 200 acres of natural area and 3500 feet of prime shore front on Lake Winnisquam.

A few years earlier the state had sold off a large swath of acreage across Old North Main Street on Lake Opechee for private development, also state school property, and it seemed a good time to balance the inevitable by conserving some of the best natural area in the Lakes Region for the benefit of “everyday people” while still available.

By the way, the legislation pertaining to this land was submitted twice (1983 and 1987) and each adopted by unanimous consent in both the house and senate. The technical language in the first bill, however, long bothered me because it was too discretionary. In other words, as written this land would never become a state park or otherwise preserved if some commissioner in the future decided not to prepare a plan and submit it to the governor and council for approval.

So, a few years later I slipped in a bill to tighten the language mandating if the school closed or relocated, and if a park was not developed, the land and shore front would be “retained and preserved on a permanent basis by the state in its natural and geological state.”

But, when the school closed in 1991, the park was built.

Still, not much in this life is permanent, except for maybe the pyramids. One legislature cannot bind a future legislature from fussing around with a good thing. For instance a serious proposal surfaced in 1997 to sell “Governor’s Park” to finance a new prison. That idea died a hard death, but birthed a new name, one evidently as confounding and mysterious as the first. Governor’s Park? Ahern Park? What? Who?

Actually, let it be known that William J. Ahern of Concord served one two year term as speaker of the NH House (1923-1925) and was a trustee of the “New Hampshire School for Feeble Minded Children” (1901-1915), as the "Laconia State School and Training Center" was then known.

So, there you have it. A park by any other name is just as cool. But for a school? This school? Not so much.