(Originally written 10/19)
This time of year Salem Massachusetts is in the regional news every day. I’m sure it even gets mentioned nationally as it gets closer to Halloween. Funny how this place became ground zero for Halloween.
Salem celebrates the history of a horrible, tragic mistake perpetrated against 19 innocent citizens by a population caught up in a hysteria (of still unknown origin). There are far more real witches living in Salem today than ever did in the whole 17th century. The popularity of the holiday continues to grow, and Salem is its Mecca. It’s like Columbus Day. We all know that Christopher Columbus did not find a shorter path to Asia. He didn’t discover the new world. He was mistaken about his “discoveries”. In the end he was desperate to find goods that would satisfy his patrons. We still celebrate a day in his honor, most likely now because we need a holiday in that part of the calendar.
If you are not from the area you are probably not aware that there is a Salem, NH, a mere 40 miles from the more well-known Salem in MA. This Salem, named such unceremoniously when the border was fixed between the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and the state of New Hampshire in 1741 has its own interesting New England curiosities history. Unless you live under a rock (hehe) you’ve probably heard of Stonehenge in Old England. As a tourist attraction America’s Stonehenge has many commonalities with the more famous circle of stones across the pond. Much about the what, how, and why is the same. What is it really? So many educated guesses out there about England’s Stonehenge and not nearly as much serious academic attention given to the odd pointed stones circling the granite hilltop of a little-known town in New Hampshire. How were they built and why? Every visit I have ever made to this place just provides more questions, and not many answers, but there are a lot of theories.
I have to confess, for almost 15 years I drove past a sign on my morning commute telling me America’s Stonehenge was three miles away if I took the right at that light. I never gave it much thought. As a transplanted New Yorker I just assumed it was a hokey tourist attraction. I worked in newspaper advertising back then and one day while out scrounging up new customers I decided to hit up the local hokey tourist attraction. Salem, NH already had a couple of big draws for people down south in the Greater Boston area and suburbs to travel to for escape – Canobie Lake Park and Rockingham Racetrack. The racetrack closed down a couple of years ago to make way for even more development, economic growth, and housing units along the border. Canobie Lake Park is a lovely old-fashioned amusement park on a scenic lake. As a border town Salem, NH gets a lot of retail traffic from Massachusetts since the shopping is tax free. Almost bucolic in its residential setting, only the strip of Route 28 is completely commercial. Every box store that could find space to develop along the border has. Just a few miles off of route 28 is the fascinating property that is America’s Stonehenge.
Ok, so what are we talking about here? The curiosity of the 110 acre property that is the top of a granite hill is that there are groupings of manmade stone chambers of disputed age and origin, and quarried, monolithic stones, some standing, some fallen that appear to be arranged along astronomical alignments similar to the Stonehenge in England. The property has been owned privately as far back as the mid 17th century. Of the few serious academic studies of the area many site owner interaction with the property for muddying the archeological record. The modern history of the occupation of this land has many layers, each its own fascinating sub story of the larger questions about the stones.
I visited twice this fall. Once with a visiting friend from New York. The foliage was spectacular this year and it provided a breathtaking backdrop to a walk in the woods among the curiously placed stones. The following week, with my hiking partner Greg. Greg had been studying the area online and was extremely excited to visit in person. The foliage was just passing peak but Greg wasn’t interested in the trees. He crawled in and around every rock and chamber.
That’s how I was when I first started exploring the property. When I first met Dennis Stone and his wife Pat it was to sell them space in brochure racks in hotels all over the Greater Boston area. Dennis was still working as a commercial pilot while Pat managed the business of America’s Stonehenge as an attraction. My first meeting with Dennis was out along the nature trail, just beyond the visitor center. He was working on making a traditional dugout canoe. Demonstrating for visitors how the indigenous people used a combination of adze and small fires to burn and carve out the center of a log. He was attempting to replicate an artifact found nearby in the Pow Wow River they had on display in the crudely curated museum/ visitor center. I had sold many an advertising campaign while talking over someone’s continued work, usually more along the lines of an automotive service station, with the owner under the hood of a car, or across a retail counter while the owner continued to ring up customers. In New York, when I first started out in newspaper advertising I sat in the waiting room of a seedy cab stand for a meeting where I would leave with a briefcase full of big piles of small denominations of cash. This was the first time I pitched someone over a dugout canoe. I’m sure that’s why I remember it so vividly. When our business was concluded I walked the property for the first time. I was dressed in business clothes and shoes with a heel. Good thing I was younger then.
If you are interested in the history and various theories about the origin I will link a few suggestions below. My recent visits immediately followed an act of vandalism. The structure known as the sacrificial table had been severely damaged. It was covered with a tarp. It was said in the police report that power tools had been used. Whatever it is, and it may well be something entirely different from a sacrificial table, it is something not of modern creation. I may lean towards the belief that it could have been an ancient cider press. There are examples of these found to look strikingly similar to the sacrificial table at America’s Stonehenge. Nevertheless, Greg was denied access to one of the structures he most wanted to see.
He explored the unique features of some of the chambers. We were on a solid granite hilltop and strewn about, but not in a haphazard way, were different size and shape chambers made of monolithic stones. All over the granite ground were cut channels and grooves, believed to keep water from puddling, and moving downhill.
It is theorized that many different cultures may have occupied these chambers throughout time. The occupiers of more modern times we’re not the builders. It remains a wonder how these massive monolithic stones were quarried and lifted into position with only Bronze Age tools.
Outside of the fenced in area (originally intended to protect the chambers) are the alignment stones. Arranged in a circle surrounding the chambers are monolithic stones corresponding to different astronomical events – summer solstice, equinox, etc. Below I am standing behind the spring/fall equinox stone.
When you watch the short introductory film in the visitor center you learn that after 4,000 years the alignment stones are slightly off, due to the change in the earth’s tilt towards the sun. It is still an impressive site to see on the morning of the summer solstice.
Even with the interference of the various people known to inhabit this strange hilltop it baffles me that there hasn’t been more academic study of the area. It may be doomed to remain on the fringes as a curiosity but you should go and see it for yourself. It’s a very real thing, and perhaps some day we will learn it’s truth.
For further investigation:
America’s Stonehenge website – https://www.stonehengeusa.com
America’s Stonehenge: Souvenir Book https://www.amazon.com/dp/1724780468/ref=cm_sw_r_cp_tai_oRDgEbCM5YGJ4
America’s Stonehenge: Souvenir Book https://www.amazon.com/dp/1724780468/ref=cm_sw_r_cp_tai_CdEgEbBAB15CJ
Atlas Obscura article: https://www.atlasobscura.com/places/americas-stonehenge-mystery-hill