Jackson's fate was determined eons ago, when the earth's restless shifting thrust up a huge circle of spectacular peaks-Thorn, Kearsarge, Doubleheader, Spruce, Washington and Iron-and tucked an amphitheater-shaped valley in its center. To complete the setting, nature outlined the valley with the Wildcat River to the west and the Glen Ellis River to the east, then had them meet at the east end of where the town now sits to form the massive Saco River.
Jackson's population was shaped much later by economics. Around 1800, with southern New Hampshire then heavily populated, farmers pushed north looking for open space and land claims. They found what they sought in a nook in the mountains and settled in, herding sheep, planting apple orchards and naming the town Adams. (The name changed to Jackson by an almost unanimous vote in honor of President Andrew Jackson in 1829, three decades after the town was settled.)
About the same time, word of Jackson's beauty spread. By the mid-1800s, artists from Boston and New York came for pastoral inspiration. The farmers, frustrated by rocky soil, set their sights on a new crop to harvest: tourism. Visitors would arrive on as many as 40 stagecoaches per day, stay at local farmers' homes, record the scenery in pastels and oils, and party on the front lawns at dusk over games of croquet. As demand grew, locals pooled resources and built grand hotels, capitalizing on their slice of heaven, yet remaining true to the protected valley they loved.
By the early 1900s, when skiing was first making inroads in the U.S., the farmers-turned-innkeepers figured out that mountains were good for more than artistic inspiration. And by 1920, there were as many as 10 privately owned or hotel-operated ski runs dotting the local hills.
Today, two ski areas remain-146-acre Black Mountain on the outskirts of town and 225-acre Wildcat Mountain, 11 miles up the road-and skiing is still a way of life for locals, especially for kids raised in Jackson. The Jackson Grammar School offers students a half-day Friday alpine skiing program and an after-school Tuesday cross-county program-and that's in addition to the cross-country lessons that are part of the core physical education program.
"Everyone skis at this school," says school Administrative Assistant Ann Bennett, a Jacksonite for 30-plus years. "It's just part of the heritage of growing up here. There are no income barriers because there is no cost and equipment is provided. It's an important part of our lives here that we want continued."
Locals also want their town to remain familiar and, yes, prosperous. But most of all, Jacksonites want to preserve the area's beauty. If the sprawl that has all but devoured nearby North Conway thinks it has a chance at Jackson, it is sorely mistaken. Jackson is so pure it seems protected by gods.
It is fitting, then, that the Paddleford Truss covered bridge, built in 1876 and still in use today, has only one lane. This requires that every visitor pause before crossing the town line. As you wait your turn before the barn-red bridge, only a strip motel and some billboards keep you company. But as you cross, slices of the rushing Saco sparkle through the wooden slats, and when you pop out the other side, smack into Jackson's center, it is clear you are safe from chain stores, fast-food joints and tropical-themed water parks. A tiny wooden firehouse, quaint inns, bistros and a town green create the quintessential small New England town.
Richard Johnson came to town 15 years ago from Michigan, leaving behind a high-powered career for the simpler life of inn caretaker. He'd driven through the town as a child on a trip to nearby Mt. Washington and remembered Jackson as "perfect." Now entrenched in town life, he says that Jackson's beauty is multifaceted and that what makes it such a great place to live is the community, which, though cohesive, values the right of the individual to live as he or she chooses.. "This is a place where people are set in their ways and live independent lives. But when a neighbor needs help, they come out of the woodwork," Johnson says.
The population of 835 is made up mostly of seniors and divided evenly between natives and recent retirees. In the past decade, what the longtime locals like to call "starter castles" have been popping up-a shocking contrast to the traditional farmhouses and simple ski chalets. Locals find it outrageous enough that circa-1972, three-bedroom ski chalets now sell for $130,000. Imagine their dismay when newcomers buy two and tear them down to build one 4,000-square-foot home worth $350,000.
With a median household income of approximately $35,000, townspeople are far from wealthy. Most work in the tourism industry, the largest employers being the tony Wentworth Hotel, Nestlenook Farm Resort, Eagle Mountain House and Jackson Ski Touring Foundation. The new influx of retirees has its own daily agenda. In summer it includes hiking, biking and fishing. In winter, snowshoeing and skiing. On weekends, it seems as if the town's whole population takes to the hills.
Black Mountain is favored by families for its size and affordability (a family day pass costs $89 for two adults and two juniors). Wildcat Mountain has more advanced skiing, a traditional if somewhat dated base lodge and the state's most spectacular view of Mt. Washington. And three other ski areas-Attitash, Mt. Cranmore and King Pine-are within an hour's drive. The Jackson Ski Touring Foundation, in the center of Jackson proper, offers 100 miles of nordic trails and lessons.
Bucolic, yes. But not without problems. For example, last year real estate developer Susan Methot purchased a downtown building and erected the Snowflake Inn, a 20-room, three-story hotel. If you've never been to town before, the hotel won't even catch your attention. It's taller than the other buildings, but only by a floor, and its design blends in nicely. Yet to those who have known Jackson for decades, it's a giant change. There are those who embrace it, and those who hate it. They disdain even the slightest hint of what rages beyond the bridge in North Conway.
Dee McClave, a resident since 1964 and town selectwoman for 12 years, hesitates to discuss her position on the issue, but she does concede that the inn will meet visitor demand. "Now when people go to hotels, they want gas logs in the fireplace, jacuzzis and big rooms," she says. "This will offer that." But, she adds, the look of it to the longtimer is shocking. "This is a big, big building right in the middle of town."
It is a shock to see a building that size in the lilliputian hamlet. But most agree that with time (just as was the case when the once despised and now glorified Wentworth Resort was renovated in 1979), all will be healed. In the meantime, retirees will hike, young mountain lovers will scamper above tree line on days off and Mother Earth will continue to cradle Jackson.
Sprawl has crept inexorably northward from North Conway, plopping eight-bank gas stations and outlet stores on Jackson's doorstep. But one thing's for sure: It will never get its turn to cross the one-lane Paddleford Truss covered bridge. That's one visitor the Jackson family won't take kindly to. While the fighting over the Snowflake Inn was at times bitter, it brings to mind a somewhat cliché, but oh-so-true phrase: Good things are worth fighting for-which could be Jackson's motto.
Black Mountain, opened in 1939, was Jackson's first ski area and home to the famed "Shovel Handle Tow"-the nation's first "overhead cable lift"-made with shovels from Sears Roebuck & Co.
Click on the link to the right to check out the Jackson, N.H. almanac.