8. DOLLY COPP IN THE 1930S

Even when the Depression hit in the thirties, camping in Dolly Copp and elsewhere in the country did not decline. This was due in part to camping's low cost and partly to automobiles being the last amenity to be surrendered in hard times.

There is evidence that Dolly Copp camping actually continued to increase during this turbulent decade.

Dolly Copp campers in 1934

In 1931 the Forest Service administered a questionnaire to Dolly Copp campers, seeking their opinions on campground development and management. The responses reveal much about conditions at the beginning of the thirties:

1931: LENGTH OF STAY
1 week or less 28 -25%
2 weeks 40 -36%
3 weeks 10 -9%
4 weeks 11 -10%
4 weeks+ 22 -20%
Total 111 -100%

1931: WHAT ARE THE NEXT
URGENTLY NEEDED IMPROVEMENTS?
Tables and benches 36
Satisfied as is 36
Swimming pool 23
Oil roads 18
Place for picnickers 12
More toilets 11
Have fields mowed 8
Dogs to be leashed 4
Grocery store 2
Electric lights 1
Central hall for rainy weather 1

We see from the survey that today's two week limit on the length of stay was not yet in effect. The presence of a table at every campsite seems not to have been a standard feature. The fields were not mowed as today, and the Old Administration building (today's Visitors Center) building and Dolly Copp Swimming Pool had yet to be built.

Forest Service staff also recorded what they felt were the more typical comments made. There were requests for “tables, benches and rustic furniture for each camp,” that the grounds be “plotted into lots”, that picnic parties be given a “special place away from the river”, and to please “oil the road through the Campground.”

These responses infer that individualized campsites and an accompanying site numbering system had not yet been developed, that campers in 1931 were still mixed with picnickers on the east side of the River, and that roads in the Campground were dusty and as yet unpaved.

But the primitive camping conditions of the 1915-1931 period were rapidly coming to an end. It would be the plentiful and low cost labor provided by the federal Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) that supplied muscle for a spurt of change throughout the remainder of the thirties.

The CCC was a federal employment program created in 1933. It primarily enrolled youth from families on relief and sent them to parks and recreation areas to build trails and improve public facilities. This was a major jobs creation program with rural base camps built throughout the country.

CCC boy and friends on
steps of Old Administration Building.

Seventeen of these base camps were established in the White Mountains, including Camp Peabody on Route 16, just 1.2 miles south of the Dolly Copp Picnic Area, still in use today as Camp Dodge.

Nearby CCC Camp south of Dolly Copp
on Route 16, as shown on 1935 USGS map.
Compare layout to successor Camp Dodge today.

 

156th Co. CCC Pinkham Notch Sub-camp.
See full view and detail of photo (1.5 MB).

CCC labor, as directed by USFS professionals, polished up Dolly Copp into the Campground we see today.

An undated archival Forest Service record, appearing to originate near 1940, summarizes CCC contributions to Dolly Copp in the thirties; “A few minor improvements were in place around 1925 and others followed slowly until 1933. The development of the area in its present form began with the advent of the CCC program and was completed in the next three or four years.”

More insight on the thirties is again provided by Robert. S. Monahan's record of 1933 Dolly Copp:

“Many of these campers return year after year until they regard this camp ground as their summer home....

No charge of any kind is exacted by the Forest Service for the use of the water, garbage disposal, toilet, and bathing facilities you find here. There is no allotment of campsites and no fire permits are necessary at this or any other improved camp ground within the National Forest.

A forest officer supervises the sanitation and welfare of the camp ground and fortunately this year the tremendous load imposed by the heavy use was lightened by the services of the CCC workers....

With the steadily increasing popularity of this camp the grounds will have to be extended but fortunately there are many natural openings along the well drained banks of the Peabody River which can be improved for future use.”

Also of interest, in 1934 University of New Hampshire (UNH) forestry experts advised the Forest Service staff. One of the reasons they offered for the popularity of Dolly Copp was “‘because of its desirability as a camping grounds for women and children.”

Stepanian Family at Dolly Copp in 1930.

An early Dolly Copp camping family in 1929.

We know that in contrast to the early thirties, by 1940 much of the Campground had been organized into distinctly numbered sites. This was the result of mid-thirties planning coupled with CCC labor. That UNH experts contributed to this process is evidenced by their advice of 1934:

They agreed that some kind of blocking system is necessary both for better utilization of the grounds and so that the location of each camper may be known and designated for the benefit of visitors.

The advantages suggested for a blocking arrangement of camp sites are the possibility of reserving a particular site or group of sites by communication, the ability of the camp superintendent to assign small blocks to a group of campers who wish to live near each other and to segregate those who intend to stay all season (mostly mill workers from Berlin and Gorham) from the transients who object to the noise of cars starting early in the morning and returning late at night and from the annoyance of numerous weekend visitors.

An excerpt from the USGS map of 1935 is a helpful resource in understanding the timing of the development of specific campground lanes and drives.

Drawing upon the 1935 USGS map, other historic references, old photos and eyewitness accounts, below is a narration of what a visitor saw while riding through the Campground in the summer of 1935:

Traveling north on dirt surfaced Route 16, past the CCC Camp and then the Peabody River Ranger Station, a fork in the road presents a choice. The sign for Dolly Copp beckons on the left.

Gorham thru traffic continues up grade to the right while Campground and Randolph traffic choose the lesser road down slope to the west. The Picnic Area comes into view but without the log Picnic Shelter which would be built next year.

Looking north, a comparison of the Dolly Copp
entrance in the thirties with the same view today
dramatizes the extent of the 1958 expansion of Route 16.

Four hundred feet past the sign a left turn takes you onto the dirt surfaced Pinkham B Road, another state highway. It immediately crosses the Peabody River on an iron bridge with overhead truss work. Some young people are socializing there.

Entering onto the gentle plain of what had been the Copp Farm provides a contrast to the more rugged terrain just traversed. The log camp administration building constructed the year before (today's Visitor Center) is on the right.

Southerly view of Pinkham B Road then and now.
Above when originally adjacent to the Visitor Center, below
the view today after relocation westward about 1939.

That building was oriented to parallel the original state road alignment which would be bypassed and converted into lawn in a few years. Parking by the south door is provided for camper check in.

Proceeding north, both sides of the Pinkham B Road are open, unmowed fields. The area had been open like this for a century now. Tents are seen on the areas that would later be known as End Loop, the Play Field and Birch Lane. To the right between the road and the river is the south field of the old Copp Farm.

View of Administration Building to south, with
George Brackett (at left, born 1926) with friends.

Ahead up on the right is a little rise of land with tents on it. You stop at this knoll above Riverside Drive to take a few photos of the scene back over the fields of tents to the Administration Building and steel bridge.

This view would begin to be obscured by foliage in the forties and is lost today, as shown by these before and after views:

 

 

Then to your right the north field of the Copp Farm appears. For camping access this area has been cut by dirt lanes into rectangles. These quadrants are formed by the Pinkham B Road on the west and parallel Riverside Drive on the east, with five connecting roads in between.

In time these lanes would be given individual names; the southern part of Riverside Drive, then Homestead Lane, Imp View Lane, Midway Lane and Swimming Pool Drive (the latter eventually renamed Hayes Field Drive).

Dolly Copp Memorial when new

A little park now comes into view on the right, built for the new Homestead Memorial formally dedicated just two summers ago.

A small spur for tent sites called Notch View Lane is also in place off of Homestead Lane, offering quiet sites by the aged apple trees of the Copp orchard. Thirty years later camping would be removed from this section as it was converted to a walkway to lavatories.

Central dead ended feature in
above view is old Notch View Lane
See above in context of full 1940 map (645 KB)

On the northern edge of the homestead site we see Dolly's old butternut tree (426 KB). The open fields of this heavily used section of rectangles form the core of the 1935 Campground.

Activity is obvious at the new swimming pool built in 1933, with users annoyingly parking all the way up on the state highway you are on, causing some congestion.

You then pull over on to the shoulder for a moment to give some anxious drivers in back of you a chance to pass. They are neither campers nor here to view the scenery. This is, after all, a state highway, and others users of the road have a long way to go.

To the west the High Fields and High Woods tent site sections had not yet been laid out on the open pastures there. But tents abound anyway; the Forest Service is allowing camping upon any open land that is available.

These are open upland pastures with a view of Mount Madison obscured by forest growth today.

Proceeding north on Pinkham B Road, crossing Madison Brook, recently renamed by the federal people as Culhane Brook in honor of that family, to the west the Brook Loop section has just been completed by CCC workers.

The center of Brook Loop is still unwooded, reflecting its history as a pasture. Across from Brook Loop the Little Meadow section is an open field.

Moving on, today's Spruce Woods section is an unwooded area, but without much road development. The only access here is a short entryway to an open field upon which now runs the one way exit from Spruce Woods.

A sharp eye can discern rubble in the ground from the Culhane farm house that was still standing here twenty years ago (CH).

To the right the Big Meadow is a large field area, the heart of the old Culhane Farm. There is one entryway for cars with a circular road in the center.

The CCC crews would soon formalize and regrade this southern of today's two entrance roads to the Big Meadow, the northern entry not to be added for almost thirty years.

Above and below are early views in Big
Meadow, both taken from today's Site 30.

(Pause for this story: In the late nineties I had just met long time campers George and Bernie Brackett and was to receive some valuable old thirties photos from them that weekend. Dolly and I camped on Site 30, had never been on that site before, and neither since. The Bracketts dropped by and gave us thirties photos of, you guessed it, the old views above taken from Site 30).

The Pinkham B Road then continues into the valley of Miss Barnes Brook. There is a crossroads of sorts, just before the bridge over the Brook, passing a dirt road that travels east and ends near the Peabody.

The straight main stem of today's entry road would be built on this alignment in 1950. Opposite, an old logging road proceeds up hill to the west, now the Hayes Copp Ski Trail.

After crossing Miss Barnes Brook the Barnes Field camping area on the right is a hub of activity. We watch the thru traffic continuing along the state highway to the Town of Randolph.

It was the initial network of 1935 camp roads described above that the Forest Service was now directing CCC workers to upgrade and expand. As noted their work resulted in a much more developed Campground by 1940.

Gorham, NH brochure of 1935,
listing Dolly Copp as a tourist attraction.
Source: Scott McClory Dolly Copp Collection.

Another glimpse of 1935 conditions is available in author Eleanor Early's book “Behold the White Mountains.”

Early makes mention of the Campground, noting stone fireplaces, rustic tables, bubbling springs and the swimming pool. The Administration Building was described by her as having fireplaces at both ends and a dance hall in the middle. The smell of camp site cooking was especially appealing to her.

Back in the thirties E. Libby & Son ran a company store in Gorham in what is now the Knights of Columbus Hall. Many Dolly Copp campers would trade there the entire summer and be given free ice as a courtesy.

The typical method for camp refrigeration was to take that ice back to Dolly Copp and place it in a wooden orange crate or box in a hole dug in the ground at the camp site, then covered with canvas.

Dolly Copp campers in 1929 utilize that
era's typical in ground refrigeration (lower left).

Food would then be properly preserved in this effective cooler (GB). Gorham resident Bob Ross recalls that some campers left their heavier camping equipment in storage at the Libby store for the entire winter at no charge.

Another insight into thirties conditions is gleaned from a 1936 USFS memo: “In some areas grates have been furnished for campfires while at others campers are allowed the use of roughly made fireplaces which they themselves construct.”

Also, “If campers are allowed to pick flowers and remove shrubbery as their own conscience guides Dolly Copp will soon be a sad looking place. This practice should be discouraged for much of the shrubbery which looks so natural was transplanted there at large expense.”

It should be remembered that in the thirties Route 16 wa still an unimproved "dirt" road. A 1936 map also shows that east west Route 2 was without blacktop easterly until the Maine State Line.

Route 16 was dirt even northerly past Cascade into Berlin. Only in the City proper does the 1936 map show paving.

A 1938 map of the Campground vicinity documents that the name "Dolly Copp Forest Camp" was still in use.

As for early camp site tables, the CCC crews had assembled many of them in the thirties. The tables were heavier than today's and took several people to move. In 1934 the forestry experts from UNH “suggested a permanent fireplace, ice box and table for each camp site and criticized the present tables for their excessive weight and low seats.”

Bob Ross of Gorham, when a CCC worker at Dolly Copp in 1940, recalls that the bench seats for these tables were made from a large log sawed in half lengthwise. The cross cut was done manually. “The resulting tables were so heavy that no two men could move one.”

According to Casey Hodgdon (CH) these rustic early camp tables had been replaced by the early fifties, but with a few still visible in storage areas. Bob Cook remembers seeing them in Barnes Field in 1954.

Early Dolly Copp camp site tables.

Statistics in a USFS memo of 8/18/1937 document usage that date; 279 tents with 828 tent campers, also 22 trailers with 71 trailer campers, for a total of 899 campers. Persons with trailers were 7% of the total visiting Dolly Copp that evening. Several sources say most campers used tents in those days.

On 9/21/1938 a great hurricane made its way inland to northern New Hampshire. This was and remains the worst hurricane ever to hit New England.

September that year had been very rainy and the ground was already saturated. The huge storm on top of this led to extensive blow downs of timber in the area.

The fire tower up on Carter Dome, a prominent ridgetop landmark visible southeast of the Campground, was toppled and never rebuilt.

The White Mountain National Forest was devastated, with the result a very high hazard of forest fires for the next season. In response, early in 1939 the Forest Service issued a map classifying forest areas by three degrees of restriction on use.

All of the forest around Dolly Copp was placed in the most restrictive category, “closed to all forms of use.”

The Imp Trail was closed completely, but the Daniel Webster Trail remained open as long as hikers did not leave the path.

We can assume from this evidence of devastation on all sides that there must have been significant tree damage within the Campground as well. The CCC boys did much of the cleanup.

An undated Forest Service memo, but by appearance and content estimated to have been written near 1939, comments upon the decade of upgrading just completed;

The improvements existing at the end of the CCC program were as follows; road system of 1.9 miles, Administration and Recreation Building, 1 swimming pool, 1 water system with chlorinator, 250 camp sites with tables and fireplaces...

Picnic Area: 1 large picnic shelter with stone fireplace and tables, 2 parking areas, spring development, 1 stone fireplace, 22 picnic units with tables and fireplaces....

The vigorous improvement activity of this era is also referenced in Forest Service correspondence dated November 1939:

Corners at the junction of one of the camp roads with Pinkham B Road (aka main campground road) were highlighted and graded for safety.... Seventy feet of new wooden guard rails were installed....

Betterment needed includes the following; highlighting or otherwise safeguarding other corners at junctions of camp roads with the Pinkham B Road; plantations and creation of additional barriers to protect areas; filling in gullies to prevent mud holes; restoring fire grates and building additional horse shoe courts which were in heavy demand this year.”

Strolling by the junction of the main campground road and the southern Big Meadow entrance today, a look off the edge of pavement reveals that this intersection is not at its original grade. We can assume that this type of intersection enhancement was a typical CCC improvement.

John Hamlin of Maryland grew up in Gorham and graduated with the high school class of 1939. Working at Dolly Copp as a host in 1999 he provided some memories. He recalls that in the Dolly Copp of 1939 no fees were charged. “You camped wherever you wanted and campsites were crowded against each other. Sections had not yet been named.” The area was “a lot of fields.”

He also recalls that the swimming pool was a popular attraction. The campers of the period were ordinary people, not well off; this was an inexpensive vacation. The pattern was already established whereby many fathers worked in Greater Boston during the week while the mother and children spent multiple weeks here.

Long time camper Stuart Smith says that after 1939 quite a few of the CCC boys joined the Canadian Army to go fight in WWII. Also that after the United States entered WWII, conscientious objectors placed in non-combat assignments provided some of the low cost labor to replace CCC manpower.