Wednesday, February 29, 2012

The Way We Were

Looking at Swanzey, you can almost see two distinct towns.  One is the Swanzey of old, with a strong manufacturing base.  For almost two hundred years, people worked with the resources at hand: wood and wool.  But that Swanzey ended around 1984, creating the town we see today.

The Bridges Inn is located in the Whitcomb House.  Construction on it began in 1792 by a Mr. Richard Stratton.  There was a Stratton Woolen Mill and the town library still bears his name.  The house was sold to Roswell Whitcomb in 1841.
The Whitcombs were another local family and they operated a saw mill.  Continuing to work with lumber, they ran a box factory.  However, in the early 1980's, amid tension between labor and management, the factory burnt down.  Part of the building remains today and a craftsman uses the space for a forge.


In 1918, the family built Whitcomb Hall.  It was involved in recruiting soldiers for World War I.  At some point, ownership was transferred to the town.  The hall thrived as a community center.  People would go there for meals (Whitcomb Hall china still exists!).  There was a stage for performances and even a basketball court.  Children attended pre-school and adults voted there.  Sadly, it is condemned today, but there is a movement afoot to restore it.

Next to the Ashuelot River, harnessing its energy, was Homestead Woolen Mills.  The building currently houses Tree-Free Greetings and was previously home to Trikeenan Tileworks.  Recently, the state removed the dam, allowing for over twenty miles of uninterrupted river.

Homestead Mills must have thought that they survived the recession when, in 1983, the interest rate fell.  They took out a large loan to build a loading dock.  A gas station had to be knocked down and traffic rerouted.  But by the time construction was complete in late 1984, the mill was out of business.

The woolen mill and the box factory closed at approximately the same time.  Swanzey lost well over a thousand jobs.  Two local businesses suffered immediately as a result.  Gomarlo's Food & Circus and Nick's Restaurant (pictured below are their former abodes, Gomarlo's on the left and Nick's on the right) were located across the street from the mill.  Both were owned by local families who had a long history of serving the community.  They adapted quickly, building new facilities on Route 10, where they are located today, still operated by the same owners.

The railroad came through Swanzey until not too long ago.  Children would wait for it after school.  As it passed, the conductor would toss out candy.  Today the tracks have been replaced with a bike path to Keene.  Perhaps the thing that I would most like to have seen are the Scarlet Marauders, a drum and bugle corps.  It was like a parade every weekend.  They would practice and march around the block.  They competed in national competitions and won their fair share of events.  Some of their uniforms are on display at the Swanzey Historical Museum.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Precision Valley

Have you ever driven through Milford on Route 101 and wondered about the building with welded-scrap-metal dinosaurs and a banner that reads "Let us keep on rocking in the free world"?  Well, that is Hollis Line Machine Company.  What they mean by rocking in the free world is to keep manufacturing jobs in America.

Hollis Line is a huge place with cranes in the ceiling to move around massive pieces of metal.  There are large sheets of metal to feed through rollers and make into cylinders.  They have milling/lathe machines to make individual parts.  At welding stations, it is all assembled together into a single product, which is then sprayed with aluminum and fired in a 2300 degree oven.

Timothy Gregory was nice enough to show me around.  I saw some of the finished pieces.  They were on their way to Korea, to be installed in furnaces.  The furnaces make synthetic crystal and sapphire, used in semi-conductors and shatter-proof glass.

The Korean companies export most of these synthetic materials back to the US.  I mentioned that it makes a nice loop.  Tim corrected me, saying that the work should stay in this country.  I pressed him to elaborate.  Why did the jobs leave?  Who sent them to foreign countries?  I was fishing for a villain but alas, the world is not so simple.  "You have no idea how hard it is to survive in this industry," he replied.

I also had no idea about New Hampshire's nearly two-hundred year history as a pioneer in the machine tool industry.  Today, it still has a worldwide reputation as a leader.  I went to Hollis Line to learn more about the history, because it houses a display by artist and machinist Patryc Wiggins.  She has done a lot of research and interviewed numerous machinists to tell this untold story.

On the left, there are many examples of what has been manufactured in New Hampshire over the years, from golf clubs to missile parts to door locks.  On the right is a wax mold, which is dipped several times into ceramic.  The wax is then melted out and the mold filled with molten metal.

Keene is home to the machine industry as well.  Markem makes printers to label products.  And several firms manufacture optical products.  This precision work, using diamond-turning machines, is quite a bit different from what I saw in Milford.

Once it opens for the season, I am going to have to visit the American Precision Museum in Windsor, Vermont!

Update: link to CNN article on professional machinists.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Sweet! Potato bread recipe

Sweet Potato Bread

1/2 cup roasted sweet potato
1 cup uncooked oats
1 to 2 teaspoons honey
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 cups hot water
1 tablespoon yeast
2 cups whole wheat flour
3 cups white flour
herbs or spices if you so desire

large mixing bowl, wooden spoon, 2 loaf pans

First I roasted a sweet potato in a 350 degree oven for almost an hour and a half.  Let it go until it's soft; if you're struggling to peel it, let it cook longer.  Then pack a half cup measure with potato.  Put it into a large bowl with the oats and salt.  Add 2 cups water (I use the hottest water I can get out of the tap).  Next add the honey, estimating a teaspoon or two.  Anyone who has ever measured honey in a spoon knows that it is like tasting bittersweet  chocolate (you only try it once!).

Let sweet potato, oats, salt, water, and honey sit out on the counter overnight, uncovered.  This allows it to pick up wild yeast from the air and also gives the oats a chance to soften.

When you are ready to proceed, stir the yeast into the mixture.  Let rest for ten minutes.  Add five cups of flour, one cup at a time, and carefully stir it in.  I like a mixture of white and wheat flour and recommend against using all of one kind.  Add herbs/spices at this point.

Clean a spot on the counter where you can scrape out the contents of the bowl.  Begin to knead, adding more flour as necessary to prevent sticking.  Really fold the dough over onto it itself, press down and slide it.  Dough will tear.  When it stretches, from sufficiently working the gluten, you can stop (may take fifteen minutes of kneading).

Put a drop of oil in bowl.  Roll dough in oil and cover with plastic wrap.  Let sit for 2 hours, preferably in a mildly warm place.  At this point, I like to get out my loaf pans and put a dab of butter in the bottom of each to soften.

After 2 hours, punch down dough ball and let sit for another hour.  After a total of three hours, return dough to counter.  Cut in half into 2 equal pieces.  Now is a good time to smear the butter into the bottom of the loaf pans (non-stick spray works well too).  Knead each piece separately and form a nice ball.  Place into pans and cover with plastic wrap.  Allow loaves to rise for 45 minutes.

While they are rising, preheat oven to 365 degrees.  Check that oven rack is in the middle position and there are no other racks above.  After the 45 minutes, remove plastic wrap and gently transfer the loaves to oven.  Bake for 45 minutes.  Remove from pans and let cool on wire rack.

Also: bread recipe using sprouted whole grain wheat flour

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Our Neighbors

Over the years at the Bridges Inn, we have welcomed many guests from Pilgrim Pines.  It is the wilderness retreat for the East Coast Conference of the Evangelical Covenant Church, located right here in Swanzey at Swanzey Lake.  The guests have all been exceedingly nice.  People have also stayed here from North Park University in Chicago, which was founded by the Evangelical Covenant Church.  Recently, I went out to Camp Squanto to see what it's like in the winter.

As you can see, mud season came early this year.

Both of these are pictures of the same beach.  I moved 180 degrees.

Here is the new dining hall, just completed last year.

If it's this nice in February, just imagine what it's like in the summertime!

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Some friends of mine at the Monadnock Lodging Association were the ones who first suggested that I start a blog.  I've got to admit, it is a lot of fun.  This morning I drove out to Stuart and John's Sugar House in Westmoreland, to follow up on the maple syrup question.  After speaking with John (yes, the John), I was able to get some answers.

As you can see by the steam, they are already boiling down sap.  This year's syrup is on sale at the restaurant, which was packed.  They began production last week, the earliest start in memory.  So far, the sap has really been flowing and is of very high quality (he described it as "light" and "delicate tasting").  As the season progresses, the quality tends to deteriorate.

They have a large facility, and it looks clean and new.  There are copper pipes on the ceiling that bring in the sap from outside.  It collects in a vat, where it is fed down into the pot (in the picture below).  That's Stuart off to the right.

According to the New Hampshire Maple Producers Association, the industry produces $5 million in revenue and 90,000 gallons of syrup (on average statewide).   Both John and the NHMPA agreed that last year was "the best season on record".  In 2011, Stuart and John's boiled down 120,000 gallons of sap into 3,000 gallons of syrup.  This year, John has low expectations.  He doesn't forsee the cold nights necessary for sustained production.  He'll be happy with a mediocre season.  You know what that means.  Buy maple futures now to lock in low prices.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Another Saturday in downtown Keene

Here in the Keene area, we are fortunate to have such a nice community. Today, thanks to the Greater Keene Chamber of Commerce, was the annual Ice and Snow Festival. It's a great way to get out of the house during the winter and the weather could not have been better. Many people were out on the town and the children looked to be having lots of fun.  The Festival is most well-known for its carved ice sculptures, although carved things are not unique to this festival.


But that wasn't the only thing going on in downtown Keene today!  There was also the 7th annual Seed Celebration and Sustainable Community Fair hosted by the Emerson Brook Forest Sustainability Project.  They had workshops, food, information, a band, and I spoke with some very interesting people.  A Walpole cheesemaker told me about bathing a cheese with saltwater for two months in order to get a natural outer rind.  And I also learned that the Monadnock Community Market is on schedule to break ground in April.  It will be a treat to begin shopping there!

Finally, I stopped at Hannah Grimes, where they host the winter Farmers' Market.  Patti Powers from Cheshire Garden was there to greet me, selling her preserves and mustards.  I couldn't resist picking up a jar of Tweedledum's Damson Plum Preserve.  She said that the plum trees all have sheet-metal collars around them, to protect them from porcupines who will strip the bark and kill the trees.  Say what you will about porcupines, but they have good taste.  That jelly makes the filet mignon of peanut butter sandwiches.

"Spring" at the Bridges Inn?

Not only do the crocuses think it's spring, but our 65-year old Christmas cactus seems to think it's spring. I don't ever recall the Christmas cactus blooming in February! At the moment, there's only one flower (shown below) but more buds.

If you're looking for a get-away, consider the Bridges Inn at Whitcomb House bed and breakfast in Swanzey, NH. Enjoy one of Chef David's scrumptious breakfasts, catch a glimpse of "spring", and you have to see the 65-year old cactus plant to believe it!

Friday, February 17, 2012

First blog posting on a warm winter in NH

It's mid-February in Swanzey, NH and the crocuses are already starting to poke through the soil.  There is no snow to block them from the sunlight this year.
In fact, we've really only had two significant snowstorms this winter.  The first was a freak storm on Halloween.  Many of the trees still had their leaves on them, so the heavy snow brought down a lot of branches.  Then in early December we had a decent snowfall, but our hopes for a white Christmas were dashed when it was mostly melted by the holidays.

Now spring is the air.  The showers yesterday had the scent of a spring rain.  The cold gusts of wind were little more than a cool breeze.  It all makes me wonder about the maple syrup harvest this year.  Here is a picture from last March (2011), where you can see tin buckets hanging from a line of maple trees in front of the Bridges Inn.

The sap runs up the maple tree, from the roots out to the branches.  It is a sugary-mixture that will turn into leaves.  Warm days draw it upwards and cold nights send it back underground.  There is a brief window in mid-to-late March when conditions are just right to collect it.  During this time, every maple tree in New Hampsire sports an icon bucket, or else is connected to a central barrel through a network of hoses.  After collection, there is a frenzy of boiling (which is why it is not practical for me to make my own syrup- those buckets belong to a neighbor).  Some producers keep a fire burning for weeks on end, over which they are constantly cooking down sap.  It takes about 20 gallons of sap to make a single gallon of syrup.

This has been the case for nearly four hundred years.  According to forrester Steven Roberge, of the UNH Cooperative Extension:

"Native Americans taught Europeans how to make maple SUGAR. I say sugar because the in the colony times we didn't have containers to hold syrup effectively without it spoiling. It wasn't until the tin container was invented (around the Civil War) that syrup was produced. Natives would used dug out logs to hold the sap and then drop red hot rocks from the fire into the sap causing it to boil. When the rocks cooled off, they would take them out and repeat. until most of the water was gone and the thick syrup cooled to set sugar. Quite often colonist would make molds or forms to pour the molten sugar in. The most common were crosses and caskets for ceremonies.

European brought over cast iron kettles that made the process a more efficient but still made sugar - hence "Maple Sugaring"

Thomas Jefferson - for the sake of national security - wanted to become self-sufficient in sugar production so he encouraged everyone to make maple sugar instead of importing it from the Caribbean and really on foreign countries (sounds like something familiar today!)"

What will happen this year?  Will the trees bud too early?  Will the nights be cold enough to encourage the flow of sap?  We'll have to follow up on this story.  Check back to this blog soon to read more about our interviews with local maple syrup producers.