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Jim Kenyon: Welcome to (W.) Lebanon

When entering West Lebanon, N.H. this is the sign you will see on Route 4. 
Valley News - Jennifer Hauck

When entering West Lebanon, N.H. this is the sign you will see on Route 4. Valley News - Jennifer Hauck

They call themselves the West Lebanon Kids. Although, truth be told, a fair number of them moved away years ago, and they’re not really kids any longer. Many are pushing 60 and beyond.

Still, their Facebook page moniker is fitting. Their sensibilities and loyalties remain firmly embedded in their hometown of West Lebanon.

Notice that I say West Lebanon, and not Lebanon. From a municipal government standpoint, West Lebanon and Lebanon are one in the same. Just don’t tell that to the West Lebanon Kids.

They are 200 or so strong. Some of them live as far away as Florida and the West Coast. The Facebook page, which was started about a year ago, is a forum for “a lot of hardcore people” who still think there’s a difference between West Lebanon and Lebanon, said Greg Place, 62, who hailed from a part of West Lebanon that has become the 12A commercial strip.

“I’m always going to be a West Lebanon kid,” said Place, who now lives in Oregon but recently came back to visit family.

While careers and love interests may have taken them away from West Lebanon, the tight-knit, working-class neighborhoods remain a source of pride. “Many of us grew up together and are united by numerous shared experiences,” a West Lebanon Kid wrote on the Facebook page. “We are a distinct community, with links that have endured for lifetimes. Where we grew up helped define who and what we are.”

Mention Bob’s Market on Main Street, the high school on Seminary Hill or the ballfields on what is now the debacle called Route 12A to a West Lebanon Kid and it’s the 1960s all over again. Up until the late 1970s, one of the West Lebanon Kids wrote, she could ride her bike on 12A. “Now, I don’t even like driving a car down there.”

Along with allowing them to stroll down memory lane, the Facebook page has given the West Lebanon Kids a cause to rally around.

A large, handcrafted wooden “Welcome to Lebanon” sign graces the steep bank across from the Four Aces Diner on Bridge Street, which serves as the gateway into town from White River Junction.

The West Lebanon Kids believe the sign, at the very least, is factually incorrect, or worse, a deliberate affront to generations — past and present. They argue the sign should read, “Welcome to West Lebanon.”

Never mind that the sign has been up for more than 20 years.

On Facebook, the Kids are now talking about circulating a petition to ask the city to change the sign and, if that doesn’t work, raising money to pay for a new one. A video that points out the error of the city’s ways has been posted as well.

A few weeks ago, someone sauntered up to the welcome sign (in broad daylight, I understand) and stuck a “W” in front of the “Lebanon.” It wasn’t exactly a “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall” kind of moment, but it showed the Kids mean business. (And since it might be considered defacing public property, I won’t say anything more about who might have pulled off the caper. At least before the statute of limitations runs out.)

I guess the West Lebanon Kids could be accused of living in the past. As one woman wrote on the page, “Let it Go. We’ve been one city for years now, and it’s OK.”

“No, it is not,” responded Nancy Preston Richardson. “If they were one, then all of our addresses would be Lebanon and mine has and always will be West Lebanon.”

Richardson, whose family lived above Norm’s Barber Shop on Main Street while she was growing up, has a point. West Lebanon has its own ZIP code. The firehouse on Main Street still says West Lebanon on the front of the building, and West Lebanon continues to have its own Rotary club, which some people might question, since its weekly meetings are held in Lebanon.

But the West Lebanon Kids are about more than a name on a welcome sign. They might be the last generation to remember what West Lebanon was like when it had its own high school and 12A smelled of fresh cut hay in the summer instead of fast-food french fries.

“It’s kind of overwhelming to see what’s happened there,” said Place. “We used to play baseball in fields that are now paved over.”

In some ways, the West Lebanon Kids are carrying on tradition. In his 1994 history of the city, Roger Carroll devoted a chapter to “Lebanon vs. (West Lebanon).” It came to a head in 1961, when the decision to close West Lebanon High School was made final and students were moved to Lebanon High at the other end of the city.

A proposed bill in the New Hampshire Legislature would have allowed West Lebanon to become its own town. Some Lebanon residents took a “good riddance attitude” to the secession movement, wrote Carroll. Then it dawned on them that if West Lebanon was allowed to break off, it would take with it the property tax revenue from the Wilder Dam, the city’s largest taxpayer.

That ended that.

More than 50 years after its final class graduated, West Lebanon continues to stage a high school alumni parade every spring. It seems to me that when people come back to town for the parade, they should have a welcome sign to point them in the right direction.

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.