Over Easy: Searching for history on Main Street West Lebanon

For the Valley News
Published: 8/27/2021 9:46:48 PM
Modified: 8/27/2021 9:46:54 PM

A small, forgotten banner on a Main Street light pole contains a remarkably grandiose greeting: “Welcome to the Crossroads of New England. West Lebanon, N.H.”

When it gets seen every now and then, perhaps by pedestrians dreamily looking at clouds, I suspect it draws a standard reaction: “Huh?”

It’s true that two interstates are nearby, and rail lines still bring the clackety-clack and mournful horns of trains now and then. Most automotive traffic is passing through. You can’t make much of a motto out of one thing we’re known for: “The Friendly Place Where Skiers on Their Way to the Slopes Stop to Pee!”

I’ve been thinking about West Lebanon lately, because I attended the recent City Council meeting about possibly borrowing around $750,000 to buy land on Maple Street that used to hold a small Catholic church. The lot caught the eyes of city officials who are looking for a spot for a new fire station, the current one on Main Street being squeezed by lot lines and not modern enough for all the standards that must be met.

I live down the road from the old church, around the corner and up a little dead end street. As a walking enthusiast, I have passed it thousands of times over three-plus decades, often in pursuit of deep thoughts but instead humming the theme song to Gilligan’s Island. I wonder why they haven’t named a sidewalk or culvert after me.

City councilors said they are considering buying the land for any number of uses, not only a fire station. Some neighbors found that hard to believe. I thought the councilors sounded sincere, although if not for the fire station, I think, the lot would have drawn no more attention than the Dan Mackie Culvert idea (just a plaque; no portrait, please). But the ball is rolling, and once one is put in motion by officialdom — well, you know.

I’ve been thinking about the bigger picture, because a councilor or two asked us to mull what West Lebanon wants. I don’t want a fire station on Maple Street, because it’s a quiet residential road with a fair number of handsome homes. I have seen the march of home improvement over time, a long line of fences, gardens, siding, roof shingles and more, supported by a small army of plumbers, electricians and contractors holding things together.

In my mind, it is better to ponder Main Street. It resists revitalization, because something like one billion (a rough estimate) cars pass through every year, many heading to the plazas on Route 12A. Just the other morning I took notice of the new Dunkin’ obelisk, which I think represents much of what’s wrong with retail aesthetics in America — bulbous letters, colors too bright for anyone but a kindergartner or circus clown.

Next door, Col. Sanders grins from on high as a drive-thru line curls around his building and almost out into the street.

But that’s another story. Good old Main Street, which looks pretty spiffy in black-and-white Lebanon Historical Society photos posted regularly on Facebook, has a rambling, erratic architectural style. Some properties have commendably been improved in recent years, but something needs to draw it all together. Trees? Sunflowers? Multiple statues of Elvis? I simply don’t know.

Planners and developers don’t seem to have the answer. If I was in charge of the world (secret plans are pending), I would bring in dreamers and artists to take a look. How about an elevated roadway? Parking spots reserved for classic cars? A replica of the Arc de Triomphe? But maybe I’m getting ahead of myself.

It seems to me that Maple Street, which is in our proverbial backyard, is fine as it is. Lots of people who travel through West Lebanon barely know a residential neighborhood is there. But Main Street, the village’s actual front yard, needs a fresh coat of something or other. Maybe consistent-looking signage, for starters. Or is that socialism?

You could let things take their course. Just a few years ago we had three auto parts stores on Main Street, all within the distance of a football field.

It was a golden age of auto parts. Main Street in Hanover must have looked on in envy, bereft of its own supply of mufflers, ball joints and car air fresheners.

Alas, one shop is gone and now we have but two. Still we go on.

I wish I could say definitively what West Lebanon needs or wants. But when I look at those Historical Society pictures of the village from 100 years ago — tall trees, little shops, cool old cars — I am reminded that the more things change, the more we wish they stayed the same.

Dan Mackie lives in West Lebanon. He can be reached at dan.mackie@yahoo.com.

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