If you’re not from Tilton, what are some of things that come to mind when you think of that town? The Tanger Outlets? The slew of fast-food joints? The car dealerships? The big fireworks store?
Nobody would blame you for associating these things with Tilton. After all, Exit 20 off Interstate 93 dumps you right into the heart of all that commercial stuff that makes up a good chunk of Tilton. But if you drive around a little more, you’ll discover that there’s a ton of history – and natural beauty – in this town.
Tilton was originally part of Sanbornton, settled in 1762. It broke off and became the separate town of Tilton in 1869, named after its wealthiest man, Charles E. Tilton, a fourth-generation descendant of the family that originally settled there. In the 1800s, Tilton traveled to the American West and Rome, among other places, and came back with all kinds of ideas.
One of them was to build a massive arch, inspired by the architecture he observed in Rome. The result was the Tilton Memorial Arch, a memorial not to fallen soldiers or anything like that, but to the great and prosperous Tilton family.
The arch stands 55 feet tall and is reportedly made of Concord granite. Situated high atop a hill, it provides excellent views of Tilton down below.
Charles Tilton intended to be buried under the arch, assuming Tilton and Northfield would have joined into a big Tilton by the time he died. Unfortunately for him, Northfield steadfastly refused to give up its own identity, and since the Memorial Arch is actually in Northfield, and since Tilton refused to be buried in any town other than Tilton, the body was ultimately laid to rest in a traditional cemetery in Tilton.
Another one of Tilton’s projects was to decorate the town to make it one of the most beautiful in the country. He started buying up all sorts of ornate statues and setting them up all over town – many still stand today. One statue, a female figure known as Timetable Mabel, currently keeps watch over Tilton Island Park, a tiny island in the Winnipesaukee River just outside of downtown. The 85-foot-long bridge to get to the island, like the Memorial Arch, is on the National Register of Historic Places. (Strangely, the Memorial Arch features no plaques or signs describing what the landmark is or why it’s there – we didn’t even notice any marker at all indicating its place on the National Historic Register, although it is indeed on there.) As you can probably imagine, Charles Tilton had a role in revamping the park, eventually gifting it to the town.
In modern times, yes, the town is home to many chain retail stores and restaurants. The Tanger Outlets are certainly a pretty big deal for Central New Hampshire, and AutoServ is a legitimately massive business in the town. All of this is worth mentioning considering the estimated town population in 2017 was a little more than 3,500, meaning a good portion of the patronage of all those businesses must come from out of town (you know you’ve gone shopping at the outlets there before).
In a lot of ways, Tilton is pretty similar to Concord. It’s a town built around a river, and there’s plenty of green space as well as commercial development. Tilton has the village of Lochmere, just like Concord has Penacook. There’s also a country club (Lochmere Country Club) and an old-school, New England-style downtown core. It’s even an official Main Street Community, just as the capital city is.
Over the next several pages, you’ll see what kinds of sites we saw, bites we ate and things we tried around Tilton and Northfield last week. While this field trip technically covers both towns, there’s little distinction between the two for the sake of this issue. Several of the locals we encountered in Tilton conceded that the two towns are basically the same thing (however frustrating that might be for hardcore Northfield townies to hear).
So sit back, strap in and enjoy the field trip!