What They Don’t See

Berlin, New Hampshire is full of treasure, and no one there seems to notice.
I was in the federal building yesterday, mailing some letters at the post office and checking about a story at one of the offices, and I noticed something. The mail boxes are the same type I had as a kid growing up: golden bronze, with an eight pointed star and letters instead of numbers for the combination lock. The combination locks was gone, replaced by a key slot, but there was still a little window where you could see if you had mail or not.
Years ago (granted, I’m not that old) they took them out where I lived, and they replaced them with aluminum-doored boxed. The aren’t aesthetically pleasing, and they don’t have a little window, but they do the job well enough. They feel like modern cheap plastic children’s toys, as compared to the well build wooden ones of years past.
And Berlin still has them. I noticed them as I walked in, and I slowed my pace as I past them. I asked the clerk about them; she was amused at my question. I went outside to get my camera, and when I came back people stared at me as I shot.
The letter slot is worn, probably 50 years of mail having passed through them. The metal is discolored and has the classic look of something built to withstand the ages.
What amazed me was that no one thought anything of them. These are collectible, sold online then cherished for their nostalgic value,but people getting their mail were giving me the weird looks. Here in Berlin history is just a part of life.
Katie Payne said one of her favorite blogs features a woman posting photos of the cool things she notices around her town, like doorways and chimneys and mailboxes and such. If someone were to do that in Berlin they would have a lifetime of postings and photos. Whether it is the Dead River that runs under the city, the old fire-pole in the Berlin fire station, or the bronze boxes in the post office, there is so much history and quirky beauty in the city it would exhaust someone before they exhausted it.
Councilor Dick Lafluer has been adamant he does not want the city to lose its sense of history as it works to find its place in the 21st century. It wouldn’t make sense if it tried to. The buildings, the streets and the infrastructure of Berlin have been neglected, but they haven’t been destroyed. When I walk through the city it is these things that inspire me, these things that convince me the city has a chance. If the Morins, Bergerons, Poulins and Carons had bulldozed the Gill building to put up a new one, I think hope for the city would have been lost. But they didn’t. They repaired it, renovated it, improved it and made it beautiful. They interwove the past with the future, and in doing so maintained the character the city needs to survive.
What is unique about Berlin? That it was once the largest city in New Hampshire. That it still has its train station, even though it’s been turned into office space for Tri-County CAP. Or more because it has been turned into office space for Tri-County CAP. Berlin still has its downtown, the epicenter from which the city must grow. And it still has its bronze post office boxes.
I hope Berlin never sheds its history to on the path to economic success. The history is rich, though not sustaining, but it is worthy of pride. The history that is still there is valuable, particularly to those of us who return to the past through it. Residents don’t realize the value in this preservation, what a treasure it can be to those who think it has been lost forever. Berlin is in someways a living museum, and hopefully neither ATVs, prisons, nor biomass plants will ever change that. It needs a route to the future, but it is its roots in the past that make the city special. Hopefully those roots will never decay.

4 thoughts on “What They Don’t See

  1. It's interesting that you consider those mailboxes old. Those are the new ones. I've got most of the keys from the older boxes that those replaced. My grandfather was assistant postmaster when they upgraded and kept the old keys, which I acquired when he died. Also, at Berlin's peak it was the 3rd largest city in the state, after Manchester and Concord, not the largest. Still, it was bigger then than Portsmouth is even now.

  2. Rob –Thanks for the comment. I heard their used to be wooden ones. I haven't seen the bronze ones since high school. It's funny to me everyone doesn't consider them a treasure. But that's the point — Berlin is full of treasures the people there don't even realize. The city's malaise is so hard for me to understand because I see so much history and culture that should be celebrated. These are things to be proud of, and at the same time leveraged to forge a new path forward. I think Northern Forest Heritage Park is a great example. It celebrates the past and can be a tool for the future. It just hasn't been utilized as well as it could be.And I had heard mixed reports as to whether Berlin was the largest and third largest city in the state. I trust you are right, thank you for that correction.Norm –Appreciate the post. I know, there are so many sites like that it's a wonder people don't feel more pride about the area's rich history. Such a wonderful city shouldn't elicit such vitriolic responses from its residents. The complacency and the hatred people feel for the city will never make sense to me. I think it's beautiful.

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