We have our own spring at home, and until a few months ago it provided perfectly good water. When we had to replace our old, rusting out water line last fall, the digging around the springhouse disrupted the natural filtration system somehow, and now our water, while likely safe to drink, tastes – and smells – awful.
Not so at the Old Franconia Road spring, from which flows “the best tasting water around,” according to several folks I’ve met while refilling water jugs there.
The spring is owned by Wilman Gadwah, who lives just up the road. If you’ve ever traveled the Old Franconia Road – also called Gilmanton Hill Road – you’ve likely seen Wilman out on his John Deere tractor, working at sugaring or maintaining the meandering stone walls he’s built there over the last four decades or so.
When I called to ask Wilman about the spring, I got a brief history of the neighborhood and how he came to own this local watering hole.
He recalled that one winter, in the mid-1980s, one of the main lines for Bethlehem’s municipal water system froze, affecting the flow of town water. More people started coming to the spring, and the water was tested. Though it was, even then, declared to be fine-tasting water, testing indicated it was contaminated.
At that time, an elderly woman named Mrs. Hatt owned the spring. Her parents, the Becks, had established the Seven Springs Estate, where the White Mountain School is now, and she lived just down the road from the spring. She hired a couple of local men to replace the old tank in the spring in an attempt to clear the water, but it still tested poorly.
Wilman happened to be out building a stone wall when Mrs. Hatt walked down the road one day. She voiced her disappointment at the state of the spring – at least the state of the tests showing the water was contaminated. Wilman suggested the water was just fine, and the spring simply needed to be properly cleaned out and covered. She told him if he could figure out how to fix the problem, she’d deed the spring and about an acre of property surrounding it to him. He did, and a few weeks later, the deed arrived in his mailbox.
He’s been taking care of the spring ever since, mainly for the benefit of the innumerable folks who stop by to fill up – some 200-300 each day by one neighbor’s count.
“I don’t get anything out of it, other than cleaning the trash that people throw out constantly,” he told me. “It’s just one of those things that should be there for people to enjoy it. I don’t think you can have any cleaner water than what you have right there.”
He figures people have been drinking from the spring for well over 100 years. Back in the days when stagecoaches transported passengers from remote stations to their ultimate destinations, there was a barn near the spring, and coach drivers would stop to change and water their horses there.
Robert Peckett, the proprietor of the grand inn Peckett’s-on-Sugar-Hill, used to water his horses there en route to and from the train station in Littleton, where he collected hotel guests. Mr. Peckett was friendly with the Becks, and he provided a large cast iron basin – from the old Franconia Iron Works – to place under the spring and serve as a drinking trough.
Wilman remembers having to reinstall that basin a few times, after presumably drunken pranksters upended it into the road late at night. Eventually, someone blew it up with a pipe bomb, apparently just for kicks. Wilman still has the pieces of the original basin, and he’s thought about building a stone foundation and fitting them back under the outlet pipe of the spring. For now, though, the steel catch basin works just fine.
And the water tastes fine, too.
When I posted on social media about the spring, before I spoke with Wilman or knew he owned the spring, several people responded. They’ve been visiting that spring for decades, or remember the joy of stopping there as children to fill bottles on hot summer days, or they use it as a welcome watering hole on bike rides or runs along Old Franconia Road.
People stop at the spring with small water bottles or larger jugs, even 5-gallon buckets to fill and bring home. I’ve heard a local brewery uses the water from the spring, presumably to make its beer as tasty as possible.
Wilman figures the spring has been running here since the last Ice Age. People – and their horses – have likely been drinking from it for a couple of centuries. He’s maintained the spring for more than 30 years and will pass it on to his son for future safekeeping. Why?
On this road lined with stone walls and paved in history, the spring is a pleasant marker of consistency in an ever-changing world. As Wilman says, “It’s just a thing that shouldn’t disappear.”