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'We live, we die, we pay taxes, and we love the Old Man.' 20 years later, NH holds on.

A black and white photograph of the Old Man of the Mountain, a formation of rocks that look like a man's profile.
The Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

[Editor's note: We highly recommend listening to this story.]

It’s been 20 years since the Old Man of the Mountain collapsed.

On May 3, 2003, the uncanny stone face that graces New Hampshire’s license plates, highway signs, and the state quarter was no more. Podcaster and former reporter Kevin Flynn broke the story for WMUR-TV.

“It's like if Old Faithful had all of a sudden just stopped, right? Or if Thomas Jefferson fell off of Mount Rushmore,” Flynn said.

Felice Belman remembers the day the Old Man fell. She was an editor for the Concord Monitor at the time.

“We had an on-call reporter that day, but I decided that this story was so big and that reporter was so green, we totally could not trust her with the enormity of the story,” Belman said.

So she brought in a veteran reporter to document the scene. Mourners dressed in black came to Franconia Notch to stare up at the blank space where the Old Man used to be.

“[It was] as if an actual human had died, as if a VIP politician or celebrity of some sort had passed away,” Belman said.

One man looks at where the Old Man of the Mountain used to be while another man points at the top of the mountain.
Jackie Harris
Former caretaker of the Old Man of the Mountain, David Nielsen, shows Rick Ganley where the Old Man used to be on Profile Mountain.

No one knew the Old Man of the Mountain better than David Nielsen, the last official caretaker of the rock profile.

“Everything from birthdays with my dad on the Old Man – My wife and I had our second date on the Old Man – I mean, those things tied into our love of New Hampshire and our love of the Old Man,” Nielsen said.

I do feel like the Old Man was part of what made New Hampshire distinct.

His father, Niels Nielsen, became the first caretaker of the rock face in the 1960s.

“As a kid, my dad told people that he went to the Old Man to give him a shave and a haircut.”

The Nielsens pulled shrubs and flowers out of cracks on the Old Man's head for his haircut. They scaled the side of his profile to measure the the rocks for his shave.

While the rock face looked eternal, people noted early in the 1900s that the Old Man’s profile was shifting. The Nielsens did their best to repair and prevent further damage to the formation.

“We knew that what we were doing was only slowing down the natural course of events,” Nielsen said.

Old Man of the Mountain sign, the "Great Stone Face," in Franconia, NH on June 13, 2022. Zoey Knox photo / NHPR
Zoey Knox
Old Man of the Mountain sign, the "Great Stone Face," in Franconia, NH on June 13, 2022.

We don’t actually know how old the Old Man was when he fell. White settlers in the 1800s established the popular narrative associated with the rock formation.

And not everyone has such an attachment to the Old Man. Felice Belman understands that some people just don’t care.

“It doesn't matter in the cosmic sense,” Belman said. “But I do feel the old man was part of what made New Hampshire distinct, and it was a connection to the North Country. In that way it's wonderful that people remember it.”

To David Nielsen, the Old Man is every Granite Stater’s heritage.

“It is one of the few things that we all have in common here,” said Nielsen. “We live, we die, we pay taxes, and we love the Old Man.”

Jackie Harris is the Morning Edition Producer at NHPR. She first joined NHPR in 2021 as the Morning Edition Fellow.

For many radio listeners throughout New Hampshire, Rick Ganley is the first voice they hear each weekday morning, bringing them up to speed on news developments overnight and starting their day off with the latest information.
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