Hard to Pronounce,
Quick to Charm
Story and photos by Stacy Milbouer and Tom Long
Fiddlehead Contributing Editors
First a note about how to pronounce Contoocook.
Martin Marklin, world-class candlemaker, beekeeper and local business owner, provides an easy trick.
“You can’t cook.”
“Yes, I can too cook.”
No matter how you say it, this charmer of a village is in the town of Hopkinton. Contoocook (a Penacook name meaning “place of the river near pines”) is a walking hamlet with independently owned restaurants, small businesses, cafés and shops offering everything from healing oils to boutique clothes and antiques to liturgical candles.
It’s evolved into a hip little burg with artists, a strong sense of history and support of locally owned businesses. That charm married with the lack of shopping malls, big-box stores and fast-food chains, add up to quintessential New England quaintness. Eat your heart out Norman Rockwell.
“Contoocook is loaded with talented people,” Marklin said.
He’s right. The village tucked in a bend on the Contoocook River has a lot to offer. Locals are quick to point out the covered bridge. But there is so much more.
“The oldest railroad covered bridge still standing, three or four restaurants, boutiques and shops, Contoocook has it all,” said former ad man, Mark Winzeler, the president and founding member of the Contoocook Riverway Association and owner of Union House Oddities. The Riverway Association runs the historic Contoocook Railroad Depot and Riverway Park in Contoocook Village. The park includes the train depot, the world’s oldest surviving covered railroad bridge, a 1907 vintage Pullman coach and the Lewellen Bandstand.
It’s a little complicated, but Contoocook is really a village in the town of Hopkinton, which also includes West Hopkinton.
Hopkinton was once the state capital and is the birthplace of Rose Flanders Bascom, the first woman lion tamer. Flanders was born in 1880 when trains still passed over the river. She performed in the early 1900s and died in 1915 after being clawed by a lion.
Contoocook was a popular stop on the rail line between Boston and Montreal. The railroad left town years ago, but you can still march across the covered bridge and visit the former depot, which has been restored and is operated as a museum – usually open on Saturdays during the town’s farmers’ market.
Winzeler explained the association was established 17 years ago when it bought the depot from the town of Hopkinton for one silver dollar. With federal funding, an extensive renovation of the railroad bridge and depot began in the summer of 2002.
Over the years, many original items have been returned to the depot by the community, such as the enameled blue Contoocook station sign, luggage cart and a seating bench. Ten years ago, a wooden Pullman passenger coach was donated and placed on rails behind the depot.
The station and many of Contoocook’s eateries and boutiques are in the Fountain Square area of the village. LeeAnne Vance is the heart and soul of locally owned shops and businesses. She is the executive director of the newly formed Contoocook Chamber of Commerce and owns Indigo Blues & Co.
“Our new motto is ‘Contoocook – live, work and play,’” she said.
Vance said that the businesses and artists in the heart of the village have been closely connected for a while, but that many of the new people who have moved to town might not be aware of the businesses and artisans outside the village such as Bulgarian potter Boyan Moskav, and Kathleen Dustin of Wearable D’Art, whose eclectic jewelry made from alternative materials is sold throughout the country. Dustin recently participated in the Smithsonian Craft Show in Washington, D.C.
The Chamber also helps promote local events such as the upcoming Artist on the Porch on June 3, an open-air celebration of local artists and crafters, including exhibits and demonstrations, and Starry Starry Weekend, a holiday event held in December.
Jean lovers need to head to Indigo Blues & Co. with its wall of denim wonders that range from the hard-to-find to sublime. The funky boutique also features quality clothes, jewelry and accessories.
Next door is Polkadots Gift Boutique, owned by daughter and mother team, Annie and Susan Yonkers. “It’s always been a dream of mine,” said Annie. “I love working with my mother.”
The store reflects that cheerful multi-generations’ feeling. There are bright textiles, quality children’s toys and some carefully selected beauty and grooming products. “Hands-on gifts,” said Susan.
Delights like Dee Doodling abstract coloring books from local artist Sara Diaz are just as fun for a toddler as it is for a business executive.
For home décor that (according to the sign) is “useful, inspired and unexpected,” hit up 3 on Main Mercantile across the street. There’s a wide selection of kitchen gadgets, furniture and local objects d’art.
Upcycled furnishings with a truly personal touch is what it’s all about at Sage & Twine on Stumpfield Road, where forlorn antiques are magically transformed into collectors’ items by owners and BFFs, Amy Rothe and Becky King, who have been known “to paint anything that stood still long enough.” The shop also offers classes on chalk painting and techniques, and bring-in-your-own furniture-for-transformation workshops.
Funky and functional antiques and new furnishings are available at Union House Oddities, housed in the former Swedenborgian Church on Maple Street. Winzeler has assembled an eclectic collection of art, antiques and furniture – including mid-century modern designs that could be straight off the set of “Mad Men.” He used to design web content and “got sick of looking at a flat screen.” He said he loves the idea of this three-dimensional shop/gallery for the next phase of his life and career.
For those who like a natural approach to health and grooming, Contoocook has that covered. Magic Secret Garden in Fountain Square sells essential oils, herbs and teas mixed by Jeanette Klan, who co-owns the shop with her husband, Alex, the creator of amazing, cast garden artifacts like angels’ wings and whimsical fountains. The couple originally hails from Germany and sells outrageously fabulous baked goods from Blakeney’s bakery, including Bavarian-style pretzels. “And of course, we make German coffee,” said Alex.
Also in town is YAYA Organics, which makes natural deodorants, insect repellents and botanical face oils. Contoocook’s shopping scene also includes Rusty’s General Store for Animals in Fountain Square, a kind of boutique for Bowser, with nutritious pet food, toys, canine fashion and New Hampshire-made pet products like leashes and collars.
A bit away from downtown in the 1821 post-and-beam barn at Gould Hill Farm you can pick up apples, hard cider, honey from the bees that work the orchard, apple cider doughnuts, muffins, pies and cookies and pick your own apples when the season arrives.
All that shopping got you tired? There are plenty of places to eat after shopping in the village. The Everyday Café and Pub has a ski vibe with a booth fashioned from a recycled lift and a bar made of colorful skis. The local hangout also has a Pac-Man table, trivia and open-mic nights and a menu with a farm-to-table vibe, including burgers made with grass-fed beef from New England Farms; locally made Squamscot sodas; and bold sandwiches like the Tooky Bruin – smoked salmon from Ducktrap in Maine, cream cheese, tomatoes and cukes on a bagel and the Bup – beef short rib, cheddar cheese, tomato and horseradish mayo on thick toast.
The Covered Bridge Restaurant overlooks the river and has a dramatic view of the rapids. The menu is described as “classy casual cuisine” with a variety of steaks and seafood, with Asian, Mexican and Italian entrees as well.
The Country Fare Diner is a local favorite, said Dennie Yianakopolos, who work across the street. “It’s really the perfect, American diner with a loyal following and a great feel. Everybody knows everybody and the food is good.”
Dimitri’s Pizza is a casual dining eatery, which has been family-owned and run for more than two decades. In the summer, homemade ice cream is for sale at the front counters with a view of the Contoocook River rushing past the outdoor seatin.
The Covered Bridge Frame Shop and Gallery has an impressive display of paintings, prints and pottery from local artists like John Allan Kendall’s sepia, pen-and-ink wash drawings with nautical themes. And of course, you can get a piece of artwork framed there, or as Covered Bridge refers to it, “the art of complementing art.”
Hashtag Art Studio on Main Street offers art instruction, mixed-media and wine-and-design nights and open artists’ studio. It also has art pieces and hand-painted signs in its gallery shop.
For more information about shopping, dining, events or the arts in town, visit Explore Contoocook at explorecontoocook.com and the Contoocook Chamber of Commerce on Facebook at facebook.com/tookychamber.