The Secrets of Robin Hood

“Full many years I loved to roam,

These woods and  hills in sight of home,

Their cliff-crowned heights and vales,

With grassy walls and hidden trails”

– George A. Wheelock

The Naturalist

Who was this Robin Hood-like figure? The documents of the era describe George Wheelock as quiet and “of a retiring disposition.” But he wasn’t by any means a recluse. Harvard educated, he practiced law and held a number of prominent posts, including president of  the city Ashuelot National Bank, park commissioner for the city, legislative representative, and chairman of the school board. He even composed a book of poetry! It is evident, however, that his real interests were with nature and children. George Wheelock died in 1906. His grave in Woodland Cemetery is marked with a boulder and the epitaph, “Naturalist.”

 George A. Wheelock

By Robin Madsen ( Keene Sentinel )

Keene’s Robin Hood Park, enjoyed by thousands of visitors each year, is the product of many people, the best known being George Wheelock, the donor of much of the property. But another, less well known individual also figures significantly in the park’s history: Wright Carter.

The park we know as Robin Hood wasn’t always as it is today. In 1872, six acres were purchased by the city, and a dam was constructed to form the reservoir that is still there. A second reservoir was built a few years later to handle the additional water supply from Roxbury. Built of granite, it was known as the Octagon Reservoir because of its shape. Later, during the depression, Works Progress Administration crews transformed it into an amphitheater.

During the winters, the original reservoir was used commercially by the City Ice Company. Founded in 1884 by local businessmen Charles Pierce and Fred Towns, the enterprise was one of the first ice suppliers in Keene. The ice was cut at the reservoir and stored in sawdust for use in refrigeration in the summer.

In June 1888 the city council formally designated the place City Park. In time it became part of 100 acres now known collectively as Robin Hood Park.

George Wheelock was responsible for much of the expansion. In 1889, and again in 1897, Wheelock gave the city land that he had purchased adjacent to City Park to secure the place for children to enjoy the outdoors. He named one tract the Children’s Woods, and the other Robin Hood Forest.

He planted the trees in the fields where Robin Hood’s rich forests now stand. He created the first trails that wind through the park’s landscape, and christened prominent rocks along the way with whimsical names such as Ajax, Sunset Rock, and the Blarney Stone. After Wheelock passed away, it was left to others to carry on his dream and make Robin Hood a place for children and adults alike to enjoy.

One such person was Wright Carter. Wright, better know by his nickname, “Bull,” contributed much to Keene’s parks, including Robin Hood. Carter graduated from Peacham Academy in Vermont, but for part of his high school education he attended Keene High, and he made the Keene area his home for much of his life, which was an eventful one.

At age 24 he saved his sister’s life by catching her as she leapt from the flame-engulfed fourth story of her apartment building in the old Cheshire County Savings Bank Block on the north comer of Roxbury Street. During World War II, he served in the U. S. Army and afterwards became a member of the Gordon Bissell American Legion Post 4. He belonged to the Keene Lodge of Elks and was an Exalted Ruler, and became Deputy Grand Exalted Ruler of the Elks’ New Hampshire South district. He was successful in business and was a partner for many years in Ellis Brothers Florists.

Described by his friends and acquaintances as a very caring and generous man, he loved children. A football player himself, he was also a great fan of sports. He was able to weave these two passions together when he became Park Commissioner in about 1950. In this capacity, he did all he could on a limited budget to make Robin Hood a place for kids to enjoy. He erected a backstop in the lower field so that people could play ball, kept the tennis courts in good condition and started a tennis league.

He maintained the grounds and had a maintenance building constructed. One of his major projects was the development of a summer program. He included many outdoor activities and encouraged athletic events. He also started a children’s float parade in Robin Hood that continued for many years. Meanwhile, he also worked to develop programs for seniors.

He died in 1981 at Cheshire Medical Center, and memories of him, and what he did for Keene’s parks, children, and community are still strong among those who knew him.

Today at Robin Hood Park, one can see people enjoying the many things Wheelock envisioned and Carter helped develop. Whether a game of tennis on the courts, kickball in the field below the reservoir, or hide-and-seek in the woods, Robin Hood appeals to everyone. In the winter, the pond is a flurry of skaters, and in the summer it is dotted with hopeful anglers casting lines into the quiet water.

Robin Hood is also popular with pets who regularly bring their owners out to play, or hikers exploring the expansive network of trails, or ponderers and readers just sitting and taking in the beauty and quietude of the park.

So, just take a minute to head up Roxbury Street, turn onto Dam Street and see for yourself. I think you will find, as generations have before, that Robin Hood is a beautiful place with something to offer everyone.

Boulders

If you like rocks you have ventured into the right place! Scattered throughout the park are boulders. In some places they seem to form caves and others look like giants or fire trucks. George Wheelock liked boulders too: so much that he gave them names. No one knows what he was thinking when he chose the names, but here are some guesses.

  • “Ladies and gentleman…welcome to the greatest show in Children’s Wood! Now turn your attention to Quarry Road to see Jumbo, the worlds largest elephant.”
  • “If all the wandering has made you hungry, pack a lunch and head for Table Rock.”
  • “Unlike its Irish counterpart, this Blarney Stone is a stone bench. Be careful if you sit on it, you might have to tell a story!”

“A blarney stone was found in Keene,

Strangest thing that ever was seen!

No one can touch this kind of stone,

Until he has a story told.”

– George A. Wheelock

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