From mills to whitewater, Franklin's economy driven by the river

From mills to whitewater, Franklin's economy driven by the river

The Laconia Daily Sun | Jon Decker | March 18, 2022

FRANKLIN — Franklin is a city of rivers. Both the Winnipesaukee and Pemigewasset pass through it, forming the Merrimack where they join, driving the shifting economy of the city. In the pre-Colonial past, these rivers served as prime fishing spots for native peoples. After conquest by settlers, the river’s role shifted to an industrial one, powering a variety of mills up and down the banks for more than a century, providing economic growth at the expense of the health of the river.

Now that the mills are long shuttered, the river is making a comeback, not as a driver of industry, but as a nexus of recreation and exploration of the natural world.

For the past six years, members of the community and city have worked to create a whitewater park, where kayakers and other water enthusiasts can test their paddling skills. Franklin resident and business owner Marty Parichand was key to the creation of Mill City Park, and now serves as its executive director.

Parichand said he was inspired by whitewater parks in Colorado. 

“Everywhere there’s a whitewater park, it's a really vibrant place,” Parichand said. “There’s people sitting on the shore watching other people have fun, letting their kids go in ankle deep water playing, it's just a great way of creating this vibrant area that attracts other people whether or not you want to paddle.”

Parichand has been a paddler for two decades. He discovered his love of whitewater after taking a summer job in college at a rafting company. After graduation, he got what he called “a real job,” stuck inside a cubicle. 

“I went through some stuff personally that made me rethink the things I wanted to do in my life, so I changed my career and invested all my time, effort and money into things here in Franklin,” Parichard said.

Mill history

“The Winnipesaukee drops 98 feet, something like that from Cross Mill down to the Sanborn Bridge,” said Leigh Webb, president of the Franklin Historical Society, “that’s what creates that constant flow of water, which is the source of power for mills.”

Franklin’s mills started mainly in the paper and pulp-making industry, the first of which was created in 1822, according to Webb.

During this period of industrialization, many farmers found themselves drawn to towns and cities in order to leave behind the debt-heavy, high-risk business of agriculture. With the mills came jobs, and with the jobs came workers. 

“This was early 20th Century, late 19th, so not everyone could afford a horse and carriage so they had to walk to where they worked,” Webb said. “That meant that all of their staples, all of their clothing needs, all of the coal or whatever they needed had to be supplied locally, so that’s where Franklin flourished.”

This time of economic boom was temporary, and it came with a cost. The mills polluted the rivers; the labor was dangerous, long, and poorly compensated. Mill workers in the United States often worked at least 60 hours a week, earning about $1.50 a day in 1900. That’s equivalent of around $50.20 for a 10-hour day, or $15,311 per year in today’s dollars.

Such conditions eventually gave rise to labor advocacy, unions, and strikes. 

“The fact is the workers wanted a fair return for a day's work,” Webb said. “There was actually a strike and I think it started in 1921. It was basically the demise of paper making in Franklin. By the late 1930s, I think all the paper mills were gone or burned or demolished.”

Other mills managed to cling onto existence throughout the decades, until the final one shuttered its doors in 1984.

“Franklin didn't have much of an identity after the last mill closed. It was just another old mill town,” Webb said, citing the lack of industrial business in the area. “If you look around, there's just not a lot of literal space to create more industry.”

Franklin today

Franklin's revival comes in the form of embracing instead of exploiting the environment. 

Parichard opened an outdoor gear store, Outdoor New England, downtown, right on the banks of the Winnipesaukee. The store sells backpacking equipment, kayaks and other gear. 

“We run the non-profit Mill City Park out of the store. So this is ground zero for all things whitewater park related.”

In addition to the river, Franklin is home to nature trails and protected forest lands, drawing more outdoor enthusiasts to the area. 

Parichand hopes the park will bring not just paddlers and outdoors enthusiasts to town, but also spectators. 

“The real economic driver for the city is when a paddler comes, 14 people are coming to watch,” Parichand said. "It's those people that will walk downtown and go shopping and stay to eat and stay overnight. The reception so far has been fantastic. The state of NH has been helping us with marketing and markets outside of the state.”

“Now with Marty Parichand’s idea of a whitewater park, Franklin is rapidly becoming a recreation destination for hiking, jogging, snowmobiles, bicycles when the weather is good, and now kayaking,” Webb said. “The identity of Franklin has changed dramatically over the last two centuries.”

Marty Parichand demonstrates paddling through the whitewater at Mill City Park in downtown Franklin. (Jon Decker/The Laconia Daily Sun photo)

Kayakers brave the cold March temperatures to experience paddling the rapids at Mill City Park in Franklin. (Jon Decker/The Laconia Daily Sun photo) 

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