After riding and driving past the puzzling sign on Route 97 in Salem, New Hampshire my entire life, I have at last ventured to America’s Stonehenge. Billed (by the proprietors) as a 4,000 year old prehistoric complex of granite chambers and stone calendars, the site was given its lofty moniker back in the 1980s. Before that, it was known as “Mystery Hill Caves.” The name change occurred to make the destination sound pseudo-archaeological, and less like a roadside attraction (“World’s Largest Twine Ball!”), but a strong thread of hucksterism still prevails at America’s Stonehenge. The goofball gift shop, the hand-lettered signs, and the cheeseball “recreated Indian wigwam” alert the visitor that this is no museum run by stodgy WASPs who practice archaeology as an avocation.
For some inexplicable reason, there is an alpaca farm at the site. But there are no guides, no tastefully done interpretive signage. There is just a two page pamphlet riddled with misspellings that gives such inscrutable descriptions as, “Sacrificial table is believed to have been used for sacrifices, not only for its size and the oracle speaking tube beneath it, as well as the carved channel on the top of the table.” These “educational” materials seem deliberately vague as to the age and origin of the stone channels and caves here. Radio carbon dating has confirmed use of the site by Northeastern Indians, but the “sacrificial stone” bears a striking resemblance to the lye-leaching stones used in the 18th and 19th centuries to make soap. The idea that a series of vertical stones set about the site were an ancient astronomical calendar seems questionable too, especially when reading this gem from the pamphlet: “This stone marked the southernmost set of the sun almost 4000 years ago, but is off today because earth’s tilt (obligity) has changed.” Obligity?
The name, America’s Stonehenge, does the place a disservice, elevating expectations that are inevitably dashed upon seeing a series of low granite walls and warren of cellar holes and root storage areas. And the idea that Druids came to America thousands of years before the English colonists and built these things is not only goofy, but detracts from what the site really does have to offer. Clearly, this place was used by native peoples for their fires, and tool-making, and agriculture. And an eccentric 19th century farmer named Jonathan Pattee was apparently responsible for some of the structures, as this was his homestead until the mid-1850s. But the whole matter is muddied by the efforts of William Goodwin, who bought the site back in 1937 and apparently had many stones moved to what he felt were their “original” Druidic/Celtic locations. His modifications altered the place quite profoundly to support his pet theory, and made it all but impossible to say for sure what went on at this place over the past few millenia.
So, if you go to America’s Stonehenge, and I do recommend it, you can see whatever you want to see in these stones. I am not troubled in the slightest by the prospect that they may just be the heavily modified cellar holes and potato storage areas of a 19th century New England curmudgeon. You can’t beat the feeling of crouching into a dark, granite walled chamber, feeling the temperature drop around you, the leaves and damp under you, and just sitting in silence for a bit with two awestruck little boys.