January 7, 2008 — As of 1982, the official name of this Salem, New Hampshire, oddity was changed by its owners from “Mystery Hill” to “America’s Stonehenge” for marketing purposes. I guess it was inevitable, but I’m still way ticked about it. And by way ticked, I mean mildly annoyed on the one occasion that I happened to have thought about it. Not because I hold the original Stonehenge sacred in any way. I’m not a druid, after all, even though I keep having to deny it for some reason. I’m just not a big fan of the over-sell, especially for something that’s sell-able intrinsically. And I think Mystery Hill is sell-able for what it is. Plus it’s just too apparent of a moniker. Granted, its other name of Mystery Hill is a bit on the generic side and probably technically applies to the hill on which the stones are found, but still, if you’re going to change the name to sell it, then sell it for what it is, a humble but intriguing arrangement of rocks of unknown origin. Anyway, as my little feint at principle, I categorized this article as Mystery Hill, but I’ll probably switch back and forth between the two names for the duration of the article depending on random factors such as my ever-changing relationship with apostrophes and how many characters I want in a given line of text. I feel like I’m getting off on the wrong foot with this article.
The earliest known records of the Mystery Hill site go back a few hundred years. Mostly just people purchasing and selling the 30-acre property on which the large-but-far-from-Stonehenge-large stones reside. There are rumors, however, of it being a stop on the Underground Railroad and that a visit to it by H.P. Lovecraft helped inspire him to pen his short story The Dunwich Horror. There are always rumors, though, about everything. And I will always report half of them as facts.
Mystery Hill gets the Stonehenge comparison because it’s made of rocks, it’s older than anybody who’s alive today, and its origins are unclear. But that’s a lot like saying Westminster Abbey and the First Baptist Church of Fish Trap, Kentucky, are similar because they’re both churches. Or, more accurately and without the distracting American town reference, that your house and the Kremlin are both made of bricks. Architecturally, there’s no comparison.
Another vague similarity is that some people claim Mystery Hill is an observatory for keeping track of solstices and other such astronomically based events that humans always seem to have a need to keep track of. I’ve never been a big proponent of the giant stone calendar idea, though, even with the actual Stonehenge. It just seems that there are way better ways to keep track of time. If ancient Egyptians could come up with a way to make ice in the middle of the desert, then ancient Europeans can at least come up with a more manageable way to track stars and seasons. And that goes for whoever built Mystery Hill. If you’re smart enough to track the sky in the first place, you’re smart enough to devise something less unwieldy to do it with.
As I’ve already implied, no one really knows how old it is (which is strange to me, as we claim to be able to date everything from quasars to dirt clods), so that makes people attribute its builders to a wide range of people from Native Americans to pre-Columbus Europeans to Colonial-era settlers. Strangely, no space aliens, though. Says something in itself, I think, when the crackpots don’t claim it. Also adding to the difficulty is that the site’s been contaminated multiple times in its history by people moving and removing stones, some out of chicanery and others for practical reasons. Markings have also been found in the stone that some claim are ancient runes and others say are scratch marks from gardening tools and tree roots. I love situations where somebody is definitely wrong.
A lot of questions swirl (yes, swirl) as to the purpose of the site. Not so much for me. Let me show you why. Right now, in one of the southernmost parts of California, a man is single-handedly painting the desert with brightly colored latex paint. Ninety years ago near the tip of Florida, a man carved an entire castle out of two million pounds of dead coral. Half a century ago in the Czech Republic, monks covered the interior of a church in the human bones of 40,000 people. And sometime in a time beyond time in an unfashionable part of the Milky Way galaxy, someone set a handful of planets rotating around an unremarkable G2 star. Cognizant beings just do things. People, especially, need to be occupied. It’s why we fall in love, why we start businesses, why we hobby, why we pick up causes, why we bear children, why we watch television...and why we start Internet sites to document the things we’ve seen. There are other reasons to do all these things, of course, but it’s all part of just staying busy. In the case of America’s Stonehenge, they did it with stones. That’s why it exists today. I think. Or I just needed one more paragraph to make this article look complete. In reality, I have no theory for its existence.
In one of my own many attempts to keep occupied one drizzly weekday afternoon in autumn, I visited Mystery Hill. It’s located at 105 Haverhill Road in Salem, New Hampshire, in the southeast corner of the state near the Massachusetts border. The place isn’t hard to find, so I’ll only spend the preceding sentence on that part. Once you arrive, it’s the usual procedure. You enter the visitor’s center, wander through the gift shop, view a scale model of the site, purchase your tickets and receive some literature for a self-guided tour, sit for a bit in a small theater and watch a movie involving...well, I don’t quite know. I skipped the movie. I always try to skip introductory movies. I can Netflix anything I need to see later. Directly behind the visitor’s center are a few alpacas and some activities to occupy kids. And there were actually quite a few kids there at the time I visited. Enough in fact, to make me regret my timing and the whole way that the human race replenishes itself. I should have been prepared, I guess. When I pulled into the site, a couple yellow buses were parked out front. The two always seem to be connected for some reason I haven’t been able to puzzle out yet. Seriously, though, this is exactly the type of place that America’s Stonehenge is. A great place for a school field trip. Should be their slogan, in fact. Right now it’s “Explore the Mysteries!”, but imperative sentences always make me want to do the opposite. However, as we took the path away from the visitor’s center and into the woods toward the actual stones, the sound of kids died behind us. If I’d of written that last sentence in a different tense, you’d of seen the phrase, “the sounds of kids dying behind us” for the first time in the history of the written word. By the time we got to the outer wall of the site a couple of minutes later, it was empty of people except for a trio of adults that were just finishing up their own personal adventure at the place.
And that is a great thing about the site. It’s separated enough from the main entrance that you feel like you’re in the middle of a primeval forest, but not so far that you have to actually do anything close to hiking. It’s more like you pleasantly stroll to the site. In the winter the area's even set up for snowshoeing. Inside this outer wall of stones is the main part of Mystery Hill. Fences, chains, and signs show you exactly how to enter, navigate, and exit it. Spray-painted symbols show you what they believed the purposes of the individual rocks are. Numbered signs correspond to explanations listed in the literature you receive when you buy your tickets. All told, the literature lists 32 different points of interest on the site (in addition to the 15 more astronomical points of interest). I have no idea how they wrung that much blood out of the stones. The stone arrangements include a table-like set-up; various cairns, monoliths, and bivouacs; a number of random walls and wells; and a short tunnel. At the end of it all is a wooden observation tower that elevates you a short distance above the site for a bit of perspective (but only a small bit). My pictures of the place don’t do a good job of encapsulating it at all, but that's only partially due to my lack of skill at setting up shots. Mostly it’s due to the asymmetrical nature of the site and the fact that there is not one bit of it that can stand as iconic of the rest.
Overall, the site looks exactly like what somebody who’s cynical would describe it as: a jumble of stones. I prefer to describe it more as a stone playground. Very Bamm-Bamm. It made me want to clamber. Which is fine with me, honestly, and doesn’t mean it’s not worth seeing, at all. The opposite, in fact. It’s just a bit oversold. If you think it’s literally America’s Stonehenge, you’ll probably be disappointed. Which is why I’ve spent most of the article deflating that angle. It’s not awe-inspiring, its history and claims at distinction are controversial, and no outstanding finds have been discovered amongst its ruins. However, if you’re looking for an interesting place to be occupied for a bit, you’ll be happy. I was happy with it. Even though it might not be a great place to trip to, it’s definitely a great place to side-trip to. There’s a slogan for you.