Native American tribe holds out hope for Laconia drive-in propertyBy TODD FEATHERS
New Hampshire Union Leader
June 17. 2018 9:36PM
LACONIA — The likely presence of Native American artifacts beneath the Weirs Beach Drive-in scuttled a developer’s plan to buy the property last year, but a local tribe sees that same obstacle as opportunity and is holding on to hope that it could one day purchase and preserve the land.
Archaeologists believe the site, also known by the Abenaki name Acquadocton, was one of the largest fishing and social gathering sites for Native Americans in what is now New Hampshire. Excavations of adjacent properties have uncovered artifacts as old as 9,600 years.
But sitting as it does on one of the few large parcels in Laconia zoned for both residential and commercial development, the drive-in site is also valuable to the town and its owner, Patricia Baldi, who is asking $2.6 million for the property.
“If we were suddenly very wealthy we would buy this site, I’m sure we would, it’s that important to us,” said Paul Pouliot, chief of the Cowasuck Band of the Pennacook Abenaki People. The tribe doesen’t have the financial means to bid on the site on its own, so it’s looking for potential partners.
“Are we asking? Every time we talk publicly we raise that flag up,” Pouliot said. “We’re floating trial balloons in every public forum we go into and waiting for a bite.”
Meanwhile, they wait to hear about other plans for the property.
Many artifacts have been found in the The Weirs area, which is on the National Register of Historic Places and includes the drive-in, but Baldi’s 12.6 acres haven’t seen any significant excavations and she dismisses the notion that it contains artifacts or graves, which could significantly complicate development.
“It’s like hysteria, and I just can’t understand it,” Baldi said. “There wasn’t a village here. These were nomads.”
State Archaeologist Richard Boisvert, who has found fish-drying pits, spearheads, pottery and other artifacts in the area said there’s no knowing what’s beneath the drive-in but he’s “as certain as you can be” that there are items of historical significance.
“The last best site of this variety is at Weirs, that’s why it’s important — there are things that we don’t know that we don’t know,” he said. “There is a whole wealth of information about the artistic and social life of people in the past that we barely have a glimmer of.“
Using new geochemical testing methods, for example, archaeologists could examine residue on pottery to determine the diets of the people who lived at Acquadocton or analyze chippings from stone tools to determine their trading routes.
If they find a partner to help them purchase the site, Pouliot said his tribe would likely consider turning it into a green space open to the public. Even though any developer would have to take certain precautions to avoid destroying historical artifacts, the tribe worries that large-scale excavation will inevitably cause damage and, even worse, could disturb any graves that may be on the property.
As long as the price is right, Baldi isn’t particularly concerned about what use the land is put to.
In the town of Laconia, however, there are big hopes for commercial development of the property. Developer Al Mitchell, who was on the verge of purchasing the drive-in for $2.5 million until he met with Boisvert and Baldi last September, planned to build an event center and residential complex.
“We just don’t have that many places in the city where you can build something commercially with a significant piece of land,” Laconia Mayor Edward Engler said. “I suspect that most people would not see that (preservation as a green space) as the highest and best use of the property, but who’s to say. I certainly don’t think it’s a disaster or anything.”