Commentary
12:25 pm
Tue September 24, 2013

Mudgett: Stone Faces

Recently, a photo made the rounds on Facebook of a new so-called face spotted in a Smugglers’ Notch rock outcropping. Vermonter Ben Koch took the photograph in late August at an elevation close to the outcropping, and it certainly does resemble the side profile of a human face, so of course, it immediately drew comparisons to the late but much beloved Old Man of the Mountains in New Hampshire.

Over the years I’ve collected old postcards of Smugglers’ Notch rock formations, including well-known landmarks like the Hunter and His Dog, the Smuggler’s Face, the Singing Bird, and Elephant’s Head. I didn’t recognize the picture on Facebook, so I asked around, but it didn’t look familiar to anyone I asked, either.

Still, that’s not surprising, because we tend to see patterns in rock formations only once those shapes have been pointed out and made popular. In that way, people familiar with mass produced postcards of the Hunter and His Dog are most likely to recognize the formation when viewed from the same angle and perspective taken by the photographer.

Likewise, that desire to match what we see with what we’ve seen before explains why so many people compared the photo on Facebook to the Old Man of the Mountain, who was first discovered during the early nineteenth century, and whose fame grew along with the growth of White Mountain tourism.

Historian Karen Halttunen reminds us that it wasn’t a given that people would see an old Yankee’s face in that New Hampshire outcropping. Earlier that same profile had been seen as an old woman, an Indian, and a Roman warrior. Nineteenth-century Americans thought of such formations as natural curiosities, or jokes of nature, and interest in them grew along with interest in the science of geology.

Once New Hampshire had settled on an old man, the profile became something of a stone mascot who embodied regional manhood during a time when New Englanders wanted their sons to be content with opportunities at home. In Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short story “The Great Stone Face,” one town found the human embodiment of the Old Man’s character not in the local sons who’d achieved business or military success, but in the humble local preacher with more modest ambitions.

Vermonters eventually longed for an old man of their own. The best Vermont was ever able to offer, though, was not an outcropping in Smugglers’ Notch, but the upturned profile of Mount Mansfield, beginning with what’s still called the “forehead” and extending for two miles to the “chin,” which is the highest point on the face. The Mount Mansfield profile was OK, but not great; Vermonters complained that unlike the compact, vertical arrangement in New Hampshire, the Mount Mansfield face required an imaginative stretch to see and had to be viewed from a distance. Others saw the resemblance all too clearly.

Drawing on the popular nineteenth-century belief that facial proportions were a reliable indicator of intelligence, Vermonters like one Stowe resident concluded that since the chin was significantly more prominent than the forehead, Mansfield’s profile was "not very intellectual.”

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