Gracious Village
(This village is about 5 miles from the estate)

That's how author James Michener described the small town of Walpole, N.H.

December 20, 2004


When Clifton Cooke lived and worked in Darien, Conn., he sometimes thumbed through magazine articles about the 25 best places to retire. But he wasn't interested in most of the choices.

"We weren't trying to go to some place that was overdone, and there are a lot of them," he says.

But Mr. Cooke found a place to his liking in the New England village of Walpole, N.H. He and his wife, Lyn, came upon the town in 1999 when they visited neighbors who had bought a house in the village for weekend use. Later that year, the Cookes bought a large, white-columned house of their own. When Mr. Cooke retired from the family's travel-industry publishing business in early 2003, the Cookes moved to Walpole full time.

"We liked the house, the neighborhood and the proximity to the village," says Mr. Cooke, age 74, sitting on his porch overlooking the grassy side yard bordered by a creek.

Lacking an 18-hole golf course, ski resort, discount outlets or a university, Walpole doesn't have the ingredients of a major retirement destination. But its combination of historic houses, active village life and convenience to Boston and New York is attracting a steady stream of retirees.

Paradise -- With Snow

"It's not a place you would have heard of before," says Chuck Bingaman, who moved to Walpole in 2002 after 20 years as head of a continuing legal-education center in Springfield, Ill. "We stumbled into paradise here."

Of course, paradise in New England has its drawbacks. Walpole is located in the Snow Belt, and winters are often bitterly cold. The big, impressive houses require frequent maintenance. The selection of houses or building lots on the market at any one time can be very limited.


At the heart of Walpole's appeal is the cluster of large white colonial and Greek revival houses around and near a long grassy common. The village itself, with about 3,500 people, is surrounded by farms and hillsides that afford breathtaking views of the Connecticut River valley and neighboring Vermont. It's an arrangement that has stayed strikingly unchanged for 150 years.

Walpole residents are proud that writers Louisa May Alcott and James Michener chose to work in the village. Mr. Michener, who started writing his novel "Hawaii" in a house overlooking the Walpole common, called the town "one of the most gracious villages ever to be developed in America."

More recently, Walpole has gained recognition as the home of Larry Burdick, a maker of handmade gourmet chocolates. Filmmaker Ken Burns, renowned for historic documentaries including his Civil War series, moved to Walpole in 1979. He says he came to appreciate Walpole's long history when he saw a grave marker in the woods with the inscription: "Thomas Flynt and Daniel Twitchell. Killed by Indians 1755." Mr. Burns says he has found home. "I'm going to die here," he says.

In recent years Messrs. Burdick and Burns joined forces to transform an old supermarket in the center of Walpole into a chocolate factory and gourmet restaurant. Walpole has long benefited from the civic generosity of the Hubbard family, which founded and later sold a company operating local breeding farms for the poultry industry. The Hubbards have donated funds to refurbish several downtown buildings and to buy development rights to agricultural areas.


Strong Allure

Such efforts have added some polish to the natural beauty of Walpole. Jack Pratt wasn't even planning to retire from the temporary-labor firm he was running in Los Angeles when he happened upon Walpole in 1992. While visiting his sister in nearby Keene, N.H., he saw a house on a Walpole hillside with a sweeping view of the surrounding countryside.

"That's all it took. It was perfect," says the 71-year-old Mr. Pratt. Since then, his business partner has run the firm day-to-day, while Mr. Pratt manages its finances by computer in Walpole.

For some people, Walpole represents a stopping-off point on their way from a demanding full-time career to a blend of work and leisure while living in a less stressful rural setting. Technology, particularly the Internet, has made the transition possible. Lois Ford, 52, and her husband, Louis Ciercielli, 51, both former General Electric Co. mechanical engineers, now run a baking company in North Walpole, using the Internet to reach customers.

David Howard, an architect and proponent of village life who lives in Walpole, goes so far as to say that Walpole "reflects the values of the U.S. Constitution, equal rights, equal justice and equal opportunity. You can see it in the way the houses relate to each other." Settlers, given land by the king of England, placed their houses close together, facing the village common, Mr. Howard says.

Potluck Suppers

In addition to its village layout, Walpole is abundant in the human-scale activity that a village promotes. On a Saturday evening in October, parishioners of the Episcopal Church honored their interim rector, W. David Dobbins, and his wife, Jane, with a potluck supper. Across the street in the town hall, a dance band entertained a wedding party.

"We thought the New Englanders would be cool and not receptive to us, and it was just the opposite," says Rosemarie O'Keefe, who moved to Walpole in 1987. "They welcomed us with open arms."


Population 3,500
Elevation 400-500 feet
Area 37.5 square miles
July average high temp. 82.2 degrees
July average low temp. 56.7 degrees
January average high temp. 30.3 degrees
January average low temp. 8.9 degrees
Average annual snowfall 54.2 inches
Median Age 40.6 years
Pct. of population age 65-plus 17.8
Pct. of population age 55-plus 27.4
Per capita income $23,295
Number of houses 100 to 200 years old About 200
Restaurants Six
Churches Six
Working farms Nine
Cows 2, 500
Apple trees at Allyson's Orchard 22,000
Miles of Connecticut River shoreline 11
Holes at the Hooper Golf Course Nine
Average cost of three-bedroom house $300,000
Annual real-estate tax on a $300,000 house $3,700
Cost of a historic five-bedroom house with attached barn $649,000
Burdick's chocolate made a year About 35 tons
Number of Burdick's chocolate mice sold a year 750000

Sources: New Hampshire Office of Energy and Planning; Walpole town government; U.S. Weather Service; WSJ research
Nevertheless, the O'Keefes moved back to Brooklyn, N.Y., in 1992. Mrs. O'Keefe fell on wet leaves and lost hearing in one ear. But she got the treatment she needed in New York and regained her hearing.

Her husband, Bill O'Keefe, 69, a retired New York Fire Department lieutenant, says he found Walpole winters "very lonely and cold," particularly when his friends went South. The ice and snow also are hard on the big clapboard houses. "You were constantly scraping, priming and painting those things to keep them great," Mr. O'Keefe says. "I don't want to do that anymore."

Yet there's more than enough interest in Walpole, in part because of the slow turnover of properties. Bob Cunniff, a principal of Galloway Real Estate in Walpole, estimates that in the course of a year only 50 or 60 houses and six or seven building lots come on the market. "If you want to move to Walpole, you have to be patient," he says.

Some people buy a second home in their 50s and go to church here and become part of the community, and then retire here full time, he says. "Perhaps they are testing the waters -- what's it going to be like on a January weekend," he says.

Development Curtailed

Residents beat back plans for a paper mill in the 1970s and stopped a Wal-Mart proposed for the commercial strip along Route 12 northwest of the village center. Although some people complain of limited affordable small houses or apartments in the village, an attempt to put in cluster housing for people of retirement age failed when an adjacent landowner bought the property.

"One of the charms of Walpole is that it is not too well known," says Charles Miller, chairman of the village selectmen. "Those of us who live here like it that way."

That's true of the Cookes as well. Mrs. Cooke, 71, says she keeps busy as a member of the Monadnock Garden Club and chairman of the Friends of the Library. She notes that with people indoors during the winter, the library is a "really important thing" in a town like Walpole. The Cookes got away for several weeks last winter, visiting friends they knew from Darien who retired to Florida.

Mr. Cooke says he likes walking a few doors down to get the morning newspaper and conversing with the friends he's made in the village. "I know far more people in Walpole personally than I did in Darien, even though I lived there 26 years."

He also is part of a group of 10 Walpole residents who bought the town's old fire truck for $200 apiece and take it to parades. Last summer Mr. Cooke got to drive the truck to Hanover, N.H., and back -- 54 miles each way.

Mr. Machalaba is a Wall Street Journal staff reporter based in Woodstock, Vt.

Write to Daniel Machalaba at