Reprinted from the Weirs
Times; by Roger Amsden, News Correspondent
It was the biggest drawing card in the history of the Weirs,
the most popular attraction ever built on Lake Winnipesaukee
and the liveliest spot in the state for many decades, a
place where on virtually any summer night people could listen
to and dance to the best music in America, performed by
the greatest musicians of a Golden Age of great live music
It was a place where magical memories were created, where
romances bloomed, friendships flourished and the pursuit
of happiness, American style, was presided over by the most
dynamic and innovative personality ever to hit the Lakes
Irwins’ Winnipesaukee Gardens, the brainchild of South
Boston native Jim Irwin, a man who did more to shape the
history and character of the Weirs and the surrounding area
than any other person before or since, was more than just
a business. It was the defining institution of the Weirs
for a half century, setting a tone in terms of style, of
being in step with popular culture and emerging trends in
recreation, that would profoundly influence the development
of the Weirs and leave an unmatched, legendary legacy.
For it was Irwin who raised the Weirs from the ashes of
the disaster of the fire which destroyed the New Weirs Hotel
in November of 1924 to new heights, using his considerable
promotional and entrepreneurial skills to seize the moment
and build something which reflected his own vision of the
possibilities afforded by the natural beauty of Weirs Bay.
Irwin, whose childhood dream was to own his own trumpet,
earned the money for his first trumpet by running messages
and trade orders for bankers and stockbrokers on Boston’s
State Street, brought his trumpet with him when he first
arrived in the Weirs by train in 1914.
It was a different Weirs back then, stately and sedate,
served by daily trains from the Boston and Lowell area and
catering to well-off guests from big cities along the East
Coast. Steamships, the most notable of which was the side-wheeler
“Mount Washington”, provided leisurely trips
around the lake for a mostly affluent clientele that gathered
at the Weirs every summer.
Irwin, who had been told by a noted trumpet teacher that
he had “no lip” when it came to playing the
horn, proved that ambition overcomes all obstacles and was
soon playing the trumpet in Murphy’s Band. And his
visits convinced him that Lake Winnipesaukee was an area
ripe with the possibilities which were being fueled by the
adaption of the internal combustion engine to boating, creating
a mass market for boating which what might today be labeled
Irwin shuttled his band between Boston in the winter and
the Weirs bandstand in the summer, and, after a stint in
the Navy during World War I, bought what had been Green’s
Boat Livery from Herb Buffum in 1919. He renamed the business,
which rented motorboats, canoes and rowboats, Irwin Marine,
and it was soon being billed as “The Largest Motorboat
Garage in the World.”
Two years later Irwin mortgaged everything he owned, and,
along with a partner, bought the Weirs Music Hall on Tower
Street, just across from the New Hotel Weirs where the Methodist
Church is now located.
In 1922 he arranged for what was probably the first ski
train in history to bring skiers to the Weirs for a winter
carnival, which included a ski jump built right in the middle
of Tower Street.
“He was a great promoter. He knew how to get people
excited about things,” says his youngest son, John
“Jack” Irwin, who said that his father ran weekly
speedboat regattas that brought thousands of people into
the Weirs. He also had a pilot from the Boston area set
up at the Weirs to offer seaplane rides for tourists, a
business which soon expanded to become the country’s
first air mail delivery service.
Irwin also brought radio to the Lakes Region, establishing
radio station WKAV, which went on the air on August 22,
1922, the first commercial radio station north of Boston.
Throughout all this he ran a brokerage office in Boston
and even opened another on Main Street in Laconia. His boating
business flourished with the sale of Garwood and Hackercraft
boats and, in 1924, he signed on with Chris-Craft, forging
a business relationship which would last for decades.
When disaster struck in the form of a fire which leveled
the 150-room New Hotel Weirs and the Music Hall on November
7, 1924, Irwin was left without a musical venue. But not
for long. Working with Boston architect Arthur Osberg, Irwin
devised a plan to build a giant dance hall right over the
boat livery, a dance hall that would be grand in scale and
would resemble a Miami dance hall, The Pier, that Irwin
had seen while taking his band on a swing through Florida.
Irwin’s Winnipesaukee Gardens opened on Memorial Day
weekend in 1925 and was an instant hit with the music-loving
public of the 1920s. Top bands touring the country now had
a new, lively place to play in, one with an ideal lakeside
setting that was perfect for a summer night. And WKAV was
soon conducting live broadcasts from the Gardens, bringing
the Big Band sound to listeners all over New Hampshire.
And Irwin was quick to capitalize on the bathing beauty
phenomena which had been started by Atlantic City’s
Miss America Pageant in 1919, creating the Miss Winnipesaukee
Pageant the very same year that the Gardens opened. The
pageant is still going strong and has produced more Miss
New Hampshire winners than any other pageant in the state.
Jack Irwin says that until the crash of 1929, everything
went great for the Gardens, which also offered movies which
could be viewed on a big screen above the stage.
Jack says that he can still remember watching movies from
the balcony, as well as some of the best band acts ever.
“I was just a little kid when I saw Fats Waller around
1938 or 1939. If my parents couldn’t get a babysitter
they’d bring me to the Gardens and let me sit in the
balcony and watch things until I fell asleep,” he
At one time or another just about all of the big bands played
at the Gardens, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Harry James
and Paul Whiteman. “About the only big names we didn’t
get were Louie Armstrong and Guy Lombardo. It was the liveliest
spot in the state, along with the Hampton Casino, for many
years,” says Jack.
“Tuesdays and Thursdays were Big Band nights. That’s
when we’d get those Big Bands which were touring the
country. We’d have bands playing every night except
Sunday. The house band played the other nights and they
lived right up here at the Weirs all summer. The Tony Brown
orchestra was one of the house bands and a lot of people
liked to come by during the week to dance because prices
doubled on the weekend, when we always had a full house.”
During World War II business dropped sharply due to gasoline
rationing but Irwin coped by having buses bring people from
downtown Laconia to the Weirs on Friday and Saturday nights.
Jack says that he especially remembers a dart board game
from that time which was located near the Weirs bandstand
and featured targets that had the faces of Hitler, Hirohito
and Mussolini. “The sailors and soldiers would throw
the darts so hard that you needed pliers to pull them out
of the dartboard,” he says.
And boat traffic was virtually nil on the lake. “There
were no patrol boats out there then. If anybody got in trouble
and needed some help I’d take out this old Laker,
the B Striker, out there to get them,” says Jack,
who was only 13 or 14 years old at that time.
When the troops came marching home after World War II it
marked the start of a Golden Age for the Winnipesaukee Gardens,
one which would last for about 20 years and is still recalled
fondly by Irwin.
The pent-up demand for recreational outlets also produced
a boom for the boating business, one that Jim Irwin had
foreseen as early as 1943 when he placed a $1,000 deposit
with Chris-Craft for the delivery of 10 boats once the war
was over. And ground was broken for a new base of operations
for the boat business in Lakeport.
“Dad knew that the Weirs wasn’t big enough for
the boat business operation. So he built the new showroom
and boat storage facility in Lakeport,” Jack recalls.
One of the big features of the Winnipesaukee Gardens were
the boat rides offered by a fleet of seven triple cockpit
Chris-Crafts, all carrying the Miss Winnipesaukee name.
“Those boat rides started in the 1930s. We’d
take in used boats and run them until they just had had
it,” says Jack. The boats were all virtually identical,
26-foot and 28-foot 1929 model runabouts, and could take
nine passengers in addition to the driver.
He said that his first job at Irwin’s Winnipesaukee
Gardens after he got out of the Marines in 1956 was taking
people out on the lake for the popular speed boat rides.
“The rides were 10 miles long and took about 20 minutes.
We’d go up towards Bear Island and Center Harbor or
out to Welch Island. Thousands of people took those rides.
We’d start at 9 a.m. and run them until dusk. It seemed
like there was always a line of people waiting. In later
years we took the windshields off so they’d go faster
and we could give people a real thrill.”
During the 1950s and for most of the 1960s it was still
the Big Band sound at the Gardens. But times were changing,
as was popular music. Teens started to have their own unique
youth culture, separate from that of their parents’
generation which found it’s unique expression in rock
and roll music. Television sets came into American living
rooms and transformed the entertainment industry. Post-war
prosperity changed the American lifestyle into one with
more leisure and more recreational opportunities. More people
wanted to own their own boats instead of simply taking a
Irwin agrees with the assessment that Elvis killed the Weirs,
at least the Weirs as it was during its post-war Golden
Age. Before the advent of rock and roll, popular music was
enjoyed across all generations. But the fracturing of that
market meant that young people no longer danced to, or enjoyed,
the same music as their parents. And suit coats and ties,
which had always been required for Gardens events, were
no longer popular attire.
“There was a place called Teen Haven just up the street
where young people got together to dance. We started to
change what we offered for music, putting on concerts from
time to time instead of having big band dance music,”
Among the big names which came to the Gardens at that time
were the Beach Boys and Gary Puckett and the Union Gap.
“We’d get 2200 people in for a show and have
two shows a night. But it was a different generation, different
music. It was more of a show than dancing.”
The Gardens stopped offering speedboat rides in 1968, a
concession to the times. And it also stopped hosting the
Miss Winnipesaukee Pageant, an event which was taken over
by Funspot in 1969 and continues to this day.
In 1976, the Irwins faced a decision about what direction
they wanted to take with their businesses. “Things
were still going strong at the Gardens. The little restaurant
out at the end of the pier was always busy. But the boat
business was booming and we just didn’t have the time
to put into both businesses. That’s when we sold it.
It hurt when they started to drive spikes into what was
once a beautiful dance floor. But that period of time was
over. The conditions that had made it so special just didn’t
exist any more.”
But the memories that were created there in all those years
are still as vibrant as ever in the memories of thousands
of people who came to the Winnipesaukee Gardens and heard
the great music and stepped out onto the dance floor. Unforgettable.
That’s the Gardens.