Our History

The Harris Center for Conservation Education is a member-supported non-profit organization in Hancock, New Hampshire. Since 1970, we’ve been working to promote understanding and respect for the natural world through education of all ages, direct protection and and exemplary stewardship of the region’s natural resources, conservation research, and programs that encourage active participation in the great outdoors. Read on to learn more about how we got our start.


Cold Spring Pond neighborhood c. 1865-70_2015

By the mid-1800s, much of New Hampshire’s forest had been cleared for pasture or agriculture.

The Land has a Story to Tell

New England is full of stories from the past, and Harris Center lands are no exception. The hills of New Hampshire were shaped by retreating glaciers 12,000 years ago. When the ice sheet melted, huge boulders and deep, clear lakes were left behind. For thousands of years, Native tribes spent summers hunting and fishing this area. When European settlers arrived in the 1700s, the massive trees and abundant wildlife helped support their life in this “new world.” By the mid-1800s, two-thirds of New Hampshire’s forest had been cleared for pasture or crops. Much of the lumber was used to build houses and barns and to start new settlements.


Stone walls and cellar holes remind us of the hard lives of settlers in northern New England. (photo: Russ Cobb)

Stone walls criss-cross the New Hampshire landscape, reminders of a hardscrabble past.

Changes in the Landscape

As plows pushed through the hardscrabble, stones were piled up to protect crops from livestock, mark property lines, and divide pastures. Stone walls and cellar holes remind us of these times.

By 1840, many farmers had given up and headed for growing mill towns and more productive soils in the west.

 


The Briggs estate, circa 1930.

Retreating to the Country

In the early 1900s, people from crowded cities like New York and Boston began to discover the clean air and quiet nature of the New Hampshire hills. Among them was Dr. L. Vernon Briggs of New York City. Beginning in 1928, he purchased many parcels of property that grew into a 3,000-acre estate near Skatutakee Mountain and Lake Nubanusit.

Vernon’s granddaughter, Eleanor, would visit in the summers. It was on this land, away from the fast-paced life of the city, that Eleanor first connected with the forests, fields, and lakes of New Hampshire.


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Eleanor Briggs, at an early Harris Center event.

A Critical Moment

In 1966, Eleanor learned that a developer had purchased some of her grandparents’ land and was preparing to subdivide it. At the young age of 29, she decided to save the land and bought it back, piece by piece. “Remembering what happened to my childhood home on Long Island, N.Y., I began to visualize sky-scrapers around Norway Pond. One morning I woke up with a jolt of anxiety and decided the only way to calm down was to do something about my fears.”

 


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Harris the Cat: the Harris Center namesake.

A Conservation Legacy

Eleanor Briggs established the Harris Center for Conservation Education in 1970, using her grandparents’ house as a conservation education center.

She named the organization after her cat, Harris, who she felt “represented a certain wildness, humor, savvy and strong instinct, all elements needed for a successful environmental education center.”

 


Naturalist John Kulish in one of his “outdoor classrooms.”

An Evolving Conservation Mission

The Harris Center began by offering public educational programs about land protection, and soon branched into summer camps and school programming. In 1973, John Kulish inspired many high school students by introducing them to “outdoor classrooms.” He liked to say that he learned ecology while attending the “University in the Woods.” Today, our skilled teacher-naturalists work with nearly 3,000 students in 30 Monadnock-area schools annually, and we offer more than 100 programs and outings for the general public each year.

In the 1980s, Meade Cadot added land protection to the work of the Harris Center, with a particular focus on stitching together a network of connected open space. We have now directly protected more than 21,000 acres and worked with many partners to create a 34,500-acre SuperSanctuary of clustered protected lands in the Monadnock Highlands.

For years, Meade also helped facilitate conservation research on our protected lands; we formally added conservation research to our mission in 2014.