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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 and entertainment.

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 Region.

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 personal watercraft.

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 says.

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 ride.

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,” Jack recalls.
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.