Celebrating 35 Years:
Pittsfield’s Hot Air Balloon Rally
Submitted By Larry
[The author would
like to thank Stan Bailey, Cara Marston, Laura Okrent, and Scott
Ward for their assistance in preparing this article.]
Early Liftoffs Some may be surprised
to learn that when the balloons lifted off during the first
annual balloon rally sponsored by the Rotary Club in 1982, it
was not the first such event in Pittsfield’s history. Indeed, in
October of 1892 a huge crowd gathered at Driver’s Park, better
known as Pittsfield Fairgrounds where Dunkin Donuts is now
located, to watch a spectacular event, the ascension of a huge
hot air balloon. Windy weather delayed the take-off but finally
at 5:00 p.m., it rose high into the sky to great applause.
A set of lift-offs took place during
the 1920s at the fair. In 1926 Walter Jewell was hired to come
from Philadelphia to make an ascent. He got off late on Thursday
evening, probably due to weather conditions, and was unable to
perform his spectacular triple parachute jump. He landed the
balloon in Walter Joy’s field, believed to be on Leavitt Road.
On Friday and Saturday, however, he made two perfect ascensions
and triple parachute jumps, landing in Guy Nichols’ field on
Concord Hill Road.
The following year Mr. Jewell was back
again lifting off in his balloon, making triple parachute jumps,
and thrilling the crowd with breath-taking air stunts.
In 1928 a new balloonist was hired, C.
C. Bonnette. In 1929 the fair’s directors, in financial
difficulties, decided not to hire a balloonist, probably because
of the expense.
Balloon Lift-off at the 1926 or 1927 Pittsfield Fair
The Beginnings of the Current Balloon
Today’s balloon rally began almost by
accident. Reuben Leavitt, working as a salesman at the time, was
returning home through Hillsborough and stopped off at the golf
course for a drink. Sitting next to him was Ed Lappies, a
balloon meister. They got to talking and Reuben thought it would
be a great idea to have a balloon rally in Pittsfield.
He returned home and made telephone
calls to numerous businessmen calling a meeting. A dozen or so
showed up to listen to Mr. Lappies. All present thought it was a
great idea. Shortly thereafter Gilbert Bleckmann, then president
of the Rotary Club, approached Reuben and asked if he and the
Rotary could pursue the idea. Reuben was more than happy to give
The Club worked diligently on the
project and on late Friday afternoon, August 6, 1982, providing
a highlight for the town’s Bicentennial Celebration, the first
flight took off. Four more flights were held that weekend, two
each on Saturday and Sunday mornings and evenings. The event was
a modest affair with 9-10 balloons taking off from Drake Field.
A small craft fair sponsored by the Pittsfield Area Arts Council
had a display. A brochure explained the workings of hot air
balloons, their assent and descent, with advertisements from 37
organizations and individuals. Nearly 5,000 people attended,
resulting in a profit of nearly $1,000 which the Rotary used to
support many of the community’s projects.
A Patch from the First Balloon Rally
in 1982, six Buttons, and Tie Tack Celebrating the 20th
Anniversary of the Rally, Sold as Fund Raisers
Making the Balloon Rally an Annual
After the first rally was over the
club decided to make it an annual event and committees were
established to coordinate it. In 1983 Gilbert Bleckmann was in
charge of flights, Dave Pollard, advertising, Francis Donovan,
publicity, Richard Joyce, scheduling, James Adams, special
events, and James Anderson, housing. The Fire Department held a
breakfast and the Lions Club, a supper.
Sponsorship of a balloon cost $650,
each sponsor being allowed two passengers on two flights. The
sponsor had to provide two ground crewmen per flight to help
inflate the balloon, follow it, and help with the wrap-up.
Private housing was provided for each of the four-member crews.
Today the cost is $900 plus the amenities.
A slick covered brochure was printed,
again explaining the workings of a balloon, with a separate page
on, “Things you might not know about flying hot air balloons.”
Governor Sununu with his wife and two sons were on the first
flight. Only four lift-offs were held, the Sunday evening one
being scrapped. This schedule is still used today. Launch times
have varied slightly but generally lift offs have been, weather
permitting, 5:30 p.m. on Friday night, 5:30 a.m. and p.m.
Saturdays, and 5:30 a.m. Sundays.
By 1984 the event was being called the
largest of its kind in New Hampshire. There were 15 balloons
with over 5,000 spectators. Other activities were held between
the Saturday flights, a Morris Dancers Demonstration, barbershop
singers, and a bass fiddler comedy act. The U. S. Marine Corps
Band and Doc Carpenter’s Band played concerts.
That year the Women of Rotary began
sponsoring a Saturday morning breakfast at the fire house, a
tradition that would last into the 21st Century. A new feature
was also added that year, helicopter rides. Why they were
discontinued the following year has not been learned but years
later in 2005 they were brought back and have been a staple of
the rally ever since.
Helicopter Rides Have Become a Staple
of the Balloon Rally
From the beginning, Reuben Leavitt,
owner of Dustin’s Store, had a booth at the field, selling
three-color tee shirts with various images of the Balloon Rally
event emblazoned on them. His effort continued for 30 years,
ending in 2012. Gradually other businesses set up booths for a
fee. Today the cost is $200 for a small space and $350 for a
large one. The price has hardly changed in the past 20 years.
Proceeds help pay for the rally and the Rotary’s support for
Through the years vendors have sold a
variety of food stuffs: maple cotton candy, pretzels, ice cream,
fried dough, onion rings, Italian sausage, apple crisp, fried
pickles, burritos, tacos, nachos, subs, French fries, popcorn,
cookies, pastries, and fudge. The only thing that vendors are
not allowed to sell are hot dogs and hamburgers. These two items
have been reserved for the Rotary Food Tent set up on the
basketball court. In recent years, with a diminished number of
Rotarians, this feature of the rally has been turned over to the
Pittsfield Players, a portion of the profits going directly to
From the very beginning, non-profit
organizations have been given space free of charge. Among them
have been the Baptist Church, American Legion, Masons, Lions
Club, Pace Career Academy, Cub Scouts, Pittsfield and Barnstead
Fire Explorers, Chamber of Commerce and many others. All have
The Pittsfield Historical Society, for
example, began setting up a booth shortly after the rally began
and has had one ever since, selling historical books, calendars,
tee shirts and numerous other items of historical interest to
local citizens. They have also sold raffle tickets at the event.
It has been the organization’s biggest fundraiser for decades
and owes a huge debt of gratitude to the Rotary Club for
continuing to hold the rally.
The Boy Scouts have regularly set up a dunk tank, using local
celebrities as the foil. Pittsfield Youth Workshop sponsored the
Ahhh-MAZE-ing Maze from 2006 through 2009. Recently the group
has been in charge of the arts and crafts section of displays.
This group of vendors sells jewelry, paintings, photos, wood
carving, frames, various home-made products and myriad other
The Rotary, itself, has sponsored a Shelter Box tent set up in
recent years, displaying items needed in times of disaster and
soliciting funds to support purchases so that items can be given
out in times of emergency.
Returning now to the chronology of hot
air balloon rally events, in 1985 some were held at the Center
Barnstead Fire House with all funds raised benefitting the
Center Barnstead Fire Department and Ambulance Fund which served
Pittsfield. At 11:00 a.m. on Saturday a benefit auction was
held, at 4:00 p.m. a public ham and bean supper, and at 8:00
p.m., a street dance with a DJ playing music. Apparently this
was a one-time feature of the balloon rally.
Back in Pittsfield a canoe race was
held on the Suncook River for the first time. Life jackets were
required. It began at 1:00 p.m. The race became an annual event
continuing until 2005.
At 3:00 p.m. a softball game took place and at 6:00 p.m. the
Freese Brothers Band played a concert. Thereafter a wide variety
of groups played music annually on Friday night and Saturday
afternoon and evening.
One of the annual Canoe Races.
The Annual Road Race
In 1986 another new feature was added
to the rally, a 6K Road Race, later changing to a 5K race. It
was sponsored by the Turtle Town Athletic Club and Hardy’s
Market. Later, Delta Dental and several others would sponsor the
event. That year Susan Carbon was the first Pittsfield woman to
cross the finish line, a feat she would achieve seven more times
during the 1980s and 90s. The race began a tradition that lasted
uninterrupted until 2003, but has been picked up again in recent
In 1987, 74 runners signed up for the
race. The first Pittsfield lad to cross the finish line was
Daniel Dunne and the first female, Theresa Plaster. In 1992
Frank O’Connor and Alan Paradise placed first and second among
the Pittsfield entrants. In 1996 there were 72 runners in the
race with Steve Aubertin and Patricia Joyce-Noro coming in first
among the Pittsfield runners. The following year there were 74
The year 1999 was high point in the
number of runners signed up for the race, 109. Nick Watts came
in first among the Pittsfield male runners as he had done the
year before. He was 13th overall. In 2001 Nick would come in 6th
overall. Holly Hinckley placed first among the Pittsfield female
runners in 1999 as she had done the year before.
In 2002, Pittsfield’s Kitty Fair came in 20th overall and
Jedidiah Elliott 37th, out of a field of 92 runners. In 2003
Pittsfield’s Ian Pollard came in 3rd overall and Kitty Fair 7th
From 2004 to 2007 there was no race. In 2007 the idea was
revived, and has been a feature of the rally ever since. The
race begins at Dustin Park at 9:00 a.m. and generally follows a
route down South Main Street, up Fairview Road, down Catamount
Road to Clark Street, along South Main Street turning onto Blake
Street, along Joy Street, turning left on Main Street, along
Water Street, turning right onto River Road, turning right on
Bridge Street, left on Smith Street and into Drake Field and the
finish line. At an earlier time when the runners came to Main
Street they went up Factory Hill, down Chestnut Street, and into
5K Racers on Barnstead Bridge, 2010
The Last Half of the 1980s
By 1986 the number of balloons lifting
off had risen to 20. In addition to the regular displays,
booths, concerts and meals, a parasail demonstration was held.
In 1987 the event was billed as New England’s largest.
Twenty-five balloons lifted off. The following year 27 balloons
lifted off, apparently the largest number to ever to fly at the
Through the years the Rotary Club used
proceeds from the event to aid numerous local organizations. On
its 10th Anniversary in 1992 the rally brochure noted how it had
helped the community during the previous year: $2,000 for a
computer system for the library, $1,000 to scholarships for PHS
graduates, $1,070 to the Boy Scouts, $200 to the Swift River
Girl Scouts, $500 to Blueberry Hill Day Care Center, $500 to
Pittsfield Youth Workshop, $500 to “Operation Welcome Home” for
participants in Operation Desert Storm, $150 to 4-H, $200 to the
Pittsfield PTO, and $600 to aerate Drake’s Field.
This is just a representative sample
of how the Rotary Club has helped the community with proceeds
from the balloon rally and its other fundraising events. From
October 1990 to June 1993 it gave away $24,970 to 50
organizations and projects. During 1994-95 it gave $12,418 to 30
organizations. Indeed, there is not an organization or project
that has not benefited from the rally and the Rotary Club’s
In 1990 a new feature was added to the
Rally, Cow Chip Bingo, beginning a tradition that would last
until 2012. A 100 by 100 foot square was marked out close to the
river and subdivided into two foot squares. A board with the
same number of squares was set up, randomly assigning numbers to
the squares, but kept out of the public’s view. Then, 2,500
tickets were sold with numbers on them. A cow was placed in the
large square and when she did her duty the location would be
measured and the person with the corresponding number would win
$1,000. Another fundraiser the Rotary has used is a raffle for
A new feature of 1991 was the “Night Inflation and Light Show,”
later called the “Night Glow.” It began in the dark at 8:30 in
the evening with lights shining brightly on a single balloon,
weather permitting. The wonderful event continues to this day.
By this time the crowd size was in excess of 10,000.
In 1992 the Golden Knights Parachute
team performed and two years later, and for the following four
years there was a N. H. State Police Dog Demonstration. In 1993
claims were made that 30,000 people were expected, likely a
misprint in the newspaper or a slight exaggeration.
In 1996 it was claimed that the rally
was the longest running event of its type held in New Hampshire.
A new feature of the rally was
introduced in 1998, an “Anything that Floats River Raft Regatta”
contest. It began at 10:30 a.m. behind Royce Elkins’ house on
Tilton Hill Road and all sorts of contraptions were used. The
Fire Department entered a raft for several years. The event
continued until 2007.
In 1999 another feature was added, an
oldies car show. Dozens of old cars were lined up on Drake Field
for inspection by the interested public. Each owner was given a
brass dash board plaque to note participation in the event. The
show continued for four more years ending in 2004. One year an
amphibious car showed up, went down the boat ramp, and cruised
along in the river.
That year the Rotary began advertising
that people could park at the Globe parking lot and many took
advantage of the Globe’s fine offer. The high school parking lot
was also used for a few years. During a couple of years the
Marston Bus Company was hired to transport people from these two
places. For many years the parking lot at Pittsfield Weaving
Company on Barnstead Road has been used for parking as well.
Handicapped parking was initially
provided in the Pittsfield Weaving parking lot on Fayette Street
and has been used for that purpose for most years since. More
recently the lot formerly owned by Reed’s Oil Company on
Barnstead Road has been used as well.
The Addition of Fireworks
In 1999 the most significant event in
the history of the Rally was added, the introduction of a
fireworks display, set off at the edge of the river in Floral
Park Cemetery. Within a few years it became that largest in New
Hampshire and perhaps the largest in all of New England. It was
enthusiastically received by audiences and increased the size of
crowds precipitously through the years.
All went well until a letter appeared
in The Suncook Valley Sun on August 19, 2009 suggesting that the
cemetery was an inappropriate place for launching the fireworks.
The following two weeks two responses supporting the location
were published and things appeared to quiet down. The display
was held in 2010 but then the parties opposing use of the
cemetery threatened to sue the Cemetery Association, its owners,
if the fireworks were not stopped.
Then, on June 8, 2011 the announcement
came in The Sun. It was explained that fireworks would no longer
be possible at the Balloon Rally. Despite efforts by the Rotary
Club and Bob DePoulot, fireworks coordinator, they were unable
to meet the demands of those opposed to launching fireworks from
the cemetery. The Cemetery Association was threatened with a law
suit if it continued allowing fireworks to be shot off there.
Not wanting a legal fight the Association notified the Rotary
that the cemetery was no longer available for its use. Efforts
were made to find another location but none seemed appropriate.
The response was outrage. No less than
11 “Letters to the Editor” were published in The Sun during the
next few weeks expressing extreme disappointment, many
chastising the small group responsible for opposing use of the
cemetery. The fireworks coordinator even started a petition to
have them reinstated.
Fire Works Display, 2009
As a result no fireworks were held in
2011. However, in 2012 they were reinstated. They were launched
from a raft in the river, and although not as spectacular and
lengthy as when they had been when launched from the cemetery,
they were still a sight to behold. The fireworks remain a
significant part of the rally today.
The Years 2000-2015
The year 2002 featured paragliders and
the following two years parachute jumpers. An added feature in
2002 was a presentation about Harrison R. Thyng, Pittsfield’s
World War II and Korean War Hero, at the Scenic Theater by the
Historical Society. This was being done in conjunction with
establishment of the Thyng Memorial on Barnstead Road.
In 2004 there was a Segway
demonstration. One of the highlights that year was John Ninomiya
riding a cluster of 76 balloons filled with helium 2,000 feet
into the sky. He stayed in the air for an hour and a quarter
flying over Pittsfield, Barnstead, Alton, and Northwood, before
landing in a farmer’s field near Jenness Pond.
In 2006 a new feature was added,
tethered balloon rides in the evening. These continued through
During the mid-decade of 2000-2010 the
selectmen became concerned about the expense of providing
security for the rally and a large bill was sent to the Rotary
Club. This caused great concern among the Rotarians and the
community at large. Ultimately, things were worked out with the
town budgeting a fixed sum each year for security protection.
During some years there have been
special balloons participating in the event. Among them have
been the Birthday Cake celebrating the rally’s 25th Anniversary,
the Purple People Eater, the Energizer Bunny, and Smokey Bear.
These events, well-advertised, often result in exceptionally
Energizer Bunny Balloon
The year 2006 was an innovative one.
First, a photo contest was created and rules were established.
No photograph could be larger than 5 by 7 inches. Two copies of
each had to be submitted for consideration with the
photographer’s name on the back of the picture with his/her
telephone number, date of birth, and name of the photo. Multiple
entries could be submitted. Contestants had to be at least 18
years of age or have their parent’s written permission.
A three judge panel composed of Barry
Nation of Winterwood Photography in Strafford, Sarah Chaffee of
the McGowan Fine Arts Gallery in Concord, and Laura Okrent, 2006
balloon rally chair. Reviewing the 30 submissions they
unanimously chose Marc Godin’s “Soul Mates.” The Pittsfield man
was honored the next year by having his photo appear on the
cover of the rally’s brochure. This aspect of the rally has been
Second, kiddie rides and a carnival
became a regular part of the balloon rally. They continue today.
There have been train rides, merry-go-rounds, fun houses, giant
slides, tilt a whirl, toddler rides and several other
entertainments for children.
Other features in 2006 were an
Ultimate Robot Challenge and Live Demonstrations, and a sunrise,
nondenominational church service on Sunday morning which was
held the following year as well.
By 2007 it was reported that the rally
traditionally attracted 13,000 spectators.
Large Crowd Gathers for the Lift-Off
In 2009 there was a laser light show and a major change in the
rally’s brochure. Rather than publish an 8˝ by 11 inch
multi-page program, a five-fold 3˝ by 11 inch format which
unfurled to a size of 22 by 17 inches was used. It
presented color pictures of the 16 hot air balloons
participating that year. By this time the number of advertising
sponsors had declined to 52. The number had been declining since
the high point of over 125 in 1995. It dropped to 90 in 2000 and
87 in 2005. It has hovered around 50 ever since.
In 2010 and 2011 the event was
broadcast live on WTPL radio. 2013 featured Karissa Aerial
Aerobics. In recent years there has been a bungee jump on a
trampoline which has drawn considerable excitement.
The Rotary’s Balloon Rally continues
to be part of a wonderful Pittsfield tradition. Each year
thousands gather from all over the New Hampshire and nearby
states to watch the colorful balloons ascent, skimming the
river, hovering above the dam and landing in fields scattered in
Upper City, Chichester, South Pittsfield, and near Jenness Pond.
Traffic is even stopped by the police on the highway and back
roads so that balloons can land. As one participant claimed,
“Only in Pittsfield, New Hampshire is this done.”