Suncook Valley Business Directory
Suncook Valley » Home
» Business Directory
» NH Classifieds
» NH Obituaries
» Suncook Valley Sun Archives
» Advertise
» Contact

  Suncook Serves the Towns of:

Barnstead, Chichester, Epsom, Gilmanton, Northwood, and Pittsfield NH

Submit NH Classifieds, Events, Notices, and Obituaries to [email protected].











Business Directory






Suncook Valley Sun Historical Archive


(note: we are NOT affiliated with the Suncook Valley Sun Newspaper.





Front Page News

August 3, 2016


Celebrating 35 Years:

Pittsfield’s Hot Air Balloon Rally

Submitted By Larry Berkson


[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 Rally

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 his assent.


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 Event

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 community projects.


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 them.


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 benefited greatly.


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 items. 


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 years.


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 runners.


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 overall. 


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 Drake Field. 


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 rally.


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 largess.


The 1990-1999

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 balloon rides.


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 2010.


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 large crowds.


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 discontinued.


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.”






SiteMap | Home | Advertise | NH Classifieds | About


Copyright © 2007-2019 Modern Concepts Website Design NH. All Rights Reserved.


NH Campgrounds | NH Events

We are NOT affliated in any way with the Suncook Valley Sun Newspaper

Website Design and Hosting by Modern Concepts