UPDATE, Feb. 7, 2016: On Tuesday, the first primary votes of the 2016 election will be cast in New Hampshire just after midnight. For decades, the late-night ballot was associated with the shrinking community known as Dixville Notch — but this cycle, it had been unclear whether it would still have enough voters. Organizers now say that they will, in fact, vote at 12:01 a.m.; Tom Tillotson told The Washington Post’s Alice Li that all nine registered voters are expected. In this story from last summer, the Post wrote about the history of Dixville Notch and its nearby rival Millsfield, which will also open its polls at midnight Tuesday.
DIXVILLE NOTCH, N.H. — Tom Tillotson lives beside a closed-down ski mountain in a town that doesn’t exist.
He doesn’t miss the chairlift that used to be out back. He has strong legs and likes hiking the slopes. And he doesn’t really miss the people who used to vacation at his late father’s hotel — the now-crumbling Balsams Resort. His three Labradors and his wife are company enough.
He does, however, miss the visits from presidential candidates.
“They don’t call anymore,” Tillotson said in the reclaimed barn he calls his home. He’s stocky, with a strawberry-shaped nose and flat light brown hair that rests like an A-frame house atop his head. “They used to come by all the time, but that’s just not happening now.”
For 50 years, they came. They left the interstate, drove the winding state road three hours north of where most people live into the piney woods, past blueberry fields and through the jagged granite cliff faces known as Dixville Notch.
Dixville was always too small to be recognized as an actual town, but like a political version of Brigadoon, it appeared every four years. This was home to the midnight voters, the 20-some-odd folks who gathered at the Balsams to cast the first ballots in the nation. Polls closed by 12:07 a.m., ensuring that the results and the funny dateline would appear the day after primaries and election days in newspapers throughout the country. In a state that has enjoyed an outsize role in the elections simply by sprinting to the voting booths before anyone else, this was peak New Hampshire.
But when the Balsams closed in 2011, it took Dixville with it. There were no more jobs, and now, other than Tillotson and his wife, there are no more residents.
Tillotson feared that the midnight vote, a rite brought here by his father, would be gone too. The neighboring town of Millsfield — quaint opportunists that they are — started drawing up plans to snag the tradition and the accompanying media attention for itself. Dixville’s eulogies started pouring in. But then a developer showed up to the notch with plans to revamp the hotel and keep the late-night voting streak alive. He wasn’t about to let Millsfield just waltz in and take the glory for itself, even if it did have upwards of 20 people living there.
All of a sudden, there was a battle for midnight in the woods of New Hampshire. And in these microscopic towns without anything else going for them, the stakes felt astronomical.
The sprawling, red-roofed wooden castle has long been hollowed out — even the toilets were sold at auction. On a visit in late July, it was a humid and musty place, like walking through a recent sneeze. But to Les Otten — prolific developer, ski mogul, former co-owner of the Boston Red Sox and new owner of the Balsams — the place bordered on holy.
“There’s something about this place that reminds me of why I’m a Jew,” Otten said as he walked the grounds. “Most people don’t realize it’s not about going to synagogue on Friday afternoon, it’s about keeping a tradition that has been maintained for 5,000-plus years.”
Some scripture from the Book of Dixville: George Romney launched his campaign here in 1968 and celebrated by hoisting his wife onto the back of a 700-pound elephant named Popsicle; Ted Kennedy once surprised a couple getting married at the hotel with a bouquet of flowers; and by the time George W. Bush had met everyone in the entire town in 2000, John McCain had already done so twice.
They showed up thanks to Neil Tillotson, Tom’s father. Neil invented the latex balloon, made millions as a rubber magnate and bought this hotel out of bankruptcy in 1954. Six years later, he brought midnight voting to Dixville, the perfect shtick to put it on the map. And while its predictive record was decidedly mixed, candidates and the media alike went along for the ride.
“It’s safe to say that each candidate that prevails in this town is given a psychological if not numerical lift,” Jeff Woodburn, the state senator who represents the area wrote in the New Hampshire Business Review in 2002. “Just as every loser quickly dismisses it as an insignificant anomaly.”
Tillotson didn’t come up with the idea (New Hampshire’s Hart’s Location, for example, voted at midnight earlier, and still does it today), he was just better at marketing it than the other tiny towns. His election would come with a soiree, reliable phone service and, in later years, a spot to park the satellite trucks.
Unfortunately, all these visits from the media and politicians weren’t enough to pay the bills. Grand old hotels were going out of business throughout the country, as people decided they cared less about butlers and butter dishes and more about flat-screen TVs.
On Jan. 10, 2012, the town’s nine remaining residents cast their primary vote at the Balsams shortly after midnight in front of a crowd of 200 journalists. Nobody spent the night, however. The hotel had closed months earlier.
“We have an incredible opportunity to start completely from scratch,” said Otten, who — even as he walked up a set of stairs covered in drywall— looked like he was on vacation with his regal white hair, perma-tan, shorts and Red Sox windbreaker. As the former chief executive of the American Skiing Company, Otten was famous for two things: turning around ski destinations such as Sunday River in Maine, and putting the company into debt. He resigned, equal parts admired and reviled.
In search of a fresh start himself, he plans on turning the Balsams into an epic ski destination, quintupling the number of trails on the mountain and modernizing the facilities. But he understands that the heart of the hotel lies atop a set of rotting stairs, behind a door that’s boarded shut.
“The Ballot Room,” he said, referrring to the wood-paneled room where Neil Tillotson cast the first ballot in the country every four years until his death at the age of 102 in 2001. “Structural integrity problems. But it’ll be back.”
Otten is no fool. He understands the value of nostalgia. It’s why he likes to brag about his role in saving another New England relic once destined for destruction: Fenway Park.
“History is the biggest draw,” he said.
Now, he’s just a couple of permits away from being able to build and said he expects to have the hotel and the Ballot Room ready to go before the general election in 2016. For the primaries in February, he has set aside a colonial house on the property that he says will work just fine until the construction is complete. He even has a plan to deal with the lack of voters.
“Don’t forget, I control the property, I control the bedrooms,” he said. Otten says he can move between 10 and 18 people (including himself) to his planned fiefdom in time for the first ballots to be cast.
But the beauty of Dixville has always been that it was an almost believable facade. There was just the right amount of suspension of disbelief to make it easy to root for. Doesn’t Otten worry that all these machinations will ruin the fun, that he’ll just look like a slick millionaire propping up an unnatural phenomenon?
“I’m not that slick,” he said with a wink.
Otten and Dixville aren’t just racing against time here. Just a few miles away, back over the notch, past where the moose dig up mud along the side of the road, the “town” of Millsfield has been plotting to get its hands on that sweet little piece of Americana ever since Dixville hit hard times.
It would be easy to pass through Millsfield without noticing — a bed-and-breakfast set back out of sight, a farm or two, a couple of houses — if not for the blinking lights of the Log Haven, the one bar in town. And if town selectman Wayne Urso, a stocky man with droopy eyelids and a motor in his mouth that runs only at high gear, has his way, the national press corps will become very familiar with this log cabin in February.
“This is where it’s all going to happen,” said Urso thrusting a stubby finger toward a chalkboard that read: First in the Nation Vote. “I can’t wait to watch the press’s reaction when they realize there’s no cellphone service here.”
In the past, residents voted on the backs of washing machines, in bathrooms and in bedrooms, he said. But sensing the possible glow of a national spotlight, the town voted to move to this bar with its year-round Christmas lights and cozy ski-lodge atmosphere. And while it cannot compete for decadence with the Balsams, Millsfield does have something that Dixville does not: about 20 voters.
Urso said he’s not hoping for his neighbors to fail — “No, no, no, no, it’s not a competition.” That would be like wishing for Punxsutawney Phil to kick the bucket so the Groundhog Day celebration could be swiped by a nearby town. (Otten, for his part, said it “does feel a little like one-upsmanship.”)
Here’s the thing: Dixville may have become famous for its midnight voting, but Millsfield actually did it first. One of Urso’s neighbors figured it out when she came across an old Time magazine that mentioned that the town’s eight residents cast their vote for Dwight D. Eisenhower at 12:02 a.m. in 1952. No one really knew why they did it, and no one really knew why they stopped, but with Dixville on the decline, it seems as good a time as any to try and bring it back.
“It would be great for the area, and maybe not bad for business,” said Roland Proux, owner of the Log Haven.
“I’ve had my picture in the paper more times than I can count,” said Sonja Sheldon, who keeps a copy of the Concord Monitor with the front-page story “The Battle for Midnight” on the coffee table at her bed-and-breakfast.
It’s a fight to get the media to show up, and winning requires a leader. Urso is just the man for the job. “Rest assured I am happy to do whatever I can so that you get your story,” he had written in an e-mail before sending GPS coordinates to his house.
“When they did this in 1952, they hardly left any history behind for people to appreciate Millsfield’s role in the presidential primary,” said Urso, leaving the Log Haven. Urso moved to Millsfield a few years back, after a health scare forced him to retire from his job as a computer scientist in the Boston area.
He fears time is running out to showcase the place he loves. If things continue on the current path, Millsfield will eventually empty out for a lack of work. Every few months, another paper mill or factory shuts down. The North Country suffers the highest unemployment and the lowest weekly wages in the state. The Balsams project, with the potential for 1,700 related jobs, would certainly help, but even this prospect gives Urso pause.
“Either way, things won’t be the same,” he said, noting that a new hotel could increase the population of Millsfield enough to make midnight voting in the future impossible. “This could be our one and only chance to revisit that history.”
Back in his reclaimed barn, all Tom Tillotson can do is watch as two fake towns compete for one of the few real things he shared with his father. The two were never particularly close: Tom lived with his mother in Florida until he moved to Dixville as an adult around 1970. They became partners in the rubber company, butted heads and split the business apart.
The midnight vote, however, that was something they could agree on. In photos over the years, the father who started the tradition and the son who became the town clerk responsible for overseeing the election, were inseparable in that Ballot Room.
“Dad would look at his watch, and when it was midnight, or maybe even a minute before, drop the first ballot,” Tom said with a smile. Tom liked that he could speak on television around the world as an ambassador for democracy, extolling the virtues of a precinct with 100 percent voter turnout in a country that seems to care less and less about politics.
It’s probably not worth thinking too hard about what good the midnight vote has really done for Dixville. That the town has vanished is enough proof that being the “most important” voters in the “most important” primary isn’t all that valuable. But maybe that’s exactly why the vote won’t disappear without a fight: This area has had everything else taken away from it; they would at least like to hold on to their history.
Millsfield will almost definitely hold a midnight vote next year. No one should be surprised if Dixville pulls it off, as well. But this isn’t a fight about who can finish first, it’s a fight for getting people to care. When you get up this far north — where the post office doesn’t even deliver mail and where there’s hardly any cellphone service — it’s hard to be heard. The midnight vote changed that.
The real race won’t take place on primary night; it’s taking place now. If both places hold a midnight vote, there’s still no telling where the reporters will show up. Or if they’ll bother to show up at all.
And if a midnight vote happens in the middle of the woods and no one’s around to report on it, does it make a town?