Keene’s population hit slightly more than 23,000 in 1990, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, and has hovered around that figure ever since. The bureau’s estimate in 2016 was 23,406 people.
It’s been a stable figure — or stagnant, depending on who you ask — but Cheshire County’s population dropped by about 1,700 people between 2007 and 2016.
Out-migration is a concern of businesses and community stakeholders, but Keene’s steady population means not everyone who leaves stays away forever.
“Boomerangers” are people who are born and raised in a city, leave for college or work, and then eventually come back as a more permanent move.
While they each have their reasons for the journey back to their hometown, a common thread among those who returned to Cheshire County is family. Whether they came back to work with the family business or stayed with relatives while they regained their footing, boomerangers said having an established connection in the area helped encourage them to come back.
But many also brought a piece of the world back with them and embedded that new bit of culture into their hometown, creating the community they want to see.
FROM NEW HAMPSHIRE TO HAWAII (AND BACK)
Rebecca R. Hamilton is a principal at W.S. Badger Co. Inc. and the vice president of research and development. Her father founded Badger in 1995, a Gilsum company that makes natural and organic body care products.
Born in Gilsum, Hamilton left after high school and explored the world outside of New Hampshire. She traveled, but she also spent a few years as a crew member on sailboats as part of an educational program throughout New England and in the Caribbean.
“I didn’t end up going to college until I was about 24, and at that point, I went to the University of Hawaii,” says Hamilton.
She wanted to get her bachelor’s degree in ethnobotany, a program that married biology and social science to study “the ecological impacts of how people use plants,” says Hamilton.
“At that time, I had no interest whatsoever in coming back to the area,” she says. “I really thought that I was going to end up being a researcher or something in academia and traveling around the world or doing something far away from here.”
About halfway through her degree, though, Hamilton says she started to think more practically about her career options and her future. She was also in a relationship with the man who would become her husband, and he was “pretty settled on the East Coast.”
“I realized that really the ideal opportunity would be to find a job doing something in ingredient sourcing or product development or something like that at a natural company,” she explains, “and it just so happens that my family has one.”
The company aligned with her ideals, but the job also supported her passions. She learned to incorporate ethnobotany into her work, and she also travels as a representative of the company, often to the source of Badger’s ingredients.
When the decision to come back to Gilsum was final, she finished her degree at the University of Massachusetts and shifted her studies to a program that intertwined business courses into her major.
TO THE BIG APPLE AND BACK
After graduating high school, Joshua Greenwald says he was in a hurry to get out of Keene.
“Your feelings when you grow up in a small town is, ‘What else is out here? There’s got to be something else,’” says Greenwald.
Since his family was originally from New York, he says visits always baited him with the allure of big-city life. So, Greenwald attended college in upstate New York and sped off to Manhattan for an advertising job with MTV Networks.
Greenwald met his soon-to-be wife while he was in college, and the couple enjoyed a fast-paced life complete with a condo in Brooklyn.
But after a few years, the “city that never sleeps” had lost its charm.
“We just kind of got tired of the lifestyle there,” says Greenwald.
They had begun to consider long-term plans and ideas that once seemed abstract, such as where they wanted their careers to go and where they would live. They wondered how they could build a family in Brooklyn; concerns, such as living expenses and the cost of daycare, started becoming worrisome.
“What used to be so annoying and irritating about it (Keene) started to sound pretty good,” Greenwald says. “You have a lot more control over your life. It’s a much better environment for raising a family.”
In addition to realizing he wanted to create a family, Greenwald wasn’t satisfied with his work in the media industry.
“I felt like I was doing a job,” he says. “I didn’t feel like it was a career, and I didn’t feel like I was fulfilling any sort of purpose in my life.”
So, he talked to his father, who owns Greenwald Realty Associates, about moving back to Keene and joining the family business. Greenwald says his father was astounded.
“We called it the ‘big experiment,’ and it could’ve failed miserably,” Greenwald says. “But when you get to a certain point where you just know you’re not happy with what you’re doing, you have to make drastic changes like that.”
Greenwald and his wife moved to Keene, and now they both work at the family’s realty company.
“Everything seems to make such perfect sense when you look at it now, in retrospect,” he notes, “but everything, we were just winging it.”
BRINGING NEW BUSINESS TO KEENE
Though Sam Temple didn’t come back to Keene to work for a family business, he did come back because of the connections he already had here.
“This was sort of a soft landing point for us because I have family here in Keene,” says Temple.
A relatively new boomeranger, Temple returned to Keene last June. Both he and his wife had been professors at the University of Oklahoma for 10 years, but they wanted to transition into new careers.
“We kept waiting for a job to materialize for one of us so that we could use that to sort of hoist ourselves out of Oklahoma, but it didn’t happen,” says Temple. “And then we were like, ‘Well, we’re going to have to move and then find work.’”
So, the couple quit their jobs, packed up their lives and brought their children to Keene. They lived with Temple’s parents for several months while his wife looked for a job.
Meanwhile, Temple had started baking as a hobby in Oklahoma, selling pastries and breads to neighbors and coworkers on the weekend. Moving to Keene was a chance to make it a full-time gig. He worked the Farmers’ Market of Keene last summer and received positive responses from the community.
In December, Temple and his wife purchased a home in Keene. She works at Monadnock Waldorf School, and he runs Fire Dog Breads, a home-based bakery.
“So far, I’ve been able to do this sort of like full time, to the point now where I can’t keep up with my orders,” Temple says with a laugh.
WHAT KEEPS THEM HERE: FAMILY, FOOD, THE ARTS
For the first year or so, Hamilton struggled with living in a small town again. In her travels, she explained that she had grown to love the arts, and she considered leaving for a place that she felt had the cultural vibrancy she was seeking.
“I realized that either I could move to a place where that was already created and easily become part of it,” says Hamilton, “or, if I was really committed to being here, I needed to actually create something here that was making the community here what I felt like was the right kind of community for me if I was going to spend the rest of my life here.”
So, a couple years after she moved back, Hamilton co-founded Machina Arts with Danya Landis (a recipient of this year’s Trendsetters Award, see her profile on page 32).
On Machina Arts’ website, the founders note that they “understand why it is so hard to keep young or youthful-minded professionals in our area.”
The organization, which realized there was a need for venues and meeting spaces for resident artists, started hosting events to bring these talented people to the forefront.
The events grew in size and popularity, and Hamilton says it became clear that they weren’t the only people in Cheshire County looking for a creative outlet.
“That’s helped me feel much more settled here,” she says.
Co-founding Machina Arts helps her feel more at home here, but Hamilton also notes it has the potential to keep other young professionals in the area, too.
“What the arts does is it offers an outlet for exploration and creativity ... I think young people, particularly young people, crave that and need that,” says Hamilton, “and oftentimes they have to leave home in order to find that.”
She notes that many cities will claim to support the arts and add it to their master plan, but there are cases in which the money is never actually put behind the words.
“If we want to have a thriving economy here that in particular retains young people, that needs to be front and center as something that we’re focused on as a community,” says Hamilton.
While Hamilton points to the arts as a way to keep people in the region, Temple notes food can be just as important.
“Restaurants, cafes, bakeries, groceries stores: it’s indicative of sort of a healthy — for a lot of people — a healthy consumer life,” says Temple.
When he first came back, he says he was nervous about entering a smaller market. Temple says he wondered how many bakeries might be too many.
But he was well-received at the farmers’ market by both vendors and customers. His products have sold, and so have others. He says the Monadnock Food Co-op is a good example of the changing attitudes of buyers in the region.
“The desire of the consumer is to have good options,” says Temple. “So, you have one or two good bakeries? Great, well maybe a third one is in order.”
He doesn’t desire to own a storefront, but Temple is interested in expanding Fire Dog Breads and perhaps acquiring a small production facility. He admits he doesn’t love baking as much as the feeling that he can “improve someone’s quality of life through a really simple product.”
“This is one small way I can ... contribute to making this a better place for us to live in,” says Temple.
ADVANTAGES OF COMING, GOING AND BOOMERANGING
While retaining residents is certainly a goal, Greenwald notes that it can be just as important for some to leave.
“It’s a real rite of passage to kind of leave the nest,” he says. “I think it’s important for everyone to get a taste of something else. You might find that you like big-city living or small-town living or living in another country.”
Greenwald says he had a family and a career opportunity pulling him back to Keene, and not everyone has that. But, he says, there is a natural process of people coming and going in a region.
“Think of it as fresh air circulating into a home,” he says, “where you have the older air coming out, fresh air coming back in, sometimes it comes recirculated back around.”
There are some people, he says, who are born and raised in Cheshire County and may never leave.
Others might move out as soon as they graduate high school, only to be seen on holidays.
And then there are boomerangers, like Greenwald himself, and there are newcomers who learn to love the Monadnock Region and settle here.
“It’s this circle of life all within Keene, and I think that’s the reason why we’ve maintained stable (population) is because that engine has just been churning fine throughout the time,” notes Greenwald. “We have forces here in Keene that are encouraging growth, and then we have forces in Keene that foster preservation of the small-town feel.”
He adds that it’s important to find a balance to avoid becoming too industrial or too commercialized, like other cities.
“I think Keene works, and I think that’s why people still love coming here and visiting here, and they say Keene is wonderful and great,” he says. “Otherwise we would see a decrease in population.”
Greenwald notes, however, that it’s not always a city’s fault if some of its residents leave.
“People don’t come back, though, not because they don’t like Keene. I think they get settled and rooted,” says Greenwald. “But I felt like my roots never really took the way I wanted them to.”
He adds, “They didn’t take until I came back up here … Apparently, this was the right kind of soil for me to dig in.” T