Russell B. Tobey (1903-1978) received the Pugsley Medal in 1965 "for having built the state park system into one of substantial proportions over a period of three decades and in particular, having promoted the preservation and use of Mt. Washington." He was affectionately known as New Hampshire's "Mr. Recreation" and was the primary force in the creation of the New Hampshire state park system. His hard work, dedication, energy, imagination and sheer love of New Hampshire's beautiful scenery and historical places was a central factor in the New Hampshire state parks system growing from a small secondary position in the state forestry commission to an independent division managing and developing a major public service.
Tobey was born in Dorchester, Massachusetts. His father, Charles W. Tobey, was a United States Senator. In 1910, the family moved to Colonial Farm in Temple, NH, a rural town with a population of 300. Tobey, who walked three miles each way to school, flourished in this rural atmosphere. According to a 1953 article appearing in Forest Notes, "He loved the freedom of the out-of-doors and acquired an early taste for the country life from parents deeply fond of the countryside, its beauty, and its people." To the Tobey family, picnics, hikes, and camping out were an integral part of living. Much of this was done in the Pack Monadnock area of the state.
Tobey graduated from Manchester High School in Manchester, NH in 1923, Deerfield Academy in 1924, and later attended Dartmouth College. In his formative years after college, Tobey spent nearly 12 years dabbling in woodworking, insurance, and securities. However, throughout this period he maintained thoughts of a career in recreation because of his passion for the outdoors.
In the spring of 1935, Tobey joined the state forestry department where he was placed in charge of housekeeping matters for state parks which was a division of the forestry department. He was told to supervise the public forests, keep water pumps flowing, and to provide supplies for the caretakers and beach attendants who served the 300,000 park visitors annually. For his work, Tobey was paid $25 a week and was provided a Model A Ford pickup truck. When Tobey began his work to promote the parks, he wrote his own letters and traveled the "chicken pie circuit" three nights a week to promote the parks with homemade film and stereopticons.
Later, in 1935, the state forestry department became the New Hampshire State Forestry and Recreation Department, and Tobey became New Hampshire's first state park administrator. In this job, Tobey faced the daunting challenge of strengthening the state park system. In 1935, there were 10 state parks operated without charge to the public with an annual budget of $11,500. In 1942, he was informed that the parks would have to "pay their own way" and would not be receiving state funding. With this in mind, Tobey focused on promoting the parks and increasing attendance. The parks became "a setting for mass events," including parties, banquets, horse shows, and concerts. Skating rinks and archery ranges were added to several parks. The onset of World War II brought more challenges. Gas rationing cut attendance at all parks, forcing some to be closed during the war. Tobey opened Bear Brook State Park to Army and Navy men who were stationed in Manchester. He hired women as lifeguards and encouraged people to "take the bus and hike a mile or two to their favorite parks."
After the war, a new division of parks, separate from the forestry commission, was created, and Tobey was appointed the director. By now, he was in charge of 25 state parks; several picnic areas; four areas of historical significance, including the Daniel Webster Homestead; and Cannon Mountain and Mount Sunapee ski areas. The division also was now in charge of special natural areas, including Rhododendron State Park, which was a gift from the Appalachian Mountain Club, and the Madison Boulder, marking "a new kind of park, scenic or unusual area ideal for a new experiment in education -- outdoor education."
Tobey's hobbies were state parks and people. He was constantly promoting the use of state parks and often took the opportunity to describe the scenic beauty or historical significance of a park to a curious tourist. He was a conservationist who felt the only way the parks could be of any value to New Hampshire citizens was if they were both used and used wisely. He once stated, "My personal interpretation of conservation is wise use, rather than mere preservation. If our parks are valuable, we must use them." Believing in the "use but not abuse" concept, he worked to provide "optimum use of the park" while still preserving their inherent beauty and historical significance.
Tobey retired from the parks division in 1971, but not before realizing a lifelong dream. The New Hampshire legislature was notoriously reluctant to spend any tax money to buy public lands, but in 1961, it authorized him to issue $9 million in bonds, which provided new park facilities in Clough and Pawtuckaway; bought 351 acres near Peterborough, which was later developed into the first state park to be bought and developed entirely by the parks division; dredged Rye Harbor for the later construction of a state marina; and bought Tobey's ultimate dream, the summit of Mount Washington, the highest peak in the Northeast which was unparalleled in its beauty and views of the Presidential Range.
Tobey's 36-year career in the New Hampshire State Park system shaped the contemporary system. He reflected, "I don't envy any man his job. I'm happy in my work -- all aspects of it -- with its great variety of stimulating and interesting problems." One of his peers described him in these terms: "He was very dignified. He was an absolutely polished gentleman. He was very sensitive to people's feelings, more than anybody I ever met." His work is seen as one climbs atop Mount Manadnock in the fall to view the scenery painted with the reds, yellows, and oranges of the changing leaves. It is seen during swims at Kingston State Park, or through inhaling the beauty of Rhododendron State Park, or while standing atop the highest peak in the Northeast,peering out at the breathtaking views.
Winter. (1985). Forest Notes.
(1953, December). Conservation Profile: Russell B. Tobey. Forest Notes. No.10, 39-41.
Candace Shea contributed to the development of this profile.