If you’ve ever driven on Route 103 heading up to Sunapee for some swimming or skiing, you might have seen this piece of graffiti on the side of the road in Newbury.
It’s on this giant rock right off the highway and it reads: “Chicken Farmer I Still Love You” in big white letters. And it’s been there for decades.
As part of our series Only in NH, in which we answer questions from around the state about New Hampshire oddities, NHPR's Paige Sutherland tries to solve the mystery behind the chicken farmer love rock.
Every summer, 28 year-old Kelsey McNaught and her family take a trip up to Lake Sunapee. And every time they do - they play this little game.
“When we pass the sign we all scream – ‘Chicken Farmer I Still Love You’.”
McNaught's always wondered, who wrote this message? Who was it for? And why a chicken farmer?
“Why not a firefighter, why not a regular farmer, why not a stone farmer – I don’t know,” she says.
And over the years, she’s crafted her own story behind this: Man falls in love with a chicken farmer and then declares his love on the rock.
Her nine-year-old son had a slightly different idea about the rock when he was younger.
“He honestly thought it was a man or a woman proclaiming their love for chickens. We’ve corrected him obviously but I still like to think that someone loves chickens so much that they decided to paint their love on a side of a rock in the middle of nowhere.”
Being a journalist for a few years now mainly covering drugs and politics, I thought getting to the bottom of some rock graffiti would be a piece of cake...but not so much.
After doing some research and making a few calls, I didn’t really get anywhere, so I decided to jump in my car and head right to the source.
Driving through downtown Newbury for the first time, I hadn't seen the Chicken Farmer Rock yet, so I thought I'd pop in to the library and have them point me in the right direction.
The town librarians I spoke with, Lea McBain and Laura Pezone, both knew about the rock. In fact, they said everyone knows about it.
"The original rock was simply 'Chicken Farmer I Love You' - There’s been a movie made about it,.. poems written, sermons given, songs, bumper stickers, and….we have the chicken farmer 5K race in the summer...it’s just a little Newbury town race that they name after the chicken farmer.”
The town loves their rock, but some outsiders didn’t share that same passion.
“Somebody made a complaint," Dennis Pavlicek told me. He’s been the town administrator of Newbury for more than two decades.
"They didn’t like the looks of it and they thought that it was graffiti, so the state decided 'we are going to clean it up.'”
And the state did clean it up....by painting a big red blob over the writing.
“That set the residents of the town into an orbit that immediately they were distraught not to see that," Pavlicek said.
"They were distraught that they never had the chance to voice their opinion about it so what happened is a lot of people got upset and they started a petition.”
In a town of fewer than 2,000 people, hundreds signed the petition. And the state agreed not to touch the rock again.
In the midst of all this, the writing mysteriously reappeared on the rock. But this time, the message was slightly different.
It said: “Chicken Farmer I STILL Love you.”
And since then the words on the rock have stayed - even getting a fresh coat of paint by some secret admirer every few years.
And yet, while everyone knows about the rock, no one seems to know the real story behind it.
Sure, there are theories and rumors.
I heard versions involving a chicken farmer who went off to war, one of star-crossed lovers, one story painting the chicken farmer as a man, one as a woman, one about a mother writing it for her daughter before she left for college and one about a veterinarian who fell in love with a chicken farmer.
Some locals like Donna Matte, though, don’t want to know the real story. They think it might kill the magic.
“I’m a romantic and I love to think of stories of why it’s there,” Matte told me. I’m not the first person to try to get to the bottom of this.
In 1997 “Yankee Magazine” thought they had figured out the real story behind the rock. They even called it the "love story of the year."
Yankee said the message was written for a girl named Gretchen Rule, who now goes by Gretchen Hamel.
She lived across the street from the rock and her family had chickens. In the 1970’s, she was in high school and, according to the story, the message was written for her by a secret admirer.
I decided to track her down.
“I had some idea of who it might have been but it’s just nice to think that someone out there likes me enough to put that on the rock,” she laughed.
Hamel never confronted that person, and wouldn’t tell me who she thought it was. So I kept digging.
The town librarians didn’t know who the secret admirer was, and the long-time town administrator said he had no clue. The local town folks I walked to weren’t sure either.
But in all my conversations, one name kept coming up as someone who people said knows all the facts.
I tracked the man they named down, and he told me yes, there’s one true story behind the rock and he knows it. BUT, he said, he’s not telling anyone.
He says he was sworn to secrecy. The reason I'm not using his name here is because he wants to keep his promise.
Still, for me, he was proof that the truth is out there. And it made me even more determined to find it.
There was one other person in town who people said might have some answers. Her name is Dorris Newell.
She grew up in the house adjacent to the rock and raised her kids there. She’s 82 and has since moved to the senior living facility down the road.
“When I was a teenager that rock was covered with foliage, trees all around it and I used to sit on that rock and watch the traffic go by and when the blue line express went by I knew I had to get home because supper would be ready.” Newell said. adding that she first noticed the graffiti when her children were in school.
“So it just appeared one day?”
"It just appeared and they would come and renew it – it would be dull in the evening and then the next morning it was all brightly painted again. But I never heard anybody. Could have been anybody but I don’t know.”
Another dead end. With my two best leads now crossed off the list, I took the next logical step, and I went to go talk to people who now live near the rock.
I went over to the house right across the street, the one where Gretchen Rule, the girl with the secret admirer, once lived.
Lynn Long has lived there since the 90’s. She bought the home from Gretchen’s parents Louis and Grete.
Long told me she knows the real story, and she was willing to spill it. So spoiler alert, if for whatever reason you've decided you don’t want to know, block your ears.
The story goes like this: Gretchen Rules' mother Grete had a good job working for the state, and her husband Louis was a probation officer. He had to retire early for health reasons. That didn’t mean he stopped working though.
“He did sheep, he did Christmas trees, I think he might have done a little sugaring," Long said. "There used to be cabins here so I think they rented out cabins in the summertime – it just kept going on and on and it’s a lot of work.”
So here’s Louis Rule, who’s supposed to be taking it easy, and instead, he’s working just as hard as he did when he worked in probation. He even decides to start raising a flock of chickens. And one day, his wife has had enough and she tears into him for taking on too much.
But as Long tells it, Louis' wife immediately regretted it.
“Grete went out there one morning and she painted that and said ‘Oh it just showed up one morning, I don’t know where it came from, it just showed up.’ And it was her apology to Louis."
“Because she was bugging him about being a chicken farmer?”
"She couldn’t say anything...she worked for the state and that (rock) is in state boundaries and it would have cost her her job.”
And that’s the story behind 'Chicken Farmer I Love You.'
It was a love note, but also an apology.
And from the sounds of it, their relationship was just as solid as the rock itself. Grete and Louis Rule were married for 65 years. Around town, people say you could just tell the two were deeply in love. As her children told me, the couple was joined at the hip.
The Rules ended up moving into a retirement home in Concord. They’ve both since passed away.
Lynn Long says she heard the story directly from Grete Rule when she moved into the house. And, she adds, they even left behind some chicken feeders, too.
When I told Gretchen Hamel – Greta and Louis’s daughter - this version of the story, she was shocked and said she wasn't sure it’s true. She says her mother never told her the story.
“You never asked your parents?”
“No, it just never occurred to me that one of them would use spray paint on a rock on a highway. I would have been appalled and disappointed quite frankly that it wasn’t for me.”
Video: Found on YouTube, a filmmaker's theory about the origin story of the rock
But it actually makes sense. Why would a young high school girl be called "Chicken Farmer?" She didn’t raise chickens herself. And why would people be so hush-hush about something as silly as a secret admirer writing on a rock?
Well, they would if they thought Grete could have lost her job, or worse, could have crushed her youngest daughter’s dream that the love rock was meant for her.
With a story to finally tell, I sat down with Kelsey McNaught to let her know her question had an answer.
“What do you think?”
“I really like that story a lot more than my own story and its fascinating because my husband part time likes to keep bees and I can’t stand that he keeps bees so he also does all these odd jobs...and I like that story a lot more.”
McNaught said she doesn’t plan to share the story with her husband, because he wants to keep the mystery of it alive.
That’s something I heard from quite a few people, including Newbury's town administrator Dennis Pavlicek.
“But you know that is what the glory of this whole story is...is because nobody really knows, I mean they can say they know but we don’t really know that to be true, do we? That’s probably why it’s a great love story because nobody is 100 percent sure.”
I guess that’s how local legends get made. After enough time passes, the details don’t seem to matter as much as the mystery.
There is one thing the whole town can agree on, though. They don’t want the rock to go away. Whatever the truth behind "Chicken Farmer I Still Love You Is," it’s their town's love story.