FRANCONIA NOTCH, N.H. - He looks pretty good for a 17,000-year- old.

Good enough to have his mug put on postage stamps (twice), liquor bottles, license plates and, early next month, the latest U.S. quarter.

New Hampshire's Old Man of the Mountain is the most recognizable face in the Granite State. He himself is granite: five slabs stacked atop each other on the southeast face of Cannon Mountain forming forehead, nose, upper lip, chin and jaw. Put there by nature, he's been kept there by the Nielsen family.

Every summer for the last 40 years, one or more people named Nielsen have dangled precipitously from the front of the 40-foot stone profile 1,200 feet above Profile Lake. There they caulk the wrinkles time and weather have etched, clean away the mossy vegetation that grows on his cheeks, and sometimes tighten up the big turnbuckles that keep him from having a splitting headache.

Sort of an annual shave and a haircut - gratis.

That's right, the Nielsens - "Pop" Niels Nielsen, his son David and wife, Deb, and their son, Tom - along with a cast of friends and relatives, do the work for free. The state does cough up about $2,500 every two years to help cover expenses, but that's chump change for a national icon.

This is the face, after all, that convinced the U.S. Treasury Department to bend its rules about not minting a two-headed coin. When the New Hampshire version of the quarters honoring all 50 states is issued on Aug. 7, the Old Man and the state's "Live Free or Die" motto will be on the flip side of George Washington.

The Nielsens are delighted with the new national attention the quarter will bring. The Old Man may need to be coddled, but he is family.

"We wouldn't have the Old Man as we know him without the maintenance," says Niels Nielsen, who celebrated his 73rd birthday yesterday even as the family completed the annual facelift. "But if a baby was born this minute, I would expect that baby would see him as a grownup."

Official caretaker

Nielsen began looking after the stone profile in 1960 as a member of a New Hampshire highway crew. Twenty-seven years later, the state got around to making the work official, giving Nielsen the title of caretaker.

He made his last maintenance run in 1990, then turned the job over to son David. The elder Nielsen said he would quit doing the work himself when he could no longer make the six-foot leap from "Decision Rock" atop Cannon Mountain to the area near the Old Man's forehead.

"It's easy to walk around, but I decided to jump it. I said I would quit when I couldn't and I did," is all Nielsen will say about his decision.

In recent years, he hasn't had much choice in the matter. His lower right leg was amputated in 1994. This week, he just got out of the hospital after surgery to graft a vein from his arm to his left leg to improve circulation, and is confined to an electric scooter.

But a swarm of killer bees couldn't have kept him from being at the foot of Cannon Mountain these past two days to watch the work, kibbitz with friends and tourists and offer advice to his son.

Second generation

David Nielsen, who went on his first Old Man work crew in 1969 at the age of 11, takes the job as seriously as he does his paying job as a local police chief. It's easy to get hurt when you hang from a thin steel cable at a height of 1,200 feet, brushing away loose rock and painting cracks with a protective layer of epoxy. But relinquish that role?

David Nielsen smiles and shakes his head. The Old Man without a Nielsen would be like New England lobster without melted butter.

"I get tired, but I don't get tired of this," he says. "We'll keep it up as long as we can, the good Lord willing."

In fact, David Nielsen began recruiting the next generation of caretakers when he met his wife, Deb, at a rowdy party. After they arrested the worst of the bunch and sent the rest home, Officer Nielsen asked Officer Goddard out.

He told her his old man took care of the Old Man. Deb Goddard thought it was a pick-up line, original maybe, but still a come-on. She changed her mind during their second date, standing atop the Old Man during a personal tour conducted by Pop Nielsen. David and Deb got married in 1984, and she made her first trip down the Old Man's face on a cable in 1989, Pop coaching her while dangling alongside.

Third generation

This year, Tom Nielsen, 21, was on the work crew. He made his first trip at age 9, but hasn't been around much lately. His parents, both 42, say they won't push him to be the next Nielsen to hang over the side. Tom says he appreciates their understanding.

"This is my family and I do understand my part in this, but I'll take it year by year," he says.

His grandfather believes Tom will be won over. "I think he realizes how fortunate he is to be a part of this," Nielsen says as he watches Tom load up gear for the summit.

While this week's maintenance visit drew a crowd, the Old Man draws tourists year-round. Thousands stand at the foot of the mountain each year to view his profile, which is the major attraction at Franconia Notch State Park.

The first reported sighting of the Old Man came from a road-surveying crew in 1805. While camping at the lake at the foot of Cannon Mountain, they looked up and saw a granite face looking back at them.Daniel Webster got the PR ball rolling 26 years later when he saw the face and wrote: "Men hang out their signs indicative of their respective trades. Shoemakers hang out a gigantic shoe, jewelers a monster watch, and dentists a gold tooth; but up in Franconia Mountains God Almighty has hung out a sign to show that in New England, he makes men!"

Undone by ice

But even men of solid rock have their breaking points, especially when the adversary is the freezing and thawing of ice.

In 1872, members of the Appalachian Mountain Club discovered the Old Man's forehead was beginning to slide off the face of the mountain. Finally, in 1916, quarrymen installed huge turnbuckles to keep the brow in place. Those steel rods, as big around as a man's wrist, are still maintained by the Nielsens, who measure the rocks every year to detect any shifting.

In recent times, the Old Man also has been threatened on two new fronts: acid rain that pits the pink granite and vandals who carve their initials or names into any surface they can.

The Nielsens have built a network of sluice-ways behind the head to divert water, and in 1991 gave him a thorough scrubbing to wash away acid rain residue. As for the vandals, some get turned in to park rangers by hikers - one got caught after he carved his whole name and address into a turnbuckle - but most get away, leaving behind another chore for the Nielsens.

Niels Nielsen says, like his own life, the future of the Old Man of the Mountain is out of his hands.

"The Old Man is one of the great handiworks of the Lord. He put him up there, and when He's ready, He'll take him down."

A photo of New Hampshire's Old Man of the Mountain on the first page of yesterday's Today section was missing a credit line. The photo should have been credited to Sun regrets the error and the omission.
Copyright © 2020, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad