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CURRENT DIARY | DIARY ARCHIVES

One man's thoughts on NH history and
the meaning of life in our 375th year.

DEAR DIARY
JANUARY 1998

January 30
I am beginning to understand the role this web site plays in local history. What we are doing is BACKWARDS JOURNALISM. OUr slogan could be "We write fast about the past." Local history-minded people frequently express the fear that we are putting up information too quickly, sidestepping the laborious long research proces. But we are not historians. We are, to use the buzz word, "aggragators" of information that has already been gathered by historians. We take it for granted that they did their homework and, unlike in a history book, if we later discover an error, it can be altered electronically in minutes. I'm not sure this has ever been done before -- using the present as a hook to the past as a means to create an historical context to modern life. It's been done, of course, by teachers and commentators, but we are doing it daily and focusingonly a small geographical area, applying the immediacy of news to rediscovery of the past. History reminds us that we are part of a continuum and that, I think, is a humbling concept, something we especially need in an age of informational omnipotence.

January 28
You'd think the state of New Hampshire would recognize, even in a small way, that this 375th anniversary is not just a Seacoast, but a statewide date. I may be dense, but I haven't heard a word whispered on NH radio, TV or in any statewide publications. You'd think those who promote state tourism or state history or state education would find the date appealing. Red Hook Brewery says they are willing to promote the date on 50,000 six-packs of Portsmouth-brewed ale. That may be our message in the bottle. Someone should send a bottle off to the State House. Helloooo! Concord! Anyone home?

January 27
I'm usually too hyper for extended research and a lot of the history pieces I'm working on take time. So to crank history onto the Net, I've grown dependent on the unsung heroes - the reference librarians. Today I clocked their work. I came busting into the Portsmouth Library at 9:47 a.m. looking for stuff on the history of local weather for an as-yet-unwritten article. By 9:59 a.m. Sarah and Richard had tome up with six articles in the vertical file, two gorgeous 19th century photos, three giant scrapbooks of material and nine microfiche pages from 1886 issues of the local newspaper. I'm trying to treat history with the immediacy of journalism and that would not be possible without people who know how to access the past - fast.

January 26
Two hour meeting with the producers of the TV show "Would You Believe?" that runs on the Discovery Channel. A bunch of us tossed out weird, wild, cool and spooky facts about the region, hoping they will turn their worldwide cameras on our teenie-weenie coastline. In all their travels, they kindly said, they had never found a community more organized, enthusiastic and forthcoming about its diverse local history. I KNEW we were different. Mark of Strawbery Banke told a good story about a Portsmouth man who was bewitched and recited an African chant to undo the curse. The producers figured they had enough stuff around here for an entire season. If all goes well they will be back to shoot in the fall for the 1999 TV season.

January 25
So much of what we know about this region comes from the old newspapers -- The Oracle, The NH Gazette, The Portsmouth Journal. People still believe what they read in the papers, although so much of the "news" is amazingly colored by the biases of reporters and editors. If we pick at the question "What is good news reporting?" we open up a can of words, since the older a piece of news gets, the more likely we are to believe it. Old bad reporting creates exponentially bad history. Which means we have to question reporting and history constantly, never stop picking at its sources and its reporters. With all that in mind, I was impressed by the Portsmouth Herald coverage of the recent 375th Celebration Committee meeting. Reporter Krysten Godfrey nailed the events accurately. I understood what happened BETTER after reading her words, than I did after attending the meeting! More than capturing the events, she summarized the diverse confusing ideas flying around the room and presented them through the mouths of the participants. Nice job.

January 24
PSNH says the ice storm may keep our electricity in Dover off three more days! The family has split to warmer houses. I've often thought that to really teach history well, all students and teachers should be required to live without electricity, central heating, cars, phones or hot showers throughout the course. No eyeglasses, TV, music, flush toilet, toilet paper, Kleenex, sweets, modern medicine, aspirin, feminine hygiene products, toothbrush or deodorant. We'd eat only porridge and salted fish in winter. We'd sleep on straw beds, all in one room. That way we might all understand what truly motivated our colonial ancestors. How much of what they did was motivated by the need for warmth, food, sanitation? And to be in fear, at the same time, of death by wild things or disease. Two days like this and I'd serve any despot for a bottle of shampoo and a Jacuzzi.

January 23
According to an article in Fosters, the 375th Dover party planners are way ahead of Portsmouth which had its second brainstorming meeting this morning. Some people believe a camel is a horse designed by a committee. I have much less faith in group decisions, so proposed that we raise some money and hand the party planning over to one all-powerful individual. I forget you're never supposed to shout "Money!" in a crowded roomful of nonprofit agencies. A polite frenzy ensued and the members of the press went for their pencils. This is, after all, a birthday party. Parties are fun, but parties cost money. In 1923 Virginia Tanner was paid $2,000 by the city to produce the Portsmouth Pageant. But she raised nearly $12,000. If no one is willing to step up to the plate to support this event, I say we take off the party hats and all go home. No shame in that.

January 22
Testing. Testing. Yikes! Webmaster Tim has set up this page so I can now post updates directly from my laptop to the site via e-mail. We're not only writing about history but MAKING it. Here we go...one small keystroke for man...

January 20
Cousin Wayne called for the first time ever from South Carolina. Haven't hardly seen him since he headed South 30 years ago. Now he's reading the web site. He thinks Americans everywhere are hungry for small town news. (Hey, who's small town?!) A TIME magazine cover story agrees. People are fleeing the suburbs for small towns. Hope they just want to visit. Apartments and parking spaces are scarce enough around here.

January 19
Not quite Martin-Luther-King Day in NH. The idea that our founders were selling African slaves in "Yankee" Portsmouth as early as 1645 is still hard to take in. But it gets at the root of why our entire country was so addicted to what John Paul Jones, himself a slaver ship owner, called the "abominable practice." Without decades of unrewarded work by Valerie Cunningham in particular, NH would not have this reality thrust, where it belongs, permanently in our consciousness. Most wealthy locals kept slaves and we need to identify them and write about them. It is no longer OK to pass it off by saying "That's just the way it was." In his documentary on Jefferson, Ken Burns struggles bravely with the unending embarrassment of the fact that the man who wrote the Declaration of Independence owned and never released a single one of his 200 human slaves. In this century the KKK marched through the streets of Portsmouth and, in my lifetime, blacks were given separate housing lists at Pease AFB. These stories need to be told again and again until they alter the color and tone of local history forever.

January 15
People said we were nuts to spend so much time writing this web site. Nothing more boring than local history, they told us. Tim says we are now getting 5,000 visitors a week accessing over 20,000 pages weekly. That's over a million web pages "hit" per year -- and the numbers are climbing. Not much, I suppose, for a porno site, but darn good America's smallest Seacoast.

January 12
The ultimate panoramic view of the Piscataqua is from the top of the huge tower at the off-loading point of the Sprague Energy plant in Newington. Standing there it is possible to visualize the slow smooth arrival of Martin Pring's sailing ship as it came down river from Portsmouth into Great Bay in 1603. From above all the traffic and the sad boxy modern buildings, I had one clear image of the first ship arriving. I glided in with barely a sound except for the flutter of canvas, creaking timbers and a few distant voices.

January 10
I just read that when the local natives first saw European sailing ships, some thought they were "walking islands." The tree-like masts and cloudy sails seemed to move purposefully across the ocean. When the Europeans arrived, some natives assumed they were just looking for firewood. That made sense. "Prehistoric" tribes frequently moved when they ran out of resources. They had no concept of a tribe that would take everything it needed, then continue to take until everything was gone, and still lay claim to owning the ground and the water itself. I have owned 12 computers, all of them still work, and our company needs a faster one -- to tell the history of our region on the Internet. Now people can read about the past milliseconds faster. All that communication and we can barely talk with each other. What a strange tribe indeed.

January 9
One Brunswick pool table at the last surviving men's club in Portsmouth was installed not too many years after the place opened in 1892. There are four ancient tables in all. When the club members decided to replace one worn table recently, they found a table just like the original one - finely carved oak, leather pockets, smooth green felt. The new table fit smoothly into its ancestor's spot and, within minutes, all was right with the world again.

January 8
Robert at the Athenaeum says the 1623 David Thompson arrival date is "dubious at best." The Hilton date in Dover may be even further off the mark. Maybe this is going to get interesting after al.

January 8
First meeting of the Portsmouth Chamber group to decide what to do about the 375th. The best and the brightest of local historical groups, the arts community and PR-people were there at 8:30am. The best idea offered was by city councilman John Hynes who suggested making a commitment to recording oral histories. This should be our commitment to the future - to save what is left of the 20th century on tapes and transcripts. Each elderly resident we lose carries off our past. Let's start NOW!

January 3
Since discovering Virginia Tanner of New Castle, I can't stop trying thinking about the grand pageant of 1923. Acting out the metaphors of local history dressed in flowery costumes is a concept too corny for our day, but it seems to have had a powerful impact on the thousands who saw it. I called Dorothy Vaughan who is 93 for details, but she said she was working that weekend in 1923, and could not go, though her two brothers sang in the chorus. "I guess I'm just the girl who missed the pageant," she said.

January 2
It seems beyond presumption to think that our one year old web site can ever hope to tell 375 years of American history, even in an area this tiny -- to pick at its lock with any precision or hope of setting its stories loose. But it seems even more presumptuous to set a punch-clock to the history of this region at all. Our "birthday" is based on the arrival of the first white settler in 1623, not the first slave in 1645 or the first Native American 12,000 years or more before. We celebrate "recorded" history rather than folklore because we think facts are more important than myths. We are, of course, totally wrong. Any artist knows that a pound of feathers weights more than a pound of lead.

January 1
Idea - record my thoughts on history each day on the Internet during the 375th anniversary. Does anyone care? Why do I?

© 1998 SeacoastNH.com

See also:

  • Seacoast History
  • History Themes
  • Big Parties That I Missed

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