One man's thoughts on NH history and
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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...
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.
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