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


February 28
Just back from the second highest high tide I've ever seen at Ogunquit Beach, water lapping against the concrete base of the beach hotel. The whole scene was surreal due to 50 degree February weather with tons of people walking dogs along the stretch from Ogunquit, past the footbridge to Wells. That last thin wall of dunes I sall that keeps the Atlantic in place. Today it was severely eaten away past the thin protective fences like a move-model version of the giant California cliffs where houses wobble on the precipice. There El Nino has eroded off 20 feet of coastline in days. Here, it may only be a couple of precious feet. We forget that both coasts are dynamic, always evolving. We can divert rivers and make lakes, but the ocean will have its way. Ten thousand years ago, they say, you could walk to the Isles of Shoals. Eventually, we'll be writing this seacoast column from high atop the White Mountains.

February 27
Is it hot out there, or is it me? People are walking around in shorts in February. Maybe I'm just warmly embarrassed for revealing the "rumor" of the ailing North Church building on-line. Readers are already offering support, even money, but we have yet to make official contact with the church. Jumping the gun, one reader suggests setting up a Spire Fund to collect money for the restoration of the building. In fact, she suggested the need for a city-wide plan to deal with the inevitable deterioration of its key public buildings. The City pay for buildings? The government moves in and out of old ones like fiddler crabs in shells.

Meanwhile down at the beach teacher Norman Michaud discovered a wrecked wooden boat submerged in the sands of Rye. According to the Herald article, it appears to be locally made and a 32-foot piece is visible, but maybe not for long. Not a bad archeological gift from Neptune to celebrate the 375th birthday of the state's oldest town. Maybe a relic or two here for Rye's first museum, now being organized.

February 25
I can't believe how FAST things happen online. The Whittier piece wasn't posted a day before I had a note from an author of two Whittier books and a message from the people who live in the house where Whitter died. Time marches on and stomps out all traces of the past. This message on the e-mail from Ralph Morang: "Whittier's Maude Muller's spring (inspiration for his poem of the same name) in South Berwick has suffered from development. It was a roadside spring, the water flowing out a pipe where people could stop and fill containers. A plaque on a rock commemorated Whittier's poem. A few years ago, some developer built houses in the former fields and insisted the rock was in the way of a new driveway. The rock was moved about 50 feet, but the pipe and spring are gone." Sorry Greenleaf. Our best monument would have been to leave your spring alone. I've seen it all too many times. Check John Goffe's Mill in Bedford where I grew up. It's buried in a hotel-mall complex. Tourists call it "quaint." I have to avert my eyes. Progress in cyberspace is even faster, but it leaves no visible scars.

February 24
OK, now I went and stuck my big foot in my mouth. Or, at least I will on April 4 when I conduct an "Interactive Conversation" with the Strafford County Genealogical Society. It fascinates me that people like to track down their ancestors by reading wills, court documents, church records, tombstones. I don't have the patience to fill out the back of a raffle ticket. But this is where the real history takes place, leading to works of genius like Laurel Thatcher Ulrich's "A Midwife's Tale." Her years of dogged research lead to an astonishing reconstruction of a colonial midwife, a woman who birthed a thousand babes traveling winters in a canoe in Maine and getting paid in barter. I love the stories, but cannot bear the hard dull search. The TV movie of "Midwife" premiered at the Music Hall in Portsmouth. I've never seen a more amazing film or met a more interesting character. Bought the book, had Prof. Ulrich sign the copy, then asked a friend to read it for me. Reading is too hard.

February 23
The more I study history the more I agree with the theory in the new film Wag the Dog, that the masses care more for slogans than facts. This week I've been immersed in poet John Greenleaf Whittier whose poem "New Hampshire" praised this state for its brave role in the abolition of slavery before the Civil War. In fact, NH did less than most and mostly had a rotten track record. Whittier was all excited that John P. Hale of Dover had become a US Senator, and Hale disliked slavery. But not a lot came of it all. NH did little to end slavery that was providing cheap cotton to our textile mills. Whittier's excitement passed, but the poem survived, its drama and energy outlived the dull reality. Now, reading the poem, it is easy to misunderstand it, complex to ferret out the truth, easier to feel good that we Yanks were the good guys. It just isn't the way it was, but nobody wants to lose the blue ribbon, even if they only found it at the fairground.

February 23
People are people. People are people. Super historians can spend years with an old phone book, but the rest of are pretty predictable. When the Athenaeum sponsored a lecture on ancient maritime archeology, the attendance was, well.... But last week when the scholarly topic was prostitution in the old Water Street "red light" district, there was standing room only. I forgot to RSVP and paid the price -- no room! Luckily, the author's Master's Thesis will be placed in the archives for education purposes.

February 20
COMMITTEE UPDATE: We learned today, in a surprising shift, that the City of Portsmouth has now taken the helm of the 375th celebration. The "coordinator" position we worked toward will be taken over by an as-yet-unannounced person paid by the city. Now the proceedings will be turned over to a "blue ribbon committee" appointed by the mayor that meets in March. Today's non-blue ribbon grassroots committee (third of the meetings originated by the Chamber of Commerce) got a progress report. There is a calendar of events forming, a logo, the Red Hook beer promotion, and two local potters have designed souvenir crockery. The emphasis is still focused on the fall arrival of the Australian tall ship Endeavour. News about the arrival of "Old Ironsides" is, according to a city council member, still "up in the air." But this town is so full of spirit and talent, there's a general feeling we'll pull the whole thing off somehow. The next step, we are told, is to create subcommittees. Uh-oh, subcommittees.

February 20
ACcording to one newspaper this week, George Washington slept at Wentworth-by-the-Sea, the old hotel now slated to be preserved. I love the fact that some kid in the 21st century will look up this fact and write a history paper, when in fact, George stayed at the Brewster Tavern across the street from our office which is now the site of an auction house, was the Elk's Lodge and is not even the same building. To stay at the Wentworth, he would have been almost an addition century older. But it sure looks good on paper. So much of our history looks good on paper, but doesn't hold up under the glare of truth. AT yesterday's meeting to work on a history curriculum for Portsmouth 4th graders there was a lot of talk about "primary sources." That is the key. Rather than telling kids what somebody else said about history, we just introduce them to the original sources -- deeds, bills, photos, church records, diaries -- and let them sort out the reality. They're doing it in Exeter already. The only real history worth knowing, as I've discovered, is the history you dig up yourself. Kids need to learn to question authority and believe in themselves. How does what we do, teach them that?

February 19
Mike Wentworth died today of a heart attack. We are the same age. We met in 1977 when he was teaching at Portsmouth High and I was looking desperately for a job. We used to joke that his famous last name was emblazoned on historic houses, streets, hotels and plaques. When his father passed away he took it hard, and we stayed up all night dealing with the grief. Then he helped me apply for a part time job at the high school, showed me the ropes, made the contacts. He was a teddy bear of a guy, always listening, always amazed, open to anything. The very day I got my first teaching job, my girl friend was killed in car crash driving home along Route 101. My only reaction was to call Mike. He came over directly, within minutes. He stayed through the day and into the night when other friends began to arrive and take charge of me. I saw him off and on after that for a few months, drifted away, waved at him in the streets for 20 years or more. It wouldn't be an exaggeration to say that Mike Wentworth saved my life. No one knew more precisely how to deal with the first few impossible hours of the worst day I've ever known. The history of a city is the sum of the stories of its people. The history of a person is the sum of the memories he carves into the hearts of others. Mike's love cut deep and his history is written into a thousand friends and students. I'll carry my impression of him proudly and happily.

February 18
Despite torrential rain, the walk to the mail was worth it. Received my first-ever Gov. Benning wentworth postcard. Two years ago, I would not have recognized the now familiar portrait of the wonderfully corrupt Portsmouth British governor. Card included an invitation to a meeting of historians and educators pushing to create a local Portsmouth history curriculum for children. Since I started my career as a teacher, I couldn't be more pleased, but teaching history dull, is worse than not teaching it at all. We have to get OFF the names and dates and tests and into the human elements. Kids must get out, WALK to the historic sites, touch the artifacts, smell the mildew and the historic gardens, play old games, re-enact battles, pass laws, cook old fashioned food, get involved in the mindset. More good news in the paper on the way home. According to the Herald, New Castle residents overwhelmingly paved the way for the preservation of the old Wentowrth-by-the-Sea hotel. Thank God. For awhile it looked like a few wealthy investors were going to win out over preservationism. That's one endangered species that may survive a bit longer. Put that success story in the Portsmouth hsitory curriculum! Let the kids help save the building, so they'll never forget their lessons.

February 17
Speaking of Presidents, the Library of Congress today released a web site with 6,000 pages of executive letters onto its web site. This gets more fun as the hypertext grows. According to writer Ray Brighton, besides Washington, Portsmouth has seen many other chief executives. Fifth President James Monroe arrived in time to bid farewell to the elderly John Langdon who had entertained Washington in 1789. Unpopular locally for his war on Texas, James Polk visited in 1847. NH's own Franklin Pierce, who had lived in Portsmouth as a law student and later vacationed at the Isles of Shoals after his retirement, made an official visit. Ulysses S. Grant was savaged by the Portsmouth newspaper during a whistle-stop tour, and Benjamin Harrison managed a 12 minute layover on his way back from a Bar Harbor vacation. Other Portsmouth Presidents included Chester Arthur, William Taft, Harry Truman, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and the ever present George Bush who used Pease Air Force Base as a private hangar for Air Force One during hops to Kennebunkport.

February 14
It amazes me that no visiting President has impacted this region more than George Washington. His four day whistle-stop tour to Portsmouth is STILL talked about. You'd think people would now be focused on the fact that Bill Clinton overcame the negative PR of his alleged tryst with Gennifer Flowers by coming here to Dover and winning the NH Primary. But instead people want to know about George: where he stayed, who he met, what he said. There's an entire book on the visit and Ray Brighton wrote a detailed unpublished book on two little thank you letters that George wrote about his visit here. We find as we strip away the myths of Washington, that he is every bit as interesting in the flesh -- sometimes angry, depressed, confused, vain, dumb. I like him much better since I met the real George. I met him through Tobias Lear, the very flawed boy from Portsmouth who became the President's secretary. He was the doorway.

February 13
We used to celebrate Lincoln's Birthday with more than a sale at the mall. There are a number of connections between Lincoln and Seacoast NH. He campaigned here, of course. His saddle is in the Woodman Institute in Dover on the top floor. His son Todd went to Phillips Exeter Academy where I think his dorm is now an apartment house. Though not much of an abolitionist himself until the end of his career, Lincoln admired the country's first "abolitionist senator", John Hale of Dover. And I am still convinced of my theory that Lincoln died on the day he did because Hale's daughter Lucy broke up with her boyfriend John Wilkes Booth that very morning. It is a story still waiting to be told.

February 11
Talked with photographer Tom Hindle who is on the Dover 375th committee. Their events calendar is nearly in place. He noted that one NH historical calendar has the date for the founding of the state at 1627, four years later. If Portsmouth quickly adopted that date, we'd have FOUR more years to prepare. Neither Tom nor I have ever met anyone who really knows the authentic date, or even seen the primary source documents that establish the 1623 date in the first place. Most of us are simply taking the word of another authority at face value. This happens in school text books. One text book is written from a previous edition and no one goes back to the beginning to authenticate the facts. Tom and I suggested getting all the books and all the local "experts" in one room at one time just to see how little we really know. Although he was talking about economists, George Bernard Shaw once said that if you took all the experts on a topic and placed them end-to-end, they wouldn't reach a conclusion. I think it was Shaw. Anyway, one of our goals this year should be to at least track down the authority for this date, and to do it totally in the public eye, so people can see how the process works. History is like a game of Ghost in which each person whispers a fact to the next until it gets distorted beyond recognition. Someday, we need to admit that to ourselves.

February 10
I don't have the slightest idea what all the zoning and petitioning means in New Castle. All I know is that the loss of what's left of the great white hotel on the hill will be sad indeed. It's only a hotel after all, just over 100 years old. It's not a place I would have been invited, but I'll miss it all the same. Although its been hacked and chopped and ignored almost to death, there is a dignity still in Wentworth-by-the-Sea. It is really the last of the grand hotels in the NH seacoast, the last bastion of the rich lily white rush of tourism that began in the 19th century. If it goes the way of the snail darter, we won't lose our souls. But I'll miss it when I ride my bicycle round the island loop and I'll feel a little older for having known it in its final days. The deciding town vote comes soon, they say. They've been saying that for years now.

February 09
Got a call today from a New York Times reporter writing about black history. He wanted to talk to Valerie. The day before it was an e-mail from the Christian Science Monitor wanting a link from our Black History site. The day before we got an award as the best of the best on the Internet for original African-American content. I've written a couple of pieces, but Valerie Cunningham is the star, our mentor, our heroine. For 30 years she has spent every spare minute researching and writing about NH blacks. It is an amazing, horrifying, courageous, frustrating, joyous history. The black population here has been isolated in a sea of white faces since 1645. Blacks in NH number about half od one percent, then as now. I am constrantly begging Valerie for more material, another scrap of her research, another tale or two. Now she has reached a milestone. Today we attended the farewell party at UNH where Val has worked as a secretary for years and years. Now she is going to complete her Masters and WRITE black history! Val is going to dedicate herself to what she does best. We in NH and the world will be richer for the work she does becuase she does it with such skill and such love.

February 08
Knowing about history changes the present. Last week I knew nothing about the original NH state house which stood smack in the middle of Market Square. Just now I was walking downtown to see Richard Haynes superb photo exhibit at the Athenaeum. Crossing the familiar intersection at the Old NOrth Church, I imagined myself passing into the 1767 State House, going up its stone steps, up to the COurt Room, and looking out the window into the artist's reception at the Portsmouth Athenaeum. This is where the Revolutionaries decided NOT to have a copycat Portsmouth Tea Party, where Washington gave his speech, where the Declaration and the COnstitution were first read to the gathered locals. Now the building lies in bits in a trailer in Concord. I don't grieve its loss. I never knew the place at all. But just knowing it existed right there will change the way I cross that street forever. When people wonder why we work so hard to tell these stories on the Internet, I hope to remember that this is why. Sometimes the greatest thing you can give someone is a changed perspective.

February 07
The logo is ready! Theresa at Brown Design says they have completed the new artwork for the 375th birthday. Nothing pulls together an event like a crisp memorable image. Mary Jo Brown and her company have donated their talents. I saw the early mockups. The bottom of the logo reads "A Celebration of History." Though we are a day late and a dollar short planning this event, this is a major step. This is the marriage of historical content and marketing. Both, in the right measure, are critical to success.

February 06
In order to get through this 375th, I'll need a few key books. The Ralph May book on the early days of the Piscataqua is a must. He's got a full page just showing different ways the word "Piscataqua" was spelled! I'll also need a copy of Adams "Annals of Portsmouth" from the 1820s. Peter Randall says this was the first book he reprinted, but I can't find copies of either around town and the rare booksellers tell me I'm going to pay $50-$100 each when they turn up. Maybe it's time we put these babies on hypertext as we're doing slowly with good old "Brewster's Rambles." If you'd told me two years ago that I'd be buying this stuff instead of new VCR, I'd call you nuts. Am I addicted to dusty local books? Should I get a life or get a loan?

February 05
I'm getting a funny feeling about this birthday party. You'd think locating 2/3 of the baseline funding in one week would make people happy. Today's unsigned Portsmouth Herald editorial instead says the "bickering" between city officials may be a "bad omen" for the 375th celebration. I thought it was amazing we got anything. Meanwhile the front page of the paper tells us that Boston Mayor Thomas Menino thinks Old Ironsides is too fragile to visit Portsmouth this July. Actually it was visiting Kittery, Maine across the river for its 350th birthday, but Portsmouth will take credit for anything. NH Senator Bob Smith reminds the Boston Mayor that the USS Constitution is a federal vessel. So in one fell swoop we've picked the scab off three or four old rivalries, not to mention the already underway Dover 375th nearby. This is the way it's been around here for 375 years - nice and feisty. Thanks to the Internet, the whole world gets a front row seat this time.

February 04
I was honored to be a guest panelist yesterday at a "strategic conversation" on the future of Strawbery Banke. Despite 25 years in Portsmouth, I've never actually taken the official tour there. I showed up at the William Pitt Tavern building instead of Stoodley's Tavern. I know precious little about Strawbery Banke, a deficiency I hope to remedy soon. I know Stoodley's, now amazingly refurbished as an education center, is the kickoff point for Kenneth Roberts novel "Northwest Passage." I know it is where Paul Revere and some Portsmouth men planned the attack on Fort William and Mary, which we locals claim led to the real "shot heard round the world." It was a muffled shot, apparently, since no one seems to have heard it much beyond Portsmouth. Anyway, this seemed the appropriate revolutionary setting for a call to arms for the future of Strawbery Banke. All of the panelists said they would like to see this most amazing collection of preserved houses come alive again. Today museums are growing more dynamic, interactive, dramatic, interpretive, entertaining. For me, the Banke is perhaps the most amazing "stage" ever designed. We're ready to see what will "play" there next. Unlike Heritage Village, Colonial Williamsburg, Sturbridge Village, Plymouth Plantation and others -- this a real neighborhood with authentic buildings, not reconstructions. But bricks and mortar only go so far. Now all it needs is real people and captivating projects to pull us inside the walls. It was an exciting, vital meeting, not at all stuffy as I had feared. Nice people.

February 03
Robin Comstock at the POrtsmouth Chamber has gone to bat for the idea of a 375th Celebration. According to this morning's Portsmouth Herald, she has managed to get the City Council to appropriate $5,000 toward the salary of a person to coordinate the event. I'm guilty of insisting that a paid coordinator is needed -- or else the celebration will never get off the ground. Robin tried to get the $15K I had suggested would be necessary from the city, but the city chopped the number in half. But it appears the city will toss in another $5K if the Chamber can match the first $5K installment. Unused to city budgeting, I was too dumb to ask for twice what was needed, but this is a giant step forward. The paper is referring to our recent meetings as a "Blue Ribbon Committee." That has a nice ring. One corporate sponsor could easily come up with the missing funds. If we weren't a year late, we'd be right on schedule.

February 02
History's hot! I swear no other area gets so much of its past in the news each day. Foster's Saturday paper reported two history articles above the fold where the big news goes. One says the USS Constitution may come to town again. We reported that Old Ironsides story last July, but who's counting? The other news is even more intriguing. Everybody seems to have forgotten that Portsmouth used to be the capital of NH. Now the last chunk of the 230-year old former statehouse that used to stand in Market Square is rotting away in a storage trailer in Concord. Strawbery Banke thought about reconstructing it, but passed when it looked like a $2 million project. When Old Ironsides was docked in Portsmouth in the late 1800s, it was chopped up into a floating storage shed. When NH got its hands on perhaps the most historic building in the state, the government used it to store liquor bottles. If this state found the Holy Grail, we'd probably use it as a candy dish.

February 01
If old houses were oil, we'd be Kuwait. Hardly anyone -- tourist or local -- seems to have a clue as to what keeps all these historic houses standing. The cities and towns chip in NOTHING. This cheap state gives little more. The enormous cost of endlessly repairing these old wooden places comes mostly from the pockets of very, very few local contributors and the sweat equity of tiny boards of directors. On Thursday nine of them voted to spend nearly $20,000 to finish restoring the last portion of the fence around the John Paul Jones House. The 1756 house itself desperately needs maybe five times that much to prevent ongoing deterioration. There is no board of wealthy benefactors, no federal aid, just whatever nickels and dimes can be raised by tours and bake sales. I just got back from the stately Wentworth-Coolidge Mansion hanging out on the Piscataqua, where old Gov. Wentworth married his young housekeeper before the Revolution. The new visitor's center is brilliantly designed, there is a new enthusiastic talented director (Molly Bolster) on board, and things seem to be looking up for this partially restored landmark. I think it is one of the most interesting historic houses in New England. George Washington thought so, and still it remains largely undiscovered.

© 1998

See also:

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

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