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

MARCH 1998

March 31
Now the magic begins. Today we tried out the new Epson digital camera on the old John Paul Jones House. Managed to get five gorgeous digital images out of the camera and onto the computer screen in 5 minutes! The study and presentation of local history is about to speed up in ways never before imaginable. The camera also works direct to a printer or TV set. A little screen on the back allows the operator to see which pictures came out well and delete those that did not. Minutes later we captured the first piece of horizontal steel being set in place on the new downtown building at 10 Pleasant Street behind the North Church. In seconds we could send that image anywhere on earth or post it on a web site. How will this digital speed and accuracy affect old historic sites, archeology, archives and artifact identification? Stay tuned. Digital sound and digital video are on the way if the bank agrees.

March 30
I always wondered why there was no monumenrt in Durham to Gen. John Sullivan and today, I noticed, there is. It's a tomb-like thing just above the footbridge near the Mill Pond where the famous swans were nowhere to be seen this sunny afternoon. I tend to be only distantly interested in monuments since most, it seems, were put up to the wrong people for the wrong reasons. My favorite of all time is the medium-sized green plaque at the streetlight end of the wonderfully underused Kittery common just across the Memorial Bridge past Badger's Island. It was put up at the turn of the century by some now defunct group and opens with the phrase (I'm paraphrasing here) "On this very spot on November 1777 John Paul Jones launched the famous Ranger…etc." It goes on for a few brassy words and you get a sense, at least, that you're standing at a real historic spot. That is, until you read the modern footnote below which says, "This plaque was moved in 1965." Something about that line sums up this whole history game for me, and I visit that monument at least once a week. It makes me laugh right out loud each time, and still the hallowed feeling is there. The joke exists simultaneously with the reverence. That, I believe, is the only point I'm ever trying to make. We HAVE to take our past seriously, but those who do, seem so frequently unable to find the punchline at the bottom of the dusty documen where our ancestors have planted it.

March 28
It's still March. It's 75 degrees, and everyone on Earth is walking around in Market Square in their underwear. I'm wearing a light cotton sweater and a young dude, with no shirt or shoes stares at me like I'm dressed for an Eskimo whale hunt. Boom boxes have appeared from nowhere and the motorcycle males are performing loud courtship rituals for the girls along Congress Street. The hackey-sack players have reclaimed their bit of turf in front of the North Church, and the worst blues harmonica player in the Northeast has claimed a piece of curb outside the Athenaeum. From all the pale exposed flesh, this could be All-albino day at Disneyland. Every door and window along the square is thrown open, some still dripping melted snow. Every sidewalk table is occupied. Every parking space is taken. Sunglasses are required and no one, no one, is allowed indoors.

March 27
The official 375th web site is finally in the production phase and a preliminary version may be on-line the first full week of April. This history celebration is so dynamic (read "chaotic") at this point, that the Internet is the ideal means for presenting the ever-changing information. At this moment Charlene, an administrative manager at the Portsmouth Chamber, is about to ship over the initial draft of the 375th Calendar of Events. So far, she says, there are only 40 entries, but this will be the tip of the iceberg. Organizations holding history-related events will contact Charlene (not me) at 436-3988 and our web site will fling the information into cyberspace.

March 26
Cases of Ironsides Fever are popping up all over. Everybody has a plan, or hope that includes an intense connection with the old ship. This morning a local historical group met with a pair of filmmakers who have advanced the idea of documentary on the visit. The idea has merit. Portsmouth and Kittery have deep emotional ties to the USS Constitution that go back to the mid-1850s and those "issues," to use a therapeutic vocabulary, are "unresolved." The return of Old Ironsides, first time under sail in over a century and symbol of the Revolution, is bound to resonate with any American. But around here, it is a homecoming to boot. I wasn't here for the first reconnection when the ship visited in 1931, but the emotion still hangs in the air like the smell of sea salt. If the filmmakers can explore and capture that local feeling, they may well create an important bit of cinema as well as a nice psychic peak into our common mind. We NEED Ironsides to validate our maritime past, it seems.

March 24
Teetering on the brink of ecstasy here. My all-time 375th year goal is to be a key-carrying proprietor of the Portsmouth Athenaeum. It's the dream of anyone who cares about local history. Membership is very limited and it can take years to reach the hallowed threshold. Currently I am a SAP (subscriber awaiting proprietorship) with just two applicants ahead. Patience is not one of my virtues, and I await the fateful letter with all the dignity of a third grader after three extra-large Coke classics. I still carry in my wallet a temporary reader's card from my short stint at the Bodleian Library while a summer student at Trinity College, Oxford. There, one could ask for any book ever printed and runners would bring it to the desk. I had to take an oath not to "kindle a flame" and I took it very seriously. Even though the Athenaeum is not even 200 years old, it's the very best we have and, even for someone as irreverent as I, an honor to be linked to.

March 23
With barely 30 years in town, I'm still a newbie here in the Seacoast. I'm a regionalist, I guess, not tied to any one town. I work in Portsmouth, live in Dover, taught in Exeter, went to college in Durham. To me, it's all the same place, so I'm always surprised when I bump into old-fashioned, hard-core territoriality as I did recently. A couple of older Portsmouth residents said they saw no reason why "other" towns should be a part of Portsmouth's 375th celebration. When I pointed out that, actually, Portsmouth was not 375 years old, that Rye, New Castle and Dover had much more claim to the 1623 arrival date than the Port City, they appeared shocked that I considered such details important. Two women said they did not consider Dover part of the Seacoast. "When I was growing up," one Portsmouth politician told a Dover resident recently, "we had a saying -- Portsmouth-by-the-sea, Dover by the smell." This kind of chauvinism still exists and, I think ironically, contributed to the unique personality of so many towns in such a small area. As it fades and the region grows more homogeneous, we'll have to sacrifice a fascinating local texture. It will be sad to see the rough edges go, but the bigotry won't be missed.

March 20
Whoopie, my free History Book Club selections arrived! And no more books to buy ever! All I know about Daniel Webster is within the 10 years he lived in Portsmouth, so I got Robert Remini's "Daniel Webster: The Man and His Time." Gorgeous dust-jacket with "god-like Dan" glowering on the cover, but a frightening 796 pages. Can't wait to read Chapter 4 which is concisely titled "Portsmouth." But long before I find my way through DW, I'll finish the thin attractive copy of John Garraty's "1001 Things Everyone Should Know About American History." A great bathroom bookshelf volume. It's got two or three sentences on Dan Webster. Read them instantly. I take my history shots neat.

March 19
We're off and running. Three months into the year, the Portsmouth 375th Celebration Committee is alive and well. The group met in the cavernous City Council room and Mayor Sirrell officially presented Joann Grasso as chairperson. She set up a series of committees and that gorgeous logo by Brown & Co. was approved. The Chamber will track the events calendar. The City will handle the money and provide "clerical support." Mrs. Grasso cautioned that this year's celebration is "not the big bang" that went off in 1973 and will explode in 2023. But the Mayor's inside scoop on Old Ironsides may bode otherwise. She and her officials have met with the Navy and Pentagon people to iron out details. Portsmouth, Kittery, the Navy Yard, and the states of NH and Maine will split up the costs of the visit. Volunteers are needed in a big way.

MORE IRONSIDES SCOOPS: Weather permitting, the ship will arrive at 6 PM Aug 7th and can handle 16,000+ self-touring visitors per day. Visitors will need tickets, which are free, but no distribution plan is available. There will be a parade, a 21-gun salute and a reception. There will hopefully be a giant spotlight shining from Pierce Island for dramatic photographs. There will not be a water taxi over to the Navy Yard where the ship will be docked. Visitors may have to take a bus from Pease a few miles away. Ironsides will be open starting at 9:30 AM Saturday and Sunday, then leaves Monday. The first day there will be 2,500 dignitaries allowed on board and I'm not one of them. There will also be a big ship with 44 guns. The officials agreed that preference for tickets will be given to local school children. Whew, all that news on the Internet and there are still a few hours before the morning papers come out.

March 18
Keeping our historical face on straight costs, as yesterday's Herald proves in four out of five front-page articles. Now that Frank Jones' old Wentworth-by-the-Sea hotel in New Castle is to be preserved, the developers want a half million in grant money from the county to help. Meanwhile, North Church members voted $15,000 to pay for a study to see how much it will cost to repair the 144-year old brick building with its 150-foot high steeple. Across town Strawbery Banke officials decided to wait three months before deciding what to do with their planned $2.1 million visitors center. Construction was stopped recently when evidence of an historic dock was found while preparing the foundation for the building. The big loser was the old Lafayette School building which is scheduled to be demolished since city officials "failed" to get a 2/3 majority vote. Lots of people were pretty upset. EXTRA! According to the morning paper's top banner headline, the City Manager came riding in on a white charger and saved the old brick school from the wrecking ball for 90-days! Huzzah!

March 17
Was the leader among us all the time? Tomorrow night at 7pm is the long-anticipated first meeting of the Mayor's Blue Ribbon Committee on the 375th. By this time, with the planned arrival of Old Ironsides, what started out as a nothing birthday event has mushroomed into a potential economic, historic and public relations boom. And all this while, Portsmouth city councilor Joann Grasso has been promoting the idea of the 375th. Now we have a logo (still unofficial), a couple of tall ships, a bunch of subcommittee members, some advance press, a city support staffer, and a million potential celebrants - - just no leader. Why not appoint Mrs. Grasso, born in Portsmouth in 1933, former teacher and now city official?

March 15
Can't shake this feeling that the faster technology turns us into cyborgs, the more desperately we NEED history, true history. It is the umbilical cord that tethers our collective mind back to the mother ship for the space walk ahead. Amistad says that clearly. Spielberg may be preaching, but he's right on the money - and at the heart of what Americans desperately need. The absolutely unthinkable horror of offloading human cargo on a slave ship is a story that needs to be told no matter how badly we don't want to hear it. Spielberg's genius is that he makes the story just bearable enough to watch, thus breaking the chain of silence. The main character's understanding that we are, each of us, the current best hope of all our ancestors is a powerful philosophy. The announcement in the movie that we really are inseparable from our past says volumes in a time when "growing up" means coming to terms with one's childhood. The Revolutionary War was the almost unavoidable battle as the child separates from her parents. The Civil War was the child's resulting inner battle for her sense of identity and morality. History and therapy are as intertwined as tomorrow and yesterday. One depends on the other for its identity. Barely 150 years after Amistad, we are still in the process of sorting the story out, and each new generation has to learn again - passed down by films instead of oral tradition. Using Amistad as a benchmark, I think the therapy is working. We are getting the point. Every individual is capable of great good and great evil. Now that we are talking about it all, out loud, there is great hope. Spielberg tries to act as mediator, forcing the discussion to the table, but working to see the root causes and the goodness in all participants. After the talk comes the forgiving, if the talk itself does not light new fires.

March 13
Final report from the Unofficial Grassroots" 375th Celebration Committee. The group voted to dissolve itself and work under the auspices of the Official Blue Ribbon 375th Celebration Committee which meets for the first time Wednesday night. At the moment, we have a loosely connected group of hard-working history-loving individuals in search of a leader. Let's remember that this group was called together by the Chamber of Commerce simply to consider the possibility of creating an event. No formal entity was ever formed. Now comes the technical work of creating an entity. The City says it will allocate a part time "support" person. The rest is up in the air. Day late? Sure. Dollar short? You bet. But this is an amazing region. Two years of prep went into the last celebration 25 years ago, but this is a different kind of celebration. No one is trying to move the Earth here. The founding idea is to CELEBRATE HISTORY. We don't need a pageant or parade to mark this birthday. We need only to tug the spotlight onto the region, so people, local and distant, can see how history-conscious we already are. We should change the name to "History Awareness Year." This will work, not because some central organization creates one more event. We have literally hundreds already on the calendar. Instead we need to draw attention to how deeply history ALREADY impacts our daily lives here in the Seacoast. The 375th logo is not PR hype, but an acknowledgement of attention to history. If you don't think we deserve it, walk around the Seacoast.

March 12
The newspapers have gotten into a superb coverage battle over the Ironsides story, to the great benefit of local readers. Following a loud headline announcement in the Herald, Foster's Sunday Citizen responded with a rapid-fire research piece on the 20 years the USS Constitution sat in our port. The Herald fired back with an editorial finally giving credit to the group that attempted to get the ship here last summer for the Kittery 350th. They really did the work. Now the paper says former Portsmouth mayor Foley tells the Herald that she estimates the visit will cost $300,000 in expenses which current mayor Sirrell hopes we will split with Kittery. For the moment it's a battle of good kudos and facts. Cross your fingers the gloves stay off.

March 11
Old Ben passed on at 95. That kind of milestone makes everyone in the family think of their own mortality and is oddly bonding. Now there is talk of more frequent family reunions, more e-mail connections among far-flung relatives. It makes me think of all the family history not preserved and the need to push this agenda in the Seacoast to make records for posterity. My company is looking at a digital camera that would be ideal for this kind of thing. Almost anyone can operate it, fully automatic if the user chooses. These items are pretty affordable and could be put in the hands of school kids. The work done by Elliot Wigginton in Appalachia is appropriate here. Junior high students produced the famous Foxfire series by recording their seniors and selling the info to the rest of the world. The nearby SALT project is still running and we should immediately send our teachers there. Now, with digital, interviews can be easily edited, even transferred by phone wire. And this project teaches kids to spell, produce, design, publish, organize and respect their elders. It is a crime all schools do not require an oral history per student and provide the resources.

March 10
Rumor has it that the minute word of Old Ironsides visit hit the newspapers, phones in local hotels and motels began to ring. Seems people from all across the US, who have been able to see the USS Constitution in Boston for 100 years, want to see it in NH. Who can blame them? And don't forget to buy some of our low tax liquor on your way out of town -- and pick up a lobster and a T-shirt for gramps. Sources are already predicting the back-to-back tall ship visits will start a stampede to our region. The last time the tall ships came en masse it was standing room only along the Piscataqua. Good thing no one sees this diary, or this kind of rumor could start a panic. Friday is the meeting of the "grassroots" 375th committee to help set the agenda for the "blue ribbon" 375th committee meeting on the 18th. Tick-tick-tick.

March 09
There is not much local history on the Internet more oddly entertaining than the "Daily Rant" of Steven Fowle in his ongoing edition of the NH Gazette (nhgazette,com). Fowle is indirectly descended from Daniel Fowle who published the original hard-copy Gazette starting in 1756. The living Fowle appears less descended than reincarnated. He has read so many old copies of the Gazette that he sounds like a voice directly out of the 18th century. This is all the more spooky when I click to his rants using my new computer software that reads the text aloud. Lately the contemporary Fowle has been searching for Daniel's original printing press, lost since 1890. Not since cartoonist R. Crumb began ZAP COMIX have I more enjoyed a frequent peek into a more uniquely organized brain. His column is the perfect antidote to the predictable comfort of a real-meal-deal at the fast food joint. Unlike all the other things I read, I have no idea where this journey will take me.

March 07
Back from a party with history lovers on McNabb Court. I had no idea people who liked history also socialized outside the Athenaeum Went to the Police Station to find ths obscure address and the dispatcher couldn’t find the road at first. (It was across from the Police Station.) Or course the hostess, being a history freak, knew McNabb’s entire life. Met a woman who is writing a thesis on the evolution of Route #1 from Kittery to Portland. In this crowd you can talk about Louis Wagner, Levi Thaxter or Tobias Lear and nobody says “Who?” Is there a history-chic evolving here? Probably an oxymoron.

March 06
Funny to watch the traditional press scramble all over the Old Ironsides thing now that it is "news." We are, at heart, much more beings of dreams, symbols and emotion than of logic and law. That is not a bad thing, except that we deny it so fervently. We put kids in schools for eons roped to their desks and expect them to march obediently to orderly lives as computer programmers. But they won't remember 20 years in the office with the impact of one hour on the Piscataqua waiting for this symbolic ship from the past. But symbolic of what? Freedom, patriotism, immortality, mortality, war, the ocean? It doesn't matter. When the solid iron gold-gilded Rockingham lions returned from their new paint job yesterday, I had to go over touch them - not look at them - touch them. They have been standing guard just a few feet from what is now my office since 1872. Now they glow again like the sun. I love them because they were there before me and they will be there after me. They are the banks of the river that I will flow through. Old Ironsides has been towed in and out of this port since the early 1800s. This time I will see it. This time I may touch it. Because it continues "forever" and I do not, that knowledge combined with that touch makes ME alive.

March 05
This is how my obsessions start. Knowing I'm interested in early pictures, researcher Richard Winslow handed me a 1914 obituary of Portsmouth photographer Lafayette Newell. Turns out he was the NH Matthew Brady and took Civil War photos in Maryland where the three NH regiments were guarding 25,000 "rebel" prisoners of war. Having just seen Ted Turner's stunning movie on Andersonville, where Yankee POWs were kept under brutally harsh conditions, I'm not sure I want to open this NH can of worms. I assume the photos are collected somewhere, probably the NH Historical Society. The obit says the original negatives were in Newell's grocery store after the war and the glass negatives were all smashed by kids. I'm mesmerized by that moment in history when these little vandals spend a few minutes joyously destroying hundreds of historic images. How badly did we treat the Confederate soldiers at Point Lookout, Md? Another obsession begins.

March 04
The nice thing about being on the "inside" of local history is that you get to read what's going on in the paper just like everyone else. 375th committee members got a "heads up" weeks back that the Old Ironsides visit was looking good. Now, according to all the papers, the Pentagon itself has announced the planned visit of the oldest ship in the Navy to the Kittery/Portsmouth area August7-10. That automatically guarantees that the 375th year will be memorable. That really takes the pressure off the City which plans to issue a statement after the "blue ribbon" committee meets in mid-March. All cynicism aside, the site of old Ironsides coming down the Piscataqua will be an emotional one for sure.

March 03
Sarah has reorganized the History Room at the Portsmouth Public Library. Finally it is starting to make sense to me -- all the Isles stuff together, Navy Yard stuff here, local bios there. So she shows me where the Portsmouth guidebooks are and finally I discover Gurney. Well, duh! Like, I felt like a bonehead or something. This guy write a 200 page guidebook to Portsmouth in 1902 with 400 photographs, and it takes me 25 years to find it! I'm hacking through the woods with a machete and this dude built me a highway. Then Sarah points out Foster, the original guidebook. Then she puts on the capper by showing me this giant card catalog where a WPA crew categorized Foster, Gurney, Brewster's "Rambles" and Adam's "Annals." way back. I've been tossing my coat on the Rosetta stone. I thought the thing was furniture. Thanks again PPL. If I had $7 million, I'd build you a new library myself.

March 02
Whew, the North Church steeple crisis has finally made it into the "traditional" press. The Herald ran it on the front page today, though we got no credit for breaking the story. Web site writers are still second class reporters, but all that will change when we start showing up TV sets all across the planet. At least, we're out of the rumor business. According to the article, the church will be holding a closed-door meeting on March 16 to face the financial music. Six years back they spent $180,000 for steeple work and still the building needs much more repair. Same with our neighbor building, the John Paul Jones house, where water damage is taking its toll. As an official Sears "Weatherbeater" house, the JPJ is known across the country in paint ads. The building even appears on bublegum-style trading cards available at Sears. The sponsor, however, provides only the paint and no assistance on the thousands of dollars of labor required to keep that mustard yellow symbol upright. What we need is a Hollywood agent to take on these historic "properties" as clients and get some residuals and royalties on the table. The fact that his amazingly historic region gets the least support Is ironic. Reagan would call it a trickle down victory. He should stand inside the two sites when it rains.

March 01
Well, it's March and we still have no plan on the table. We're now in a holding pattern, waiting for word from the City, soon to arrive. I'm still optimistic enough to think that a lot of good will come from this. The trick is just to get people thinking about local history. Here's my wish list of projects I hope we will initiate before the candles get blown out: 1) ORAL HISTORY INITIATIVE Start recording memories of Seacoast seniors to preserve the end of the 20th century for people in 2023 at the 400th. 2) 4TH GRADE CURRICULUM Planning is underway to introduce elementary school kids about NH and Seacoast history. 3) SAVE THE STEEPLE Set up a funding organization ASAP. 4) SOLVE THE LIBRARY The battle over a site for the expanding library needs a solution. 5) GET RELEVANT It's time history came alive here by turning the focus from preservation (which we do well) to presentation. It's time to tell our exciting story from this beautiful old stage. 6) CREATE COMMAND CENTRAL We need to unite our historical societies, libraries, genealogy, collections, houses, collections into a central database to make info available to locals and visitors. Did someone say Internet?

© 1998

See also:

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

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