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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
APRIL 1998

April 29
People on the "outside" don't worry much about keeping the historic houses in the region standing, but on the inside, it's killer work. These amazing old houses are kept alive by a couple dozen boards of directors and a hoard of volunteers. This morning I got the annual walk throught at the John Paul Jones House Museum that surprisingly few locals have ever entered. All the cases and furniture and the great Houdon bust of Paul Jones are still wearing their winter dust covers. The heat is back on in the first floor at last and the house seems to creak more than ever before. We entered, as always, through the original 1758 door still on its original hinges. There's a lot of water damage on the top floor which is mostly empty and its tiny dormer rooms are my favorite. This summer the rest of the ornate wooded fence is being reconstructed at a cost twice that of my parent's first house. Today we add three new trustees -- exciting, educated, caring men and women. They will, like the rest of us, work all year to keep this great old property standing. All over Portsmouth, and all over the Seacoast, dedicated militias are shoring up history.

April 28
I couldn't wait until May 18 for an answer on the Ironsides tests, so I called my undercover maritime information source "Deep Boat" and asked if we'll ever see the USS Constitution in the Piscataqua again. "Deep Boat" said he/she heard that things are looking smilingly on Portsmouth, so far. With that encouragement, I just got back from a meeting of the 375th Memorabilia Committee. With time running out for production, the committee is encouraging entrepreneurs willing to create commemorative plates, cups, T-shirts that will bear the official logo. Vendors pay the committee a small licensing fee for use of logo which was donated by Brown & Company, the design firm. Our job is to make sure items are printed correctly. No sloppy jobs allowed. I never tire of this wonderful image and am glad the early "grassroots" committee held tough on the word "Seacoast" amid of storm of powerful protest from those who wanted it to be a Portsmouth-only celebration. Pretty soon, this whole thing is going to pick up steam. After May 18 -- look out Seacoast! When Newsweek and Time hit town, people can always scroll back these pages and see how the magic trick was really done.

April 27
My favorite newspaper headline is still the one in Fosters from 15 years back when some poor reporter, required to file a daily update on a possible murder case, had nothing much to say. A bunch of bones had been found somewhere and the coroner, who was supposed to give his forensic report on the human remains, simply didn't. Stuck for a few column inches, the writer filed a rehash piece that ran on the front page under the bold headline "No News In Bones Case." I've been chuckling over that one for years and whenever one of my journalism students would turn in a story with old facts, I'd shout "NO NEWS IN BONES CASE." Now we have a Portsmouth Herald front page piece on Old Ironsides entitled "Ship Awaits Tests." But this one, at least, has a fact. According to the article, we all get the word on whether the USS Constitution will sail to Portsmouth when the stress tests are in on May 18. Now it seems to me that the ship came up here pretty successfully in 1931 and has had $12 million in renovations since, but I'm no tall ship structural engineer. Making the decision has to be a stress test all its own and it feels more like politics than structural dynamics to me. As one web reader pointed out yesterday, Ironsides will be out of the Boston area during peak tourist season. But for the moment, all I can say is "No News in Bones Case!"

April 25
Tossing out hundreds of old files at work, it seems I've accumulated a local history of my own. In nearly 20 years working in downtown Portsmouth there have been six offices, the most just a block from the first -- and every one within the comforting sight of the North Church steeple. I understand, in retrospect, how difficult it can be for historians to track down the uses of these old buildings. Companies metamorphose, divide and spit like cells. Daniel Webster occupied four. Mine is shifting next week from eight rooms in three locations, to one concise high-tech little site. You have to work to find space in this small city. Once I climbed a fire escape, went through an open window, and shimmied down an elevator shaft to find a huge unused space, maybe 4,000 square feet. It had been an old bike and model shop. I kept it for three years before a new landlord doubled the rent. Now the lawyer's office is a bookshop, the record shop and the video store are gone, and the insurance agency is an Indian restaurant. The same is true among the first-floor businesses where shops shape-shift even faster as the rental rates rise. Renters now pay all the way from $6 to $30 per square foot in this dynamic economic ecosystem. My new office may be smaller, but it's also older -- perhaps built as early as 1756, back long before ol' Dan Webster was even born. But unlike Dan, I think I'll stay in town.

April 24
According to a recent newspaper report, the campgrounds in NH are already booked for the summer. They say motel space is tight already around the proposed time of the tall ship arrivals too. And now I hear that there are next to no bookings left to get out to see Celia's garden on Appledore Island this summer. Someone jokingly suggested that the new NH motto should be, "Visit, Spend, Leave," but that may be too optimistic. Looks like a Virtual NH is in order. With a VISA hook-up we could revise the motto to read: "Stay Home, Visit NH, Insert Credit Card Here." Virtual black fly bites optional.

April 23
My best friends just winged off to London leaving me to battle the allergies of New England spring alone. It was England, I think, that taught me how thin is the shell of all American history. You realize that fact when you drink in a 13th century English pub (the Adam and Eve) in Norwich, and park your bike against a hunk of Roman wall from 700 AD. At one point I bought an old Austin Cambridge A-60 and drove from ancient ruin to ancient ruin nonstop for three months. Back in those days you could get within touching distance to Stonehenge and there are so many ancient cairns in the Scottish Highlands that even I finally stopped getting out of the car to look at them in awe. And better, people there seem so much more comfortable with their history and know terribly much more than we. In fact, in my short travels it seemed everyone knew more about their own and our history than Americans. The Canadians know more. The British know more. The eastern Indians know more. Once on a plane I was discussing the Viet Name war with an Australian about my young age. He seemed shocked at how little I knew about my own government's foreign policy. The steward served our chicken dinner smothered in some tomato sauce and after a few tiny tins of airplane Guinness, my mate had forgiven my cultural stupidity. The steward reached for my tray which contained only the red carcasses of little chickens. "Bloody Gawd mate," he exclaimed, "that's the worst Yankee mess since your Battle of Antietam!"

April 22
With my head stuck in an old history book, I completely spaced on the latest launch of the shuttle. With me distracted, Portsmouth was making modern history as Seacoast local Lt. Col. Richard Searfoss took command of the latest space mission. To triple-snag the headline, two more NH residents are on board this time, Dr. Richard Linehan, a UNH alum, and Dartmouth Medical School's Dr. Jay Buckley. I'm old enough to remember the sweaty palm launch of the capsule with first astronaut Alan Shephard of Derry. He was gone only 15 minutes, and yet we feared it might not work. Eventually, with NH's Krista aboard, we were reminded how dangerous this history making can be.

April 21
For a guy with no bad habits, I've been hitting the bookstores a bit too hard lately. Bob's Books had a 40% off sale and I walked out with a well-preserved 1850 copy of the "Festival of the Sons of New Hampshire." This is the collected speeches and orations of the original New Hampshire homecoming held in Boston in 1849. This was the event, following the 1823 celebration in Portsmouth, that kicked off the lineage of historic anniversaries like the one we are more or less celebrating in 1998. The gold-gilt book includes a list of everyone who attended and his occupation plus a complete list of everyone who could NOT attend! Only Daniel Webster and his lawyer friend Levi Woodbury are depicted, but everyone got a chance to make a comment. The idea of a roomful of formally-attired men reading abysmal poetry to each other for days is hard to imagine. But this was a very different time. The eldest man attending had been born before the Revolution in 1772.

April 18
Last week it was a U Maine grad student, today two personable young guys from Emerson College in Boston doing a grad school media project. The two hour videotaped interview was again about the Smuttynose murders. With all the research they've done, I should have turned the camera around on those boys instead of listening to myself babble on. They read the entire Louis Wagner trial transcript and all the local papers from 1873-75. I'm hardly an expert, though the web site has allowed us into the roundup of usual Smuttynose talking heads. This time the final product is a CD-Rom (the one last week will be a book) and the story shows no sign of slowing down. This isn't the first time I've been turned in as a grad school project, but the idea of passing in their work as a multi-media presentation in a digital format is intriguing. I've always seen my life as just about interesting enough for one Quick Time Windows presentation. It all seems OK as long as we teach and not exploit the story of the murders. I draw the line at a Louis, Maren, Karen, Anethe, Ivan and John beanie-baby collector series. Even we web site types have our scruples.

April 17
This tall ship story just gets more exciting. According to this afternoon's Foster's, we now have an anonymous $100,000 donor to help support costs on the arrival (maybe) of Old Ironsides. If the Constitution can't come, I wonder if we can get the money for my uncle's old boat? Today was a perfect history day here. After perusing old volumes at Bob's Books, I dined on roast pork in manly comfort at "the club" which has remained greatly unchanged and undusted since it opened in 1892. Then it was off to the Athenaeum for a stirring lecture on "The Historic Roots of the Militia Movement in Contemporary America" by Prof. Eliga Gould. Who says time marches on? Not if I can help it.

April 16
I make much better time travelling down Congress Street in the winter when the sidewalks are icy and the traditionally bad plowing leaves great blocks of snow strewn in the way. In the spring, unfortunately, everyone is out and with the arrival of the Constitution hanging in the balance, there is all too much conversation going on. Tom, who never thought his video store would last 17 years so far, is standing out in Market Square. Leonard is twisting his handlebar mustache a block away and it takes me half an hour to negotiate the dialogue in that single block alone. I meet a bricklayer who is working at the old Thomas Bailey Aldrich building which was the local "pest" house a century ago. There's Rob the cartoonist, Tom the lawyer, Steve the jeweler. Rick the musician is finally back from the mid-west and his wife has taken up making porcelain dolls. I pause for a bit to watch the new building going up and bump into an archivist working on a new display for Strawbery Banke. And on and on. Everybody has a story and an opinion on the Constitution. It's a good hour before I make the fuil three blocks to my accountant Bob to pick up my tax returns. Unless they clear up this tall ship thing and the weather turns sour, I'm never going to get any work done in this town.

April 15
Well, ain't that a kick in the futtocks? It seems the "crotch pieces" of the USS Constitution are about to see more media analysis than those of the President himself. According to the front page of today's Boston Globe, the 375th party isn't going as smoothly as we thought. Apparently 14 out of 18 living Old Ironsides commanders believe the tall ship is too fragile to handle the open sea. This has been said before, but now Robert Gillen, the commander 20 years ago, is saying it louder and with disconcerting clarity.

Tyrone Martin, author of a number of books about the ships history is quoted by the Globe as saying: ''Constitution is the geriatric patient who got some new hip and knee joints. She moves more easily. She's got less pain. This doesn't mean you go put her on roller blades.''

He's referring to the $12 million recent rehad of the ship that did not replace the central wooden structure of the "futtocks" or lower area that is as old as the ships 200 year history.

What a pickle. We'd never forgive ourselves if Old Ironsides played Titanic in our waters, but the political and emotional process has already begun. If she comes, it sure will raise the adrenaline level. Who said this is going to be a dull anniversary?

April 14
A cordial second meeting of the 375th Blue Ribbon Committee with the mayor and assistant mayor in attendance. Rather than bite off more than they can chew, the Special Events group is starting to define the celebration as a May to October affair. That means it runs from the traditional Market Square Day through the new Renaissance Fair season. The Mayor is "bound and determined" to get a parade in there too for the crew of Old Ironsides. The library is working up a summer history reading program for kids. Local neighborhoods are talking about block parties. But generally, this mature town-of-many-festivals, is pacing itself, watching its intake of fried dough, and avoiding too much heavy lifting. And that's wise. We are frequently reminded that the 350th took two years to plan, but that was another time and place, back before laptops, web sites, digicams. Back then there were no 200,000 people in town on Market Square Day, no First Night, Bow Street Fair, Blues Festival, Jazz Festival, no Cocheco Arts, no Somersworth Children's Festival, Chowder Fest, Strawbery Fest, Brewer's Fest, Apple Fest, Cider Fest, Pumpkin Fest, OldeYankee fest, Harvest Fest and the rest of the fests. We have so institutionalized and cloned the outdoor summer party that local have permanently sunburned necks, forearms and noses from shoulder season to shoulder season. Visitors who think the weekend barrage of parties is all to honor local history can remain naively awed by our over-sized social conscience. Create another party? Make mine a Tylenol Fest.

April 13
I'm freaking out after watching last night's TNT original cable movie "The Day Lincoln Died." Finally Lucy Hale from Dover, NH shows up as a main character in a film!! I've been telling anyone who would listen that she had a greater role in the assassination than has ever been suggested. In this TV version Lucy actually beds John Wilkes Booth the night before the murder which I think is highly unlikely. And the movie Lucy is a lot more attractive that her pictures imply. The new film drops Lucy like a stone after about noon on the fateful day while Booth is plotting to kill Lincoln at Ford's Theater. I don't think for a moment that Lucy was part of the conspiracy, but there is still more to the love affair, I believe, than the movie tackles. It doesn't mention that Booth had Lucy's photo in his pocket when he was captured and killed 12 days later. And there may even be a more fascinating revelation in the final words of Booth!! I feel a long newspaper essay coming on.

April 11
Today is the 35th memorial ceremony for the crew lost on the Portsmouth-built submarine Thresher on April 10, 1963. With all 129 on board lost in 8,000 feet of water, this remains among the darkest days in the region's history. More than once I've found myself paging through the Thresher scrapbook at the library, watching the headlines grow desperate as the loss becomes clear. Then follows the shock, rage, recriminations and acceptance, all played out in the press. If we ever had a voice to express those feelings, or those of the exuberating 375th celebration, we have it now in Portsmouth's first poet laureate Esther Buffler. The "unflappable" Esther emanates more energy in her 80s, than most of us half her age. I had the pleasure of directing her as the voice of a recent TV commercial and she was, as always, right on the mark. Her eagerness to serve as laureate practically bubbled out of the recording booth. Kudos, Esther. You make us feel young again.

April 10
When I suggested aloud four months ago that Portsmouth and Dover should hold a small battle to determine which town could claim the 1623 settlement date, I was only half kidding. Having worked as a teacher and a press agent, I believe a mock battle with a few sprained ankles and calluses would be the best history lesson our kids could get. Who would forget that day? The fact that Portsmouth and Dover (and let's not forget Exeter and Hampton and the other towns around) have been whispering territorial curses for centuries is just human nature. The fact that public officials have been denying the rivalry for centuries in public and whispering in private is just politics. The fact that Foster's finally allowed Dan Tuohy to publish an excellent FULL PAGE article on the rivalry today (starting on the front page just below the banner) is just amazing. It's time we faced it -- small town chauvinism is part of small town living. Tuohy even got away with attributing the writing of former Portsmouth Herald editor Ray Brighton. In fact, in an historic moment, this web site was recognized as an actual source of local information! And lo, the scales fell from their eyes and ye olde towns of Dover and of Portsmouth did see one another, spake to one another, and lo, though they held separate festivals upon which it was their custom, they did embrace and link web sites -- and there was a great rejoicing and a great imbibing of spirits in that 375th year of their founding. Amen.

April 09
Well, er, it's April. It was about this time, they tell us, in April of 1623 that David Thompson and his wife Amias arrived at Odiorne's Point in Rye. David had already visited Biddeford Pool, Maine and survived a winter there. Their story is one of the great untold adventures of the birth of America -- and of course, of NH. You'd think they would be held in higher regard, but the details are fuzzy and within three years, they were gone to Boston. I've been digging into this story for years and now getting some help from a Thomson descendant who has been e-mailing key documents. The revised version of the story by the Piscataqua Pioneers has been seven years in the re-writing. I had my heart set on a prayerful event on the assumed site, but no word yet. One way or another, we'll dig into the Thomson story this year and get the available info on-line. I promise, Dave. We won't let you be forgotten.

April 08
I'm not too comfortable on the receiving end of the tape recorder. Today a three-hour interview by a grad student from University of Maine at Orono. The whole class was bused down to Portsmouth for a project on the Smuttynose murders that the professor will be turning into a book. I waxed philosophical on stewardship of history onto the Internet. It's my contention that the murder story is not MORE famous today, but has been intermittently famous through the last 120 years. It is more commercially interesting now that it is a movie property which may attract more press and more scholarship, but it is a story ripped from the pages of the National Enquirer, no matter how many theses it may spawn. Wagner's trial was universally reported and Celia's "Memorable Murder" has been anthologized ever since it appeared in the Atlantic in 1875. Every decade the classic gothic horror story has been exhumed by a host of writers and artists. Anita Shreve's "Weight of Water" was the first version to make the NYT best seller list, but it a fictional account. She adapted the setting for a modern re-telling with a tantalizing plot twist. Gary's movie of John's ballad kept the story in the public mind. Our web site, which has taken thousands and thousands of page hits, is a way to present both fact and fiction, and to assess the Smuttynose phenomenon as it picks up speed nationally. We are concerned with the whole story -- the trial, the truth, the media, the myth, the mania. From this point on, it appears that the fictional version will be the story most people know. I think Louis was the murderer, case closed, and am fascinated to see how the legend is slipping further away from the reality as more and more people climb aboard the story. That is not a bad thing. The "Crucible" is only roughly about the Salem witch trials. "Amistad" is apparently filled with fictional filling. It does not make them lesser works of art. It just separates them from the truth.

April 07
I like to listen to history. It sinks in more when I hear the events read to me on audio tape than when I struggle with the meaning of the words on the page. Up all this week is the superb 4-cassette Simon & Schuster reading of "Undaunted Courage" by Stephen E. Ambrose. I don't want to say I am enjoying this more than the Ken Burns treatment of the Lewis & Clark tale, but I am. The narrative alone, without the sublime TV images is all I can take in. The story is almost too big for visuals. I was in Manchester a few months back where NH's favorite sons of Walpole, Ken Burns and Dayton Duncan introduced the L&C film to the Granite State. They spoke to 700 paying guests from a podium next to a life-sized papier-mâché buffalo. The compelling tale, adapted by Burns, Ambrose and Duncan is taken partly from the journal of another NH man who made the impossible journey that changed the shape of America. I can listen to the story over and over and am never less than amazed.

April 06
I'm getting caught in the crossfire of those who want to create souvenirs for the 375th and am referring them to the new central control number at the City Hall. Got a query about a foundry producing a pewter "Constitution in Portsmouth" plate and another for a commemorative coin, but there is a memorabilia committee for that, and I'm not on it. People should call Tina Sagris at 603-431-2006 ext 240. The city does not plan to turn the event into a money-maker, and is sticking with a simple celebration. Those wishing to use the gorgeous logo on T-shirts, etc. need to contact Theresa at Brown and Company at 436-5239 to inquire about rights use. Those wishing to link to our upcoming web site only have to hold their breath for another week. Those wishing to send us gobs of money may just stuff it in an envelope.

April 05
Met my very first genealogists, and they weren't any more wrapped up in the past than some archeologists I know. In fact, most are Internet active, since the Web is a hotbed of genealogical activity. Two hours with the Strafford County Genealogy Society at the Dover Library today proved how doggedly dedicated these history detectives really are. One member spent 12 years recording all known marriages in the county from the dawn of colonials in America. Another has published highlights of the entire history of local newspapers. A third is revising the story of the first 700-odd founders of the Piscataqua River basin. We knocked around ideas for getting this mother load of data on-line for the edification of the planet. If only we had sponsors who know how important this work really is.

April 04
Today I was given a grand tour of the Lamprey River from its head end near Betty Meadows in Northwood to its arrival 40 some-odd winding miles later at salty Great Bay. The journey. Led by Dick Wellington of Lee, took about 7 hours by Dodge van, which is a hard way to see a river. I didn't have a clue how a river grows and flows as it seeks sea level. It was a fascinating journey for a narrow little strip of water. We stopped at what seemed like a dozen dams, at the site of at least as many early grist and sawmills, plus defunct factory sites for tanning, leatherboard, shoes, scissors, buttons, even a drug mill that created a potent 19th century elixir. They are all gone now, except the still impressive stone mills of Newmarket. We wound our way through Epping, Candia, Raymond, Durham and Lee. We saw man-made lakes, flood plains, oxbows, rapids white with foam and pollen. At one point, after a goodly hike down an old railroad trestle, we explored a restored Revolutionary Era dam, wandered through an 8,000 year old Indian camp, and further on, a popular ice cutting pond. Now, I think, I have a clue about just one of the fingery rivers of the Piscataqua. What a story these rivers tell -- but you have to listen to them carefully -- and it helps when Dick is along to interpret.

April 03
I am going to take it as a giant complement that the Portsmouth Harbour Trail is tweaking their concept for the upcoming new Harbour Trail Board game that will be available this summer. I've been hammering away at the notion of promoting "unsung heroes" from local history so that people get to know key characters by name. Today the PHT decided that board game playing pieces will represent six popular figures: Benning Wentworth, John Langdon, John Paul Jones, Prince Whipple, Celia Thaxter and Frank Jones.

"Hey, Celia, let's hop over to the Moffatt-Ladd House. 1-2-3-4. Hey, Benning! It's not your turn yet! Frank, get out of that brewery, and roll the dice. Ohhh, nooo. He fell into the stinky South Mill Pond and lost three points!!!" Now that's reality-based learning. Kudos to PHT.

April 02
I'm holding in my hands a copy of what I've been told is the oldest photograph in the archives of the American Navy. It was taken in Portsmouth on May 27, 1855. The caption reads, "Old Ironsides Ready for Launching After Repair On the Railway Dock." There appear to be no masts and the scene at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard Is littered with logs and people. The controversial figurehead is visible. I can see the anchor, the openings for the canons. The ship is connected at the bow to a little black locomotive and a group of bystanders are clustered there. Six men are standing on the deck at the bow, though one is visible only as a hat, so I assume many more are up there. Men are leaning out from the gun ports. Most interesting is the long shaky-looking ramp that leads what must be six or seven stories up to the entrance at the waterline on the stern. But at the bottom of the stairs is a woman, standing by herself, though not far from another group of men. She is wearing a long dark dress that touches the ground, a formal-looking jacket over a full bosom with sharp shoulders, a high collar and what appears to be a blouse with some sort of cameo or low oversized necklace. She has on a hat with a long pointed front and stands, like a gatekeeper, with her right hand on her hip and her left arm clutching what appears to be a handbag. Who is this woman? Despite all the work I have to do, it seems more important to search the 1855 newspapers for clues.

April 01
There are so many legends floating around that I want to get to the bottom of. I still don't know the details of the Quaker women who were stripped to the waist and marched along the seacoast in the 1600s, whipped at every town square. There is the likely apocryphal story of how the women of Portsmouth used their petticoats to stitch the new American flag of John Paul Jones who departed in the Ranger in 1777. There is the one about the canon ball being fired through the wall of the Mark Wentworth home to warn British Gov. John Wentworth to get out of town. Or the story of how John talked the locals into NOT throwing a copycat version of the Boston Tea Party. So many legends, so little time.

But for April Fool's Day I wish I knew the one about the horse's butt. As I heard it, the Porter Civil War statue over on Pleasant Street was supposed to go at the corner of Middle and Court , which is the old Market Square. Some turn of the century city planner figured out that, when the equestrian bronze was completed, the horses hind end would be permanently visible out the nearby church window -- and it would be pointed right at the reverend as he gave his weekly sermon. The site was changed, and it now points more appropriately, at the often foul scented South Mill Pond.

© 1998 SeacoastNH.com

See also:

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

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