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

MAY 1998

May 31
I like to stop thinking about history on Sunday, but the papers won't let me. Foster's reports that Old Ironsides is "sound" though the official word will take a month of paper shuffling. They've been giving front page coverage to the search for a fireworks site for the Dover 375th just about a month away. I could have told them that Garrison Hill near by house is ideal, and it may be the winner. From the reconstructed fire tower there one can see York, Maine, the ocean and the White Mountains. Prehistoric Indians used it before the Internet to send e-mail to Agamenticus and Mt Washington. Meanwhile the Herald gave a very accurate front page treatment to our Friday 375th kickoff hosted by the Portsmouth Harbour Trail. Meanwhile Stratham fifth graders were re-enacting Pickett's Charge from the Civil War in the sweltering spring heat. I could go on like this all day, and the festivities have only begun.

May 30
Today's second kickoff was held under ideal conditions at the exquisite Langdon House toward the cool end of a sweltering day. Tim and I had, coincidentally, released a Langdon House web page just hours before. Under a tent in the front yard, with tables full of superb food and drink, to the strains of a violin trio -- the thing finally felt real. The mayor read another proclamation. A lot of people were praised. Van McLeod's speech pulled it all together when he noted that, currently, the #1 tourist activity in America is visiting historic sites. Second is visiting beaches. We got 'em both in abundance around here. Van said tourism is on it's way to becoming the #1 source of income in NH. Someone should add up all these top-ranked statistics (throw in Portsmouth as voted #5 place to live in America by Money magazine) and you'd figure we might actually PAY a local cultural events coordinator. It will happen eventually. Meanwhile, according to an article in Foster's today, the rest of the committee has come out in praise of the logo. So for a moment it's quiet, Charles Brewster is in heaven, and all's right with the world.

May 29
I knew things were going too smoothly. Seems a member of our 375th team has gone provincial and protested the use of the word "Seacoast" in the logo. She does not want neighboring towns included in the celebration. The whole thing blew up in the press this afternoon and there were a lot of ruffled feathers, since the gorgeous and brilliantly conceived logo has been long ago accepted by the Committee and donated to the City. It is being adapted for city vehicles, put on stationery, licensed for T-shirts.

While some people were aghast, I take it more philosophically. In our rush to study history, we sometimes forget that there are, right among us, ancient customs worthy of analysis. We are lucky to have so vociferous an opposing view, one so politically incorrect in today's overly polite society, that it seems like the call of an extinct species. Times have changed. We are moving into an era of equality, diversity and regionalism. We may be gaining enlightenment, but we are losing the sharp edged distinctions that once pitted town against town, neighborhood against neighborhood and one ethnic group against another. In the old politics, it was okay to "protect one's turf" at all costs, no holds barred, winner take all. Compromise was seen as weakness and change was the enemy. Darwin would understand. Survival of the fittest may sound like an invitation to a brawl. Close up, each creature is pitted against another, take no prisoners. But from a distance, history is a form of evolution. It has as much to do with synergy, adaptation and metamorphosis, as about hand-to-hand combat. What we are doing here with our "Seacoast" celebration, taken from another perspective, may be very threatening. And we need to respect that. Rather than be offended by dissenting voices, we need to listen, no matter how hurtful they may seem. There is a message there. Like the growing wave of early settlers, many of us were not born here. We have appropriated this wonderful history for ourselves, revising it, rewriting it. Perhaps we need to walk more gently, respect the old ways of the natives. We had thought there were no more carrier pigeons left, but yesterday, we heard the strong shrill cry of an endagered way of life.

May 28
Well, in true eccentric-history-researcher form, I missed the opening ceremonies yesterday after six months of waiting. Had gotten a chance to work on the official governor's proclamation declaring the 375th sanctioned by the state, but blew the chance to see it read live by Gov. Jeanne Shaheen, who used be an educator in the old days like me. At least it made all the papers and Channel 9 news. The only problem, of course, is that the official proclamation of Portsmouth's birthday, is not technically Portsmouth's birthday, but who wants to split hairs? The important thing is that attention is being paid to the region's history. The opening event took place at the wonderfully restored home of the former British provincial governor, which I find amusingly ironic since that gov, in his dotage, had a 50-room mansion and was married to his housekeeper. Today it is a wonderful historic house with lots of water frontage not lost to condos. There is also a superb new educational center at the Wentworth-Coolidge Mansion where the history message can be passed on to kids. Next up is tomorrow's second "kick off" at the equally gubernatorial home of the state's first governor, John Langdon. Must remember to set my watch. Also got a call from a statewide magazine today and the editor actually READS this diary and plans to mention it in his glossy magazine. I had no idea there were people out there! Sheesh. Maybe I should be more politically correct, what with all the media and so many governors around. Naaah.

May 27
No matter what anyone says, I think good things are happening to local history because of the Internet. Just a few recent examples. Today we put up a pile of new history-related events in the 375th Calendar. Bingo, the phone rings. It is a woman from New York City. She has been reading the site and is thinking of visiting. She loves this region, so much going on -- and she's from NYC! We're about to put up a letter from a man with some local historic treasure he has at home that he wants to donate to a local museum. Without the Net, this item would never be coming home. A few weeks back we answered a letter from a reader whose family has the remains of the champagne bottle that christened a local ship launched in 1918. Within hours we were able to track down the history of this item and clear up the origin of this family heirloom. We have people all over the USA working with us on history projects. We get letters and corrections from experts we've never met. We have introduced long lost family members, helped with genealogical research, brought dozens, perhaps hundreds of people to town who had never heard of this place. Historic house visitorship is going to go up. More research is being done. Kids in Tennessee are talking to kids in NH about famous men and women like John Paul Jones and Celia Thaxter. The chamber of commerce is emphasizing history, as is the City, local towns, local newspapers. More than 1,000 people are checking in every day, reading up to 5,000 pages. The Harbour Trail brochure is getting on-line requests for their brochure from 75 to 100 people a week. Tourists from Japan are walking around town with these web pages in their hands. And slowly, house-by-house and site-by-site and story-by-story this great history is becoming accessible to the world. We'll be overrun by tourists, people tell me. Our treasures will be destroyed! I prefer to think the attention will allow more preservation, more donations, more excitement than ever before. Ultimately, I think we get more our of our historical resources, not less. If that's, then I dig being a devil.

May 26
I finally snapped and bugged Ann into a daytrip to the USS Constitution Museum. Somehow, in my entire life, I never visited the shrine. Ironsides was there in her glory and, on the door, we were banned from lower decks because, "We're getting ready for a trip" the tour guide said. I take that as a positive sign, along with Deep Boat's continued insistence that the trip to Portsmouth is still likely. I went quite mad in the Museum Gift Shop which is extremely well done, and I now own more imprinted items than I care to mention, including a mug, T-shirt, key chain and a new $35 (plus Mass tax) copy of "A Most Fortunate Ship" by Tyrone Martin. The Museum was having a "free" day. It is one of the best I have scene and Portsmouth is mentioned here and there, along with every other place on Earth since Ironsides has seen the world. A superb way to spend Memorial Day. Now for the return visit.

May 23
If I'm not the dullest guy in town, I come close. This evening, on a Friday night when the streets of Portsmouth were thick with tourists and partiers, Steve the NH Gazette editor and I combed the library archives for forgotten old books about the Constitution. I want to bone up before the ship arrives (note positive mindset) and there is plenty in print. Found a 1900 volume that must have been started the moment Old Ironsides was towed from Portsmouth in 1897 and long before her restoration. When "The Frigate Constitution" was written by Ira Hollis, the ship was still "housed over" in Boston. Then we found "The East Coast Cruise of the US Frigate Constitution" by Charles Leonard Albright, that traces the 1931-32 cruise from Portsmouth, NH to Texas, the Canal Zone and Cuba. Yup, Cuba! Then we found two books on Ironsides during her early 1800s battle with the Barbary pirates. Both include plenty of references to our local hero Tobias Lear who brokered the Treaty of Tripoli. Ahh, what a thrilling evening.

May 22
As much as I love the spring flowers, and especially this year with all the rain, I dread their sudden passing. Last night, the insistent ragged wind shook the last of the dogwood blossoms from my second favorite tree in the yard of John Paul Jones house. The white birch seems unconcerned, but the tulips have gone to stems over it. Now the lawn is covered in what looks like bitten chunks of Styrofoam, and the next battery of blooms are taking their positions. The month of May, now that I am paying attention after decades, seems to be a season unto itself. It is like a fresh massage, slapping our dulled senses back to consciousness, filling out lungs with scent and flu, then blowing us off the table. When May began, the dogwood was just a stick. Then it was a skyful of bloom, and now, as May withdraws, the dogwood is undone and summer, I fear, is hard upon us now. Next year I will know better and I will move my desk and chair onto the lawn to watch all the moments the dogwood and I own with all the attention they so terribly deserve.

May 21
Couldn't help but notice that prep for the sea trials of Old Ironsides underway today made top headlines in both Foster's and the Herald and yet was not a front page item in the Boston Globe. Why is that? All the same, the latest battle of the USS Constitution is underway and the war of words is about to begin. Conventional wisdom on the streets of Portsmouth seems to go like this: "We don't want anything to happen to Ironsides and if she is any true risk, she should stay home. But if she gets the 'all-clear' we'd be thrilled by her visit. After all, the ship belongs to the UNITED STATES, not to any one state." In other news, looks like Governor Shaheen will make a 375th State Proclamation during her visit to the Wentworth-Coolidge House ceremonies next week. Official word is still forthcoming. After all, this is the birth of the whole state of NH. And we like to brag that the state's first woman governor actually lives in the Seacoast. We expect to see her as President someday, VP anyway. Take that, Kennebunkport!

May 20
I'm waiting for Paul's trolley to kick in after Memorial Day. His is a bold brave one-man effort to bring back the excitement of the old trolley to a region once filled with them. The old street photos are criss-crossed with tracks and, back then, an elaborate network of these classy cars allowed people to get all over the seacoast much quicker and more efficiently than today. Sometimes, progress goes backwards. Of course, these things only look like trolleys, but that seems to be enough. Thanks exclusively to Paul, I can spend my lunch hour whizzing down to Rye Beach, see New Castle and arrive back in Market Square refreshed and on time. Now the City is adding a trolley using a giant federal grant, in hopes of convincing people to part toward the outskirts of town, and trolley in. I only wish people today had the patience and wisdom, but I've seen people drive the cars from State Street two blocks over to Fleet, use two separate parking meters, and all to avoid a tiny hike. Anyway, it's two steps in the right direction with two trolleys, but if we just look at them and don't ride, they will disappear from view --- again.

May 19
Ouch! If Amanda Milkovits is trying to make us feel guilty with her Foster's Sunday article ("Will Greed and Politics Sink This Ship?") -- it's working. Now the former commander's reasoning is, no matter what the stress tests tell us, "Old Ironsides" should still stay put. It's nice to see a wholly opposing viewpoint so well presented. It's not like we WANT to destroy one of our nation's greatest symbols. We just wanna have her back for a few days. Selfish? Sure. Although, at last word, the commanders were not invited for the test spin today, Deep Boat assures me that we have a couple of locals aboard who will document the truth of the test for us. And what a day for a sail on the nation's oldest ship. The last two days have been decidedly the best of the anniversary year. Cross your fingers and think of Ironsides today, out there, making waves again. If nothing else, she has to be feeling good about getting back into the spray and the fray. Good luck, old girl.

May 17
Wow, the new Red Hook Brewery 375th labels are printed and they are really SHARP! Because this yearlong anniversary is being promoted with a budget of zero, it takes private contributions like this to get the word out. In this case, the local brewery has created a "neck hanger" which operates like the "Do Not Disturb" sign that hangs on your hotel doorknob. But this one, designed by Brown & Company, who made the logo, is a classy brown, green, maroon, blue and gold and goes over the neck of 60,000 six-packs of ale to be shipped across America. Tasteful and attractive, this clever promotion is worthy of the Boston Freedom Trail or Colonial Williamsburg, and concisely and attractively promotes this region. As a former ale-brewing capital of America under Frank Jones, this promotion is perfectly in keeping with local tradition. We should all doff our three-cornered-hats in thanks to Red Hook for this independent effort to celebrate the 375th.

May 15
Speaking of newspapers, how come our local periodicals never print the kind of short tasty bits that were common in the old days? Things are so tame now that articles have at least some element of fact and political correctness requires that we all appear to be respectful of those whose lives are going just a bit worse than our own. The librarian and I were laughing it up over a turn-of-the-century snippet about woman found running naked through Russell Street until her husband came to collect her. Or then there was this one right next to the obituary of Oliver Wendell Holmes in 1894: "TRIED TO STOP A DOG FIGHT (Providence, Oct. 8) Nathaniel R. Wright, while hunting in Greenville yesterday, attempted to separate two dogs with his gun, when it exploded, killing him instantly." No word on the condition of the dogs is provided, but we can assume Mr. Wright's technique worked.

May 15
After a week of researching Oliver Wendell Holmes, everything else is a blur. I'm still amazed that Holmes appears not to have visited "Old Ironsides" in his 85 years on Earth. When he died in 1894, the ship was in Portsmouth Harbor, yet no publication I've read makes mention of that. It must have been a sad day for the Port City when the ship was towed out of town. Richard Winslow found me this snippet which I believe has never been seen since October 30, 1897: "Representative John W. Leavitt of the Portsmouth navy yard is nursing a sprained wrist, which injury he said he sustained in an unsuccessful effort to hold the old frigate Constitution back when it was taken from Portsmouth navy yard to Boston recently." There's an untold story there, I wager.

May 14
I don't think it would be premature to leak a few 375th news bulletins that are about to be released to the general press. What's a few hours advance notice going to hurt? Looks like there will be three of, what we call in the PR trade, "soft openings." The first is combined with the truly lovely "Lilac Fest" right on the Piscataqua at the home of former British Governor Benning Wentworth on May 24. Next is at the home of first colonial NH governor John Langdon in Portsmouth on May 29, this one by invitation only, I believe. Then there is a planned speech at Market Square Day and possibly a booth there. As if that isn't enough, we just got official word today that 120-year old Piscataqua Savings Bank will sponsor a Shaw Brothers concert at Prescott Park in July. Like I said: things are picking up steam.

May 13
(Continued from Monday) What is admirable about Jones is his cunning, daring, navigational and engineering skills and persistence and, above all, his understanding of the value of public relations. Jones managed, with a few unruly men and a single ship at a time, to freak out an entire nation. The director of the Jones Birthplace in Scotland, sent me a British video that tells the true story of the Ranger after it left Portsmouth harbor. According to reports, Jones burned a fleet of ships, when he torched one small boat in a small town. Then he planned to kidnap the Earl of Selkirk in Scotland and hold him as the first American POW. He picked the Earl because he had grown up nearby and his father was the local gardener. On foot, Jones ground, dressed like British seamen, went to the Earl's home. They pretended to be a press gang drafting local men to protect themselves against the American who was looting local towns. (This bit of PR not only spread his reputation, but scared local men out of the area since they did not want to get drafted to fight.) But the Earl was out of town. When Jones turned to go back, the men from Portsmouth threatened a mutiny if they did not get some booty. He sent them on to the Earl's mansion where they politely knocked on the door and walked away with the rich Earl's silver plates. His wife had the presence of mind to serve the men wine and ask for a receipt. The British press had a field day. Jones was credited with looting the British Isles. But being a gentleman, Jones bought the stolen goods from his own men, and with a letter of apology, shipped the silver back to the Duke's wife. Now that is a classy guy. If we had that kind of PR at the 375th, the whole world would be reading this.

May 12
A couple of local revisionists were taking pot shots at John Paul Jones tonight at the Press Room. Okay, so he ran a slave ship and was up for two murder counts and used an assumed name. Yes, he was prissy, haughty and liked to parade around in a dress uniform. There's a copy of his bust by the famous sculptor Houdon at the Jones House in town. Apparently JPJ was so taken with his own likeness that he brought a dozen of the things back from France and passed them out to people like Franklin and Jefferson. Imagine him at the door holding a life-sized plaster cast of himself. "Hi, Tom. Aye, well I was just in the neighborhood and wondered if you already had one of these? No? Well, I have a spare, so take this one. No, it's no trouble at all, I've got six more back in the carriage." Jones' perhaps deserves to be taken down a peg or two in the American canon, but the true tales of his life are often better than the legends. (To be continued)

May 11
I forgot the one harbinger of Spring that makes my heart leap beyond all others --- the gundalow. I was on the scene a dozen years ago when a team of oxen dragged the massive barge with its crude sail from Strawbery Banke to the water's edge and in. These ocean-going pickup trucks built this region, carrying bricks, cows, equipment further and further down the rivers of the Piscataqua. When Dick Gallant and his crowd managed to reconstruct an authentic gundalow, they gave a critical piece of history back to the region. It isn't sexy, but the floating museum now says more than a hundred textbooks about life before roads, cars, trucks and trains. It is a time not that far gone.

May 09
I'd forgotten what a beautiful area this can be. I don't know the names of flowers and trees, but going on six days of rain and they are positively bursting. There are great white flowers across the Jones House yard. The lilacs are on their way at the Wentworth-Coolidge in time for the big Lilac Fest. These, they say, are descendants of the first cutting brought here by British Gov. Benning Wentworth. But more even than the flora, I see spring in the arrival of the Livery Company with its horse-drawn buggy in Market Square. Nothing takes this era back in time more than the clopping of the carriage past an office window. Add to that the ding or Paul's new red trolley, back for its second summer. His is a wonderful speedy tour down to Wallis Sands in Rye and back in an hour. These, and the vendors in the streets, and the chairs and tables outside cafes, and the fountain flowing again are what make it all worthwhile. Just when you want to pack up for the Caribbean, the metamorphosis occurs, and there is nowhere I would rather be.

May 08
The 375th Committee has miraculously pulled itself together, but now comes the hard part. Without a central paid Executive Director or key clerical person, all work falls onto volunteer committees. Technically, the City is at the helm. This is a tricky business structure that might be impossible elsewhere, but somehow seems possible in Portsmouth. Like a complex ecological habitat, our profit and nonprofit groups have evolved a curious synergy -- each giving and getting (sometimes) what they need. There are zillions of separate intertwined history-minded groups as well. It isn't uncommon for a local person to be serving on as many as 10 subcommittees or boards of directors. When it works, it's like those birds who pick the teeth of a yawning hippopotamus in the Nation Geographic TV special. One gets fed, the other groomed. When it doesn't, well it isn't a pretty sight.

May 07
It's the little connected local bits that fascinate me, the littler the better. For example, today while researching Oliver Wendell Holmes for an upcoming article on his Ironsides poem, I came across a passage in which his son, the Supreme Court Justice by the same name was pledging his undying love to none other than Dover's Lucy Hale, toast of Washington and fiancÚ to the late John Wilke's Booth. Even more, I wonder why there has been no feminist uprising over the possible fact that the first woman ever to travel aboard the USS Constitution was the third wife of Portsmouth's favorite son Tobias Lear, Secretary to George Washington. They celebrated a lengthy honeymoon in the private quarters all the way across the Atlantic in 1803. Lear was then American consul to the Barbary Coast (a job earlier planned for John Paul Jones). Lear also negotiated the famous Treaty of Tripoli aboard Old Ironsides. Just one more link we have with the oldest surviving ship in the US Navy.

May 06
Was last night's 2-hour 375th meeting (click the ship on 375th homepage to read details) quieter than usual, or was it just my laryngitis? The group finally seems to be getting down to business, but with the Ironsides "stress test" still hovering through the end of May, no one wants to get too excited over the fact that this may be one memorable year. My inside contact "Deep Boat" still assures me the whole fracas is political and that Boston simply does not want Old Ironsides our of town for the tourist season in the year 2000. All the same, the wheels within the wheels of this City are spinning, right down to the ceremonial 375th logo decals planned for city vehicles -- a nice classy touch. All the plodding work, from portable toilets to Constitution crew meals, is being done now in the rainy flu season. As late as this thing was in getting off the ground, people around here know how to marshal their resources when the party boat is on the horizon.

May 05
We've got another 375th meeting tonight, so I checked the new city web site to be sure. ( It wasn't there, so I probably picked something too far off the mainstream. What I did find was this 375th page linked to the City, so I can click round and round in an endless circle, It is also suddenly possible to read city meeting agenda's right off the web, and to access city info at any time. This is a giant step forward for local government and great sites, like the Newmarket one, are cropping up rapidly. My greatest Internet thrill was back a year ago when we learned that MONEY magazine had picked the Portsmouth area as the fifth best place to live in the USA. When we went to the web site and clicked on Portsmouth, it came back HERE! Smaller and smaller the world is growing. Now Portsmouth is intimately tied in to the web as well. Congratulations!

May 04
I believe the next Portsmouth Maritine Society book will be #23 and will focus on the small but intriguing Portsmouth whaling industry. This is an extraordinary series of local history books and we owe a great debt to publisher Peter Randall and business angel Joe Sawtelle. I own about 15 and am determined to fill in the whole series. Many, like the Prescott Story and the wonderful gundalow volume, are out of print. Today I finally located a well-preserved copy of "There Are No Victors Here," Peter's story of the 1905 Treaty of Portsmouth that ended the Russo-Japanese War. I'm hoping this slim volume with its many pictures will explain to me why so many Japanese tourists make a pilgrimage to this region.

May 01
Finally got to hear Kimberly Crisp's lecture on her great-great-aunt who was a Madame in a notorious Water Street house of ill repute. Alta Roberts brothel is among the last buildings standing on what is now Marcy Street on the flowery edge of Prescott Park. Although Alta didn't flaunt her fame like Mary Baker, who had two diamonds in her teeth and used to parade the newest girls through Portsmouth in a carriage, her fame lives on long after the Red Light area was closed officially in 1912. My first date in Portsmouth was to a place on Bow Street called The Cave where I saw my first topless waitress. Nowadays you have to go to the movies or get on the Internet for those depraved sights. Kimberly rightly noted how intimately local prostitution was connected to local government which, under police commissioner Entwhistle (of Smuttynose Murder fame) turned a blind eye on the dozen or more such houses in Portsmouth. Apparently Four Tree Island, now a picnic spot and no longer an island, was out of the chief's jurisdiction, so he could not disturb the bawdy house there. With as many as 1,500 mariners visiting across the river at one time, Portsmouth's prostitutes were "known from London to Bangkok." It was a life less noble but more rewarding than factory work for a poor farm girl, and the female brothel owners were among the most powerful and wealthy in town, even supporting the poor and hungry. Wouldn't this historic house make a great new tour for Strawbery Banke or Prescott Park? Traditional history leaves so much of the story untold. No wonder we don't understand who we are or where we came from. Thanks Kimberly, for that revealing splash of red paint in an often lifeless canvas.

© 1998

See also:

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

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