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

JUNE 1998

June 30
Goodbye June. Now it really begins as the world's shortest tourism season kicks off at the Fourth or July weekend. Why people will travel hundreds of miles to join others in a hot sweaty crowd is beyond my ken. Me, I'm spending the last day of June reciting poetry. First a web reader turned me on to the "Wreck at Rivermouth" by Whittier in which a whole boatload of Philbricks are lost at sea in the mid 1600s while Goody Cole wails on the beach at Hampton. That lead to a bunch of other Hampton poems by Whittier, and that to Fields, and Fields to JR Lowell, and then the discovery of a whole book of poetry by Portsmouth author's published in 1865. You have to pick the bones of that stuffy verse, but there's some real meat there -- tales of shipwrecks, witches, changlings, elicit love, So let the tourists come. They're only seeking what I already have, but I am richer then them all. I've got a book, a room with a view and air conditioning.

June 27
Despite Ironsides and the ongoing floods, the anniversary promotion is right on target. History is on everyone's mind and now the official 375th tote bags and T-shirts are available to keep the message in the public eye. In fact, the promo has been so successful that some irate citizen wrote to the newspapers complaining that, if the City wasn't spending a mint on the 375th, there might be some money left to fix the local sewers. What a hoot! The mayor snapped back a politically correct retort, pointing out that only a few dollars had gone for promotion and postage. But perception is 99% of reality and I take the "sewer letter" as proof positive that we're finally making some headway. The greatest proof this month was the publication of a special Seacoast issue of NH Editions out of Nashua. Spurred on by our PR blitz, our neighbors to the northwest created an astonishingly fact-packed issue on local history. I suggest that the Economic Development people get hold of a thousand of these magazines and ship them everywhere. No recent publication I've seen tells the local-history story better, and once again Mr. Sewerman, it didn't cost this region a penny. And I'm not just saying that because NH Editions quotes this 375th diary extensively. Kudos, Nashua. How can we get your super mag into the hands of local school children so they too can learn the proud facts of their local heritage?

June 26
Mom writes from Bedford to say that the new Marconi Museum opens on June 27. It's located in the former Stevens-Buswell School where my brother Brian went to grammar school. We were actually quite an electronic family back then. My father, who worked for the phone company, was the first on the block to install stereo speakers -- even before there were stereo records. In the 1950s we had a telephone built into an apple tree in the back yard. I had a private phone that ran under the road to my friend Bill's house. We had a device built into a cigar box that would allow us kids to broadcast over the radio in the kitchen. It used to freak my mother out. Anyway, mom further reports that there will be a re-creation of the Titanic radio room at the new museum. The salvage company that owns the rights to the recovered Titanic materials plans to retrieve the original Marconi wireless set and donate it to the museum. Marconi's daughter Princess Elettra Marconi and his grandson will attend the opening ceremonies. Also Professor Giovanni Pelagalli, curator of the Marconi Museum in Bologna will attend. Hey mom, that sounds like a press release!

June 25
Sometimes ideas for this diary just come out of the sky. A piece fell off the Rockingham Hotel the other day and landed two feet from this office. It is a pretty large hunk of hotel, maybe a foot square, though it's really a triangle, weighing maybe 20 pounds. I think it's granite or some sort of cut stone, with a little carving around the edge which may just be a rain gutter. I am interpreting this as a message from Frank Jones, Portsmouth's most famous 19th century self-made millionaire who owned the famous Rockingham and Wentworth-by-the-Sea. Starting as a farm boy in nearby Barrington, Jones became one of the most successful alemakers of the 1800s. He used that fortune to buy a small piece of railroad and, in the style of a true "robber baron," became president of the entire region's railroad. His fortune led him to own hotels, banks, insurance companies, racing horses. His career as Portsmouth mayor and a US Congressman were marked by controversy. He died in 1902, but his empire (hotels, home, breweries, bank) are still around. I had promised to write something about him, but kept forgetting. I will take the fallen missile, which landed on our Lenox air conditioning unit, as a memo from the head office. Frank didn't like to be ignored. Yessir, Mr. Jones. One web page coming up.

June 24
"When the rain comes, they run and hide their heads. They might as well be dead -- when the rain comes." The Beatles

I hope I don't get a bill from Michael Jackson for using that quote here. It was the best intro I could think of for the dmapening opinion of June. History is mostly a record of things Mankind and Nature DO, but sometimes the lack of activity, like the lack of the sunshine, makes the news. In a Platonic (or is it Nike-esque?) sense, the battle for our historic memory of June 1998 is being waged between our Active and Passive selves. And who wants to do much of anything in this terrarium? Everywhere people seem to be talking about the lack of rays and the excess humidity. Orchards, and we have quite a few here, are already predicting devastation. A woman at the fruit & produce shop asked when the raspberries would arrive, and the owner just pointed to the overcast sky and shrugged. Strawberries are up, but subject to quick rot if they cannot dry out for a couple of days before packaging. Blueberries, so far, appear unharmed, according a WEVO radio call-in show yesterday. A key Hampton Beach hotel owner told me they are getting killed on the ocean. Craft fairs are damp, Market Square Day lost thousands of bucks in its first full washout. Is it global warming? El Nino? The curse of Old Ironsides? It is our collective memory forming. "Remember that weather back during the 375th, Bert?" "Ayup, some damp weren't it?"

June 23
The new Portsmouth Marketplace managed to dodge the bad weather when it started last weekend. I got to talk to Paul a bit as he patrolled the parking lot outside Eagle Photo where the vendor tents were set up. Seventeen sellers, about half the planned capacity, were up and running. The trick now is to teach the tourists to walk through. It should not be too hard since there will be entertainers, food, and people running around in colorful Portsmouth Marketplace T-shirts. Like this web site, it just takes time to catch on. I'm drawn to the marketplace experiment because of my love for the Norwich Market in East Anglia where I spent so much of my time. I used to love leaning one foot up on the rail and ordering a little dish of fresh cockles, swished down with lemon, then wandering to the potato fry booth, over to pick a Cornish pasty, then a tea in a cracked white cup after. They say the market there has gone to shreds now, all cheap junk. That would be sad. It is hard to build back quality. But it has worked with the Farmer's Market down the street in the South Mill Pond parking lot, and it can work here, with effort, and time, and support.

June 22
Finally unrolled the gigantic poster "Timeline of NH History" that I bought in the bookstore at the fascinating NH Historical Society Museum in Concord. I don't have wall space big enough for this wonderfully concise document that places the events and dates at a glance. It also relates NH history to world history in a design so simple even I can understand it. Sure enough, there's David Thomson as the first real historical event in the state in 1623, right where he belongs. The map also lists the first church in NH at Dover in 1633. I ride by that Dover church site often, but there is only a plaque there now. Prior to 1623, according to the timeline, frequent European visitors adapted Native American ways, learning the Abenaki language, trapping, fishing, building canoes. Of course, all these contacts led to the epidemics that wiped out 75% of the Native population. It was only when permanent white settlement began that our "history" started. If we had Native American info from 12,000 years, the poster would run along my wall, out the window, and down the entire seacoast of NH.

June 20
I hope somebody is taking notes on this "Pocket Garden" tour arranged by the South Church. This muggy-cloudy weather is like a day at the bloody beach for mosquitoes, but rough on us humans. Still, hundreds of people are walking through the damp gorgeous garden here. I can see them out the window now, exploring the grounds of this and 14 other historic houses in town -- all within walking distance. Fact is, gardens draw tourists the way flowers draw bees, and at $10 a pop, it's a nice fund raiser for the sponsor. Portsmouth and the Seacoast (see Fuller Gardens, Urban Forestry Center, UNH, etc.) is a bit of unrecognized Eden, and the potential here is enormous since green-tourists are avid travelers. Good gardens, like the one here kept by Julie Marvin, act as soft sideshow barkers for historic houses that use the scent and color to attract visitors indoors. If this event can draw hundreds in bad weather -- just imagine. Wake up tourism coordinators, and smell the posies.

June 19
In celebrating its 125th anniversary, Foster's Daily Democrat of Dover has done a major service to local students of history. The online version of the newspaper, Foster's Online (which we link to for daily news) is marvelous reading. I had no idea that the founder had run a Portsmouth newspaper first and was literally driven out of town after the civil war by a drunken mob of naval shipyard workers. Seems the original Foster was anti-Lincoln at a time when that was not a popular position in the North. The story is well written as Foster family history, leaving out no scandal in its honest coverage. A piece on the newspaper wars of 1950 is equally candid, and the publisher describes his own paper as having not been very good at the time. But it was, Bob Foster says, the challenge of a William Loeb- backed rival newspaper that forced the Democrat to improve and thrive. I read Foster's and the Herald alternately and have kudos and criticism for each, but I've got nothing but praise for this lively telling of the Dover paper's history. We'll link it to the 375th site so our readers can get a look. Congratulations to the Foster family, owners of one of the last independent newspapers in NH. This is the kind of writing that makes a difference, and tells us what the Seacoast is really all about, warts and all.

June 18
A lot of people think the 375th and the now sunk arrival of the Constitution were one in the same. In fact, the celebration was a separate thing with a separate committee from the start. People still struggle to grasp the fact that we don't need an additional event to make the anniversary meaningful. Already the mere promotion of local history has had an effect. Tour guides of the area are focused this year on history. The papers are running all sorts of special pieces including an article on the "spirit" of the 375th in today's Portsmouth Herald. Historic houses are opening for free. The trolley, the Thomas Laighton ship, the horse drawn livery and other sites are reducing prices. The Jones House is burying a time capsule. The city is sporting 375th logos. Tourism is up already at local sites. Everywhere there are speeches and awards. One of our readers wants to adopt the very historical North Cemetery. And although the frigate isn't coming, we hear this morning that the plans to create a documentary are still in the works. Everywhere you turn, people are talking history. THAT is the point. THAT's what this is all about.

June 17
One of the most exciting new developments of this web site, besides our rise toward nearly 4,000 regular readers, is the fact the readers are starting to contribute. A year ago it was like pulling teeth; now the content is starting to flow our way. I love posting letters every day because the letters fascinate and teach me. Now we've got real articles coming in. Our friend Jack Harr of Forked River, NJ sent an article and photos of the "other" Tobias Lear house in Virginia. He visited here last year after seeing the web site and is including more Lear in his book on George Washington for Random House. We're working that into an article and hoping to link the two houses and share info. There was that great piece by Ed Wentworth on the Abolitionist Press in Dover. Sharon Stephan has contributed two sets of penny postcards. Today Debra Childs was here downloading photos of the paintings in the new Athenaeum exhibit by Susan Ricker Knox (1874-1959). She was noting how much more historical info we can share now that so many people have scanners, digital cams, CD-writers, ZIP drives, e-mail and web sites. This technology, more than anything, is going to break down the territorial walls that have kept local history locked in so many unconnected vaults. What discoveries we'll make as we start sharing data and getting to the public around the WORLD in readable digestible bits. This may be the greatest legacy of the 375th year -- discovery of a brave new world of historical research and public access to the data.

June 16
As I continue to muck out the flooded Ideaworks storage area and the rain continues to fall, it's hard not to remember what local historians call "Dover's Black Day." Although the name may no longer be politically correct, the story has worked its way into local lore. Seems that about 100 years ago the Cocheco got so angry in a rainstorm, that it washed out the road bridge that is the main road in town. Apparently Central Ave used to have buildings along it above the river where the falls meet the Cocheco Mills. This has been a manufacturing site for about 350 years. Witnesses say crowds were gathered on the bridge to watch the torrent of water when suddenly the road began to collapse in. People ran and one teenaged boy had to leap up just as the road disappeared underneath him. So much debris and silt was washed down river that the Dover shipping industry never recovered. There are no buildings on that part of the bridge to this day. A year or so ago, nearly on the 100th anniversary of the disaster, the river rose so high that the bridge was closed off and water was splashing up onto the road. Today the bridge was closed off again and there is a week more of rain predicted. Despite all our taming of the river and creation of alternate roadways, this ecosystem is still in charge of things, not us. A good reminder every now and then doesn't hurt.

June 15
Life is a wet dog here. Now I know what it was like for Kevin Cosner in Waterworld. We are all here, in search of a lump of dry earth. Market Square Day was soaked from the moment it began and even the hardy eventually gave up the ship. We had a graduation party in Dover and the downpour was so great between the yard and the tent that no one ventured out at all. We grilled teriyaki chicken on the front porch, watching eight inches of rain turn the lawn turn into a new navigable waterway. Portsmouth closed streets due to flash floods and the storage area of our office currently stands at about four inches of water just above the soon-to-be-stinky carpeting. We tossed a couple thousand dollars worth of lost items onto the sidewalk this morning and chalked it all up to the kind of luck we've been having since Ironsides decided to stay home. I suppose there are disadvantages to living one's existence at sea level. And now, after a few hours of New Orleans-type humid sun, the clam-scented clouds are gathering for another pelting.

June 13
On midnight the evening before Market Square Day, you wouldn't know the largest event of the season will be in full swing the next day. After 20 years the event that draws up to 200,000 people to town is as organized as a military campaign. Last year, I was horrified when Pro Portsmouth asked if I could contribute to the MSD "archive," Sure, I attended the first one, crude as it was, but it barely seemed worth a museum exhibit. And there I am in front of the North Church with a band playing our discordant hearts out. It was an impromptu event for kids and we only knew a few kids soncs, so we played "Teddy Bear's Picnic" a few times, which we sang nasally since each member of the band wore a black-painted ping-pong ball on his or her nose to look like a teddy. Ah, those were the days! Now everything is so slick and organized and, well, better. Pro Portsmouth has become a well-oiled machine and, the town that used to be a dangerous seaport, is now a tourist Mecca. Funny thing is, some people imagine it has been like this forever. They have no idea how complex and effortful this summer-long nonstop city can be. The Bow Street Fair and Prescott Park Arts Festival hail from about the same era. It was, make no mistake, a cultural renaissance. Now the historical renaissance is coming up fast.

June 11
“Deep Boat” just won’t quit. The official word from the Navy is that "Old Ironsides is definitely NOT coming to Portsmouth this summer, but my secret maritime informant continues to mouth platitudes like “It ain’t over ‘til it’s over” and “Don’t give up the ship!” The Navy sent a token dozen USS Constitution sailors in 19th century uniforms to Dover grammar schools the other day, and I’m thinking that’s all we’re going to get. “Follow the money,” Deep Boat is telling me now, but I’ve heard that one somewhere before. I think I’m going to swap historical icons and start rooting for the rebuilding of the original Portsmouth State House that once stood in Market Square, and is now in pieces in a trailer in Concord. Mayor Sirrell has come out in favor of rebuilding it. Hey, wait a minute! Probably just on the rebound from the loss of Ironsides. The state house isn’t sexy, but it belongs to New Hampshire and ain’t no Kennedy gonna take this one away from us, nossirreebob.

June 10
By the time Old Ironsides arrives, we'll all be brain dead from the drip-drip-drip water torture of unofficial press releases. Today we get the word in big bold print that the USS Constitution is not coming after all the fuss. If she is in any danger at all, we don't want her to move. But the stress tests said otherwise. The I-told-you-sos are already wagging their fingers in the direction of we-the-faithful, and the fallout is waiting for the official US Navy word to fall out. Another few 180 degree turns, and even the most hardworking volunteers will be ready to shout, to paraphrase Oliver Wendell Holmes, "Oh frigate!" If, and I am saying "if" the ship does not arrive on schedule, let me be the first to suggest a Portsmouth-Kittery Day Celebration this summer in Charlestown. The winners buy the beer and we'll bring the band, so we can have a giant block party, maybe kick off an annual Piscataqua Day tradition -- fireworks in Constitution Park, a little armada, trips across the street to Breed's Hill (where we actually won the day) and just some general fence-building between two of the six oldest shipyards in America. You heard it here first, kids. But, of course, she will be here. Oh, yes. She will be here. Chant with me. She will be here.

June 09
Sunday they dedicated a plaque over by the Sheraton in honor of the North End Italian neighborhood wiped out during urban renewal in the 50s and 60s. I still don't understand how 300 families were displaced and an entire region bulldozed, but emotions still run high and hundreds showed up for the event. I got my first taste of Italian Portsmouth when Albie DeStefano, the man behind the new monument, convinced me to produce a short video called "The Russell Street Reunion." We taped interviews with a lot of local families more than a decade ago when they met at Yoken's for banquet. It was a quickie low-format piece, but the emotion and family spirit of the neighborhood transcended the video format. Toward the end we played a little Frank Sinatra music and showed quick shots of Italian families posing. That segment still brings a tear to my eye, and it wasn't my entire ethnic community that was literally removed from the planet.

June 08
Hats off to the folks in Dover who planned their parallel 375th with all the foresight it deserved. The result is a focused, event-full Fourth of July weekend that makes me NOT want to get out of town. Besides fireworks, parade and all the trimmings, there is the all-too-infrequent appearance of Dover's most famous citizen, Irish singer Tommy Makem. Those who don't remember "The Unicorn Song" and the group Makem & Clancy are probably in the pierced and tattooed generation. This gentle man, who we see most often pushing a shopping cart through the grocery store, plays to mobs of devoted fans in his native country and to full houses at his New York night club. His sons have been carrying on the tradition, but there is still nothing to match Tommy when he tosses his head back and lets an ballad fly. My parents went on his guided tour of Ireland years back and it's since become a Public TV special. If for no other reason than Tommy, it makes no sense for people to be anywhere other than in Dover this Fourth of July.

June 06
NOTE TO SELF: When the press calls, try not to babble. Use 3x5 cards and stick to the questions asked. Use an egg-timer to limit calls. Try not to expound on existential issues when the poor reporter only wants to know a few basic facts. Try not to turn everything into a metaphor. Try not to draw deep philosophical significance out of every historical event. Which reminds me that Foster's headlines had an ironic twist today. Farmington is kicking off its 200th anniversary today with parades and floats. (Their $7,000 budget for the festivities, by the way, is exactly $7,000 more than we got here in Portsmouth.) Farmington, like most Seacoast-area towns, was a giant manufacturing center at the dawn of the Industrial revolution. Meanwhile the Clam Shell Alliance is celebrating the 20 year anniversary of the biggest protest in American history at Seabrook where 1,400 were arrested. Again, the Seacoast region shows its contrasting colors. We remain in constant conflict over need for jobs, factories, work and income vs. our desire to prevent pollution and save the environment. Because our region is so tiny, that battle seems more intensely fought. And yet, this area is LESS ravaged and polluted now than it has been since the first settlers denuded the forests and their ancestors polluted the lakes and rivers. I hope the fight goes on for another 375 years. It is what keeps us vital and interesting. NOTE TO SELF: You're doing it again!

June 05
What can I say, but “Thank You!” As a counter-cultural guy, I tend not to be a joiner or committee member type. I’ve been called iconoclastic, irreverant, impulsive, controlling, perfectionistic. All true. I prefer tunneling through this crazy world with my own spoon, rather than riding on the community backhoe. But I have, for a dozen years or more, anted up for membership in the Greater Portsmouth Chamber of Commerce. I’m not a leader there,not even a volunteer often, but more of a kibbitzer, continually pushing for regionalizing the Seacoast, complaining about the need for attention to history, arguing about the ways to attract and promote tourism. And just when I thought no one was listening, they go and give me an award. Robin Comstock, the chamber president, made a generous speech and the presentation of a glass inscribed award last night at the annual dinner. It was quite an affair, 350 people all dressed up in a giant white tent on the lawn of Strawbery Banke. A fierce wind whipped the canvas and temperatures dropped to as the speeches warmed up. Of course, as the recipinet of the 1998 President’s Award, my cover is blown. I can no longer pretend to be the last of the hippies, and, despite my curmudgeounly assault on the conventional workins of local commerce and politics, I have to say -- it feels damn good to be noticed. To show that I am, at least occassionally, ready to work within what we used to call “the power structure,” I nixed the usual bluejeans, purchased and wore my first suit -- a gray double-breasted pinstripe, as straight forward as it could be. My mother would say that, at 40-something, I am finally growing up. Let’s not take this thing too far. I prefer to think that the world is coming around to the idea that history is not only our past on the Seacoast, but our future. It’s time to learn about where we came from, straight on, warts and all, so we can mature as a region, as a country, as a planet. All the same, thank you Robin for daring to hotlink my world with yours. I’ll try to do you proud, but I won’t turn off the pressure.

June 03
That may have been the last meeting of the 375th Blue Ribbon Committee tonight, but I doubt it. Something tells me we'll be called in again. Within a couple of weeks the USA Government will issue press releases announcing the oldest ship in the American Navy will be visiting Portsmouth, Cow Hampshire. When it all sinks in (bad phrase) the whole circus will start for real. Right now those setting up the event are doing yeoman's service figuring out how to get traffic in and out of Kittery and New Castle during the arrival. Great Island could be completely locked up and there are EMTs and paramedics already getting prepared. The big revelation of the meeting (see summary under links) is that the only possible sails will be seen on Monday, August 10th, on the way out of port. Now comes the headache of distributing 20,000 free tickets, putting up 781 sailors, barbecuing 6,000 chickens and coming up with $100,000 to cover the nut on this side of the river. I'm scrambling to get more stories online to prove that Portsmouth Harbor has solid links to Ironsides. I'm studying up on Isaac Hull, Tobias Lear and the USS Congress. Promises to be one of those vacations that will require a recovery-vacation of its own.

June 02
Here's a bit of a scoop: Foster's has begun work on the first of two planned 375th Portsmouth anniversary newspaper supplements. I've got the editor's OK to leak a few facts. The first issue is slated for early July and, I believe, another Dover special section is upcoming for their 375th that same week. The issue focuses on local history up through the Revolutionary Era. A fall issue is planned to wrap up the last two centuries. I've seen the elaborate Herald 350th issue from 1973, and many homes still hold it among their keepsakes. These special issues, and you can imagine there will be ones on the Constitution visit as well, go a long way to "teaching" local history in a pleasing and readable way. Most of this stuff appears in no textbook. People who often ignore history, will devour a newspaper the way people who eschew opera swallow up good rock and roll. These special events are the ones that lend credence to the celebration and make the whole project meaningful. I've also heard from a few corroborating sources that a local TV station wants as many as seven cameras set up to cover the Constitution visit. This thing is going to get GIANT national press coverage, and the locals have to battle early just to position themselves on home turf against the onslaught. And we have word that a few locals got plenty of film footage for a still-tentative (but likely) documentary being produced about the Ironsides visit. If just an afternoon turnaround got major coverage for the USS Constitution last year, imagine what the ship's first port of call in 83 years will engender. Imagine, if you will, that the Statue of Liberty will come striding into Portsmouth, and you'll get a feeling for the impact of this trip. And remember, Ironsides is much much older than Lady Liberty. We're talking Geraldo, nah, we're talking Barbara Walters stuff here. Thanks to our political primary experience in NH, we take all this attention in stride.

June 01
Oh my God, it's June! We're got the most famous ship in the world arriving. The tourist season is fully underway. Market Square Day is around the corner. Prescott Park is in full bloom and tuning up. My shorts and T-shirts are sill in mothballs. There's no air in my bike tires. The hibachi is all covered in cobwebs. The lawn looks like a hayfield. Where's Alice and the Mad Hatter? Somebody hand me a broom; we've got work to do.

© 1998

See also:

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

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