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


August 31
Closing out the month by reading more on NH founder David Thomson. This guy was awesome. Seems he was not Scottish, as I've been blindly repeating from old books, but of Scottish descent. He was living in London until the age of ten during the Shakespearen era. His house in Clerkenwell was just outside the Roman wall in London, less than a mile from the Thames , two miles from the Tower of London and a few blocks from Newgate Prison. Thomson's dad was a servant to Ferdinando Gorges who granted David his New Hampshire land. Gorges got in a mess with Queen Elizabeth and ended up in prison himself, but was bailed out by James I. About the time Gorges got out of the slammer, David's dad died, so Ferdinando took him off to Plymouth, England. Dave was reportedly put in charge of the five Native Americans kidnapped in "New" England by early explorers, including Squanto. He made four -- count them -- four trips to this region before settling in during 1623. He may have built the fort at Pannaway (in Rye) in 1621 and then returned to it. If this isn't the meat of the 375th, I don't know what is. This guy makes Davy Crocket look like a fur trapper.

August 28
Here it is -- in my hand -- the greatest history prize in the region. As of 3pm today, I am officially a proprietor of the Portsmouth Athenaeum, the most amazing library around. I have been a cardholder at the Bodleian Library at Oxford, where I pretended to study Shakespeare and mostly studied pubology. But this is another thing, the key to the history of the region on the shelves where it has waited for nearly two centuries. It is curved wooden stairs, great plaster busts, giant tables, paintings, old photos, manuscripts, books and, best of all, solitude. This was my personal best for the 375th, to become a member of the organization that started all this history celebration in the first place. I only regret that my eyes have dimmed so, just as the treasures are here to be seen. Some milestones are best celebrated alone. Now, where did I put that champagne, anyway

August 27
Looks like the next historic hotbed will be this restored State House idea, and we have a front row seat. I haven't done much research, but some people favor settling it as the visitor's center at Strawbery Banke, though that appears not to be SB's idea since they have a $2 million center planned courtesy of Tyco. The Banke considered the idea for years and finally abandoned it, but the simple justice of getting double use from a building that seems to match the Banke's ambiance is hard to shake. Today someone dropped off a moldy 1959 Portsmouth Herald. The front page article says Strawbery Banke has finally been approved by the state of NH and right on the front page is a map of the proposed new museum. Wouldn't you know, there it is -- a plan to make the reconstructed provincial State House into the visitor's center! Hey, it only took 40 years to come up with the same idea. Time to draw those old battle lines again?

August 26
Well, that was refreshing! As a lapsed Presbyterian, I've never had much tolerance for ceremony. My Catholic, Jewish and Bahai friends seem to understand tradition so much better than I. Yesterday's little rededication of the Memorial Bridge was like a spec of social communion, and I needed it. It was all ceremony with no beef. Nothing was really happening, except the recognition of the past. 75 years ago Eileen Foley stood on that spot as a 5-year old and dedicated a bridge. All these years later, and there she is, standing in the same spot with her 5 year old granddaughter. I've been absorbed in the story for weeks, wrapped in the symbolism. But it took the ceremony to make it take hold. Now it is an "event," a footnote to history, perhaps, but history all the same. We rode the bridge up and back, something I had always wanted to do. And minutes later it was over -- ribbon cut, the bridge baptized, the wader dissolved, the chant done, the Torah shut -- and somehow, for reasons I do not understand, the whole rest of the day made sense.

August 25
Just noticed the nice 375th book and tape display at the front of the Portsmouth library. And the library has a nice display of early postcards. And then there are the kids' pictures on the walls of the City Hall in the corridor showing 375th events. That's not to mention the amazing display of history posters up at the Children's Museum at the South End. Who said this thing isn't catching fire. Gotta run now to the 75th anniversary rededication of the Memorial Bridge, then off to a history party by the sea in New Castle. Not to mention the secret project we're cooking up for the fall. Is it too much history or too much humidity? I'm winded.

August 24
A very persuasive Christy Young convinced me that it would be fun to create a quiz on Portsmouth-built ships for the upcoming Portsmouth Herald tab which focuses on the arrival of the tall ship Endeavour in three weeks. I hope it will be more fun to take, than it was to build. David Letterman has a roomful of writers working on his Top Ten lists. For me, it was a weekend of indecision. What ships to include? What ships to sink? I ended up with a dozen and the first half of them launched themselves easily on the page. But after that, it got tricky. History is all about public relations and we've mostly forgotten the names of scores of fine ships that have been mostly lost to the public memory. It takes a big battle or a disaster, in most cases, to burn a name into our brains. All six of the books I needed for the research were written either by former Herald editor Ray Brighton or Dick Winslow, and their herculean accomplishments have gone, I fear, unheralded outside of the world of local history buffs. It is thanks to them that concise, easy-to-read volumes covering almost all Piscataqua ships are on most bookstore and library shelves around here. The Endeavour, hand made in Australia for $17 million, is a stunning wooden replica, as we shall soon see. Around here, local craftsmen used to built these amazing ships every day. Tall ship visits are critical to keeping their memory alive. Without Endeavour, who would read about our own heritage in the headlines?

August 20
So the phone rings, as it is prone to do more and more frequently, and a southern female identifies herself as "the United States Navy." I'm impressed. She got my name off an official Navy web site and wants to know if I can help her find the USS Constitution. "Well, actually, it's your ship," I tell her. "Has it been misplaced?" No, no she is in Virginia and just wants a book about Old Ironsides. Through the miracle of the Internet, somehow, my phone number is listed on a this Navy web site. For a moment, I consider telling her that I can get the book she is looking for for, oh, say $20,000, a bargain. Then I remember that it was Sen. JP Hale of Dover who was the first to attack exorbitant sales to the military back in the mid 1800s, and I let the golden opportunity pass. I assume some member of the Navy brass who loves Old Ironsides is about to retire and she's in charge of getting the gift. I refer her to the USS Constitution Museum which has to be a dozen yards from Old Ironsides berth in Boston. She clicks onto their web site and finds the gift shop online, seems pleased as punch, and signs off. Always glad to help out my country. If Bill Clinton clicks onto the piece I wrote about him, I'm available for further guidance to the Commander-in-Chief. They also surf, who only stand and wait.

August 19
Trying to tie up 10,000 years of Lamprey River history into a 15 minute video can be exhausting, but I think we have the gist of it. The production shows prehistoric Indian occupation, sawmills, factories, recreational areas, ice cutting, canoe racing, wildlife -- all in the 47 mile pathway of the Lamprey. It's taken months to get this thing into shape and, finally, I'm beginning to understand how a river flows through time and space. A Deerfield colonial mill becomes a turn-of-the century boy scout camp. In Durham, around the time of the Civil War, the Wiswall Dam area was the hot spot of the town with nine factories making everything from furniture and knives to matches and chairs. Now nothing but an empty canal remains. A Lee factory was the first drug mill, cranking out 19th century pharmaceuticals. Another made leatherboard, a forerunner of plastic, used as an artificial leather in shoes. Another family home in Durham became a popular tourist hotel, and is now a dorm. Ice cutters in West Epping sawed out 300 pound cakes of frozen pond-water that survived years in a local ice house. The way people used to live around here is as foreign as any foreign country, and all the more fascinating because we can stand there an imagine.

August 17
Time to get ready for the bark HM Endeavour that arrives in a month. The public is about to be inundated with Endeavour data, and we hope to be right at the center of the information overload. Here in front of me are two Endeavour videos, a CD-rom, the official tour book, and lots of paperwork -- courtesy of Tom the PR Man at the Chamber. The hard part will be translating the concept of exactly what the ship is. It is a replica, not the real thing, but an exact copy of a tall ship from the late 1700s. Most people will never catch that fact. It was one of the earliest research vessels, the forerunner to Darwin's "Beagle" that collected specimens worldwide. Most people won't care. It was built in Australia when the British abandoned the project. Captain Cook, sort of an ocean going version of Captain Kirk on Star Trek, going boldly where no white man had ever gone before, piloted it. I'm afraid that will pass many visitors by as well. The heck with the facts. The important thing is that it is a cool old-looking boat. I can't wait to get aboard.

August 15
I get transported by this history stuff. Started work on the Memorial Bridge piece at midnight and was startled to hear birds chirping at 6am! Jay Childs managed to pull 12 digital freeze frames from the old Pathe News footage of five-year old future mayor Foley cutting the ribbon. It isn't much, but there is something fascinating about watching a 1923 film and then taking on the phone to the person depicted there. The goal here is, hopefully, to reconstruct history in a way that resonates with modern readers. Sure it is revisionism. That's the whole point. The linking of two communities, the navy yard controversy, tons of steel, a mighty raging river, the Industrial Revolution -- all focused on a five year old girl. That's how I want my new history to read. But first, I need a nap.

August 13
I am a bleeding heart liberal. Maybe if I ever make a living that will change, but for now I feel especially guilty about the way we treated New England's Native Americans. Even though my Scots-Irish ancestors only showed up in the last century, there's that restless feeling that we're all responsible for what amounted, for lack of another phrase, to "ethnic cleansing." Sure a lot of it was accidental -- diseases borne by Europeans had done the worst of the work even before the first NH settlement in 1623. Worse, to me, is the way we continued to vilify the Natives in early treaties, in reports and books and novels and paintings, movies and historic highway markers. I would certainly have felt differently if a family member had been captured or tortured by Indian reprisals as the last of the Abenaki speaking people lashed out against the colonial theft of their lands. I get feeling especially guilty watching the annual York, Maine Pow-wow. I have lots of video of the event, and the vision of so many people with Native American blood dancing ancient dances never fails to move me to tears. Why that is, I don't exactly know. It has to do, I think, with nobility, with an inner sense of dignity that seems missing from my Betty Crocker culture. Just to dance, it seems, is to participate in a chain of history that travels off into a time I cannot even imagine. When I see them dance, I think of bagpipes. That sad droning sound seems to travel through my blood memory into my cells like no other sound. If we do carry the history of our ancestors embedded in the codes of our blood and tissue, that is where I feel dignity. Just to dance, as I once did in my kilt when my courage was greater, is to join the chain with one arm toward the future and the other around the past.

August 11
Well, I fell off the wagon and was back mainlining antiquarian books again this weekend. The pile of them on the office floor is growing uncomfortably high. What kind of person gets all sweaty over a virgin copy of "Return of the Sons 1873" or "Glimpses of an Old Social Capital:The Life of Rev. Arthur Browne and His Circle"? But that's not the strangest part. Over the weekend I cracked open a box of old books I haven't touched in 30 years. Right on the top, staring at me, was "My Wanderings" by Henry Clay Barnabee. Barnabee was Portsmouth's most famous theatrical performer through the 1800s. I bumped into his old records at the Portsmouth Library recently, and NH Crossroads devoted an episode to him not long ago. What freaks me out is that, somewhere back in my youth, I picked up a cherry copy of Barnabee's autobiography -- signed by the author in 1913 just before his death. I have no memory of buying the thing, and yet the very week I was doing research, the book rises to the surface. Who says the spirits don't whisper to us from the past? "Put me on the web!" he's saying in a haunted whisper. "Tell my story!" I hear and obey, Henry, but you'll have to take a number and wait in the green room a bit longer.

August 10
Everyone on Earth must have been at the beach. My email box was wonderfully empty and downtown Po-town was deserted until the cool of the evening. Between a first time visit from cousin Kathy and family, then a drop-in by the parents, I managed to pay homage to the "world's largest keg of beer" newly tapped at the Red Hook Brewery. I don't get a dime for saying this, but that was one amazing event. This was no empty PR campaign, but a real, beautifully built, two-story barrel of beer. Laugh all you want, but the coopers art was of no small importance in the days before Tupperware and refrigeration, and this craftsman's display would have been a real head-turner even back in the 1600s. Nobody's going to believe me unless I get a photo up on the web to prove how amazing this thing is. Hats off to Red Hook!

August 08
I think I'm on the committee at the Portsmouth Historical Society that has been charged with the duty of determining the contents of the 375th Time Capsule. The container is supposed to be opened at the 500th Celebration and I haven't been able to come up with one serious suggestion. As much as I love history, it is my tendency to lampoon tradition, a tendency I better learn to control if I want to make it in the history biz. So it was to my great relief that freelance curator Deborah Child came flying by the office this week with a list of the items that had been entombed in the Methodist Church cornerstone on State Street in1827. That church is now Temple Israel, and I've been told the sealed leaden jar was cracked open years ago. It reportedly contained: a copy of all the local newspapers, many "bills of mortality," minutes of church meetings, a few coins and some letters to the future. Not exactly a scintillating array of relics. I was thinking of things like a Fall Preview Issue of TV Guide, something from Monica Lewinsky's clothes hamper inside an official 375th tote bag, a Twinkie that will still be edible, an "I Almost Saw Old Ironsides" bumper sticker, and a couple of those pierced kids who hang around in Market Square. Maybe I'm not in the spirit of things yet. I just need a little more time to think.

August 07
(Continued from yesterday) Couldn't wait to see Robert Stack as John Paul Jones in Portsmouth in the old Hollywood film of the same name. The segment begins when Jones arrives at Valley Forge covered in snow where a despondent George Washington is dictating a letter. Did this really happen? Jones intends to quit the Continental Army, ticked off that he is last on the list of 18 American ship captains. Washington, however, has a better idea.

"Do you know of the ship Ranger now at Portsmouth?" Washington says. "Aye sir," Jones replies, "Out of commission. No rigging and without a crew."

"If I could steal the Ranger, could you refit, steal a crew, and make ready for the welcome news that I am sure would be ours?" says George. Patriotic music rising, Jones says, "With the help of Providence and the inspiration of my commander-in-chief, yes sir"

What a bummer! Then, without even a frame of Portsmouth, NH footage, Jones is plowing across the sea to France in the our Ranger. He makes the shocking, but minor raid on Whitehaven, the public relations move that changed history. The Scottish raid and the Drake capture are missing entirely so we can see JPJ making whoopee in Paris, then he's off again in the Bonhomme Richard for the battle against the Serapis. A few loyal Seacoast men have saved the famous Ranger flag for Bonhomme, then suddenly in the next scene the flag has multiplied for the sea burial of the 77 dead crewmen. The second longer JPJ trip to Portsmouth to receive the USS America doesn't even rate mention. JPJ heads to Russia for a downright comic meeting with Catherine the Great, played by Bette Davis. From here the history falls all apart as does the film.

August 06
Old friend Bill taped the movie "John Paul Jones" off the History Channel for me. I couldn't wait to pop it into the VCR. This and the films of "Old Ironsides" and "Lydia Bailey" (with Tobias Lear) have been on my local movie wish list for years. So far, the flick seems to run pretty close to Morrison's popular biography, though a tall Robert Stack with no accent is a far cry from a 5'6" Scotsman. This sanitized JPJ seems deeply concerned over his slaves and accidental murder of a crewman or two. He is more broken by the loss of his love Dorothea Dandridge to Patrick Henry, than the Tory destruction of his Virginia farm left to him by his dead brother William. Oops, now JPJ is aboard the Alfred and Providence blasting away, earning his reputation as an able military mariner. Now comes the part where he comes to Portsmouth. I can't wait to see how we're portrayed this time… (Continued tomorrow)

August 04
This week I'm studying old stereopticon images by Portsmouth's Davis Brothers from July 4, 1873, courtesy of the Athenaeum. That's the day tourism really landed in Portsmouth big time. The Return of the Sons was a giant celebration welcoming prodigal Portsmouth-born families back to town. The pictures all show the decorations before the arrival of the crowds, massive arches wrapped in conifer boughs stood at each entrance to the downtown. Buildings were decorated in flags, bunting, branches and massive carved eagles, with signs reading "There's No Place Like Home." The inspiration was the earlier New Hampshire Homecoming event in Boston in 1849 that featured an address by Daniel Webster, who like the rest had skipped town when the War of 1812 shut down local trade and the economy went down the toilet. Tourism saved us once, and it looks to be saving us again, though it may be heresy around here to say so aloud. Today, we have a slightly different take on the slogan: "There's no place like home. So after you visit for awhile and spend a bundle, please head on back there. Don't forget to write!" Yankee is just another word for "attitude," but it's part of our charm. Souvenirs anyone?

August 03
This Ghostly Tour thing is a perfect addition to historic Portsmouth. People would much rather pepper their past with macabre legends, and the fact that they are willing to cough up a few dollars for what amounts to a history lesson is a rejuvenating turn of events. The Public Library managed a mob of 150 souls last week when the children's librarian conducted a free two-hour evening tour that covered a lot of ground on a sultry summer night. I knew things would go this way when we posted the grisly corpse of John Paul Jones on the Internet last year and got 10,000 hits. For $29 you can take a waterborne tour of haunted Ogunquit with a "professional performance by a costumed actor." That tour promises a taste of cannibalism, ship wrecks and sea monsters. Well there's three more reasons to head up to Perkins Cove, I'd say. But I'll never order clam necks up there again without questioning the source.

August 01
August. Egad. For those persistent critics who have been asking "Where's the beef?" in the 375th celebration -- they're about to find out. It looks like the bulk of the events will be packed into the rump end of the year. There's Endeavour, of course, which arrives in a few weeks. There's bigger talk of rebuilding the old Colonial State House, and I find myself on another of the mayor's blue ribbon history committees. There's now a planned Christmas Parade for all those people who cannot imagine a celebration without a brass band. And there is, possibly, a key event in the planning that will make the whole town sit up and take notice. But no sense in getting the public all excited over nothing. . We're just recovered from the loss of Ironsides.

© 1998

See also:

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

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