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


September 29
More calls today on the Ranger replica idea. This one may not go away easily. So as a break, I attended a press conference for release of the Portsmouth Harbour Trail game. Having people move their little Tobias Lear and Celia Thaxter game pieces around a map of local historic houses has to have some effect on children. Brainwashing can be a good thing. When I was a kid, I had a set of "author" cards featuring figures of American and English literature. By the time I got them, the cards were probably 50 years old, so John Greenleaf Whittier was probably still listed as a living author. Anyway, I ended up majoring in English literature. Subliminal messages can be powerful. The game press conference was held in JPJ's old bedroom a couple of yards from the office here and the little room was so crowded with dignitaries that I was squashed in the corner. The only other thing in the corner was, you guessed it, a model of the tall ship RANGER! Resistance is futile.

September 28
Oh, no -- I'm not getting caught in this one. I'm just the messenger. Tom Cocchiaro put me up to the article about rebuilding the Ranger that ran in yesterday's Fosters and the web. Already people are assuming, just because I wrote about it, that I have anything to do with it. Figure this replica will cost $10 million anyway, maybe more, and I'm a little tapped this week. It would put Portsmouth on the map and re-establish our rep as key tall ship-building port. But this thing has to start at the state level. NH should kick in at least $2 million to get the project rolling. The good news is that the appeal of the Ranger is world-wide and it resonates with military, history and sailor-types alike. John Paul Jones has never gotten his due from this country. But don't give out my phone number. I'm just the sideshow barker here. Tomorrow night is the Bring Back the State House Meeting. That's a nice small replica project to start with -- just a couple million.

September 25
It's the footnotes that count. Skimming through Morison's biography of John Paul Jones, I noticed for the first time that he had two freed black men aboard, and Morison says they were "local" men. Maybe someone has written a thesis on them, but I've not seen it. Their names do not appear to be listed in the local Black Heritage Trail report. So suddenly we have two new heroes -- Cato Catile and Scipio Africanus. I'm sure not to be the first to notice two African Americans aboard Jones' historic Ranger voyage. As I remember from the 1959 Robert Stack movie, Cato and Scipio are presented as two Virginia slave boys, very young, who served on the plantation of Jones' brother William who had a farm in Fredericksburgh. In the film, Jones takes them aboard Ranger and then onto the Bonhomme Richard with a promise to free them, but one is killed in the battle with the Serapis. The promise to free them after the war is reminiscent of William Whipple's promise to Prince Whipple, our other local black Revolutionary hero. Gen. Whipple, it turns out, was quite friendly with Jones when he visited Portsmouth. So do we have two new black Portsmouth heroes, which would put Cato and Scipio on a pretty short list including Prince and Cuffee Whipple, Primus Fowle the printer's assistant, Nero of the Negro Court, and a precious few others? These are stories that haven't even begun to be told.

September 23
All I can say is that the 375th committee isn't dead yet. Tonight's meeting was to discuss the possibility -- that's possibility, mind you -- of a gala semi-formal dance in November to promote local history. That's what our forebears did to start the whole process in 1823, so why not have another dance? And plans for a commemorative booklet for attendees is also in the works. Would love to say more, but there are just too darn many reporters reading this diary now for leads. A guy can't even write in his online diary anymore without somebody reading it! Details will be finalized at our next meeting in two weeks. Plans also continue for a Christmas history parade, so the celebration that started like a lamb, may go our like a lion, or at least a pretty ferocious housecat.

September 22
John Schnitzler has only to finish two gates and he will have completed rebuilding the fence around the John Paul Jones house. His preservation work is marvelous, a combination of attention to detail and craftsmanship. The ornate portion of the fence has hundreds of sections to recreate and assemble back on its granite fittings. Each section has a giant egg-shaped finial made of solid wood. One portion of the fence required a 17-foot piece of cedar. Last year he rebuilt the simpler, but curved front portion of the fence that surrounds the whole front of the house and garden. Now everything has to be painted before the snow flies. A large gate has also been rebuilt at the back entrance. Now the fence looks as it did in at least the mid-1800s and is good for another 25-50 years with regular maintenance. The whole project ran about $40,000, the cost carried by the nonprofit historic house trustees from a small bank account. But it had to be done, and now that it is, the dignity of the old house has been salvaged and efforts can focus on keeping the building itself from falling apart. It is an endless battle, like any home, except no one lives at this museum except memories.

September 21
My best photo from the Shoals trip shows a bunch of contra dancers frolicking on the porch of the Oceanic Hotel to tunes of a folksy band. That was yesterday. The light was perfect. The temperature was perfect. The music and dancing on the crowded porch went on within inches of people quietly reading. From the hotel porch you can see Appledore, Smuttynose, Malaga, Cedar, White Island lighthouse and the coast of New Hampshire and Maine, maybe even Massachusetts. On a clear day, they say, you can see the mountains. On a clear night, you can see every star in the universe, it seems. The sky is nothing but stars in a display unlike anything the mainland knows. We waited, all 150 of us, on the porch yesterday, in the perfect September weather, for the arrival of the ferry boat Oceanic. We drank lime rickeys and ate ice cream. We waited for the boat that would take us 100 years into the future, right to the lip of the 21st century. We waited, while some danced, hoping, perhaps, the ferry might never arrive.

September 17
That's it! I'm out of here until Sunday. Off to the Shoals. No email, no telephone, no Monica. Expect to pass Endeavour leaving port as I return. When I get back, there is likely to be a surprise announcement re: the 375th Celebration, but I'll be so mellowed out from sitting in a rocker on the porch of the Oceanic, that I may forget what it is. Celia, keep my dinner warm. I'm heading for the ferry, babydoll.

September 17
To know Portsmouth is to know wooden ships, and there my knowledge is in tatters. The trip aboard the Endeavour has convinced me that we need to get this knowledge. The Endeavour crew passed through the Athenaeum today while I was researching the Maritime IQ Quiz going up on the site tonight. They said Portsmouth has been the most enthusiastic and most profitable port they have visited in America. That says volumes considering our tiny size compared to other ports visited. It says we are ready for MORE maritime events. At the same moment I was discovering that the USS Congress, build here concurrent with Ironsides in Boston, was part of the first full fleet of ships in the American Navy. Yet, I could find no pictures and no book on this Portsmouth-built frigate. It was captained by, I think, both Decatur and Preble, and was part of the attack on the Barbary Pirates. Studying up on these ships continues to convince me that Portsmouth could truly hold its own as a major shipbuilding region, and now it can hold its own as a tall ship touring region -- except we are without tall ships. What's missing from this picture?

September 15
I have a new respect for tour guides after this morning. I was asked to narrate a 2-hour boat ride around the harbor aboard the Patricia with Captain Billy who docks just below the Memorial Bridge of Badger's Island. It's one thing to have to endure a canned narrative, but quite another to be the narrator whose voice is blasting out across the water on the ships public address system. I've heard the Thomas Laighton captains do it for years, watched the Ghostly Tour guides. Paul manages to keep up a nonstop history lecture while driving his Seacoast Trolley seven days a week, ten hours a day. Me, I needed a nap after. New career? I think not. I've already heard what I have to say. I prefer to chatter on the printed page or, at worst, in Real Audio.

September 14
The opening gallery party at the Athenaeum was no time to take in the amazing scope of the new exhibit there. It was so much to see, I estimate it will take me four trips to absorb it all. The title of the new show is "Times of Turbulence and Triumph" and it focuses on PRINTING in New Hampshire in the 1700s. Some heavy stuff went on in this region at that time, an era in which Portsmouth, then Exeter, were temporarily the capital cities of NH. The show, with lots of items from the NH Historical Society, is open three afternoons a week (Tue, Thu, Sat) smack in the middle of Market Square where the two upside down cannons have been stuck into the pavement since 1817.

September 12
I'm not going to burble on about the 3 hour ride on the Endeavour. We just put 24 pictures on the web that tell the story better than I can. My only regret is that everyone who tours the replica ship cannot also sail her. When our little group arrived at the meeting place off the coast of York, Maine, the tall ship had its sails out. The captain attempted to add more sail and to come into Portsmouth that way, but the wind would not allow. I ended up telling Jennifer Crompton and her Channel 9 TV crew that we should consider building a replica of the Ranger for Portsmouth. Tom Cocchiaro at the chamber got the idea in my head, and also got me passage on the Endeavour. It seemed like a good idea at the time, and I believe we are critically in need of wooden ships to remind us of Portsmouth's shipbuilding past. I am also aware of the expense and effort required. After being aboard a sailing ship this size, I can only say now, Tom's right. We must try, at least, to bring back the feeling of great wooden boats at sea.

September 11
Just heading out Friday morning to greet the HM Endeavour. A Boston Globe reporter called the other day to ask why I thought the arrival of the replica tall ship was important to Portsmouth and I railed on for at least half an hour. Probably scared the poor girl away with my fervor over the need to reacquaint Portsmouth with the sea and the city's former status as a ship building capital. It's important that we be not only the restaurant capital of the northeast, but also the formerly gritty sailboat port. Few cities in America, and almost none our size, can lay claim to such a maritime heritage, but we've lost almost every vestige of that world. This has become a city of historic houses, but the grand homes were almost all builf from profits from the sea, trading, privateering, ship-building or slaving. So now we'll see if a bit of that seafaring spirit returns. Tim is scheduled to travel on the Laighton at 8:45am, and the Chamber has kindly included me on the VIP group to sail the ship in from the Isles of Shoals. Ralph plans to catch a whole range of shots by barreling along from New Castle to the city on his motorcycle. We'd have been on the Hood blimp too, but we ran out of staff. In a few hours, we'll run the digital shots online and see if the emotions translate.

September 10
Here we go again -- too much history stuff going on. Today was a John Greenleaf Whittier birthday party in Dover and tomorrow it's the members night at the Woodman Institutie Museum (with the stuffed hippo, polar bear and alligator). Endeavour shows up on Friday morning with a flotilla of ships, even the Hood blimp. The Athenaeum has a new show on early printing. The Warner House has a ritzy party with tours of private homes. I've got a conflicting invitation to the lobster bake at the city's 100-plus year old men's club. Now I see there's a showing of Ben Swiezynski's old photos of Exeter at this historical society there. ENOUGH! And that's only this weekend. Still I'm most interested in getting a copy of George Sherman's first book at Temple Israel on Sunday morning. His hand-made volume on the Portsmouth Jewish community is an important missing puzzle piece in local history. The books are being printed up at Minuteman Press next door to the temple (which used to be a Methodist Church). Mr. Sherman opened Sherman's Pharmacy on Daniel Street in 1949, then moved to what became the Laverdiere's site on the corner of Middle Street in Portsmouth (now Bob's Books). He says the first Jewish immigrant came to the region in 1693 and lived in New Castle. But the tightly packed ethnic neighborhood was almost entirely at Puddledock, site of Strawbery Banke Museum today. I asked him if, now that his Jewish history is done, would he be writing about the history of local pharmacies. "I'm going out of the writing business," he said. "I do retirement for a living."

September 09
I got to play research assistant the other day for another writer's forthcoming profile of Sarah Haven Foster of Portsmouth. Sarah holds the dubious distinction of being the first person in the state killed by an electric trolley car. Poor old dear was crossing at the corner of Middle Street and Richards Avenue in 1900 when modern technology struck her dead. The library has three gorgeous volumes of her paintings, small pictures of flowers and a complete catalog of historic houses. She was also a poet, a traveler, a writer. Although she never married, I'll always think of her as the mother of Portsmouth tourism. It was Sarah, whose brother owned a printing press and whose dad started the Piscataqua Savings Bank, who had the idea to create the first pocket touring guide to Portsmouth. Her delicate little volume (I have one right here) of walking tours sold out three printings, starting in 1878. She even had the wherewithal to sell advertising in the back -- for drygoods, cakes, stereoscopic cards, even Miss Morgan's School for Young Ladies. This clever entrepreneur was tapping the emerging female market, and her concise guide was the prototype for all the Portsmouth guides that have followed, including this web site. No one has ever produced such a complete compact guide since. I think it's about time, though the new author should watch out for trolleys.

September 07
After all these years, finally got to take the tour of the SPNEA house in downtown South Berwick where writer Sara Orne Jewett was born, lived and died. Sort of creepy being in her bedroom, unchanged in nearly a century, but cool to see her books in the library. Her copies of Longfellow,Dickens, Hawthorne, Emerson, Whittier were hand delivered by the poets themselves. She and Celia Thaxter hung with the hot poets of their time. Jewett is special for a couple of reasons, first because her stories are about the seacoast region, and secondly because she really could write! Darn, but her short stories are good. Her work has often been compared to the quality of Twain and other male writers of her era -- but her time still has not yet come. We;ll do what we can to egg it along.

September 04
In "The Weight of Water"author Anita Shreve's fictional protagonist visits the Portsmouth Athenaeum during her fictional research of the real Smuttynose murders. In doing so, the character steals a few documents from the private archive in Market Square. They are only fictional documents, but the theft still troubled those who visit the library regularly. To make amends Shreve presented the Athenaeum with an audio cassette version of her best selling novel. I have it right here, and the sticker says the book-on-tape was, indeed, given by Ms. Shreve. So I have been listening to the real tape from the real Athenaeum about the fictional theft, which is an activity worthy of Lewis Caroll. All of us who write about history are, in effect, stealing from the past. Coincidentally, just got an email to visit a new web site in which I saw myself in a Quick Time movie interview talking about the Smuttynose murders as if I too owned the horrible tale. In effect, owning history is a tilt at the windmill of immortality. The more history we pass on while we live, the less history dies when we pass on. Retelling is what history is all about. Even fiction sometimes leads people to the truth of the past.

September 03
Just got an advance copy of the Portsmouth Herald 24-page 375th special newspaper insert, timed for the arrival of the Endeavour in just over a week. The town is gearing up for the September 11 arrival, and it will be interesting to see how well the Australian replica tall ship resonates with the public. With the history year moving into autumn, I'm still hearing grumbles about the Constitution debacle which also put a dent in the 375th celebration in Gloucester, though they have much more going on there. More and more people are talking about politics. The local rumors involve promises made and not made between politicians from VP Gore to Mass Senator Kennedy. The seawater will really hit the fan soon when New York City goes through the same rigmarole to get Old Ironsides there for the Millenium celebration. The Navy, sources say, wanted Ironsides on the move. They were juiced for the trip to Portsmouth this year and, rumor has it, that the fragile ship actually passed the stress test with flying colors. So now we get to find out whether NYC is more powerful than the power brokers of Boston. Sources say, when the whole story is told, the ship will finally lose her moorings and go to sea. Then maybe we'll have another shot at a visit.

September 02
So many people wanted to see the bang in the 375th Celebration, that a few of us are cooking up an idea that should finally blast the naysayers to smithereens. I'd love to say more, but we can't take the risk of another hyped history event that sinks like the Constitution. Let's just say it involves Portsmouth history and lots and lots of people. I'd say more, but you never know who's reading this thing. I'm fully aware that it is now September. Leaves are falling outside the window. This celebratory year is 75% kaput. Check back after the Endeavour arrives and we'll have more.

September 01
actually made a living doing this history web stuff, I'd be in heaven. Working on a piece about the new John Paul Jones fence going up right outside our window was a true education. I love learning about the fine woodworking and listening to the stories of the craftsman, like trying to find a single 17 foot piece of cedar to replace a rotted plank. Or today, spending an hour discussing scrimshaw with artist Dan Kiracofe who has a new shop in Market Square. We would not have met except for a letter written by a Dutch web site reader from Prague who discovered this site while searching the Internet for John Paul Jones. Day after day this goes on with letters, like yesterday's from Larry at the USS Constitution or Wendy at the Counting House in Berwick. This instant medium allows us to learn things so fast, to network, to bring historical research and education out of the dark ages caused by too little communication. But this writing all goes on until about 3am, then there's real work to do in the morning. Could someone please send a giant check so I can quit my daytime job? The address is at the bottom of the page. Thanks.

© 1998

See also:

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

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