One man's thoughts on NH history and
We're now in the final panic stages of the forthcoming booklet "A Brief History of Portsmouth." Today we're gathering the final pictures. Then comes the last draft, captions, proofreading --- all the detailed stuff that I hate to pieces. Right up until the last minute I'm searching for other short histories of the town to be sure I'm not making some critical boo-boo. Just got Jim Garvin's "Historic Portsmouth" with all the super pictures from the Strawbery Banke collection. Jim and I are on a committee together and I got to tell him last week in person how great the reprint of his 1974 book really is. Today I found a copy of the highly readable "Portsmouth Life of a Town" by Ola Elizabrth Winslow from 1966, and I'm sure these books will keep turning up. But I'm encouraged that my new booklet is worthwhile as a 20-page quicke overview of the city, a starting point for any historic tour here. But with the deadlines looming, there's not time to ponder long.
I keep hoping the newspapers are going to get the point about the Old State House. The idea of pulling together all of Portsmouth history and putting it into context at one location could change the way people see this city -- see the whole state. The idea of also inciting live debates over important issues in the same building is compelling. Finally, the idea of doing all that within a replica of the original State House that brings back some of our lost history knocks me out. But all the newspapers seem to see are the dollar signs. I'd say 15 maybe 20 minutes of our last meeting was devoted to cost, out of maybe 90 minutes, but that's about all the paper reports. Plumbing is more important than educational outreach, rain gutters more important than rediscovering our colonial origins. Only a small portion of the money is expected to be raised locally, and yet this is all local readers will remember because it is all they are being fed. Meanwhile NH Gazette editor Steve Fowle sues the city to prevent commercialization of one of the last low-rent neighborhoods, and not a single reporter shows up or writes a word.
You should see all the stuff that came out of the time capsule hole. The dirt contained little messages from the past sent up our way. While sifting the soil back into the hole, I came up with maybe a hundred bits of scrap -- bones, chips of plates, broken clay pipe stems, old nails, shells, even what looks like the leg off an old caldron. In the good old days people just threw their garbage out the window or later, piled it up outside the back door. Must have been pretty gross and I'm not sure why the stuff was strewn all across the front lawn of the old Purcell house. The building was put up in 1756 and was owned by a sea captain, which might account for the imported hand painted china chips. The stuff seems contemporary with the building of the house, first expert guessed 1750-1780 without even knowing the date of the house. I'm being led to local experts who know more about the items owned by local home owners, and maybe we can even trace a few pieces to when they were purchased and where. Another historian suggested that the trash piles from the back yard might have been strewn with dirt out front when the trolley was installed at the turn of the century and the lawn had to be graded to match the road. Just one more project on the back burner.
Saturday it was Poe, now Benning Wentworth re-animated for a live presentation Sunday afternoon at the Portsmouth Athenaeum. Even with a 65 degree, perfect fall day, Benning commanded a packed house of history buffs. In a full regal outfit, complete with green tights, Prof. Stuart Wallace told the story who might be the most important in NH history. Although his administration was marked by corruption, nepotism and a scandalous marriage, at 60, to his 23-year-old housekeeper, Benning Wentworth got a lot done -- chartering towns all across NH and 120 in Vermont. In his skit, Wallace penned an imaginary apology letter from the Royal Governor to the King of England. As with Poe, nothing gives me a clearer understanding of an era in history than a walking talking actor who has absorbed the character. The closer we can get to these characters, the more we understand ourselves.
I was so "up" for the John Astin impersonation of Edgar Allan Poe, that the poor performance at the Music Hall last night was especially disappointing. Astin, known for his paternal role in the "Addams Family" and "I'm Dickens, He's Fenster" and "Night Court" TV shows proved that TV and the intimate historic Portsmouth stage are two different milieu. The one-man show worked as history. I learned a lot about Poe's life, and I find myself now constantly relating characters to what was going on in Seacoast NH at that time. Daniel Webster, eg, was in town when Poe was born in 1809. The Old Court House was in Market Square. This region has become my touchstone to history itself. What I especially learned was that re-enacting history, even a story as naturally dramatic and compelling as the life of Poe, is much harder than simply telling history. But Portsmouth, being kind to actors as always, gave Astin a standing ovation -- not for his performance, it felt, but for a valiant effort.
Two things I like about this local history web-site stuff are (1) I get to take on new topics all the time since I have a short attention span, and (2) the more we put up on the site, the more tightly the web of connections draws itself together. Working now on an upcoming piece about Goody Cole, convicted and exonerated "witch" of Hampton. She had appeared on the site earlier a number of times -- linked to Whittier, Seacoast Women, Hampton history -- but I never got to read her story in detail until today. So hard to imagine how different our ancestors were. This woman spent most of her golden years in a Boston jail starting in 1656 for crimes like bewitching a neighbor's cow. Her property was confiscated by the town, and then sold to pay for the cost of maintaining her in prison. Today I got to talk in detail to Bill Teshek and Harold Fernald, two Goody experts, and am finally getting a handle on the story. This woman may have been born as early as 1574 and lived over 100 years. For her efforts, according to legend, a wooden stake was hammered into her heart after death. I hate to dig her story up again around Halloween, but somebody's gotta sell this history to the hungry masses.
Next week is the second Old State House meeting, and I hope the newspapers "get it" on more than a fiscal level. This could be the building project that makes Portsmouth make sense. I have long complained that our Seacoast history is too complex, too many separate elements are telling the story from their point of view. Each historic house has a viewpoint, but none sees the whole picture. Well, what if the reconstructed Old State House operated as central starting point for both understanding local history and for touring the city? This building could be both the symbol of historic Portsmouth (represented now by the North Church) and the physical point where the history is told. This is really "New Hampshire's Town Hall" the original point of statewide government when NH was a British colony. It represents the critical era when Portsmouth, NH and America was defining itself -- becoming a new country. By understanding our British roots, and how we became "not" British, but something new entirely, we have to go to the root of the process of governing. All things in Portsmouth flow up to or out of that point. For example, the Wentworth-Coolidge Mansion makes more sense if the visitor understands that Benning was a British governor. The Langdon House makes more sense if we know that Langdon took the reigns of power during the formation of the brand new country. This is the site from which Washington spoke and Daniel Webster later practiced law. Understanding the State House, in a sense, means understanding Portsmouth, NH, America. That may seem too grand a mission for some, but this building may just be the key to the promotion of history that we have been searching for in this town since long before Strawbery Banke Museum was conceptualized. At least, this is what we discussed at our meeting this morning with Strawbery Banke director Denny O'Toole, NH state historian Jim Garvin and former Mayor Eileen Foley. This is not just some old building being put back together, but potentially the "lynchpin" for a whole new era in historical Portsmouth. We'll see how the newspapers simplify all that into a headline
A Note to Other Historical Societies: For maximum publicity, bury a time capsule. This thing will not die. You get in the papers when (1) you think up the idea, (2) when you fill the capsule, (3) when you bury it, (4) when you dedicate it, and 125 years later, (5) when you dig it up. Today was the dedication, an honestly enjoyable event on a sunny October day. The politicians turned out for some rather moving speech-making. There was more pizza and cake than you can imagine, and those VIPs who turned in their contributions late got them enclosed in an "addendum" little satellite capsule. There must have been a dozen articles, including front page coverage and two TV segments. Now its on to other issues. Tuesday is our subcommittee meeting on rebuilding the Old State House and there is continuing talk about forming a Rebuild the Ranger group. The history of Portsmouth booklet sold out all 20 ads in 2 days and is moving into final draft mode and the History Gala dance is November 20.
The time capsule is in its deep grave ready to be buried on Saturday, but it wasn't as easy as planned. It was crammed full of contributions and I ran in the door just as the top was being placed on, managing to get my letter in at the last second. But the top would not clamp shut due to the vacuum in the chamber, even when two brawny city Water and Sewer men danced the Riverdance on top of it. We had to drill a hole to let out the air, then it took the Portsmouth City backhoe to provide enough pressure to snap the gasket shut -- whuuump! That's it for 125 years. Jock Brodie covered the hole in plastic and then those in attendance rolled the thing to the front lawn where four of us lowered it into the hole. It was a truly enjoyable afternoon, the more frustrating, the more interesting. Saturday is the ceremony and then I'll put all the digital pictures online. What an amazing sense of accomplishment. I wonder why.
Things appear to be going swimmingly with the planned Brief History of Portsmouth. Today we work on photos and begin the final draft, while the 375th Committee appears to have sold almost all of the 20 ads in just a couple of days! That shows some healthy Portsmouth history spirit. Today is the day we supposedly screw on the top of the time capsule for delivery into the earth on Saturday. The hole in the front yard of the Jones House is a cleanly cut grave, now covered with a piece of plywood. Oh, and Foster's Daily Democrat, in an effort beyond the call of duty, is planning a second 375th History Supplement due in November. The last one was fantastically produced, a wealth of information. This one focuses on 1800-1899, and the editor promises an astonishing THIRD section in December. Tickets for the 375th Gala Dance on November 20 are on sale now for $25 too. Whew!
Cindy, one of our 4,300 registered web site readers, suggested an article on Edward Gove of whom I knew nothing until about 10 minutes ago. Now I want to write a TV-movie about him. He's being credited as starting the American Revolution 100 years early. Seems he didn't like the ruling class in Hampton and got together a few rowdy drunken seacoast good ol' boys from Exeter and Dover. They attacked the leaders in Hampton brandishing their swords and wearing their boots. They were pursued to Portsmouth, caught, tried and sentenced. Here's the result from Dow's History of Hampton: "Edward Gove alone was adjudged guilty of treason; the rest were pardoned and set at liberty; but upon this fellow-citizen of ours was passed sentence as horrible as the tortures of the Spanish Inquisition, --"That he should be carried back to the place from whence he came, and from thence be drawn to the place of execution, and there be hanged by the neck and cut down alive, and that his entrails be taken out and burnt before his face, and his head cut off, and his body divided into four quarter, and his head and quarters disposed of at the king's pleasure." This revolting sentence, however, was not executed. Gove was reprieved, sent to England, and imprisoned in the Tower about three years; when he received a full pardon, and returned to his family."
Bear with me. For 2 weeks I've done almost nothing but eat, bath, sleep and write about Portsmouth history for the little booklet due out soon by the Historical Society and 375th Committee. You wouldn't think something this small could be so much work! But the goal here is to provide a smooth condensed history of the city that will not turn off young readers and will satisfy those who know the facts better than I. History, one poll showed, is the least favorite of all school subjects, yet most everyone seems to love history when it shows up in movies, historic sites, live action. It's just the way it gets taught -- sanctimoniously with lots of dull dates that seem to have less connection to reality than algebraic formulas. So back to work. Another few days of plodding and it will be all over from my end.
Here's a footnote to the piece on time capsules coming up on the website this weekend: It seems that the First Methodist Church, like most organizations of the time, put a time capsule box into the cornerstone of their new church on State Street in 1828. Eventually the Methodists moved to Miller Ave. and sold the brick building to Temple Israel for $7,000. This data comes from the new history of the temple, just published by George Sherman. It seems there was a strict legal division of the contents of the building (temple gets seats, Methodists get pipe organ, etc.), but no one remembered the time capsule. When the Methodist group finally asked for it back, the temple requested $100 and replacement of the cornerstone. According to Sherman, controversy ensued when the temple claimed rights to the value of the old coins placed in the box. When the box was opened, the coins were taken to Boston for evaluation. They turned out to be worth $10. The Methodists got everything back and placed the original box of items, mostly church papers and sermons and the few coins, in the cornerstone of their new 1912 church, where apparently they rest in pieces today.
For those who heard the rumor of a 375th pageant, the pageant is no more. It was a wild and crazy plan of mine to hold a giant 2-hour event with music, slides, movies, actors, all strung together by a narration that traced 375 years. The whole thing was to take place at the Music Hall, but the funding fell short and the time ran out, so we axed it for now. The plan is still in my hard drive if anyone wants to revive it as a history extravaganza for the year 2000. Now, instead, I'm looking forward to another history event at the Music Hall -- John Astin doing Edgar Allen Poe. What a perfect match! Astin even looks like that 1848 picture of Poe that is almost as haunting as his writing. Still Poe had darker thicker eyebrows, a giant brow and painful gaze. I remember Astin first in the TV show "I'm Dickens, He's Fenster" but he's best known as Gomez Addams in the movie version of the wonderfully horrid family in the cartoon. When it comes to history, I like mine eerie, and this looks to be the Halloween event not-to-miss.
Eventually anyone writing about Portsmouth has to come to terms with Thomas Bailey Aldrich, the author Mark Twain credited with inspiring Huck Finn. I haven't met Aldrich dead on yet. His poetry, as most local poetry of the late 19th century, is an effortful read. "Diary of a Bad Boy" sits unread on my shelf. I've seen video clips of Greg Gathers impersonation of him in a script by playwright Paul Mroczka . I even stood in the poet's bedroom once at the old hospital building, the "Nutter House" in Strawbery Banke. Was he a great American writer, or a man whose flame extinguished in his time? Either way, he needs to be read as one of the stronger voices of Portsmouth. So last night, for an hour, I worked at his little guidebook, "Old Town by the Sea." I am a slow reader due to my bad eyes, but through Aldrich, I got a glimpse of a city I did not know. In his time, the harbor at the end of Court Street, where his house still stands, was long dead. The rotting piers were barren of boats. Shipbuilding had ended, foreign trade had ended. His Portsmouth was in another of its many economic slumps, more ghostly, dank and ruined than the gentrified city we know. He describes the wind, the smell, and the sounds of the late 1800s like I've read nowhere else. Maybe it's time to draw Aldrich from the shadows and take on the full glow of his hugely popular writing.
Some people I know eat when they need to comfort their souls, others buy clothes. I just go get another book about the Seacoast, and today I hit the jackpot. For $35 I picked up two new copies of "Building Portsmouth" and "Seacoast NH: A Visual History." The first, by Richard Candee is the ultimate handbook to the buildings that make Portsmouth what it is. The street-by-street, neighborhood-by-neighborhood approach is so perfectly functional, that I already cannot understand how I survived without it. The second, by Robert Gilmore and the late great popular historian Bruce Ingmire, has to be the one volume I would recommend to anyone who will only own one volume on the history of this region. The authors picked the best pictures, printed them large, dark and clearly, then arranged them in sensible chapters with just enough text and helpful captions. The Little Professor Bookshop on Congress Street has the last six or seven cases of them left. Whoever does not have a copy should get over there now before they are gone forever. I got these volumes home and felt instantly better. Read two chapters with fruit juice and call me in the morning.
Kenneth Martin's lecture Sunday on Portsmouth's brief experiment in whaling was the finest I've heard at the Athenaeum. His new book "Heavy Weather and Hard Luck" documents the early 1800s failure of the little industry. A former director of the Kendall Whaling Museum, Martin was the perfect author for the book. While Portsmouth shipyards produced a number of successful whalers, the four local whaling corporations could not compete with hundreds of vessels working out of New Boston and other southeastern whaling towns. One ship, the Ann Parry, was at sea for 42 months and brought back only half its targeted quantity of whale oil. Later, Martin said, the Ann Parry captain became so enthralled with booze and prostitutes in foreign ports, that he began selling off the ship's costly whaling equipment to support his habits. Martin's study began two years ago when the Athenaeum purchased a rare diary from a Portsmouth whaling ship. This is exactly the kind of history writing we need -- provocative, scholarly, focused and readable. Martin's link between the whaling flop and the depressed Portsmouth economy of the 1830s and 1840s is a perfect way to understand both that complex era and the economics behind the industry that hunted whales nearly to extinction.
This history writing can be hard. It's a week to deadline on the as-yet-unannounced Short History of Portsmouth project, and I'm fully buzzed with feelings of inadequacy. I get to summarize 375 years of local history in about 20 pages for release in a commemorative booklet late next month. You have to wonder how real historians like Will Durant write those giant volumes taking in the whole scope of human existence. I mean, like, how do they know all that stuff? Research, I guess. But I bet he didn't have nine days left to tell the whole story of a town. Also, he probably knows what he's talking about. With nonfiction, you can't just make it all up, but that's not the tricky part. The messy thing is that, not everybody agrees on the facts. Who really sewed JPJ's famous flag? Why did Lear shoot himself? When did the Thomson's arrive? What did the old state house look like? Did Prince Whipple ship out with Washington at Valley Forge? And whatever you write about local history, right or wrong, somebody's going to feel left out because his great uncle What's-his-name didn't get included. Well, that's enough procrastinating, now back to work. Where was I? Oh yes, Chapter One…
The clock is running out for the Time Capsule. On October 17 the Portsmouth Historical Society will lower the thing five feet into the ground where the contents will sit in a waterproof PVC pipe for 125 years. Maybe every generation feels the same way, but what's contemporary seems patently un-historic to me. To get the feeling, I have to imagine finding a perfectly preserved capsule in my back yard from 1873. That was the year of the Return of the Sons and Daughters blow-out and I just bought the souvenir book for $8 at the old book shop in town. It was mildly intriquing -- but that era still seems fairly contemporary. And I imagine that people in 2123 AD will still be armpit-deep in the trash we are producing now. Hard to imagine the revelers at the Portsmouth 500th getting all misty over a copy of the Starr report or an old AOL disk. I'd rather see us bury something really valuable, like 125 years bank interest on a $1000 deposit, or two parking spaces near Market Square, or some a nicely evolved decanter of Portsmouth port with some good aged cheese. With 125 years of TV sitcoms between us and our time capsule recipients, there may not be enough gray matter there to fathom the contents anyway.
The article was good, but the front page Portsmouth Herald headline (Rebuilding Statehouse to Cost $3M) was certainly inflammatory and not factual. There is no official project, no official price, no site, no timeline, and no one expects the City taxpayers to foot the bill. But headlines are more important than facts nowadays. I thought it was a superb meeting. Mayor Sirrell managed to pull together the top people, some of whom have spent decades trying to rebuild the 1760s building that once sat smack in the middle of Market Square. The news was not the projected price, but the fact that the project is on the table again as it was as far back as 1959. All that we did at the meeting was create a number of subcommittees to study possible sites, create a mission and use statement, explore fundraising, and decide how the reconstruction and rebuilding might occur. The story of the state house, a forgotten symbol of the American Revolution deserves to be told fully before battle lines are drawn over cost.
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