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The Ugliest Monument in New England

Fall of the John Smith Memorial (continued)

1914 Plaque added to 1864 Smith Monument

The Old Caretakers

Poor John Smith. He's been called "the founder of the British nation overseas," and the "Admiral of New England." But times have changed for the man with the fastest scimitar in the East. Pocahontas gets all the headlines now. Her monument in Virginia is maintained by the Pocahontas Foundation there. A handsome 1909 bronze statue of John Smith at Jamestown is cared for by the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities.

So what happened to members of the NH Society of Colonial Wars who volunteered to help out nearly a century ago? Like the monument, they too are fading. The New Hampshire chapter was founded in 1894 and, like many early genealogical membership societies has dwindled with its aging membership. Fixing up old monuments is not a high priority among younger Americans.

The group did do a little maintenance back in 1999. L. Forbes Getchell of Newmarket and Ellsworth Cabot of Jackson, NH ferried out to Star with two gallons of water and some cement-patching compound.

"We simply mixed and plugged holes, and that's the whole story," Getchell said back then. "Ideally what we should do is take the top off and build a new base. The base is the thing that's shot."

"What we did was slap-dab maintenance," Getchell admitted. "You need to get out there and break up that base, but I'm in my 80s."

Time is catching up with the Society of Colonial Wars, a lineage organization in which members must show a genealogical link to ancestors who arrived before the American Revolution. Applications from new members are all but nonexistent and the group consists of a dozen active members, most of them well over 65.

"They did the best they could," Society governor Donald Richards of York, Maine said following the 1999 repair job. "You've got to remember that the men that went out there are pretty old. They're not professionals in any sense of the word. They said they did a little work and a lot more needed to be done."

Richards noted in 1999 that the organization officially "takes responsibility" for maintaining the Smith Monument, and ten others from as far away as Nova Scotia. But restoring or replacing the ruined monument will be costly, and beyond their means. The group is reputedly willing to pass the job to a new team.

"Nobody, I guess, is responsible for the Smith Monument," says James Garvin, an architectural historian for the state of New Hampshire and a tireless advocate of historic preservation. Garvin suggests that an historical society or nonprofit agency might "adopt" the orphaned monument.

Detail of deterioirating monument on Star Islamd, Isles of Shoals / SeacoastNH.com

Looking Toward 2014

Tour boat guides never tire of telling visitors that John Smith named the Isles of Shoals "Smith Isles" after himself. The 400th anniversary of that historic visit is in the year 2014. At its present rate of deterioration, the Shoals monument may not survive to the celebration.

So who picks up the torch? The monument rests on the most eastern tip of New Hampshire, a state not well known for investing in its own history, a fact that troubled Donald Richards, a former history teacher and private school headmaster.

"My family has been in New Hampshire since 1623," he said, "but I'm afraid now that I'm ashamed of my home state."

The solution may come from the new-improved Star Island Corporation. Back in 1999 the nonprofit group was struggling to complete a costly waste-treatment plant mandated by state regulations. Since the nonprofit organization moved its headquarters from Boston to Portsmouth a few years ago, it has tackled major island projects including massive repair of the granite pier, a redesigned electrical system and restoration of the 1875 Oceanic Hotel. A reverse osmosis system now allows the island to supply its own water instead of having it hauled in daily by boat.

With all that heavy lifting, Star Island President Irene Bush admits that John Smith has had to wait in line. His memorial is "neither beautiful nor well maintained" she agrees. But since Captain Smith’s shrine is clearly on Star Island turf, it is the organization’s responsibility to fix it, she says.

In January 2006 the Star Island Corporation welcomes Amy Lockwood, who replaces Paul Jennings as Executive Director. Bush points out proudly that Lockwood majored in history at Oberlin College in Ohio and has a great deal of experience in the maintenance of historic buildings. The group has a new Island Heritage and Artifacts Committee and they are "poised to work with Amy," Irene Bush says.

Dan Fenn, chairman of the new committee, says Smith will not get lost in the shuffle this time around.

"I can think of only a few items more important than the Smith monument," Fenn told SeacoastNH.com: "Clearly we must join together to save it."

"I am sure we will be making appropriate plans for the Smith Monument in time for its 400th anniversary, " Irene Bush says confidently. Until then, Captain Smith’s memorial grows uglier by the day.

 

Copyright © 2006 by J. Dennis Robinson. All rights reserved. First posted here in 1999. Additional research assistance for this article provided by Debra Childs, Maryellen Burke, Sharon Stephan, Stephanie Nugent and the Star Island Corporation. Photographs and artwork in this article used courtesy of the Isles of Shoals collection housed at the Portsmouth Athenaeum.

View from Star Island by the Smith Monumnet toward sea/ J. Dennis Robinson

The monumnet in 1999 / SeacoastNH.com

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