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Tapping Old Spirits at Frank Jones Brewery

 

Frank JOnes aleA Portsmouth technology company inherits the alemaker's legacy

 

It's rare when a high-tech business calls me for a history lecture. Software companies usually stare toward tomorrow with laser intensity. The past is for has-beens.

 

 

 

 

So when the staff of Tecnomatix Unicam moved from Pease Tradeport to an old brick building on the West End of Portsmouth, a few workers were bummed. They saw a longer commute, more traffic and less connection to their fast-paced corporate neighbors.

Marketing manager Amy Kenly saw something else.

"When someone told me that our office building used to be part of the old Frank Jones Brewery I was so psyched," Kenly told me. "Suddenly it seemed like a really cool place to work."

The more she studied Portsmouth history, the cooler it got. Kenly tracked down the one book about millionaire alemaster Frank Jones. She dug up old archived photos of brewery workers and decorated the office with maps of the factory complex that dates way back to 1843. She researched the 19th century brewing process and tracked down artifacts from the days of the Frank Jones Brewing Company.

Frank Jones Brewery

'Did you know," she says with energy, "that Jones Brewery was one of the biggest in the entire country? Portsmouth was the beer capital back then."

Kenly has done her homework. She rattles off statistics from the post-Civil War era when Frank Jones literally owned the city. She clearly has caught history fever, and her enthusiasm is infectious.

On staff orientation day a month back, Tecnomatix workers toured their new office space, tentatively peering around corners in part of the attractive renovated brewery complex. Tecnomatix occupies two floors in what Kenly believes was the old boiler building. Jones Brewery was among the first buildings in the city to employ electrical power. On this day, high-speed Internet cables sprout from floors and dangle from the ceiling as the last of the construction continues.

"This is pretty good," one programmer says, nodding approvingly at the high brick walls topped with a new vaulted ceiling. "This isn't bad at all."

Frank JOnes Brewery

My job, after an elaborate feast of finger food is to talk about Frank Jones and other curious characters from Portsmouth history. Two dozen employees, about half the staff, have assembled in the plush chairs of the conference room just off the second floor work office. Tecnomatix develops software systems for manufacturing companies around the world. The home office is in Israel. Now the conference room is full of programmers, salespeople, customer service reps and technicians. This may be a tough house, I'm thinking. Maybe history doesn't float their boat.

"Okay, who can tell me when this city was first settled?" I ask. It seems a good place to start.

"1623," a man in the front row quickly calls out.

"You're right!" I say, with obvious surprise. "How did you know?"

"It says so on the sign coming into town," he laughs. "I see it every day. And I like history. It's like a hobby of mine."

Frank Jones Brewery Workers"Mine too," I agree, and for the next half hour we teleport back to an era of wild animals, fishing huts, Indian reprisals, devastating fires, Revolutionary battles, slavery, privateering, yellow fever, witches, wars and, of course, Frank Jones. I tell them how Jones started out selling old rags for thousands of dollars to foreign buyers. When his brother and partner Hiram slit his own throat in the privy in the family farm, Frank married his brother's wife.

I tell them that Frank served six years as a New Hampshire Congressman until his wife tired of his affair with a Washington, DC show girl and dragged him back home to Portsmouth. We talk about his band of cronies, his mansions, his stranglehold on local business, his racing stables, hotels, call girls, his lawsuits, his term as mayor of Portsmouth and his failed bid to become governor of New Hampshire. Jones built himself the tallest tombstone in the South Cemetery and, just before he died, he took it down and built one twice as high.

"So may you all follow in the footsteps of your great mentor and become as rich as Frank Jones, and never get caught," I say at last. I'm kidding, of course, but it seems like a good place to end.

The group is very cordial and after my talk a number of Tecnomatix employees come up to share their stories about local history. We kick around the idea of building a little Frank Jones exhibit room, maybe somewhere among the complex of towering brewery buildings. We look at a photo of Frank Jones workers back in the 19th century. Maybe, someone suggests, the photo could be blown up huge and placed in the lobby. Life-Sized Graphics, a company that makes huge photo enlargements, just happens to be in the building next door. There's an enthusiasm here. It's as if the workers of the past are channeling their energy from the decades of workers that have come before.

As we're packing to go, I suggest to Amy Kenly that some of her colleagues may want to join the Portsmouth Historical Society. I know they have an old keg from the Frank Jones Brewery there. She says she will definitely check it out.

TecnomatixAnd that gets me thinking how amazing it would be if every business in the Seacoast got excited about the past and adopted an historic building. Some already do, but there is so much potential here. Everyone I talk to says they love the old houses in town. This place just wouldn't be the same without them, they agree. I’ve spoken to CEOS who have moved entire companies here because it exudes an old New England charm that is increasingly hard to find.

"But doesn't the city pay to keep up those old houses?" a woman asked me the other day.

"Not a farthing," I explain.

Nor does the state of New Hampshire help in almost every case, with the exception of a recent spate of L-CHIP preservation grants. Nor does the Fed. Most of the region's many historic buildings are maintained by tiny nonprofit volunteer agencies that scrape together the dollars to keep them open to the public and prevent them from falling down. Each house has a very small core of benevolent private citizens who help where they can. Historic tours, if they make money at all, rarely cover the cost of tour guides, brochures, electricity and insurance. It is an annual struggle carried on by dozens of groups that are forever deeply in need of manpower and money.

Now imagine what could happen if history groups could tap into local businesses the way Portsmouth workers once tapped into Frank Jones ale. Those struggles could be largely eliminated if the employees of just one major company threw their spare time and affection into each historic house, or local monument, or ancient graveyard.

This is raw economics talking here, not charity. This region's very identity -- its entire quality of life -- is tied up in history. These historic sites are as essential to the soul of the Seacoast as are the rivers and the sea. Preserving the places that connect us to the past makes financial sense, as does keeping green spaces open, fighting pollution and controlling urban sprawl.

And it all starts when people who work here, like those at Tecnomatix, make a personal connection to the past.

Tecnomatix

Frank JOnes Brewery

Jones Brewery photos courtesy of Portsmouth Athenaeum. Tecnomatix office photos by Amy Kenley.

 

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