NH Rejects Aristotle Onassis Oil Refinery in 1974
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Written by J. Dennis Robinson

Aristotle_OnassisHISTORY MATTERS

Be thankful this holiday that Greek tycoon Aristotle Onassis did not turn Great Bay into the world’s largest oil refinery. Aristotle who? How quickly we forget. In 1974 the most important thing that happened in Seacoast New Hampshire was what did not happen. Tankers did not prepare to offload 400,000 barrels of crude oil daily into a giant pipeline at the Isles of Shoals. (Continued below)



3,500 acres along the shore of Great Bay were not torn up to accommodate the $600,000,000 refinery. Yes, 600 MILLION dollars, and that was back when $2,000 would buy a shiny new Volkswagen Beetle.

Instead, over 1,000 residents of Durham gave a resounding NO to the Onassis plan. They voted against the refinery that threatened the very survival of the state’s fragile seacoast ecosystem. Despite powerful forces and promises of gifts, jobs, and economic prosperity, the town voted against the Olympic Oil Refinery plan. Meldrim Thompson Jr., then governor of NH, was prepared to support Aristotle Onassis all the way to the bank. So was Manchester Union Leader publisher William Loeb, who ran the only statewide daily newspaper with a heavy editorial hand. The powerful trio was defeated at the eleventh hour by a grassroots environmental movement led by three local women.


New Hampshire’s oldest rock

Those three women gathered at the deeply wooded studio of stone cutter and artist Steve Green last week. They were there to give final approval to a huge granite bench designed to memorialize the defeated refinery. Steve Green lives and works down a winding dirt road near an ancient tavern in the wilds of Lee. His road and property are littered with slabs of rock that look like the cast-off pieces from the building of Stonehenge. His home and workshop are works-in-progress, hewn from spare parts in the funky wood-butcher style of the 1960s.

“It’s a big honking bench,” Green says of the 1,500-pound slab of granite. “As benches go, this is an altar.”

Made from “tapestry” granite, Green says the seven-by-three-foot bench can seat six. It was quarried in Milford, NH, sawn in Chelmsford, MA, inscribed in Stratham, and was installed Friday at Wagon Hill Farm, a public park overlooking Little Bay in Durham, NH. The “gneissic rock” is an amalgam of two granite pieces merged millions of years apart. Green estimates that the original rock may date to 650 million years ago.

“I’ve been told it’s the oldest stone in New Hampshire. But before me,” the artist notes wryly, “it was just a rock.”



You must remember this

Oily_VeyPhyllis Bennett was the publisher of a tiny liberal newspaper called Publick Occurences back in 1974. The struggling seacoast weekly is credited with blowing the whistle on efforts by Olympic Oil to buy up land along Great Bay for a proposed crude oil refinery. Nancy Sandberg was among the key Durham residents who organized the vote that stopped the planned refinery from being built in Durham. The very next day, Dudley Dudley convinced a special session of the state legislature to back the Durham decision by approving Home Rule Bill HB 18.

“Home Rule is not a glorious concept,” Dudley explains today. “It says that you have the right to say what happens in your home town. It’s a very conservative Republican-type of argument.”

But it worked. Conservative New Hampshire lawmakers, realizing that the oil refinery or other such projects might migrate to their own back yards, backed Dudley’s legislation, handing Durham the bullet that killed the project.

“I just want to say,” Phyllis Bennett adds almost tearfully, “that Publick Occurences was a journalist’s dream. It was an honor to work in a region where people have a sense of place, and were involved in their community, and have a vision of the future.  It was the New Hampshire way.”

The three now-white-haired activists swirled around the granite bench last week, admiring it from every angle and touching its cold polished surface. One jagged side of the bench has been inscribed with a simple message. It reads: “March 1974: Durham Says NO to Olympic Oil Refinery.”

The words on the memorial were polished and cut down to size at a recent wine and cheese meeting in the backyard of Ed Valena’s house in the Atlantic Heights section of Portsmouth. Valena, Dudley, and Bennett argued like politicians over the precise message that would appear on the memorial rock.

“It was originally going to say – Ari go home!” Valena says. “But we settled on something a little more sophisticated.”

Valena, a sometime artist and activist in his own right, “discovered” the Onassis story while living on Great Bay in Durham. He was captivated by the now legendary tale of how Bennett, Dudley, Sandberg, and others persevered against the rich and powerful troika of Onassis, Thompson, and Loeb. It was a battle of the sexes and, when the smoke cleared, the three Durham women were still standing.

“I thought their story had an epic David-versus-Goliath quality,” Valena recalls, “so I wrote a play about it – a musical-comedy, no less.”

Valena titled his play “Oily Vey.” Through the nonprofit Great Bay Stewards he obtained a $5,000 grant from the Greater Piscataqua Charitable Foundation. The money went into building sets and renting the hall. The musical filled the seats at Johnson Theatre at the University of New Hampshire in 2001. The cast included Oyster River middle and high school students, peppered with community actors.

Valena and musical director Dave Ervin adapted popular show tunes to fit hilarious new lyrics to dramatize the war between Durham and Onassis. Audience members received tiny flashlights so they could sing along with the libretto. In one scene a chorus sang the Mary Poppins-style tune "Supertankersfullofoilreallyareatrocious." Then a pint-sized student in the role of Aristotle Onassis sang "Crude, Glorious Crude," adapted from the musical Oliver, while his henchmen performed “If I Only Owned the Bay” to the tune of "If I Only Had a Brain" from the film Wizard of Oz:

Nancy Sandberg, Phyllis Bennett and Ed Valena / J. Dennis Robinson photo

Ari’s last stand

The goal, from the start, was to create a permanent monument to the events of 1974. Valena’s two-night UNH performance in 2001 raised $2,800, but it took him another decade to finish the project.

“Good things take time,” Valena says, his pride almost showing.

Stonecutter Steve Green recalls how he met Ed and the ladies who defeated the Olympic Oil Refinery. They had admired examples of his stonework, he recalls, but couldn’t find his shop in the woods in Lee. So the determined team drove directly to the Lee Police Station and asked the police to escort them to Green’s artistic hideaway.

‘The ladies were so persistent,” Green says, “that after I heard their story, I almost felt a little sorry for Onassis.”

Installing the memorial bench in Durham last Friday, the ladies agree, brought a mystical sense of closure to the process. It now stands at the base of a low hill at Wagon Hill Farm by the waters of Little Bay. Much of the real estate on Great Bay where Onassis planned to build his refinery is conserved land today. “It doesn’t look like the bad parts of New Jersey,” Valena says, “thanks to these upstart young women.”

Aristotle Onassis, once called the richest man in the world, died in March 1975, almost on the anniversary of the Durham vote the year before. His world famous wife Jackie Kennedy Onassis earned only a brief appearance in Valena’s musical satire. The legend of Onassis-vs-Durham has already begun to fade from memory. Valena hopes that future visitors who discover the curious inscription on the memorial rock will use their mobile devises to Google the facts online.

This granite bench, Steve Green notes, has a much greater history. It was around in earlier form when the planet had only a single continent. That molten rock rose from 40 miles below the surface and merged with a younger piece of granite some 250 million years ago, long before the Oyster River converged with Little Bay.

This is the spot, according to Ed Valena, where in 1974 the forces of Good met the forces of Evil in a winner-take-all confrontation. Those few who favored a refinery will disagree, but as Valena tells it, technology lost and the ecosystem won.

“Towns only have so many heroic legends,” Valena says. “I doubt if you could find a story this big anywhere in the Seacoast. You couldn’t do anything that would better capture the spirit of the town.”


Copyright © 2011 by J. Dennis Robinson, all rights reserved. Robinson’s history column appears in the Portsmouth Herald every other Monday and exclusively online at his independent Web site SeacoastNH.com. Signed copies of his latest hardcover gift book -- America’s Privateer: Lynx and the War of 1812 are now available for sale on his Web site and on Amazon.com.