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Spreading the Gospel of Historic Portsmouth
Spreading the Gospel of Historic Portsmouth
HISTORY MATTERS
Portsmouth has more history and culture on display than its small population can support. That’s the thesis here. “Outsiders” who fall in love with this city bring more visitors who help preserve our heritage. This green economy is exactly what Portsmouth needs to keep its burgeoning quality of life alive. So we tell the story – to all who will listen. (Read original essay below)
When not writing about local history I spend most of my free time -- writing about local history. That’s because the letters keep coming. I’ve posted replies to at least 4,000 reader queries on my Web site and written personally to many thousands more. The most common requests come from people named Jones who think they are related to John Paul Jones. They are not. His real name was John Paul. He never married and fathered no kids, legally at least.
We expect our politicians, Wall Street investors and movie stars to be clueless, but not historians. Woe betide those who write about the past, for they will receive much email.
I love the letters that tell me something about seacoast history that I don’t already know, which is a lot. I fear the letters that ask me to dig up information about someone’s great-great-great Aunt Matilda. Or they want to know whether their ancestor was on some boat that arrived in the 17th century. Or could I please offer more detail about the person buried beneath the third tombstone on the left side of the fifth row of the Sagamore Street entrance to the South Cemetery?
Oral history
In the rare moments when I’m not reading or writing about local history – I talk about it. Mostly I talk on the phone to people who call from all across the planet for details about our historic little oasis. That includes teachers, students, parents, travelers, the History Channel, Discovery Channel, New York Times, USA Today, Christian Science Monitor, London Times, even the Metropolitan Museum of Art and pretty much everyone in between.
I give about 30 lectures a year, singing the praises of our unique and complex history to very different audiences. I’ve spoken to car dealers, venture capitalists, Rotarians, Elks, daughters of the American Revolution, garden clubs, dental workers, “yachties”, architects, antiquarians, nonagenarians and genealogists. I killed at the annual meeting of the American Foundry Society where they presented me with an embossed cast-iron frying pan. I died at a convention of Spa Reporters who couldn’t wait for the history lecture to end and the mud baths to begin.
When Newsweek editor Evan Thomas was promoting his biography of John Paul Jones, maritime historian Nate Hazen and I chauffeured the poor guy to every spot Jones ever visited around here. The builder of Privateer Lynx did a double-take when he saw the restored Music Hall. Newcomers are thrilled with what we take for granted.
Last year I was asked to design a four-hour tour for a visiting history professor from Japan. We wandered the Athenaeum and a number of historic houses, then took Bob Hassold’s tugboat around the harbor. This city is prominent in Japanese history thanks to the 1905 Treaty of Portsmouth that ended the deadly Russo-Japanese War. I don’t know what Prof. Kyoko Nozaki of Kyoto Sangyo University will write about her “memorable visit” here, but I hope Portsmouth will loom large.
I’ve also had the pleasure of guiding not one, but two reporters of Yomiuri Shimbun on separate tours. Japan has the highest newspaper readership in the world and Yomiuri is the biggest with a circulation of 10 million papers delivered by 100,000 distributors every day. Yomiuri sells more copies than the Top-10 selling newspapers in the United States combined. That’s clout.
Wentworth by the Sea was still in ruins when Masaomi Terada then of Yomiui’s New York bureau and I visited 10 years ago. The hotel where the Japanese envoys stayed should be preserved as a shrine he told me as we stood outside the chain link fence in a drizzling rain.
“Can't your state of New Hampshire do something to save this building?” he asked mournfully.
This state is not very good at preserving its history, I told him. Around here our heritage is largely in the hands of volunteers and kindly benefactors. When Yomiuri reporter Ryuichi Otsuka arrived five years later to cover the Treaty centennial, it was a whole new ballgame. The Wentworth looked marvelous after a $26 million make-over by Ocean Properties. I treated the reporter to his first bowl of clam chowder at the Metro. I was waxing on about our 400-year old seaport when I realized I was speaking, indirectly at least, to 10 million potential tourists from a nation with a deep respect for history.
"Excuse me,” our waitress said to my guest. “You’re not from around here are you? Otsuka, I explained, had come all the way from Japan to write about Portsmouth.
“I’ve got a friend who is Japanese," the waitress said with delight. “She works at the Thai Restaurant. She’s from Thailand, I think. Is that the same?"
So much for our reputation as an international hotspot.
The Web generation
There is a gray-bearded old history guy in every New England town and it comes as a recurrent shock that I have joined their ranks. In my mind I’m a twenty-something tourist just discovering this funky place, not the fearsome ancient mariner telling tales in Market Square.
But there I was again the other day, talking to Esha Samajpati, a writer from GoNOMAD.com, an alternative Web site with “a commitment to sustainable and responsible travel.”  GoNOMAD encourages travelers to hike, ride bikes, conserve resources, and interact with communities to preserve their culture and heritage. It espouses the opposite of the “ugly American” tradition.
Esha’s editor knows Deb Daigle whose agency works with the state’s Travel and Tourism Division. Deb contacted tourism manager Valerie Rochon at the Portsmouth Chamber of Commerce who set up a two-day visit for Esha and her husband Pinaki Chakraborty.
Both visitors were born in Kolkata, India (formerly Calcutta) and lived in Mumbai (formerly Bombay) until Pinaki got an IT assignment in the States. Esha quit her job in advertising and they currently live in Connecticut where this week Esha is working on her Portsmouth article.
“When I was a kid,” she says, “my parents took me with them on all their travels. I can say that there is not much of India that I have not seen. I guess the traveling bug stayed with me.”
I’ve heard all my Portsmouth stories before. What fascinates me are the impressions of those who are seeing our tiny seaport for the first time – especially when their impressions will impact future visitors. My goal is simply to nudge their opinions toward an appreciation of Portsmouth history. I want them to know why this city looks old and acts young. Perhaps that is my own story too.
“I actually sat on one of the Market Square benches for the better part of an hour,” Esha says, “happy to be just sitting there. The next day I felt the same way about Prescott Park. If I ever needed to unwind and relax without feeling too removed from humanity, Portsmouth is the place I would choose. The shops and cafes keep the crowds coming but there is an inherent sense of peace and quiet.”
Pinaki wandered the narrow streets clicking away with his camera. He says he loved the downtown architecture and the picturesque waterfront. "Portsmouth is a photographer's delight,” he told me.
Esha writes: “Armed with a water-tight itinerary, I came to Portsmouth on a weekend assignment determined to keep to my schedule…But what I really enjoyed was meeting the people of Portsmouth. Their stories ranged from adventure, history, fishing, maritime trade, shipyards to lobsters, shopping and dining. Proud of their heritage and skilled in their profession, each person contributed to the seacoast in their own way.”
The former advertising writer could not resist applying her skills to the city. We don’t have a “brand” as yet. Esha admits that what makes this seaport special is its almost indefinable quality. But she came up with a one-liner just the same – “Portsmouth. Rich in history, dependent on tourism, artistically inclined and very lively.”
Okay, that catch-phrase will need a little tweaking. But Esha gets us.
We’re old and we’re lively. We’re inclined toward the arts, though sometimes reluctant to pay the tab. We badly need those tourists – especially the “sustainable” ones -- because our small population cannot support all this history and culture without outside dollars. To sustain our incredible quality of life, we must share it. The dollars will follow only if we tell our stories loudly and often and well.
Copyright © 2010 by J. Dennis Robinson, all rights reserved. Robinson writes books about local history. His column runs every other Monday in the Portsmouth Herald. Robinson is editor and owner of the history Web site SeacoastNH.com where this article appears exclusively online.
Esha Samajpati  by Pinaki ChakrabortyHISTORY MATTERS

Portsmouth has more history and culture on display than its small population can support. That’s the thesis here. “Outsiders” who fall in love with this city bring more visitors who help preserve our heritage. This green economy is exactly what Portsmouth needs to keep its burgeoning quality of life alive. So we tell the story – to all who will listen. (Read original essay below)


When not writing about local history I spend most of my free time -- writing about local history. That’s because the letters keep coming. I’ve posted replies to at least 4,000 reader queries on my Web site and written personally to many thousands more. The most common requests come from people named Jones who think they are related to John Paul Jones. They are not. His real name was John Paul. He never married and fathered no kids, legally at least.

We expect our politicians, Wall Street investors and movie stars to be clueless, but not historians. Woe betide those who write about the past, for they will receive much email.

I love the letters that tell me something about seacoast history that I don’t already know, which is a lot. I fear the letters that ask me to dig up information about someone’s great-great-great Aunt Matilda. Or they want to know whether their ancestor was on some boat that arrived in the 17th century. Or could I please offer more detail about the person buried beneath the third tombstone on the left side of the fifth row of the Sagamore Street entrance to the South Cemetery?

Oral history

In the rare moments when I’m not reading or writing about local history – I talk about it. Mostly I talk on the phone to people who call from all across the planet for details about our historic little oasis. That includes teachers, students, parents, travelers, the History Channel, Discovery Channel, New York Times, USA Today, Christian Science Monitor, London Times, even the Metropolitan Museum of Art and pretty much everyone in between.

Yomiuri

I give about 30 lectures a year, singing the praises of our unique and complex history to very different audiences. I’ve spoken to car dealers, venture capitalists, Rotarians, Elks, daughters of the American Revolution, garden clubs, dental workers, “yachties”, architects, antiquarians, nonagenarians and genealogists. I killed at the annual meeting of the American Foundry Society where they presented me with an embossed cast-iron frying pan. I died at a convention of Spa Reporters who couldn’t wait for the history lecture to end and the mud baths to begin.

When Newsweek editor Evan Thomas was promoting his biography of John Paul Jones, maritime historian Nate Hazen and I chauffeured the poor guy to every spot Jones ever visited around here. The builder of Privateer Lynx did a double-take when he saw the restored Music Hall. Newcomers are thrilled with what we take for granted.

Last year I was asked to design a four-hour tour for a visiting history professor from Japan. We wandered the Athenaeum and a number of historic houses, then took Bob Hassold’s tugboat around the harbor. This city is prominent in Japanese history thanks to the 1905 Treaty of Portsmouth that ended the deadly Russo-Japanese War. I don’t know what Prof. Kyoko Nozaki of Kyoto Sangyo University will write about her “memorable visit” here, but I hope Portsmouth will loom large.

I’ve also had the pleasure of guiding not one, but two reporters of Yomiuri Shimbun on separate tours. Japan has the highest newspaper readership in the world and Yomiuri is the biggest with a circulation of 10 million papers delivered by 100,000 distributors every day. Yomiuri sells more copies than the Top-10 selling newspapers in the United States combined. That’s clout.

Wentworth by the Sea was still in ruins when Masaomi Terada then of Yomiui’s New York bureau and I visited 10 years ago. The hotel where the Japanese envoys stayed should be preserved as a shrine he told me as we stood outside the chain link fence in a drizzling rain.

“Can't your state of New Hampshire do something to save this building?” he asked mournfully.

This state is not very good at preserving its history, I told him. Around here our heritage is largely in the hands of volunteers and kindly benefactors. When Yomiuri reporter Ryuichi Otsuka arrived five years later to cover the Treaty centennial, it was a whole new ballgame. The Wentworth looked marvelous after a $26 million make-over by Ocean Properties. I treated the reporter to his first bowl of clam chowder at the Metro. I was waxing on about our 400-year old seaport when I realized I was speaking, indirectly at least, to 10 million potential tourists from a nation with a deep respect for history.

"Excuse me,” our waitress said to my guest. “You’re not from around here are you? Otsuka, I explained, had come all the way from Japan to write about Portsmouth.

“I’ve got a friend who is Japanese," the waitress said with delight. “She works at the Thai Restaurant. She’s from Thailand, I think. Is that the same?"

So much for our reputation as an international hotspot.

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