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The Lost Interview with Dorothy Vaughan

Audio tape 1969HISTORY MATTERS

A recently uncovered tape transcript with a late Portsmouth historian recorded in 1969 reveals much about the preserving of houses in the city in the 20th century and includes some fascinating background details. Part one of two 


In November 1969 a history professor named Charles B. Hosmer arrived in Portsmouth full of questions. Hosmer was writing a book, now a modern classic, about how Americans preserve their historic sites and buildings. Hosmer sat down for a long and lively interview with librarian Dorothy Vaughan. Strawbery Banke Museum had opened in 1965 with Vaughan as volunteer president of the 10-acre preservation project. Over the previous 50 years, she had also been involved with every historic museum and project in the city.

Hosmer turned on his tape recorder and "Miss Vaughan" held nothing back. Hosmer transcribed the tape, but after reading it, Vaughan refused to let her comments be used in the professor's famous two-volume study entitled Preservation Comes of Age (1981). Portsmouth was only briefly mentioned in the book and Vaughan's candid interview is not among Hosmer's research now archived at the University of Maryland.  

Dorothy Vaughan died just shy of her 100th birthday in 2004. The unseen 42-page transcript was recently discovered among boxes of documents that her heirs gave to the New Hampshire Historical Society in Concord. The interview, never published, is a dishy mix of gossip and facts during Portsmouth's early preservation movement. It is also a rich report on the "making of" Portsmouth as one of the nation's top heritage destinations.

Dorothy vaughan on Rockingham Lion / NH Historical Society


Birth of an historian

Dorothy Vaughan was 12 years old in 1917 when her father took a job at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard and moved the family from Penacook to Portsmouth. At first they lived on State Street across from the Rockingham Hotel. After school during World War I she would go next door to a 1758 colonial mansion she knew only as the "Women's Patriotic League" to roll bandages for the war effort.

"I was interested in all the old houses," Vaughan told Prof. Charles Hosmer, "because it was such a beautiful city then. State Street was lined with trees." When she asked  adults in town about the old house, now the John Paul Jones House Museum, they told her, "We don't know. Go to the library and look it up."

Young Dorothy did exactly that. By 1921, while still in high school studying home economics, she became a page at the Portsmouth Public Library at 10 Middle Street (now Discover Portsmouth). She worked there for the next 54 years, eventually becoming head librarian. Vaughan never went to college, but she had a talent for research. The public library was then the information hub and Vaughan became the go-to person for anyone searching out data on old Portsmouth buildings, events, and family genealogy. When she was stumped by a question, which was often, she rushed down State Street to ask Rev. Alfred Gooding, pastor at South Unitarian Church.  Born in 1856 and educated at Harvard, Gooding mentored the young library assistant "in his long-winded way." He was also president of the Portsmouth Athenaeum and the Portsmouth Historical Society and a library trustee.  

When Gooding died in 1934 at age 78, Vaughan lost her key source for Portsmouth legends and history. Her boss, librarian Hannah Fernald, pulled Dorothy aside. "Now, Mr. Gooding has gone, its up to you," she said. "You've got to stand on your own two feet."

"And so from that time on," Vaughan told Hosmer, "I sort of dedicated myself  to Portsmouth, to finding out the things that people wanted."  

CONTINUE Portsmouth History Tape 

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