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Fremont: NH's Most Historic Town?

After three decades, Matthew Thomas
is still amazed by his little town

Can one man rewrite history? He can if his name is Matthew Thomas. Two decades ago I interviewed the high-energy history missionary of Fremont, New Hampshire. Thomas, who was then in his twenties, had released a new edition of his town history. He wrote the first draft as a grammar school project. He published a rough copy of the history in 1974 when he was 18, the same year he became the youngest justice of the peace in New Hampshire. In 1998 Thomas released an expanded 1,000-page edition with 432 pictures that quickly sold out its 600 paperback copies. The town appropriated the $17,000 to print the book, an act of political pride unimaginable in most parsimonious New Hampshire towns. Now 47, Thomas says he is preparing an updated version of his History of Freemont, this time in hardcover.

Thanks to relentless lobbying by Thomas, Fremont now has five of those official green historic plaques by the side of the road, more than any other town in the state. Every building, it seems, has a story to tell – if you can find the town. Fremont just misses all the major highways and, although it is in Rockingham County, in a recent poll of people I know, not one could tell me how to get there. Once part of Exeter, Fremont borders Raymond, Sandown, Danville, Epping, Chester, Kingston and Brentwood. It is bisected by Route 107 that makes a bee-line from Seabrook to Gilmanton. Still lost?

"Did you know that Route 107 was among the first paved roads in the state?" Thomas points out.

He carries a Fremont fact for every occasion. It’s history for the masses, fascinating and quirky tales of the common man. Thomas is brimful of trivia that could win a bet in any bar.

"Did you know that Fremont and East Kingston are the only two towns in Rockingham County that have never had a murder?" he says at one point in our long discussion. Then he hesitates. "Well, we’ve had a murderer, but he killed his victim up in Raymond. And the police did find the body of a murdered person in East Kingston, but it was in the trunk of a car that had come from out of state."

The more you talk to Thomas, the more you believe that Fremont actually is the center of the universe. He has a way of making the seemingly irrelevant relevant. Take, for example, John Brown. No, this is not the famous abolitionist John Brown whose body lies a mouldering somewhere in New York. This is John Brown the gunsmith of Fremont who is buried in the cemetery across from the town’s historic meeting house. The word "Gunsmith" appears on John Brown’s tombstone. This is the only known example, Thomas points out, of this word appearing on any grave marker in the nation.

 John Brown's Grave

I am tempted to ask -- "Who cares?" -- when Thomas continues. John Brown had three sons, all of whom joined him in the gunmaking trade. This was very rare, he explains. They were known for the quality of their work and their guns are prized among collectors. Thomas mentions a 10-foot wooden gun that once hung outside Brown’s gun shop, a site that now wears one of his green historic markers. But some collector bought the wooden sign and it no longer hangs in Fremont.

In three decades of collecting Fremont ephemera, Thomas has managed to put his town on the map. Beede Road (locals say BEE-dee) off Route 107 runs along the early drips of the Exeter River and leads to the town center. Other than the Fremont Pizzaria , a grange, a garage and a convenience store, there doesn’t appear to be much to see – at first. But the convenience store, Thomas points out, was built in 1820 making it the oldest operating store building in the state. Sure it burned years back and doesn’t look old, he says, but the foundation and cellar are still original.

"This isn’t the boring place I thought it was when I was a kid," Thomas says. Endless conversations with old-timers and archive research have endowed him with a deep respect for the town and its past. "You don’t have to live in Exeter or Newburyport. Interesting and fascinating things happen in these little towns too."

Fremont Meeting House

In books and lectures and through the Fremont Historical Society, now located in the former town library, Thomas continues his crusade to draw attention to the history of working class men and women. Slowly, he says, our view of history is broadening.

"Nobody wanted to focus in on the little guy. They just kept harping about the George Washingtons of the world. Now, I think, history is finally focussing on the everyday lifestyles of the everyday person, Thomas says."

For those who describe Fremont as just another boondocks bedroom community near the Massachusetts border, take a gander at these facts, extracted from Thomas’s research:

  • The town’s gorgeous, unspoiled 1800 Meeting House is an architectural gem and still contains the pews assigned to slaves. Because pews were leased to townspeople, stairways to the second level were built outside the building in order to preserve rented space downstairs.
  • Fremont is the only known town with two one-room schoolhouses built side-by-side in the 19th century. Two, apparently, are cheaper than one. The historical society is currently setting up exhibits in one of the preserved buildings.
  • The Fremont Mast Tree Riot of 1734 pit locals against representatives of the King of England. In this very early colonial revolt, roughly three dozen locals dressed as Indians attacked and beat up surveyors sent to cut massive old growth trees to deliver to England.
  • In 1861 locals rioted against the Civil War and took pot shots at the American flag.
  • The last wooden barrel company, Spaulding and Frost, was active in Fremont a century after its competition had disappeared. It closed recently. The company created "the world’s biggest wooden barrel" that still stands outside Redhook Brewery in Portsmouth.
  • The famous UFO that inspired the best selling book "Incident at Exeter" was actually seen hovering over a field in Fremont.
  • Two Fremont pirates reportedly buried their treasure in the town’s Spruce Swamp. It has not been recovered.
  • The only nonfatal B-52 crash in history occurred in 1959 when a bomber on its way to Newfoundland smashed into Spruce Swamp after the crew had safely ejected.
  • The largest brickyard in the state was in Fremont producing 5 million bricks a year. It had its own boarding house, barber shop, saloon, company store and bakery in the late 1880s. A spark from a passing train set the adjoining field on fire and the buildings burned in 1912.
  • Per capita, Fremont citizens raised more in Liberty Bonds during World War II than even the biggest, richest towns in the county.
  • Fremont is home to the super-strange all-girl band The Shaggs (see related story). An obscure 1969 album by the three Wiggin sisters was discovered and rereleased in the 1980s by the band NRBQ. Favorable reviews in Rolling Stone and The New Yorker kicked off a cult following.

The Shaggs

The year 2004 marks a banner event for Fremonters. It is the 150th anniversary of the day the town changed its name. Originally part of Exeter, the town was settled in the 1720s and formerly named Poplin on June 22, 1764. No one, not even Thomas, knows exactly why it was called Poplin, but within a century citizens were looking for a new name.

In 1853, Thomas says, Poplin residents petitioned the state legislature to change the name of the town to Lindon. Both branches of government had to approve the name change. The state postponed the vote and when they took up the petition in 1854, the townsfolk had changed their minds again. This time they asked to name their town in honor of "The Pathfinder" Gen. John Charles Fremont. Fremont hasn’t retained the fame of his fellow explorers Lewis and Clark, but his name was big news in 1854.

Thomas, meanwhile, is letting no moss grow. He has produced six other history books including volumes about Sandown, Exeter and Rockingham County. His private research library has grown to 2,500 volumes and he is currently working on his seventh history book. No fact is too trivial to escape his microscopic scrutiny or his evangelical promotion.

"I just love this little town," he says, "but I’m equally fascinated by Kensington and Chester."

And he does it all for love. Thomas, who has a wife and daughter and works full time as a program director for a retirement community has yet to earn a profit rewriting history.

"Make money?" he laughs. "You can’t do that in New Hampshire, You know that."

By J. Dennis Robinson
Photos by one of the band member's girlfriend in 1969.
Copyright © 2003 SeacoastNH.com.

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