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Rusticating in Tamworth Village

In a small NH village, time stops
but history just goes on and on

Our Tamworth dispoable photo tour

Tamworth

If you live and breathe local history, it's healthy to realize that most people don't. They survive quite comfortably without knowing -- who lived in this historic house, built that old mill building, fought in some distant battle or is planted in a sleepy cemetery nearby. Those of us who believe that the past is a critical guidepost to the future, must then work overtime to keep those stories alive and relevant.

Last Friday night, for example, I spoke to a group of 70 women in the basement of the North Church parish house on Spinney Road in Portsmouth. My job was to condense 400 years of Seacoast history into 90 minutes while their husbands, members of an all-male chorus called the Barnstormers, rehearsed upstairs. It's fun being the Quizmaster, especially with such a lively audience, but it's a welcome relief, now and then, to be absolutely clueless.

"Enough Portsmouth! We're going to Tamworth," my partner Maryellen said the following morning. She is president of the local historical society, but unlike me, Maryellen knows when to get the heck out of Dodge.

An hour and 30 colorful autumn minutes later we were strangers in the center of a tiny New Hampshire village of barely 2,000 souls. Downtown Tamworth consists of two stores, a post office, the town offices, a church, an historical society, a library, a theater and the Tamworth Inn. It takes maybe five minutes to walk the entire distance. If you hop on one foot, it might take 10 minutes to get back.

While tens of thousands of fried-dough eating tourists wrestled their way through the crush of bodies at the Sandwich Fair one town away, we wandered the rustic roads and woods of Tamworth freely, even in the peak leaf peeper weekend. We stared at jigsaw-puzzle perfect scenery. Along a dirt road overlooking the town, we stopped by a scarlet, yellow and orange field, the distant peaks framed by white birch fences pinned together by discarded horseshoes. It's the kind of beauty that makes you want to cry, yet looks like the tacky plastic-coated place-mats your aunt always keeps on the porch.

For a few golden moments we two amateur historians knew absolutely nothing about this rustic town, tucked between the bustling Lakes and White Mountain regions. But Tamworth oozes history like a Spring maple leaks sap. At the Remick Museum two buildings up from the church, we learned about two country doctors, father and son, who patched and poked the townspeople for nearly a century. Their homestead is now preserved as a rural museum -- part working farm, part country doctor display.

There was no room at the inn downtown that the brochure says was built in 1833. But Maryellen knows somebody who knows Dale Bragdon who runs the bed and breakfast just up the village road. Between the museum and the B&B stands Ordination Rock, for my money one of the most fascinating and least known historic spots in the Granite State. I practically fell out of the car unholstering my digital camera to capture this one Ė as if the old rock might run away.

Tamworth

In 1792, fresh from Dartmouth College, young Samuel Hidden was ordained as minister of Tamworth atop a two-story glacial rock that would fill a large living room. Hidden was a progressive, a musician, and a fan of the arts. In his 40 years in Tamworth the congregation swelled from a dozen to over 300 members. The symbolism of the rock (the nickname Jesus gave to his disciple Peter who launched the Christian church) and the dramatic ceremony were not lost on the Tamworth villagers. In the mid-1800s, a white marble obelisk was built on top of the rock that is now reinforced with giant iron staples. Visitors climb a crude moss-covered stone stairway to read the inscription at the top. Rev. Hidden, whose descendants still live in Tamworth, is buried just up the hill from Ordination Rock. Balanced loosely on six granite legs, his tombstone looks more like a kitchen table than a grave.

Not far ahead, a tiny hand-lettered sign attached to a massive elm marks the Highland House. The B&B accommodates just three couples in a spacious 18th century house. It was built by a sea captain from Salem the same year Rev. Hidden was taking his rocky vows. The town itself was incorporated in 1766. Back then Portsmouth's royal governor Benning Wentworth was growing fat and rich granting New Hampshire and Vermont townships in the name of King George.

Tamworth

Timber was the hot industry around the time of the Revolution. The Seacoast had long before toppled its valuable old growth forest to make masts for the king's navy. So New Hampshire moved its lumbering operation North and West. The cleared Tamworth land became farms. But farming is rough going in a region that locals jokingly say has just two seasons -- winter and the Fourth of July. When the men of Tamworth saw what real farming was like during their service in the Civil War, most of those who came back alive moved South. The whole town might have shriveled up and died had it not been for a burgeoning new industry that saved the day -- tourism. Tamworth Village stayed cute and isolated while America grew into a giant mill.

In fact, a couple of days in Tamworth felt, to me, like a weekend at the Isles of Shoals . They are both scenic, artsy little communities were the air races and time crawls. If you want something in a hurry, go back to the city. In the "Other Store" at the village center, I spent a full hour sitting on a diner stool waiting for a cup of Campbell's tomato soup and half a tuna sandwich. The place doubles as a gift shop and triples as the local hardware store. By the second day we had dined at all three eateries in town.

The rusticators who discovered Victorian Tamworth were in no hurry either. Escaping the crowded, polluted cities to the South, they took the train to nearby West Ossipee, then wandered, as we did, along the rivers and through the woods, soaking up the mountain view. Nearby Mt. Whittier, locals like to tell green tourists, is named for a famous American poet -- Longfellow. Actually it honors poet John Greenleaf Whittier, whose love poems to New Hampshire also seeded tourism in the White Mountains, Hampton Beach and the Isles of Shoals.

Mt. Chocorua actually stands in the town of Albany, but "Tamworth owns the view" as the guidebook says. Like Mt. Passaconnaway, named for the peaceful, Abenaki sagamore, and the town of Wonaloncet named for this rebellious son, the region honors its Native forebears. New Hampshire preserved the names, but methodically killed off or drove out most of the original indigenous tribes by the time of the Revolution. Chocorua, legend says, jumped off the mountain peak later named after him, rather than be captured by white men. The real story is more complex. Chocorua, history reports, murdered a white family, after the warrior's own son died in their care.

Tamworth

The same dependable legends and grand vistas attracted early 20th century motorists, sportsmen and artists. President Grover Cleveland built his summer home in Tamworth. His son Francis Grover Cleveland built Barnstormers (not to be confused with the singing group I met in Portsmouth) in 1931. Housed in a former grocery store, this Tamworth troupe is now the oldest, surviving, professional, summer acting group in the nation. I know because the historical marker there says so. Cleveland supported the company until his death in 1995 at age 92. But when it comes to sheer fame, no humans can match the name recognition of the regionís best known canine -- Chinook of the North, the sled dog of nearby Wonaloncet, NH. But thatís another story.

After dinner at the Tamworth Inn, Maryellen and I wandered into the frigid night. It was dark, and the wind comes up there suddenly like an island wind. We were thinking about the fire waiting for us in the old sea captain's house just a mile up the hill. In a day, it seemed, the town had become familiar.

A fiddle band was between songs on the second floor of the old town hall. I'd read somewhere that the building was dragged from Ordination Rock to the center of town using 60 sturdy oxen. We could hear the caller walking the contra dancers through the steps of their next reel. His directions were clear as ice in the moonless wood, like words traveling over water. Then the music and stomping feet returned, exactly as they have in Tamworth for a couple hundred years, exactly as they will for a couple hundred more.

Copyright © 2001 SeacoastNH.com. All rights reserved.
Photos by J. Dennis Robinson

For Further Reading: Tamworth Today by Amy Berrier, published by the Tamworth Civic Association, 2000.

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