One man's thoughts on NH history and
the meaning of life in our 375th year.
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Well, there it is -- the end of 1998. I've overstayed my welcome here. It was a fascinating year for history. Let's hope we got something started. I believe that this region will be, in 20 years, one of the country's top history destination points for travelers, if we don't blow it. This are is special BECAUSE of its history and its preserved buildings. Thanks for reading. Gotta go. JDR
For those who wrote, Betty Hill does seem amenable to putting up a few pages on our web site. She herself is history, the prototype alien abductee from the 1960s. But she wants also to talk about local history, particularly her lineage to the Rollins, Trafton, Dow and Bartlett family trees from which she is descended. Sounds good to me. Turning 79 in June, Betty walks around the house with giant genealogy books in hand, pointing to passages that link her to Seacoast past.
Whoa, there. I gotta slow down. Brother Brian introduced me to Bibliofind.com over Christmas holiday, and I'm an instant addict. Pages and pages of Thomas Bailey Aldrich books, lots of Brewster, Celia. Bought a copy of "Crowding Memories" right off the bat and just now ordered a book I've been searching for the last six months. Funny to see the same Seacoast NH old book for $20 out in the mid-west and $150 from a NYC dealer. One guy trying to get $375 for a copy of Brewster that goes for $40 here. Intriguing to track the many editions of "Story of a Bad Boy" which is on sale everywhere still. Seems the whole world has a copy of Olga Winslow's history of Portsmouth which no one around here seems to know. The other most visible image of our region is the classic Howells book "Architectural Heritage of the Piscataqua," the over-sized picture book that first turned me on to the region in 1969 when I got a copy at the UNH bookstore for $5. Tie me down again, boys and girls. I feel another antiquarian online shopping spree coming on.
Now that I've published what I thought was a great one-page bibliography of books about Portsmouth, the ones I missed keep popping up all over. Noticed one called "The Portsmouth Book" on the return rack in the history room of the library the o9ther day, an 1899 commemorative piece with some great ads. (The ads in our 1998 book, I think, are the best designed in two centuries, but that's another issue. Some people hate them, but I think that's what commemorative books are all about.) Anyway, the one I regret missing the most is the delicate 1913 guide "Vignettes of Portsmouth." The text by Harold Hotchkiss Bennett is crisp and clear -- drawn as always from Brewster, Foster, Gurney and Adams. But the 21 beautiful grayscale pencil sketches by Helen Pearson are second to none. I've yet to find a copy in the stores and am surviving on a Xeroxed version. The original sketches turned up the other day in an archive and I'm itching to run them on the web.
Well it's almost over and I'm already getting the DTs. There may be nearly 300 entries in this diary and we never even got time to go looking for a sponsor! Well, I work cheap when there's no editor to crimp the message. It's been a fantastic year for local history and I hear, besides all the events we know so well, that plans are continuing to establish a nonprofit agency to explore the concept of rebuilding John Paul Jones' tall ship Ranger. It wasn't my idea, but got the chance to write the article that kicked off the energy and I can't wait to see what happens. Dozens of exciting new history projects kicked off in 1998 that will be in the news for years, maybe decades to come. But what to do with the demise of this history diary? Will anyone but me miss it? Or is it all just cheap therapy?
Can't shake this plan that's been rattling around in my head for over a year. It's grandiose to say the least. I'm thinking of a Greater Portsmouth History Center, a central location dedicated to promoting local history. In my dreams, we use the site of the current Portsmouth Public Library, which is a wonderful old and new office space, but too small for the current library. Of course, in my plan, the library has already been relocated to a super new location. The main history building is then set up with rotating displays of Portsmouth items and a small permanent collection. There is an oral history area where people can listen to audio interviews, locate transcripts and photos or borrow equipment and take classes in recording family history. A central activities boar lists all the history-related events of the week. There is a genealogy resource area for records, lots of computers. BY this time all the historic houses will have their collections on CD-ROM, all accessible from a central database. There will be workshops, a meeting area for promoting local history. Visitors can get info about other local history resources -- historic societies, archives, books, etc. It's been on my mind all year.
Who can write about history on a day when America is bombing a foreign nation and the the Congress has lost its mind and wants to polarize the country by turning one slightly flawed President into the Antichrist. oops, did I just get political? I'm going shopping.
Now that I've finally seen Strawbery Banke, I want to go back and do every one of the remaining historic houses slowly. I've probably seen 2/3 of them, but that leaves 10 or more. Next year my resolution is to see all the houses I have missed around town, a list that would shock people who have this illusion that I know what I am talking about when it comes to local history. I've never seen a lot of the key ones. My list is down to the following for 1999: Rundlett-May, Moffatt-Ladd, Wentworth-Coolidge, Warner and Hamilton House in South Berwick, plus the five forts. That and a more detailed tour of 30 Strawbery Banke houses should take me to the millenium. Then there are four Isles of Shoals on which I've yet to set foot -- Cedar, Duck, Lunging and White. Making my two travel videos took the crew to 150 locations in the region, but there seems to be no end to new places. Then comes, I hope, a slow survey of key churches, town buildings, and privately owned historic houses. Still al long way to go without going very far. That's why I love this area.
After 25 years in Portsmouth, I have, at long last, purchased a ticket and toured Strawbery Banke Museum. I didn't see much though, since it was dark with only candles, hundreds of candles to light the way. Also, the place was so packed with visitors that it took more than an hour to inch through about six houses, set for Christmas through the ages. Since Christmas is mostly a 20th century phenomenon, there were not as many revelations as I had hoped. My first stop was at the home of a Congregationalist family. Since early Congregationalists (or was it Methodists?) saw Christmas as a pagan holiday, there was no revelations there either. Next up was the Shapiro House, a Jewish family. By this time, I was wondering if I had read the sign wrong when I came upon a drum and fife corps playing Christmas carols near a giant bonfire. In a barn, a blues chorus was bending "Little Drummer Boy" into a fascinating new tune. Had to say my favorite was a 1950s display of Christmas as I know it best. There were Jello molds and Jiffy Pop on TV-trays, colored lights and a cut-out of Rudolph the reindeer, and a Lucy and Desi performing on a classic black and white TV in a giant wooden frame. It took all of my resolve not to push aside the museum barriers, don a pair of footy pajamas and settle in for the evening.
Just knocked off a second piece for the upcoming and final Fosters 375th special issue for New Year's eve. That paper has gone the distance this year, but I've praised them enough already. This time I got to do the research I always wanted on the Portsmouth red light district. I had it all wrong, didn't even know where Water Street was (now Marcy) and had the story of the whoring hey-day all mixed up. Both Kim Crisp's college report on Water Street and Ray Brighton's chapter, though wonderful resources, leave out the critical info -- the lives of the girls in the houses. Sadly, they will likely remain anonymous, with no records at all to tell their sad tales. With at least 20 brothels in town around the turn of the century, it must have been an amazing phenomenon, farm girls seduced into prostitution at the end of the Victorian era. Too bad, as with the recently discovered whaling journal, that we don't have anything to go on to flesh out the lurid and needed details.
Usually when I get invited somewhere lately, it is to offer an historical perspective, to toss a tidbit of the past into the skillet of conversation. So when I found myself at the gorgeously refurbished Oracle House last night to greet a visiting Spanish film crew, I was well prepared. The first related history that came to mind was Celia Thaxter's poem "Spanish Sailors." That's the one about 14 shipwrecked sailors who crawl onto Smuttynose Island in the winter of 1813 and all freeze to death before they reach Mr. Haley's cottage. Then there were the 1,600 Spanish prisoners encamped at the navy yard for two months in 1896 during the war with Cuba. Getting all that stuff together, I met the crew amid a picturesque Christmas table in the 18th century bed and breakfast. Turns out, they are shooting a film called "Winter in New England." OK, no history in this video, but the research was fun -- and I got to fiddle with their awesome new digital camera.
Deborah Child of Dover is making Portsmouth history accessible faster than a speeding bullet. A year ago she was cataloging the work of local painter Susan Ricker Knox. The booklet is done, the art exhibit over, and now Deb is working on an exhibit of local souvenirs through history. But that's just what you can see. In the meantime, after work at Strawbery Banke, she has come up with a system for cataloging the collection at the 1713 Warner House and begun a similar digitizing of the records of items at the Portsmouth Historical Society. Yesterday she showed a group of ISHRA people how over 600 images of the Isles of Shoals have already been recorded on a computer database. This is the SAME database, so when all the work is done, files from different historic houses can be merged. This is unheard of since most of the houses barely talk, and many do not even know what is in their own collections. The digital age is going to change everything and Deb is making sure this region will be state of the art.
Always wanted to know why the Italian North End was obliterated by urban renewal in the early 1970s. Now the more I read, the more I think this is a topic worthy of a book. Thirty years after 200 houses were razed, the key area is still a parking lot with no official purpose. The local paper seems to have made little stink over the issue, which seems especially odd since the paper built its new office in part of the cleared land. I'm so sympathetic with the nostalgic view of the Italian former residents, that I'm struggling to understand the positive side, or at least how the federal urban renewal dollars could be worth breaking up "Little Italy." Today, had it survived, it would likely be a great neighborhood with Italian stores and restaurants as in the early part of the century. It just looks too much like the "Anglo" population wanted to remove this region -- through fear and misunderstanding. If anything had come of it besides a parking garage, we might not be so skeptical. We now have the ugly Parade Mall and a few industrial grade buildings that likely do not bring in any more tax revenue than a gentrified neighborhood. But that is 20-20 hindsight and the story remains largely untold.
I wonder what Thomas Bailey Aldrich would think about our slow release of his 19th century guide to Portsmouth going up on the Internet. Today we add the third chapter and I found it magical. So much of Portsmouth is the same and his descriptions are so "spot on" as the British kids used to say, that time condenses and a hundred years disappear when you read the words. My favorite Aldrich hook is the way he gives a quick tour of the Isles of Shoals from atop the roof of the Athenaeum in Market Square. I was up there for the Fourth of July fireworks, but today the Isles are no longer visible nine miles out since the trees have grown up on New Castle to obscure the view. At first, I thought putting this dotty old chestnut online might be a waste of electrons, but I'm enjoying every page.
What a pleasure to finally see the 1989 NH Crossroads episode about the "Lost Boundaries" family reunion in Keene. It's too bad this excellent long-running TV series is not more readily available on video or the web. From hosts Tom Bergeron, to Paul Mangion, Fritz Weatherbee and now John Clayton -- this has been the finest presentation of NH history ever, but as with much of NH Public TV, the red tape makes access to completed episodes effortful at best. As owner of the only Lost Boundaries web site and a Louis de Rochemont fan, I was super impressed by the way writer/director Jim Gilmore, now an independent filmmaker like most former NHPTV employees, pulled the complex story together. The real story of the black Keens NH family that "passed" as white is as intriguing as the melodramatic 1949 film. Producer Bill Humphreys and Fritz, both no longer with the station, deserve praise for their tasteful and honest presentation. Steve Salmiker's crisp video is great as always. Too bad so few people get to see these and other superb local programs, and too bad we can't get more of the same quality programming for our dollars from the state's only public TV station. This one shines through the bureaucratic fog that has too long shrouded what could be a great station.
It's all over now but the crying. With the embarrassing beer scandal fading, the dance done, the book out -- I'm ready to call it a year. No more long history celebrations for 25 years please. We've still got the Christmas Parade with the history theme, the Candlelight stroll, and my favorite parties celebrating the Athenaeum and Tobias Lear. Coming back from a brief 2-day hiatus, found 63 emails demanding immediate attention. Managed to get ten done online and the rest calmed down for the moment. Nothing distracts me more than a good history trivia question, but someone has to pay the electric bill, so it's back to the grind of making a living. Fosters is now planning an astonishing THIRD special newspaper section dedicated to the 375th celebration, this one focusing on the 20th century, which itself, is almost history.
© 1998 SeacoastNH.com
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