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The Heck With Local History!

Celebrating Einstein is a no-brainer,
but what about Our Town?

Fire Close-up 'Tis the season to pontificate. Everyone's doing it, and this week the international media has been cranking out more retrospective doggerel than at any time since the dawn of recorded history. In addition to the annual "Best and Worst" lists, we have the end of a decade, the end of a century and the end of a millennium to analyze ad nauseum.

The good news is that, for a few milliseconds at least, the whole world is focused on the past. We are actually taking pause to analyze the path humankind has traveled for the last few centuries. I'm not talking about People Magazine's fluffy "50 Most Beautiful People of the Year" or Entertainment Weekly's "Top Films of 1999", Money Magazine's best performing stocks of the decade, the latest Fortune 500 or the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit 2000 Millennium calendar. I'm talking real meaty history.

We discover, for example, that Albert Einstein is Time Magazine's "Person of the Century". Having given up watching television four years ago, and too cheap to pay $4.95 for the actual magazine, I followed the story on the marvelous Time web site (www.Time.com). There, for a penny or two worth of electricity, I was able to study in some considerable depth the life of Einstein, along with 99 other distinctive figures of the now concluded 20th century - from Picasso, Lindbergh, Mother Theresa and Churchill to Oprah, The Beatles and Bart Simpson. Thanks to the miracle of modern technology, I could also see them and hear each of them speak to me through my computer.

The bad news is that, the more we focus on the big stories that shaped the planet, the less time we have for the little history of our own back yard. Remember that Time, People, Entertainment Weekly, Fortune, Sports Illustrated and Money are all owned by the same company. Time Warner owns Warner Brothers movies and records too. They own CNN and TNT and HBO. They own the Book of the Month Club, Warner Books, Looney Tunes and DC Comics. They own a bunch of video, DVD, CD-rom, merchandising and printed music companies. Heck, they even own the Internet cable service I used to find out all this information.

If there was a dime to be made telling you the history of the Seacoast region, Time Warner would likely own that too. But there's no quick profit in crumbling monuments, brittle archives and decaying architecture. The problem with local history is that there's just too darned much of it. Every town has its own stories; every street, every building and every family resounds with fascinating details. Worse, the audience for all these stories is very small, and audience, boys and girls, is the coin of the realm.

Think of the mass media as a megaphone, that old conical thing Rudy Vallee and cheerleaders used before the invention of the mini-mica chip solid- state speaker system. A few select stories go in the skinny end of the megaphone and are blasted out to millions of listeners through the big end. The more you spend producing what goes into the little end, the wider the audience you have to reach to make a profit. It's simple economics. The more you give the public what pleases it, the fewer risks you take, the less you spend, the greater the potential for profit.

Those of us in the local history biz are forever holding the megaphone backwards. We scream our offbeat ragged tales into the great wide end toward a passionate but teeny public. The research is time consuming. I've worked on stories where it took months to track down a few hidden facts. Pieces don't fit together neatly like in the movies. I remember a letter from a school girl following an essay I wrote about Paul Revere's little known ride to Portsmouth, New Hampshire. She had read a biography that mentioned Revere's passion for alcohol.

"I don't get it," she wrote. "Was Paul Revere a hero or a drunk?" He was both, I told her, or neither, depending on your perspective. She didn't like my answer one bit.

Last week a woman wanted to know if John Paul Jones was or was not the "Father of the American Navy". I said he had a seminal influence, but was actually not the legitimate dad. She did not like my answer one bit.

The closer you approach the truth, I find, the fuzzier it gets. It's sort of like quantum physics. I'm no Albert Einstein, but what I love most about the study of the past is its relativity, the way it changes to suit time. What happened yesterday is indirectly proportional to what happens today. Yesterday, therefore, equals the speed of tonight squared. The whole thing is very unstable, which explains why local history, particularly, is such a black hole of knowledge. Approach it with caution, or it will suck you in and take away all your free time. That's why I had to give up television to become a local historian. Is this all making sense to you? Perhaps I'm getting too technical.

Let's try an anecdote instead. A few weeks ago I followed a militia of a hundred or so re-enactors to New Castle (formerly Great Island) where our forefathers stormed old fort William & Mary. It was just a mock battle, of course, to celebrate the 225th anniversary of the day New Hampshire told King George to stuff his tea taxes where the sun don't shine. You won't find the event in your corporate history textbooks. They've got the Boston Tea Party and the Battle of Bunker Hill and the shots fired at Lexington and Concord. But who knows that NH local boys raided the King's fort and stole his ammunition?

drummers It was treason at the highest levels, but no one was ever caught or jailed. The two men who led the raid became the first governors of NH instead. How come? You see the problem? Local history doesn't make for easy sound bites. It's too complicated. It doesn't fit the profile, eliciting more questions than it answers. No quick buck here. If you can't dance to it, it ain't on American Bandstand.

Anyway, I was there. The wind must have hit 100 miles an hour on that frigid December day in 1999. I got an earache and a cold that have lasted into the new millennium. The local militia men taunted the British soldiers on the wall. They seemed really ticked off. There was danger in the wind and a lot of guns in hand.

Some Seacoast rebels approached the King's fort from the front, while others came by boat at the back of the island. Muskets blasted, drums rolled. At one point a rag-tag New Hampshire volunteer instructed all us civilians to go immediately into the fort for our own protection. A British soldier at the gate barred our way. The two scuffled and we bystanders didn't know what to do. It was messy. It was awful. It was really great.

And so, because this is my column and this is the big fat historic millennium, I'm going to pontificate a little by assigning each of you a New Year's resolution. Once a month, do something to support local history. Visit an historic site, read a book, donate money, research your house, attend a lecture, poke around in your family tree, join an historical society, take a long walk through an old cemetery - anything local counts. You will have to shut off the corporate TV, click off the popular tunes, eschew the mall, toss aside that mass media magazine or skip the latest blockbuster film. You may even have to spend a few minutes off the Internet.

Sure the kids will scream when you unplug them from Big Brother, but they'll live. A whole new reality waits at your doorstep. Remember, revolution is ultimately a grassroots movement. Perhaps you'll find your own local "Person of the Century" lived just across the street.

J. Dennis Robinson is a recovering TV-aholic and video game addict who now writes about local history. Today he works and lives in Portsmouth, NH where he is owner and editor of the regional web site SeacoastNH.com.

For more information:
Local Historical Societies
Local Historic Sites
Local Historic Houses
Local History Theme Sections
Local History Home

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Don't miss Dennis Robinson's new column "Seacoast Rambles" every other week in Foster's Sunday Citizen at your local newsstand.

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