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Big Parties That I Missed

In 1823 they ate fish. In 1923 they dressed funny. How should we celebrate Seacoast, New Hampshire's 375th?

Pageant Pic Call me a tad premature, but who's getting ready for the region's 400th birthday in 2023 AD? Admit it, most of you haven't even made Millenium plans. Tempus fugit, you know. The 375th birthday year has already arrived, and I haven't heard a decent heralding trumpet or cannon salute yet.

Historically speaking this region is still in diapers compared to a city like London that claims 2,000 years of recorded settlement. But we stand up pretty well here in the USA, where the History Channel is running specials on Las Vegas during its "classic" Rat Pack casino era. At least our founders never made a "buddy" film in Technicolor.

I'm still not ready to confront the issue of whether Dover or Portsmouth gets the laurels for simultaneous settlement of the Seacoast in April 1623. David Thompson landed in Rye, but Portsmouth claims the victory. The Hilton brothers came to Dover Neck, but some historians say it was five years later.

I have suggested to both chambers of commerce, that we use the 375th festivities to clear up this messy rivalry once and for all. My original proposal was that the Northam Colonists, a Dover historical group, and the Piscataqua Pioneers representing Portsmouth should meet at "Bloody Neck" on Great Bay in April 1998 and battle to the death. Winner takes all. When that idea got shot down, I suggested paintball. OK, then how about a little tug-o-war?

The two chambers say they are still considering my idea, but not to worry. Last minute birthday planning is actually a Seacoast tradition. It all started in February 1823 when the all-white all-male members of the Portsmouth Literary Society suddenly realized that New Hampshire's first white male settler had arrived just 200 years earlier. Society member Nathaniel Adams set to work on the first history of the Piscataqua region (published two years later), while member Ichabod Bartlett got started on the bicentennial bash. Members from Exeter and Dover were duly included in the planning.

The April 1823 bicentennial was no mardi gras. The region's most prestigious men marched from the South Meetinghouse in Portsmouth to the North Church (neither original building remains) at 10 in the morning. There were Masons, the Mechanics organization, clergymen and two light infantry groups. The agenda included festive speeches, odes, songs, prayers and a big fish dinner, since the state's founder had come from Plymouth, England to set up a fishing company.

Women were excluded, but the real partying began that evening at a fancy dress dance in a Market Square ballroom (also no longer standing). The entire room was hung with portraits of well-known local personalities, including former British governors and early colonial families. About 400 attended the ball including Daniel Webster, who had lived 10 years in Portsmouth. Half of those signed their names on a giant sheet of paper that still hangs in the Portsmouth Athenaeum.

Dull as it may seem today, the bicentennial event was a badly needed pep rally back in 1823. Formerly an American boomtown, Portsmouth fell to pieces during the War of 1812 when trade with Britain stopped cold. Shipbuilding fell off, a series of fires wiped out hundreds of downtown buildings and businessmen like Daniel Webster struck out for greener pastures. Our young men went West, as NH newspaperman Horace Greeley advised them, and they went South.

Local historian Paige Roberts, now completing her Ph.D. from George Washington University, says this period of nationalism marks the region's first "self conscious" awareness of its own history. "People began to see themselves as part of a continuum with the past -- and on into the future," Roberts says. Where history had been remote, it now became accessible - an idealized and grander time - worthy of study, celebration, pride, even envy. Suddenly it was important whose ancestors had arrived first. A new historical aristocracy was being born.

In 1853 this growing local patriotism led to a giant reunion when hundreds of displaced Seacoast "relations" returned for a weeklong homecoming. This very successful "Return of the Sons and Daughters" was duplicated in 1873 and in 1883. Through repeated speeches, festivals and toasts, both visitors and residents built up a sense of local history. Stories became legends and legends became dogma. The white male Piscataqua founders trickled into the realm of gods. By the year 1899 the state of New Hampshire had turned the event into a formal holiday, and today, some small New Hampshire towns still celebrate Old Home Week.

But the Seacoast party-hardy award falls most certainly to the tercentenary. observance of 1923. Dover and Portsmouth, still feuding, threw separate events on the same days in August, each featuring an incredible live history pageant.

If you are younger than 80, you've probably never seen a history pageant. These huge dramatic events involved entire towns and were all the rage in the early 1900s. Part carnival, part parade, part classroom, part concert, part theater, part catechism -- pageants brought together hundreds of citizens to tell the entire grand story of their region. As the town fathers had learned in 1853, they also brought in cash. The Seacoast had finally learned that history equals tourism, and tourism equals profit. It is a lesson we have not forgotten.

Imagine, if you can, ordinary citizens of Dover dressed in flowing white robes. The figure of Miss Dover floats into view like the statue of a Greek goddess. She is attended by the figures of Beauty, National Pride, Strength, Fertility and a dozen others. The Dover pageant begins (where else?) with the "Dawn of Creation" and moves quickly to the arrival of the Hilton brothers at Dover Neck in 1623. The audience sighs at the Persecution of the Quakers, gasps at the bloody Cocheco Massacre, cheers to the Ratification of the Constitution, boos the villainous figures of Famine, Fever and Death who leer from the stage.

Portsmouth managed to one-up Dover by hiring dramatist Virginia Tanner, the renowned pageant designer, actress and author from Cambridge, Massachusetts. A hundred women sewed the costumes. A hundred sopranos sung in the massive chorus. Thousands attended the three-day Portsmouth pageant in an outdoor arena called the Pines, just off South Street. The event grossed a whopping $11,388, plus the sale of souvenir books. When I was doing research at the Portsmouth Athenaeum last week, they still had a few copies left 75 years later. Ms. Tanner earned $2,000 and I assume Portsmouth paid up. When another pageant town didn't, she sued.

Tanner cut no corners in a pageant that The Portsmouth Herald called "a Dazzling, Inspiring Spectacle." Wigs were shipped in from New York. Performers came from the National Ballet in Washington. Photos from the local paper show sleek muscular dancers in scanty Indian warrior costumes flinging colonial maidens aloft in agile, exaggerated, Nureyev-style movements. There was a real stagecoach, animals, soldiers in Revolutionary War uniforms, a "Negro" chorus, a parade of representatives from Portsmouth's Polish, Irish, Italian, Greek and Chinese families. Children from every school in town marched by, then came veterans of the Great War," the Spanish-American War and the Civil War. It was pomp of the highest circumstance.

As in Dover, the Pageant of Portsmouth opened with women in flapper hairstyles and wood nymph outfits. I found a copy of Tanner's script at the used bookstore. In it, a woman dressed to symbolize Portsmouth greets the assembled audience. She is attended by women representing Rye, Greenland, New Castle, Newington, Kittery and the Isles of Shoals. (No one represented Dover.)

The field lights come up and the pageant chorus sings. We hear drums and see Indians dancing. Explorers Martin Pring and John Smith sail through. David and Amias Thompson arrive in 1623. There is an Indian massacre and a treaty. Elderly British Governor Benning Wentworth shocks the town by marrying his housekeeper. Paul Revere rides in on a real horse. Residents attack Fort William and Mary. John Paul Jones sails off in the Ranger. George Washington stops by for a visit. The "colored chorus" sings spiritual songs.

Okay, snap out of it! The pageantry is over. That art form is as dead as the wooly mammoth. Portsmouth residents tried to revive it at the 350th celebration in 1973 with an updated production called "They Came to Fish." Luckily, I was living in England at the time.

I did see a history pageant around that time in York, England where the local merchant guilds still act out biblical stories as they have since medieval days. In an age of anti-traditionalism, the stiff ancient play was oddly moving. But the American pageant as Virginia Tanner knew it was killed off, like so many other traditions, by the advent of talking movies and TV. Today the word "pageant" connotes rows and rows of monotonously similar Miss Americas, Miss Universes and Miss Galaxies. Tacky has reached levels Ms. Tanner could never have imagined.

In many New England towns, history has faded from view, but not here. Whatever those old guys started back in 1823 still hangs on. In her scholarly study of local tradition, Paige Roberts has learned that this region continues tenaciously to define itself as an historic place. The local "collective memory," perpetuated by ritualistic community-run pageants and homecomings and parades, has fulfilled its own destiny. We think historic, therefore we are.

"It's remarkable," Roberts says. "You don't even have to go to the library. You just walk around these streets and you imbibe the past."

We're so brainwashed into thinking this place is important, that there's a Portsmouth-view of history and, 10 miles away, a Dover-view. Well, I say this little Seacoast ain't big enough for both viewpoints. Maybe a 375th birthday battle on "Bloody Point" at Dover Neck isn't such a bad idea after all. Call your local chamber to sign up. Pistols at dawn. Bring the family. We'll see you all down there in April.

By J. Dennis Robinson
© 1997 SeacoastNH.com
All rights reserved. Attribute all use.

Photo of Virginia Tanner courtesy Laurie Clark

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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