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He loved his horses
more than anything

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By Charles W. Brewster

Editors Note: C.W. Brewster was a Portsmouth columnist in the mid-1800's. This article includes his opinions and may not reflect current research or current values.

Residences On Middle street--Sketch of the eccentric Shepherd Ham--Middle street church site.

ON Middle street, for some years after the Revolution, there were but five two-story houses between the present location of the Academy and Wibird's Hill. Sheafe Griffith occupied one on the site of the residence of E. F. Sise, on Haymarket Square. Col. Joshua Wentworth, a house on the present site of that of Mrs. Henry Ladd. Jonathan and Joseph Shillaber occupied two other houses a little west on the same side of the way--not far from the houses of John P. Lyman and Rev. Dr. Peabody. A few one-story houses were also scattered on the same side. On the opposite side of the street, there was no dwelling between the Langdon house, now the residence of Samuel Lord, and Wibird's hill. State street, west from the Middle street church, was not opened until about the beginning of this century.

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Old Middle Street

For many years the western terminus of State (then Broad) street, was opposite the rocky site of Shepherd Ham's premises, who occupied the gore of land on which the sightly Middle street church and its neat chapel have been erected.

Only sixty years ago, this locality was regarded so far on the outskirt, that the lady of John Pierce had some objection to his building that elegant mansion on Haymarket Square, on account of its great distance from the centre of Portsmouth. At the time when it was built, in 1800, not one of the houses on the opposite side of the street or above it was erected. The hay scales were erected in front about the same time--and on the rocks a little further off were the shanty of Shepherd Ham, in front, and a little to the north and west, his stables and sheds for his vehicles. The premises of the eccentric old gentleman (whose real name was William, but was so generally called Shepherd, that it was by many regarded as his real name), extended so far into the desired location of the street then about to be opened, that his barn was exactly in the way and forbade the opening. Some roguish young men, who wished to see the street opened, and had no fear of the law or of the owner, one night pulled out a few props which supported the barn, and the next morning it was a heap of ruins, and State street was soon after opened to Mason's hill.

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The Strange Character of "Shepherd" Ham

William Ham was in his younger days a king's surveyor. While New Hampshire was a royal province, it was the custom for a surveyor to pass through the forests and put a certain mark, called a broad arrow, on such trees as would make masts for the royal navy. These trees must not be cut for any other purpose. Having on one occasion marked some trees already cut down, the people resented it, and he fled to Portsmouth for safety. The Revolution shortly after destroyed his office: but he retained his silver-laced badges, and his tory feeling of dignity, to the day of his death.

The "Bloomer costume" has awakened visions of Shepherd Ham's petticoat trousers. If the reader will imagine a pair of corduroys of no particular color, or if they must be colored, say a faded snuff color,--each leg of which is large enough to cover a man's body, but so short as only to reach just below the knee,--he will get some idea of petticoat trousers; and if he will think of white dimity well worn, and not very well washed, he may have a clear idea of another pair. But to get an image of the wearer, we must add a pair of long, loose boots of coarse leather, dusty or muddy, according to the weather--varied occasionally by shoes of similar neatness--with or without stockings, just as it happened. Add also a kind of frockcoat with broad skirts, so long as to reach the knees, vest carelessly buttoned or open, bandanna neckerchief, long beard and ill-looking hat,--and we have a full-length portrait. The whole style of his dress was the shabby genteel.

After the loss of office, he ran coaches, and let horses and carriages for several years, and had, for those days, quite a fair share of business; but his peculiarities, one of which was closeness, ripened and increased, so that he neither shod his horses nor repaired his carriages. As a matter of course, they could not be let very well. And when let, his horses were not always sure to be obedient. In one case, a young gentleman with his lady joined a party to have a good time at Greenland. Shepherd's horse had been accustomed to stop at the Globe tavern at the Plains; and as nothing would induce him to go further, they had to be content with stopping there also. His house, except a room or two where he lived, was filled with old saddles and harnesses, old sleighs that had the rickets, dilapidated coach bodies, and chaise, whose broadcloth lining made food for moths, while the cushions afforded excellent lodgings for a large colony of mice. Old wheels, rusty axles, and parts of carriages, filled the sheds and adorned the yard; while the stable sometimes contained a few old horses. Most of the horses, however, were commonly out to grass, or at least had gone up the road to look after it. Their owner in his oddity, or, as some said, insanity, would often refuse to let any of them,--and as to selling them, that was utterly out of the question.

Of course, horses, carriages and owner, all grew old together; and his buildings likewise. The horses, by exposure, became long haired and woolly; their tails and manes full and shaggy, and tangled and matted with burdock burrs. In a storm, especially a snow storm, the old man would be out driving home his shabby, ill-conditioned beasts; and the more violent the storm, the greater became his solicitude to get them together. The neighbors, as they looked from their windows, when the roads were deserted by travellers because the weather was bad, would exclaim, "There goes the careful Shepherd with his flock." And in good truth he spent half his time in looking them up and getting them together, only to have them stray again. His old rickety stable doors could not detain them long, after they chose to go; and he had too much regard for horses' rights to tie them in a barn that was bare of hay and provender.

These horses, as well as some others belonging to truckmen, were in those days continually roaming about the streets, an annoyance to men and the dread of women and children,--and sometimes they might be seen in odd positions. When the steeple of St. John's church was in course of erection, a hanging stage was affixed, which was raised and lowered by a tackle; and one morning when the workmen came they found the staging raised high in air, and one of those stray horses standing quietly upon it near the belfry--raised there, out of mischief, by some of the roguish boys. Shepherd's house, black and ragged with age and weather, stood in its last days among the most elegant mansions in the town, forming as whimsical a contrast to other buildings as he did to other men. And among his other notions, he was greatly concerned lest some person might break in while he was absent, and steal his treasure. He was a bachelor, and for many years was without a female domestic. His bedding did not require much attention, for as "the fur which warms the monarch, warmed the bear," so was he made warm by the use of the dressed skins of his departed horses for a nightly covering.

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Shepherd's Farewell

As his strength failed and his house afforded him but a poor shelter, a brother, Robert Ham senior, persuaded him, after much ado, to leave his premises and go to his house, (the house now occupied by his grandson, Asa Ham.) He went only on the condition that he should carry his valuables with him. He did so, and filled a room with old rubbish, in the midst of which stood his bed. There as he lay or sat in his sickness he could see strings of old sleigh bells, assortments of old rusty harness buckles, some old bridles and stirrups, with old horse shoes enough to keep off the witches. There, too, was his bureau, with locked drawers, in one of which was found, after his death, more than a bushel of old tobacco quids. And seeing this trumpery, he seemed comparatively happy, except when troubled with the fear that something might be stolen while he slept.

He was in this exactly like other misers, except that their guineas or dollars took the place of his belts and buckles. And like others, too, though he held his treasure so strongly, yet at last (in November, 1809, at the age of seventy-five,) death loosened his grasp, and he passed away from his toys leaving them to "heirs he knows not who."

Odd as our subject was, he found a few companions who used to visit him at his domicil, especially on Sundays. And as he did not attend church for many years, the little knot that gathered round him was styled his meeting. Hence when any Sunday loafer was questioned as to his place of worship, he would reply that he had been to "Shepherd Ham's meeting," the same as saying that he had idled away the day.

The lot of land descended to Robert Ham junior, who sold it to the Baptist Society in 1828, and on this rock their handsome church edifice was built. As the advance of Christianity smooths the rugged paths and hides the rough places, so have the improvements here hid the unsightly spot which for many years was the rough, but now pleasant western prospect of State street.

Text scanned courtesy of The Brewster Family Network
Copy of Rambles courtesy Peter E. Randall
History Hypertext project by
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