December 22, 2012

A Wartime Christmas

Portraits of New London's service members in 
the grocery store window during World War II.
“We want you to know we are thinking of you, and that the home folks are keeping things going on about as you left them. Of course, some changes are bound to come along, like the arrival of a few faces in our midst and the loss of a few.”

The 5-page inaugural issue of Happenings at Home, from December 1, 1943, was produced by Rev. Harold Buker and others from New London’s First Baptist Church. (It replaced the earlier Flashes from the Hill-Top, first printed in October, 1942, by the local chapter of the American Red Cross.) The monthly newsletters included the latest stories from the town, schools, and organizations — along with updates on the sale of war bonds, blood drives, and the whereabouts of service members. For a little humor, the first issue of Happenings also listed some of the signs observed in buildings along Main Street:
  • We see all, read all, and know all. —Post Office
  • Closed for the duration. —New school
  • Retired – no pension. —Old school
  • Jitterbugging three nights a week. —Hospital
  • Admission 10 cents. —Funeral Parlor
  • Tires FREE – Sunday only. —Garage
  • Red light district. —Smith’s rooms

A year later, the 12-page December issue (No. 13) carried a large “Season’s Greetings” banner, drawn by Miss Doris Phillips, and it described efforts to aid the “boys” during the holidays:
The New London Church and the New London Red Cross have once again joined together in a 50-50 arrangement to send you your Christmas gift box. ...It is truly a community gift.
Because of their early postal deadline, those stationed overseas received fruit cake, while those in the U.S. got homemade cookies; both received other unspecified items. Elsewhere in this issue we find that four "girls" from New London had joined the Army, and one had joined the Navy.

A summary of election results provides another glimpse of the town’s participation in the war. “Of a possible 63 ballots from voters in the armed services, 32 arrived. One was from England, one from Egypt, one from Puerto Rico, one from the Aleutians, two from Belgium, several from all over the Pacific front.” The article reported that New London voters chose Dewey over Roosevelt by a 4 to 1 margin.

When the service men and women returned after the war, they would bring experiences from all over the globe.  Meanwhile, Rev. Buker offered a concluding prayer for the New Year of 1945:

Staunch courage in the present,
Abiding faith in the future,
Happiness today and always.

These homespun newsletters chronicled the town’s everyday life more intimately than any source before or since, and they represent a valuable resource for anyone interested in the wartime history of New London.

October 30, 2012

Qualified Voters

Campaign flyers (2012)
Grouped semi-alphabetically, the list stretches across three glued-up pages. There are over two hundred names. All are men. The mylar envelope in which they are preserved is labeled simply “Voter List, early 1800s.”

The impending elections loom large here in New Hampshire. Post office boxes overflow with campaign flyers launched from left, right and center. At the same time, the phase-in of new voter eligibility/identification laws may discourage some eligible voters and disenfranchise others.

At one time only property-owning, white males were permitted to vote. In 1792 New Hampshire became the first state to eliminate the property requirement. In order to monitor eligible voters, selectmen created a master list of “qualified inhabitants.” The list's existence here in New London was first noted in an 1831 entry made by the town clerk. The same entry is repeated, almost verbatim, at least once more, but it may have been a practice more common than the records suggest. In the 1870s, the official position of “Supervisor of the Check List” was filled, as it has been ever since.

By comparing our “Voter List, early 1800s” with cemetery records, we learned precisely when this collection of eligible voters lived. Furthermore, the clerk’s records confirm that such a list was compiled, publicly posted, and used to qualify voters for the 1844 presidential election.

Town of New London voter check list (1844)

Campaign issues included slavery, the annexation of Texas, and expansion into the Oregon Territory. On the ninth ballot, the Democratic Party finally nominated pro-expansion candidate James K. Polk. The Whig Party chose Henry Clay in one ballot despite his earlier failed presidential bids.

Among the third party candidates was Joseph Smith, Jr., founder of the Latter Day Saints and publisher of the Book of Mormon. Smith's candidacy ended on June 27th when he was killed by a mob that stormed the Illinois jailhouse where he had been detained. The party-less presidential incumbent, democrat John Tyler, had many supporters but withdrew from the race on August 24th rather than risk splitting the vote. Representing the anti-slavery Liberty Party, James Birney was an alternative choice for anti-slavery Whigs, while some voters were enticed to vote for Polk by his pledge to serve only one term. (He kept that pledge and died of cholera a few months after his term ended.)

The “inhabitants of the town of New London... qualified to vote” were “notified & warned” to meet at one o’clock in the afternoon, on Monday, November 4, 1844, in order to choose six electors for president of the United States. On this day, the slate of electors led by William Badger received 78 votes, while Joseph Low’s garnered 68 and Jesse Woodbury’s trailed with 55. None was identified by party affiliation but they represented the Democratic, Whig and Liberty parties respectively. After recording the tally, the town clerk included the following notation in his book:
“And the Moderator caused each voter’s name to be checked on a list for that purpose at the time his vote was received... “

There were two other items considered that day: 55 voted in favor of abolishing capital punishment with 106 opposed, and just 20 voted in favor of altering the state constitution with 86 opposed.

In New London the total number of votes cast for presidential electors was 201, for a participation rate of 95%; the nationwide turnout was 79%, which nearly matches the percentage of registered voters participating in our last (2008) presidential election. 

Although James Polk won the national contest, within New England he carried only New Hampshire and Maine. He also had the distinction of losing both his birth-state of North Carolina and Tennessee, where he had served as governor. In fact, Polk won the popular majority by just 1.4% in November, but he took 62% of the votes cast by presidential electors on December 4, 1844.

New London's 2012 checklist has been prepared for next Tuesday’s election, so make sure you can either prove your identity or sign a “challenged voter affidavit” — perhaps a relic for some future archivist to explore.


September 17, 2012

Another Walk

Last Saturday the Town Archives and the Historical Society once again produced a memorable walking tour for those interested in the history of New London. The tour resumed at the very spot we ended last year, near the Main Street offices of the Charter Trust Co. From there, guides escorted tour groups through time and place as our seven character actors related their roles and recollections of significant events. This year's tour ended at the New London Barn Playhouse.

If you have questions about anything you saw or heard, we would be happy to try to respond — just contact us through the Archives web site. You may also review many of the historic images from the tour at our online image gallery.

A tour group meets 'Ma' Barrett, proprietor of Maplewood Farm on Main Street.

June 7, 2012

Old Barns

Over its long history, the Town Archives Committee has undertaken projects that today might fall under the purview of a Heritage Commission. These include publications, road signs, house markers, and surveys or inventories of historical resources. Continuing in that role, we recently provided research and advice to our town administrators as they developed a process to evaluate applications made under RSA 79-D, New Hampshire's so-called "Barn Law."

The state law is now ten years old, but this spring marked the first time a local homeowner had applied for the discretionary easement and tax abatement designed to keep historic agricultural structures on our landscape. The law was meant to alleviate a tax-induced disincentive for keeping barns and other outbuildings in good repair — namely, the increased assessment (and corresponding property taxes) resulting from the maintenance of those buildings, which once represented income-producing assets but are now more often seen as useless liabilities.

Between 1850 and 1870, the federal census included detailed agricultural schedules. In 1870 New London had 128 farms, each of which probably had at least one barn and a number of outbuildings. Our 2012 field survey of extant barns indicates that fewer than 50 might be older than 75 years, and far fewer date from 1870 or earlier. So when the owners of a 1792 farmstead approached the town about a preservation easement on their barn, we saw this as the perfect inaugural case. Our research traced the history of the property's ownership from its first lotting-out in 1773 to the present. Using census data and tax records, we also gathered snapshots of the farm's agricultural operations until the late 1800s when it was converted into a guest house to serve New London's summer tourist trade.

In assessing historic properties, preservationists look for two things: significance and integrity. The terms have technical definitions that set a high hurdle for recognition programs like the National Register of Historic Places. This farmstead would probably not clear that hurdle because its significance is not of a national scope, but it would be considered eligible for the State Register. Its significance stems from its association with the area's agricultural development and later transition to a more recreation-based economy. Its integrity stems from its construction of hand-hewn timbers, its prominent setting on a working hayfield, and its design as part of a connected farmhouse complex. For all those reasons the town administrators decided at a public hearing that this barn represented a public benefit worthy of consideration for tax abatement under RSA-79D.

When people ask what purpose the Town Archives serves, we are hard-pressed to come up with a succinct response. We never know where the next inquiry into our town's history will lead.

April 26, 2012

Historic Demolition

A brief update on an earlier story...

After a year-long delay, the former SAU 65 building on New London's Main Street was demolished and trucked off to a landfill. Before the Kearsarge Regional School District acquired the building, it had served as a restaurant and as the town's first place of Catholic worship. Learn more from Catholic Heritage, posted here last April.

Demolition of the former SAU 65 / Our Lady of Fatima Church - April 26, 2012

April 17, 2012

The Future of History

Rev. Jeremy Belknap's History of New-Hampshire, 1784.
His second volume was not published until 1792.  
Every fifty years or so, the Town Archives is charged with producing another installment of the published history of New London, New Hampshire. From planning to production, this monumental task takes five years or more. The most recent edition was printed in 2000. So, without a looming deadline, we can contemplate the uncertain future of the printed book, and we can only imagine how the town history of 2050 might appear. Will an edited version of our local history exist? Will researchers simply cull from myriad primary sources whatever meets their search criteria? Will the authoritative history of the future be created dynamically by successive generations—an open-ended, on-line collaboration? It's not only possible but likely.

We will miss the printed volumes. The Archives collects local histories printed on heavy paper and bound in the traditional fashion. We especially like those early- and mid-19th century histories, authored by a local minister on the occasion of some anniversary. Over time, their structure became formulaic: volume one containing the narrative of events, sometimes chronological, sometimes thematic, and documenting a town's government, industry, and civic institutions; volume two presenting the genealogy of settlers and residents. But voice and contents vary. Some contain humor and anecdotes and other surprises. Many contain a necrology, memorializing those citizens remarkable for their longevity or for tragic, shocking, or horrific deaths. As chronicled by Rev. Nathaniel Bouton in his History of Concord, New Hampshire (1856), the number of drownings, accidental or otherwise, in the Merrimack River is astonishing today.

One avid reader of local and regional histories was Henry D. Thoreau of Concord, Massachusetts. Traveling by train to visit a destitute Bronson Alcott, then living rent-free in Walpole, New Hampshire, Thoreau consulted his New England Gazetteer and reflected on local histories in his journal entry of September 10, 1856.
When the water [near Bellow's Falls] is lowest, it is contracted to sixteen feet here, and Peter's, an old history of Connecticut, says it was so condensed that you could not thrust a crowbar into it. It did me good to read his wholesale hearty statements,—strong, living, human speech, so much better than the emasculated modern histories, like Bancroft's and the rest, cursed with a style. I would rather read such histories, though every sentence were a falsehood, than our dull emasculated reports which bear the name of histories. The former, having a human breath and interest behind them, are nearer to nature and to truth, after all. The historian is required to feel a human interest in his subject and to so express it.
Thoreau's then-private journal was not lacking his trademark hyperbole. Many of those "modern" histories from the mid-1800s were indeed rote affairs, devoid of character. Many were "dull" sermons. But not all. Some were both factual and engaging for the glimpse of the bygone era they provide the modern reader.

Over the past few months, news media have highlighted at least three instances in which facts have been reshaped into falsehoods—calling Thoreau's bluff. First, an article published in The Believer magazine painted a bleak portrait of depravity and suicide in Las Vegas. Facts were altered for stylistic effect: names changed, dates shifted, and places moved. Author John D'Agata, a creative writing teacher at the University of Iowa, insisted that an "essay" is not subject to journalistic standards of fact-checking. The second was a Disney production, Newsies the Musical. Based on an actual newsboy strike in 1899, many details were altered or conflated for dramatic effect. The New York Times quoted playwright Harvey Fierstein: "But facts are not what drama is." The third was the monologue entitled The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs. Author Mike Daisey tried to explain: "I believe that when I perform it in a theatrical context in the theater[,] that when people hear the story in those terms[,] that we have different languages for what the truth means."

From within their creative worlds, none of these authors felt constrained by historical facts, and all seemed surprised when reviewers criticized their presentations as misleading or manipulative. But even the most fact-checked, academic history is written from the distinct perspective of a researcher/author. Early town histories were no different; the historical texts produced by ministers differed from those of politicians or businessmen in their subject focus and rhetorical style. By the close of the 19th century, however, many towns published the collective work of committees. Lacking a consistent human voice and following a rigid protocol, the books certainly would have elicited Thoreau's contempt. And what of the on-line, wiki-generated history of the future? Over the coming decade we may learn what forms it might take. Meanwhile, the Archives will continue collecting both the historical facts and the "hearty statements" needed to create our next local history.

  • "The Fact-Checker Versus the Fabulist." New York Times February 21, 2012.
  • "Read All About It! Kids Vex Titans!" New York Times March 2, 2012.
  • "Mike Daisey Apologizes for Falsehoods in Monologue About Apple." New York Times March 26, 2012.
  • Torrey and Allen, ed. The Journal of Henry D. Thoreau, Vols. VIII–XIV. New York: Dover, 1962.

February 29, 2012

Hybrid Vehicles

Moxie is an acquired taste. First developed as a patent medicine by Dr. Augustin Thompson of Maine (but practicing in Lowell, Mass.) after the Civil War, this bitter product of the gentian root was transformed into a bottled, carbonated beverage in 1880s. The drink's iconic status, however, was more a product of its marketing than its taste. Unlike many "medicines" of the time, Moxie did not contain alcohol and was advertised as beneficial for all ages, especially the temperate.

Early Horsemobile at B.F. Sargent's store in New London.
Subsequent marketing efforts included the horse-drawn Moxie Bottle Wagon of the late 1880s. Around 1905, an early automobile was outfitted with distinctive Moxie lettering. These two concepts were fused into a new hybrid vehicle around 1915 — the Moxie Horsemobile. With its gas and brake pedals extended to the stirrups, and its steering wheel protruding from the horse's withers, the rider/driver was perched some five feet above the roadbed.

The prototype proved dangerously unstable and was soon replaced by another version based on a Dort Motor Car chassis and a light-weight, paper-mache horse, obtained from a defunct tack and harness shop. Over the next couple of decades, new Horsemobiles were constructed from Buicks, LaSalles, and at least one Rolls Royce.

Three Horsemobiles at Kidder's Garage.
Moxie's fleet of Horsemobiles was dispatched to parades and pubic exhibitions throughout New England and as far west as Ohio. Photographs in the town's Archives show that Horsemobiles visited New London on at least two unidentified occasions.

Once a national brand, the cash-strapped Moxie was forced to limit its advertising in the 1930s and lost its market share. Moxie remains the official drink of Maine, but it's no longer distributed beyond the New England states.

You can visit the only remaining original Horsemobile at Clark's Trading Post in Lincoln, NH, and maybe sample a cold Moxie while you're there.

January 23, 2012

Ski Tows

Winter sports may be off to a slow start this year for lack of natural snow, but that wasn't always the case. Since the 1930s, New Londoners have promoted the town's winter recreation as a means of attracting visitors during the off season. Local children, of course, made their own excitement, and many residents still have memories of thrilling rides down the South Pleasant Street hill on a double-runner sled. Their parents, meanwhile, organized winter carnivals and constructed ski areas to embrace, and perhaps profit from, the snowbound months.

The second ski tow (1948–1961)
New London's first ski tow, off of Seamans Road, operated in 1939 and 1940. Colby Junior College wanted to offer skiing for its students (then all women), so it hired three young men, Harold Buker, Maurice Shepard, and Dick Messer to provide a lift. They anchored a 1929 Ford Model A to a Kearsarge Telephone Co. pole and ran a rope around one of the rear wheels, jacked up and fender-less. It served its purpose, but the second world war intervened. Shepard was stationed in Newfoundland. Buker's bomber was downed in the North Sea, and he became a German POW. Messer was killed on the final day of hostilities in Europe.

Sketch of the GMC truck-powered tow rope
But interest in skiing was renewed after the war, and in November 1947 a small group organized the New London Outing Club to help construct a local ski tow. It leased property from Camp Tonawanda on Pleasant Lake and bulldozed a trail up the hill towards Seamans Road—with volunteers and other assistance from the college and local businesses. They built a warming hut and installed an 800-foot rope tow.

Postcard view of Pleasant Lake (c. 1955)
On January 3, 1948 the Northeast Ski Tow opened. The slope was operated as a private venture by Wes Blake, who had prior experience, but when it proved less profitable than expected, the New London Outing Club purchased Blake's share for $3,100 (with $2,000 borrowed from the bank in Newport). The club took over the lease, equipment, and operations.

The non-profit Outing Club hoped that a successful ski tow would help fund other programs like skating, swimming and even contribute to the Information Booth. In his 1948 Planning Board report, Chairman Ken Rich wrote: "We are glad to report satisfactory progress on the ski area with the erection of a ski tow and we hope through other organizations to see a skating rink before another year."

For all their optimism, the early years were lean, presenting frequent cash flow problems. Club Treasurer Mary Wright recalled that she often called on founder and president Bill Clough, Jr. to cover overdrafts. The ski area did become self-funding—especially during early-snow years when the slopes could open in time for the Christmas break. Despite modest expansion to three trails, demands for more terrain, more instruction, and more lift capacity prompted the search for a new hill. The old ski tow closed in March 1961, and King Ridge Ski Area opened the following December. Having introduced the sport to a post-war generation of townspeople, college students, and visitors, the ski tow had served the community well.

  • Buker, Harold W., Jr. Oral History Interview (April 1992)
  • Clough, Dr. William, Jr. "The Outing Club and King Ridge" (September 1976)
  • Lauridsen, Laurids. "New London's Northeast Slopes" (January 1976)
  • Squires, J. Duane. Mirror to America: A History of New London, New Hampshire 1900–1950
  • Stecker, Anne Page. Our Voices, Our Town: A History of New London, New Hampshire 1950–2000