The Happiest Country Mouse
Discovering the voice of New Hampshire’s Troubadour
photo courtesy of the library of the university of massachusetts amherst
Thomas Dreier with his Airedale, Robbie, and an “unidentified” woman (probably Blanche) outside their home in Melvin Village in 1936.
I first heard about the New Hampshire Troubadour in New Zealand. My wife and I were admiring a lake that was a paradise of turquoise waters and black swans when a local man and his wife introduced themselves and asked us where we were from.
“The US,” we said. When they asked further, we began narrowing it down: The East Coast, New England —
“Really? Where?” the man asked, his interest keen.
He reacted like he’d won a jackpot. He’d always wanted to go to New Hampshire. For years he’d been collecting this little magazine, New Hampshire Troubadour. Did we know it? We didn’t.
They invited us back to their house for tea and he showed us a few copies of a slim, pocket-sized magazine. The Troubadour was first issued by the state in 1931 and ran until 1951. In those pages, New Hampshire is a Yankee Shangri-La.
Here are a few titles of the magazine’s short homilies: “Thank God for Quiet Things”; “At the Farm Time Flows Smoothly”; “Bringing in a Birch Log”; “But We Find Contentment.”
The first issues were the work of Thomas Dreier, an advertising copywriter who made a fortune publishing business magazines with “bits of humor, intercompany news and positive thinking.” Dreier had money for his beloved “Sunny Meadows” farm in Melvin Village and trips to Italy with this wife. And this was in the early 1930s.
He loved his New Hampshire farm so much that there’s a fold-out photo of his house under the elms in the back of a collection of Troubadour essays that he published in 1933. “Our farmhouse rests on cut granite foundations,” Dreier wrote. “The hand hewn timbers held together by wooden pegs have done their duty for more than 150 years. The whole place suggests permanence, solidity, comfort, peace and simplicity.”
The Troubadour of the early 1930s is a quiet manifesto for country living. It is knowing in a way that includes the reader. It never pleads; it saunters. It affects a laconic manner. The superiority of country life is assumed. The narrator is just unspooling the roll a bit, coaxing the reader to indulge his or her fantasy of country life. Written by a professional country mouse and mailed mostly to city mice, the Troubadour offered relief from the Great Depression. Here, away from the rush and ugliness of modern America, Dreier promised, you’ll find peace.
In the Troubadour, we’d say today, Dreier was defining the state’s brand. He extended his efforts: He started writing a column, “Sunny Meadows Farm Philosophy” for The Granite State News, which was soon syndicated around the state and broadcast on a Boston radio station.
Dreier called on his friends and summer neighbors to write for the magazine, including Earnest Elmo Calkins and Walter Dorwin Teague — names that don’t jump out at you unless you know the history of advertising and design. Calkins and Teague were promoters of the streamlined future, champions of the Machine Age.
Calkins, an advertising executive, led the way in creating the modern consumer. In the late 1920s, he wrote that people weren’t using up products fast enough. They’d buy a stove and hold on to it forever. But, Calkins said, what if we could get people to “use up” stoves and “motor cars” the way they “use up” biscuits and toothpaste? Would newer models “speed up their consumption?” Calkins asked. “Can artificial obsolescence be created?” His goal: Make products look dated, “make people dissatisfied.” He was attacking thrifty American habits, the old Yankee ways extolled in the Troubadour.
Teague was a pioneer in the profession created to speed consumption. As an industrial designer, he was known for his streamlined designs for Kodak cameras, radios, desk lamps, the iconic Texaco service stations, and, at the 1939 New York World’s Fair, the seven-story cash register building for the National Cash Register Company that rang up the daily attendance. You can’t get much further from Sunny Meadows than an enormous cash register.
Calkins and Teague were big movers for a sleek, cosmopolitan life, and here they were under the elms in New Hampshire, rejoicing in summer. If any of this troubled the genial company man Dreier, he never said. He was the happiest country mouse. He knew that we live in our idea of the world, as much as we live in the world. Our ideas create our landscapes, give us the language we use, and define what we are capable of seeing. Since the first Europeans arrived to clear the land and bestow the names of English counties and Englishmen on the land, we have lived in the idea of New Hampshire. This place is granite and maple, yes, but it is also a collection of imported ideas. Dreier had his ideas, and the woman unpacking her U-Haul right now after a 700-mile-long move has her ideas of her new home. Dreier knew this.
He went on extolling country life in his homilies with titles like: “What a Fine Job I Have”; “Less Money & More Happy Living.” New Hampshire was the best place on earth — until it wasn’t. In 1935, Dreier moved to Florida, where he lived for the next 41 years. He was happy there too.
The Troubadour Lives (Sort of)
The New Hampshire Troubadour may be (mostly) forgotten, but it’s certainly not gone. Bound editions of the entire run are still available to read and admire at the NH State Library (though they cannot be checked out for home enjoyment). Also, any collector will find an ample supply of slightly tattered back issues on eBay and Amazon.
In the final issue, November 1951, the editor announced the end of their run but also announced a successor — the larger-format (and arguably more successful) New Hampshire Profiles magazine, which went on to earn its own reputation as an affirmative guide to our state.
In 2008, an attempt was made at a revival of the Troubadour. The Finlay Foundation, a nonprofit group created by businessman Robert J. Finlay and his wife Karin, underwrote the editing and publication of a new version with similar goals of celebrating the character of the state. Copies were sent out for free to 50,000 New Hampshire residents with an additional 20,000 copies going to libraries, historical groups and legislators. It was also distributed to all of the state’s fourth grade students and teachers. The effort lasted less than two years.