A Love Letter to Seabrook
A place where they’ll stove you up and take you in
There was a time, not too long ago, if you lived in Seabrook and needed your car fixed, you’d call Leo Fowler. Have some home repairs on the to-do list? Howard Janvrin was your man — a giant who was as quiet as he was skilled. Need breakfast? Wayne Perkins was behind the grill at Peter Pan’s Pancake House right on Route 1. It was a Seabrook where Gateway Country Store and the dog track predated Walmart and Home Depot.
It’s also where we stuck our nuclear plant and fireworks stores. It’s home to the triangle of sin — a distillery, a tattoo parlor and an adult novelty shop, all within 100 yards of each other. It’s regularly cited as Al Capp’s inspiration for Li’l Abner and Dogpatch, and too often it’s the butt of the joke. But if that’s all people know about the place, those people just don’t get Seabrook.
Admittedly, it can be quirky. There’s a shared accent that begins at the Salisbury, Massachusetts, border that colors conversation straight through to the other end of town, where it ends abruptly at the Hampton Falls line. It’s often used in a vernacular peppered with phrases like “stove you up,” “ike bub,” or the more recognized “ayuh.” An invitation, then, for those who think it’s all about tattoos and clamming: Meet Seabrook, a town with a strong sense of family, filled with people who trace their roots back generations.
Interstate 95 flies by, but to get a sense of Seabrook, you’ll want to take the more circuitous Route 1, which bisects the town and these days is lined from one end to the other with a collection of big-box stores, eateries and revenue-generating retailers. But it wasn’t always that way.
“It was mostly residential,” says Eric Small, president of the Seabrook Historical Society and a lifelong resident. “It was a farming community with shoe manufacturers and fishermen. Seabrook Village was full of Federalist-style and Colonial buildings. The west side of town was mostly Colonial, and the Depot had a lot of homes built in the 1800s.”
Incorporated 253 years ago, it was originally made up of six smaller villages: Crowtown, Seabrook Village, Smithtown, The Depot, South Seabrook and Seabrook Beach. And while these designations were primarily drawn up by the families who settled there and the train routes, general stores and post offices that served them, you’ll still find them on a map and you’ll still hear people cite them as current.
With almost all of his 71 years spent in town and as the author of “A Visual History of Seabrook New Hampshire,” Small would know. He grew up on Rocks Road, one of nearly 50 or so kids who called the rural neighborhood home. The marsh wasn’t too far off, where Small would wander before heading to a swimming hole near the railroad tracks or down to the blueberry farm. He was never far from grandparents’ or cousins’ homes — a way of life he says provided a grounded upbringing, and explains the preponderance of common family names in town.
“Those are the families who settled here,” Small says of the Dows, Browns, Eatons, Fowlers and Janvrins, among a few other pervasive surnames. “But you’ll find that in most rural communities in New England. People just stayed here. I happened to stay here.”
In close-knit neighborhoods, those families banded together.
“Some people were clearly considered outsiders,” says Deb (Ouellette) Cote, whose family moved to town when she was a toddler. “People grew up together and, frankly, most were related. That’s a unique thing about Seabrook. Many, many people are related, and I wasn’t, so you’re different in that way.”
Then, just a few decades ago, the town began to evolve. Pet City, The Yum Yum Shop, Neil’s Electronics, Pal’s Pub, Tony’s Diner and DeMoulas — where many locals first put on a tie and went to work for Mr. Clancy — lined busy Route 1. Now, most of those shops have been replaced by chain stores, according to Small, reflecting a much more diverse and larger population.
“It’s like that in a lot of towns in New England,” says Small. “The big stores come in and put the small businesses out.”
It’s not all big-box stores, however. When Kevin Kurland dreamed of opening a craft distillery — literally while under mortar fire at the Baghdad Airport on deployment in 2010 — he didn’t know he’d end up in Seabrook. After a little research, visits to other New Hampshire town offices and a look at a number of important elements, he found all roads led to the seacoast.
“The town is very receptive to new businesses,” says Kurland. “It has great infrastructure, town water, a town sewer system and a stable power grid, which is great for industrial production and light manufacturing like myself.”
Located along Route 1 on the northern side of town and named for the state gem-stone, Smoky Quartz produces Solid Granite Vodka, Granite Lightning Moonshine, Granite Coast Rum and V5 Bourbon, among other spirits. Step inside the tasting room and visitors discover a welcoming spot with an authentic New Hampshire lineage. It’s lined with reclaimed wood from a barn built in 1850, and a chalkboard from an old Pittsfield schoolhouse serves to alert visitors about upcoming specials and events.
“I live in Seabrook, so I was very happy to be a resident and to open my business here,” he says. “The town selectmen were very receptive. They asked serious questions, nothing frivolous, and they weren’t negative on it just because it was an alcohol business.”
Money played a factor as well.
“Seabrook has low property taxes and all the things I wanted were in this town,” Kurland says. “It would’ve cost me $200,000 more to open up over the border in Massachusetts.”
It’s been a perfect spot to grow a business for Bruce Brown, owner of Brown’s Lobster Pound and someone whose own lineage predates even the nuclear plant by just a few years.
“My ancestor, John Brown, settled in a part of Hampton, which is now Seabrook, in 1638,” he says, pausing with a storyteller’s expertise. “I’ve been around a while. I tell people I’ve aged well.”
Brown made his own permanent mark on the town in 1972 by taking over operation of the business his father founded 24 years earlier. The instantly identifiable, BYOB, no-frills yellow lobster shack with the riverside deck sitting just a stone’s throw from the Atlantic is a Seabrook landmark in and of itself.
“It’s a good spot there,” Brown says. “On those evenings in the summer, when the sun is setting and the tide comes up over the marsh, it’s just beautiful. People like to just sit and enjoy that.”
Adherents of the uniquely Brown’s way of dining have been known to arrive with their own fine wine, silverware, tablecloths and even candles to add a little DIY ambiance. Diners feast elbow-to-elbow with others at long picnic-style tables. The communal experience puts blue-collar and white-collar patrons, locals and tourists alongside one another — the great New Hampshire seacoast culinary equalizer.
“Crystal Gayle used to come by quite a lot,” Brown says of his colorful clientele. “There have been a lot of politicians — George Bush Jr., Bob Dole, Mitt Romney. One time Willie Nelson came in. One of my workers said to him, ‘You look like Willie Nelson.’ He told her, ‘I’m not.’ She said to him, ‘That’s good, because I don’t like him anyway.’ And he was playing at the Casino that night!”
Just across the marsh, the NextEra Energy Seabrook Station rises above the trees. Construction began on the plant in 1976, the bulk of which was completed 10 years later. Full-power operation began in 1990. And while it became a magnet for protesters during those years, the resulting impact on town has been massive and lasting. A 2013 report by the Nuclear Energy Institute found, among other things, that the plant directly employs 650 people who earn more than double the average salary of workers in Rockingham and Strafford Counties. It generates more than 40% of the state’s electricity, contributes $535 million in economic activity locally, and for every dollar of output, the local economy produced $1.34. When Seabrook went nuclear, it changed everything.
“The nuclear plant came in and because of that revenue, we got a new fire station, a new police station, a new library, we own the oceanfront on Seabrook Beach and sand dunes on the west side of Route 1A, a new water and sewer system and a new elementary school,” Small says. “We made all these improvements and, as a result, we had a lot of growth.”
It’s also what first brought Kurland to town. His father, a construction worker, took a job at the then-under-construction Seabrook nuclear plant in 1982.
“It was the largest construction project in the country at the time,” he says. “Now all three of my kids have been raised in this town. It’s a great place for kids, and the great thing about having a nuclear plant in your backyard is that it helps fund programs that can historically be difficult to find funding for.”
It was an especially good place for Cote, now a senior director of strategic planning and performance at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and an adjunct faculty member at Northeastern University and Harvard. She credits her Seabrook upbringing with equipping her with unique skills.
“I went to school and was in a class with a very economically diverse group of people, and I think that helped me,” she says. “I feel like I could connect people, like I was an ambassador between different groups of friends. It helped me be a far more social person.”
However, those economic and cultural divides could also lead to conflict.
“It could be a tough town,” Cote says. “But I didn’t realize the extent of what surrounding communities thought of Seabrook until I got to high school.”
Cote graduated in 1986 from Winnacunnet High School — a regional district with students from Seabrook, Hampton, Hampton Falls and North Hampton. At the time, the school housed the gym, the theater/auditorium and the cafeteria in the same space. In front of the stage was a sunken orchestra pit, where lunch tables and chairs were placed. The arrangement led to what was likely an inadvertent community-based inferiority complex.
“The rest of the cafeteria was above the pit,” Cote says. “All of the Seabrook kids sat in the pit. Papers have been written about this. We literally sat physically below everyone else. It wasn’t a choice — you sat in the pit if you were from Seabrook. That’s when I realized, ‘OK, you’re in the pit.’ It was fine, because I was with my friends — people I was comfortable with. It didn’t change who I was. I was still an athlete and a dedicated student, but as I became friends with more people, as you do in a regional school, that’s when it hit me — you’re putting people from another town below you,” she says.
“I started to know what people thought of Seabrook as I got older, and that’s just something you take on. You can’t lump people from one area together because of this cartoon image you have in your head.”
In fact, the real Seabrook is a far cry from some of the broad-brush stereotypes that have popped up over the years. Small says the Dogpatch-Seabrook connection is at the very least debatable, and others point to a vibrant commercial district offset by its rural quarters and seacoast as a benefit.
“Spend some time in the town,” Kurland says. “Go down to the beach. Visit the shopping centers. Visit the restaurants — the restaurant scene is really coming up. There’s a lot more to this town than what people might think.”
Many of the old, notable Seabrook faces have gone, and there’s a car wash where Peter Pan’s Pancake House once stood — a reflection of Seabrook’s evolution in recent decades — something residents are embracing, while looking back fondly at its colorful past.
“I have really affectionate memories of growing up here,” Cote says. “My mother still lives there and I made so many close friends there. It was a small town, and that’s where I learned to live with and get along with people who aren’t necessarily always like you. I was formed in Seabrook. My social being was formed there and I was brought up there. I never felt like I was at a loss for an education, the schools were good. It helped make me who I am.”
Everything changed when Seabrook, and the state, went nuclear. Whether referred to by its current, official name, NextEra Energy Seabrook Station, the shorter “Seabrook station,” or more colloquially and commonly as “the nuke plant,” its influence on the town has been dramatic.
Many people came to Seabrook to help build the plant. Still others stopped by to protest. In the 1970s and ’80s, as the identifiable dome began to rise up from the marshland, fears about the safety of nuclear energy came to a head. On August 1, 1976, 600 protesters rallied at the construction site. In May of the next year, more than 2,000 people occupied the site, resulting in more than 1,400 arrests.
The plant was completed — construction on a second unit was abandoned due to delays and cost overruns — and it contributed to establishing much of the town’s infrastructure. And despite fears, including a billboard erected along I-95 positing that evacuation in the event of an accident is impossible, it hums along to this day.
“Because of the NRC, it’s probably safer than where you or I work or live,” says Deb Cote, who grew up in the town. “There’s oversight. But I remember being afraid. Now, my husband works there as a work week supervisor, and he’s been there for almost 30 years.”
Cote, and others, cite the nuclear plant as a positive, in that it has funded much of the town’s infrastructure, and helped Seabrook grow, evolve and become more diverse.
“It had a lot to do with the changing of Seabrook,” Cote says. “It brought in a lot of people, not just from Massachusetts or Maine or Vermont, but from all around the country. That has had an impact.”
Seabrook: Talk the Talk
What’s with that accent?
Is it something particular to New England? More than likely, old England.
As late as the Great Depression, people in Seabrook still spoke much the same way their forebears did hundreds of years earlier. The 1938 “WPA Guide to New Hampshire,” by the Federal Writers’ Project, describes it this way: “A section of the town of Seabrook speaks a language strangely reminiscent of rural England, and at times suggestive of the Yorkshire dialect.”
Step into Brown’s Lobster Pound and you’ll find a perfect example right behind the counter if Bruce Brown is holding court.
“I guess I do have it,” says Brown, owner of the iconic seacoast destination. “I’ve been told it’s the closest thing to hearing the King’s English. When I was in high school, I had a teacher who was a wizard — his name was Roland Woodwell. He was big on Shakespeare, and he used to have me read Shakespeare so that they could hear it with the accent.”
Many of the old families who settled in Seabrook made their way from Wales, which may explain the unique cadence, rhythms and intonation.
“Just being anywhere in New Hampshire, Maine or Vermont — small towns are full of people who didn’t leave. They stayed close together and they have a different dialect,” says Eric Small, president of the Historical Society of Seabrook and a lifelong resident. “It’s very common. Maybe it’s a little unusual here in that it’s particular to Seabrook.”
As a proud lifer, Small also has a preferred name for those who live in town — and he bristles at those who would put on airs when referring to locals by shortened terms like “Brooker” or “bub.”
Pro tip: Don’t use these terms around Small. “The term is ‘a Seabrook resident,’” he says, shortly. “I don’t like those other terms at all. It’s stupid. They are not complimentary terms.”