How NH Created the Modern World
Here are more than 40 places to visit and things to do this summer that illustrate how New Hampshire created the modern world. Sort of.
OK, so New Hampshire may not have actually created the modern world, but the state’s influence on national and global accomplishments and affairs is impressive. From transatlantic communication to Tupperware, the first US trip to space to the modern presidential primary (and even the birth of our nation), Granite Staters showed the way. So, to provide an educational element to summer trips, we’ve created a primer. And to make sure it’s not a vacation buzz kill, we’ve kept it light and breezy. Read on …
The United States
This country wasn’t born, it was created, and we certainly did our part.
New Hampshire was the first colony to declare independence from Great Britain. Celebrate the signing of our own constitution at the American Independence Museum's annual festival held on July 18 in Exeter.
Remember Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s famous poem about that fateful day in ’75 when Paul Revere made his famous ride to warn the Minutemen that the Redcoats were marching to Lexington and Concord? Well, he made a less-publicized trip six months earlier to warn New Hampshire patriots that the Brits were on their way to Fort William and Mary to protect the ordnance stored there. About 400 Minutemen from the Portsmouth area sailed gundalows down the Piscataqua River, stormed the fort and seized the garrison’s powder. It was dispersed to several towns to be at the ready if conflict broke out with the British. You can visit the site, which has been renamed Fort Constitution. It stands on the banks of the Piscataqua River beside the Coast Guard Station in New Castle. You can also sail on a replica gundalow with the Gundalow Company in Portsmouth.
But we weren’t satisfied with just arming the revolutionaries. New Hampshire was the first colony to declare its independence from Great Britain and write its own constitution, a full half year before the Declaration of Independence was signed. (Rhode Island also claims the honor — on a technicality, we say.) The American Independence Museum in Exeter celebrates the signing of the second document with the American Independence Festival, held this year on July 18.
After the document was signed, a little flag waving was in order. The first warship to fly the stars and stripes was the Ranger, a sloop built in Portsmouth and captained by resident John Paul Jones. The John Paul Jones House in Portsmouth is open to this day.
For better or worse, the Republican Party was also conceived in Exeter in 1853 at a secret meeting called by Amos Tuck. Exeter is home of Philips Exeter Academy, where, coincidentally, Abraham Lincoln’s son went to school. Tuck was a state representative who had broken with his Democratic party over the issue of slavery. (By the way, Ripon, Wisc., has long claimed to be the birthplace of the GOP, but their organization was formed months later.)
And there isn’t a New Hampshire resident who isn’t reminded every four years that the modern presidential primary was pioneered by New Hampshire. The beginnings of the first-in-the-nation primary go all the way back to 1913. Its status was cemented into law in 1975 with passage of a bill that provides that whatever dates any other state names for a presidential contest, we’re a week earlier. Deal with it, America.
That, of course, led to our invention of “retail politics” and the world actually pays attention once every four years to the tiny town of Dixville Notch — touted as the first location in America to tally primary votes. (Hart’s Location, which votes at the same time, lost the PR battle.) The spotlight also shines on local haunts like Chez Vachon in Manchester, where candidates can court the state’s most substantial ethnic bloc, Franco-Americans, and get a great plate of poutine. Another is Robie’s Country Store in Hooksett, where Jimmy Carter got his campaign motto, “Jimmy Who?” from a sincere remark by owner Lloyd Robie.
Yeah, we invented it. More or less.
The rich and famous of the late 19th century frequented New Hampshire's grand hotels such as the Omni Mount Washington Resort in Bretton Woods.
Vacations were not uncommon in European history, but the idea of just picking up and traveling to see sights was once something reserved for the rich. New Hampshire’s colonial Governor John Wentworth was among the first to build a second home in the Lakes Region. In 1771 he had an estate built on the banks of Lake Wentworth in what is now known as Wolfeboro. He called the estate Kingswood and had a road built from Portsmouth to accommodate what passed for a quick getaway. Princess Grace and Prince Rainier, Kurt Vonnegut, Jimmy Fallon, Drew Barrymore and French president Nicolas Sarkozy are among the vacationers who followed his lead. Wolfeboro bills itself as “The oldest summer resort in America.”
In the early 19th century backwoodsman Ethan Allen Crawford and his family built an inn and blazed mountaintop trails near the notch that bears his family’s name. A visit to his remote outpost was an early example of eco-tourism. Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau and Nathaniel Hawthorne were among the visitors who soon flocked to see the Old Man of the Mountain, the Flume and other natural wonders in the area. Hawthorne’s short story “The Great Stone Face” publicized the area widely.
But writers weren’t the only creatives to holiday in the Granite State. During the early 19th century, more than 400 artists began to explore the artistic possibilities of the high country leading to the White Mountain School of landscape artists. Two of the most highly regarded artists in the genre, Benjamin Champney and Thomas Cole, have works in the collections of the Currier Museum in Manchester and the New Hampshire Historical Society in Concord.
By the late 19th centuries the railroad and steamships made the state more accessible to common folk and city dwellers, who escaped the sooty, muggy pre-air conditioned metropolises to enjoy the seashore and the mountains.
The Wentworth Hotel in Jackson, Wentworth by the Sea in New Castle, the Omni Mount Washington Resort in Bretton Woods and the Mountain View Grand Resort in Whitefield still entertain guests in high fashion.
Business leaders figured out quickly that just staying in a grand hotel wasn’t enough. You needed attractions. Along with the state branding just about every geological spectacle we possess and building a trail to it, travel entrepreneurs got involved. The trained bears at Clark’s Trading Post in Lincoln, the jolly elves at Santa’s Village in Jefferson and the children’s characters made real in Story Land in Glen were and are essential parts of a New Hampshire childhood.
Blazing trails is just part of our DNA.
At the Isles of Shoals you can visit the replica of Gosport Village, a fishing outpost that dates back to the early 1600s. Photo by Karen Bachelder.
Unlike the Pilgrims to our south, the state’s early settlers weren’t interested in religious freedom as much as in the almighty dollar.
The first real neighborhood in the state arose in the 1630s, but it wasn’t a religious encampment or some kind of political experiment. It was a gathering of about 40 buildings just off the banks of the Piscataqua River in what is now downtown Portsmouth. It was named Strawbery Banke after the wild berries that grew near the mouth of the river. The inhabitants developed a fishing trade and set up a sawmill because the two things the region had in abundance were fish and trees.
Fishing off the Isles of Shoals began even earlier. Fish-drying racks were built there a decade or more before the Pilgrims landed in Plymouth. The trans-Atlantic fishing business hooked a fair share of venture capital and created a lot of jobs. It also drew a few real-life pirates.
Both Strawbery Banke and the Isles of Shoals are primo tourist locations. To get to the Isles of Shoals, you need a boat and some nice weather. The Isles of Shoals Steamship Company is the principal way out there. There’s a nice retreat center or you can tour the gardens of Celia Thaxter, a 19th-century poet and writer who lived and gardened there. The Strawbery Banke Museum is open year-round in Portsmouth with a variety of ways to experience the city through all its historic phases.
But there were those who were not satisfied with just settling on terra firma. Derry native Al Shepard was the first American shot into space, and Concord teacher Christa McAuliffe’s tragic attempt was an inspiration to many. Their careers are celebrated at McAuliffe-Shepard Discovery Center in Concord, where there is a replica of Redstone rocket that brought Shepard into space.
The rocket ship isn’t our only trail-blazing transport. Building the Concord Coach, famous as the stagecoach that won the West, made our Capitol City into a 19th century Detroit, and Dean Kamen’s Segway personal transportation device is a modern marvel. Kamen’s invention has also inspired its share of mockery and become a kind of post-modern icon for neo-Luddites. (By the way, the Segway lives on at a few New Hampshire adventure centers where you can take off-road Segway tours. Gunstock Mountain Resort and Clark's Trading Post both have Segway adventures.)
Before there was Google and Kindle, there were books, remember them? The Peterborough Town Library, founded in 1833, is the first free public library financed by taxation. The funding by the town set a model for the country. You can check out books by writers from the nearby MacDowell Colony (one of the nation’s first artists colonies, opened in 1896). One of them is Thornton Wilder, who transformed Peterborough into “Our Town,” but doubtless spent hours in the library as well. By the way, the public is allowed into MacDowell’s inner sanctum once a year on Medal Day, held this year on August 9.
We also played a pioneering role in other forms of communication. The first transatlantic cable that allowed direct telegraph communication between this country and the Old World began receiving and transmitting messages in Rye in July, 1874. It relied on a newly laid underwater extension of the first transatlantic cable from Europe to Newfoundland that began business several years earlier. The Rye Cable House on Old Beach Road is a former telegraph station for the line, where 16 cable operators were employed 24 hours a day.
Nearby the experimental submarine USS Albacore was launched at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in 1953 — the prototype for the teardrop-shaped hulls of nuclear subs. You can get a hands-on tour of the sub and even take the controls at its permanent landlocked berth in the Port City.
In a more domestic form of invention, Berlin native Earl Tupper changed food storage forever in Baby Boom America. He worked at DuPont, where he acquired some black polyethylene slag and worked it into a flexible container with a burping lid. The product wasn’t a big hit at first; consumers were confused as to how to operate the lids. Store sales for Tupperware lagged, but Tupper realized that by demonstrating his product he could hook buyers. By 1951, he channeled it solely through direct home sales. Tupper hired Brownie Wise, a charismatic single mother and one of his first direct sellers, to design the Tupperware direct selling system. The concept grew to be a household phenomenon, the Tupperware Party — which paved the way for so many other home party businesses to come. Today, a Tupperware demonstration begins approximately every two seconds someplace in the world with yearly net sales exceeding $1.2 billion.
Going against the grain is increasingly the new normal. We helped make it an art form.
Robert Rogers of Portsmouth picked the wrong side during the Revolutionary War. Some of his exploits began or ended at Fort at No. 4 in Charlestown, which is now a living history museum.
Rogers’ Rangers was a commando unit that fought engagements in advance of the British Army during the French and Indian War. Robert Rogers of Portsmouth founded the group that lived off the land and traveled stealthily, often in enemy territory. Their exploits, which foretold the heroics of the Delta Force, Navy Seals and other commando units, were immortalized in the movie “Northwest Passage” starring Spencer Tracy. Some of the Rangers’ sorties began or ended at palisaded Fort at No. 4 in Charlestown. A replica of the fort is open to the public. We might have heard more about Rogers if he hadn’t chosen the wrong side in the American Revolution.
There are other early examples of Granite State contrarianism. There’s a white pine tree in the town of Somersworth that is 128 feet tall. That’s as tall as an eight-story building. It’s the tallest white pine in New Hampshire and one of the very few white pines left in our state that would have been considered large enough to be used as a mast for one of the wooden sailing ships built for the Royal Navy of King George III in the 1700s. In colonial times the king’s men marked white pines more than 12 inches wide with the King’s Broad Arrow. You could own your land, but not your white pines. When a few sawmills were found to be cutting marked trees, the governors fined the mills, but locals rebelled. They blackened their faces with soot and attacked the sheriff at night with white pine switches, then put him on his horse and swatted him down the road. Many consider the Pine Tree Riot to have been the inspiration for the Boston Tea Party
A mill stone on Easton Hill, Rte. 114, the South John Stark Byway in Weare, marks the former site of Quimby’s Inn, where the riot began. Not far away, at the Weare Towne Grille, you can enjoy a “Tall Pine Club Sandwich,” with turkey, ham or tuna, lettuce, tomato and cheese, and salute the feistiness of the European colonists.
The spirit carried on far into 20th-century New Hampshire. The Clamshell Alliance, founded in 1976 to protest the Seabrook nuclear power plant and other nuclear projects, conducted demonstrations and occupied the future site of the nuke. The demonstrators eventually lost the battle, but their efforts inspired many environmental activist groups. Today, visitors can check out the educational displays at the Science and Nature Center at the power plant, or take a trip across the tidal flats to Eastman’s Docks and have a seafood fest at the outside tiki bar at the Tuna Striker overlooking the power plant on the horizon.
Though we might not have been settled by religious contrarians, we’ve certainly had our share. The Seventh Day Adventists (who embrace the original Sabbath of Saturday) were founded in a church in Washington. Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of Christian Science (and the only woman to ever create a major modern religion) was born in Bow, where you can visit her birthplace atop a hill. Eddy’s home in Rumney is operated as a historic site and services are still held at the Seventh Day Adventist Church in Washington.
The Mary Baker House in Rumney — and other homes she graced in North Groton, Concord and a few in Massachusetts — are operated as historic homes by the Longyear Museum. Her small house is not far from Rumney Rocks between Rumney and West Rumney, renowned for their sport climbing routes on Rattlesnake Mountain. The routes range from 40 to 300 feet and most with climbs well-bolted. Rumney is also home of the Polar Caves, a folksy tourist attraction where visitors may climb inside various rock formations. The Polar Caves are reputed to maintain spots of natural ice, even in the heat of summer. How’s that for non-conformity?
If the modern world is really going to hell, then we helped stoke the fire.
Actress Hope Lange played Selena Cross in the film adaptation of NH author Grace Metalious' scandalous novel "Peyton Place."
Some might see this as our contribution to the coarseness of social discourse or the collapse of society as we know it; others might see it as liberation and a contribution to our ability to discuss the unspeakable. It’s your call.
In “Lolita,” Vladimir Nabokov’s novel about a sordid case of statutory rape, antihero Humbert Humbert and his underage inamorata lived in Ramsdale, NH. James Mason played the lusty professor in the movie, but it gave us a bum rap. In the film Buckinghamshire, England, stood in for the fictional Ramsdale.
But the most famous novel that placed us on the bawdy map is “Peyton Place,” Grace Metalious’ tawdry tale about the sexy, dark underbelly of small town life. It raised the hackles of her fellow residents of Gilmanton, who thought they saw themselves reflected in the book. When Metalious sold the movie rights, she bought her dream house, which is now the Gilmanton Winery and Vineyard, where you may have lunch or dinner and hoist a drink to the author of the novel that seems so tame by today’s standard, but which broke literary ground. By the way, the film was shot in Camden, Maine, where locals share videos, so you can visit the locations from the film.
Gilmanton native Herbert Webster Mudgett, aka Dr. H.H. Holmes, was one of the country’s first serial killers, He murdered at least nine, perhaps as many as 200, in his hotel of horrors in Chicago during the Columbian Exposition in 1893. His exploits were immortalized in Erik Larson’s book, “The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic and Madness at the Fair that Changed America.” The home in which Mudgett was born and raised still stands across the street from Gilmanton Academy at the intersection of Province Road and Cat Alley.
It’s not murder, but some could argue that the fast-food craze in America isn’t helping the overall health of the country. The rise of McDonald’s fast-food restaurants may have sounded the death knell for family dinners. The brothers who started the chain, Dick and Maurice McDonald, were born in Manchester. The first McDonald’s in New Hampshire opened in 1964. It still stands on South Willow Street. It was remodeled a few years ago to add wide-screen TVs and a computer station.
It was all about television in the trial of Derry’s Pam Smart — tried and convicted for masterminding the 1990 murder of her husband Gregory. The crime, committed by the teacher’s 15-year-old lover Billy Flynn and three accomplices, created a media sensation and fueled the rise of tabloid television. It also gave Nicole Kidman a chance to chew on the scenery in “To Die For,” the movie inspired by the crime The film was based on a book by NH’s Joyce Maynard, who was herself a memoirist and pioneer in the literary art of hanging out one’s dirty laundry for the neighbors to see (most notably in “At Home in the World,” her story about life as an 18-year-old paramour to a 53-year-old J.D. Salinger).
On a much lighter (though still corrosive) note, the late, great comic, George Carlin, got his first stage experience at Camp Notre Dame on Spofford Lake. For much of his life he wore the comedy/tragedy masks necklace he won for best dramatic performance at the camp. He later championed the seven words you can’t say on television (pre-cable). The routine led to a Supreme Court case that allowed the words under some circumstances and spawned a generation of foul-mouthed late-night television comics. Carlin often began his tours at Hampton Beach Casino Ballroom, where you can still hear top-line acts.