New Boston’s Historic Fourth of July Celebration
New Boston, New Hampshire, loves the Fourth of July so much the whole town turns out for the parade, and half of them are in it.
On a typical day, a drive into the quiet, friendly town of New Boston is rather uneventful.
Leaving the center of Goffstown, you drive along Route 13 South and before long you’re traveling on a stretch of wooded, mostly uninhabited road along the Piscataquog River. A few miles more and you pass the turnoff to the Hillsborough County Fairgrounds on your right and Daniels Garage on your left. You pass through a small residential neighborhood when suddenly a large, white church looms directly in front of you. You have arrived in the center of what might be called downtown New Boston, except New Boston has no “uptown.”
The compact village is the heart of a community of some 5,500 people spread out over the town’s 45 square miles. As you look around, it seems the village has one of everything — a church, an antiques shop, a hardware store, a general store. A slow but steady stream of customers flows in and out of Dodge’s Store, while others sit on benches or at a picnic table on the store’s generous front porch, enjoying a snack or simply watching the world go by. Colonial- and Victorian-style houses, many of them built around the beginning of the last century, give the village a decidedly retro look, calling to mind Garrison Keillor’s description of the fictional Lake Wobegone: “The little town that time forgot and the decades cannot improve.”
Then one summer day you travel the same route and find your drive into town is halted by a police barrier just outside the village. A long line of strange characters is marching straight toward you, followed by a number of odd-looking vehicles until they all turn down the road leading to the fairgrounds. Crowds of people are standing or sitting on their porches and lawns, cheering the procession. As you walk the last half-mile or so, men on horseback, clowns and antique cars go by. Men on an antique fire truck playfully spray water on youngsters on the side of the road. Delighted, the young ones fire back with giant water guns. It is a little after 10 a.m. and New Boston’s famous Fourth of July celebration is already in high gear.
In this town, you discover, the Fourth of July isn’t just a summer holiday. It’s more like a scaled-down version of Mardi Gras in a small New England town, and it is both the source and object of considerable civic pride.
“No town celebrates the Fourth of July quite like New Boston,” declares a blurb on the website of the New Boston Historical Society, noting that the town began celebrating the Declaration of Independence promptly in 1776, with prayers and patriotic speeches. These days, the July 4th parade, with its highly decorated floats, bands and costumed characters, lasts an hour or more, and is followed by an afternoon of fun and games at the fairgrounds, all leading up to the night’s fireworks display.
“It is the biggest single event every year,” says Laura Bernard, now in her second year as president of the New Boston Fourth of July Association “Every policeman in town is on duty that day. It’s all hands on deck for the Fourth of July.” An estimated 1,500 to 2,000 people crowd the streets to watch the parade and about the same number pay the $5 fee for admission to the fairgrounds.
The day begins with the ringing of the tower bell at New Boston Community Church, that large, white structure at the heart of the village and the center of much of its year-round activity. Pastor Robert “Woody” Woodland welcomes early arrivals to the 8 a.m. “Burrito Breakfast,” an event that might seem more in keeping with a Cinco de Mayo than a Fourth of July celebration. The tradition began several years ago at the suggestion of a new arrival from Texas and has been carried on ever since.
“A lot of people come here early to get a good spot to watch the parade,” Woodland explains. The informal breakfast gives them something to do as well as something to eat while waiting for the 10 a.m. start. Woodland, a former radio talk show host known for his wry sense of humor, adds to the day’s levity as he narrates the parade over a public address system, filling in gaps with humorous asides on anything from the previous day’s baseball scores to that day’s tennis matches at Wimbledon. His good-natured wisecracks include his regular teasing of the women representing the Daughters of the American Revolution. He seldom fails to remark on how young they look “for people who were around at the time of the Revolution.” The ladies of the DAR are often not amused.
“I’ve heard that,” Woodland chuckles.
The Fourth of July is also the day to honor the town’s “Oldest and Newest Citizen.” For the past six years, Howard Towne, now 99, has held the Boston Post cane, awarded to the town’s oldest resident. The newest, or youngest, citizen is a bit harder to find. The search is on for the child who will be born closest to this year’s Fourth of July.
“We don’t have any inside information about who’s having babies,” says Bernard, so each year “I start introducing myself to anyone I see who is pregnant to find out if they live in town and what their due date is.”
Last year’s winner was Xavier Hippert, born May 15. His father, Mike, marched in the parade, pulling behind him the family’s three older boys in three separate wagons, joined by ropes. Accompanying them was a sign that read, “Our first three attempts at the Newest Citizen.”
Out at the fairgrounds, three rounds are fired from the Molly Stark cannon, one of the town’s prized possessions and a source of historical pride. Named for the wife of General John Stark, the cannon was surrendered by the British to the famous New Hampshire general at the Battle of Bennington, Vermont, in 1777. Stark later turned the cannon over to New Boston Artillery Company as a reward for its contribution to the Bennington victory. Though the company disbanded in 1852, the cannon has remained in the town ever since. When it is not in use on historic occasions, it’s housed as the premier exhibit at the New Boston Historical Society.
While there is some variation from one Fourth to the next, there are a number of staples to the daylong celebrations. Time-honored contests, like the three-legged races and watermelon-eating contests, are a must. A mud pit is hosed down each year to accommodate a volleyball tournament, in which players appear to enjoy the muck and mud as much as the volleys and serves. Horsemen in cowboy garb ride in a fenced-off area, shooting out balloons at full gallop in a competition in riding skills and marksmanship. Musical and drama groups perform on stage, while concessionaires are busy serving up ice cream, cotton candy, hot dogs, hamburgers and other culinary delights. The barbeque chicken dinner is a crowd favorite and typically sells out in the first hour or so.
Planning for the event and the day’s work itself takes the efforts of scores of volunteers to organize the events, sell tickets and sponsorships, coordinate the parking and, of course, plan and organize the parade. In a way, the Fourth of July never ends in New Boston. Planning for the next Fourth begins on July 5.
“Everyone reviews what went well and what didn’t, and we establish the theme for the next parade,” says Martha Sareault, this year’s parade coordinator.
For 2018 the theme is “Heroes,” and the expectation is that people of all ages will march or ride on floats, dressed up to represent heroes of all eras, from George Washington to the latest action comics hero. “We’re leaving it up to the public how they want to interpret it,” says Sareault. “It could be a community hero or a superhero.” Sareault is planning a “puppy parade” within the parade this year, with local canines, many in costume no doubt, representing heroes of one kind or another.
The parade’s history suggests that whatever the participants come up with, it will be imaginative and colorful. Wayne Daniels, cochair for this year’s fireworks, recalls a giant dragon in a year when the parade theme was “Chinese New Year.”
“They used dry ice to create the smoke coming out of his nose,” says Daniels, while a backhoe concealed under the creature’s hindquarters moved the beast along. One of a dwindling number of New Boston natives, Daniels recalls that over the years parade watchers have seen everything from the Beverly Hillbillies to Scud missiles shooting at Iraq.
A panel of three judges chooses the winners in the separate categories of large and small floats, with $75, $50 and $25 awarded to the top three in each category. It’s a chance for the winners to add a little cash to their pride of accomplishment, but as in any such contest, it might also be a way for the judges to make enemies.
“There have sometimes been grumblings, like ‘Oh, they won because they’re longtime residents of the town,’” says Bernard. “But I’ve never heard of any judges being personally maligned. I think more often than not people choose to have their floats in the parade because it’s a wonderful experience for neighborhoods, families, groups of friends, often with kids spending weekends putting it together. Most people think it was just so much fun doing it.”
Indeed, the friendliness and civility one finds on a visit to the town is no one-day affair, says Dick Moody, who’s lived in New Boston since 1967.
“Everybody seems to get along,” he says, including people with sharply opposing viewpoints. “Very rarely do you hear discord, anybody arguing. Even at selectmen’s meetings, nobody yells at the selectmen or calls people names.”
That leaves the fireworks in town pretty much limited to the Fourth of July variety or the simulated firings in reenactments of American Revolution or Civil War battles staged at various times during the year. Moody, a longtime member of the New Boston Historical Society, has found that in a town that prides itself on its volunteer spirit, it’s also easy for someone to get drafted for an office he didn’t seek.
“I missed a meeting once and they made me president,” says Moody, who served in that role for 18 years until the members elected former state representative David Woodbury president last fall. “I kept telling them, year after year, I didn’t want to do this anymore. I think they finally took pity on me.” Though the town still has an active grange and other civic organizations, the number of volunteers is shrinking, Moody says. “In all the organizations, it’s the same people. … People are disappearing all the time.”
The town’s once-thriving agricultural industry has all but disappeared and local employment opportunities are pretty much limited to a few locally owned stores, shops, independent contractors and auto mechanics. Most of New Boston’s adult population is either retired or employed elsewhere. “It’s very much a bedroom community,” Moody says.
“These days people have so much going on with their jobs, two jobs sometimes,” says Dan MacDonald, the town’s part-time fire chief. “It puts some pressure on their being able to volunteer. We have fewer people doing more for more people.”
Yet MacDonald has a contingent of 44 on-call firefighters and no shortage of stories to tell about people helping people in need. When a cancer patient was unable to get out of his house, volunteers from the fire department built a ramp to his front door and the New Boston Community Church donated a wheelchair. When a woman in town lost her home in a fire, the firefighters organized a fundraising effort that brought in a little over $5,000 in assistance.
“People don’t understand until they have a disaster that there are a lot of people in New Boston who will come to that neighbor’s aid,” says MacDonald. The spiritual lift that gives people, he says, “is 10 times more important than the money.”
When voters at town meeting three times turned down requests for funds for a new building for the Whipple Free Library, a committee of volunteers took on the task.
“They hired a professional fundraiser who identified people who were able to make major contributions,” says Sarah Chapman, the town librarian. “Then they visited those people.” In the end, the committee raised nearly $1 million and the town contributed $100,000 from the capital fund. There were also a number of in-kind contributions from local contractors and subcontractors who donated their skill and labor. All of the library’s computers, both for office and public use, are also a gift, though Chapman won’t say from whom.
“I’m not going to tell you,” she says, “because they didn’t want anyone to know.”
Longtime residents will tell you the town has grown by leaps and bounds and the Census figures bear them out. The biggest surge came in the 1980s when the population jumped from 1,928 to 3,214, an increase of 66.7 percent. The growth rate had slowed by the last decade, with 4,138 numbered in 2000 and 5,321 in 2010. Still, a decade’s population growth of just under 29 percent is nothing to sneeze at. Homebuyers looking for the small-town life may have found New Boston real estate a bit more price-friendly than in some upscale communities nearby. Local real estate agent Heidi Palmer estimates that a home in New Boston still costs on average about 10 percent less than a similar property in Bedford or Amherst.
“But it’s on the upswing, because New Boston is a very sought-after community,” she says. “I think we’re going to be catching up; I would say in about a year.”
While its old-fashioned Fourth of July and the Hillsborough County Agricultural Fair each September may have helped put New Boston on the map, there are at least a few in town who would just as soon not have it there.
“I want it to remain a little town,” says Steve Young, owner of New Boston Hardware. “If that means you have to leave town to go after things, like major grocery shopping and gas, or things that I or Dodge’s Store can’t supply, well, that’s the way it is.” Young has lived all his life in the town and likes to pretend he doesn’t remember how long that is. (“Oh, lord, do I have to do the math? … I’ll be 54 in November.”) He believes there is a clear difference between the attitudes and expectations of the town’s natives and those who have moved from larger towns or cities.
“Natives, I think, accept the town for what it is and what we have, though things have changed,” he says. “I find the ones that have moved into town and want this service or that, they’re gone in five years. If you didn’t grow up in Small Town USA, you’re not going to like Small Town USA. If you want a
Starbucks within walking distance, that’s not Small Town USA.”
Being a newcomer to the town might not be a handicap, but it is a distinction often carried to the grave — and beyond. Woodland recalls his own days as a new arrival, having come to town as the then-temporary pastor of the Community Church some 35 years ago. Soon after, he attended calling hours for a woman who came to New Boston as an infant and lived in the town until she died in her 90s. As he was leaving, a woman approached him and said of the deceased, “She wasn’t a native, you know.”
“It’s not a divide like people don’t like each other,” Woodland says. “It’s more of a cultural divide. I grew up in a suburb of New York where you’d never hear that. It’s more of a small-town thing.”
“I kid around about it,” says Bernard, who admits to being “a newcomer,” having lived in town a mere 27 years. “There are many people in town who grew up here and are maybe second or third generation, but I never really heard anybody make a big deal about it.” Besides, her day job is at Town Hall, where she is “selectmen’s assistant, assessor’s clerk, benefits administrator; it depends on what I’m doing that day.” Working for the town makes her “more of a townie,” she says.
Mary and Amir Atai moved into town during a blizzard in March of last year, when a friendly neighbor plowed their driveway so the moving van could get in. Mary quickly became a fixture at the New Boston Historical Society where she is known as “our newest volunteer.” She finds residents of the small town “closer-knit, more friendly” than the community she left in New Jersey.
“Everybody knows everybody and keeps track of everybody,” she says. “Some people might mind that, but I’m fine with it.” The locals, she has found, are “very tolerant, very accepting. It’s so friendly, I almost can’t keep up with all the offers and invitations.”
Randy Parker, a New Boston resident since 1963 says, “When we moved in, there were probably about 900 people. It was a small town, a pretty forgotten community. Coworkers said, ‘Don’t go to New Boston, it’s like a frontier out there.’ I thought that would be a good place to live, with all the growth around Nashua and Amherst.”
He still lives in the town and appreciates the community spirit and some of the activities, like the farmers market, that are held in the center of town. But he doesn’t mind telling you he is not a fan of the huge event the town’s Fourth of July has become.
“It just sort of disrupts the village and we live in the village,” he says. “It brings a lot of people in town from outside and creates a lot of parking problems. … I don’t think it’s in tune with a small town or village-type activity.”
As for the distinction between natives and newcomers, Parker a 55-year resident of the 255-year-old town has found a way to redefine it.
“We’re not natives,” he says, “but a lot of people don’t remember when we came. That’s the only way to get to be a native. A pseudo-native.”
One way to find a true native to New Boston is to come to the parade and look for the float with New Boston’s youngest citizen. That way you’re almost certain to meet someone who has lived in town since the day they were born.