Our Granite Chautauqua

The “Chautauqua” movement began just a few decades after the Civil War with a goal of bringing people from different walks of life together for fun and enrichment. Our Best of NH Party began two decades ago. with similar goals.

Rick 5x7300dpiWhen we threw our very first Best of NH Party back in 2002, it was a bit of a shot in the dark. We knew we’d have to go big, and fortunately the very big Verizon Wireless Arena had just opened up on Elm Street in Manchester, a few blocks from where we had just moved our headquarters (from Nashua) the year before (on Sept. 11, 2001, believe it or not).

We’d never attempted anything quite as huge, and we had only a few months to pull it together, but restaurants and vendors signed on to feed and delight our guests. We booked Beatlejuice, a Fab Four sound-alike band, led by Brad Delp (of the band Boston fame) as our main act, but they were forced to cancel when Brad sent word that he was just too sick to perform — just days before the party.

At that very last minute (thanks to intrepid talent agent Jim Roach), a plucky touring band named Recycled Percussion filled in for us. Still, the tempest of things to do kept everyone so busy that, when we finished the massive setup in the arena, we really didn’t know if anyone would actually come. Advance ticket sales had been light, but the doors finally opened and a line of happy partygoers began trickling down the stairs to the floor of the arena — and didn’t stop until the place was full.

The Best of NH was born!

Two years ago, during those darker days of the Covid plague, we took our party online but we still managed to honor our winners and to please fans with the help of our sponsors and expert hosting by Neal and Marga of WZID.

Then, last year forced our hand. The party had already relocated from the arena (now named for SNHU) to the ballpark stadium in Manchester (named for Delta Dental), where it operated for several happy years. Although it made for an ideal outdoor setting, we doubted that crowds of people were sufficiently comfortable with the state of the pandemic to engage in the close-quarters jostling for food and fun. Something a little more serene seemed like just the ticket and we could find no more serene and accommodating spot than Shaker Village in Canterbury for 2021.

Just as form dictates function, the new location required us to rethink our idea of a way to celebrate the state. Could we tame the beast of an event that we had created? Could we actually aim for a smaller crowd and a more intimate and thoughtful party?

There was only one way to find out and our 2021 party, under a tent among the white clapboard structures of the Shakers, turned out to be such a hit, we’re doing it again this year.

It’s gratifying to see how people have embraced our efforts, but the move to Canterbury and the chance to take the show on the road to other such beloved locations around the state in future years is what really warms my heart.

Despite all the emphasis we put on the  entertainment, food and libation components of our Best of NH Party, the real mission is deeper and more timely. The Chautauquas of the 19th century were traveling shows of the “best” of America. They set up tents and brought speakers, acts and music to remote parts of a young country still torn by years of grievous conflict followed by an uncertain “Reconstruction.” Chautauquas and lyceums of that era helped to spread the word that the states of America were indeed united and full of talent and hope and excitement for the future. They reminded Americans who they were and what they might aspire to become.

Our Best of NH Party has served a similar role over the years, but never was it more needed. And, somehow, on the green lawns under the vast skies of Canterbury Shaker Village, the message comes through more clearly.

I hope to see all of you at our very own Granite State Chautauquas (also known as the Best of NH Party) at Shaker Village on June 18.

Categories: Editor’s Note