Q&A With Jere Daniell
A New England Town Historian
He grew up in an isolated town in northern Maine that sits at the end of the Appalachian Trail. Jere Daniell says, to the people in Millinocket, “the town was everything.” He would leave there to, eventually, become a Professor of History at Dartmouth College, but he took with him a deep appreciation of the concept of “town.”
Over the years, that blossomed into a full-blown passion. In the mid-1980s, Daniell made a commitment to spend the rest of his life “learning as much about New England towns in every dimension possible.” And so he has.
Not only did he create and teach a “History of New England” course at Dartmouth, when he retired in 2003 he continued giving lectures (some 50 a year lately), many of them about New England towns and cities at historical societies, libraries and other venues around New England. “It is a life-long project,” he says. “It’s a wonderful way to get an angle of vision into the past. It gets me into a world of people whose behavior I’m trying to understand.”
What is a town?
It’s a specific geographical area that has boundaries. There can be villages within towns — like Etna is within Hanover — but everyone pays taxes to the town government.
What images constitute the iconic New England town?
Now it’s the village green, white-steepled church, houses painted all white with green shutters. But, those components have changed over time. In the late 19th century and early 20th century, smokestacks were the model. They were a sign of progress.
How did that change?
Starting in the 1930s, New England was being romanticized by magazines like Yankee. The ski industry was surging. Highways were being built. Soon the flatlander invasion began.
Has New England worked to enhance its iconography?
Yes, you have to have an identity to attract flatlanders, so if you didn’t have a town green, you built one. Residents were encouraged to paint houses white. Glidden sold “New England White” paint. Much of the change was quite deliberate.
Have novelists played any role in shaping regional images?
They sure have. I’ve read close to 400 novels set in New England towns, many in New Hampshire.
Why would New England towns be more interesting to novelists than any other?
Towns create a literary stage in which actors are confined by the town boundaries, which are sacrosanct in New England; a town functions like a ship that can be filled with characters. That sense of locality doesn’t exist elsewhere, where counties tend to be more important than towns. One exception might be the South, where Faulkner anchored his fiction.
Tell me something that most town histories avoid mentioning.
About half of all town histories don’t mention that, during the Civil War, the towns wanted to keep their families out of the war. Dying for your country wasn’t a national idiom until World War I. So procurement agents would buy substitutes for the men of the town. Some towns came close to going bankrupt paying for subs, who would get three years worth of wages to go.
How many towns have you traveled to to tell these stories?
I’ve lectured in about 300 of New England’s over 1,500 towns and cities.