NHPR’s Rewind: New Hampshire Town Life and History

Jul 11, 2017

On July 3, The Exchange took a closer look at town life in New Hampshire. Granite State towns are recurring themes for The Exchange. Three stories in particular caught our collective eye at Rewind as revelatory of our state’s diverse history.

Courtesy lcm1863 via Flickr/Creative Commons

“Our Nig: Sketches from the life of a Free Black”

It may come as a surprise to some that the author of the first novel published by an African American female in the United States came from Milford, New Hampshire. In 1831, Harriet Wilson’s mother (who could not afford to take care of her) gave her to a fairly well-to-do family in Milford. Harriet was just six years old. Later in life, Wilson wrote an autobiographical novel about her experience living with the family as an indentured servant, treated no better than slaves in the South. She titled her book “Our Nig” the family’s pejorative nickname for her, and to make the point that blacks living in the abolitionist North were still not seen as equals.

Soon after her book was published in 1859, it fell into obscurity and only came to light again when Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr., rediscovered and reissued it in 1983. The resurfacing of the book conflicted with many Granite Staters’ sense of history that New Hampshire was a firm and proud player in the abolitionist cause. “Our Nig” revealed that towns hosting anti-slavery rallies also housed Americans like Wilson, who were effectively living like slaves.

In discussing Our Nig, in 2006, The Exchange reflected on more than just scenes in the book. Host Laura Knoy and her guests examined questions the novel raises about history and race; about the impact that the book and its author have had on Milford and New Hampshire. Our Nig brings to light a piece of New Hampshire history that many did not even know existed.

Courtesy Doug Kerr via Flickr/Creative Commons

The Mount Monadnock Region

The Exchange again delved into the topic of small town New Hampshire culture with the discussion of a newly published book, “Where the Mountain Stands Alone.” This collection of stories and insights on the Monadnock region explores the physical landscape and its profound impact on the people, culture, economy, and psychology of  Southwestern New Hampshire.

For a long time the Monadnock region was considered an economic backwater. Yet so much of what we value about the area now – old barns, farmhouses and grain stalls -- were preserved because no one was interested in tearing them down and rebuilding.

Monadnock was never molded into a place with generic buildings or developed by large national companies. Such a place is said to have “placelessness”, a term that refers to a lack of authenticity yet is often considered a recipe for economic success. However, one can argue that Monadnock’s economic failure created opportunity. It led people to come back and rediscover it.

“Where the Mountain Stands Alone” reveals that while the Monadnock region was once economically viable, each economic enterprise was short-lived. There were many industries that phased in and out of the area, bringing in jobs and money, from forestry to farming. Rail was another important contributor to the economy. Towns that inherited railroads became boom towns while those that didn’t withered.

Beyond the industries that shaped this region, this episode also discussed the characteristics of the landscape. How Monadnock formed geologically (the causes for Mount Monadnock’s “baldness”) as well as discussion on how Mount Monadnock unites the region.

Courtesy Chiot's Run via Flickr/Creative Commons

Curiosities of New Hampshire

Our last example of the Exchange’s examination of New Hampshire small town culture also came from 2006. The focus was on the quirky traditions, culture, and history of New Hampshire. Eric Jones, author of a new book called “New Hampshire Curiosities,” was the guest. An Iowa resident, Jones gives insight into how an outsider views New Hampshire’s oddities. In the book he identifies many unique traditions and sights that he came across in his seven month journey throughout New Hampshire.

Some traditions mentioned in the book include Keene’s Annual Sap Gathering Contest, where people collect sap using teams of horses and GPS systems. Snowless snow mobile races are held in Fremont on Columbus Day weekend. In Goffstown, during the Giant Pumpkin Regatta, 500-pound pumpkins are carved hollow and then people use them to float down a river. These festivities still occur yearly.

Jones also discusses his encounters with odd sites. There is the trojan horse in Epsom that is a symbol of political protest against the United States’s involvement with the United Nations. In Manchester, there used to be a small summer cottage on the shore of Pine Island in the shape of a Moxie bottle. It is now located inside the Matthews Museum of Maine Heritage, surrounded by small items of Moxie lore.

Many other traditions and oddities are mentioned in the book “New Hampshire’s Curiosities” as well as in this Exchange episode and well worth a listen.