MANCHESTER - He gave us our state motto and played a key role in the birth of our nation.
Now the final resting place of Revolutionary War hero Gen. John Stark is about to be restored to its former dignity, thanks to the dedicated efforts of volunteers and the financial support of the community.
For the past three years, the Friends of Stark Park has been doing research and raising funds to properly restore the Stark family gravesite. At last, the work is about to begin.
Pat Howard, president of the group, stressed nothing will be done to the actual graves.
Stark and his wife, Molly, had 11 children; most of the original headstones are missing, and the group has only a 1906 schematic to guess at where some Stark descendents are buried. The general himself lies beneath a granite obelisk and, a monument marks the graves of other family members.
The plan is to restore the pillars and fencing that surround the site, which is on both national and state registers of historic places.
Oak Hill Construction of Framingham, Mass., which has done work on the Currier Museum of Art's Zimmerman House and at St. Paul's School in Concord, will restore the cement pillars and curbing.
An early plan was to replace the black iron fence that surrounds the site. But Peter Michaud, a historian from the state Division of Historical Resources, told FSP the hand-forged structure, erected in 1913, is a treasure in its own right.
"He really opened our eyes to the fact this fence, as it exists, is valuable," Howard said. "It really needs to be saved."
So FSP hired Cassidy Bros. Forge of Rowley, Mass., which has done work at Old North Church in Boston and Valley Street Cemetery in Manchester. As soon as weather permits, the fencing will be removed, and restored off-site.
A road in front of the fenced area will be replaced by a grassy "apron" where official events can be held. By mid-July, the restoration work is expected to be finished and landscaping will be under way, Howard said.
The FSP is launching a final push to raise the $53,000 needed to complete the project.
It has raised $106,000 to date, including $20,000 from the Manchester Community Improvement Program; $10,000 from conservation "moose" license plate funds; $6,000 from state and national chapters of Sons of the American Revolution; and foundation grants.
Now the group is hoping city residents will donate as well, according to board member Melissa Ballard Sullivan. "We need the small contributions of many," she said.
For $75, donors can purchase commemorative bricks for a walkway, she said.
Howard said FSP wants to spread the word about this project. . "I think history matters a lot, and certainly American history should matter to all of us," said Howard, who is a native of Canada with dual citizenship in the United States.
Howard is a docent at the Current Museum of Art, where she often asks visiting students whether they know who Gen. John Stark was. "Some of them do, of course, but a lot of them don't," she said.
And it's not just youngsters. "I would say 50 to 60 percent of people in Manchester have no idea General Stark is buried in Manchester," she said.
Stark commanded the First Regiment of New Hampshire in the Battle of Bennington where, on Aug. 16, 1777, his troops defeated a larger British force. Two months later, in the Battle of Saratoga, Stark's soldiers cut off the last escape route for the British, forcing them to surrender.
It was a turning point in the War for Independence, Howard said. "American history would have been very different without General Stark," she said. "So we really need to honor him and his family."
It was after Stark retired to his Manchester farm that he penned a now-famous message to his former soldiers. Too ill to attend their reunion, he sent this toast to be read:
"Live free or die. Death is not the worst of evils."
The first part of that message became New Hampshire's state motto; the second half is largely forgotten. But Ballard Sullivan said, "That part, I think, is just as important."
Gen. Stark died in 1822 and was buried in the family plot. The land was dedicated as a 30-acre public park in 1893; there are walking trails to the Merrimack River and a ballfield.
But by 2000, the character of the park had deteriorated. So in 2004, a group of neighbors formed Friends of Stark Park and set about restoring the park and the gravesite, according to a "Preservation Master Plan" developed by the city.
A local benefactor donated funds to build a bandstand, which opened in 2009. And the group paid to restore an equestrian statue of the general the following year.
The restoration of Stark Park has gotten a lot of support from the city, Howard said. Police are happy to see the park returned to a family-friendly environment; and the parks and recreation department has contributed labor to projects.
These days, Stark Park is a popular setting for weddings and high school graduation photos. Sunday concerts draw hundreds all summer long.
And FSP expects as many as 1,500 people will attend its annual Easter egg hunt on March 30. The event starts at 11 a.m. sharp - and ends shortly thereafter, Howard said.
One remaining mystery is what happened to a decorative urn that used to adorn the Stark family monument. City leaders only realized it was missing in the 1970s, but had no idea how long it had been gone.
It would cost $15,000 to replace the urn with matching granite from a quarry in Barre, Vt., Howard said. To order a similar piece from China would cost just $3,000.
But she said firmly, "We're not going to China."
She harbors a hope that the urn, which historians estimate may have weighed 250 pounds, may have been thrown over the fence by vandals and could turn up in the surrounding woods someday.
"We could hold a treasure hunt," she suggested.
For more, visit: friendsofstarkpark.org