No shortage of surprises in the 250-year history of New Boston

Union Leader Correspondent
January 13. 2013 9:12PM
New Boston's telephone switchboard operator who, locals say, never dropped a call. (COURTESY)

It was standing room only Thursday night in New Boston as residents packed the historical society building and museum for a brief presentation of town history.

Local historian Dan Rothman recounted the high and low points of New Boston, which was incorporated in 1763 and is now celebrating its 250th anniversary. The quick trip through time was the kickoff for a year of events that will celebrate all things New Boston.

And if people are surprised that a local history lesson would draw an overflow crowd, it's only because they don't know New Boston's history or its historians.

From Joe English, a Native American whose decision to befriend New Hampshire's new settlers caused him all sorts of grief, to Roger Babson, a wealthy investment analyst who, in 1948, opened the Gravity Research Foundation in the hope of defeating the Earth's continual insistence on pulling everything down, New Boston's history is loaded with characters.

During the latter part of the 18th century and the first half of the 19th century, New Boston was also about location, location, location.

"The Piscataquog River and its streams had just enough water power for small mills," said Rothman, who added that initially New Boston had more mills and manufacturing than Manchester. More than 40 businesses were churning out lumber, flour, matches, boxes and piano frames.

But as the 19th century wore on and the promise of gold, land and opportunity drew people westward, the mills began shutting down. As for the residents who were left behind to work on the town's farms, Rothman said what happened next was pretty simple.

"There's nothing in New Boston but rocks, except for the sand and gravel," he said. Farm workers headed to Manchester and other mill towns to start new lives.

But native son J.R. Whipple, a Boston hotel magnate, decided New Boston was a perfect spot for a farm that would supply fresh food to guests at the Parker House in Boston. Valley View farm with its 2,000 pigs and 2,000 chickens was an agricultural powerhouse during the 1880s.

A huge fire leveled much of New Boston in 1887, and, Rothman said, for a while the town was a charred tourist attraction. But New Boston was back up and running with a railroad in 1893.

And the townwide inferno might have seemed like small change compared to the 1940s, when the U.S. military showed up and informed New Boston residents that they would be using several thousand acres of town land for bombing practice.

Frances Towne, who has lived in New Boston all her life, remembers the explosions and machine gun fire.

"It certainly brought the war very close to home," she said.

Those were just some of the highlights Rothman hit on as he moved through 250 years of heroes and villains, successes and failures.

Local history is always great glue for communities, and New Boston has about as much local color as any one town can handle. After Rothman's talk, the current generation of New Bostonians seemed ready to spend the upcoming year celebrating every detail of the town's heritage.

But Betsy Whitman, the vice president of the New Boston Historical Society, who moved in during the 1960s when the small town of about 5,000 was just a tiny village of about 800, said it's not just the past that makes New Boston unique.

"It's the people," she said. "We're a very closely connected community."

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New Boston's 250th Anniversary

New Boston is still planning and adding events to its anniversary party, and while the town is the focus, the history belongs to all of New Hampshire and everyone can help celebrate. The following list is a partial schedule of upcoming events:

Founder's Day Tea: Feb. 18, Whipple Free library.

"New Hampshire's One-Room Rural Schools - The Romance and the Reality": March 14, 7:30 p.m. New Boston Historical Society. Speaker Steven Taylor, former state commissioner of Agriculture, discusses the one-room school houses that dotted the New Hampshire landscape.

"Love Letters" New Boston Community Church: dinner theater presentation, April 19-20

The Civil War: May 9, 7:30 p.m. New Boston Historical Society, speaker Steve Bunker, author and historian

A Civil War Living History weekend encampment, with infantry, cavalry and artillery, on the softball field: Friday May 10

Art show and coffeehouse: May 18

New Boston Common House Tours: June 15

Traditional Fourth of July events

How to research your family history: July 11, 7:30 p.m. New Boston Historical Society

Joe English Hike: Aug. 17

Frontier History of New Hampshire - Beyond Boundaries, circa 1700-1850: New Boston Historical Society: Sept. 12; Speaker David Stewart Smith, historian

New Boston Community Church Holiday Dinner: Nov. 15

Snowman building and decorating contest: December, New Boston Common

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