Derry town historian passing the torch

Special to the Union Leader
May 17. 2017 9:44PM
Richard Holmes, Derry town historian, stands with a cardboard cutout of astronaut Alan Shepard outside Holmes' office in the Derry Municipal Center. (Kathleen D. Bailey Photos)

DERRY — Richard “Rick” Holmes pushed the “send” button on a file on his laptop. “That was a guy from the University of Pennsylvania,” he said. “He was trying to identify the carver of the gravestones in Chester.”

“That’s what I do,” Holmes added. “I answer questions.”

Holmes, town historian for Derry, will retire from his position at the end of June, vacating the Municipal Center office where he’s answered questions for five years. He’s leaving behind thousands of consultations and hundreds of talks and lectures, but he’s taking his curiosity with him.

One rainy night

On a rainy Tuesday evening, Holmes held his regular office hours in the Municipal Center where he meets residents and the curious by appointment or on a drop-in basis. There’s usually someone, he said, wanting to know about the old house they bought or their genealogy. On this weeknight it was Derry resident Bonnie Barlow, curious about her circa 1796 home. She’s traced the ownership back to a Moses Webster, but like most of Holmes’ clients, she wanted to know more.

“I’m going to show you how to do it,” Holmes said, turning to the laptop computer. “Any darn fool can do this, once they have the tools.”

He walked Barlow through the steps: bringing up the Rockingham County Registry of Deeds, in which every deed going back to 1630 is recorded. “You look for your name in there, and then you ‘leapfrog’ backwards through every deed for that house.”

But Moses Webster appeared to have owned several pieces of land, Holmes said, so he showed Barlow how to find the one she owned. “Does that look like your deed?” he asked, pulling up a file, and Barlow said yes.

Holmes also advised going to the Census records, warning Barlow that before 1790, Census records did not exist. “Let’s say ‘James Brown’ was living there in 1900,” he said. “The Census will tell you how many children he had, his occupation. It puts flesh on the bones.”

Holmes added the caveat that the Census only comes out every 10 years, so “if someone lived there in 1939 and moved, you wouldn’t find them in the 1940 census.”

He also advised Barlow to go to a series of books in the New Hampshire state archives, “State and Provincial Papers,” which amount to about 50 volumes. “If he fought in the Revolutionary War, if he fought in the War of 1812, if he was a state legislator or prominent in another way, he’ll be there.”

Barlow was thrilled to see her house on an early map of Derry preserved at Strawbery Banke in Portsmouth, and that led her and Holmes on a map quest. “That would be the Chace Map, 1856,” Holmes said without consulting notes. “Three’s another map of Derry made in 1892 which gives the names of the people who live in each house. There’s another one that was made in 1937.”

“They used to call our neighborhood ‘Peppermint Corner,’” Barlow said. And Holmes, from whom stories spool like thread, responded, “That’s because a man lived there who grew peppermint.”

Fordway Road, where Barlow lives, got its name because there was no bridge there until 1870, Holmes said, “I just got a wonderful photo of that,” he said, bringing up a sepia photograph of an ancient bridge.

Did she want to find Webster’s final resting place? Holmes advised Barlow to go to the Forest Hills Cemetery, but first to consult the Cemetery Map in the Derry Public Library’s New Hampshire Room. “An Eagle Scout made a listing of every grave,” he said. “He divided the cemetery into quadrants. The older ones are all in one corner.”

The storyteller’s story

People are often surprised to hear that Holmes isn’t a Derry native. Though he was born in Parkland Hospital, he grew up in Sandown. History was an early passion, and he remembered going with his father on visits to a man called Harold Lovering. “I was 8 or 9, and I’d sit in the kitchen while they swapped stories,” he said.

He began collecting antiques and artifacts at 12 and still remembered his first antiquing “score,” a slender volume of Alexander Pope’s poetry dating from 1820. His favorite kind of museum is one that holds “curiosity boxes” filled with odd and sometimes unrelated items, and his first collecting went in that direction with the original manuscript of “America,” a KKK hooded robe, and the private correspondence of the New Hampshire Communist Party. “I purchased things that amused me,” Holmes said.

He married his high school sweetheart, Carol, and they moved to Derry in 1972, after Holmes returned from Vietnam. He took a teaching position in Pelham, and Derry “became my town.”

But it already had been for a while, he added. His father managed the Benjamin Chase Company, and the young Holmes got to know the town and its history. He met Harriet Newell, Chase’s daughter and a town historian for her time, and he read her books.

Holmes was a teenager when Derry native Alan Shepard became America’s first man in space, and he remembers the first parade in 1961, held while Shepard was still in space. There was a second one in 1962, when Shepard came back to his hometown, and another in 1971. “Alan’s first parade was magic,” he said. “I was 16 and I can tell you where I was standing. I had never seen a crowd like that, especially in a town of 7,000 people.”

By the time Holmes was in town five years, people were “calling me with questions,” he said. He served as chairman of the Derry Heritage Commission, a position currently held by Karen Blandford-Anderson, and was instrumental in opening the Derry History Museum in 2004. “I had to do something,” Holmes said with a shrug. “My house was getting too crowded.”

He was appointed official town historian five years ago, and the then-Town Council gave him a room on the first floor of the Center. His office is full of black-and-white photos, early etchings, prom pictures of himself and Carol, a magnifying glass with a carved handle, old letters in spidery handwriting and, inexplicably, a boiled egg in a white china egg cup.

But his passion is photographs. He has built up an archive of at least 1,000 photographs for the Derry History Museum, currently curated by Mark Mastromarino. “I used to watch ‘Bullwinkle’ and I was fascinated by Mr. Peabody and Sherman,” Holmes said. “I wanted a time machine. Pictures are the next best thing.” He also loves books, and one of his go-to authors is George Franklyn Willey and his “History of Nutfield.”

His task has been made easier by the Digital Age, and Holmes has a story about that, too. “I remember one time I persuaded my wife to take a vacation in Chicago,” he said. “Really, it was because the only copy of a certain volume of a certain series was in a library there. Now I can go online.”

Holmes received his bachelor’s degree from Keene State College and got his master’s degree from Rivier College, both in history. He and Carol have two children and four grandchildren.

His next chapter

Holmes represented Derry twice in visits to its sister city in Northern Ireland, and was there for that city’s 400th anniversary in 2013 and the unveiling of a monument to James MacGregor, the founder of his Derry in 1719.

One of his proudest moments was “Walter Borowski Day,” when the Derry D-Day veteran was honored by his town, the then-governor of New Hampshire, and a representative of the French government who presented Borowski with the Legion of Honor. Borowski died four months later, Holmes said.

Holmes is retiring for health reasons, to spend more time with Carol, and because he needs a break. “Being town historian,” he said, “is a 24-7 situation.”

But he’s not retiring from history. The author of 400 articles and eight books, he has two more books on Robert Frost nearing completion, he said, adding, “And I’d love to do one about the Chester monument carver.”

One way or another, Holmes will continue to tell stories. He feels it deeply when older people die and their stories go with them. “I remember when I went to visit Eddie Newell, Harriet’s son, in the nursing home,” he recalled. “He was so angry with himself. He was trying to tell me something about an old picture of his father, and he couldn’t get the words out. The stories are being buried.”

But not for people like Bonnie Barlow, who left Holmes’s office with the tools to find her Moses Webster. “I have,” Barlow said, “a list of things to do.”

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