Derry raises money and awareness with first ever PotatoFest

Sunday News correspondent
May 19. 2018 8:15PM

DERRY - With an eye to the future and an emphasis on Derry's roots, dozens of families turned out for Potato Fest on Saturday.

The event at the First Parish Church in East Derry featured tables with activities for kids like creating colored stamps out of potato carvings, creating potato head creatures with toothpicks and googly eyes - even getting a balloon hat made to represent the edible tubers. The festival was conceived and organized by church members Nancy Heywood and Janet Wetherbee.

"What we wanted to do today is we wanted to celebrate the history of the area," Heywood said.

There were also booths displaying pottery by local artists, potato chip tasting, potato haiku writing, a Derry museum display, and, of course the food. The haiku table offered a potato-based confection called Needhams and the kitchen was abuzz making potato skins and other foods.

Heywood, who co-chair's the church's preservation committee with Wetherbee, wanted to create an event that celebrated the town's history, which is celebrating the 300th anniversary of its original establishment as Nutfield next year, while also raising funds and awareness of efforts to rehabilitate the First Parish Meetinghouse, built on the very first plot of land established in town.

She immediately gravitated to potatoes, since Derry was the first place in North America to permanently introduce Irish white potatoes as a field crop. So, she created PotatoFest.

"I was sort of surprised that Derry didn't already have one," Heywood said.

Local historian Paul Lindemann said the town of Nutfield, which encompassed modern day Derry, Londonderry, Windham and parts of Manchester that branched off as Derryfield, was founded in 1719 by a group of Scots-Irish presbyterians fleeing religious persecution in Northern Ireland. Fifty years later, they built the meetinghouse that still stands today.

But over the past three centuries, the building has deteriorated. So far, the church raised about $800,000 from the community and had about $200,000 already on-hand to fund the first phases of renovations.

"This is one of the biggest preservation projects in the state," Lindemann said.

According to Bill Mann, who is part of the church building advisory committee, the steeple was removed and two rotting corner beams supporting the tower were replaced with 60-foot-long white pine columns harvested from a farm in Vermont.

The foundation, which consisted of stone rubble, was filled with concrete and some of the stone was brought out to border the foundation. Some initial work was done to create a connector between the meetinghouse and the adjacent building.

Now the church hopes to raise another $1 million to finish recreating the steeple with authentic components, put it back on top of the tower and install an elevator in the building connector.

Heywood said she wanted to see how successful the first event was, but she is open to making it a regular thing for years to come.


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