DERRY — This weekend, residents of Derry, Londonderry, Windham and parts of Manchester will mark the start of year-long celebrations for the 300th anniversary of the precursor community of Nutfield with a free festival and parallel genealogy conference.
Activities are scheduled from Friday through Sunday, with the primary festival taking place at the historic First Parish Church at 47 East Derry Road in Derry. The original meetinghouse, currently being restored with the help of Preservation Timber Framing crews, was built in 1769 by Scotch-Irish Presbyterians who fled religious persecution in Northern Ireland 50 years prior and founded the Nutfield community.
As part of the festivities, organizer and local historian Paul Lindemann said there will be about 10 guests from Northern Ireland in attendance. Lindemann said the 1718 migration was a “huge cultural phenomenon” in that country and still looms large in its historical consciousness. But many residents of modern-day Derry and neighboring communities don’t know about the history of Nutfield.
“One of the objects behind all this is to try to acquaint people with the history we all have here,” Lindemann said.
On Friday, there will be self-guided tours of the nearby Forest Hill Cemetery and surrounding village and check-in for genealogy conference registrants from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. A $35 welcome dinner will be held at newly opened Fody’s Tavern in Derry with welcome speeches and a Northern Ireland history talk.
The main festival will start on Saturday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. with craft activities for kids, food, live demonstrations by local artisans like potter Michael Gibbons, and historical displays by area museums and historic societies. Fifteen minute “Lightning Talks” will be presented on local history and other related topics.
Lindemann expects about 60 to 80 attendees of the genealogy conference, which costs $130 to register, and will consist of scholars and descendants of original settlers. Researchers will be given a personal workspace to put their research material and compare notes with one another. They will also enjoy talks from guest speakers.
Saturday night from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m., the Nutfield Gala will be held at the Derry Opera House. Tickets are $50, and appetizers from Amphora will be served along with local beer and wine, according to Michael Gendron, president of the Derry Arts Council.
He said there will be a birthday cake by Carina’s Cakes that will depict historic locations throughout the region, and additional desserts will be provided by Rig A Tony’s.
Gendron said the gala will feature live entertainment by Irish folk band Great Bay Sailor, Irish step group The McGonagle School of Irish Dance and a poetry reading by town Poet Laureate Robert Crawford.
Tickets to the gala can be bought at the door on the night of the event, or in advance at Blackmann Florist or online at derryarts.org.
Forest Hill Cemetery Guided Tours Saturday and Sunday will show the recently refurbished burial plots of Rev. James MacGregor and his family, who were the founders of Nutfield.
Sunday morning will feature a special worship service with a reception for several recent pastors of First Parish Church. Tours of the building and cemetery will continue throughout the day.
At 4 p.m. Sunday, the historic MacGregor Horse Fountain installed at MacGregor Park will be dedicated and unveiled to the public.
The horse fountain was a fixture of the downtown near the train station building (currently used by Sabatino’s North Italian Restaurant) until it was knocked over by a delivery truck in the 1920s, Lindemann said. The fountain was dumped by the town and rescued by the MacGregor family. The Derry Village Rotary Club worked to restore the fountain for its permanent home by the public library.
Throughout the weekend, people will be able to observe the progress on the restoration of the meetinghouse.
“A big feature of the weekend is the unveiling of the steeple,” Lindemann said.
So far, crews have assembled the top parts —including the belfry, lantern and weathervane — of the steeple adjacent to the clock tower. They will ring the bell, believed to be a Revere bell originally, though recast since then, for the first time in decades.
Lindemann said the steeple has been reassembled using almost 95 percent new wooden parts (using mahogany, oak and white pine), some parts made with custom-built knives to replicate the original molding.
In May, the 45,000-pound steeple will be lifted by a giant crane and lowered into the clocktower. Arron Sturgis, the owner of Preservation Timber Framing, said it will take a 185-ton crane with a reach of 140 feet.
Lindemann said they have raised and spent about $1.3 million for the restoration project so far. Once the steeple project is complete, they will need to raise between $500,000 to $800,000 to complete the restoration of the building’s interior.