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By Cheryl Lassiter Originally published as a History Matters column in the Hampton Union, September 1, 2015 Hampton is a very strange, very haunted town, a place where fact and fiction tangle together like lobster traps in a hurricane. And judging from the content of the locally-produced literary efforts on file at the Historical Society, […]
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HAMPTON’S FOUNDING DOCUMENTS
by Cheryl Lassiter
Originally published as a History Matters column in the Hampton Union, August 4, 2015.
For such a little state, New Hampshire has an amazingly large and complicated history, especially during the early days when it seemed that everybody and their minister wanted a piece of her soil. So it’s not surprising that the myth of the state’s ‘four original townships chartered by the General Court of Massachusetts’ continues to persist alongside counterclaims that these towns—Dover, Portsmouth, Exeter, and Hampton—were ‘vulnerable and without formal government’ and were thus ‘forced to accept Massachusetts’ rule for 40 years.’
Okay, there are a few nuggets of fact in them thar statements. But the truth is, of the four original towns, only Hampton was settled (in 1638) by order of the Great and General Court of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, and from the get-go it came under the protection…
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The Millionaire, the Minister, and the Museum
by Cheryl Lassiter
Originally published as a History Matters column in the Hampton Union, June 29, 2015
It was the 1920s, the war to end all wars had been fought and won, prosperity was rising, morals were relaxing, and a rush of innovations was creating a new mass consumer culture in America. Amid all the ‘roaring’ going on in the country, significant changes were taking place in Hampton, too. The population was increasing as never before, farming and fishing were steadily abandoned in favor of business and manufacturing, and the town, embracing its reputation as a summer tourist destination, boldly touted Hampton Beach as the ‘Atlantic City of New England.’
A Good Time To Gather Up The Past
Some felt that now…
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by Cheryl Lassiter, History Matters column
Originally published in the Hampton Union, June 2, 2015.
In his brilliant new book The Wright Brothers, historian David McCullough reminds us that in 1903, when the two bicycle mechanics from Dayton, Ohio proved to the world that powered flight was possible, America was not entirely onboard with the idea that machines could fly. Wilbur Wright made his first public flights in front of crowds in France, not the United States. It would take more time and flights before interest in the aeroplane took off here as it had abroad. When it did, the awed first spectators rushed onto the landing fields, not understanding that the open swathes were for the planes to land, not places for the audience to assemble. They thought the pilot would simply alight, balloon-like, in his craft.
Early Aviators Atwood, Redding, and Bushway
In May 1912 the heretofore quiet farming community of Hampton got its first look at a ‘noisy reaper in the sky’ when pioneer aviator Harry Atwood of Massachusetts buzzed the town in a Burgess-Wright biplane on his way to Portland, Maine. On the return trip he landed on the Hampton River after becoming lost in a fog bank.
The field of aviation advanced at warp speed, in part because it offered the public an exciting new amusement. Showmen immediately saw the potential of aerial exhibitions, the more daring the better, as they drew the largest crowds.
At Hampton Beach in 1915 an aerial act billed as ‘the most thrilling ever seen in New England’ made daily appearances at the new, end-of-summer Carnival Week. Two Massachusetts aviators, J. Chauncey Redding, who held the first aviation license issued by the Commonwealth, and J. Howard Bushway, heir to a Somerville ice cream company, demonstrated the art of ‘aerial warfare…in which a defended fort is bombarded and destroyed by intrepid aviators high in the air out of reach of the fort’s guns.’ Parachutist Phil Bullman demonstrated the tricky art of jumping out of a perfectly good airplane. When Blanche Thompson was crowned Queen of the Carnival, Redding took her aloft for the thrill of a lifetime. Later in life she would recall to local reporters the excitement of flying up to 1,000 feet and then landing on the sands of Hampton Beach with a flat tire.
The Boy Aviator, Farnum T. Fish
The aviators were an immediate and memorable hit, and had Redding and Bullman survived when their plane crashed into a Saugus, Massachusetts marsh a month later, they likely would have been back for the 1916 Carnival Week.
Bushway instead procured the 19-year-old ‘Boy Aviator,’ whose daring aerial exploits, not the least of which was being shot at and wounded while flying a scouting mission for Pancho Villa in the Mexican Revolution, were all the current rage. ‘Nine months actual experience with Villa’s army in Mexico!’ hawked the exhibition advertisements.
This early war pilot and barnstormer was Farnum Thayer Fish of Los Angeles, the world’s youngest licensed aviator. At age fifteen he earned his pilot’s certificate after completing four hours of flight instruction with Orville Wright at the Wrights’ flying school in Dayton. Farnum quoted Orville as saying, “if you couldn’t learn to fly in four hours, you shouldn’t be flying anyway.” This suited Farnum’s need for speed, and he immediately bought a Wright Model B biplane, shipped it home, and entered what the Wright brothers had called the ‘mountebank business’—exhibition flying.
Although born and raised in California, Farnum’s namesakes were New Englanders. The first Farnum Fish was born in 1775 in Uxbridge, Massachusetts and settled in Swanzey, New Hampshire, where he married Rachel Thayer, a physician’s daughter. Their third son was the Boy Aviator’s grandfather, Ezra Thayer Fish, who went on to make his fortune in Pennsylvania coal. Ezra’s son Charles, a physician, left the weathery East in favor of sunny southern California, where he married Catherine Goodfellow and raised two boys, Winthrop and Farnum.
Farnum’s most interesting relation was his maternal uncle Dr. George Emory Goodfellow, a gutsy, perpetual motion machine, an expert on gunshot wounds and a pioneer in the use of sterile techniques. He kept an office above the Crystal Palace Saloon in Tombstone, Arizona, so that he could gamble and drink when he wasn’t pulling bullets out of cowboys and lawmen like Virgil and Morgan Earp of O.K. Corral fame. Among his many other exploits, he hunted and then befriended the Apache warrior Goyahkla (Geronimo), got himself bitten by a Gila monster to see if its venom was as poisonous as was commonly believed (it wasn’t, but it still kicked like a mule), and survived the disastrous 1906 San Francisco earthquake.
‘Hair-Raising Stunts Performed by Birdmen in Rattle Traps’
This early headline exemplified the adventurous, restless spirit of the times that had Doc Goodfellow’s nephew firmly in its thrall. Before discovering the thrill of piloting his own ‘rattle trap,’ Farnum channeled the zeitgeist into petty law-breaking. As an aviator he was at times suspended and blacklisted for not following the rules. He enjoyed performing dare-devilish, dangerous feats like the Death Dip and Texas Tommy Twist for his earthbound spectators. He also liked to ‘mushroom hunt’ (fly low) over the tops of their heads, which got him into trouble on more than one occasion.
A combination of skilled aerial showman and a cat with nine lives, Farnum had survived some pretty hairy crashes into a pond in Wisconsin and the ocean at Revere Beach. In June 1916, he had performed flawlessly over the Charles River Basin, but at Lynn the following month, as he was attempting his signature bomb-dropping stunt, several of the homemade devices detonated in the plane’s ‘bomb box’ beneath the passenger seat. His assistant received burns when his shoes and clothes caught fire, but Farnum was able to land the plane safely. At the Nashua fairgrounds a few weeks later he attempted to take off from the infield of the track as a motorcycle race was in progress. The airplane snagged on the fence at the far end of the field and crashed onto the track as ‘nine motorcyclists were tearing around it.’ Farnum received burns to his face and wrist and his parachutist Joe Schiber suffered several sprains, but they skirted any serious damage.
In September Farnum T. Fish, billed as the ‘Latest in Aviation,’ appeared at Hampton Beach as promised. For his Carnival Week debut he gave ‘one of the most successful aeroplane flights of the week, reaching a high altitude.’ In a time when the public could only read about the European war they would soon be fighting in, he gave them visual ‘demonstrations of aerial bombardment and of the various capabilities of the flying machine in time of war.’ After the bombing runs came the parachute jumps. The parachutist’s first fall out of the plane put him ‘near I Street,’ but in landing he fell and was injured. Not too badly, as his jump the following day was reported to have been ‘finely executed.’
Like Chauncey Redding the year before, Farnum took the Carnival Queen for a ride in the sky. This year’s winner was Clara Dudley of Hampton, who had won the title by selling the most chances to win a new Ford automobile on display in the Casino bowling alley. With her long skirts safely roped down, Farnum’s passenger enjoyed a ‘long trip to the southerly part of the beach,’ and returned to circle the Casino before landing.
It may have been a wishful guesstimate, but it was reported that a single day’s attendance ‘easily’ totaled 100,000—all on hand to cheer Farnum’s aerial maneuvers over Hampton Beach. If the numbers are true, his Carnival Week appearance was the high water mark in his career as a stunt aviator. He had exhibited in front of huge crowds before, but this may have been his largest ever.
The Boy Aviator grows up
Almost overnight, Farnum’s days as a daredevil birdman seemed to come to an abrupt end as reports of his high altitude antics no longer filled newspaper columns across the country. It was reported that he eloped in January 1917 with his childhood sweetheart, was ‘doing work for the government,’ and in 1918 went overseas as a test pilot for the Army Signal Corps.
Barnstorming lost its novelty and died out after World War I. No longer the ‘Boy’ aviator, Fish decided that he could, as he said, “make more money on the ground.” He left flying and the public eye for good, but temporarily surfaced in the early 1970s for an interview with a San Francisco area newspaper. He died in Napa on July 30, 1978, never having told the full story of his life as an early aviator.
Aviation humor in 1911: A Wright machine flew over a mining town. Was it Orville?
History Matters is a monthly column devoted to the history of Hampton and Hampton Beach. Cheryl Lassiter is the author of ‘The Mark of Goody Cole: a tragic and true tale of witchcraft persecution from the history of early America’ (2014). Her website is http://www.lassitergang.com.
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By Cheryl Lassiter, History Matters column
(Reposted from the Hampton Union, original print publication April 28, 2015.)
In the late fall of 1670, Hampton planter John Fuller discovered that someone had pilfered about twenty bushels of his unharvested turnip crop. John Hancock, Fuller’s partner in the patch, swore that if he could prove who did it, the “taker of them” would be prosecuted.
The taker, as it turned out, was a prominent citizen named Nathaniel Weare. To his friends John and Martha Cass he had admitted that he “did take about a bushel and a half” after “accidentally” stumbling upon Fuller’s turnip patch. And if the ground hadn’t been so darned hard, he “might have took a few more.” As he said, he took them because they were so “remote in the woods,” and with the frost and all, he thought they would be “lost.”
John Cass asked if he…
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By Cheryl Lassiter
(Reposted from the Hampton Union, original print publication, April 7, 2015.)
The Post Office. You either love it, hate it, or find no practical modern use for it. Yet there was a time, let’s say two centuries or so ago, when it was The Post Office Department – a revered government agency with its own clause in the Constitution and a seat in the chief executive’s cabinet. That Post Office was hailed by Benjamin Rush as the “true non-electric wire of government” and praised by James Madison as the agency that would check the abuse of governmental power by carrying news of political shenanigans to an ever-watchful public. Congressman John C. Calhoun called it the “nervous system of the body politic,” and it was admired by French historian Alexis de Tocqueville as a “great link between minds.”
It was during those halcyon days, in 1805, that the Post Office first came to Hampton. Which is not to say that a system of mail delivery had not existed before then. Post Road and Benjamin Franklin’s milepost in North Hampton remind us of the postal route that ran between Portsmouth and Boston, established by information-hungry colonists in the late seventeenth century. In 1761 John Stavers’s stagecoach began carrying both mail and passengers along the road, passing through Hampton on the way.
By the time President Washington had passed through town on his grand tour of New England in 1789, there existed throughout the country 75 post offices (roughly 1 for every 50,000 inhabitants) and some 2,000 miles of post roads. By 1805 there were 1,558 post offices (roughly 1 for every 4,000 inhabitants), and postmasters comprised nearly 70 per cent of the federal civilian work force. Contemporary writers likened this rapid expansion of the Post Office to a romantic tale. Processing and delivering the mail was by far the largest enterprise in the country, not to be outdone until the rise of the railroads in the 1870s.
So it’s hardly surprising that for most people in the small villages and towns of the time, the Post Office was the central government. Here in Hampton, the people may have felt, perhaps for the first time, part of the larger, far-flung country when Postmaster General Gideon Granger granted the town’s request for a post office and approved its choice of 45-year-old James Leavitt as postmaster.
A Man of His Times
Like just about everyone else in Hampton, including his wife Betty Batchelder, Leavitt was a descendant of town founder Stephen Bachiler. He was born in the Bride Hill section of town in 1760. His father died when he was young and he was raised by his stepfather Benjamin Tuck. As a boy he would have attended the Bride Hill grammar school, but where or if he continued his education is unknown. His various adult occupations – tavernkeeper, merchant, justice of the peace, early venture capitalist – demanded a good head for business and knowledge of the law. Judging from his account book at the Tuck Museum, he stuck to his business, almost to a fault. When his youngest daughter Lavina and her children came to live in his house, he treated them as paying customers, charging his son-in-law Moses Coffin $2.00 per week for their board and recording each week’s bill. This continued for over a year, until June 1835, when according to Leavitt’s own notation, Moses was “found dead in Newbury river.” Leavitt handled the probate affairs and charged Coffin’s estate accordingly. In another personal matter, he sued his future son-in-law Simon Towle for non-payment of a 57-cent bar bill and a note for $4.25 plus interest. To us he seems like quite a stickler, but he was a man of his times, his stern character an essential part of his stature in the community.
A writer in the 1840s observed that many early postmasters were former military men who took pride in being the “herald of all news, foreign and domestic, and the medium of all the good and evil tidings.” It’s impossible to say if Leavitt threw himself into the role of town crier, but he had served as a private at Peekskill in 1776 and Ticonderoga in 1777 (for which the Town of Hampton rewarded him with a suit of clothes).
In 1781 he married and received his portion of his father’s estate. In 1793 he was just another 33-year-old yeoman with eight children, but not long after, he hit his stride. He became involved in town politics, holding a selectman’s seat for ten years and that of town moderator for four. In 1803 he was appointed justice of the peace, a post he would hold for the rest of his life.
Leavitt Buys a Mansion
Congress was reluctant to spend money on public buildings of any kind, and not until after the Civil War would it authorize construction of post office buildings. Even in New York City the post office was located in the postmaster’s home. And so it went in the hinterlands, where post offices were located in privately-owned taverns, law offices, stores, and apothecary shops. One was even located in a brothel. It seems safe to say that along with a military record, having a roof over one’s head was an important qualification for the job of postmaster. Leavitt may have had a future appointment in mind when he bought General Moulton’s mansion house from lawyer Oliver Whipple. Situated on the stage line between Newburyport and Portsmouth, it was an ideal location for a post office.
For Whipple the sale could not have come too soon. He had once practiced law in Portsmouth, but an association with the royal cause had forever tarnished his reputation among the town’s elite. Not so in Hampton, where his presence was welcomed, and where for nearly a decade he was moderator of the town meeting. Yet no doubt he felt that he had been banished to the sticks with the proletariat. Since the mid-1790s he had been trying to obtain a political appointment, anywhere, it seems, other than New Hampshire. His letters to sitting president John Adams, with whom he had a slight acquaintance, carry the taint of desperation. “Have I not a Right to feel a Pride,” he declaimed, “that the President of these States, once condescended, in a friendly Manner, occasionally to advise & instruct me, & teach the Young Ideas how to shoot?” Poor Oliver, reduced to begging. After selling to Leavitt in 1802, he moved out of the area. He died in 1813, never having received a government appointment.
Leavitt and his wife Betty moved down from Bride Hill, bringing the kids, now numbering eleven, and an ox cart full of furniture. According to his great-granddaughter Anna May Cole of Hampton, this was a major step up for the Leavitts, as the new house was “fine with its carved stairway and high paneled walls, very different from the low posted farmhouse from which [they] had moved.” From then on, it’s doubtful the house ever enjoyed another moment’s peace.
All Work and No Play
Leavitt had spent some time at the tavern house of Widow Rachel Leavitt, where he learned the trade of an innkeeper. Now in his own house he opened a tavern, a store, and, when Hampton Academy opened its doors in 1811, a boarding house for students. When the Academy decided to put on a second story, classes were held in Leavitt’s house until construction was completed.
Leavitt did a lively business in rentals of his horses, chaises, sleighs, and wagons. He also hired out his grandsons Greenleaf Dearborn and Simon Franklin Towle, boys who would plant, dig, and haul anything from seaweed to dung.
Being postmaster in a town of 1,000 people was not a full-time job, nor did it pay a regular salary. Letters were paid for by the receiver, not the sender, postal rates were determined by mileage, and Leavitt earned commissions on all items that arrived for his patrons. If anything in the early nineteenth century illustrates Hampton’s size and level of business activity relative to neighboring towns, it’s the commissions earned by their respective postmasters. In 1816, for example, Leavitt’s commissions totaled $16.61. His counterpart in Hampton Falls earned $12.47, in Exeter $130.89, and in Portsmouth $1,669.73. Postmasters could also earn extra money renting letter boxes, but most earned less than $100 per year. Like other small town postmasters, Leavitt kept accounts and extended credit. One Hampton patron, the tailor Ezra Drew, famously failed to pay his post office account for nearly nine years.
As justice of the peace, Leavitt engaged in land deeds, probate, and estate administration. This was not a salaried position and fees charged for these services were set by the State. One of his cases involved managing the financial affairs of Jeremiah Lamprey, whom the court had declared non compos mentis. “Uncle Jerry” ran a hotel on Boar’s Head and was known as “a character, a merry fellow, who loved rum more than anything else.” After various attempts to sell Uncle Jerry’s assets to pay his debts, Leavitt himself came into possession of the hotel. Almost immediately he sold it to local entrepreneur David Nudd, who built the Hampton Beach Hotel (otherwise known as The Folly Castle) on the premises.
Leavitt had more than enough work, children, grandchildren, and church and civic duties to keep him occupied, yet he still found the time and money to invest in such local enterprises as Hampton Academy, Nudd’s canal (to straighten a portion of the Hampton River), and the Hampton Causeway Turnpike Corporation (to build a road and bridge over the Taylor River). His lifetime of hard work had taken him from a middling farmer with few assets to a well-respected gentleman with a mansion house and over 100 acres of land. In all but one respect, then, he must have considered his life a success. While he had produced 14 children, only two of them had been sons, and neither lived to carry on his name or inherit his estate. Rather than to divide the estate among his six remaining daughters, he gave one dollar to each of them and to his grandchildren whose mothers had died, and devised the rest to his grandson Simon Franklin Towle.
In 1836 Leavitt retired as postmaster and was replaced by local attorney Edmund Toppan. After he died in 1839, Betty and 17-year-old Simon continued to run the tavern and store. Betty died in 1841, followed two years later by Simon, and the Leavitt-Towle estate was parceled out and sold at auction.
Cheryl Lassiter is the author of The Mark of Goody Cole: a tragic and true tale of witchcraft persecution from the history of early America (2014). Her website is http://www.lassitergang.com.
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Outside my house this morning I heard the gleeful song of a male cardinal. Despite the heaps and mounds of snow everywhere, his song held the promise that we’ll be seeing bare ground someday soon. Well, maybe not soon, but certainly some day. As we yearn for that currently rarest of sights to make its […]