Learn About the History of New Hampshire

There is actually an incredibly rich history of New Hampshire that residents and visitors can explore in a single stop. As a popular tourist destination, New Hampshire suffers from a common affliction: many people have a preconceived idea of what the state is. For some, it's quaint country roads through bucolic farms via covered bridges. For others, it's a winter wonderland composed of mountains, ski slopes and snowmobile trails. 

All true...to a point. But there's a lot of substance hidden below the superficial stereotypes. This is a state with a long and complex history, one that's not easily explored-unless you come to the one place in New Hampshire that's dying to explain it to you: The Museum of New Hampshire History, found in the state's capital city. Any visit to Concord merits a stop to explore its collections.

The lobby of the museum holds a rotating display of objects such as artworks, ceramics and medals portraying events in New Hampshire's history. Inside, the visitor walks through the different stages of what we today call New Hampshire. For example, there are artifacts from the period before European contact. The Native Americans who lived here, like the Abenaki people, left traces behind, and some of them-stone projectile points, bone tools, a wooden dugout canoe-are displayed here along with background information on events like the travails of the Penacook tribe, attacked from the west by the Mohawks and from the east by the Micmacs.

When the European colonists came, New Hampshire was the wilderness counterpoint to the settled enclaves of Massachusetts and Maine. Early settlers built and dwelled in forts (an illustration shows Fort #4 in what is present-day Charlestown, NH) similar to those seen a century later out in the far western states.

Speaking of the Wild West, one item on display in the museum seems almost out of place. This is an actual stagecoach just like the ones we associate with cowboys and the crossing of deserts. What has been forgotten over the generations is that the stagecoaches were actually Concord Coaches, manufactured here in New Hampshire and used as a primary means of passenger land transport all over New England until the railroads were built. The coach on exhibit, circa 1855, is one of about 3,000 built here by the Abbot-Downing Company.

Perhaps we don't realize the sheer volume of manufacturing that happened in New Hampshire. Despite the long-held image of the Granite State as rural, it was for decades one of the most industrialized states in the union in relation to the size of its population. Remnants of this past can be found in the red-brick textile mill buildings that give places like Manchester and Nashua their identities. It's also not commonly realized that this state played a central role in many events beyond its borders; to name one, a full one-tenth of New Hampshire's population served in the Civil War.

Besides the other artifacts in the museum, there are special and changing exhibits as well. "Claiming the Land: Our Past, Our Future, Our Choice" deals with issues governing land use in the Granite State: should forests be logged or preserved as wilderness? Who has the right to hunt and fish, and can they do it on land belonging to others? Who has rights to the water in a stream-mill owners who need the water power, lumbermen who need it for transport, farmers who need it for irrigation or canoeists who need it for pleasure?

An example of the kind of issues tackled in this exhibit is the controversy that faced the community of Durham in the early 1970s. Durham was asked to have an oil refinery sited within its boundaries. Which took precedence, the nation as a whole, which supposedly required a refinery in the northeast; the state, which felt it had the right to determine if such use was allowable, and which was in favor of the placement, or the residents, who were strongly opposed? While the people of Durham managed to finally block the refinery, it is issues like this that have a major impact on the face of the land. Imagine New Hampshire's coastal corner looking today like industrial New Jersey. It came that close to happening.

Another exhibit is "First Stop: the New Hampshire Primary," a retrospective look at the unique institution of New Hampshire's first-in-the-nation presidential primaries. Campaign memorabilia and displays capture the past: John Kennedy, Dwight Eisenhower, Adlai Stevenson and many other leaders, not as we remember them today, but as they were when they were still grasping hopefully for ultimate power. The exhibit displays the stories of the also-rans, as well, and memorializes the come-from-behind surprise candidacies of the long shots as well.

Topping everything in the museum off-literally-is a fire tower that visitors can climb. These mountain-top structures, once a common sight, provided an observation network for spotting and triangulating forest fire locations. Today, thanks to the effectiveness of aerial surveillance and government budget cuts, fewer than 20 of these towers are left; they still spot 600 fires annually and are visited by over 20,000 visitors each year. The tower in the museum was built in 1994 to the specifications used in constructing the real things in 1938. Climb to the fire ranger's cabin on top, and you'll discover that it's located in the cupola of the museum building, allowing a panoramic view of Concord and the wooded hills beyond. It's a spectacular glimpse of New Hampshire, a fitting way to end your tour of the state's museum.

To get to the museum, take Route 93 north to Concord, get off at Exit 14 and then make a left turn at the traffic light at the end of the ramp. Take a right onto North Main Street, then right again onto Storrs Street. Go under a bridge to find the museum parking lot and entrance across from each other.

If you'd like more information, visit nhhistory.org

Article provided by Homesteader

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