Portsmouth: Get ready to party like it’s 2023!

By John Tabor – Seacoast Media Group – Posted Jul 1, 2018

For more information, email: Portsmouth400@PortsmouthHistory.org

How does a city throw itself a birthday party? Both Portsmouth and Dover were settled in 1623 and will celebrate their 400th anniversary in 2023 (Portsmouth’s claim to 1623 may stretch some facts in order to be the older sibling to Dover, but we’ll let the historians parse that out.)

I went to a meeting for the 400th Wednesday at the Portsmouth Public Library, along with about 50 residents. The dialogue that brought forth a bevy of ideas aimed at making the 400th a rollicking good community-wide event.

First, we learned Portsmouth has a long tradition of birthday bashes, some of the biggest being 1823 and 1923. A promoter and pageant creator named Virginia Tanner was hired in 1923 and recruited 1,000 locals for a pageant showing tableaus of the city’s history. These live tableaus with painted scenes took place on a series of August days on open land near the Sagamore cemetery. The promotional drumbeat sounded for months. Later, downtown streets featured giant pine-bough arches with a parade of native sons and daughters. It turns out 1823 was a more dour affair mainly devoted to a parade and eating oysters, and an effort at a 350th never really reached launch velocity.

How could we top 1923 (1823, sounds pretty easy)? Or as 400th Anniversary Director Susan Labrie put it, “how do we make history?”

The assembled minds worked in small groups to answer Labrie’s challenge. The more those ideas were shared, the more the opportunity emerged to involve all facets of city life – educators, our creative community, musicians, playwrights, restaurants, nonprofits, the business community and government.

Several themes emerged: First, the celebration should involve kids as well as adults. Second, it should leave a lasting legacy. Third, it should build to a great crescendo of events over a period of time. And it should be a great party.

Some of the “what ifs” residents envisioned:

What if school kids had Portsmouth history as part of their curriculum for a year leading up to the birthday? Passing our history on to future generations, as it were.

What if the Portsmouth Historical Society and/or the newspaper’s website published 52 “history lessons” – monographs of dramatic stories from the city’s past that could be pushed out through all local media, and also by email so residents could have their weekly history story in their inbox? We are, after all, a “read on a screen at home” culture, as dreary as our forbears might see that.

I’d nominate the exciting tales of our forefathers rolling a cannon to the front door of Gov. Wentworth’s mansion, and causing him to scamper out the back door and flee to Canada. Or the daring raid on Fort William and Mary in New Castle that obtained the gunpowder the patriots used for the “shots heard round the world” at Lexington and Concord.

What if local restaurants had a historic item added to their menu for a year? A celebration of our historic cuisine and the stories attached to it. Why not also brew Frank Jones Ale, created by our local grandee in the late 19th century – apparently the recipe still is kept by some of his descendants (but only if it tastes as good as our current beer artistry. If not, have a challenge to create a new and better Frank Jones Ale).

What if citizens were invited to participate in historic re-enactments? What would it feel like to muster to a drum, and relive a march to New Castle with a whiff of danger in the air, not knowing if you would return in one piece, reflecting on your family and your country as your feet trod quietly alongside your neighbors?

What if part of the celebration was gathering oral history from those who still remember Portsmouth of the mid-20th century – stories of the now-razed Italian neighborhood of the North End, or the Irish of the Islington Creek neighborhood? Families from these neighborhoods all took their turn guiding the city – the Marconis, Semprinis, Ferrinis; the McEacherns, Driscolls, Loughlins and Keenans. Who has kept their stories of immigrating here and playing their part?

The city’s birthday should of course include a parade, fireworks, parties and proclamations. But it can be so much more. And it should leave something lasting, instead of what one city councilor termed, “waking up to just a bunch of balloons and broken bottles on the floor.” A history wall, perhaps, or a book, or an artwork comprised of the contributions of many people. Or all of those.

If you have ideas, you can share them on a comment string at the Portsmouth Historical Society website here. And get ready to party like it’s 2023.

John Tabor is a member of Seacoast Media Group’s editorial board and the company’s recently retired president and publisher.