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Remembering another 'famous day and year' on Patriot's Day in New Hampshire

The powder house in Exeter NH where Portsmouth patriots stored gunpowder they had liberated from the British.
The powder house in Exeter NH where Portsmouth patriots stored gunpowder they had liberated from the British.
ST Seacord

For those growing up in New England, Patriot’s Day celebrates the battles at Concord and Lexington, Massachusetts on April 18 – a date enshrined by Longfellow who in 1861 concluded “hardly a man is now alive who remembers that famous day and year.” As Longfellow says, “[we} know the rest. In the books [we] have read, how the British Regulars fired and fled.”

Aside from the poetic license Longfellow took in making Revere the hero, those April 1775 battles were not the first of the Revolution. That history goes to the patriots of New Hampshire who – warned by Paul Revere’s ride to Portsmouth on December 13, 1774 – stormed Fort William and Mary to seize the gunpowder stored there. The men liberated about 100 barrels, loaded them the traditional flat-bottomed barge called a gundalow and rowed it safely upriver to Exeter. There the gunpowder was stored in the brick powder house that still stands today on the far bank of the Squampscott River. In the summer, take a sail on the recreated gundalow Piscataqua up its namesake river.

On June 17, 1775, when the New Hampshire militia under the command of Col. John Stark were ordered to hold the beach against the British, it was with that same gunpowder. The command “Don’t shoot til you see the whites of their eyes” suggests how important it was to hold fire and save the precious powder. When General Stark later made the toast that is inscribed as the state motto, he thought of that beach when he declared “Live free or die. There are worse things than death.” That men working on the roof of the meetinghouse in Dublin, New Hampshire that fateful June morning could hear the cannon thunder at Bunker Hill, 79 miles away, suggests its ferocity.

A driving tour of the remaining powder houses of New Hampshire is a fitting heritage travel way to spend the holiday, even though it is now a Monday holiday (regardless of date) and is celebrated only in Massachusetts and Maine. Fremont, New Hampshire town historian Matthew Thomas makes the perfect guide through his book Historic Powder Houses of New England: Arsenals of American Independence. The first two stops: Fort William and Mary (now Fort Constitution) in Portsmouth/New Castle and the historic powder house site in Exeter visible from Route 85 and Swasey Parkway