Today, I had a conversation with a tavern keeper about his Loyalist sympathies so soon after signing the Declaration of Independence; and Mrs. Lillian Aldrich was so excited about the opening of her museum as a memorial to her husband, Mark Twain spoke at the dedication! And I lost track of time during my visit with Mrs. Shapiro, a Ukrainian Jew who moved into this neighborhood in 1909, becoming so entranced in her story of her family coming to America and setting down roots. This is Strawbery Banke Museum, a unique living history museum in Portsmouth, New Hampshire's historic district.
Strawbery Banke is unique because it is 10 acres of an actual neighborhood with a 400 year history and homes that have stood on these same foundations since the 1700s and 1800s, the oldest, the Sherburne House, was built around 1695/1703 a rare existing example of such early architecture. To see the transition from colonial times in the way ordinary people lived, is literally like strolling through history.
This is the only living history museum I can think of that does not represent a single epoque, but where you walk along the actual streets, and into houses, and look at the calendar to see what era you are visiting.
And the presentation, to make the house representative of a particular era, out of all its history, is remarkable. Even the costumed interpreters take on the character of people who actually lived here, and take on their story - in that sense, like Plimoth Plantation in Massachusetts, where the interpreters are actual people (and do not answer questions that would beyond their own lifetime knowledge). Simply walking down the narrow gravel streets, in and out of these houses, is like episodes of that time-travel television show, "Quantum Leap."
What strikes you is how these individuals - real people - are emblematic of the big events and changes going on in the world and the nation - the changing fortunes of the economy, the waves of immigrants brought in on political tides. You see the advances of technology and the changes in culture and mores - everything from fashion to food to furnishings to work to media.
Most interesting of all, was my conversation with Don Trefethen, who is not one of the reenactors but who actually grew up here in Strawbery Banke in the 1950s. It was known as Puddle Dock then and was a blighted slum most notable for the scrap yards. This was the “bad side of town” and Don was one of the “bad boys.” But today, we see how this neighborhood grew, changed, lived from colonial times to the very present. It is unlike any living history site I have ever visited - these houses were not brought here, assembled here as Colonial Williamsburg was. They were here.
My eyes open wider and wider as I listen to Don Trefethen, a volunteer who greets visitors at the entrance to Strawbery Banke in historic Portsmouth, New Hampshire, as he explains why this is so much more than a living history museum. Strawbery Banke was an actual neighborhood, dating back where Portsmouth began, 1623.
Indeed, Don's family settled here in 1670, he was the 9th generation when he was growing up here in the 1950s (in fact, he is the best "artifact" of all).
Don says he used to play in the scrap yard (and I meet Mrs. Shapiro who said her brother-in-law started the scrap yard at the turn of the 20th century).
Strawbery Banke was once the bank of the waterway where strawberry plants grew, but in 1900, the waterway was filled in - like in Boston.
"It wasn’t so high in the food chain; the railroad had come," Don tells me.
Puddle Dock became a red light district, and went downhill from there.
"In the 1950s, the federal government declared Puddle Dock a blighted slum area and to save it, kicked us all out," Don says. "They boarded up houses, and were going to bulldoze and replace them with low income subsidized housing."
But an organization was formed to save the neighborhood, and the federal government said it would delay the demolition to give the group a couple of years "fully expecting the plan to fail." Strawbery Banke opened as a living history museum in 1965.
Don, who still lives nearby, grew up, enlisted in the army near the end of the Vietnam War, and served in the army for 30 years.
"My wife dragged me here to visit – I thought they were just a bunch of old houses falling apart." He got hooked and signed on as a volunteer at the museum, where his wife also volunteers.
Since he has been at Strawbery Banke, all his childhood memories of “Puddle Dock” have flooded back and he wrote a book, “Playing in the Puddle.” Don tells me he found a photo in the Strawbery Banke archive of his own 1949 Studebaker car.
This is still a living place - a few of the houses are private and still inhabited - such as the Webster House, built 1785, which was the home of statesman Daniel Webster from 1814-16, at the beginning of his law career (this one was in fact moved from High Street in 1961 to save it from demolition; now J. Trace Antique, by appointment, and the Shapley House, built around 1790 and the Shapley Townshouse, built 1814). And you see some of the houses in their state of decline or in the process of being restored, so you can really appreciate what the neighborhood had become and what a remarkable transformation the museum has accomplished.
Not all the houses tell their story through the people who occupied them. Other houses have a different purpose - of demonstrating the restoration process itself. Others demonstrate the technology or the techniques of the time - like the Smithsonian Institution. (In fact an exhibit at the Smithsonian's Museum of American History in Washington DC traces the history of a single home and its inhabitants, from colonial times to the 1960s that has been rebuilt within the museum).
Don orients me to what to look for and I am on my way (the daily program tells you which houses have reenactors and what special programs are going on that day).
Because Strawbery Banke is a neighborhood, you see every aspect of life - kitchens (there are hearth cooking demonstrations), weaving (you can try your own hand), a selection of gardens (Victorian children's Garden, Victory Garden, Walsh Garden which is a late 18th century teaching garden; Shapiro Garden, a recreated vegetable garden of 1919; Sherburne Garden, recreated to show the colonial period; kitchen garden and orchard based on archeobotanical evidence. There is even a Garden History Tour that spans the four centuries of garden and landscape traditions (daily at 1 pm). (I note that The Victorian Greenhouse was removed from Wentworth by the Sea, the historic grand resort on nearby New Castle island where I am staying.)
You stroll around the neighborhood at your own pace; the houses that display a flag are open for visits.
I start out my tour at the Rowland Gallery which hosts special exhibits (as you go through, the exhibits provide this incredibly rich portrait of history and local economy) On view, "Tapping Portsmouth – How the Brewing Industry Shaped the City." This explores the brewing history beginning with the American Revolution and the Pitt Tavern, and showcases stories and artifacts - including how they coped with Prohibition 1917-33 (brewery sold malt syrup and home brewers could make beer out of it).
I move next to the Rider-Wood House, built1738 and occupied by a family from 1738-1780. The house was sold in 1809 for $1000 (100 years later, the Shapiros bought the house next door for $400, showing how the neighborhood had declined). The home is displayed as the early 19th century home of English immigrant and widow Mary Rider; her husband died in 1814 leaving her childless and well off, and her sister's husband died, leaving her 9 children. Rider brought them to her home, over a 37-year period, 1820-57.Rider had a shop and lived to the age of 94.
Rider, who operated a store in her home, left her house to her nephew, James Wood, who lived to the age of 104. He was born in 1796 and died in 1900 (here is a photo of him from 1900)- his life actually spanned three centuries. Can you imagine a lifetime spanning that timeframe, and the changes he saw? In 1961, the house was converted to a duplex. Strawbery Banke refurbished it and restored it to the 1836 era.
Across the street is the Chase House, built in 1762 on this spot for the Royal Governor (who never actually lived in it) by an investor. The 3500 sq ft. mansion is truly grand. It became the home of Stephen Chase, an early 19th century merchant. Chase acquired it in 1779 and the Chase family lived in it until 1881.The house was occupied until 1960.
The Chase House is set in 1818 because the museum knows exactly what was in the house at that time because the state had an estate tax and everything needed to be inventoried. The furnishings were donated by various groups, including a wealthy family that was contemporary with the Chase family.
The Royal Governor did not live in the neighborhood, but the Civil War-era governor, Ichabod Goodwin and his wife, Sarah Parker Rice Goodwin, lived in the Goodwin Mansion from 1852-1896.
This house, built in 1811, was moved from Islington Street in 1963 to save it from demolition. In the Goodwin Garden, a recreated Victorian garden based on an 1862 landscape plan and Sarah Goodwin's detailed diary interpreted to 1870, is where you may meet Mrs. Goodwin tending her garden.
Two doors down from the Chase House, I am greeted by Mrs. Lillian Aldrich who shows me about the museum she created in honor of her husband, the Victorian novelist, poet and editor, Thomas Bailey Aldrich.
Aldrich came here at age 12 to live with his grandparents. The house was built in 1797; the small museum building (which is actually unrestored) was built in 1908, the first house museum opened in New Hampshire, and you can wander around and see his room. (I am struck that each of the house has toys and things for kids to play with).
Her museum is the first house museum opened in New Hampshire. A large contingent of Aldrich's friends came from New York and Boston to the dedication, she tells me. Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) gave the dedication of the museum. In fact, Aldrich, who was the editor of the Atlantic Monthly from 1881-1890, wrote "The Story of a Bad Boy" - the first children's book where the main character got into trouble. Published in 1836, the book became an overnight sensation, and gave Twain the idea for his Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn characters, Mrs. Aldrich tells me Clemens himself said.
It is 1777 and the Declaration of Independence has been signed. I have an awkward conversation with John Stavers, Jr. – and he is clearly uncomfortable with my questions about whether the patriots meet in his tavern.
His father, John Stavers, came from England 1755 at the age 41, operated tavern at Sign of the Earl of Halifax, and in 1766, built this building for tavern and to house New Hampshire’s first Masonic Lodge.
At the time of the Revolutionary War, he changed the name to honor William Pitt, a staunch defender of Liberty, in response to patriotic pressure. (The important role of a tavern as a meeting place is shown in documents in newspapers.)
But his son, John Stavers Jr, who was born in Portsmouth, doesn't seem to be happy, or comfortable talking to me.
I ask which side he favors, and he says reticently, “We serve all who wish to come. Some attacked building, smashed windows and took down our sign.” Apparently his father was arrested and spent a week in jail.
I ask if the situation improved after they changed the name? "Things settled down."
I ask if he will join the patriots. “There is no reason for me to die – no solid conviction. My father is old and I have no reason to leave this business." He says that the Patriots consider this a Tory meeting place … "Tories think they will prevail."
Asked what the likelihood is the patriots will be able to defeat the most powerful nation on earth, he says, "The King is being lenient with the patriots. He could crush everyone, but shows his benevolence. He hired Hessian mercenaries, but they could be easily persuaded if paid more. In the end, the entire thing is a mess."
Shapiro House: The Immigrant Experience
Just across the small street is the Shapiro House, the home of Sheva Shapiro, Avram (Abraham), and their daughter Mollie, who moved into the house in 1909.
As I walk in, Mrs Shapiro is standing over a table with laid out with traditional Jewish cookies and beets The calendar says it is 1919. There is a Hunter Fan, manufactured in 1900 and called the "Century Fan" is going to cool the room in the summer heat. The house, which was originally built in 1795, was electrified when they moved in, when Mollie was 3 months old.
She begins a long story about how she came to the United States, which begins with her brother in law, Samuel, who came in 1898 and started the scrap metal business.
It is July 4 and she is preparing chicken soup with matzo balls because her daughter Mollie, who is born in United States, says it is not a holiday of any kind without chicken soup with matzo balls.
Sheva and her husband Abraham have been naturalized since 1911 and are fiercely patriotic. She tells me Mollie is upset by the family speaking Yiddish.
"She was born here, and is American."
In 1919, there are 165 Russian Jews in 30 families in Puddle Dock. Half of Puddle Dock are immigrants.
Her husband Avram is president of synagogue, Temple Israel. (Founded in 1910, I see the temple a couple of blocks away, it is the first permanent Jewish synagogue in New Hampshire.)
I ask how she came to America? She tells me in her heavy accent about the pograms in Annapole, in Russia, a market town 35 km west of Kiev. Sheva snuck out in ox cart covered in hay because Russians didn’t want Jews but they didn’t allow them to leave either.
Sheva left her family behind – Chaia (Ida in America), had already come in 1901 when her daughter Mary was 3 years old. By then, her brother-in law-Samuel was already here – he came through Qeubec, and came to Puddle Dock in 1898, starting a scrap metal business.
"In Russia," she explains, "they took the Jewish men into the army for a 25 year conscription, as early as 13 years old. If they did not have enough guns and ammo at the front, they would send Jews first and tell them to pick up a gun when one falls.
"He and best friend were in the Russian Army. He was 26 years old and married and broke his arm." Knowing his fate, she says, he deserted the army with his friend and walked across Germany and made his way to London.
"But his best friend turned out to be 'goniff' (a thief). He stole Samuel’s ticket and money."
In London, he was taken in by a family named Shapiro, and after 3 months working, earned enough to travel to Quebec.
There he found “landesmen” (Jews) who talked about America. He became interested to come to America. He was born Shepen Milhander, but he decided that was not a lucky name, but Shapiro served all the Shapiros well, and he thought the name had more mazel, and glick. So he took the name Samuel Shapiro.
Shapiro got to Chelsea, Massachusetts where he met people from Annapole who asked why he changed name. He told them about the friend who cheated him, and they said they thought they knew where the sister of the goniff lived, in Amesbury, Mass. So he finds the sister (just tells her he wants to meet up with the brother).
Sheva speaks as this simple person with heavy Yiddish accent.
The brother, it turns out, is in in Puddle Dock, the immigrant neighborhood in Portsmouth. Shapiro meets up with him and the guy gives him back his money but refuses to apologize or explain.
Samuel decided to move here. He saw the scrap metal business in Boston and wanted to start it here. He went door to door at first, then with a peddler’s cart, then a wagon, now he has Shapiro Scrap Metal.
Sheva's sister Ida came through Ellis Island in 1901 – Sam goes to pick up Chai. She was pregnant when he went to army and had never seen his daughter. Now he is seeing her for the first time, and she is 3 years old.
Three of Shapiro's brothers also take the Shapiro name and two other brothers take the name “Brown” thinking it was more American.
Samuel's brother Avram comes in 1903 from Liverpool to Boston. Samuel suggests a wedding between Avram and Sheva.
They meet in 1904, and marry in 1905.
Samuel Shapiro eventually brings 17 brothers, sisters, cousins and in-laws to the area. But the two Browns marry Boston women. And in 1919, his brother, Jacob Brown moves to Puddle Dock, with his son Charlie Brown and Molly Brown – because they were coming up so often for family events.
The Great War to End All Wars just ended last year, she tells me.
"They say that if we have an extra room, it is patriotic to rent out," so they have a boarder, Russell, who works for the ship yard, and Louis Gasnalt who is a Hebrew teacher.
In the Shapiro's living room, where there is a piano and sheet music, like “Irene” and “Hatikva,” there is a video that plays on the mirror above the fire place. The video is fascinating, with photos from Sheva's Ukrainian village, art work depicting how Samuel trekked across Germany, family photos, pictures of the immigrant community, the Jewish community. Throughout the house, there are presentations – posters and explanations – genealogy, the Jewish community; in what was Mollie’s room, we see photos of Mollie’s life (which was cut short). (Several places have video presentations if it helps impart information).
As you move around the house, it is like visiting friends or family. These are real people.
Mollie studied in public school and Hebrew school, studied piano, went to the University of New Hampshire and became the first member of her family to graduate college. In 1933, she married college sweetheart and moved to Brooklyn. But she died soon after giving birth. Her son lived with his grandparents until his father remarried (you see photos of him with Sheva and Abraham).
The Shapiros raised funds for Jewish state, have a photo of Herzel, have the music for Hatikvah on the piano, were active in the synagogue, but were enthusiastic about everything American. They all became American citizens and learned English
Ms. Shapiro says, her house had first inside bathroom in Puddle Dock – because of house fire - so by 1912 rebuilt kitchen 3 times, so there was a door to a shed where put bath – water tank attached to stove for hot water.
Shapiro House originally was built 1795 – by John Jackson, apothecary and physician – had herb garden in lot next door – he grew herbs and species for pills, potions, poultices, purges, plasters for patients (she enjoys all the “p” sounds)
I spent at least an hour in the Shapiro House - I lost track of time. I lingered so long because it was like being able to ask questions of my grandparents that I never got to ask, and it was one of the best presentations of the immigrant experience I have seen.
This is as close to actual time travel as we will ever experience. – you literally go through a door and are in a different era, and when there is a reenactor, it makes it even more real.
Little Corner Store of the 1940s
I walk into the Marden-Abbott "Little Corner Store," where the calendar says it is July 1943. Here you appreciate what the Puddle Dock residents experienced in World War II. Around back, the Abbott garage has been turned into an exhibit of "The Homefront Battlefield, 1940-45," with fascinating posters and TV commercials that preach how to best live day to day for "victory" - everything from recycling to walking and carrying things instead of driving cars or trucks to save gasoline, to growing your own Victory Garden (something that First Lady Michelle Obama has been pilloried for encouraging). In back of the house there is a Victory Garden, the 1940s garden of the Pecunies family.
And there are posters that preach the messages: "No Work. No Victory Work for Victory." "Save waste fats for explosives." "I'll Carry Mine Too - truck and tire must last till victory."
Not all the structures within Strawbery Banke have been restored, and some of them are exhibits of the restoration process. The Jackson House, built in 1790, is typical of historic structure plan to restoration. Every piece of plaster, wallpaper and hardware important evidence of building history, and guides the restoration process.
The Sherburne House, shows 17th century house construction. Built after 1695 and enlarged 1703, it is one of few surviving buildings from the earliest period of American architecture.
Here, I was surprised to learn that Strawbery Banke was never an Indian settlement, though Indians came seasonally to fish.
However, there is an excellent special exhibition, "First Nations Diplomacy Opens the Portsmouth Door," which commemorates the 300 anniversary of the 1713 Treaty of Portsmouth
The Shapley-Drisco House offers a unique comparison of life in the 1790s and life in the 1950s. Originally built in 1795 as a single family house and shop, in 1900 there was a need for rental income, so the owner turned it into a two-family structure, with two front doors and two staircases (the renter left in 1959). But now, one side shows life in the 1790s and the other side is 1950s. You walk into the 1950s kitchen and there is a radio with Jeff Davis announcing the Yankee-Red Sox game.
1954 is when the Strawbery Banke timeline ends, when the site was saved from urban renewal.
Visiting Strawbery Banke
Strawbery Banke is open daily May 1 - October 31, 10 am to 5 pm; in November and December it is open on weekends only.
There are numerous special events for the fall.
For Halloween, Ghosts on the Banke (Friday and Saturday, October 25 & 26, 6-8 pm. $8 per person. Children 1 year or younger, free.) Meet the Ghosts on the Banke: long-dead sea captains, 17th century shopkeepers and wayward pirates haunt the streets of Portsmouth’s oldest neighborhood as you trick or treat safely from house to historic house. Kids can trick-or-treat at the historic houses; Jack-o-Lantern light the lanes; there are wandering werewolves, ghostly graveyards, a haunted hemlock grove, and an Old Witch's House. there is a spooky outdoor hHalloween movie, and an All Hallows Eve bonfire.
34th Annual Candlelight Stroll takes place Saturday and Sunday, December 7-8, 14-15, 21-22 (Saturdays from 5-9pm & Sundays from 4-8pm). Stroll the 300-year history of American holiday traditions. The holiday decorations (3000 of them, all made by the garden staff), vignettes and role-players at Strawbery Banke Museum's Candlelight Stroll (Saturday and Sunday, December 7-8, 14-15, 21-22 5-9 pm on Saturdays and 4-8 pm on Sundays) are designed to carry visitors into holiday lives from the past as the 10-acre museum and its 40 historic buildings recreate December through the centuries in the Portsmouth neighborhood of Puddle Dock. Visitors are welcomed into the 1919 Russian Jewish kitchen of Mrs. Shapiro as she prepares the Hanukah celebration. The 18th century night watchman stops to warm himself in front of the bonfire. The wagon drawn by a winter-furry farm horse, Doc, makes the rounds along the dirt lanes lined with the flickering wood-and-glass candle lanterns that are the signature of Candlelight Stroll. New this year, the tiny white lights that outline the grounds and the electric candles in the windows will remain on each night throughout December - not just on the weekends of Stroll. The holiday decorations in each house, including the family Christmas tree in all its Victorian glory in the front parlor of the Goodwin Mansion will be showcased during holiday house tours the week between Christmas and New Year's. Tickets are $20 for adults. Kids 5-17: $10. Kids 4 & under: FREE. Family rate (2 adults and your children ages 17 and under): $50. Tickets go on sale on the website on www.strawberybanke.org.
Guided Holiday House Tours are offered December 26, 27, 28, 29, 30 (10 am-2 pm) when there are guided tours of five decorated historic houses at Strawbery Banke Museum. (Tours offered on the hour. Adults $15, children 5-17 $10, children under 5 free.)
You need at least 2-3 hours and easily can spend more because of programs and activities including a whole Discovery Center devoted to children's activities - in fact, each of the houses has some particular activity for kids.
Tickets: Adult/$17.50, Youth 5-17/$10, family/$45. You can use your ticket to visit over two consecutive days, and if coming with children, it is a good idea to break it up and spend time in the family center and at demonstrations.
Strawbery Banke, 14 Hancock Street, Portsmouth NH, 03801, 603-433-1100, www.strawberybanke.org.
Karen Rubin, National Eclectic Travel Examiner
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