New book available on Amazon

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Those who follow this blog know that for a number of years I’ve been writing History Matters, a column devoted to the history of Hampton and Hampton Beach, New Hampshire, which is published monthly in the Hampton Union newspaper and republished on my social media sites at Facebook, Twitter, and lassitergang.com. Now I’ve combined that collection of columns, plus extra photos and a few bonus articles, into a book titled (big surprise!) Hampton History Matters.

I’m excited and proud to announce that HHM is now available on Amazon.com. If you buy the book through that site (search on my name or book title, or click the link below) and post a customer review on the book’s Amazon page, I’ll send you a free set of bookmarks* (email your snail mail address to hamptonwriter@gmail.com or DM me on Facebook).

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HHM BOOK COVER

HHM BOOK COVER

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

*Includes bookmarks for The Queens of Hampton Beach, Marked: The Witchcraft Persecution of Goodwife Unise Cole, and A Meet and Suitable Person: Tavernkeeping in Old Hampton, New Hampshire. Never be without a bookmark again!

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Thanks to Karen Raynes for getting me into this newspaper gig to begin with, and to Betty Moore and the Hampton Historical Society for access to the Society’s archives and for reprint permissions.

Don’t forget to recycle this post – please share with a friend!

 

 

 

Ode to Joe Billy Brown

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Joseph Ballard Brown, c. 1900

When wealthy Boston carpet dealer Joseph Ballard bought the Lafayette Road estate of his Leavitt in-laws in 1831, he had no idea that a future namesake would one day become one of the most popular and controversial selectmen ever voted to office in Hampton, New Hampshire.

Ballard and his wife Clarissa, the daughter of tavern keeper Thomas Leavitt, spent their summers in Hampton. From mid-century on, Irish-born Mary Johnston accompanied them as a servant. In 1858, she married John Gilman Brown of Hampton, and in 1862 their first child Joseph Ballard was born. Mary held a special place in the Ballard household, and when her employer died in 1877, he bequeathed to her the house and property at 393 Lafayette Road.

A one-man government

Mary’s son Joe Billy, as he was called, was a market gardener who sold his produce from a cart at the beach. A lifelong bachelor, he was first elected to the board of selectmen in 1887, at the age of twenty-four, and held the office for the better part of the next three and a half decades, eventually becoming board chairman. A 1921 Hampton Union article reported that he was “on the job from six o’clock in the morning until nearly midnight,” and that “no job is too big for him to tackle and no request of too little consequence to escape his attention.” In fact, Brown seemed to have had his nose in everything, and he performed so many jobs around town—from cleaning the Town Hall and caring for transients, to collecting rents on leased town land and personally overseeing public works projects—that calling his time in office a “one-man government” was not far from the mark.

Brown vs. the police force

 James Tucker of the Hampton Beach News-Guide described Joe Billy as “spare and wiry with a drooping gray moustache,” dressed in a “familiar” gray suit, and looking like a “character out of Winston Churchill’s novel Coniston (Churchill was a novelist and New Hampshire politician; his 1906 book about the state’s politics was a best seller). According to Tucker, Brown was “accustomed to leading,” and wasn’t the kind of man “that lags behind in a community like Hampton.” His personality was pleasant, his disposition stubborn, and although his “argumentative facilities might prove futile in a close debate,” at town meetings he was a “master of repartee.”

Tucker penned his biographical sketch in 1922, at the end of a contentious summer at the beach. With the assistance of Hampton police chief Sherburne “Sherbie” Blake and his officers, overzealous Federal prohibition agents had set up liquor roadblocks at the bridge end of the beach and on Lafayette Road. This angered business owners and cottagers, who worried that the liquor arrests were giving the town a false reputation as a bootlegging center. Even trolley operator Massachusetts Northeastern Street Railway complained of the inconvenience of the searches.

The complaints did not go unnoticed by the selectmen, and in September (well after the tourist season had wound down), Joe Billy Brown fired twelve of the fifteen officers on the force, including the chief. Spared from the axe were Officers Marvin Young, Uri Lamprey, and Robert Tolman.

 One of the unexpunged officers was Brown’s friend and “anxious to wear the chief’s badge,” leading Tucker to believe that “petty jealousy and local politics” were at the root of Brown’s decision. Despite Blake’s refusal to vacate his office, the ruling stood and Tolman took over as chief.

Twenty years younger than Joe Billy, Sherbie Blake was the son of Hampton fisherman Eri P. Blake. At sixteen he joined the Navy, later working as a clerk in Boston, Massachusetts and Concord, New Hampshire. He ran a liquor store in Manchester, New Hampshire, and had a marriage, two children, and a divorce, all before returning home to Hampton to try his hand at police work. After his dismissal, he found work at the Coast Guard station on North Beach.

The following year the town elected Lemuel C. Ring as chairman of the selectmen. With Brown declining to participate, Ring and selectman Harry Munsey voted to reinstate Blake. Some locals didn’t like the change, but they must have been happy with the board’s decision not to allow their police officers to work the Federal “dry squad” roadblocks. This meant a loss to the police department of a share of the municipal court revenues earned from the prosecution and conviction of rumrunners, which in 1922 had amounted to over thirteen hundred dollars. For the town’s promoters, this seemed like a fair exchange.

Other problems arose, however, and Blake abruptly resigned after an altercation with the “occupants of an automobile” that had occurred over the Independence Day holiday. He never returned, and selectman Harry Munsey took over as chief.

Old political ring broken

Munsey was the third selectman on the three-man board, but at the time of Blake’s resignation, he and Ring were operating as a two-man board. On April 29, Brown died after surgery at Anna Jacques Hospital in Newburyport. With his passing, the “old political ring” was broken. It didn’t take long before the public learned of irregularities in the town’s business, including a report that Brown had kept the town’s money in his own personal bank accounts. The selectmen promised a thorough audit of the books, along with fairer and more businesslike governance in the future. 

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In his history of the town, Peter Randall called Joe Billy “an unusual town official.” That he certainly was. He was also an admired public servant, who, as James Tucker wrote, had “at heart the welfare of the town he serves so faithfully.” In recognition of his many years of service, North Shore Park at Plaice Cove was informally called Joe Billy Brown Park. In 1964, voters made the memorial official.

Ode to Joe Billy Brown

Have you seen my Billy Brown?

He’s the man who runs our town,

I will never rest ‘til he am found.

I have looked all over town,

Down to the beach and all around.

On my knees I ask please,

Have you seen my Billy Brown

—as remembered by Horace Hobbs (1899-1999),

courtesy of the Hampton Historical Society.

Originally published in the Hampton Union, August 25, 2017.

Photo of Joe Billy Brown courtesy of the Hampton Historical Society. Colorized by the author.

History Matters is a monthly column devoted to the history of Hampton and Hampton Beach, New Hampshire. Cheryl’s latest book is “Hampton History Matters,” a collection of new and previously published essays, available at amazon.com. Her website is lassitergang.com.

The Queens of Hampton Beach 2017

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Congratulations! to the 2017 Miss Hampton Beach, Emily Durant of Hampton, who received a $200 photo package courtesy of the Hampton Historical Society. Congratulations also to the Junior Miss winner, Lauren Brophy of North Hampton, and the Little Miss winner, Siena Szarek of Pelham, Massachusetts. Karen Raynes and I wish them the best of luck in the coming year.

Thank you! to everyone who came out to support our showing of the documentary video 100 Years at the Beach and book signing for The Queens of Hampton Beach last Sunday at the Seashell Pavilion. Thanks to Josh Silveira for running the video, Betty Moore and the Hampton Historical Society for sponsoring the event, and Maryanne from the State Parks department for making it possible for us to show the video in the Pavilion.

About The Queens of Hampton Beach book ~

Painstakingly researched and written by local historians Cheryl Lassiter and Karen Raynes, The Queens of Hampton Beach is a fascinating, year-by-year, winner-by-winner portrait, not only of these iconic summertime contests, but of Hampton Beach itself. The book’s stories and historic photos are guaranteed to bring back happy memories to long-time beachgoers, former contestants, their families, and fans, as well as bring delight to those whose own history with the beach is just beginning. This book belongs on every library and bookstore shelf in New England!

Available through Amazon.com, BN.com, and Baker & Taylor book distributors.

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 Praise for The Queens of Hampton Beach

“A fitting tribute to all those involved in creating, sustaining, and participating in one of the seacoast’s longest running and most cherished traditions. Let’s have a warm round of applause for The Queens – the very jewels that adorn the crown – of Hampton Beach, New Hampshire.” – Don McNeill, The Continentals.

 “A must-have for anyone who loves Hampton Beach! Packed with great photos and interesting stories, not just about the evolution of our local beauty queens, but about the development of the beach itself.” – Betty Moore, Tuck Museum Executive Director.

 

“This book, a true treasure, not only chronicles the rich history of Hampton Beach but of the pageant that has touched so many and set the stage for success in many endeavors of my life. I remain forever grateful.” – Sheila T. Scott, Miss Hampton Beach 1964.


Back Cover Copy

      Like fried dough, henna tattoos, and the arcade, choosing a queen to represent Hampton Beach has always been an important part of the summer rituals at this popular seaside resort. What started out in 1915 as a way to sell raffle tickets with the Carnival Queen contest, open to all women, had by the late 1940s evolved into the Miss Hampton Beach beauty pageant, for which only young, single women were eligible. In 1959 the pageant moved indoors to the glitzy Casino Ballroom, and for the next three glamour-filled decades groomed New England girls for national pageants like Miss Universe, Miss USA, and Miss America. Tastes changed and interest waned over the years, and in 1996 the pageant was canceled—only to return to its roots the following year as a free community event, held on a Sunday afternoon, outdoors at the epicenter of the beach, the Seashell Stage. The tradition continues today, with beach queens chosen not only for their beauty and poise, but for their willingness to participate in community activities and to promote Hampton Beach as a family-friendly vacation destination throughout their reigning year.

 

 


The Mysterious Sadie Belle Lane

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This wonderful photo of Sadie Belle Lane and that of her house (below) were found in the collections of the Hampton Historical Society. No one knows how or when they were acquired, but a note on the digital version states they were once in the possession of a woman who was doing research on historic area houses. The guess is that they were saved from Sadie’s house when it was replaced by a block of business condos in the 1980s.

Other than these photos, Sadie Belle left precious few trails for future historians to follow. About her life I have only been able to find the basics – she was born in Hampton, New Hampshire on September 4, 1876, the youngest child of wealthy merchant Joshua Lane and his wife Lydia Emery. Her siblings were Howard G. and Ida. She graduated from Hampton Academy in 1894 and lived at 387 Lafayette Road in the house which she would eventually inherit from her parents. She was single her entire life, spent time in Boston, joined ladies’ clubs, vacationed in the White Mountains, and, rumor has it, she employed a chauffeur. She left a bit of money in her will to the Lane Memorial Library, a library created in 1910 by her brother Howard to honor the memory of their father Joshua.

Her name doesn’t appear in the census records after 1880, nor in the SSDI or New Hampshire death records. Her Rockingham County probate record is #41313, which I hope to research in person some day.

We might never know any more than we do right now about Miss Sadie Belle Lane, but we can enjoy her intriguing photograph, and wonder what sort of lady she really was.

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Hampton Beach Hotels

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The Great Boar’s Head bluff, rising prominently above the shoreline at the northern end of Hampton Beach, was once part of the Great Ox Common, an area of land that in 1641 the founders of Hampton reserved “to the world’s end” as common pasturage for their oxen. But times and traditions changed, the Common passed into private hands, and the bluff went under cultivation. When visitors from the inland cities began gravitating to this “invigorating and delightful spot” for fishing, fowling, and “the purpose of inhaling the country and sea air,” Boar’s Head farmers realized a new use for their land: cows and corn were out, vacation hotels were in, and so began the early hotel era at Hampton Beach.

Hotels01The Winnicumet (1819-1854)

As in today’s world of business, it was the twenty-somethings who led the charge to exploit the new trend. In 1819, twenty-three-year-old Amos Towle and twenty-five-year-old Abraham Marston built a two-story, hip-roofed hotel on Towle’s Boar’s Head land. In 1822 Towle leased his “pleasant Stand” to tavernkeeper Richard Greenleaf of Hampton, and in 1828 he sold it to Thomas Leavitt, also of Hampton, for the mortgage plus $1,320. Thirty-four years old at the time, Leavitt enlarged the hotel with a three-story Greek Revival-style addition at the front of the original structure, and built his own home nearby. For the next two and a half decades the Winnicumet received visitors during the summer tourist and fall gunning seasons; then, in the early morning hours of July 21, 1854, a fire in a shed attached to the rear of the building burned the house to the ground. Some said it was a suspicious fire, but with the science of arson investigation still far into the future, no one would ever really know the cause.

Hotels02Boar’s Head Hotel (1827-1893)

With the growth in tourism and the popularity of the Winnicumet, constructing a second hotel on Boar’s Head must have seemed like a sure thing to 45-year-old David Nudd, a man who was the embodiment of the young, fast-moving Republic—a merchant, moneylender, and prolific builder of ships, roads, salt works, a ship canal, and three hotels on the Boar’s Head bluff.

Nudd’s eagerly awaited Hampton Beach Hotel, which critics dubbed “Folly Castle,” opened for business on June 20, 1827. Built near the top of the promontory, the three-story hotel offered spectacular views of the Isles of Shoals, the summit of Agamenticus, Cape Ann, and, of course, the Atlantic Ocean. Nudd maintained ownership but hired a succession of managers to run the hotel: Nathaniel G. Tyler of Newburyport, followed by “Sleepy” David Brown of Hampton, then, in 1836, Levi Shaw of Dover. In 1840 George W. Cheney was managing the recently renovated, enlarged, and renamed Boar’s Head Hotel. In 1844, Nudd’s son Joseph and son in law Alfred J. Batchelder ran the hotel, followed in 1849 by Dudley S. Locke, another Nudd son in law. In the mid-1850s the manager was Henry T. Nichols of Manchester, New Hampshire.

In 1866 Stebbins H. Dumas of Concord, New Hampshire purchased the hotel. With enterprising flair—and twenty years’ prior experience at the Phenix Hotel in Concord—he “entirely disemboweled and remodeled” the hotel; adding piazzas, a three-story ell, and a 26-room, mansard-style fourth story, in addition to a private cottage, bowling alley, billiards hall, and expanded carriage house and stables. Dumas operated the hotel until October 23, 1893, when the structure was destroyed by a chimney fire.

Hotels03Eagle House (c. 1830 – present)

In 1806, local farmer Daniel Lamprey built a one-story beach getaway on Boar’s Head. About 1810 his son Jeremiah and family moved into the house and kept the first public house in that part of the world. Years later, apparently unaware that “Uncle Jerry” was slipping into dementia, a Portsmouth newspaper writer complained about the “absence of all accommodation at the public houses” at Hampton Beach. Some weeks later the paper printed an apology to “Mr. L,” noting that his patrons were “fully aware of the difficulties under which he labours.” Jeremiah was eventually declared insane, and his property wound up in the hands of David Nudd, who built his second hotel, the Eagle House, on the property. Three generations of Nudds would own the hotel: David’s son Willard, Willard’s son Lewis, and Lewis’s daughter Caroline Belle. Of the seven hotels included in this article, only the Eagle has survived, still standing as part of the Century House Motel at the foot of Boar’s Head.

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Granite House/New Boar’s Head (1847-1908)

In 1840 David Nudd closed his then-unprofitable Hampton River salt works, saving its timbers to build a third hotel on Boar’s Head, the 32-room Granite House. In 1848 he leased it to hoteliers Hoyt & Richardson, who boasted that their hotel was closest to the “best places for bathing” and featured a new bowling alley, a new “fine toned” piano, and a good stable. The following year Nudd’s daughter Martha and her husband Alfred J. Batchelder, previously of the Boar’s Head Hotel, took over the management.

In 1854, four months after the Winnicumet burned, the Granite survived a fire, with only its stable destroyed in the blaze. The Batchelders, however, were not as lucky in their financial affairs. Martha inherited the hotel when her father died in 1858, but in 1880, with Alfred sick with cancer, they lost it all to a creditor.

In 1883 Stebbins H. Dumas of the Boar’s Head Hotel bought the hotel, naming it The Rockingham. After his first hotel burned in 1893, he set up shop here, renaming it the New Boar’s Head Hotel. As he neared retirement in 1901, he made plans to subdivide and sell his Boar’s Head properties, but died before the plans could be realized. The hotel went into the hands of a Boston firm and was managed by James Fuller of Amesbury, Massachusetts. In 1908 it burned down, on the same day (October 23) and under the same circumstances (chimney fire) that had destroyed the old Boar’s Head Hotel fifteen years earlier.

1998.382.4Ocean House (1844-1885)

Built by David Nudd’s oldest son Stacy, the Ocean was the first hotel south of Boar’s Head. Even though it was favorably situated “in front of the broad, smooth and hard Beach,” Nudd assured potential guests that his prices “shall be as low as at any other boarding house on the seaboard anywhere.” Because alcohol was banned on the premises, the Ocean was popular with temperance types. When Nudd died in 1866, the hotel was sold to Philip Yeaton of Lawrence, Massachusetts, who catered to an upscale clientele, some who paid a daily rate of $25 (about $500 today). With a reputation for lavish food and services, the Ocean House was considered one of the best summer resort hotels in New England.

When the hotel burned in the early morning hours of May 7,1885, it was a sprawling four-story with 170 rooms, several detached cottages, a bowling alley, and stables with carriages and horses for let. The wind-blown fire, which started to the north in the unoccupied, 50-room Atlantic House, consumed John G. Cutler’s Sea View Cottage and several smaller dwellings before reaching the Ocean House.

Hotels06Leavitt’s Hampton Beach Hotel (1871-1921)

In a minor correction to the historical record, the year was 1871, not 1872, when the Leavitt brothers, Joseph, 33, and Thomas, Jr., 39, built the four-story, 40-room Hampton Beach Hotel on the site of their deceased father’s Winnicumet House. With Joseph as its principal proprietor and the patronage of Judge Thomas Leavitt’s political friends, the hotel became one of the most popular on the beach. Five years after Joseph’s death in 1914 the Leavitt family sold the hotel, and in 1921 it was torn down to make way for Armas Guyon’s Dance Carnival.

Hotels07Cutler’s Sea View/Hotel Allen (1875-1985)

In 1875 former Exeter businessman John G. Cutler bought the Sea View Cottages at Hampton Beach. He improved the property and operated a small hotel and billiard hall until 1885, when the buildings were destroyed in the fire that burned Yeaton’s Ocean House. Less than a month later a second, larger Sea View rose like a phoenix from the ashes to become one of the most well-known hotel and dining establishments on the seacoast. Like Leavitt’s, it was frequented by the political class, led by Cutler’s good friend, Congressman Cyrus A. Sulloway.

After Cutler’s death in 1913, his wife Hattie continued as proprietor, with John B. Rich as manager. When Hattie died in 1921, Rich inherited a life interest in the hotel, which he sold in 1924. That same year it was acquired by Dance Carnival owner Armas Guyon. When Edgar Lessard of Hampton bought the hotel in 1945, he renamed it the Constance. In 1949 Herbert and Helen Allen of Amesbury, Massachusetts bought Lessard’s hotel, and, for the next 35 years and under six different owners, it was known as the Hotel Allen. In October 1985, the now 100-year-old hotel, recently sold and renamed Rock Harbor Inn, burned and was never rebuilt.
1816 Philip Carrigan MapThe end of the early hotel era

The summer of 1884 marked the high tide of the pioneer hotels at Hampton Beach. After the demise of the Ocean House in 1885 and the Boar’s Head Hotel in 1893, wealthy tourists moved on to more exclusive resorts on the Maine coast and the White Mountains. It could be argued that the moneyed class had been moving on anyway, which (along with a lack of organized fire protection) might explain why these lovely old hotels were never rebuilt. Yet with smaller, cheaper hotels, boarding houses, and private cottages cropping up each year, and a turn-of-the-century railway link to the cities of the Merrimack Valley, it was all but inevitable that Hampton Beach would become a favorite summer resort of the working- and middle-classes.

Not very surprising, really

Readers of Coastal Living Magazine recently voted Hampton Beach the Best Boardwalk in America.

Originally published in the Hampton Union, June 23, 2017. Images courtesy of the Hampton Historical Society and the author.

History Matters is a monthly column devoted to the history of Hampton and Hampton Beach, New Hampshire. Cheryl Lassiter’s latest book, with co-author Karen Raynes, is “The Queens of Hampton Beach: A History of the Carnival Queens and the Miss Hampton Beach Beauty Pageant, 1915-2015.” Her website is lassitergang.com.

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Early Fire Companies of Hampton

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The founding of Hampton, New Hampshire’s fire department rightfully belongs to the early twentieth century, with the formation of a beach fire precinct in 1907, a village fire precinct in 1909, and, in 1912, a volunteer company comprised of a chief, captain, lieutenants, clerk, and twenty “members.” These century-old associations, however, were not the town’s first attempts at organized fire protection. That happened over four decades earlier, in 1822, when voters authorized a committee of thirteen persons “to take into consideration the expediency of purchasing a fire engine for the use of the town and organizing a company.” The committee was to report on the costs of an engine and a “suitable building” in which to house it.

The thirteen men were appointed, but what became of their committee and its findings has not been recorded. Some sort of action regarding fire protection must have gone forward, since voters were asked at the 1823 town meeting to choose men to fill the newly-created post of “fireward.” This position, the forerunner of the fire chief, was modeled after that of Portsmouth, whose fire department dates to 1744, and Exeter, which had public and private forms of fire protection since 1774. But Hampton voters, who were getting along just fine with the community bucket brigade, chose to “pass by” that part of the warrant article.

Also in 1823, a group of men organized a fire company in Hampton Falls. According to Warren Brown, who wrote the history of the town, the company—which never fought any fires—was formed solely for the purpose of exempting its members from military duty (up to eighteen men per engine could claim an exemption). This was not unusual at the time, Brown said, as “similar companies were formed in other towns for the same purpose.”

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1830’s-style hand-drawn fire wagon.

The exemption was still in force in 1833, when a group of fifty-one Hampton men purchased a fire engine from the American Hydraulic Company of Windsor, Vermont. The early 1830s was a relatively peaceful period in which the “Era of Good Feelings” still lingered across the country, and it seems unlikely that these men formed their company for any purpose other than firefighting; rather, they were doing what the town had declined to do a decade earlier, and they asked for permission to erect a building on town land to house their new engine. The 1841 map of Hampton shows the Engine House that the voters allowed the “Owners of the Fire Engine” to build “on the School lot in the Centre District.”

May 2017 Image 04 According to historian Joseph Dow, fires were rare in Hampton, and “after a few years, in which little service was required,” the fire company and its engine were abandoned. Afterwards the town kept “several sets of fire-hooks in different localities,” but those, too, were eventually abandoned. Writing the town’s history in the late 1880s, Dow observed that at the time there was no public means of extinguishing fires.

In 1891 the town installed a fireproof safe to protect its public records, some of which were over 250 years old, but voters still refused to concede the necessity of organized fire protection. The success of the bucket brigade in extinguishing and preventing the spread of fires, and watchmen paid to make sure they didn’t break out again, hindered the passage of proposed measures, including the purchase of a chemical wagon in 1900 and the installation of a water system and fire hydrants in 1905.

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 Lemuel C. Ring, Chief of Hampton Beach Fire Department

It was a different story at the more densely populated and rapidly growing Hampton Beach, where concerned residents were growing tired of waiting for the town to act. With the State’s permission, they formed their own fire precinct in 1907, under Chief Lemuel C. Ring. Not to be outdone, the town formed its own precinct in 1909 (the two precincts remained separate entities until 2002, when the town assumed responsibility for fire protection at the beach). The town also approved the purchase of a horse-drawn chemical wagon, built by blacksmith Nelson J. Norton, painted by house painter George Johnson, with ladders supplied by farmer J. Austin Johnson and firefighting chemicals by the American Lafrance Engine Company. Three years later, Hampton’s first fire department was organized under Chief Elmer C. King, a forty-year-old piano and cabinet maker originally from Massachusetts, who had married Ella, the daughter of Horace and Elizabeth Hobbs of Hampton.

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c 1910 Hampton’s first chemical wagon at the Town Hall.

Carefully balancing the town’s Yankee frugality with a need to grow his department, in his first report, submitted on February 1, 1913, King asked for the funds to build a second wagon, one that his men had volunteered to build themselves, and a house in which to store his anticipated fleet expansion. According to the 1914 town report, he didn’t get his new wagon, but the town did appropriate twelve hundred dollars for the proposed fire house. From then on, expenditures for the Fire Department became a regular line item in the town’s yearly budget.

1830’s firefighting humor

The lawyers of Penobscot, Maine have petitioned for a fire engine, to be called the “Spouter,” which they propose to man and work themselves.

Originally published in the Hampton Union on May 26, 2017. Images courtesy of the Hampton Historical Society.

History Matters is a monthly column devoted to the history of Hampton and Hampton Beach, New Hampshire. Cheryl Lassiter’s latest book, with co-author Karen Raynes, is “The Queens of Hampton Beach: A History of the Carnival Queens and the Miss Hampton Beach Beauty Pageant, 1915-2015.” Her website is lassitergang.com.

THINGS TO DO THIS SUMMER: GO TO BEACH, GET A TAN, READ AT LEAST ONE OF CHERYL’S BOOKS! Available at amazon.com, and in Hampton at Marelli’s Market and the Tuck Museum.

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Tramps in Hampton NH

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“I knocked softly at the kitchen door.”

“The successful hobo must be an artist,” wrote Jack London in The Road, a collection of stories about his life as a teenage tramp in the 1890s. London’s “artist” was a man who could spin a convincing tale of misfortune and woe in exchange for a handout at the doors of America’s kitchens. The writer credited his successful career as a novelist to his own tramping artistry, since, if he wanted to eat, he was “compelled to tell tales that rang true.”

In contrast to London’s uncritical, often humorous portrayal of hobo life, Hampton’s historian Joseph Dow had a scathing opinion of the drifters who yearly descended on his town and beach: they “strolled idly from town to town, begging or stealing their support, and often committing deeds of violence and lust. No picnic grove or berry pasture, no secluded road or lonely house was a safe resort for the unprotected.” This annual “trampaign” of vagabonds reached its peak in the summer months and fell off with the coming of winter. As the Portsmouth Herald observed in 1899, “only working men out of jobs or amateurs tramp in the latitude of Portsmouth after Thanksgiving.”

According to Dow, itinerant vagrants began appearing in town around the year 1850, and their ranks swelled after the Civil War. Town reports referred to them somewhat sympathetically as “strangers” and “transient paupers” until 1874, when the word “tramp,” with its connotations of idling and drunkenness, entered the lexicon. The economic panics of 1873, 1884, and 1893 guaranteed the jobless tramp a permanent place in the American scene, and his ne’er-do-well mode of living was caricatured in every newspaper across the country.

The Tramp Houses

In New Hampshire towns like Exeter, Nashua, and Manchester, tramps were lodged overnight in the “bum room” at the city jail. Hampton, however, did not have a dedicated police station until 1900, when the town paid one hundred dollars to erect at the beach a 12’ x 16’ building, with three cells and an officers’ room. To deal with its growing transient population, in 1870 the town established what was facetiously called a “tramp’s retreat.” It seemed like a good idea at the time, but the retreat attracted “hordes of vagabonds,” and in some years taxpayers spent over one hundred dollars for their care and feeding. While the tramps were pleased with the arrangement, the town demanded a cheaper, less inviting alternative.

In 1874 the retreat was shuttered and a second house, “somewhat better than a dog-kennel,” was placed on land leased for ten dollars per year from Simon P. Towle, who lived at 495 Lafayette Road. The town paid $13.50 in materials and labor to S. J. Drake, Joseph Johnson, and John Dearborn to move a shack onto the property and fit it with a stove and funnel. Yet still they came. Over the next decade, Jeremiah Marston, a bachelor who lived on his ancestral homestead at the corner of Winnacunnet and Mill roads, was paid by the town for his “care of tramps,” but it’s unknown whether his efforts were in conjunction with or in addition to the tramp house. Otis Whittier of the Whittier Hotel was also paid to lodge vagabonds, and, in the 1890s, men associated with Hampton’s nascent police force—Abbott Young, Clinton J. Eaton, John I. Dow—took care of the transient population.

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Gilman Marston of Exeter NH

General Marston’s Tramp Law

In 1875, New Hampshire enacted legislation to send vagrants to the county jail or town farm for a maximum term of six months, but enforcement ended when “loafers” began filling local facilities to capacity. A better solution was needed, and Exeter lawyer Gilman Marston, a battle-hardened Civil War general, was just the man to provide one.

Born in 1811 in Orford, New Hampshire, Marston had served in the United States House of Representatives before, during, and after his military service. In 1878, as a member of the New Hampshire House of Representatives, he drafted a bill to sentence tramps to a maximum of five years hard labor in the State prison. After exempting women, minors, and blind persons, the bill was passed into law that August.

Dow wrote that the effects of Marston’s law “were immediately apparent throughout the state.” Hampton’s tramp house was shuttered and sold to Otis Whittier for five dollars. In 1879 the town’s annual “trampaign” charges fell to under ten dollars.

The law was so effective that enforcement eventually fell by the wayside, prompting social reformer Frank B. Sanborn of Hampton Falls to caution that if the law wasn’t diligently applied at all times, then “tramps, like other migratory creatures, will again return.” In Hampton, at least, the “wandering willies” were proving Sanborn right. In 1887, Hampton resident Flora Shaw wrote that she would not venture alone into the woods for fear of encountering tramps; in 1894 voters agreed that the selectmen should enforce the tramp law; in 1898 they agreed to study the “possible construction of a tramp house.” Meanwhile, the town was giving aid to hundreds of tramps each year. We can only guess how many hundreds more of London’s artists received handouts at the kitchen doors of Hampton’s housewives.

Hampton RR Station

Paying customers only, no tramps allowed. – Train depot, Hampton NH, c. 1915.

Tramping by the Numbers

In the decade after the Civil War, the town spent an average of $105 per year on tramp care. From 1875 to 1892, with the second tramp house and Marston’s law deterring itinerant vagrants, the average cost was $18. With the economic depression of 1893, Hampton’s costs for tramp care rose, and did not return to their previous levels until 1905. During the period 1893-1907, when an estimated 1300-1500 transients passed through town, the average cost was $44 per year, with a high in 1898 of $90 and a low in 1905 of $2.25. Again, we can only speculate as to how many men received handouts outside of “official” relief channels.

By 1910 tramp care had been institutionalized at the local and county level. Replacing the traditional system of provisioning by private individuals whose expenses were reimbursed by the town (and the town by the county), police took transients to the station for the night or sent them before the local judge, who might order them to the county jail at Exeter or the county farm at Brentwood. No doubt the artists still made good at the kitchen doors.

19th Century Tramp Humor

Old Lady: Well, here’s ten cents for ye, but I should hate to feel that I was encouragin’ ye to drink.
Tramp: I don’t need no encouragement, mum.

Originally published as a History Matters column in the Hampton Union, April 21, 2017. Images courtesy of the Hampton Historical Society. Image of tramp at the back door from The Road by Jack London, 1907.

History Matters is a monthly column devoted to thehistory of Hampton and Hampton Beach, New Hampshire. Cheryl Lassiter’s latest book is “The Queens of Hampton Beach: A History of the Carnival Queens and the Miss Hampton Beach Beauty Pageant, 1915-2015.” Her website is lassitergang.com.

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