Back in an era when Republicans ruled the political roost in New Hampshire, John Garrison Cutler of Hampton Beach was one of the party’s leading bosses. Born in Exeter in 1833 to free blacks Rufus E. and Anna Cilley Cutler, he began his working life at his father’s Water Street store, later opening a billiards parlor in the same building. After the building burned in 1873, Cutler bought the Sea View Cottages at Hampton Beach and converted the property to a hotel, with dining facilities and stables. When the hotel burned in 1885 he rebuilt and expanded the property. By the turn of the 20th century, Cutler’s Sea View was a renowned summer resort hotel.
John’s grandfather was Tobias Cutler, once a slave of Colonel Enoch Hale of Rindge, New Hampshire. Tobias served in the Revolutionary War, and at age 21 was received as a free inhabitant in the town of Rindge. He married Dorothy Paul and moved to Exeter, where their sons Nathaniel and Rufus would become business proprietors. John’s mother Anna was born in Nottingham and may have been associated with the family of General Joseph Cilley of that town. Cilley was known to have owned four enslaved persons, one of whom was named Chloe Cutler, who was perhaps related to the Exeter Cutlers. On July 29, 1873, with no state anti-miscegenation laws to bar the union, John Cutler married Harriet A. Brewster of Stratham. They had two sons, George and Charles. (Note: an 1893 obituary for Nathaniel Cutler says that Tobias and Rufus were brothers, not father and son, but birth records transcribed in 1906 indicate otherwise).
Politics, As Usual
Even as a boy Cutler had been interested in politics. Certainly he followed the activities of Congressman Amos Tuck of Exeter, who in the early 1850s organized the Republican Party around anti-slavery principles, and he was likely present on March 3, 1860 when Abraham Lincoln gave his anti-slavery speech at the Exeter Town Hall. Although Cutler never ran for political office, over the years his active participation in the New Hampshire Republican Party gained him a reputation as a kingmaker. He preferred to deny it, yet pointed out that office seekers came to Hampton Beach to gain his support for their causes. Known by the nickname “Bunkey,” he counted among his friends United States senators and congressmen, among them Senator William Chandler and Congressmen Frank Jones and Cyrus Sulloway, all men who had helped his career in state and local politics.
Of Chandler, Cutler said that he was a “great worker and organizer” from whom he had received his “best lessons in politics.” Of the wealthy Portsmouth brewer Frank Jones, Cutler remarked that “He was a great man. When he left the Democratic party in 1896 the party lost its brains and its money.” But Cutler’s favorite politician was Cyrus Sulloway, called the “Tall Pine of the Merrimack” for his gaunt, six-foot-eight frame. During the summer season Sulloway could often be found lounging about the piazza of Cutler’s hotel, holding forth impromptu strategy sessions with compatriots. In part because of his frequent presence, a Portsmouth, New Hampshire newspaper posed the question: “Is Hampton Beach the summer capital of New Hampshire?”
Liquor at the Beach
Under a state liquor law passed in 1903, Hampton voted to issue licenses for the sale of alcohol. Cutler’s Sea View received a license, but was later charged with selling liquor on Sundays. In his defense Cutler told the state liquor board that he thought he was permitted to sell to registered guests who took meals at his hotel. Three other local inns were also charged, and all but Cutler’s had their licenses revoked. The following year Hampton changed its mind and voted no to licenses, although hotels like the Sea View could still be granted a restricted license. Cutler was not pleased with the new arrangement, which, as he said, allowed the liquor board to arbitrarily revoke a license without a hearing, and it was thought that he had a hand in the no vote. “It’s a bad law,” he later said. “It was no such law as we would have had, had Frank Jones lived.”
Charges of Racism
In 1904 Democrat John Worthing Dearborn won Hampton’s state legislative seat, while every other elected position had been filled by Republicans that year. Proud that he had helped his party gain a small foothold in the Republican bastion of Hampton, to a reporter he crowed that he was a “rather rare bird in these here parts—an office-holding Democrat” (the last Democrat win had been in 1897). He attributed his election to what he believed was the growing racism within the rival party, saying that the “young fellows” of the Republican Party didn’t like taking orders from a “colored man,” and they voted for him instead of Cutler’s man, the carriage maker George E. Garland. Other men interviewed by the reporter who had captured these provocative remarks agreed with Dearborn’s assessment, with one saying that the biased young men “ought to be ashamed of themselves…but the truth is the truth.” And while others thought that Dearborn’s win had put Cutler into political hot water, they weren’t altogether sure that he could be permanently beaten.
From this far remove it’s impossible to know if the charges of racism were politically motivated or had some basis in truth, but after Dearborn’s two-year term and for the remainder of Cutler’s life, which ended on February 7, 1913 after a bout of pneumonia, Republicans controlled Hampton’s legislative seat. Despite opposition, and despite his self-effacing claim that “I’m not the boss people would have you think I am,” John Cutler had remained party boss to the end.
February is African American History Month. To learn more about the history of African Americans in Cutler’s hometown of Exeter, go to http://www.seacoastnaacp.com/WalkAMileRouteExeter.pdf.
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 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.