Let’s Go! Dover, New Hampshire

December 16, 2011
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Today a stroll through this tidy town of some 30,000 contented residents reveals precious little about Indian massacres, labor strikes, floods, tempests, economic spikes and crashes that make up its picturesque past. 

By Linda McK Stewart

“Now who can tell me why these were essential 300 years ago in a log cabin kitchen like this?” Thom Hindle holds up a handful of huge copper-colored leaves. “Anyone?” says Tom, hopeful of coaxing a reasonable answer from any one of us.  We’re all stumped.  “For the fire?” This from a bright-eyed 6-year old who, along with half a dozen other ignoramuses, myself included, has opted to tour the Woodman Institute Museum, a complex of three Federal style residences now converted to the town’s historical museum in the utterly pleasant town of Dover N.H., settled in 1623. There is something about a small New England town on a sunny Saturday morning that can stir the still-warm ashes of historical curiosity. Pilgrim fathers, war-painted Indians, log splitting, one fish plus three corn kernels in each hole at spring planting. It’s who we are, or rather, were…and once in a while it’s wholly satisfying to tiptoe into our hazy past…which is exactly where Thom Hindle comes in. As curator, guide and guardian of the Museum, he is never happier than when he stands before a handful of visitors describing life 300 years ago.

Thom Hindle with a group of young historians at the Woodman Institute.

“A good guess, “ Thom tells the junior historian who stands at my elbow. “But the right answer is that these leaves from a sycamore trees were used in baking bread. They were placed between the unbaked loaf and the stone hearth to prevent the dough from sticking to the stone.”

“Like Pam spray,” says my new young friend.

“Exactly,” says Thom Hindle, beaming ear to ear.

Next he produces an oddly-shaped piece of wood, sanded and varnished to a silky-smooth finish. It’s a small yoke designed to enable even very young children to fetch buckets of water from a spring or brook. Gently he lays it across the shoulders of a little girl and we all struggle to think back to a time when daily life was so harsh even for the very young. Our 17th century culinary tour ends when Thom produces a stack of shallow 12” by 12” wooden boxes. What could they be?  We have no clue. “Dinner plates!” says Thom triumphantly. In earliest settler days ceramic or pottery plates would have been a wild extravagance.  Food was ladled from pot to box. Washing up consisted of wiping the wood clean with leaves or moss. “And that’s the origin,” he tells us, “of the expression ‘a square meal!’”

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This cabin where we stand is called a Garrison House, built in 1675 as both homestead and fortress. A garrison house was built of 18-inch squared logs. Windows were mere slits through which settlers could fire a musket. Of the 50-some such house in Dover, only this one survives. Raids by the Pennacook Indians were frequent and deadly.  Dover’s town records state that more than 500 settlers were killed by Indians before a troubled peace was settled in the late 18th century.

Dover stands at the junction of the Piscataqua and Cochecho Rivers, two such satisfying Indian mouthfuls! In the 17-and 1800s the surrounding white pine forests produced the tall, straight, knot-free timber, highly prized as masts for England’s Royal Navy. They were easily shipped from Dover’s river docks.

Shipping expanded. Commercial fishing took hold. Then in 1815 the first spinning mill was built, powered by the town’s ample river flow. Raw cotton was shipped to Dover from the South and in return Dover shipped its fine quality calico to the southern states.  For almost all of the 19th century Dover, with its family-owned farms, its thriving river port and its ever-expanding cotton mills thrived. At their peak, Dover mills occupied 30 acres of downtown and were annually turning out 65-million yards of cotton cloth. The technique by which brilliant color was applied to cloth required dipping it in a “dung bath” to set the colors. To meet that need the mills acquired a large herd of cows that annually produced 30,000 bushels of manure. The milk, less valued than the manure, was given away free to the mill workers.

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In March 1896 a freak combination of an early thaw followed by a hard freeze caused a flood of huge ice chunks to come crashing downriver, topping the town’s dam by more than 10 feet. Five bridges were swept away. Damage to the riverside mills was disastrous. The town was all but wiped out. To this day residents still speak of Dover’s Black Day.

Today a stroll through this tidy town of some 30,000 contented residents reveals precious little about Indian massacres, labor strikes, floods, tempests, economic spikes and crashes that make up its picturesque past. The mighty mills still stand at river’s edge, their space largely occupied by electronic manufacturers, legal offices, engineering companies, yacht brokers, insurance companies, computer consultants as well as artists, sculptors, chefs and realtors. Ground floors are given over to attractive restaurants, bustling boutiques and retail outlets. Dover, founded 1623 is New Hampshire’s oldest permanent settlement.  The state is chockablock full of significant historic sights and places but none more pleasing than the town that sits where the Cochecho and the Piscataqua Rivers flow together. Welcome to Dover, N.H.

IF YOU GO: Amtrak’s Downeaster joins Dover to Boston less than an hour away. See AmtrakDowneaster.com 

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