The most famous crop planted in the common field of colonial Derry was potatoes. They are believed to be the first potatoes every grown in North America. The claim that Derry (Nutfield) is the home of the potato is supported by many sources including the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Ontario Pork Producers, and the Potato Institute of America.
The potato has its origins in the misty Andes Mountains of South America. There as far back as 500 B.C. the native peoples of Chile and Peru were cultivating the tubers. In 1565 , the Spanish conquistadors brought the potatoes home to Spain. Within a couple of decades, potatoes were being grown all over Europe. According to to legend, in 1588 potatoes first appeared in Ireland when they floated in from the wrecked ships of the Spanish Armada.
The potato soon became the staple food of both the native Irish and the Scotch-Irish. Praddies were easy to grow, tasty, and very nutritious. The potato became so associated with the Emerald Isle that they are frequently called “the Irish white potato.” In 1718 when the Reverend James MacGregor sailed to the British providence of New Hampshire, he brought with him a sack of seed potatoes. These he planted in 1719 in the common field of colonial Derry (Nutfield). This, most believe, was the genesis of the massive potato industry in America.
There are, unfortunately, other claimants to the honor of being the birthplace of the potato in America. The most publicized has been that of the state of Virginia. It is said by some that in 1621 the potato was brought from Bermuda to Virginia and thus preempts us by nearly a century. Derry has, of course, always disputed this claim. We have long said that Virginia’s potatoes were probably just yams and even if they were white potatoes, they were brought to Virginia to be eaten, not to be cultivated.
In 1962, Perley I Fitts, the New Hampshire commissioner of agriculture, received a letter from Parke Brinkley, the Virginia commissioner of agriculture. The southern gentleman wrote, “According to the best information that we can find. Irish Potatoes did not come to Virginia until after your 1719 incorporation. We therefore concede to the great state of New Hampshire, the honor of the introducing to this country one of the great food crops.” Although the rival claim by Virginia has been successfully parried, there are other attacks on our preeminence. New Jersey, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, and Canada all claim they raised potatoes sometime before 1700. The potato war goes on!
In 1772, the Nutfield colony applied to Royal Governor Shute to be incorporated as a town called Londonderry. In many towns charters in New Hampshire, a token yearly rent was included in the incorporating document. In the town of Chester, each year the selectmen were supposed to pay the governor a quitrent of one pound of good-quality hemp. It is just as well that this debt has gone unpaid for a couple of centuries; the growing of hemp is now illegal by both federal and state law.
The token rent required by Londonderry was much easier to procure. We were to pay the governor “one peck of potatoes, on the first day of October, yearly, forever.” In 1863 a panic spread through Londonderry over the peck of potatoes. Some malicious fellow had circulated the false rumor that because the town hadn’t paid its rent in potatoes in years, Londonderry was going to be unincorporated! I believe that the last time the rent was actually paid was in 1872, when Robert Mack delivered a peck to Governor Weston in Manchester.
The plywood National Potato Shrine was dedicated on May 20, 1962. Dignitaries who attended include the state commissioner of agriculture and member of the Maine and New Hampshire Potato Growers Association. Following the dedication speeches and prayers, the throng adjourned to the Upper Village Hall, which was the home of the Nutfield Grange. Here a luncheon was enjoyed, catered by the Granite State Potato Chip Company of Salem Depot.
The Potato Shrine of Derry remained standing for the next thirty years. Eventually it fell over and it was never righted. It has since been lost. At present the only monument to cite Derry’s (Nutfield’s) role in the history of the potato is a brief mention on a state historical marker in East Derry.
Today the only monument devoted to just the potato is in the former Soviet Union. The tater was brought to Russia in the eighteenth century by Czar Peter the Great. Soon the “ground apple” was a staple food in most peasant families and was sometimes called “the second bread.” During the World Wars, it saved millions from starvation. Its versatility as a food was much appreciated and potato vodka is a common beverage in the country. The monument at Novgorod is attached to a potato-shaped rock. Its inscription says, “Thank you, Columbus; thank you. Peter the Great, for our beloved vegetable.”
I’m sure there is no shortage of potato-shaped boulders in the Derry area. Erecting a monument in honor of the American birthplace of the spud would likely be a significant tourist draw. Each year we could have a potato festival and reenactment of the Reverend James MacGregor planting the first crop in 1719. Perhaps we could combine the festival with a tribute to Ezekiel and how he saved the Nutfield colony by telling us to “go fish.” Maybe the town could sponsor a parade with prizes for the best float in honor of the lamprey eel, or the cooks in Derry could take part in an eel bake-off.
To learn about Ezekiel read Old Ezekiel and the Eels.
This excerpt is from “Nutfield Rambles,” Richard Holmes’ fifth published piece on local history. Richard wasborn, raised and attended school throughout New Hampshire. He received his Bachelor’s Degree in Education from Keene State College and his Master’s Degree in History from Rivier College. In 2003 he founded the Derry Museum of History. In 2007 Richard Holmes received an Award of Merit from the American Association for State and Local History. This is the most prestigious recognition one can receive for the preservation and interpretation of state and local history. Richard has also been a columnist for the Derry News, the Lawrence Eagle Tribune, Nutfield News, and the Manchester Union Leader.
Leave Richard a comment on the story. Copies of his book are still available at the Derry Public Library.