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Ned and the Dancing Bear

Every town in New England used to have a storyteller. During most of the twentieth century, Ned Reynolds fit that description here in Nutfield. His family had lived in Derry since before the Revolutionary War. His ancestors had belonged to the First Parish Church for seven generations. In fact, it was his great-great-great-great-grandfather who helped build the church in 1769.

Ned was born in East Derry in 1900, the son of Ernest and Lula Reynolds, and graduated from Pinkerton in 1917. He was the manager of the Agway Store in Derry and the first chief of the East Derry Fire Department. He was also a cofounder of the Derry Driving Club, which gained national fame for racing horses on Beaver Lake. He and his wife, Helen, moved to Londonderry in 1944. In 1990, at the age of ninety, he was selected as Londonderry’s Citizen of the Year. He spent his last years raising vegetables and Christmas trees on his Litchfield Road farm as well as caring for his wife and his mother, who lived to the age of 102. I remember Ned as a large man with sparking blue eyes, red suspenders, and a shock of white hair that I have been told was once auburn.

He was a man who had seen remarkable changes in Derry and Londonderry. He entered this world in the era of horse and buggies and lived long enough to see a neighbor’s boy grow up to hit a gold ball on the moon. He saw our roads become highways and shopping malls replace orchards and pastures. An article in the Derry News noted, “Through it all he maintained his good humor and joviality.” Ned died peacefully in his favorite chair in 1993. After his passing, Madden’s Restaurant in Derry hung his photograph on the wall by his favorite booth.

Recently, I was chatting with store owner Grant Benson when Ned’s name came up. Grant asked me if I remembered the story of Ned and the Dancing Bear. This was an exercise in storytelling that was considered Ned Reynolds’s tour de force. By story’s end, all but the most flinty-hearted listener would have moist eyes. I remembered some of the story but, during the span of two decades, most the details had become vague. Grant was able to fill in pieces of the yarn I had forgotten. That sent me to the microfilm section of the Derry Public Library to find if I could flesh out the story of the bear and the boy. With that additional information, combined with the tale that Grant and I reconstructed, I can now retell the story-but nowhere near as well as did Ned Reynolds, the master storyteller.

In February 1906, James Comeau, of Derry, returned to his birthplace in Nova Scotia. He and his brother Will decided to do some hunting. Deep in the forest they killed a large black bear. Upon closer examination, they discovered that they had shot a mother bear. Close by her lifeless body they discovered two very young cubs. They brought both cubs back to their home rather than let the animals die alone in the cold Canadian forest. They tried their best to feed the twins, but one died that first day. The remaining cub seemed to enjoy all the attention being given by the Comeau family and their neighbors.

Jim Comeau decided to bring the bear back to his home in Derry. He and his sister, Augusta, were the managers of the Beaver Lake pavilion. This was Derry’s chief tourist attraction, offering a sandy beach, snack bar, canoes for hire, movies, dancing, bowling, and slot machines The twenty-eight-year-old Comeau thought a small zoo would lure in even more tourists. Derry’s bear park opened twenty-four years before the fist bear strutted his stuff at Clark’s Trading Post in the White Mountains.

By the time the pavilion opened for the season, a pair of deer along with a flock of tame ducks and turkeys had been procured from Corbin Park in Corydon, New Hampshire. A chicken-wire fence was put up to create an enclosure. The star of the menagerie was Jack-the bear cub from Nova Scotia. It was promoted by Jim Comeau as being “tame and playful and could be safely fondled and caressed by children and ladies.” The quickly growing bruin was taught tricks to amuse the spectators, such as begging for food and spinning around, which was claimed to be Jack’s version of the latest Derry dance craze.

Among Jack’s biggest fans was six-year-old Ned Reynolds. Almost every day the young boy would visit the zoo to play with is friend Jack. The animal would put his arms around the boy and they would dance together, cheek-to -cheek. In June 2007, Ned’s nephew divulged to me his uncle’s secret bear-training technique. A dab of honey, smeared behind Ned’s ear, encouraged the bear to cuddle with the boy.

Early one morning, Mrs. Lula Reynolds heard scratching at her screen door. She was startled to find a five-foot-tall black bear demanding to be let into her home. It was Jack, who had managed to escape his enclosure and was now paying a social call on Ned. The animal walked into the kitchen and sat beside the boy at the table. together they had a breakfast of porridge, with Ned feeling like he had just stepped into a nursery rhyme.

Young Ned was certainly the most popular kid in the area thanks to his buddy, gentle Jack. One summer’s day, Mrs. Reynolds sponsored a blueberry pie eating contest. All the neighboring children and Jack sat at a long table with a pie placed in front of each. Each participant-both human and animal-wore a bib around his neck. At a signal, each contestant began to eat his pie without the use of hands. Within seconds, the winner was declared to be Jack who had finished his pie well before his rivals had reached even the half way point in the contest. The young bruin was now perceived to be a very rare animal species-a black and blue bear.

By midsummer, Jack had begun to grow and was now larger and more powerful than the boy. Ned later recalled that it was from dancing with Jack that he learned the meaning of the term “bear hug.” Even though the bear was much stronger than the boy, the animal was careful never to use his strength to hurt his playmate.

Another time the staff of the Beaver Lake pavilion began to notice that they were missing tools. More and more hammers, drills, and saws vanished. Finally suspicion pointed to Jack as the thief. The staff carefully watched the animal and finally caught his stealing a workman’s tool. Silently they watched to see where he was taking the pilfered item. In the tiny area behind the pins in the bowling alley was a little cubbyhole. In that small little den the cub had hidden his stolen treasures.

Toward the end of August, the Hargreaves Circus came to Derry. It was a twenty-railroad-car extravaganza. It set up its massive tent near the site of today’s Parkland Hospital. Later there was a parade of spectacles down Broadway. Among its featured acts were aerialists, clowns and performing animals. There was a five-legged “sacred cow of India,” a cakewalking horse, a huge trained bear, and Fred the six-ton elephant who was billed as “Jumbo the Second.”

Jim Comeau and Ernest Reynolds decided it would be a treat for Jack to visit the animals at the circus. They put a gold collar on the bear and walked him across town to the circus grounds. The Derry bear caused considerable excitement among both circus workers and the customers as Comeau showed off his tricks. Soon even circus owner Thomas Hargreaves came out to admire our Jack.

The circus impresario asked Comeau if the animal was for sale. Despite being told it was not, Hargreaves kept on pressing the Derry man to name his price. Finally, Jim Comeau blurted out a dollar amount that he thought was ridiculously high. He thought that would certainly make the circus man shut up. As soon as the words were out of this mouth, Hargreaves said “Sold,” reached into his wallet, and paid Comeau on the spot. The circus owner explained that because Jack was less than a year old, he would learn “many tricks.” The animal was led away by his new owner and that night the circus was loaded onto the train to be hauled to performances in other towns.

Later that day, the six-year-old Ned Reynolds wandered down to the pavilion to play with his best friend. There he learned the sad truth; he would never see or dance with the bear again.
I heard Ned tell this story eighty years later. Even then he was still sad about losing his friend and angry with Jim Comeau for selling the dancing bear.

I have not been able to find out the ultimate fate of Jackie Bear. The Hargreaves Circus closed in 1907. He may have been retired to the circus’s winter park in Chester, Pennsylvania, or perhaps was sold to another circus or zoo. We will likely never know.

I’m sorry that Ned Reynolds couldn’t have written this story. He was a much better storyteller than I’ll ever be. Recently I received a letter from Ned’s son Charlie, who lives in Alaska. He sent me a shoe box filled with a dozen audiotapes of this dad’s rambling conversations. I was just too nervous to play these recordings, fearing that because of the age they would self-destruct in my cassette player. Fortunately, in response to my public moaning, Steve Heffelfinger of Derry came to the rescue. He and his son have the technical expertise to convert the recordings onto CD’s. Soon visitors to the Museum of Derry history can hear the voice and stories of Nutfield’s greatest storyteller. I’m sure my next Derry book will mine these CD’s for Ned Reynolds’s stories.

This excerpt is from “Nutfield Rambles,” Richard Holmes’ fifth published piece on local history. Richard was born, 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.


Cigar Box John

When I was younger and thinner, I spent a year as a medic with a combat unit bobbing around the delta region of Vietnam. It was only by the grace of God, dumb luck, and Sergeant Betts that I survived my year in ‘Nam. On many occasions I lived in tents, bunkers, and Quonset huts. Frequently I drove my deuce-and-a-half truck over pontoon bridges. All that time I never realized that the modern Quonset hut and the pontoon bridge were the designs of Captain John Laycock of Derry, New Hampshire.

John Noble Laycock was born in Methuen, Massachusetts, in 1892 and attended the U.S. Naval Academy. At Annapolis he played lacrosse and as student-commander led his men to “win the colors” as best midshipman company of the academy. After graduation in 1914, he served as a lieutenant (jg) during the U.S. invasion of Vera Cruz, Mexico. In 1917 he graduated from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute with a degree in engineering.

After the First World War, he became a commander in the Civil Engineer Corps and helped run many of our  navy yards, including Philadelphia, Charleston, and Newport. In 1920 he supervised the construction of the massive dirigible hangar at Cape May, New Jersey. In 1927, President Hoover sent Lieutenant Commander Laycock to Haiti. There he was director of municipal engineering for the city of Port-au-Prince. The president of Haiti later appointed Laycock as public works administrator for the entire country. He served in this post from 1928 to 1931. For this service he was decorated with the Order of Honor by the Republic of Haiti.

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Stephen Holland Spy Master

It has now been more than 230 years since the start of the Revolutionary War. In our twenty-first-century minds, the justice of the patriots’ cause seems to be just common sense. Wasn’t England ruled by the freedom-hating King George III? And every schoolboy knows that the colonies were unanimous in their support of the godlike George Washington. We were right; they were wrong. The American Revolutionary War was the classic battle of justice, liberty, and truth against the forces of tyranny and oppression.

As with most things in life, the Revolutionary War cannot be understood in black and white terms. Not every American subscribed to the legitimacy of the patriot cause. The commonly accepted formula is that in the thirteen colonies, one-third favored the British, one-third was pro-patriots, and a final third was neutral. Although it is impossible to ascertain if this division was true in Nutfield, it is safe to say we were not all patriots. Some very good Nutfield residents remained loyal to king, country, and the Union Jack.

The story that follows could easily be rewritten into modern spy thriller by Robert Ludlum or Tom Clancy. It involves many of the most significant figures in American history, including George Washington, John and William Stark, Ethan Allen, Robert Rogers, Matthew Thornton, John Wentworth, John Langdon and several British generals. It would be a simple matter to transport the tale to twenty-first-century America. Think of the main character as a respected businessman and elected politician who is really  a Taliban mole.

Arguably the most important loyalist in the Revolutionary War period of New Hampshire was Colonel Stephen Holland of Londonderry. Most sources report that he was born in 1733 in the vicinity of Coleraine, Northern Ireland. He emigrated to America as a young man. On July 24, 1756, he enlisted as a sergeant in the legendary Roger’s Rangers. He rose through the ranks to ensign by February 1757 and was promoted to second lieutenant in 1759. In 1761 he purchased the rank of second lieutenant in Gorham’s battalion for two hundred seventy-five pounds sterling. He left the military in 1762 after being wounded first at the battle of Fort William Henry and then at the battle for the city of Quebec. Because of his service and wounds, he received a pension of half pay.

In 1761 he moved to Londonderry and purchased a lot on Horse Hill, directly across from the meetinghouse in East Derry. He land extended all the way east to the shores of Beaver Lake. The next year the selectmen examined his character and found him “a proper person to keep a tavern in this town.” His tavern was at a prime location in the frontier town. East Derry was at the time the educational, political, and religious center of the region.

Do not confuse the village of East Derry today with that of 1762. In the mid-eighteenth century, the settlement on Horse Hill consisted of just the meetinghouse, a cemetery, and a one-room school. Even the pastor lived a mile away. Stephen Holland’s tavern was only the third building ever built in the immediate area. The present First Parish Church was built in 1762 to replace the original meetinghouse. Most of the buildings there now were built in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In 1762 the population of Londonderry was scattered haphazardly throughout the town  in isolated farmhouses.

Holland’s tavern was a welcome addition to the tiny community. During recesses at the town meetings, the men could adjourn to his taproom for libation and strategy sessions. Here the town fathers held meetings and received taxes. It would also serve as the town’s defacto post office, as weekly post riders would leave mail and newspapers there in await pickup by their owners. On Sunday the worship service at the meeting house would begin in the morning and continue into the afternoon. During “nooning” (lunch break) the tavern was a definite destination. This was certainly true during the winter months, as the meeting house was unheated. Rooms were available for the occasional visitor and a store sold staple items such as tobacco, spirits, notions, and crockery. It was a “Squire” Holland’s tavern on December 8, 1768 that the plans for the building of the present First Parish Church were drawn up.

At Holland’s tavern the great issues of the day were debated. In its rooms there were discussion on all the political and economic issues that were fueling the call for revolution within the colonies. It was here that “taxation without representation is tyranny” was argued. Within its taproom, patriot leaders such as Matthew Thornton. George Reid, and John Bell would likely have planned their next course of action. Luminaries like Robert Rogers, John Stark, and Josiah Bartlett would have been frequent visitors. In the decade before the Revolutionary War, Londonderry was no longer the small, isolated frontier community it had been in the 1720s, Now only the coastal town of Portsmouth had a greater population.

Regrettably, we do not know what Stephen Holland’s tavern looked like, as it was torn down in the 1870s. It was probably a spacious, Georgian-style  building similar to the present Pinkerton Tavern Restaurant. A legal advertisement in the 1780s describes it as a “a large mansion house….well calculated for any sort of public business in its situation, together with eighty or ninety acres of choice land, three barns, a store, out houses and stables; said land is well proportioned with mowing, tillage, pasture, wood and watering, well fenced with stone walls.”There are also no existing portraits of Stephen Holland, but newspaper notices from 1777 and 1778 give us a partial description of the man. He is reported to be “a well looking man” of about forty-five years of age, five foot, eight inches tall, “rather fleshy” (stout) “of a ruddy, comely countenance” with a face “pitted with small pox” and “given a wearing wig.” So he was of about average height, handsome, with a red, pockmarked face, somewhat pudgy and wearing a wig. This head covering may have been a stylish affectation or merely used to hide a bald pate. Because of his wealth and social standing, he probably dressed in a manner appropriate for a country squire.

He married Betsey (Jane) Stinson sometime around 1751. She was the daughter of John Stinson and Mary Hogg. They had nine children, two of whom are known to be buried at Frost Hill Cemetery in East Derry, as are his parents-in-law. His oldest son he named John Wentworth Holland, after the governor of New Hampshire. A member of the family of General George Reid named one of his children Stephen Holland Reid.

Holland soon became a very wealthy citizen. He owned a pew in the First Parish Church and was one of the few here who could afford a gold pocket watch. He quickly became the banker for the area, always iwlling to loan money and hold mortgages at an interest rate of 10 percent per annum. In 1763 he loaned a Londonderry resident nearly six thousand pounds to purchase land from the legendary Ranger Robert Rogers.

Tavern Keeper Holland also invested in local land. By 1778, in addition to his own estate he owned the McNeal farm with a large house, barn and approximately sixty acres of land; the Wiar farm, with a large stone house, a barn, a cider mill, an orchard, and about eighty-five acres; the Gregg farm with a house and barn in need of repair and sixty acres of land; the Nesmith lot, of thirty-five acres consisting of orchard, mowing, pasture, and woodland; the Barr lot, of about seventy acres which was covered with a forest of oaks. In addition he owned land near Beaver Lake, including three meadow lots which produced hay and were good for hunting ducks and geese. He also owned sundry smaller lots, making him the holder of about four hundred acres in town.

During the French and Indian War he was given two thousand acres near the town of Thornton, New Hampshire as a reward for his military service. This land was the unincorporated town of Holland’s Location which had a settled population and an ordained clergyman. In time Holland’s Location would become the town of Livermore. In addition he owned eight hundred acres in Hill, a thousand acres in Tamworth, and other tracts in about sixty-five other New Hampshire towns stretching across the state. He also owned “1/3 of 1/8 of 1/15 part” of the Mason patent, which claimed much of the southern half of the state. In total he held a title to about ten thousand acres of land worth in excess of eight thousand British pounds sterling. In addition to this he owned about 8,000 acres in Vermont. Although most of his land was unsettled wilderness, it had the potential for substantial profit as more and more pioneers moved north, leaving the crowded southern tier of the state in pursuit of elbow room.

Soon after he arrived in town, Holland was appointed a justice of the peace for the province, which gave him judicial authority. Probably through the intervention of his Portsmouth friends, he was appointed clerk of the Court of Common Pleas and clerk of the court in Hillsborough County. These two political plums gave him an annual salary of 190 pounds. This income alone was considerably more than most locals earned in a year. Mr. Holland was indeed a very wealthy man.

Because of his military experience, Stephen Holland was a commissioned colonel in the local militia. Among his brother officers were ardent patriots George Reid, Matthew Thornton and John Bell. Several times a year there was a training day when all adult men were drilled in the fundamentals of military maneuvers. Holland also was elected to serve in several local offices. He was surveyor of highways for the portion of the town east of Beaver Brook in 1771 as well a member of the board of selectmen. He was elected a member of the colonial legislature to represent Londonderry and Windham a total of five times between 1771 and 1775. His election as representative in 1771 did not sit well with many citizens. On January 1, 1772, a petition signed by 186 residents of Londonderry, Derry, and Windham was delivered to the legislature to request a new election. A tie vote in the assembly allowed Holland to retain his seat. The reason for this anti-Holland sentiment is not known.

By the early 1760′s, the political climate was becoming more and more hostile toward remaining a colony of Britain. Deserters from the English army were known to be harbored in Londonderry. In February 1769, our local militia freed some of these deserters from a squad of redcoats who had been sent to retrieve them. There were the 1766 Stamp Act riots in Portsmouth and the anti-British resolves published by several New Hampshire towns in 1768. In shipload of tea thrown into the Piscataqua River.

On April 29, 1773, the inhabitants of Londonderry presented Governor Wentworth with an extremely fawning proclamation. It praised the king for appointing Wentoworth, “a gentleman whose birth and education has been in the province over which he presides.” The proclamation further stated that the easy access they have gained and the polite and courteous reception they have ever met with from you has offered them the means of communicating and your Excellency receiving all necessary of their wishes and wants.” The document ends by declaring that its purpose was to reassure the governor of their loyalty to the king and to offer their prayer for Wentworth to “live long.” It is likely that Holland had a hand in the composition of the proclamation. Despite the avowed popularity of Governor John Wentworth, the dislike of the British government in Whitehall was too strong to be stilled.

On April 2, 1774, a town meeting was called by Stephen Holland and four other men, who decreed the eastern part of the town demanded that the legislature declare the April 2 Town Meeting of the “pretended east town” null and void. The reason for this Holland-led coup is unkown but it probably had something to do with preventing anti-British feelings from controlling the political agenda. The meeting and the election were declared void by the legislature and five new selectmen were elected. It was further decided that Holland’s election as representative was “illegal in every respect.”

In mid-1774, word spread throughout New Hampshire that a provincial congress was being called to meet at Exeter on July 21 to discuss the gathering political storm. This Exeter meeting was quickly declared illegal by Royal Governor Wentworth. In Londonderry, a town meeting was called to elect delegates to the Exeter Congress and to authorize forming a company of local minutemen should hostilities break out. Before anything should be done, Justice of the Peace Stephen Holland ordered the meeting to be broken up as illegal. He, in effect, read them the riot act and threatened to arrest anyone who failed to leave the meetinghouse. Because of this action, the town was officially unrepresented at the state’s first political convention.

Stephen Holland was becoming a very unpopular man, as the overwhelming majority in his town were firmly on the patriot side. One of Holland’s allies was Constable William Vance, of Londonderry, who in 1774 had arrested some deserters from General Gage’s army who were being hidden in town. Vance would frequently, while staying at Stephen Holland’s tavern, have to post guards all night. On at least one occasion, the tavern was surrounded by a mob and Vance, Holland, and their friends had to use force to drive off the assailants.

On December 14, 1774, British Fort William and Mary at Portsmouth was attacked and briefly seized by an army of New Hampshire men. War was now inevitable. On April 1, 1775, Paul Revere made his fabled ride and the next day, at Lexington green, the shot was fired that “was heard around the world.” The Revolutionary War had begun.

There was suspicion in town that tavern keeper Holland was a Tory and couldn’t be trusted. There were even some who suspected that he was a clandestine British spy.

Fearing for his life and the erosion of his position in local society, Stephen Holland had to come up with a way to restore his credibility. On April 23, 1775, a town meeting was held at the First Parish meetinghouse with Matthew Thornton as moderator. Most of the issues on the warrant dealt with war matters such as pay for the local soldiers who were fighting in Massachusetts and the local supply of gunpowder. The meeting was adjourned to Saturday, April 29.

At the start of this reconvened meeting, Stephen Holland stood up and asked to be allowed to address the hall. He mustered all of his considerable eloquence to win over his fellow citizens. With obvious sincerity he proclaimed:

Whereas my mistake, misunderstanding, misrepresentation, or for reasons unknown to me, I am represented an enemy to my country, to satisfy the public, I solemnly declare I never aided or assisted any enemy to my country in anything whatsoever and I make this declaration not our of fear of any thing I may suffer but because it gives me great uneasiness to think that the true sons of liberty and real friends to their country, from any of the first mention reasons, should believe me capable so much as in thought of injuring or betraying my country, when the truth is I am ready to assist my countrymen in the glorious cause of liberty at the risk of my life and fortune.

This speech did it. The town meeting unanimously voted that it was “satisfactory for his conduct.” The meeting continued and appointed a committee “to look into the conduct of those men thought to be friends to their country.” Holland, however, was not chosen to serve on this board. The meeting voted to raise thirty minute men and purchase three hundred pounds of gunpowder and lead for bullets.

As a further expression of its trust, the town meeting in June 22, 1775, elected Holland as moderator. He replaced Matthew Thornton, who was serving as president of New Hampshire’s Provincial Congress. The town meeting later voted that every man who was able, had a gun, twenty bullets and six flints, and was “willing to go against the enemy” would be given a share of the town stock of powder to  be used “only on self defense.” The town meeting on November 7 even petitioned the state government to have Holland and Matthew Thornton continue in the rank of colonel in the militia.

Holland was later offered the command of a battalion with the rank of brigadier general but he declined with disdain.Stephen Holland’s speech at the town meeting had worked; he was now viewed as a patriot and worthy of trust by the townspeople. His April 29th speech was even published in the state’s only newspaper. In reality, Holland was lying through his teeth! He was, in fact, a British spy who was secretly sending information to Royal Governor Wentworth in Portsmouth, who would in turn forward the data to British General Gage in Boston. Holland was so trusted that on June 19, 1775, patriot General John Stark sent him a private communication with details of the Battle of Bunker Hill, which had occurred just two days earlier.

What General Stark didn’t know was that on June 18, Holland had gone to coastal New Hampshire to recruit an army to assist the British in the defense of Boston. He was able to get more than two hundred men to swear an oath of allegiance to England and to march with him to Massachusetts. Holland’s army got as far as Somerville but was barred from reaching General Gage because the patriots had blockaded all the roads in and out of Boston. Governor Wentworth would later beg Holland not to defect to the British because he would be more service if he remained in Londonderry as a secret British Agent.

In April 1776, the Continental Congress decided it was time to take a census to identify the supporters of the patriots. Every person was invited to sign “the Association Test.” The subscribers, by adding their name to the list, were showing that they were willing “to join our American brethren in defending the lives, liberties, properties of the inhabitants of the united colonies… at the risk of our lives and fortunes, with arms, oppose the hostile proceedings of the British fleets and armies.” The only ones who were not required to sign were those below the age of twenty-one as well as “lunatic, idiots, Negroes”; and, of course, women. The name of those who would not sign were sent to the patriot authorities in Exeter.

In Londonderry, there were 376 men who were willing to acknowledge that they supported George Washington and thus renounced all allegiance to King George II. On June 24, 1776, the town clerk reported that there were only fourteen men who would not sign. Among the first to sign was Stephen Holland. Once again the gentleman tavern keeper publicly lied so he could remain a spy.

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This excerpt is from “Nutfield Rambles,” Richard Holmes’ fifth published piece on local history. Richard was born, 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.


Our Scotch-Irish Roots

The Nutfield towns of Derry, Windham, and Londonderry were settled in 1719 by a pioneer band of sixteen families from the Ulster Plantation of Northern Ireland. They came here in pursuit of the religious, political and cultural freedom that was denied them in the Old World. The famous siege of Derry in 1689 did much to forge this love of liberty and fierce resistance to any perceived threat to their Scottish way of life.

By way of background, the modern city of Derry, Northern Ireland, was founded in 546 A.D. by Saint Columba. His monastery was on a small, oak-covered, hilly island by the river Foyle. The original name of the village Doire, the Gaelic word for oak trees. In 1613 investors from London, England, built a mile-long wall around central hill in Derry and renamed the town Londonderry. During the seventeenth century, many thousands of Scottish Presbyterians left Scotland for Northern Ireland. Much of the land they settled upon was formally the property of the native-born Irish.

During the twentieth century, sectarian struggles between Catholics and Protestants rocked the city. For decades the British army occupied much of the town and protest marches and gun fire were a daily occurrence. It has only been in the last couple of decades that a state of relative calm has enveloped the city. Today the Catholic majority prefers that the city be called by its original name- Derry. In contrast, the Protestant minority always refers to the city as Londonderry. Sometimes the town called “Slash City” because of the politically correct designation of Derry/Londonderry.

In 1685, James II, a Catholic, ascended to the throne of England. He soon replaced all the Protestant officers in the army with loyal Catholics. Many England feared the Catholicism would be made the state religion and that he Protestants would become disenfranchised. In 1688 a coup forced James to flee to France. Protestant monarchs King William and Queen Mary replaced him on the throne.

In March 1689, James landed in Ireland with a French army and a call front he Irish to rise up in rebellion. Soon an estimated fifty thousand peasants heeded his call. This army, called the Jacobites, seized the cities of Ireland in the name of King James II. In time, the only Irish city still controlled by the British was Derry. Within its walls were thousands of Scottish refugees who had fled their villages and farms to escape massacre by the French-Irish army. Derry’s military commander sided with the Jacobites and ordered the city gates open to admit the French. The surrender was rejected by a group of thirteen apprentice boys from Derry. These freedom-loving teenagers rushed to the Derry city wall and slammed the gate shut to keep out the enemy. Their message was “no surrender”

On April 18, 1689, King James II arrived outside the wall of Derry and Demanded that the city surrender to its rightful King. The city refused his command and the siege of Derry began. The Jacobite strategy was to blockade the city and allow no food or supplies into the town. In time, starvation and the effects of daily artillery bombardments would surely force and the seven thousand inhabitants to surrender.

A few miles downstream from Derry, the Jacobites constructed a floating log boom across the river Foyle. This barrier was constructed to prevent any resupplying to the city by the British navy. The French also set up artillery batteries on the nearby shores to protect the boom.

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The Hood Farm

If you were to voyage back a hundred years in time, you’d find that most Derry residents were employed in the shoe industry. The Broadway section of the town was home to dozens of buildings devoted to the various aspects of the manufacture of leather products. The stores, schools, churches, and clubs of West Derry were there mainly to service the shoe-factory workers and their families. The second largest employer in Derry was the H.P. Hood and Sons Dairy Company.

The Hood Company was founded in 1846 by Harvey Perley Hood (1823-1900). In 1844 he had left his hometown of Chelsea, Vermont, to seek his fortune in Boston. His capital at the time consisted of “a horse, harness, wagon and pung.” He was soon employed as a driver for a bakery. He lived frugally and saved enough from his twelve-dollar-a-month salary so that in just two years he was able to start his own one-man milk route near Boston. He moved to Derry Village in 1856 to take advantage of the railroad, which had been built through Derry a few years earlier. Hood was an entrepreneurial genius who had the vision to see a way to economically connect the supply of dairy products with the urban market in Massachusetts.

His first Derry home was Murdock-White farm on the Route 28 bypass. This had been the site of the town’s common field where in 1719 was planted the first potato crop in America. (The farmhouse and barn were torn down about thirty years  ago by a developer, who replaced them with an apartment complex of 850 units.)

The farmers of New Hampshire were capable of producing lots and lots of milk. With Derry as a transportation hub, milk could be loaded onto rail cars and hauled to Boston in about an hour. Hood was also the first New England milk producer to employ pasteurization, which allowed him to advertise that his product was certified as safe for children. He was also a pioneer in the use of sterilized glass milk bottles.

Some church leaders criticized him for shipping milk on Sunday and threatened to have him excommunicated. H.P. countered that “babies don’t know the days of the week” and needed to be fed on the Sabbath just as much as on any other day. He also said cows needed to be milked seven days a week and that their milk would sour if not shipped to market in his refrigerated rail cars.

Each day H. P. loaded cans of milk onto a freight car at the Broadway Depot. In Charlestown, Massachusetts, the milk was sold from the door of the boxcar directly to the waiting milk peddlers. H. P. Hood’s office was a desk and chair in the middle of the freight car. On the afternoon train back to Derry, he would sit on his “office” and figure out the daily receipts.

In 1858, he purchased Redfield Farm on East Broadway and renamed it Hoodkroft Farm. This would be his home for the rest of his life. (The structure is now Chen’s Chinese Restaurant.) In 1880, his son Charles Harvey Hood graduated from New Hampshire State Agricultural College at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H. This institution is now the University of New Hampshire. He was, in fact, the only graduate that year. By 1882 H.P. had the distinction of paying the highest taxes in Derry. His tax bill was $108; in second place was the Derry National Bank at ninety-eight dollars. Shoe factory mogul Colonel William Pillsbury was in twenty-first place with taxes of fifty-two dollars.

The Derry News article in 1881 described his cows with the old schoolboy definition: “two hookers, two lookers, four stiff standers, four down hangers and a wiskabout.” In the barn that year were sixty-eight white and red cows, black and brindled milk cows, and a huge “noble, full blooded Aryshire bull.” There were four men milking a line of thirty cows. Each cow averaged eight and a half quarts per day.

In 1883, H. P. Hood suffered a stroke, which caused him to be unconscious for several days. This “shock of apoplexy” forced the milk king to relinquish much of the corporation’s daily business into the capable, college-trained hands of his sons. In 1882 Charles became a full partner and the company was renamed H.P Hood and Son. In 1890, with Gilbert Hood joining the firm, it became H. P. Hood and Sons. In 1972 the company took its present name of H. P. Hood, Inc.

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A Local Stand Against the King, the Londonderry Riot

In honor of Independence Day, Londonderry News would like to offer a reprint of a Richard Holmes piece about the beginning of the American Revolution. This is the well researched story of how Londonderry showed the first signs of retaliation against the British army.

While today is our birthday, we may have been conceived right here in Londonderry, New Hampshire.

We have all grown up believing the American Revolutionary War started on the eighteenth of April in 1775. It was the events of that date that precipitated the battle at Lexington Green, where the “embattled farmers stood and fired the shot heard round the world.” This would lead to the Battle of Bunker Hill, the Declaration of Independence, Valley Forge, Saratoga, and the surrender at Yorktown. All this is pretty straightforward.

I would like to add one minor adjustment to that old, old story. Despite what every schoolboy (or -girl) knows, I am about to present my argument that the first attack on British troops didn’t happen in that fine state to the south of us. I will hypothesize that Derry is the site of the first armed resistance against the king’s army – and that it happened fully six years before Paul Revere’s ride. The incident to which I refer was not a battle in the classic sense, with one army attacking another army; rather it was a spontaneous armed insurrection against an isolated segment of the British army.

So here, my children, you shall read of Jimmy Aikin and his heroic deed: how on a cold winter’s day in ’69, we first attacked the redcoat’s line.

A painting of The Battle of Bunker Hill

This article is the result of more than two decades of research. Back in 1984, when I was doing research for another book, I found a two-sentence reference to the Londonderry attack in Jere Daniell’s Colonial New Hampshire. In 1995, I was doing background for another book and discovered a paragraph about the incident in Reverend Edward Parker’s History of Londonderry (1851). Parker’s account was slavishly retold in Willey’s Book of Nutfield in 1895. The author, George Franklyn Willey, concludes that the Londonderry attack was the “first act of open resistance to British authority and arms in the colonies.”

Another reference to the attack was printed in Historical New Hampshire in 1947. Dr. Kenneth Scott in his excellent article “Colonel Stephen Holland of Londonderry” retells the basic facts of the incident as reported by Parker and Willey. Though he doesn’t date the incident, he links it to one in “June or July of 1774.” A couple of years ago, I was looking through the back issues of the Exeter News-Letter for a new history of Derry. In the September 20, 1849 edition was a long article on the incident at Londonderry. The author, who signed his story with only the initial G, dated the incident to “a short time before the actual outbreak of the Revolutionary War.”

A depiction of Americans throwing tea over the side of boats during the Boston Tea Party

A depiction of Americans throwing tea over the side of boats during the Boston Tea Party

The alleged attack took on the certainty of truth in 2006 when I discovered a set of letters in the New Hampshire State Archives. In a file set up by the venerable state archivist Dr. Frank Meevers, I struck gold! Dr. Meevers had found an unpublished copybook that contained the manuscript of letters written by Royal Governor John Wentworth of New Hampshire. Here at last was confirmation of the story that had been written about by Parker, “G”, Scott, and Willey. The correspondence also added much flesh to the skeleton of their story and established a definite date for the event.

The events of the Londonderry attack begin in January 1769. Those were definitely the times that tried men’s souls. All over the thirteen colonies, anti-British sentiment was reaching the boiling stage. The newly imposed Townsend Acts, which allowed the quartering of soldiers in private home, were being debated through out the colony. Tavern talk centered on James Otis’ incentive that “taxation without representation is tyranny.”

The surrender of British General John Burgoyne at the Battle of Saratoga as depicted by John Trumbull

One of the major problems for the British rulers of America was the ever-increasing number of cases of desertion from the ranks of their army. Many a young man decided that life as a New World yeoman farmer would be far better than a career in the military. Army pay was low and discipline was harsh. It wouldn’t take much planning or smarts to successfully go AWOL in America. It would be relatively easy to establish a new life concealed in the great American wilderness.

Early in January 1769, a group of deserters were living in Londonderry. Parker says there were a total of four such defectors here. The writer “G” says there was only one and the Wentworth letters refers to two escapees. The first two writers believed that a local Tory had secretly reported their presence to the royal authorities. It is now known with certainty that our local judge and taverner Stephen Holland was a British spy and was in communication with General Howe. The three authors are in agreement that a detachment of British regulars was quickly dispatched to our town and that the AWOL soldier(s) was (were) quickly rounded up. Even in those pre-telephone days, it didn’t take long for news of the apprehension to spread through town.

The squad of British regulars quickly marched their prisoners out of town. “G” reports that the lone deserted was an Irishman named Phelim O’Shaughnessey. This frightened son of Erin was told by his captors that the standard punishment for desertion from the British army was hanging – “and nothing else.”

As soon as the word got out, a group of Londonderry men left their homes and farms to attempt to free the prisoners. “G” identifies the leaders of the rescue party as “Major G.” and “Captain A.” He wrote that both men were veterans of the French and Indian War. Parker identifies only one individual in the mob – its leader, “Captain James Aiken” (1739-1830). Governor Wentworth identifies the brothers Thomas and James Atkin as the leaders but writes that a third brother, Edward Atkin, was not involved. It is almost certain that Wentworth was actually referring to members of the Aiken family and not the Atkin’s family. Wentworth also wrote that there were eleven Londonderry men involved in the incident.

The men from Londonderry overtook the British about an hour’s march outside of town. The location of the conflict was in the town of Atkinson on a steep slope called Providence Hill. The eleven Londonderry men concealed themselves just back from the British.The energetic James Aiken managed stealthily to run around the side of the column of marching soldiers and cut them off from the front. With pistols drawn, James leaped out in front of the surprised redcoats. With authority, he ordered the squad to halt. He kept his weapons pointed at the head of their leader, “Sergeant Henderson.” The British were ordered to throw their guns onto the dirt road and not pick them up on penalty of having Henderson’s “brains scattered.” The Londonderry men now surrounded the soldiers and freed their prisoners. Captain Aiken kept his pistols trained on the sergeant until he, his men, and the rescued deserters were safely on their way back to East Derry.

John Wentworth, New Hampshire State Governor during the Revolution

Word of the events at Londonderry quickly spread to the highest levels in the British army. Governor Wentworth, however, was in Vermont and didn’t get the news until January 20, 1769. In his reply letter to Brigadier General John Pomeroy, the commander of His Majesty’s Sixth Regiment in Boston, he argued that the incident probably happened in Massachusetts so it was not his responsibility. By way of consolation, Wentworth does offer sympathy over “this reprehensible violence, which is universally disapproved and resented throughout the whole province.”

Four months after the incident at Londonderry, Wentworth announced that all the deserters in New Hampshire had now fled to other colonies or were so well “concealed and disguised” that they could never be found. The case was closed!

There does not seem to be any evidence that the Londonderry eleven were ever brought to justice. The writer “G” relates that “Major G.” and “Captain A.” hid in the town of Londonderry and were never caught. He said that both men would later serve as members of the local Committee of Safety during the Revolutionary War. He further wrote that they “both died peacefully in their own beds – one at the advanced age of ninety-two years.”

General George Reid from Londonderry, NH; General during the Revolutionary War

During the Revolutionary War we would contribute about six dozen men to the patriot army. More than two centuries ago, our town’s fathers, husbands, brothers, and friends would fight bravely in such battles as Bunker Hill, Saratoga, and Yorktown. We were also the hometown to Generals John Stark and George Reid. Doctor Matthew Thornton of Derry Village signed the Declaration of Independence. General John Sullivan went to school on East Derry Hill. The courage we showed in 1769 when our townsmen surrounded the British soldiers was thus further validated by the honors we earned in the war of 1776.

Let Massachusetts glory in her tea party and the “shot heard round the world”; may Valley Forge be forever a memorial to the determination of General Washington; may Philidelphia be a hallowed shrine to the signers of the Declaration of Independence. Here in Derry we have among our heroes that small, brave band of eleven nameless men: those patriots, who in 1769, helped start our country on its trek down the road to independence.

This excerpt is from “Nutfield Rambles”, Richard Holmes’ fifth published piece on local history. Born in New Hampshire, Richard was raised and attended school throughout the state. 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 is also a regular columnist for the Derry News and a frequent contributor to the Nutfield News, the Lawrence Eagle Tribune and the Manchester Union Leader.