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Monitor Board of Contributors: Old Home Days celebrations vary greatly, but the thought still counts

  • Bobby Prentiss, left, and driver Coburn Benson pull onto the road in Benson's Stanley Steamer Monday Aug. 9, 1999 in Gorham, N.H. Bad weather postponed a run up the Mount Washington Auto Road with winds gusting to 75 mph and windchill temperatures at 6-below zero. In 1899 the first car to climb the highest peak in the Northeast was a Stanley Steamer. (AP Photo/JIm Cole)

    Bobby Prentiss, left, and driver Coburn Benson pull onto the road in Benson's Stanley Steamer Monday Aug. 9, 1999 in Gorham, N.H. Bad weather postponed a run up the Mount Washington Auto Road with winds gusting to 75 mph and windchill temperatures at 6-below zero. In 1899 the first car to climb the highest peak in the Northeast was a Stanley Steamer. (AP Photo/JIm Cole)

  •  All through the state, the month of August sees communities celebrating “Old Home Day” with as many varying traditions as there are towns holding them. From barbecues to bed races, parades to pancake breakfasts, fireworks to fiddles – even a tradition

    All through the state, the month of August sees communities celebrating “Old Home Day” with as many varying traditions as there are towns holding them. From barbecues to bed races, parades to pancake breakfasts, fireworks to fiddles – even a tradition

  •  All through the state, the month of August sees communities celebrating “Old Home Day” with as many varying traditions as there are towns holding them. From barbecues to bed races, parades to pancake breakfasts, fireworks to fiddles – even a tradition

    All through the state, the month of August sees communities celebrating “Old Home Day” with as many varying traditions as there are towns holding them. From barbecues to bed races, parades to pancake breakfasts, fireworks to fiddles – even a tradition

  •  All through the state, the month of August sees communities celebrating “Old Home Day” with as many varying traditions as there are towns holding them. From barbecues to bed races, parades to pancake breakfasts, fireworks to fiddles – even a tradition

    All through the state, the month of August sees communities celebrating “Old Home Day” with as many varying traditions as there are towns holding them. From barbecues to bed races, parades to pancake breakfasts, fireworks to fiddles – even a tradition

  • Bobby Prentiss, left, and driver Coburn Benson pull onto the road in Benson's Stanley Steamer Monday Aug. 9, 1999 in Gorham, N.H. Bad weather postponed a run up the Mount Washington Auto Road with winds gusting to 75 mph and windchill temperatures at 6-below zero. In 1899 the first car to climb the highest peak in the Northeast was a Stanley Steamer. (AP Photo/JIm Cole)
  •  All through the state, the month of August sees communities celebrating “Old Home Day” with as many varying traditions as there are towns holding them. From barbecues to bed races, parades to pancake breakfasts, fireworks to fiddles – even a tradition
  •  All through the state, the month of August sees communities celebrating “Old Home Day” with as many varying traditions as there are towns holding them. From barbecues to bed races, parades to pancake breakfasts, fireworks to fiddles – even a tradition
  •  All through the state, the month of August sees communities celebrating “Old Home Day” with as many varying traditions as there are towns holding them. From barbecues to bed races, parades to pancake breakfasts, fireworks to fiddles – even a tradition

All through the state, the month of August sees communities celebrating “Old Home Day” with as many varying traditions as there are towns holding them.

From barbecues to bed races, parades to pancake breakfasts, fireworks to fiddles – even a traditional “burying of the beans” in Epsom – the day is filled with events designed to lure members of the community out to share a sense of civic pride.

The date differs (Concord Heights held its Old Home Day in June, Pittsfield’s was in July and Hooksett is holding it in September), but the vast majority follow tradition and hold their festivities in August.

Some are modest, maybe just a footrace or a picnic on the green. Other towns plan for months ahead of time with coordinating committees and scores of volunteers, to create a home town extravaganza that goes on for days. One might well wonder how this tradition began, and why some towns do it and others don’t.

The history

Old Home Week was the brainchild of New Hampshire Gov. Frank Rollins back in 1899. The idea was to lure young people who had sought their fortunes elsewhere back to the state where they were born.

Each town would hold a sort of carnival, inviting their native-born sons and daughters living in other states to return to their hometowns. The hope was that they would see what they were missing and be struck by homesickness, thus returning to the fold, or at the very least see how they could help the folks back home who might be in need. At that time, some were very much in need.

About the end of the 19th century, farms were being abandoned as people were drawn to manufacturing jobs in the cities south of the border, in places such as Lowell and Worcester.

Some stuck to farming but sought better places to do it, staking claims in the rich soil of river valleys and plains that were unlike the Granite State, where the fields produced as many rocks as crops.

Thanks to its glacial past, New Hampshire soil tends to surrender only grudgingly to tilling. The growing season is short and the winters are harsh compared to states further south. Others went west to new opportunities and prospects opening up. Many of New Hampshire’s enterprising sons and daughters grew quite prosperous, but the state they left behind suffered as a result. The population dropped as the young and ambitious sought their fortunes elsewhere.

Even within the state, rural towns shrank as people sought steady income working in the mills. Many communities were faced with the prospect of becoming veritable ghost towns. Old Home Week was instituted to try to coax back if not the emigrants themselves, at least some of their acquired wealth.

The officials in Concord directed every town to form committees, make up lists and send out invitations, and organize festivities for the week of Aug. 26 to Sept. 1.

It was a great success and caught on, becoming an annual event.

In my town of Deerfield, the invitation for the 1901 Old Home Week opened with these words from a poem by Oliver Wendell Holmes: “Come back to your Mother, ye children, for shame, Who have wandered like truants for riches and fame! With a smile on her face and a sprig in her cap, She calls you to feast from her bountiful lap.”

Resurrection

Eventually Old Home Week wore thin and died out in many New Hampshire towns. It was discontinued in Deerfield until, in 1978, Willis Rollins dedicated himself to reviving it as Old Home Days, a weekend instead of a week.

Instead of a siren call to absent native-born sons and daughters, it has become a celebration of the town and its heritage, although certainly it becomes an occasion for many family reunions. Held every year on the third weekend in August, Old Home Day is again a Deerfield tradition.

Some towns use the occasion to call attention to particular milestones.

Loudon held its Old Home Day this past weekend to celebrate the centennial of the town. Londonderry is holding five days of activities this week to hail its 115th celebration, having not missed a year since the state’s first proclamation.

Deerfield is pairing up Old Home Day this Saturday with a commemoration of the town’s Soldier’s Memorial Building, which houses the public library, and is 100 years old this year.

Many towns, like Deerfield, saw the tradition lapse as time and events made it less relevant. But also, as in Deerfield, it has lately seen a resurgence, a response perhaps to the decline of community in this mobile and digitized age.

Old Home Days are a way of saying that your home town still matters. And however many far-flung Facebook friends you may have, your neighbors are still the ones who really count.

(Mel Graykin lives and writes in Deerfield.)

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