In Penacook, a woman named Speed is in high gear trying to bring the past to the present 

  • Ruth Speed stands outside her front door in downtown Penacook on Friday. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • Ruth Speed outside her front door in downtown Penacook on Friday, May 20, 2022. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Ruth Speed outside her front door in downtown Penacook on Friday, May 20, 2022. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Published: 5/23/2022 5:55:35 PM

In Penacook, Ruth Speed digs like an archeologist, and she’s been studying her village’s past for 70 years.

At 78, she’s seen a lot, like the change-over from water power to electricity, eight different grocery stores, Barney’s Flowers, holiday parades and apple festivals.

She takes her role as the town’s historian seriously, which means she’s documented the bad as well as the good. Like the time, late in the 20th century, when her great-great-grandmother was killed by a train.

She was only 58.

“That was disturbing,” Speed said.

Her hunger to unlock the past elevated Speed into Hometown Hero status, in the eyes of close friend Althea Barton. Speed created her own newsletter and Facebook page, seeking facts, memories, photos, anything that would fill her canvas of curiosity.

Wrote Barton, “She is the person everyone turns to when they have a question about the village’s history. Historic structures, people through the decades, and community events. Ruth probably has other accomplishments she doesn’t brag about.”

She has a lot to draw from. Speed’s fascination with the past, she says, dates back to her childhood, circa 1950, when she was around 7 years old.

She grew up in the house on Merrimack Street, where she lives now, the perfect stage for a resident who loves looking into the rearview mirror. She remembers asking adults questions, questions and more questions.

“I was always curious about the things I saw,” Speed said. “I drove the neighbors crazy.”

Television had not hit the mainstream yet. Speed and her neighbors listened to the radio for their news. Then, after dinner, they’d sit on the porch and solve the world’s problems.

“The adults would talk about what was going on and I was right there to ask them about it,” Speed said. “I read all the books on Penacook that I could. If you don’t know where you’re from, how are you going to know where you are going?”

And she’s been at it ever since, researching and absorbing all that she could. Speed attended the Charles Street School, the Summer Street School (since converted to condos), and Penacook High School (now Merrimack Valley High), graduating in 1962.

She worked for the phone company on South Street for 20 years. She’s been married to Paul Speed, who worked for Rivco, for 58 years. He’s never had the history bug. Not like his wife.

“I’d show him the old pictures,” Speed said, “but as far as ingesting a lot of history, he would rather do other things.”

The Speeds remained in Penacook raising their three daughters. She took ownership of the old family house on Merrimack Street a decade ago, after her mother passed away, fueling her nostalgic feelings to palpable levels.

The news about her great, great grandmother, who was killed in 1896, was upsetting and shocking.

“I believe she had become despondent over my great- great-grandfather’s death (in 1895),” Speed said. “She went to bed and wandered onto the track and they found her the next morning.”

But most of her findings have illustrated a village’s camaraderie and changing landscape over seven decades of evolution that does not exist in today’s neighborhoods. At least not in the same way.

She’s still active, too, helping a recently-formed committee to reintroduce Penacook’s Memorial Day Parade Sunday morning at 10, after years on hiatus.

“The interest just waned, so they dropped it,” Speed said.

Speed also hopes that the Apple Fest, held at the park behind the downtown Penacook bank in the past, is on its way back as well.

She misses other institutions, like the Black Silver Fox Farm, Barney’s Flower Shop – replaced recently by a huge apartment complex – candy stores and sliding down Shurburne’s Hill, never colliding with that big pine tree in the middle of the slope, forever looking for a fight.

Speed has posted a photo of the Penacook parade, showing people lined up watching uniformed men bowing their heads on the bridge that separates Penacook from Boscawen.

The photo shows how popular the event once was. It’s black and white, from the past.

“Everyone in town would go to the parades,” Speed said. “Keeping history alive, to me, is important.”

Ray Duckler bio photo

Ray Duckler, our intrepid columnist, focuses on the Suncook Valley. He floats from topic to topic, searching for the humor or sadness or humanity in each subject. A native New Yorker, he loves the Yankees and Giants. The Red Sox and Patriots? Not so much.

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