Welcome tradition: Old Home Days endures 110 years
Old Home Days: New Hampshire's original economic stimulus plan.
Associated Press Writer
Old Home Days: New Hampshire's original economic stimulus plan.
The language was lofty when Gov. Frank Rollins invited all New Hampshire natives and their descendants to "return and visit the scenes of their youth" during the nation's first Old Home Week celebration 110 years ago.
"When you think of the old home, you bring back the tenderest memories possessed by man; true love, perfect faith, holy reverence, high ambitions," he wrote in 1899.
Behind the formal flourishes was a marketing campaign with a very practical goal: to revitalize not just the state's spirit but its finances. Young residents were fleeing family farms for big-city jobs, and rural areas were starting to look a bit shabby.
"He was urging people to come home, not just to visit but maybe to buy up some of these farms as summer homes," said Gary Crooker of Wilton, author of "New Hampshire Old Home Celebrations" and chairman of his town's event for the past 30 years. "And a lot of them did. It was successful."
Rollins' idea soon spread to the other New England states and beyond. Though the mission and organization have evolved over the years, many of the activities and the overall atmosphere have remained remarkably constant. Bonfires have given way to fireworks displays, but parades, music and food still dominate most celebrations. The Pembroke Women's Club sold 16 varieties of homemade muffins. In Hollis, members of a Christian youth group served hot apple crisp topped with ice cream.
While some towns actively reach out to residents who've moved away, the message is more "welcome" than "welcome home" in others. Natives find a sense of nostalgia, while newcomers get introduced to their communities.
"We have a large transient population and this is a great chance to meet people who are new to the community ... but we still believe in the tradition," said Kathy Wagner, chairwoman of the Old Home Day committee in Londonderry. The southern New Hampshire town, between Manchester and Nashua, the state's two largest cities, has a perfect record of holding Old Home Day celebrations since 1899.
Wagner, who has watched the town's population grow from about 8,000 residents to 25,000 in the 20 years she's lived there, said Old Home Days has grown as well. It now stretches across five days in August, with one night devoted to entertainment for children, another for senior citizens.
"It's a townwide party celebrating everyone, including all generations," she said. "It's just a chance for everyone to get together and just have some fun."
In Hollis, an affluent bedroom community on the Massachusetts border, Ann Dogherty arrived early to watch her 3-year-old grandson march in the Old Home Days parade earlier this month. Dogherty, 67, moved to Hollis several years ago from Massachusetts and said she appreciated how friendly everyone has been, particularly at Old Home Days.
"I like the closeness, the feeling of unity," she said. "If you don't know anyone, by the end of the day you will."
In the early years, Old Home Week was a top-down affair, with the state Department of Agriculture keeping tabs on which towns participated and asking them to file annual reports. Today, towns have far more flexibility and generally hold their events between June and September. Some are for a day; some for a week; some every few years.
The towns now set their own agendas, with volunteer committees, historical societies, churches and other groups often taking the lead roles. Crooker, for example, is chairman of the Old Home Day Committee in Wilton, which raises about $20,000 in private donations to cover the cost of its once-every-five-years event. The main attraction is a scavenger hunt that sends participants all over the small southern New Hampshire town.
Crooker said the economy loomed large this year, though not in the original sense of enticing former residents to buy up property. Instead, Old Home Days offered those struggling through the economic recession an inexpensive escape. Though individual organizations from Scouts to schools use Old Home Days for fundraising, no one gets rich by selling chocolate bars or running a dunking booth.
"Especially now, when there's been so much turmoil in the country, I think people love to come to something old-fashioned," said Martha Davis, 81, who helped set up the Hollis Historical Society's Old Home Days booth.
Nearby, Alie Sandin, 24, was busy helping children press apples into cider. She lives outside Washington D.C., but returns for Old Home Days each year. Her Virginia license plate reads "NH GAL."
"I miss New England. I will move back to New England at some point," she said. "I live a very busy life, working 60 hours a week to pay the rent and take on those adult, real-world responsibilities. But to come back here and see tractors and fields and trees and fall foliage just starting - it's beautiful. It's just beautiful."
Joyce Mazalewski, a lifelong resident of Carver, Mass., has been secretary of her town's Old Home Day celebration for 25 years. The town, a cranberry-growing center about 50 miles southeast of Boston, hosts an art show, pony rides, a bicycle and doll carriage parade and a New England clambake for 600 guests. Mazalewski sends out close to 500 postcard invitations to former residents, some of whom come from all over the country.
"In Carver, Old Home Day really has been a holiday just like Christmas or Thanksgiving," she said. "It's always remained similar in its feel, in that small-town feel."
Crooker, who wrote the book about Old Home Days, said he believes the tradition will endure. About 40 New Hampshire towns held celebrations this year, about on par with the number that celebrated in 1899, he said.
"As much as it has gone its own way in different towns, I'm still surprised at how much of the original idea and the theme of homecoming is still there," Crooker said. "Even though it was originally a real-estate ploy - let's face it - and a successful one, it does speak to something essential in people about having some roots and coming home to them."
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