Strawbery Banke
A Living Museum in

Portsmouth, NH.

September 29th, 2001

I love a great story; one filled with trials and tribulations, adversity at every turn, and somehow through it all triumphs an individual spirit that cannot be stopped on its chosen course of righteousness. Such might be the legacy of Dorothy Vaughn, a Portsmouth librarian, who along with the Portsmouth Rotary recognized the terrible price about to be paid in the destruction of a few acres of junk yards and garbage pits as part of the post W.W.II urban renewal project in a run down and forgotten part of Portsmouth called of all things "Puddle Dock". The battle lines were drawn and neither side would give. Finally, a court battle ensued and Dorothy and her supporters won their argument making the area a national historic site. The year was 1960. Forty years later, we found ourselves wandering down the lanes and among the buildings of The Strawbery Banke Museum Complex. Now that I've got your interest, let me take you back to an earlier time, much earlier, the 1650's be exact. What is now Portsmouth was then called Strawbery Banke, named after the abundant fruit that grew along the rivers. As a thriving colony of England, the community was prohibited from trading with any other government and, as such, received most of its goods by ship. These ships would lay anchor in the bay, unable to approach the relatively shallow docks. Offloading was accomplished by the use of small ship-boats that could sail up the waterway known as Puddle Dock to the docks located inland. Thus, commerce established the area as a vibrant community of well-to-do merchants and land holders. In the taverns and homes around Portsmouth, as in many other coastal cities and towns, was born the idea of revolution. After independence, Portsmouth was, for a while, the Capital of the new state of New Hampshire. The center of its wealth and prosperity being the timber and fish trade, and of course the sea. But it was not to be that way forever. Progress is a fickle friend, and the great relationship with the sea was slowly but surely forgotten with the advent of the railroad and the new manufacturing centers of mid-America. The well-to-do moved uptown to the market district, abandoning their stately homes to the less fortunate and newly arrived immigrants, as building after building fell into disrepair. The old waterway was finally filled in to make more room for housing. The turn of the century saw a seedier atmosphere as brothels and bars replaced the old taverns. Scrap metal and recycling business took up much of the space. It was an eyesore to be sure. The post W.W.II urban renewal movement hit Portsmouth full belt and many historic areas were scheduled for demolition, including the Puddle Dock area. If not for the efforts of Dorothy and others, Puddle Dock would have gone the way of the North End, lost forever under hotel high-rises and shopping centers. By the way, Dorothy is alive and well at the age of 95, solidly entrenched in saving an old historic mansion on the other side of town. Our arrival on the grounds coincided with a show of groups singing sea shanties. As we watched, 4 guys, fresh off the boat from England, actually fresh off the plane, were belting out an old favorite to the merriment of all those listening. This group, by the unlikely name of the "Portsmouth Shanty Boys" had a wonderful sense of humor, as we talked shop after their performance. They have traveled all over the world spreading the sounds of the old sea songs to all who would listen. Their performance, as was the case with most other performers, was a cappella, totally without music. The blend was magical and very entertaining. As much as we would have liked to stay and chat, there were other things to see and do. Strawbery Banke contains some 40 buildings dating back as far as the mid 1600's. Every one held a story, a secret if you would have it, a history or perhaps, for some, a memory. Life was won and lost over and over again as the ever advancing time clock moved into the present, and it was as such that we wandered into the potter's shop. Even as I approached the door I could tell that this was not one of the static displays so frequent in museums. There was an energy radiating from within. Children were laughing, parents were talking. There was a commotion and I soon learned that the center of this activity was one Steven Zoldak. A slender man in his 50s, he exhibited the energy of a man half his age. Having given a child a small bit of clay, he proceeded to expound on his "rules" for handling it. "When your tired of carrying it around, throw it away, mommy doesn't want to carry it", his long frame now bending forward in a domineering but not threatening manner, he now gave the last and most important instruction. "Don't ever put it in your pocket!" (Mom smiled at the last rule.) As if school was over, he straightened up and with a broad smile engaged others in the conversations prevalent to what he was demonstrating; pottery. The little girl, lost in the technical questions of adults talking far beyond her comprehension, grabbed the small amount of clay in her hand as if it were diamonds and left. I would suspect to date, no clay has ever been found in a pocket of any garment worn by her.

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