New Hampshire Town Clings to History

History, Iconic Communities, On the Road, Traditions
on December 17, 2000

Any town official, bookstore clerk, short order cook, or art gallery owner in Peterborough, N.H., has a lot to say about what their town is known forand one of the things they say is, its all about tradition.

Incorporated in 1760 by Scotch-Irish trades people, Peterborough, which has grown to 2,100 residents, has the oldest public-supported library in the United States, established in 1833. The idea of Rev. Abiel Abbot, a Unitarian proponent of community learning, the library grew out of his lecture hall where talks were held on social issues of the time such as temperance, abolition, and religious tolerance.

The MacDowell Colony, established in Peterborough in 1907, is a town centerpiece and an outgrowth of Abbots teachings. A nationally recognized, free working retreat for talented artists, musicians, and writers, it has nurtured such notables as American composers Aaron Copland and Leonard Bernstein, poets Edward Arlington Robinson and Galway Kinnell, and novelist Alice Walker. Thornton Wilder wrote his Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Our Town, in 1938, while living in the forested quiet of nearby MacDowelland most townspeople believe the gentle drama about small-town life was inspired by Peterborough.

The Peterborough Players theater company, hewn out of an old barn lighted by kerosene lamps in the 1880salong with the towns many galleriesare other symbols of Peterboroughs commitment to the arts. It is nothing less than a bastion of arts and learning, education, religion, and politics, says Dana Hadley, Peterboroughs assistant town administrator.

And yet, for all of that, Peterboroughs ongoing vitalityindeed, its very survivalhas depended on ordinary folks who care, says Pam Brenner, town administrator. Theyve shown this pride with gifts of money, by volunteering, and sometimes with ideas alone. In all cases, its been the perseverance, vision, and vigilance of Peterboroughs residents, not only to keep the town shining with artistic, economic, and intellectual vitality, but to keep it from the destructive effects of sprawl, she says.

Too many small towns across America look the same, with strip malls, fast food stores, and gas stations. Not so in Peterborough, says Brenner. Our citizens just wont have it. Theyre very protective of their town. Just a few years ago the town denied McDonalds a license to do business here. The people thought that would be the beginning of the end. It just wouldnt be welcomed.

Peterboroughs citizens also have been fighters and providers, whenever the need arose.

Ellen Derby, executive director of the Peterborough Historical Society, speaks of her town as if shes lived there from its beginnings. In the 1880s, when the towns population was dwindling, its citizens got together to find a way to bring employment into the town. They figured theyd attract a lucrative piano factory to move here by offering 10 years of operation, tax-free, Derby says. And it worked.

When the town needed an electric power plant, it built its own, drawing from a willing community unified by the desire to stay independent. Theres been a lot of cooperation in projects like this, a readiness to rise to the occasion, says Derby.

The common will to preserve, however, can conflict with the desire to attract visitors and new business. Former New Hampshire Gov. Walter Peterson, (1968-1973), a 54-year Peterborough resident now serving as town moderator, says that among good people, its a natural subject of debate, and its my job to try to bring the two sides together. I have a strong desire to conserve and protect our environment, but I also recognize that any society that does this to the point of blocking out its sources of livelihood will go stagnant.

Peterboroughs artistic character and New England charm have been preserved because of the initiatives of its peopleand because, according to Brenner, It didnt have to be forced or manmade. Its beauty has been allowed and protected, in a sense, more than deliberately constructed.

The moral of the story, she says, is you need only keep a town out of harms way, and, like a flower, it will show forth its own characterlike a person.