by Robert Hanaford Smith, Sr. Weirs Times Contributing Writer
August is traditionally Old Home Day month across New Hampshire. This week our history columnist Robert Hanaford Smith explains where this unique New Hampshire tradition comes from.
When New Hampshire Governor Frank Rollins came up with a scheme “…to have a week in summer, set apart, to be called Old Home Week and make it an annual affair”, he was actually asking all New Hampshire towns to sponsor an event that a few towns had been conducting for years, though most seem to have limited their observance to a day or two rather than a whole week.
The small town of Middleton reportedly began its Old Home Day in the year 1866. Its observance continues each year, not on a Saturday or Sunday, but on a Wednesday, following that town’s tradition. The town of Cornish’s event was titled “Old People’s Visit” for many years after its beginning in 1877, when Rev. and Mrs. James T. Jackson invited 18 elderly people to visit at the parsonage on August 17th of that year. The next year the number of visitors is said to have increased to seventy-five and the event was held at the Congregational Church. This year’s event was held on July 30th at the same church building of the 1878 meeting on Center Road though it is now titled “Old Home Day”.
New Hampshire Governor Frank Rollins , our governor from 1899 to 1901, was responsible for making Old Home Day a statewide event with a purpose that went far beyond providing an opportunity for older folk to visit one another. Governor Rollins was concerned about the number of people leaving New Hampshire to pursue opportunities in other parts of the country, and his promotion of Old Home Week was directed more towards the younger people than the old. He wrote: “The purpose of this festival, inaugurated in New Hampshire in the year 1899 and designated ‘Old Home Week’, was to win back, if possible, some of the wealth which the State, with its New England neighbors, had lavished on the newer parts of the country in the persons of sturdy, resourceful men and women.”
So. Governor Rollins founded the first Old Home Week Association and presided over the 1899 celebrations in which 44 New Hampshire towns participated during the last week in August. The number of towns holding Old Home Days increased quickly in the years following, spreading to other New England states and beyond. The State Old Home Day Association seems to be no more, nor have I been able to find any 2016 governor’s proclamation of an Old Home Week, but the celebrations continue as towns choose their own dates for their particular observance.
In 1972, for example, there was a state Old Home Week association and a proclamation signed by Governor Walter Peterson marking the third week in August as Old Home Day Week. Dr. J. Duane Squires was president of the Association, and Raymond C. Smith was vice-president. Other officers were Dr. H. Raymond Danforth, Mrs. Marion Atwood, Mrs. Helen Park, and Mrs. Robert Weeks. Though probably no longer thought of as a tool to lure former residents back to New Hampshire, Old Home Day is a time for present and former residents of a particular town, as well as any interested visitors, to get together for a day of visiting with old friends as well as meeting new ones. Some towns put on baked bean dinners or suppers (perhaps with bean-hole beans), some have parades, some feature special speakers who educate others on local history or other topics. Old Home Day is often designed to appeal to all age groups and may feature games and other activities for children and young adults, along with exhibits and fund-raising events from town organizations. Depending on each town committee’s choice, entertainment of some sort is apt to be a part of your town’s observance. Square dancing has been a traditional part of New Hampton’s Old Home Day for many years. A Sunday Church service is included in some towns as a part of Old Home Week.
In 1897 Frank Rollins wrote: “ I wish that in the ear of every son and daughter of New Hampshire, in the summer days, might be heard whispered the persuasive words: ‘Come back, come back! Do you not hear the call? What has become of the old home where you were born? Do you not remember it? – the old farm back among the hills, with its rambling buildings…”. So your home town still calls for you to join your friends at Old Home Day.
Robert Hanaford Smith, Sr., lives in New Hampton, NH.