All photos from the neighborhoods of Strawbery Banke in Portsmouth, NH
A warning to readers of this review, I have just moved to the Portsmouth, NH area and I have immediately begun a love affair with the town of Portsmouth (I have shared these feelings with my spouse!) whose people are proud not to be considered a city! A town that has a population of about 20,000 people and 22,000 restaurant seats is a wonderful concept to be enjoyed each day. While wandering around the town I came across Strawbery Banke, the historic preservation of the Puddle Dock section of early Portsmouth. I was enthralled about what I witnessed and being a historian I needed to know more. The book STRAWBERY BANKE: A SEAPORT MUSEUM 400 YEARS IN THE MAKING by J. Dennis Robinson was the perfect vehicle for me to learn about Portsmouth and satisfy my curiosity about how it developed. The book possesses a well written narrative in two parts. First, the history of the Portsmouth region from roughly 1605 through the colonial period, the American Revolution, the 19th century, to the post World War II era. The second half of the book is devoted to the creation and implementation of the Strawbery Banke historical site. The book contains numerous photographs of the different characters throughout the history of the museum as well as the architecture that was saved by Strawbery Banke. What sets Strawbery Banke apart from other historical sites, i.e., Williamsburg, VA or Sturbridge Village, MA is that the original buildings have been preserved and have not been recreated. The book follows the long journey of historical preservation that began in 1957 and is still, flourishing today.
Apart from the general history of the Portsmouth region, what I found most interesting about the book was its discussion of the individual houses that have been preserved and the fight to take a federal urban renewal project and convert it into a historical restoration that would rekindle and refurbish a section of Portsmouth and would be a vehicle to uplift and restore the entire town. One of my favorite mini-histories narrated in the book involves the Shapiro House that was home to Russian Jewish immigrants who left the Ukraine in the late 19th century among many who sought to escape the pogroms and persecution that existed in Russia. What I found fascinating was that orthodox Jews would settle in Portsmouth as opposed to the majority of Jews who went to the lower east side of New York City. The Srawbery Banke site has the original Shapiro home with the accoutrements of a Jewish family displayed accurately in its different rooms, highlighted by a woman who role plays Mrs. Shapiro in early 20th century garb. The other aspect of the book that was very surprising was how local and federal politics and the economic issues involved had to be overcome in trying to create Strawbery Banke.
Unlike Williamsburg there was no Rockefeller benefactor to fund the project. Strawbery Banke was funded by hundreds of local residents with some federal money and today is dependent upon donations, membership, and visitors for its survival. The book is a wonderful read for those who are interested in a different approach to America’s settlement story of John Smith and Pocahontas that is not generally known. The book narrates and analyzes the evolution of Strawbery Banke and the town of Portsmouth and how they have evolved into cultural centers that attract thousands upon thousands of visitors each year. To the author’s credit he tells the entire story, not just the triumphs. Throughout its development Strawbery Banke experienced a great deal of infighting over disagreements as to what the correct path for the “outdoor museum” should take. The disagreements are presented objectively, and Robinson also explores the less positive aspects of the museums’ expansion as over time certain neighborhoods were taken over resulting in the bitterness of those had to be relocated. Despite these negatives, the end product of the museum seems well worth it.
Portsmouth has a certain feel to it that makes it one of the most inviting towns I have ever experienced. It is worth a visit, and before you come read STRAWBERY BANKE, as it will be the precursor of a wonderful adventure. In addition, if you find historical preservation interesting the book explains how difficult and expensive it is to get one off the ground and maintain it in today’s economic environment.