Old Home Day: A Summer Tradition Rich as New Hampshire’s Roots

By Kevin Sperl

“I have a scheme,” said New Hampshire Governor Frank Rollins in 1899 at the Sons of New Hampshire dinner in Boston. “It is this,” he continued. “To have a week in summer set apart to be called Old Home Week and to make it an annual affair.”

Two years prior, Rollins had begun thinking about the benefit of such celebrations when he mused, “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.”

New England Magazine, in a May 1899 editorial, agreed:

We can think of nothing which, if taken up and carried out in the spirit in which it is proposed, would do more to enlist the interest of influential sons and daughters of New Hampshire, whose homes are now outside of the state, in the development of the state and in the improvement of their old homes.

Nostalgia and Economy

This bit of history certainly adheres to that old cliché—the more things change, the more they remain the same. There has been a lot of press in the last few years addressing the migration of our youth out of the state to other places supposedly offering them better opportunities. In fact, a recent study by the University of New Hampshire’s Carsey Institute found that, for the first time in 18 years, New Hampshire saw 2,500 more people move out of the state than moved in. So the call to return is as relevant today as it was back then.

The second motivation of Rollins’ call for nostalgia was economic. The Civil War, mechanized agriculture and urban manufacturing jobs all drew state residents elsewhere. To counter the relocation movement, Rollins and participating towns invited former residents to come back and visit “the old home where you were born” to see all that they were missing, buy summer homes and revitalize local community spirit.

Association Is Formed

As governor, Rollins founded the Old Home Day Association to form what has since become one of New Hampshire’s most celebrated traditions. The response was excellent, as over 44 towns, including Andover, Bristol, New Hampton, Bridgewater, Gilmanton, Wolfeboro and Sandwich, responded by holding their first Old Home Day (or Week) that year. Rollins was so serious about his idea that, for the first few years, towns were required to report back to the state about their planned festivities. Obviously, in a state whose motto is “Live Free or Die,” that didn’t last very long.

The promotion for this new event went so far as to include an invitation from New Hampshire Senator William Eaton Chandler to U.S. President William McKinley to attend festivities. The New York Times carried this related news item on July 3, 1899:

Senator Chandler today called upon the President on behalf of the Governor of New Hampshire to visit that state during the latter part of August and participate in the celebration of Old Home Day. The president, while expressing interest in the proposed celebration, is doubtful as to his ability to be present. He did not, however, positively decline.

Rituals and Antics

Each town celebration has its own traditions and antics.

In Gilford, parade judges know enough to arm themselves with super-soaker squirt guns in defense against float participants who pass by the reviewing station using similar water-filled weapons. Gilmanton offers a traditional bean hole supper on the historic grounds of Smith Meetinghouse. The Town of Belmont advertises itself as the “best town by a dam site” and offers a challenging 10-mile road race that attracts more than 100 runners.

Sandwich is one of the few towns that hold onto a week-long Old Home tradition. From Sunday to Sunday, in early August, the town holds alumni picnics, open houses, horseshoe and tennis tournaments, Shakespearean theatre, street dances and yard sales. Major attractions are the town’s softball game and all-day picnic, drawing not only former town residents but nearby Camp Hale participants and alumni as well.

So, when the dog days of August descend upon the towns of New Hampshire, take former Governor Rollins’ advice and invite friends and family home to enjoy the state’s “hills, mountains, valleys and streams that grow more beautiful and restful each year to the multitudes who live in the congestion and turmoil of cities.”

Come back! Come back!

Kevin J. Sperl is publisher and managing editor of Lakes Region Spirit Magazine, a quarterly publication based in Gilford, New Hampshire. He can be reached by e-mailing kjsperl@LakesRegionSpirit.com or visiting their website.

Back on the Hill

(Recited by Fred Parker Ham on Gilmanton’s Old Home Day, August 1907)

After only one short year’s absence,
We’re back on the hill again;
For we’ve listened and heard the Old Home Horn
Calling “Don’t let me summons in vain.”

We found the Old Meeting House opened,
And the key to the doors laid away,
As the purple rays of the Sun’s fond gaze
Through the window read “WELCOME TO-DAY.”

[Source: New Hampshire Old Home Celebrations by Gary Crooker]