- by Tom Eastman
Old Home Week 1981
After the Civil War, many small farming communities throughout northern New England experienced a decline in their population. The farms that had supported generations of families no longer could compete with the appeal of the fertile riches beckoning to able bodied young farmers in the West, nor could the wages match those waiting to be earned in the factories of the industrial cities. The elder farmers stayed where they were, tilling the lands their ancestors had cleared a century or two before, while the younger men left in search of greener pastures.
Those heading to the cities were often aided in the transition from country to city life by clubs comprised of other village residents who'd preceded them in the move. The newcomers were offered advice on where to stay and how to get jobs by friends, carrying on the village tradition of helping your neighbor. Despite the attraction of the higher wages, however, the old saying about taking the boy out of the country but not the country out of the boy held true. Memories of life on the farm remained strong, and many relatives returned to their hometowns to visit with their families and friends to catch up on the latest news.
Communication between families in New Hampshire became easier beginning in 1896 when the Postal Service initiated RFD mail delivery to the farms. Still, many longed for a celebration of some sort that could bring back friends and relatives to the villages at the same time. Their desires were fulfilled in June 1899 when New Hampshire Governor Frank W. Rollins signed a proclamation declaring the third week in August "Old Home Week" in cities and towns throughout the Granite State. Former residents were invited by the governor to return to New Hampshire to "view the scenes of youthful days," and to receive the hospitality of residents. Said the governor, "Our greetings will be expressed by the fires on the old hilltops, flaming from peak to peak to greet you at your return; by attending church in the old meeting house on Old Home Sunday; by assembling in more than 100 towns to give you the glad hand and by placing chairs for you around the hearthstones in our homes, assuring you that old-time hospitality still prevails in the hearts and homes and hills and valleys of New Hampshire."
The governor's proclamation quickly became a state-wide tradition, capturing the imaginations of many village residents. Featuring church services, parades, speeches, literary readings, plays, band concerts, and baseball matches between neighboring towns, the annual affair was considered the highlight of the year both for those who had moved away and those who never left.
While some towns only celebrated an Old Home Day, others made the event a week-long celebration. The northern New Hampshire towns of Madison and Freedom were of the latter grouping, and to this day continue the tradition every August. A combination of the 4th of July and a big family reunion rolled into one, the celebrations show the quaint New England villages at their colorful and hospitable best.
For the past several years, the two neighboring towns have scheduled their celebrations a week apart, with Madison's affair usually preceding Freedom's. Unlike the original proclamation by Governor Rollins, which called for the Old Home Week to take place the same week in August, the modern day celebrations are held in Madison August 19th and in Freedom August 8-16th. As for the dates for other towns in New Hampshire, not even the State Office of Vacation and Travel is exactly sure of just how many Old Home Weeks are celebrated throughout the state. One thing can be stated for certain about Madison's and Freedom's, however - they both possess a charm second to none.
Aside from the family reunions, the highlight of past Old Home Week celebrations in both Freedom and Madison was the series of baseball contests played on the town ball fields. Posters from the early 1900s advertised the games in bold print, bearing the headlines "Madison Games 25 cents; all others 15 cents." As the higher price indicates, the rivalry between the two towns on the ball fields was intense, as was the betting among farmers watching them. Games were held in Freedom or Madison on an alternate schedule every day of the Old Home Week, with crowds packing the edges of the fields to see their boys in action. As some residents in town will admit nowadays, however, a few of the players were never actually town boys to begin with. "Both teams were said to stock their rosters with minor leaguers, and ringers from the Harvard baseball squad," the Reverend David Works related, explaining that the farmers would pool their bet earnings to pay players. "It was all part of the fun of Old Home Week which made the summer go by faster."
Eventually, the hardball wars were no longer played between the towns, as interest waned, players moved away, and World War I began. Attempts to have softball games in recent years have met with little success, but that need not imply that the Old Home weeks suffer from a lack of interest on behalf of townspeople. On the contrary, the celebrations in both towns always draw the participation of all ages, year-round and summer residents alike. As Donna Brooks of the Madison Old Home Week Committee explained, "We try to give every organization in the town a chance to get involved, from the Little League with their ice cream smorgasbord to the Madison Historical Society's hike. All of the activities are family oriented, and provide a good way for newcomers and lifelong residents to get to know one another and enjoy themselves."
Donna's counterpart in Freedom, Ruth Dow, goes about her job with the same goals in mind. "We plan our events based on what has traditionally been offered as part of Freedom Old Home Week for the past 83 years," Ruth stated while working at the counter of the cook shack at the Fireman's Carnival last Saturday. The carnival has been a more recent addition to the activities offered during Old Home Week, but continues the celebration's trademark emphasis on a community oriented, small-scale event. "We try to give a week of enjoyable entertainment that appeals to anyone who likes a low-key, friendly community good-time," Ruth continued. "Everyone helps out - it's a real family effort."
The event that best illustrates the extent of the family participation is the annual Old Home Week Parade. Usually, the Freedom procession has a theme, but none was chosen for this year's. Consequently, the 1981 spectacle featured some highly original floats and entrants, including one by a couple who decided to relive their wedding day bliss of some years ago by driving in the parade with "Just Married" banners and tin cans tied onto their car. Another family appeared as a 10-piece marching band. Rounding out the procession were families in costume, 4-H Club horses led by their young owners, a group of camp kids dressed up as Gypsy Moths, and fire engines from neighboring town departments who participated in the 1st Annual Fireman's Muster at the ball fields.
For many families, marching in the parade constitutes the highlight of their Old Home Week reunions. A case in point is the Works family, longtime residents of Freedom with roots to the area that date eight generations back. "When we were children, we always got involved with the parade quite heavily, but now every 10 years or so is sufficient," Ben Works commented the day after this year's Freedom parade. In past years, he remembers appearing in the 1965 affair riding in a decrepit 1932 Ford camouflaged as a Batmobile, topping that entry in 1975 with a pre-Bicentennial 2000 BC caveman float. Ben's uncle David and father Nelson disrupted the 1936 parade when they appeared as young Republicans. Explains David, "The theme that year was politics, so my brother and I got ourselves decked out as Republicans. The band, however was one-half Democratic, and was led by the leading Democrat in town." After threatening not to march, the band leader was eventually persuaded to continue. As for the brothers, they took the first place honors for their costumes. That winning tradition was carried on in Saturday's parade, as David's grand-daughter was awarded a ribbon in the distance category for coming all the way from Texas to take part in the Old Home Week festivities.
Following the parade, the focus of Freedom's celebration moves to the ball fields for the Fireman's Carnival, an annual fundraising event for the local volunteer fire department. Held on the grounds where the infamous baseball matches formerly took place, this year the Carnival featured sporting events of a different sort. A horseshoe tournament got underway at one end of the field Saturday afternoon, while members of neighboring fire departments donned their gear to compete in the 1st Annual Fireman's Muster. The rivalries between the departments have not yet reached the level of intensity that existed between the baseball teams, but they certainly have a lot of time to develop in the future.
"The muster is a good, low key event that helps keep our boys in shape," commented Freedom Volunteer Fire Department Chief Richard Seamans as the teams from Effingham, Ossipee Corner, Ossipee, and Freedom took to the field. The muster consisted of four events, all of which required coordination, accuracy and speed from the six members of each team. Winning the Wet Hose Hookup - a competition which calls for men to hit a target with water after hooking three links of hose to one another which have been linked to a hydrant - was the inexperienced Cinderella contingent, the Freedom Mountaineers. The rookie team also took top honors in the Mystery Event, the format of which is always left up to the host team. They didn't fare as well in the Night Alarm and Water Polo categories, however, and lost out to the hosers from Ossipee Corner for the Overall Sportsmanship Award. "Winners in all musters are determined by their sportsmanship in addition to their ability," Freedom VFW member Joe Goss explained. Judging from the accounts of the padding of the baseball teams in the past, the emphasis on sportsmanship certainly differentiates the Fireman's Muster from those earlier sporting sandlot encounters.
In addition to the Fireman's Muster and the Horseshoe Tournament, the Fireman's Carnival features the usual assortment of game booths, food concession stands, and rides. Probably the most popular was a truck driven by Joe Goss. Riders are given a tour down past the village's tidy homes, post office, and popular entertainment is provided by the department's partially restored 1926 Seagraves ladder store on the old truck, viewing scenes which resemble something out of a Grandma Moses painting. It is that village charm which accounts for the devotion and pride of Freedomites toward their town, and which also keeps them returning to be with old friends and relatives for Old Home Week every year.
Freedom's appeal is shared by those whose ancestors settled in the area and by more recent residents to the village alike. Examples of the latter type of Freedomite include Francis Schanz and Peter Case. Recently retired, Schanz has been busy the past few weeks preparing the Freedom Players for their presentation this Friday night of the play, A Night In, for Old Home Week. Discussing the week-long celebrations as well as the village, Schanz stated, "Being city born and bred, the sense of community that exists here is what's particularly exciting. I've only been here for a year, but I've gotten to know people more intimately here in that time than I ever did in all of my previous 65 years. People have been friendly and helpful from the start."
Fellow Freedom newcomer Peter Case concurred with Schanz's remarks, saying, "There's a lot of pride in this town. People accept you, since they figure that if you have enough good taste to move here, than you must be alright." Case came to Freedom two years ago, buying a house that sits next to the small schoolhouse that his son will soon be attending. Known as "The Mustard Man" for the Cochon et Co. mustard he markets, Case says that the move to the village made sense. "Freedom isn't on the way to anywhere, and that's what we all like about it. But it is located in good proximity to everywhere that you might have to go." Commenting on the Old Home celebration, Peter stated, "I thing it's great the way the whole town really gets involved with the festivities, particularly the parade. It's the quintessential New England experience."
As originally intended, Old Home Week serves the function of bringing folks back together. People might make an effort to visit their relatives and friends without the event, certainly, but as one Freedom resident remarked, "Old Home Week tips the scales for everyone to return at the same time with our family, and I'm sure it works the same with others." The baseball games of yesteryear may not have endured, but that tradition of hospitality and summertime entertainment has remained just as strong as it ever was.
Looking back over those years, lifelong Freedom resident Kenneth Libbey says that some of the events have been changed, but overall, things are pretty much the same as when he was a boy. "The Freedom Club of Boston was always the mainstay behind the Old Home Week, bringing in all kinds of speakers and putting on balls in the Town Hall along with the parade. I remember seeing the First Christ Church of Freedom jammed packed with standing room only at the Sunday Old Home Week service. Things are about as big now as they were, but it's just different in some ways."
Climbing into his pick-up truck in front of the Freedom Village Store, the 68-year-old logger remarked that the best part about the celebration is simply getting to talk with friends he might not have seen for a year or two. "I'll tell you one thing about this Old Home Week, though, and you can tell people I said it too," he added with a glint in his eye. "After this week's over, you can come into town and shoot a fox at that water fountain over there any morning you please - that's how quiet it gets around here." Somehow, he gave the impression that it's that peaceful quiet which has led him to make Freedom his old home for the past 68 years.