From Grapevine-2, August 1993
When I was a kid back in the 1930s, Old Home Day was held in Melville’s Grove – a stand of hardwood trees along Center Pond Road a few hundred yards from the center of Nelson. Today a large boulder on the south side of the byway marks the area where picnic tables were set up for the annual celebration. In an adjacent clearing was a platform for the band and a small stand for selling soda pop, candy bars, ice cream, and Cracker Jacks.
There was no electricity in the Grove, and I recall being as awed by the dry ice (the outdoor refrigerant of the day) as I was by the tiny Dixie Cups of ice cream and Eskimo Pies that remained frozen beneath an eerie white vapor that rose from portable chests. Most items cost five cents, but money was scarce back then. We might have a single coin and one choice. The Cracker Jacks cost a dime. Inside the brightly colored box full of caramel-coated popcorn was a tiny tin whistle or a cricket that clicked when it was pinched.
During the noon hour on Old Home Day, while picnickers shared food across long tables, a band played marches and popular ballads. According to lore, one year a band from Peterborough or another nearby town was paid $100. When our longtime mailman, Edgar Seaver, passed by on his mail route and heard the band, he asked how much the band was being paid. “One hundred dollars!” he shouted (he was a bit deaf). “Why, Lord, my band will blow its guts out for seventy-five!”
Thereafter, Edgar got the job and his Chesham Band, which included several Nelson residents, became an institution at Old Home Day for many years.
After the destruction of Melville’s Grove by the hurricane of ’38, Old Home Day activities were relocated to the church lawn. Another change wrought by the hurricane was that the annual baseball game moved to the mowing across from the Fuller house. Ed Murdough (with some prodding by Jo) can tell you about dozens of capable ball-players, past and present, from Munsonville and Nelson who would relish a chance to take on teams from neighboring towns on Old Home Day. Ed could recall there being a game in the morning in addition to the afternoon. In recent years, the game is usually “choose up sides and play.”
Records of our Old Home Day date back to before the turn of the century. One account in a clipping from an 1894 issue of the Manchester Union described how the village and Melville’s Grove were brightly decorated with banners and flags. Governor J. B. Smith was in attendance, along with 800 other folks, to watch the marching band, share lunches, listen to orators, and participate in games much like the ones we have today. In his speech, Governor Smith encouraged the audience to “thwart a trend of depopulation” that was occurring in small New England towns by fixing roads, increasing educational facilities, providing good churches, and holding annual meetings with a spirit he saw in the group that day. He believed those institutions would help to keep young people at home.
Local history reports that Old Home Day (often called Picnic Day) began in 1877, when Noah Hardy invited family members from far and near to a picnic in his maple grove near the Hardy homestead, a yellow house that still stands on Upper Nelson Road [Hardy Hill Road]. Other friends in town also were urged to come. The idea caught on and an interest arose in holding a yearly town gathering. (And the Hardy family continues to have annual reunions in various New England towns.) The 100th Old Home Day celebration was held in August 1978. Nelson is thought to be the first among communities in this area to begin the Old Home Day custom. In 1899, Governor Frank W. Rollins, inspired by the Nelson gathering, urged the legislature to proclaim New Hampshire Old Home Week.
A School Association meeting used to be held the evening before Old Home Day. In earlier times it included afternoon and evening sessions to “promote moral and intellectual work in the town and deal with other school matters.” In my memory it was a sociable where an audience was entertained by a play or instrumentals provided by local talent. Speakers were always available to recite poetry or describe Nelson history with colorful anecdotes.
By the late 1930s, Old Home Day had dwindled to a program that simply included a picnic lunch, band music, speaker, and ball game, all of which lasted from noon to late afternoon, possibly with an evening dance. By the late 1940s, Old Home Day president Parke H. Struthers and others who could recall more jubilant celebrations set out to restore some of the past. I can recall the hours he spent with his family and others preparing for games – races, egg toss, rope pull, penny hunt, and pie-eating contests. The “marathon” would become legendary. In early August, running enthusiasts still practice the two-mile route along Upper and Lower Nelson Roads.
Many celebrants enjoyed Parke’s bulletin boards filled with photographs of residents and homes, past and present. Baby pictures were especially challenging and popular, and there would be a prize for the person making the most identifications.
Electric power became available for a public address system. Although recorded music could be played, tradition insisted that there be a live band. Following the years with Edgar’s band, numerous ensembles entertained the picnickers: Scarlet Marauders from Swanzey; the American Legion Band from Keene; Banjo Medley from Walpole; and groups from Hancock, Westmoreland, and other nearby communities.
In recent years, Nelson has been fortunate to have its very own band, with local talent. It is growing in size and becoming louder each year!
Up to 1955 Old Home Day occurred on the Wednesday closest to the 15th of August. It was then moved to the Saturday following the middle Wednesday to accommodate an increasing number of folks who were free from work only on weekends. For many years Win French, Parke Struthers, and Neil Tolman served on the Old Home Day committee to insure that the day would adhere to historic tradition. A similar group has taken on this function in recent years but has become more involved in the planning for each Old Home Week. Organizing a multitude of activities can be overwhelming for one person – so anyone willing to serve on this committee is welcome.
Two of my favorite additions to Old Home Day include the Annual Book Sale presented by the Friends of the Library, and the exhibit of work by local artists and craftspersons. Some of us rely on the book sale to replenish our reading for the long winter months.
A church-supported barbecue at lunchtime is becoming a tradition, but to some it will not replace a preference for the picnic basket. Nonetheless, the delicious food from the barbecue is a welcome sight to those with busy schedules. As in times past, folks can still purchase drinks and sweets in front of the Town Hall. But not for a nickel!
I recently asked several people why they come to Old Home Day. There were three common replies: to see and visit with those they had not seen in a while; to hear the band; and to hear what the speaker had to say. Many folks were able to sharpen my memory of food on the picnic tables: deviled eggs, multi-layered sandwiches, pies, and canisters of cookies. There was plenty of fruit, especially bananas.
In bygone days, Old Home Day folks listened intently to the speaker. After all, travel was limited and they were interested in hearing about the outside world. Frank Upton (who is a rich source of Nelson history) told me a story about a prominent minister from Boston who was invited to speak at Old Home Day in a neighboring town. He arrived a day early and stayed with his brother in Nelson. “What do you think I should speak about tomorrow?” the minister asked his brother. The brother thought for a while and replied, “Oh, I think you should speak for about a minute and then go sit down.”
As new generations emerge, family circles broaden. Family members move to distant places. The interest in returning to ancestral homes and visiting with those who linger within memory remains strong. The word “home” has special relevance in the name Old Home Day, a day that reaches those deeply rooted emotions and fulfills the desire to strengthen a spirit of fellowship. As with other community gatherings, it serves to enrich a town.