Little-Known New England Legends
Welcome to the November 2009 edition of “Jud’s New England Journal,” the rather curious monthly musings of Judson Hale, editor-in-chief of Yankee Magazine, published since 1935 in Dublin, New Hampshire.
They’re all over New England. And I’ve visited quite a few …
My favorite New England legends are those with which I’ve had some personal connection. For instance, I’ve snooped around a certain abandoned little house nestled in some pines on the shore of a river in Hopkinton, New Hampshire — a little house made from the crate used to ship Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis back to America on board the U.S.S. Memphis after his historic Atlantic flight. Legend has it that an officer aboard the Memphis, who happened to be a native of Hopkinton, made a deal with Lindbergh en route to acquire the crate, which he eventually turned into a small house. I’m not sure whether it’s still there today. I may take a look later this month.
I’ve studied the top of the steeple of the First Baptist Church in Hampton Falls, New Hampshire, through binoculars to determine whether or not there’s really a five-and-a-half-foot-high beer bottle up there. It’s up there, all right. The most popular of several explanations is that during the 1850s a brewery in Portsmouth offered to donate the money necessary for a brand-new steeple, if the symbol of their product was placed at the top for all the world to see.
“Smacks a little of soul-selling,” the church’s then-pastor, Reverend R. Scruton, told me, “but that was our only offer at that time.” Hampton Falls residents are thankful that The Trueform Brassiere and Corset Company, for instance, didn’t decide to make a better offer.
I didn’t need binoculars to see plainly the large pointing hand on top of the steeple of the Methodist Church in Milton Mills, New Hampshire, when I was investigating the “Church with the Hand on Top” one beautiful November day. It was made of a solid block of wood and had been carried to that dizzy height in a half-bushel wicker basket by one Aratus Shaw, who, with others, built the church as a labor of love in 1871, utilizing only donated materials.
It makes history real for me to see and touch and ponder the perfectly preserved bullet hole in the shed wall of the Elisha Jones house (not open to the public) in Concord, Massachusetts — a British soldier’s parting shot as his regiment was retreating following the Concord fight on April 19, 1775. It’s almost as though it happened yesterday or last week. Same with the plainly visible tomahawk marks on a door at Old Deerfield Village.
And yet the squat 26-foot-high fieldstone tower with its semicircular arches between chunky columns, located in a small park in Newport, Rhode Island, seems to me to be somehow unreal. It’s known as the Old Stone Mill, or sometimes the Norse Tower. Labeled “the most controversial building in America,” it’s been there longer than anyone can remember, but no one knows how or why it came to be built. Theories name the colonists of the 1600s, who were real enough, but also people like Eric Gnupsson of Greenland in 1112, or the Scandinavian Paul Knutson around 1355. I find it difficult to relate to Eric and Paul. Too iffy.
Most of these Norse theories were discredited anyway when an archaeological dig around and under the tower unearthed only colonial artifacts. Nonetheless, the librarian at the historical society said to me, “Local people don’t like to spoil a legend.” A Newport real estate man echoed the same feeling: “I don’t think there’s a chance it’s Norse, but as long as it’s talked about, that’s the main thing.” He wanted a colorful tourist sign erected, illustrated with a Norseman in full 12th-century getup, to direct people to the tower. But the more conservative Newport element squashed that idea.
Probably just as well.