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Saturday, June 21, 2014

Nashua South historians’ mammoth research project bearing fruit

Dean Shalhoup

I’ve heard it said that if you go back to school – any school, anywhere, even briefly – no matter how “chronologically advanced” (old) you are, you’ll learn something.

Well, OK, I won’t disagree, and if ever there was proof, it was two days ago when I walked into Nashua High School South – a building that was barely a pipe dream back in my days as an Elm Street-based Purple Panther – quite eager to hear some of Catherine Poulin’s Advanced Placement U.S. history students tell me stuff I already know. ...

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I’ve heard it said that if you go back to school – any school, anywhere, even briefly – no matter how “chronologically advanced” (old) you are, you’ll learn something.

Well, OK, I won’t disagree, and if ever there was proof, it was two days ago when I walked into Nashua High School South – a building that was barely a pipe dream back in my days as an Elm Street-based Purple Panther – quite eager to hear some of Catherine Poulin’s Advanced Placement U.S. history students tell me stuff I already know.

Except it didn’t quite work out that way.

Just minutes after Tom Lessard, one of Poulin’s 40 or so AP history students who hosted this year’s annual research presentation, began his introductory speech, my “there ain’t nothing about Nashua history that high school kids can tell me that I already don’t know” swagger melted onto the cafeteria floor.

I think I even heard Beth McCarthy, the Nashua Historical Society’s longtime curator who can recite long-ago names, dates and places with the best of them, say, “I didn’t know that,” once or twice.

My point, albeit excruciatingly cliche, is that you’re never too old to learn.

More to my point: Don’t think for a minute that just because they’re teenagers, today’s high school kids largely eschew researching and absorbing their local history.

“Today we celebrate 10 years of accomplishments and 10 years of achievement,” Lessard, a tall, articulate kid, announced to a mix of city officials, historians, educators and his peers on Thursday.

This, the 10th year of the project, marks a milestone in the AP history course that Poulin launched a decade ago with a handful of juniors: The completion of the final edits on all of the mayors and aldermen who have served since 1853.

Only a mere 35 aldermen remain unaccounted for, a minuscule number, especially when you consider that in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Nashua had not only a Board of Aldermen, but a Common Council, as well.

As for 1853, that was the year, as any self-respecting local history buff knows, that our city’s great, mid-19th-century civic and political tumult finally ended with the incorporation of the city of Nashua as we know it today.

The tumult? Well, in a nutshell, it could be called Nashua’s own little civil war, although it broke out nearly 20 years before the Civil War we’ve heard so much about.

Like that one, it pitted North versus South – in this case, Nashuans living on the north side of the Nashua River (mostly rich businessmen and well-heeled high-society types) and those south of it (millworkers, farmers and other workaday commoners).

At the center of the skirmish was the fact both sides wanted the new, soon-to-be-built City Hall on their side of the river. It went to a vote, and in an era when money wasn’t as much of an influence at the polls, the more populous south-siders were victorious.

Steamed, the north-siders got out their quill pens, sat down and drafted the necessary paperwork to form their own little town – they called it Nashville – thus seceding (a good civil war term) from Nashua. That was in 1842.

Nashville lasted 11 years, until cooler heads such as that of Daniel Abbot, who later was appropriately dubbed “The Father of Nashua,” prevailed, and in June 1853, a reunited Nashua came into being.

Businessman Josephus Baldwin would become the first mayor of the newly chartered city of Nashua. Everyone knows that, or should.

But did you know that Baldwin had six kids with two wives, and that in addition to mayor, he was also named the city’s first fire chief?

I learned that thanks to the AP history kids’ research, which is contained neatly on a handy CD they gave out at their presentation.

I knew Baldwin hit it big in the bobbin-and-shuttle business, and I guess I just assumed he kept it going until he retired. He did run it, apparently, while tending to matters at City Hall, which at the time was diagonally across Main Street from his house, a long-gone, 21⁄2-story saltbox that sat on the west side of Main just south of Water Street.

But according to Poulin’s classes’ research, Baldwin fell on hard times just three years after his successful two-year term as mayor. What the kids call “the financial panic of 1857” doomed Baldwin, who was widowed two years later, and then in 1862 evidently cut his losses by selling the shop.

It was the same year he married Lucy Grant; Baldwin died 10 years later, but according to an old city directory, Lucy was still living in 1905.

I got a kick out of the fact the young researchers weren’t above editorializing a tad here and there – one way to keep your sanity while burning the midnight oil over screens and giant books full of handwritten property deeds and conveyances.

Like in their report on the late alderman Willie Boisvert, who died in 1989: “Boisvert was married and had four beautiful children.”

And William Beasom, Ward 4 clerk, alderman and later the mayor, is remembered for his work “improving sewers and streets,” but more important, “for his honest and helpful personality.”

Fast forward to today: “Pamela T. Brown is a part of Ward 4,” her bio states.

Hey, if Pam runs for re-election as Ward 4 alderman next year, she may already have a great campaign slogan, courtesy of the student researchers.

Poulin said the final report eventually will be posted online, thereby negating the need to print a bunch of impossibly thick packets. We’ll put something in The Telegraph and online when that happens.

Dean Shalhoup’s column appears Saturdays in The Telegraph. He can be reached at 594-6443 or dshalhoup@nashuatelegraph.com. Also, follow Shalhoup on Twitter (@Telegraph_DeanS).