In our continuing series Only in New Hampshire, we tackle listener questions about the Granite State communities and occasionally get the chance to uncover a bit of hidden history.
So here’s a perfectly timed question from Katelin in Northwood. She wrote:
“I heard Northwood had some kind of important link on the way we celebrate Thanksgiving. I looked but never found it. Any ideas?”
Northwood is kind of far from Plymouth Rock and the buckle shoes and all that. But after a little digging, we found ourselves in Newport, New Hampshire, which happens to be the birthplace of 19th century writer and "Mother of Thanksgiving," Sarah Hale.
We arrived at the Richards Free Library on a gorgeous fall day – it’s kind of the Sarah Hale capital of the world. Outside is a new memorial park dedicated to the writer, with a bust surrounded by granite bricks and a scroll that commemorating her Thanksgiving campaign.
We were met by Mary Lou McGuire and Andrea Thorpe, who work at the library, and Sandy Sonnichsen, who volunteers here. Think of them as ‘The Sarah Hale Dream Team.'
Mary Lou and Sandy led us through the library and up the staircase to the Sarah Hale Room, which is full of shelves of books mostly dating back to the mid-19th century.
For 40 years, Sarah Hale was the editor of Godey’s Lady Book, the most widely-circulated magazine in America before the Civil War. The magazine was full of recipes, dress patterns, and sheet music for popular dances.
But where Sarah shone was in her editorials, where she would regularly advocate for things like women’s education.
She was one of the first to promote and publish the work of American authors like Nathaniel Hawthorne, Oliver Wendell Holmes and Edgar Allen Poe.
She also wrote essays, short stories, and children’s poems, including the classic ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb’ in 1830. The tame little nursery rhyme became the source of a bitter literary dispute when auto-tycoon, Henry Ford suggested Hale plagiarized the story from a "Mary" in Sudbury, Massachusetts.
The Hale Dream Team disputes this, telling us, "You could do a whole show about fake news, there’s so much fake news on the Mary Had a Little Lamb thing."
And they're right. It turns out Ford’s claim was tied to a promotional scheme for an inn he purchased near Sudbury. The library has been correcting the record for almost 100 years.
But let's put nursery rhyme beefs aside and get back to our listener question about the Thanksgiving holiday.
That means going back in time - not to the Pilgrims and the Wompanoags - but 150-odd years later, during the aftermath of the Revolutionary War.
In 1789, President George Washington issued a proclamation recognizing November 26th as a national day of Thanksgiving.
But in the anti-Federalist spirit of the time, states chose to celebrate the day whenever they wanted to. Sarah picked up the cause to unite the nation with a single Thanksgiving.
Mary Lou says growing up with a father who fought in the war for independence against the British fueled Sarah's patriotism.
"She saw the results of the deprivation, the harm, that a war, a hard-fought war did one her one family never mind her family and friends. And I think she knew what was given up to create this nation of ours."
For seventeen years, Sarah Hale campaigned to make Thanksgiving a national holiday. She wrote to governors, a series of presidents, and published countless editorials.
Finally, in 1863, Abraham Lincoln proclaimed Thanksgiving Day a national holiday to be celebrated on the final Thursday in November.
But long before mounting her successful campaign, Sarah Hale imagined in detail how Thanksgiving should be celebrated in America. She did that in her novel called - wait for it - Northwood.
Published in 1827, the novel is a story about a family divided between the North and the South. So as it turns out, the link between the "Northwood" our listener asked about is not the town, but this book.
In Northwood, one of the family’s sons is being raised by a wealthy aunt and uncle in the South. He returns to New Hampshire unexpectedly with a British friend in tow on the night before Thanksgiving.
"The first major scene of it is him arriving and Thanksgiving taking place," Sandy says.
The fictional family then heads to church, leaving their teenage daughter at home to supervise production of the Thanksgiving feast.
"So they had roast turkey with savory stuffing and broth, flanked on either side of the turkey is a leg of pork and a loin of mutton, innumerable plates of gravy and vegetables, a goose and a pair of ducklings," Sandy said, "It keeps going…"
She's right. The book also describes a huge plum pudding, custard, and plenty of pies, with pumpkin pie “occupying the most distinguished niche.”
"And to drink they had currant wine, cider and ginger beer," Sandy added, "All made by themselves."
Want to read Northwood? Scroll down to the bottom of this post for a scroll-able version of the novel.
So what’s the message behind this fastidiously detailed meal prepared by a Northern family and shared with Southern relatives and a Brit?
"I think this meal, this over abundant meal, is really an advertisement for the North," Sandy said, "As opposed to the South where they have servants or slaves to do all this here in the North we do this all ourselves."
And although the North comes out smelling like roses in this tale, Sarah’s ultimate goal was national reconciliation.
"And then [Sarah] says: Everything that contributes to bind us in one vast empire together. To quicken the sympathy that makes us feel from the icy North to the sunny South, that we are one family. Each a member of a great and free nation, not merely the unit of a remote locality, is worthy of being cherished."
So long before talk of “healing the nation” was thrown around, Sarah Hale was on it.
It's important to know, though, that she was also a woman of her time. Sarah wasn't an abolitionist, in fact, she had some pretty naïve views on the institution of slavery, viewing it as something that was destroying the spirit of white men in the South.
Her ideas weren't uncommon for the time, but Sarah was unconventional in other ways. Her husband, David Hale, died two months after the birth of their fifth child. And she’s been judged pretty harshly for how she did - or didn’t - parent her children.
"Perspective, let’s remember historic perspective," Mary Lou explained. "She pretty much farmed her children out to relative and boarding schools."
And Sarah was Victorian in other ways, too...she wouldn’t even speak in public.
But she did write. A lot.
So, was the Mother of Thanksgiving a feminist?
The answer the Hale Dream Team gave us is mixed. After all, it was a totally different world back then.
But imagine being a single mother in the early 19th Century, writing a novel with your infant son in your arms, and then choosing to leave your hometown and everything you know to move to Boston...and work.
Sarah Hale’s neighbors were scandalized by that decision, long before “women’s rights” was a thing – not to mention feminism.
"She had the strength, the nerve, to go and follow her inner-calling if you may against society," Mary Lou said. "So is that feminism? Believing that I am a woman, I can do this job that only men have done. So in that way, she was a feminist."
It's hard not to wonder what Sarah Hale would think of generations of women freaking out over lumpy gravy, dry turkey, and their inability to breeze through Thanksgiving like Martha Stewart.
And what would she think of today's America, which is still arguing over the symbols and causes of the Civil War? What would her appeal be in 2017?
"It's really easy," Sandy said. "She would be talking about making your home a welcoming peaceful place separate from the chaos of the world around you."
It's pretty amazing to discover such an important piece of American culture has a hidden history in a small New Hampshire town.
If not for not for one opinionated, patriotic woman who seemingly never stopped writing, we might not be making our way over the river and through airports and toll booths to sit down together on the same November day in order to break bread and be grateful.
Do you have a question about New Hampshire or some part of your Granite State community or experiences? Click here to submit it at our Only in New Hampshire project page, and we might answer it in a future story.
Read Northwood, courtesy Google Books: