"Driving Backwards": Telling Gilmanton's Story Beyond "Peyton Place"

Oct 10, 2014

Gilmanton, New Hampshire was once the most famous – or, if you prefer, notorious - small town in America, thanks to the 1950 Grace Metalious novel Peyton Place.

But writer Jessica Lander says the not-so-scandalous – and therefore less explored – stories of Gilmanton have plenty to offer as well. Lander, who has spent summers in Gilmanton since childhood, explores the town’s history and culture in her book Driving Backwards.

One of the funniest moments in the book is when you go to the library in Gilmanton Iron Works and Peyton Place is not on the shelves (though the library keeps a copy behind a desk). Is there something we can read into that,  given how influential that book was in introducing Gilmanton to the rest of the country?

Absolutely. Grace Metalious wrote Peyton Place in 1950; she was living in Gilmanton. She took a couple true stories, but a lot of gossip and a lot of fiction. When she presented it to the world, the saw it as fact. I think they saw her as misrepresenting the town, because she was taking gossip from lots of different towns, and putting it all together, and everyone saw this as the epitome of what is backwards about small-town America – the racy, scandalous stories that didn’t really exist.

What you actually find are different groups – people who have been doing farming as a living; people who have been doing farming, if not quite a hobby, then also not quite as a living; and people who are coming up in the summers or for part of the year. Does that change the community when people are part of the traditional lifestyle of Gilmanton, but are doing it for slightly different reasons?

Gilmanton is filled with hardworking people from all over. There are people who have been there for generations – the Price farmers have a six generation cow farm. The Geddes farm is three generations. And then you have people who’ve come in more recently. Even the people who come up in the summers – they’re all integrated. It’s a tiny town, 3,000-4,000 people.

One of the people you feature in the book is David Bickford, who was nearly 100 years old as the book begins. He’d lived in town nearly his whole life and had served in just about every position. As we become more mobile, I wonder how many more David Bickfords we’re going to see in small towns like Gilmanton going forward?

The first day we came to Gilmanton, David and Lizzie brought us over a blueberry pie. And David started telling us stories – he could remember things from 80 years ago and call them to life. It was from him that I first became curious about this town and really trying to record some of the people and histories in this town, and learning how important it was to appreciate the stories of the everyday people. These aren’t the people you’re going to see on the front page of the New York Times. But I think it’s important to listen and to ask questions about the person you buy goat cheese from, or the person you buy your fruits and vegetables from. They have incredibly rich stories to tell.

Does it become trickier to convince people to take the time to listen to those stories, when they may say, five years from now I may live in a different part of the country, much less a different town in New Hampshire?
I think people want community, even if they’re transient and they’re going to move in five years. There’s something about being in a place and making connections. Gilmanton was once one of the most famous small towns, and it does have a notorious history as the home of Grace Metalious, or the childhood home of Herman Webster Mudgett, America’s first serial killer who was made famous in The Devil In The White City,

But I think it really comes back to the stories that are present today, that are going to continue forward. I feel like I now need to go search out more stories, that I’ve only scratched the surface.