An Historic Day in Portsmouth at the Historical Society, John Paul Jones House and Strawbery Banke

View all the photos here.

By GSA Barbara Bailey (Aviation Museum of NH Class of 2023) with input from GSA Joan Gonser (Hampton Area Chamber / NH Parks Class of 2022)

On Wednesday, July 12th a group of about 18 GSA’s gathered in Portsmouth for an opportunity to learn about the city’s history.  Our first stop was the Portsmouth Historical Society on Middle Street.  We were greeted with coffee and pastries and enjoyed some social time before beginning our tour led by Program and Volunteer Coordinator Sarah Robbitts-Terry.

The Historical Society is an excellent first-stop choice when visiting the city.  They offer daily walking tours as well as scheduled specialty tours such as a Woman’s Tour, an LBGTQ history tour, and a George Washington tour.  These can be pre-booked online.  They also house curated exhibits and are now featuring “A Sense of Place,” which is a companion exhibition for the new A History of Portsmouth NH in 101 Objects book. This exhibit is part of the Portsmouth 400th Anniversary celebration and features an eclectic collection of objects dating from 1623 to the present that has been gathered and arranged to represent Portsmouth’s growth and change.  Additional exhibits featured photographs and information about the growth of Portsmouth and restoration and preservation of historic buildings and a set of authentic dioramas of the history of Portsmouth by “The Museum of Dumb Guy Stuff.”

Another interesting exhibit item was about the Portsmouth Volunteer Fire Department with a ribbon that stated their motto, “We’ll Try” before Portsmouth changed their zoning to require brick buildings instead of wood.  The display also had a branding iron for branding furniture that might be displaced during a fire and a bag for saving the owner’s silverware and other valuables.

On a large wall, you couldn’t miss their quilt project display. During Covid, they asked residents and businesses to submit a representative square to include in the finished quilts. It was very impressive.

Upstairs was an exhibition called “Reinventing Portsmouth.”

As an extra bonus, The Seacoast African American Cultural Center is located within the Historical Society building.  Here we were treated to a colorful and provocative art exhibit as well as many fascinating sketches by Richard Haynes, Jr and artifacts. 

Finally, the Historical Society features a gift shop with local merchandise and has maps pamphlets, and brochures for local attractions.  The staff is available to answer questions and to help guests plan their visit to Portsmouth. We were also advised not to miss their annual Gingerbread House Exhibit and competition held in November & December.

Directly across the street from and also operated by the Historical Society is the John Paul Jones House.  Although the house was never owned by Jones, he is said to have boarded there in 1777.  The house was built in 1758 and is a registered national historic landmark.  Inside you will find period antiques, portraits, and John Paul Jones memorabilia, including the original Serapis flag designed by his crew after capturing the British ship of the same name.

The John Paul Jones House also has an extensive exhibit of information and memorabilia from the Portsmouth Peace Treaty of 1905 on the upper floor.  This treaty was negotiated by Theodore Roosevelt to peacefully end the Russo-Japanese War.  A replica of Theodore Roosevelt’s 1906 Nobel Peace Prize is among the items on display which was earned because of the local citizen’s efforts to keep all the parties at the negotiating table by inviting them to numerous activities and dinners.

From here the group traveled to Strawberry Bank Museum where some took advantage of the shaded picnic table for lunch and others grabbed a bite at the Museum’s Liberty Fare Restaurant.  We were then greeted by Education Coordinator Bethany Allen for a tour of the museum.  Despite the heat, she did her best to keep us in the shade!  Bethany had a wealth of information about the property.  Did you know that the large green lawn of Strawberry Bank was once filled with water and a thriving seaport?   

Strawberry Bank preserves the history of the original Puddle Dock neighborhood, which began in the 1600s and continued to become home to a variety of immigrants throughout time.  The area was scheduled for demolition in the 1950s but was saved when Strawberry Bank was incorporated as a museum.  The 10-acre site features 30 buildings spanning 4 centuries.  Buildings are in various states of repair but many are open for public tour.  Each building tells a unique story of the families that inhabited it. Each is filled with period artifacts such as furniture, portraits, and household goods.  Some of the houses are staffed with informational guides, but even more delightful are the houses that feature costumed role players who are there to answer your questions about “their” home!  There are period crafts people on hand to demonstrate baking, weaving, and other period crafts.  There are beautiful gardens throughout the property. 

Two of the most impressive houses we visited were the Shapiro and Walsh homes.  The Shapiro House was uniquely a single-family, single-owner home from 1909 through 1928 so many of the original possessions remained.  The Walsh House was purchased by Captain Keyran Walsh in 1796.  Where handling the artifacts in the other properties is discouraged, the Walsh house is hands-on!  You are invited to open draws, try out the furniture, and read letters and books to get a better understanding of the family’s daily life and the challenges of the time.

In addition to the ongoing displays, Strawberry Banke hosts an ongoing and substantial list of special events including weekly concerts, and educational, family, and seasonal festivals, such as the upcoming Vintage and Vine event in September.  They are well known for their holiday candlelight stroll.  GSAs are welcome to volunteer at most of these events.

At the end of the day, we were “turned loose” to continue to explore the property on our own.  Although it was exceptionally hot, most of us took advantage of this amazing opportunity and spent some time in their new café, Liberty Fare, for cool drinks, sandwiches, and ice cream.  Many thanks to the Portsmouth Historical Society and Strawberry Banke Museum for this informative day!

Feedback from GSAs:

I had no idea how much there is to see and do at the Portsmouth Historical Society.  Thank you for the learning opportunity you put together for the Granite State Ambassadors!  Breakfast was a lovely treat, and Sarah a perfect guide.  The gift shop dog is such a happy welcoming mascot.  I look forward to recommending the galleries and John Paul Jones House as rainy-day activities, and the walking tours when the rain lets up. ~Dawn

I am a regular volunteer at the NH State House and find that many visitors follow a pattern of visiting Portsmouth on their way to Maine after visiting Concord. Although I have been to Strawbery Banke in the past many times on fifth-grade field trips, it is different each time I visit. I especially enjoyed the exhibit where objects can be touched and I think families would too. ~Diane

I have now been to Strawbery Banke twice with the GSAs and it only becomes more interesting and enjoyable with each trip.  I especially enjoyed the role players and it appeared that your paying visitors found them equally as authentic, since they were visiting with them before and after our group sifted through the buildings. ~Pat

Our guide at the Portsmouth Historical Society clearly knew the information and loves what she does. Sarah was organized and easy to understand as well as entertaining. I enjoyed hearing the truths behind the myths as well as the motto “We’ll Try”. I had never seen a porcelain dish repaired with staples. I will certainly share the treasures that the Historical Society has to offer when serving as a Granite State Ambassador. ~Norma

The historical aspects of Strawberry Banke were very interesting! I was particularly excited to visit and learn about the Shapiro House.  I loved the role players and the idea of craft demonstrations. After the tour we visited the house where hearth-baking was being demonstrated and even though the stove was not on, learned a great deal.
Aside from the historical aspects of the tour, it was helpful to learn about the many programs and events at Strawberry Banke.  This information will be helpful when making suggestions to visitors to the information booth at Manchester Boston Regional Airport.  ~Barbara