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The 14th president's other white houses

Email|Print| Text size + By Karen Hammond
Travel Arts Syndicate / November 30, 2003

HILLSBOROUGH, N.H. -- Brooks splash beneath arched stone bridges. Gnarled trees cast shadows on an early 19th-century schoolhouse at the old town center. With its Federal houses, manicured gardens, and trees that seem created for swings and tree houses, Hillsborough is the setting for an idyllic childhood. It's the sort of place where a child might grow up to be anything at all -- even president. Years after he left his hometown, Franklin Pierce, the 14th US president, wrote of Hillsborough, ''Here have passed many of the happiest days and months of my life."

Volunteers plan a commemoration of the bicentennial of Pierce's birth next year, focusing on Hillsborough, his birthplace, and Concord, the state capital, where he lived with his wife and children.

By following Pierce's story from Hillsborough to Concord, today's visitor can enjoy a quaint New England village, the pleasures of a vibrant capital city, and a tantalizing glimpse of the life of one of our most enigmatic presidents.

Pierce was born in a log cabin -- the family home was not ready for occupancy on Nov. 23, 1804 -- but he led a life of privilege. The Pierce Homestead in Hillsborough, where the family moved shortly after his birth, is a ''gentleman's" home befitting the Pierces' wealthy status. Spacious enough for the family that eventually numbered 10, its walls are bright with vivid paint, stenciling, and imported French wallpaper. Few of the furnishings are original, but all are typical of the era.

Today Hillsborough nurtures artists, craftspeople, and collectors. Antique shops abound. Aficionados flock to auctions presided over by Hillsborough's Richard Withington.

In a 200-year-old post-and-beam barn, Jon Gibson carries on a tradition begun in 1966 by his father, Raymond. Visitors are welcome to watch as Gibson turns out his internationally known reproduction candlesticks, porringers, bowls, and other items using 18th-century lathes and antique tools.

Gibson Pewter is located in the bucolic old center of Hillsborough, which probably looks much as it did in Pierce's time. His election to the Legislature in 1828 launched a career that would take him to Congress, en route to the White House.

The road to the presidency was marred by unhappiness and tragedy, however. His shy wife, Jane Means Appleton, is said to have disliked life in Washington, and the couple returned to Concord after Pierce served four years in the Senate. He became a respected lawyer and a leading force in the state Democratic Party.

The Pierces lost their first child, Franklin Jr., three days after his birth in 1836, and their second, Franky, in 1843 at age 4. In 1852, when his name was raised as a dark horse candidate at the deadlocked Democratic Convention, Pierce accepted the nomination and ultimately won the election. Two months before the inauguration, a train crash killed 11-year-old Benny, the last of their three children. A devastated Jane Pierce did not attend the inauguration and was so rarely seen afterward that she was called ''the shadow of the White House."

The Pierce Manse in Concord, where the family lived from 1842 to 1848, was moved from its original site in 1971. Many of the furnishings are original to the house or belonged to other members of the Pierce family. In addition, the Manse displays some items from the family's White House years. Among the most poignant memorabilia is a touching photo of Franky, who died here of typhus.

With the country in turmoil over the slavery issue, there was little incentive for Pierce to run for a second term. The Pierces left for Europe as soon as he was out of office. The man who had been the hero of New Hampshire would not return home for four years. He died in 1869 and is buried in Concord's Old North Cemetery.

Concord today is a lively city of about 40,000 people. Its Museum of New Hampshire History highlights key events in the state's evolution. The museum houses an original Concord coach, the locally-built stagecoaches that helped open up the West. Visitors can also climb a re-created fire tower, similar to those used to spot forest fires, for a 360-degree view of the city.

Just outside town center, is the Christa McAuliffe Planetarium, which honors the local educator chosen to be the first teacher in space. She died in the 1986 crash of the shuttle Challenger. In the planetarium's 92-seat domed theater, computer-generated effects, video displays, and music help visitors ''fly through the stars." Among many other activities, the planetarium hosts visits and presentations by space pioneers such as retired NASA engineer John Houbolt, who played a key role in the technology that landed the first man on the moon.

Just north of Concord is the Canterbury Shaker Village founded in 1792. Outsiders called them ''Shaking Quakers" because of the ecstatic dancing that often accompanied their worship. (They called themselves the United Society of Believers.) The last of the Canterbury Shakers, Sister Ethel Hudson, died in 1992.

As the number of Canterbury Shakers began to decline in the 1940s, they often simply locked the doors to buildings they no longer needed. The village is now a museum of 25 beautifully preserved structures (dwellings, barns, a meetinghouse, and workshops) situated amid 694 acres of organic gardens, fields, forests, and ponds. It offers a realistic look into the lifestyle of members of this celibate, utopian religion.

As a New Hampshire lawyer, Pierce fought, at his own expense, a movement to ban the Shakers from the state. Ironically, the Shakers' influence is still omnipresent, through their beautiful and much imitated furniture and many inventions such as the flat broom, the clothespin, and the circular saw, while the future president who took up their cause has been all but forgotten.

Karen Hammond, a former journalism professor at SUNY- Binghamton, lives in Maine.

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