Book review: ‘Memories of a Native Son’

Wednesday, July 12, 2017 8:32PM

A quick trivia question: What do the old-time Peterborough natives call Vale Street before a sign went up calling it Vale Street? Why am I interested in traditional street names used in old New Hampshire, communities before many street signs went up? Philip R. Harvey brought this to mind in his book “Memories of a Native Son.” Harvey was born in an old tenement house on Water Street, now known as River Street, in Hillsborough, New Hampshire.

Although Harvey was not born until 1922, he is still of a generation that remembers rural New Hampshire before many non-natives arrived and actually needed those street signs to get around. I note the year of 1922, simply because my father was born in Peterborough, New Hampshire, in 1905, and his memories were of even an earlier time, also without street signs. My dad spent many hours telling me about the New Hampshire, of his childhood, and it was great to compare his memories to Harvey’s.

Harvey, by the way, began writing his memoir while working for Educational Testing Service, in Princeton, New Jersey. You see, by 1963 Harvey, and his colleagues at ETS noted that the College Board Scholastic Aptitude Test scores had started to plummet. This decrease was so dramatic that studies were undertaken to determine a cause, or causes for the decline and what the differences were between the children of his generation and those in the 1960s and beyond.

Were there differences? Of course. For one, Harvey grew up in a three-story tenement house, where his family lived during the devastating years of the depression. I would suggest that this was, therefore, a vertical neighborhood rather than a traditional horizontal neighborhood, but a neighborhood none the less. In fact, neighbors, whether horizontally or vertically located, figured heavily in the memories of both Harvey and my dad. Because in those days neighbors figured heavily in the upbringing of children. These children in the neighborhood all played together - in the streets, in the neighborhoods, and wherever else they were allowed to roam. Children of those earlier generations were quite feral in comparison to the post-WWII baby-boomers, and those generations coming after, who experienced a much more regulated, success-scheduled life, revolving around lessons, television, and an ever-increasing sense of entitlement.

Instead of entitlement, Harvey identifies the basement of that tenement with much of the reason for the future success of his siblings as well as his own. This is because his oldest brother, Donald, started a shop-laboratory in the basement. Donald, and eventually all the Harvey children, experimented with chemicals, mechanics, electricity, and even zinc and copper plating! There seemed to be no end to their adventures in inventing – which produced curious minds that were open to learning. Of course, coupled with the basement lab are the daily exciting prospects of neighborhood adventures. A cider mill, a saw mill, a river, a garage to repair cars, trains coming and going, a woolen mill producing miles of cloth, and neighbors of one occupation or another (or several) who all had time for children. It used to be that kids hung around with interesting adults in the community. Children learned by observing, by listening, and sometimes if they were really lucky – by doing. There was a complexity to this neighborhood society that gave the kids their unique advantages.

The result of these advantages, in Harvey’s opinion, is one of the major reasons he and all of his siblings, as well as the other children in the tenement and the neighborhood, educationally out-stripped children from more affluent circumstances. This is certainly an interesting hypothesis and one worth pursuing - because while the mixed industrial-residential neighborhood is frequently a thing of the past, and while unscheduled time for children is now frowned upon by many, the concept of free-range children out on adventures of discovery can certainly be considered for future generations.

The one big difference in my opinion is that Harvey’s environment was basically safe. Yes, the kids probably could have blown up the basement lab, they could have drowned in the river, or they could have been run over by a train. Tragedies did occur – and Harvey does discuss them. The environment was not without peril, certainly. But many adults were still watching, supervising, and parenting the children. It took a village – but the Harvey kids did extremely well and this credit goes to everyone involved in their upbringing.

I really liked reading this book. It was a delight to read of a simpler time, and in many respects similar to my early days in Peterborough – except by my time most of those street signs were present. Harvey has a great memory and his reminiscences, and the photographs he included of early Hillsborough, are certainly fun reading.

And my local trivia question: Creamery Hill. I will always call it Creamery Hill because as a child that is the name I learned from my dad. That is also the name I taught my daughter. And speaking of some other childhood memories, when I walk on MacDowell Road I still pass the old Seccombe place, although I believe two of the Seccombe children were lost on the Lusitania in 1915 and the surviving sisters have not lived in the house for well over half a century. My memories of the house, however, include Mrs. Cummings, widow of our Transcript’s late owner Dane Cummings, telling me great stories of taking tea with the Seccombe “girls” in their later years. I still call our local grocery store the A&P, and Dyer Drugs will always be my medicine dispensary of choice. Fortunately, Steele’s will continue to be Steele’s, however the location has changed since my childhood. Memories are important. They ground us to our environment, allow us the opportunity to reminisce about happy events in our lives, and as we get older let us reflect on how those events and environments have shaped us. I might have to write my own memoir some day!

Elaine Holden is host of The Holding Hour on WSMN 1590 radio, New Hampshire Director of the National Right to Read Foundation, Director of The Reading Foundation, Senior Lecturer Rivier University Graduate Schools of Education and Psychology.