Sunday, November 30, 2008

The Great Pierce Barbecue of 1852

The occasion of Franklin Pierce's 204th birthday on November 23, 2008 prompted me to take to the Misinformation Superhighway, otherwise known as the internet, to see what new facts or fallacies I might learn about our obscure yet intriguing fourteenth President. A search on his name led me to the Voir Dire Blog, which regularly features "This Day in Presidential History" articles. The entry for the 23rd included the following about the "Pierce Barbecue Pit" in Hillborough, NH, Pierce's hometown:
Located just beyond the famed Kemps Truck “museums” (open exhibit, and can be found on River Street, the first right). The remains of this stone pit were used for Benjamin Pierce’s annual barbecue, and to stage a huge celebration to send Franklin off to Washington.
Clicking a link to the source of the quote, I found that these words were from a pdf file, "The Franklin Pierce Highway: NH 9," published by the Franklin Pierce Bicentennial Web Site. This brief, ambiguous, poorly-written paragraph left me with more questions than answers. What is the meaning of "open exhibit, and can be found on River Street, the first right?" Did Franklin's father Benjamin really have an annual barbecue? Or did some other Benjamin Pierce have an annual barbecue in the remains of the stone pit? Was there really a huge celebration to send Franklin off to Washington? Which time--when he went to Washington as a Congressman, a Senator, or President? He left New Hampshire for Washington in Febuary 1853 to prepare for his March inauguration, and it seems unlikely that a barbecue would be a popular event in the dead of a New England Winter.

My first task was to find out about the Kemp Truck Museum. I had the great good fortune, via Google, of finding Steve Davidson's blog, Crotchety Old Fan. The main focus of Steve's blog is science fiction, but he happened to write about a collection of antique radios and televisions in his hometown of Hillborough, NH, and at the end of the article he also mentioned a Linn van parked at the Kemp Truck Museum, which, Steve stated, was about two blocks from his house. Incredible!

I promptly emailed Steve to see if he would take a picture of the barbecue site for me. He was very accommodating and agreed to take pictures, although he had never seen the remains of the barbecue. More Googling on my part ensued. I was able to find a panoramic map of Hillsborough in 1884. The final item (circled in red below) in a list of 28 local features on the map was "Old Oven Built for Pierce Barbecue 1852." Bingo!

I was also able to locate, at Google Books, a digital copy of The History of Hillsborough, New Hampshire, 1735-1921, Vol. 1, by George Waldo Browne. There I found not only a description of the barbecue, but a picture of the oven, which at some point between the 1852 event and the publication of the book in 1921 had been restored by the local chapter of the DAR.

Further investigation revealed that the barbecue was not held to celebrate Franklin Pierce's departure for Washington, but was a campaign rally held on August 19, 1852. As many as 25,000 people attended the event, although opposition newspapers estimated the crowd at 10 to 12 thousand. A stage 60 by 120 feet and five feet high was built for the numerous speakers who appeared, a large tent was erected, and arrangements were made to provide the attendees with plenty of food and drink. Three thousand pounds of bread were ordered to feed the crowd. At least one, and possibly more, cattle were slaughtered to be cooked in the oven, which, according to the panoramic map description, was specially constructed for the event, and according to one biography of Pierce, was not used again. I could find no documentation that Benjamin Pierce had anything to do with the construction or use of the oven.

As promised, armed with the map, Steve was able to locate the Old Oven, on the banks of the Contoocook River, right next to the Kemp Truck Museum.

Photo Credit: Steve Davidson

The moral of our story: The internet is an uncontrolled mishmash of misinformation, but also a tool for discovery of the truth. Use it wisely, and you will be rewarded.

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