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Historic Daniel Webster Courthouse Has Served Plymouth Over The Years

Christine Randall - August 19, 2013





Courthouse

The ‘Daniel Webster Courthouse’ in Plymouth.

You might not think that Daniel Webster — famed orator, lawyer, statesman, secretary of state, and US senator in the early 19th century — had ever met with anything but success in his public career, so you might be surprised to learn that he actually lost his one of his first cases as a defense attorney in a small courtroom in Plymouth in 1806.

According to information provided by the Plymouth Historical Society, Webster, who was born in Salisbury (now Franklin) in 1782, attended Dartmouth College, and was later admitted to the Bar in Boston in 1805, argued his first cases at the superior court in Hopkinton, where his father was the sitting judge. In 1806, Webster was assigned to help defend a man named Burnham who was accused of murdering two men while jailed at the Grafton County Jail. The case was tried in Plymouth which, at the time, was home to one of the two Grafton County courthouses that had been built in 1774 (the other was located in Haverhill).

Webster lost the case and an informational display at the Plymouth Historical Society quotes Webster’s account of the case: “Burnham had no witnesses. He could not bring good character to his aid, nor could we urge the plea of insanity on his behalf. … I made my first and only solitary argument of my whole life against capital punishment; and the proper time for a lawyer to urge this defense is when he is young and has no matters of fact or law upon which he can found a better defense.”

Burnham was found guilty and he was hanged in Haverhill. To this day, the building in Plymouth is still known locally as the “The Daniel Webster Courthouse.”

At the time of Webster’s defense of this case, the building housing the courthouse was located on the corner of Pleasant and Russell streets; but, when a new courthouse was built in Plymouth in 1823, the original courthouse was sold and it was moved to a new location on South Main Street where it became a wheelwright shop. According to the historical society, over the course of several years, the building fell into disrepair before being purchased by Henry W. Blair, a lawyer from Campton who went on to serve the public as a senator on both the state and national levels. Blair also is credited with being instrumental in having the “Normal School” (now Plymouth State University) located in Plymouth.

Blair relocated the former courthouse to its present location on Court Street, behind the town hall, where he had it restored before donating the building to the Young Ladies Library Association in 1876 for use as a library.

In 1982, the building was added to the National Historic Register and, according to the historical society, it is the oldest building in the State of New Hampshire that was specifically built for use as a courthouse.

The small, one-room building served as the Plymouth Town Library until 1991 when it became the home of the Plymouth Historical Society. The building now is known as the Plymouth Historical Museum and Memory House and, according to Historical Society President Lisa Lundari, the shift from a library to the historical society museum was a natural progression, as the library had housed many of the town’s old newspapers, documents, and memorabilia for many years.

The museum is open from May through November on Saturdays from 10 a.m. until 2 p.m,

I paid a visit on a hot July morning. The building is small but full of interesting informational displays, books, furniture, pottery, glass, wooden artifacts, photographs, vintage clothing, and memorabilia.

Two of the more interesting informational displays concern two businesses that played an important part in Plymouth’s economic history, the Draper and Maynard Sporting Goods Factory and the Kearsarge Peg Mill.

The Draper and Maynard Factory made sporting goods and equipment, such as padded baseball gloves, boxing gloves, footballs, basketballs, baseballs, and sports clothing. According to the display, the company originally started out as a glove shop, located in Glove Hollow, a place about half-way between Plymouth and Ashland on present-day Route 3. The shop relocated to Ashland in 1881 as the Draper and Maynard Company and, after a period of growth, relocated a third time, to Plymouth, in 1900.

According to a sign outside the present-day D&M building, the Draper & Maynard Company was known for being among the world’s largest manufacturers of sporting goods and equipment and it is credited with being the first manufacturer of padded baseball gloves and mitts.

Information from the Museum of New Hampshire History states that, at its peak in the 1920s, the company claimed that more than 90 percent of major league baseball players used Draper-Maynard gloves.

The original building burned down in 1911 and was replaced by the current, four-story building. It was actively used for manufacturing until 1992 when it was acquired and renovated by Plymouth State University for office and classroom space, as well as housing the Karl Drerup Art Gallery.

The Kearsarge Peg Mill, owned by Edwin J. Foster, was built in 1898, and it manufactured pegs used to make shoes. At its heyday, the mill produced 300 bushels of pegs per day. The mill later produced bobbins but, after World War I, the factory was sold to the Draper & Maynard Company and it became an extension of the sporting goods manufacturer.

In 1936, the building was sold to the United Shoe Manufacturing Company which manufactured paint stirrers, tongue depressors, and wooden spoons until the 1990s. In 2002, restaurateur Alex Ray bought the closed factory and renovated it into the Common Man Inn and Spa which also features a restaurant called “Foster’s Boiler Room.” Alex kept as much of the old factory building intact as possible (approximately 90 percent, according to the Common Man website), and photographs of the former peg mill are displayed on walls throughout the inn and restaurant.

Police memorabilia

Police artifacts and memorabilia.

Another interesting exhibit at the Plymouth Historical Society Museum which caught my eye (maybe because my husband is involved in law enforcement) was a display of vintage police equipment, including badges, shields, patches, a helmet, and some nasty-looking handcuffs that looked more like iron pinchers. I don’t think they were designed with comfort in mind!

On one wall of the museum, I admired interesting aerial drawings and photographs depicting the changes to the town over the course of several decades, the earliest being a drawing from 1856. At a small, adjacent area near the front door, there are various items for sale, including copies of Eva Speare’s history, Twenty Decades in Plymouth, first published in 1963. According to Lisa Lundari, the historical society is working on a follow-up companion book, Five More Decades in Plymouth, which also will be available for sale at the museum following its publication. Pre-orders are available as well by contacting the historical society.

Building upon the interest in Plymouth’s history generated this year by the town’s 250th anniversary celebration, Lisa hopes to attract more volunteers to help with the historical society’s projects. “We’re working on creating an army of baby boomers to help run historical society projects,” said Lisa. “Baby-boomers have the time, the skills, and the abilities to help, as well as the interest in Plymouth’s history.”

Membership in the Plymouth Historical Society is open to everyone, with lifetime memberships also available. The society also accepts donations of items relevant to Plymouth’s history, including pictures, personal memorabilia, collections, and vintage clothing.

The museum is located on Court Street (a dead-end street) in downtown Plymouth, just behind the Plymouth Town Hall. For more information about the Plymouth Historical Society and Museum, call 603-536-2337, or visit www.plymouthnh-historicalsociety.org

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