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Concord Monitor

July 28, 1997
Franklin, New Hampshire
by Alan Zibel, Concord Monitor Staff

Putting new life into a famous mans birthplace

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When people visit the Daniel Webster Birthplace these days, they're often thinking of the wrong guy.

"Most people that come here think that it's Noah Webster," said Pat McDonald, the state ranger who works at the site, referring to the creator of Webster's Dictionary.

"They say, 'Where's the dictionary?'," she said.

A group of history buffs think it's about time Webster, who was born in 1782 in a two-room frame house in what's now Franklin, gets his due. After all, he was a U.S. Senator and Secretary of State under three presidents.

That's part of the reason why Sharon Burnston of Epsom and Rachel Lehr of Henniker were sitting outside Webster's birthplace yesterday afternoon.

At the Daniel Webster birthplace, Anna Muesler of Henniker learns to spin flax into thread from her mother, Rachel Lehr. Photo by STEVE MACAULEY, for the Monitor.

Burnston and Lehr are organizing a project that aims to transform the Webster house from a museum-like display to a replica of life in the early days of the United States.

In doing so, they hope to breathe a little life into the memory of old Daniel, whose birthplace used to draw a lot more visitors than it does now.

Thousands of people came to visit Webster's birthplace after it was moved in 1909 from a neighboring farmhouse to it's original site on a hill by Punch Brook. On Sept. 2, 1913, "Mr. and Mrs. Thos. A. Edison" signed the guest book of the great man's home.

But now, people see his name when they're driving on the Daniel Webster Highway through Nashua or Meredith or Manchester and hardly anywhere else.

"His popularity has sunk over the past 100 years," Burnston said. "I don't know why nobody seems to remember him. It's a mystery to me."

Outside the tiny brown house on North Road, Burnston and Lehr were dressed in hand-sewn recreations of 200-year-old garb. They spun thread and watched their daughters throw a wooden hoop with two sticks - an old-fashioned game called 'graces.'

The theory behind such 'living history' projects is that by recreating the conditions of the past, historians will learn things they never expected to find out.

Also, it is much easier to teach children about the past in living form, as opposed to a dry textbook.

Burnston and Lehr see the Webster home as an excellent place to learn about the average life of a family of the 1780's.

Eight children lived in the house, which has two rooms plus an attic.

When Webster's father Ebenezer settled on a 225-acre tract of land in the 1760's, what's now Franklin was on the northern frontier of the colony. Daniel Webster was the ninth of Ebenezer's 10 children, from two wives. His second wife, Abigail, was 45 when Daniel was born.

Eight children survived into adulthood. When Webster was 2, the family moved to what's now the Sisters of the Holy Cross convent on Route 3.

Webster was a sickly boy and was sent to Phillips Academy in Exeter because he couldn't do a lot of manual labor. He went to Dartmouth College and taught for a year at Maine's private school to pay for a brother's college education.

Adah Murray, 9, and Anna Mueser, 11, play with pewter jacks and
a wooden ball yesterday. Photo by STEVE MACAULEY, for the Monitor.

"Living history gets into your blood," Burnston, who used to work at Colonial Pennsylvania, a working colonial farm in Edgemont, Penn.

"It's a little like time travel and it's a little like visiting another country."

"The past is another country," she said. "It's not just your average American wearing funny clothes."

For instance, in the time of Daniel Webster's childhood, boys and girls both wore petticoats until about age 3.

It would have been too expensive for families to have separate clothes for boys and girls.

The children of 200 years ago, Burnston said, were taught to fear God and fear their father's in a similar fashion.

With the backing of the Franklin Historical Society, the state division of parks and recreation, Burnston and Lehr have brought hand-made replicas of 200-year-old furniture and silverware to the Webster home. They've raised $5,000 for the cause.

Burnston plans to hand-sew sheets for the bed this winter.

Wearing a shortgown, a petticoat and a shirt called a 'shift' with her initials embroidered below her neck, Burnston's daughter, Adah Murray, 9, enjoyed playing the role.

"The clothes are just as comfortable," she said.

However, the old-fashioned custom never to display your elbows was a bit frustrating, she said.

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