American Breweriana Journal November/December 2013
“Tapping Portsmouth” Exhibit at Strawberry Banke Museum
By Rich Wagner ABA 2360
Museums and historical societies are finding out that beer-themed events generate a tremendous response. I reported on three such exhibits over the past five years: “Beer and Pretzels Berks County Style” (ABJ May/June 2008) in Reading, “Historic Bethlehem Rolls Out the Barrel (ABJ May/June 2010), and most recently “Craft Brewing Exhibit at the Philadelphia History Museum” (ABJ January/February 2013). Invariably the directors and curators say that, “We’ve never had such a huge turnout,” or “This is the most popular exhibit we’ve ever had.” There’s something about beer and its history that people find nostalgic, evoking memories from “the good old days.” And the current popularity of craft beer only enhances the interest in these events. Of course it doesn’t hurt that the sponsoring organizations frequently serve beer at the openings of the exhibits! More often than not, breweriana collectors have artifacts that bring these exhibits to life, with the added bonus that they get to display their breweriana and bask in the positive feedback they receive.
Strawberry Banke Museum in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, encompasses several blocks in a section of town that had fallen into disrepair and disrepute. It was miraculously preserved by movers and shakers of the community, and today the buildings comprise a living history museum that shows how buildings were constructed and how people lived for over three centuries. The buildings include a tavern dating back to the 1760s, a general store, carpenter shop, a Victorian mansion with gardens and much more. They have a working blacksmith and cooper who demonstrate their crafts and a full schedule of events to get people involved.
Several years ago, in conjunction with New Hampshire Public Television, they began hosting an annual “Passport” event featuring local craft brewers and restaurants to promote beer and food pairings. Participants stroll through the streets, taking in history as they make their way from table to table, which enhances the experience, making it truly unique and much more than just another beer festival. Check out NHTV’s Flickr set for pics: http://www.flickr.com/photos/nhptv/sets/72157635591011456/
This year, Strawberry Banke Musem decided to install an exhibit that celebrates their community’s brewing heritage, aptly named “Tapping Portsmouth.” Elizabeth Farish, curator of the museum, solicited ideas from the Philadelphia History Museum about their recent exhibit, and they put her in touch with me. I related some of my experiences and offered suggestions. They even hired me to do a colonial brewing demonstration as part of their Passport event this fall.
On the day following the Passport event I set out to take in everything the museum had to offer. Naturally I was anxious to see the beer exhibit which turned out to be outstanding. Most of the breweriana on display was from the collection of Rus Hammer (ABA 4321), featuring lithographs, bottles, barrels and other items. Local craft brewers provided items from their breweries, and some antique collectors added drinking vessels and pitchers to the mix.
I called Rus to congratulate him on helping with the success of the exhibit and see if he had anything to add to my article. He told me that a number of buildings from the Frank Jones brewery complex have been adapted mixed use and the the Eldredge brewery has been converted to office space. And the warehouse of the old Portsmouth Brewing Co. has been turned into the Ale House Hotel and a community theater. He has operated the Rusty Hammer bar and restaurant in town for 35 years and has an impressive website devoted to Portsmouth brewing history (http://www.rustycans.com/HISTORY/jones.html).
For those interested in learning more check out Glenn A. Knoblock's Brewing in New Hampshire (Arcadia Publishing 2004) and New England Breweriana by Gary Cushman, Rus Hammer, Dave Lang, Hugh Mcmurty and Ken Ostrow (Schiffer Publishing Ltd. 2001).