The Hippo


May 31, 2020








One of the American Independence Museum’s educational programs. Photo by Kimberly Davis.

American Independence Festival 

When: Saturday, July 12, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Where: American Independence Museum, 1 Governors Lane, Exeter, NH 
Cost: $10 for adults, $5 for ages 12-18. Children under 12, museum members, and active and retired military and their immediate families get in free.

Different Independence Day
Exeter celebrates the day the Declaration came to NH

By Jake DeSchuiteneer

 July 4, 1776 came and went like any other day for colonists in Exeter, N.H. That day, more than 300 miles away in Philadelphia, a group of men who would go down in history as founding fathers of the United States had ratified the Declaration of Independence, but in New Hampshire, citizens were none the wiser. News travelled much slower in those days, and it wasn’t until July 16, when a copy, or “broadside,” of the document arrived in Exeter and was read aloud to the townspeople, that word of the Declaration reached N.H.

The 24th Annual American Independence Festival, which will be held on Saturday, July 12, at Exeter’s American Independence Museum, will celebrate that mid-July day when the life-altering events of July 4 first became known to N.H. citizens.
“It’s the whole reason that we hold the event not on July 4, but a few weeks later,” said Julie Williams, executive director of the museum. “Exeter and the townspeople did not have anything concrete to look at until July 16th, when [the broadside] arrived here.” 
The Independence Festival will feature a variety of entertainment and activities, but the event’s focal point is the reenactment of John Taylor Gilman’s reading of the Declaration to the townspeople of Exeter. Gilman, who years later would become one of N.H.’s earliest governors, was only 22 years old when he read the broadside aloud. Reading the document was an act of patriotism — and one of treason. 
“This is such a huge deal because at the time there are still people loyal to the king,” Williams said “We have a big presentation when John Taylor Gilman reads the Declaration aloud to the whole crowd.”
According to Williams, the reenactment of Gilman’s reading is a yearly highlight of the event. The reading often elicits strong emotional reactions from festival-goers caught up in the importance of the moment being recreated, she said.
“Actually […] listening to it is riveting. People are enthralled,” she said. “I watch people seriously with tears in their eyes when it’s being read.”
In addition to the Gilman reading, the festival will feature other historical reenactors, including one depicting the famous New Hampshire general, John Stark, and others reenacting Revolution-era military regiments. Other attractions will include the Independence Museum’s historical exhibits, an artisans’ village that will showcase colonial era techniques such as blacksmithing, millinery and coopering, and beer brewed by Portsmouth, N.H.’s Red Hook Brewery served at the museum’s Folsom Tavern. 
Williams said that efforts to increase the authenticity of this year’s festival included incorporating the historical tavern for beer service instead of a tent and doubling the size of the artisans’ village.
“We’re tweaking and testing and trying new and different things,” she said. “We want to make the whole day as cohesive as possible. We really want it to be stepping back in time.”
Making the event an authentic trip back in time is quite a process, one that those at the museum say wouldn’t be possible without the work of the many volunteers who come out to help on the day of the event.
“The festival is a huge undertaking,” said Allison Field, president of the board of governors of the museum. “People don’t realize how much work goes into it. Seriously, we couldn’t do it without the volunteers.”
Field said that the hard work put in by the museum’s staff, the event’s sponsors and the volunteers make for a learning experience more memorable and engaging than anything from a history book.
“It gives everyone attending the festival an opportunity to experience what might have been happening in 1776,” Field said. “As much as we teach American history in the schools, I don’t think people really get the same sense of connection to it as we give them at the festival.”  
As seen in the July 10, 2014 issue of the Hippo.

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