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How States Used Nostalgia to Revive Rural Economies

A collapsing rural economy and what to do about it has been a long-term policy problem. In the 1890s, states combined sentimentality and patriotism to woo young people back to their hometowns in New England and beyond.

A typical Old Home Week celebration postcard sent out to former residents of Attleboro, Mass., to try and woo them back.
A typical Old Home Week celebration postcard sent out to former residents to try and woo them back. This one is from Attleboro, Mass. (Postcardhistory.net)
“Come back, come back! Do you not hear the call? What has become of the old home where you were born? ... The memories of childhood, the friendships of youth, the love of father and mother cling about it and make it sacred.”

These words might appear maudlin to the modern reader. However, when New Hampshire politician Frank West Rollins penned them in 1897, they sparked a government initiative that eventually spread across multiple states and countries: Old Home Week.

According to state and local government leaders in the late 19th century, rural New England was facing an economic crisis. Many young citizens were leaving their hometowns for job opportunities at large mills and factories in southern New England cities and out West. Towns that relied on agriculture for economic survival encountered a series of challenges, including the declining price of wool and competition with midwestern farms for grain sales. Small town local governments also faced growing debts and saw municipal buildings and town squares falling into disrepair.

Rollins sought to remind New Englanders of the value of the now-decrepit farmhouses of their youths. “Do you not remember it?” he wrote. “The old farm back among the hills, with its rambling buildings, its well-sweep casting its long shadows, the row of stiff poplar trees, the lilacs and the willows?”

Some of these concerns were overblown: many farms that appeared to be in disrepair were in fact on unproductive land that farmers had abandoned and were reverting to forest as they focused on more fertile acreage. But for state and local government leaders like Rollins, these overgrown farms and the emigration of locals were signs of the degeneration of rural America.
A New Hampshire Old Home Week button.
Many Old Home Week celebrations included memorabilia. This button emphasizes the scenic beauty of New Hampshire as a way to attract and interest former residents who had left the state, as well as new tourists. (Longyear Museum)

In an effort to boost the economies of local towns and to attract young people back to rural New England, Rollins initiated Old Home Week in 1899, his first year as governor of New Hampshire. The weeklong annual festival, sponsored by the New Hampshire state government and the Board of Agriculture, encouraged those born in the state to return to their “old home” — the village they had grown up in and left in adulthood.

Ideally, attendees would donate money to support the town. As Rollins explained, “the purpose of this new festival … was to win back, if possible, some of the wealth which the State, with its New England neighbors, had lavished on the newer parts of the country.” Rollins encouraged visitors to endow public buildings and roadways, contribute to the erection of new monuments, and even purchase old farms to use as summer homes. Tourists without a connection to the state were also encouraged to come in hopes that they would become regular visitors and enhance local economies.

To plan the inaugural Old Home Week, Rollins formed and presided over an Old Home Week Association. Forty-four New Hampshire towns held their first Old Home Week celebrations in August 1899. For these festivals, locals decorated the town squares with signs welcoming home those who returned for the celebration. The Old Home Week Association organized speeches by statesmen and well-known locals, poetry readings, parades, dances, feasts, church services and fireworks.

For Old Home Week, authors and poets produced sentimental works, which aimed to pull at the heartstrings of those who had moved out of state. They were often published in Old Home Week songbooks. One piece, “Come Home to Your Mother,” epitomizes the heavy sentiment they invoked, encouraging readers to remember “the pond where you skated, the lake where you fish’d and the great elm shadows, where you swung all you wished.” Many poems also incorporated the image of a “latch string,” which symbolized a welcome to all former residents who arrived for the events.

Along with sentiment, Old Home Week sought to ignite local patriotism and civic engagement. Rollins described the celebrations as “kindling the fires of State patriotism.” Speeches during Old Home Week encouraged locals to embrace “more civic pride” and to engage in local politics.
A photo of New Phenix Hall during the 1899 Old Home Week celebration in Concord, N.H.
This photo from the 1899 Old Home Week celebration in Concord, N.H., highlights the use of patriotic décor. The building in the background, New Phenix Hall, includes a central image of President William McKinley, flanked by images for George Washington (right) and Governor Rollins (left). (Courtesy of New Hampshire Historical Society)
Part of the reason for this emphasis on civic duty may have stemmed from anxieties about the changing demographics of New England and the United States. As scholar Dona Brown has argued, many Americans expressed anxieties about the rise in immigrants moving to cities and towns throughout New England in the late 19th century. The frequent praising of “good old New Hampshire stock” and farmers “of good blood” during Old Home Week highlight a fear of the expanding non-Anglo, non-white presence in New England. As one orator expressed during Old Home Week, locals should seek to “assimilate and Americanize the large foreign element” in the state.

The 1899 festivals were such a success that other states soon adopted their own Old Home Weeks. Maine and Vermont began similar festivals in 1901, followed by Massachusetts and Connecticut. By 1907, states outside of New England had also taken up the concept, including New York, Ohio, Kentucky, Virginia, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Alabama. Canada and Australia adopted similar celebrations.

Many towns continue to celebrate Old Home Week, although the celebrations are now typically abbreviated versions called Old Home Days. While these events typically lack the heavy sentiment of the Victorian festivals, they often still include parades, and many have incorporated yard sales, sports matches and road races.
Burton-old-Oshkosh.jpg
A postcard celebrating an Old Home Week in Oshkosh, Wis. (Postcardhistory.net)
While it does not appear that Old Home Week led to a sizable return of former New Hampshire residents to the state, it became a nostalgic tradition that continues to be embraced by village and town residents across New England and beyond.
Emma Newcombe has a Ph.D. in American and New England Studies from Boston University.
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