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New Hampshire brings to mind…

Show of familiar, historical items

An original Concord Coach, horse-drawn and big enough for nine passengers, at the Museum of New Hampshire History. An original Concord Coach, horse-drawn and big enough for nine passengers, at the Museum of New Hampshire History. (New Hampshire Historical Society)
By Christopher Klein
Globe Correspondent / April 17, 2011

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CONCORD, N.H. — Think of New Hampshire, and what image immediately springs to mind? For romantics, perhaps it’s a covered bridge. For cynics, maybe a rest area liquor store. For most, it’s probably the ubiquitous Old Man of the Mountain, whose spirit endures on road signs and license plates nearly a decade after his demise.

Three years ago the New Hampshire Historical Society asked itself: “What best symbolizes New Hampshire?’’ After mining the 30,000-piece collection that it has been amassing since 1825, the society’s answer has come forth in the new “Icons of History: Objects That Define New Hampshire’’ exhibit. The first part of the exhibit opened last month at the society’s Museum of New Hampshire History, and the second half will open in the society’s Tuck Library in September.

The most eye-popping of the 100 exhibit items are majestic paintings of the White Mountains depicting pastoral scenes of glimmering lakes, verdant forests, and skyscraping peaks kissed by feathery clouds. The 19th-century landscapes are so massive and vibrant that they resemble picture windows inside a grand mountain resort opening out onto the glory of the Granite State’s natural wonders.

Handmade furniture and needlework crafted by everyday citizens are interspersed with artifacts connected to New Hampshire’s most famous sons and daughters. There is a campaign biography of Franklin Pierce, written by his friend Nathaniel Hawthorne and inscribed by the 14th president to Jefferson Davis. Portraits of Hawthorne and Daniel Webster, commissioned by Pierce, which once graced the White House walls are also on display.

The eclectic collection runs the gamut from Revolutionary War General John Stark’s porcelain tea set to baseball pitcher Bob Tewksbury’s St. Louis Cardinals jersey to Webster’s rickety highchair, where the “Great Orator’’ presumably babbled his first words. No item, however, sparkles more than the 72-piece silver service — complete with bonbon dishes and a punchbowl with removable electric light fixtures — presented to the battleship USS New Hampshire in 1908.

More fascinating pieces of New Hampshire’s past can be discovered in the museum’s permanent exhibit, which manages to pack millennia of history into a ground-floor gallery. Items span the breadth of time from 5,000-year-old Native American arrowheads and a re-created wigwam to a prototype of a Segway personal transporter.

Wes Balla, the society’s director of collections and exhibitions, says the original Concord Coach is probably the most popular object in the museum. Mark Twain called the stagecoach that made New Hampshire’s capital world famous “an imposing cradle on wheels,’’ and when you stand next to it, you can see why. The enormous vehicle, which was driven by a “knight of the whip’’ and capable of holding nine passengers, makes a Hummer seem like a Mini Cooper by comparison.

Youngsters will enjoy scaling the museum’s replica fire tower — faithfully reproduced with a Smokey Bear poster and binoculars — that pokes through the rooftop to reveal a view of Concord and surrounding communities. There is also a replica general store and post office from the early 1900s in which children can explore century-old tools, housewares, and games.

The only icon missing from the museum would seem to be the rubbled remains of the Old Man of the Mountain himself. But look closely and his great stone face, as it is across the state, is everywhere: etched into the USS New Hampshire punchbowl, painted on the side of the Concord Coach, and emblazoned on countless display pieces. He is even lurking in the museum’s wonderfully quirky gift shop, where you can purchase an Old Man of the Mountain bobblehead to take home as your very own symbol of New Hampshire.

Christopher Klein can be reached at chris@christopherklein.com.

If You Go

Museum of New Hampshire History 6 Eagle Square, Concord
603-228-6688
www.nhhistory.org
“Icons of History: Objects That Define New Hampshire, Part I’’ through Dec. 31. Part II runs Sept. 10-July 7, 2012.
Tue-Sat 9:30 a.m.-5 p.m., Sun noon-5 (Mon 9:30-5, July 1-Oct. 15 and December). Adults $5.50, seniors $4.50, children $3.