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"When Memories Collide"

Strawbery Banke Tells the History of Neighbors

By Lisa Rogers | HUMANITIES, January/February 1999 | Volume 20, Number 1

America is and always has been a nation of immigrants. Almost all of us trace our origins to distant lands. For four hundred years immigrants have landed on these shores from every corner of the globe. (from Becoming Americans: The Shapiro Story, 1898-1928)

So begins the story of the Shapiros: five brothers, their wives, children and in-laws whose quest for a better life brought them to America from Russia at the beginning of this century.

The Shapiro's story is told on a compact disk produced by the Strawbery Banke Museum in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. It is part of a larger project that includes the restoration of the Shapiros' house and an interpretive program recreating aspects of the family's life in the early 1920s. A virtual tour of the house on the CD-ROM shows the dramatic change wrought by the restorers in 1996 and 1997 as they reclaimed the house from its dilapidated state and brought it back to its 1919 appearance. Through the lens of a 360-degree camera, the rooms feel as if the Shapiros have just stepped out for a moment and will soon return to pick up where they left off: in the dining room the table is set for the Sabbath meal, and in Mollie's bedroom, an unfinished board game waits in mid-move.

The Shapiro house sits on the ten-acre site, once known as Puddle Dock, where the museum captures more than three and a half centuries of New England history in reconstructed homes, gardens, and workshops. Interpreters wear period clothes and play the parts of residents from the past, and outreach programs include school trips and weekend festivals. The aim is to tell the stories of the community from its earliest days in the 1630s to the middle of the twentieth century when it was saved from bulldozers as a tribute to the past.

The Shapiros' story is the story of everyday life in the early twentieth century: the iceman's summer rounds, the daily scramble to school, the excitement of holidays. The story is also a reminder of the process, repeated in countless households across the nation, of the newcomer's transition from immigrant to citizen. The CD-ROM uses paintings, photographs, music, scholarly essays, and the oral histories of local residents to bring the story to life.

The multimedia program focuses on those experiences the immigrants had in common: the wrenching journey from a distant land, the search for work and friends, and the struggle to fit into an alien society. According to the CD-ROM's narrative, Samuel, the first of the Shapiro brothers to emigrate, ran into difficulties even before he reached the United States. After escaping Russia and its twenty-five year compulsory military service, his money and steamship ticket were stolen in London. He was forced to stay and work until he earned enough to pay for a new ticket. It was in search of the thief that Samuel went to Portsmouth, where he eventually settled after recovering his money.

Portsmouth was home to many different ethnic groups. The difference between how immigrants fared across the country was mostly a matter of whether they settled in one of the major cities or in smaller communities. Samuel Shapiro stayed first near Boston, where other Ukrainian immigrants had settled, before moving to the small city of Portsmouth.

Of the twenty-three million immigrants who arrived in the U.S. between 1880 and 1920, a quarter settled outside the big cities. "Strawbery Banke is very representative of small-city immigration," explains Strawbery Banke President Dennis O'Toole. "When you mention the great migrations of the turn of this century, people think of New York and Philadelphia. What's often ignored is that many immigrants ended up in rural areas: in the South, the Midwest, and small cities."

Sometimes the immigrants featured on the Strawbery Banke CD-ROM are adventurers seeking opportunity and prosperity. More often they are anguished fugitives, fleeing poverty or persecution in their homelands even as they abandon families and friends. What they share is a faith that the new land will treat them better than the old. The Shapiros were among thirty Jewish families living in Portsmouth. They took advantage of their new-found religious freedom to establish a Hebrew school and a synagogue, buying and converting a Methodist church. After attending the local public school each day, the immigrants' children spent an hour learning the language and culture of their parents and grandparents. A photograph on the CD-ROM from about 1908 shows proud members of the Jewish community in front of the school; among the children are several from the Shapiro families.

Portsmouth has welcomed its share of both adventurers and fugitives. Its earliest colonists, arriving in the New World within ten years of the Mayflower, represented a London trading consortium. They sought wealth from the land and sea in fur, lumber, fish and agriculture. Later, newcomers arrived with stories of famine in Ireland, religious persecution in Poland, and poverty in Italy. The skills they brought shaped their roles in their new community. Abraham Shapiro, who lived with his wife Shiva and daughter Molly in the now-restored house in Strawbery Banke, worked in shoe shops and factories before opening a pawnshop and investing in real estate with his brothers.

During its own journey to the present, Strawbery Banke went from bustling port to garbage dump. As the settlement approached its three hundredth birthday in 1930, members of the Portsmouth Historical Society proposed a wide-ranging conservation plan for the south end of the city, including the small community of Puddle Dock. The quality of the housing stock had deteriorated badly, but instead of abandoning or razing it, the plan called for the restoration of one hundred seventy-five of the old buildings and relocation of a further seventy-five. Interrupted by World War II, the plan had to wait nearly thirty years to be revived.

It was the city's librarian, Dorothy M. Vaughan, who sounded the alarm. In 1957 she stood before the local Rotary Club members and called them to account. "I decided to lay it right on the line, and tell them what Portsmouth was throwing away each time a house was torn down or a piece of furniture was sold out of town," she explained later.

Vaughan's call to action came on the heels of an urban renewal scheme that would have leveled Puddle Dock and the garbage dump it now encompassed. In the 1950s, the state's urban renewal laws required that all buildings within a proposed renewal area be demolished. That plan failed, but the message was clear: Puddle Dock would disappear without a quick response from the community. Within a year of Vaughan's plea, local citizens had formed Strawbery Banke, Inc., an organization that helped change the state's renewal project requirements and convinced the Portsmouth Housing Authority to take an active role in the process of relocating residents and demolishing or removing the most recent buildings. Seven years later, Strawbery Banke Museum welcomed its first visitors.

Today the museum opens two dozen of its buildings to visitors; a dozen more can be viewed from the outside. To handle the load, forty year-round staff members oversee more than one hundred seasonal employees and five hundred volunteers. In the early 1990s, the museum started raising money for more restorations and outreach programs. As a major part of this expansion, the Shapiro project includes the CD-ROM, the restoration of the Shapiro's house on Jefferson Street, and a comprehensive, multimedia exhibit inside. Period furnishings show how the house would have looked, and audio-visual programs evoke the era through recorded conversations explaining the family's daily activities and its role in the community.

Other museums are keeping an eye on Strawbery Banke's digital experiment, waiting to see how well the new techology fits into more traditional museum displays. There have been a few teething troubles as the interpretive staff get used to working with the audio-visual presentation, admits Funi Burdick, director of Educational Programs, but the sound and spotlight tours of several of the rooms have won over the visitors. "They love it," she says. "They meet Shiva Shapiro working in the kitchen, and by the time they hear the family chatting in the parlor, they're hooked. Some of them want to stay all day."

The CD-ROM offers the museum a new way to put its collection into the hands of visitors instead of simply storing it in the archives, Burdick says. "It's something they can take home with them to remember their visit and to learn more." Burdick is already working on a curriculum package to help teachers make the most of the CD-ROM.

With its latest capital campaign successfully completed, the museum will focus next on widening and enlivening its outreach programs. Special events will highlight the contributions made by each of the area's ethnic groups, starting with African- Americans. O'Toole hopes to expand this year's weekend blues festival next year with a second weekend of world music and heritage programming during the days between.

"A museum like Strawbery Banke is a very important community resource," O'Toole said. "It is a museum of a neighborhood's history. We learned quite a few lessons from the Shapiro project about what it means to tell the history of a family and of a community. . . when memories collide, and when families feel that they have a stake in the telling of the story. . . This is truly a work in progress."