June marks the start of Old Home Days season not just in New England, but throughout the United States, in Canada and Australia. The birth of the celebration can be traced to one man: Frank Rollins. He set in motion the first Old Home Days – 44 of them, all in New Hampshire – in 1899.
Frank Rollins was born into a prominent political family in New Hampshire. His father, a railroad executive, had served in the New Hampshire Senate and then won election to the U.S. Senate. Frank also won election to the state Senate and then as governor in 1898. He also worked with John Wingate Weeks on writing the National Forest Act.
Rollins worried, as well, about the decline of the state’s rural communities because people began to move away.
They’d begun to move a lot in 19th century New England. Yankees went west, looking for better land and a warmer climate, or they went to work for the mills in the cities. Newcomers from Europe also arrived seeking work. It was a big change from the settled population patterns of the previous centuries.
Farms were abandoned and rural towns started to look shabby. One New Hampshire farmer urged his neighbors not to move west: “Had you not better be content to keep and improve the old homestead, so near the school house where you can hear the church bell and where you can enjoy the association of good neighbors?”
Rollins, New Hampshire’s governor from 1899-1901, encouraged people to buy old farms, spruce them up and use them as summer homes. He encouraged town centers to get facelifts with new monuments and renovated municipal buildings.
Rollins had an interest in promoting investment: He and his father, Edward H. Rollins, had started a banking house. It then became one of the largest in the United States until the crash of 1929.
Old Home Days
In 1897, Rollins broached the idea of Old Home Week:
“I wish that in the ear of every son and daughter of New Hampshire, in the summer days, might be heard whispered the persuasive words: Come back, come back!” he wrote in 1897.
“Do you not hear the call? What has become of the old home where you were born?…Do you not remember it — 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?”
He founded an Old Home Week Association, and presided over the state’s first homecoming as governor.
In 1899, 44 New Hampshire towns held Old Home Week celebrations during the last week in August.
“They celebrated with bands and bonfires, parades and poetry, dances and dinners, and statesmen and speeches,” wrote Gary Crooker, in New Hampshire Old Home Celebrations.
The first Old Home Day in Concord on Aug. 31, 1899 ended with a 53-part fireworks show. Each part had a theme, such as No. 22 Design Portrait of Admiral Dewey, the hero of Manilla, No. 45 Starry Flags and No. 52, Aladdin Jeweled Trees.
At other notable celebrations:
- Rollins came to Woodstock’s Old Home Day and 100th anniversary celebration in 1900. An 1812 cannon was fired from Sunset Hill.
- Rollins also attended Mont Vernon’s Old Home Day in 1900, which featured a performance of the Tobasco Banjo, Mandolin and Guitar Club of Lowell, Mass.
- In 1913, Fitzwilliam held an Old Home Day party in mid-August. The invitation included a poem about the ‘latch string,’ a term often used in Old Home celebrations. Putting the latch string out meant ‘welcome.’
- Brookline celebrated Rural Free Delivery and Uncle Sam (who came from nearby Mason) in its 1921 Old Home Day celebration.
- In 1933, Swanzey celebrated its bicentennial with a mile-long parade featuring 49 floats.
- In 1936, Salisbury celebrated Old Home Day with a baseball game between the Sand Crabs and the Sand Fleas in a ‘Little World Series.’
Old Home Days Catches On
Maine and Vermont adopted Old Home days in 1901, and soon Massachusetts and Connecticut followed. By 1907, the custom spread to New York, Ohio, Alabama, Virginia, North Caroline, Kentucky, Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, and onto Nova Scotia, Ontario and Australia.
Old Oaken Bucket
Old Home Days included parades, church services, reunions, band concerts and poetry – lots of it. Come Home to Your Mother was typical, describing, “the pond where you skated, the lake where you fish’d and the great elm shadows, where you swung all you wished.”
Poets described the vanished farm, the ticking of the old clock, the flowers in the yard, the old oaken bucket, the fleecy clouds, the granite mountains and the omnipresent latchkey.
There was even an Old Home Week songbook. In 1906, one observer wrote, “In every New England town observing the festival the local poet has been burning the midnight oil so assiduously that it is no wonder the price of kerosene has been advanced a cent or so a gallon.”
After the world wars, Old Home Week celebrated the return of the men and women who fought. Then eventually Old Home Week season spread out from June until September.
This story was updated in 2022.