The Hampton Beach Village District
HAMPTON: A CENTURY OF TOWN AND BEACH, 1888-1988
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Chapter 2 -- Part 5
By the turn of the century, the Beach was growing rapidly while the Village was hardly growing at all. Residents repeatedly opposed town meeting warrant articles to provide such basic municipal services as fire protection and a public water system. With the exception of the small cluster of business blocks in the center of town, Hampton buildings were widely spaced, and if a house or barn caught fire, the blaze would not be likely to spread. Houses all had their own wells, and, with no running water, outhouses were adequate sanitary systems. A large proportion of residents at this time were natives. As small farmers, factory workers, shop owners, or tradesmen, with limited financial resources, they voted at town meeting against spending money for services they did not perceive as being necessary. For many people, what worked well for their parents and grandparents apparently was good enough for them.
Few Beach businesspeople were natives. Many of them came to the Beach from cities, and they were used to municipal services. Lovell's streetcars brought thousands of tourists, most of whom were also from cities. They demanded services, as did others who built summer cottages on the land leased from the Town and sub-leased from the HBIC. Beach buildings were constructed close together, wells were not adequate, and outhouses and sink drains could not handle the volume of waste produced by Beach visitors. It was not difficult for Beach property owners to add up the amount of taxes they paid and compare that to what the Town provided. As late as 1909, in a Hampton Union interview, Selectman Joseph Brown said the Beach paid one-third of the taxes, "but the district is a source of revenue outside of the tax upon real and personal property. This revenue was sufficient this year, and probably will be for some years in the future, for all improvements and repairs in the district, leaving every cent of taxes for use in other parts of the town." Brown was referring to some $1,100 the Town received as rent from the Hampton Beach Improvement Company and for lots (118 laid out at $5 to $10 per year each and room for 100 more) on White Island, as well as for popcorn, ice cream, billiard, and bowling licenses.
In 1908, the Town had total receipts of $17,401, of which some $13,700 came from taxes. In 1908, this income provided the Beach with a new road (Dumas Avenue) on Boar's Head, grading of some streets, a new plank sidewalk near the Casino, and repairs to the breakwater near Cutler's. Planned was landscaping with grass and flowers for the strip of sand dune between the road and the street railway, and an extension of the breakwater between Cutler's and Jenkins's. Brown concluded that Sunday laws were now being enforced and Sunday business was increasing "in proportion to the orderliness and quiet maintained." Brown could not be faulted for his economic optimism, although time would prove that such expenses as the breakwater were more than the Town could afford.
Since the Town wasn't providing what the Beach wanted or needed, some businesspeople and cottage owners began to discuss the formation of a separate town of Hampton Beach. According to a September 1925 Union article, not everyone at the Beach saw this as a desirable goal; so, led by future governor John H. Bartlett, future senator George Moses, and businessmen George Ashworth and John White, 10 Beach residents petitioned the selectmen to form the Hampton Beach Village District under chapter 57 of the state laws.
Selectmen Brown and Frank E. James laid out the boundaries and warned residents within those boundaries to attend the first meeting at Cutler's Cafe on June 26, 1907. Selectman Brown called the gathering to order because the District did not have any officers. The first article, passed unanimously, authorized the establishment of the Village District "for the extinguishment of fires, the sprinkling of [the dirt] streets, the supply of water for domestic and fire purposes and the maintenance of common sewers...." The article established the District's borders as beginning on Winnacunnet Road and running southerly to a point on Hampton River, then along the river to the oceanfront, north to the northeast corner of the Hampton Beach Life Saving Station at North Beach, west on Nook Lane (High Street) to the mill stream, then south to Winnacunnet Road.
Elected as officers were William Devlin, moderator; Thomas L. Sanborn, clerk; James S. DeLancey, treasurer; and John C. White, Oscar J. Jenkins, and Charles W. Ross, commissioners.
The eight voters present all cast their ballots in favor of Article 6, which was the main purpose of the meeting. This article authorized the district to contract with the newly formed Hampton Water Works Company to provide within the district 17 fire hydrants, at $50 each. With this contract, the water company was able to get a loan, which it previously had been denied, to begin work. The meeting adjourned until August 1, when $1,000 was voted to purchase fire equipment. At that time, an insurance company representative recommended a year-round fire department of 10 men.
The 1909 town report carried the first "Beach Fire Precinct" report, listing John G. Cutler as treasurer, receipts of $1,850, and expenses of $1,824. Charles M. Robinson was paid $2 for watching fires, but most of the expenses were for hydrant rental and the purchase of fire hose.
When the Town voted to build a Beach sewer in 1908, and with fire equipment purchased and hydrants installed, the Precinct had fulfilled its original goals, but the conflicts between the Precinct and the Town continued. As an institution, the Precinct began to acquire more importance than its original creators had planned. Because town government is run by an annual meeting with each resident having an equal vote, Precinct voters have always been a small minority at town meetings, since most Precinct property owners have not been residents of the town. Over the years, the Precinct commissioners, an elected body usually composed of three Beach businesspeople, have become the spokesmen for Beach grievances against the Town.
By the 1910 Precinct meeting, the voters began to spend money for services other than fire protection and water. At that meeting, $100 was voted to be used by the Town for an oceanside walk north of the Casino, and a year later the Precinct voted $200 toward oiling Ocean Boulevard and $50 "towards building a runway in front of Jenkins' store from the main road down on the beach." In 1912, the Precinct voted to spend not more than $7.50 per light for 30 street lights along Ocean Boulevard, and the commissioners were to confer with the selectmen regarding the Town's giving the Beach lighting for the entire year. The Town was not receptive to this idea; it was only then beginning to place street lights in the uptown areas. The Precinct then contracted with the Exeter & Hampton Electric Company to light the boulevard, from Cutler's to the end of the breakwater south of the Casino, with 50 lights, alternately red and white. This was the beginning of a so-called Great White Way, which Precinct voters apparently thought would become an after-dark attraction. A special 1913 meeting authorized $100 for beach cleaning. The following year, the cleaning account was increased to $125 and the commissioners were asked to confer with the Town regarding beach cleaning costs.
During its first 10 years, the Precinct spent some money on the fire department for equipment, but most of its expenses were for street lights and hydrants. The 1915 Precinct meeting requested the commissioners to consult with the selectmen to see what other equipment the Town would purchase for the Beach department. "Nothing" was the apparent answer, but the September 23, 1915, fire was to change the Town's opinion. Following this major fire, the Town paid $190 to 21 men ($5 to $10 each), with 13 men listed as Beach firefighters and others appearing to be Beach residents, for their services. Thomas Nudd's granddaughter Julia and her husband, Charles Ross, also received $150 for rental of their barn as the Beach fire department headquarters. The 1916 town meeting voted to buy the Beach its first fire truck, the Kissel truck that was stationed at the Beach but that remained in the Town's property inventory.
The 1916 Precinct meeting raised $900 for new equipment, the most it had ever spent, and several unusual votes were recorded. First the meeting voted that the chief and all firefighters would be chosen by the voters and the names submitted to the selectmen for their approval. Frank J. O'Dea was chosen as chief and then all men present who wanted to be firemen and who expected to be resident in town for one year were asked to stand up. From this list, 19 men were elected as permanent firefighters. In a final vote, the clerk recorded, "That every man opposed to L. C. Ring as the chief of the Hampton and Hampton Beach Fire Department, stand up. No one stood up." Ring, owner of much Beach commercial property, was the town's fireward, or fire chief. Apparently O'Dea was not appointed by the selectmen, so the commissioners chose Alexander H. Brown as the first permanent fire chief, although it is unclear just how much he was paid. Perhaps the title was given to him so that he would have the authority to direct activity at fires. In 1917 he received $229 from the Town for "care of the beach chemical [truck]." O'Dea may have been unhappy with the commissioners' decision because at the 1917 meeting he claimed that the commissioners, one of whom was Alexander Brown, were illegally elected, "but on division of the house his motion was not sustained." O'Dea would not be the last person to question Precinct voting procedures.
In 1919, the Town apparently decided to stop paying for Beach firefighters, although $460 was paid to Brown for care of the Beach truck, and he continued to be paid ever-increasing sums by the Town until 1923. The 1919 Precinct meeting voted $660 to pay for two firefighters from November to April -- when only a handful of people were living at the Beach -- and for one firefighter's services for the other half of the year, when more help was available in case of fire. Since Brown's Garage was used to store the truck, he may also have been one of the paid people. It appears that this system was used only for one year.
Although the Town failed to support an article calling for another Beach truck following the serious 1921 fire, the Precinct did vote $12,000 to buy its first truck. After another fire in 1922, the 1923 town meeting voted $7,000 for the Beach department, including a salary of $35 per week for Chief Brown and $25 weekly for each of the other three firefighters. Part of the money was to be used for rental of Brown's new garage, which had been fitted out as fire department headquarters, but it was destroyed in a fire one week after the 1923 town meeting. Brown agreed to sell the Precinct his lot, and a special 1923 Precinct meeting voted $15,650 to buy the lot and to build and equip a new firehouse, the present building on Ashworth Avenue. For the two years prior to the June 1921 fire, the Precinct's annual budget expense was only $571. By 1923, with bond issues for the new truck and the firehouse, the Precinct budget called for an expenditure of $26,800, and Precinct property was valued at $31,000. The Beach department was authorized by the 1923 meeting to hire five firefighters in the winter months and four in the summer.
In 1924, just to show that the Precinct was not all serious business, the meeting appointed Joseph Dudley as "bathing censor," apparently a comment on the "revealing" bathing suits being worn on the beach. Also authorized was a banquet to open the new fire station. This event must have been enjoyable, for the 1925 meeting authorized a firefighters' banquet "with no free tickets," and in 1926 the meeting appointed Commissioner George Ashworth to form a committee for a Precinct banquet, now a regular Beach event. During the rest of the 1920s, the meetings were devoted mainly to routine matters of buying more fire equipment and paying firefighter salaries. Other business was also conducted, however. In the early 1920s, Commissioner John C. White, a partner of Dudley's, started a playground on the beachfront opposite the Dudley and White store at the corner of C Street. Assisted by volunteers from the fire department, White constructed a simple playground, and he was often seen sitting on a nearby bench watching the antics of resident and visiting children.
Commissioner White died suddenly in January 1927, and, because the Precinct had previously adopted the additional provisions of chapter 57 in 1927, the 1928 Precinct meeting voted $1,000 for what became known as the John C. White Memorial Playground (currently known as the Hampton Beach Precinct Playground). It appears that the money was actually spent in 1927 and authorized after the fact at the 1928 meeting, at which time another $500 was voted for the playground. Dedicated on July 27, 1927, the playground was turned over to the people of Hampton and Hampton Beach in ceremonies conducted by the Chamber of Commerce and led by chamber president George Ashworth. For many years, Ashworth was responsible for the playground, making repairs following ocean storms. Perhaps as part of this interest, he instituted the annual Children's Day festivities at the Beach. Although the 1939 Precinct meeting voted to keep the playground open until 8 P.M., Ashworth refused to do so,arguing that children should be in bed at that hour. When the State built the new seawall in the 1950s, the playground was relocated south of the Casino; in 1954, it was moved to its present location.
Another 1928 Precinct meeting vote raised $500 to support the Beach band concerts, subject to the commissioners' determination of the legality of the expenditure. When it was formed, the Precinct voted to adopt only four provisions of chapter 57—those relating to fire protection, sprinkling of streets, sewers, and a public water system. In 1927, the Precinct meeting voted to adopt the rest of chapter 57, adding the provisions relating to the construction and operation of sewers, parks and commons, and lighting plants, as well as the hiring of watchmen or police officers. Nowhere was there a provision to vote money for band concerts, so there is no indication that money was spent for this purpose at that time. By the 1930s, however, the Precinct was voting and spending money to support the band. The Precinct did spend money for other activities, such as numbering houses, erecting signs, cleaning the beach, and surveying Beach recreational assets. These expenditures might have been approved by a town government, but the Precinct was not a town, even though its officers and voters sought ways to make it provide municipal services, since the Town seemed unwilling to do so.
The September 1928 adjourned Precinct meeting authorized Ashworth and Fire Chief Homer Whiting to meet with the water company to discuss water pressure in the hydrants, and voters approved motions calling for town-warrant articles to address improved garbage collection, town payment for the Great White Way, an incinerator for Beach rubbish disposal, and hot topping of the last end of Marsh Avenue. In response, the 1929 town meeting voted to collect garbage from the back doors of Town and Beach property, to pay for the lights of the Great White Way, to pave the rest of Marsh Avenue, but to pass over the incinerator article. The town meeting also voted another $2,000 for work on the breakwater, a project for which the Town had appropriated many thousands of dollars.
Despite the breakwater expenditures, Hampton was losing its battle to keep the ocean away from beachfront property, and many people, including the Precinct voters, felt that action was needed by the State. The 1931 Precinct meeting discussed a bill pending in the Legislature that allowed the State to build a new, substantial breakwater and to receive the land east of the boulevard from the Town via a quitclaim deed. The commissioners were instructed by voters to support this bill. Meanwhile, the town meeting, opposed to surrendering its beachfront, voted to send a committee composed of the selectmen and some Beach property owners before the Legislature to request an appropriation for breakwaters running from Plaice Cove to Boar's Head, and from the Head south to Haverhill Street.
The Precinct residents and property owners were outraged when, after the Legislature approved the breakwater bill in May, two summer special town meetings failed to authorize the provision calling for the Town to give the land east of the boulevard to the State. Special 1932 town meetings also failed to approve a needed Beach sewer, leading to a wider split between the Town and the Beach. The breakwater and the sewer issues were resolved in April 1933 when both measures received town-meeting approval, but the Precinct was not pleased. Although Ashworth apparently had opposed creation of a separate town when the Precinct was formed in 1907, he championed a political division in 1935, when State Representative Kenneth Graf of Manchester filed a bill authorizing the creation of the new town of Hampton Beach.
In January, Ashworth, the only Hampton Beach member of the Hampton Beach Commission, appointed the previous June by the governor, disagreed with the commission's report. Other members were Executive Councillor Charles H. Brackett of Greenland and Hampton selectman Edwin Batchelder. Ashworth said the first half of the report was laudatory to the selectmen for their assistance to the Beach, but Ashworth believed these were trivial matters that were done by various town employees and that are routine in any community. He said it was a sad commentary on the efficiency of the selectmen when the Beach had to request a state commission to solve sanitary problems such as the removal of trash from the Beach and the control of "careless youngsters who acted in a boisterous manner after a dance." He said the Chamber of Commerce had to donate 100 rakes and "inveigle" vacationers into joining raking bees to make the Beach presentable. Ashworth also complained that the Beach was notorious all over New England for its poor police department. He also said the 1933 laws required the Town to maintain order and sanitation on all of the land deeded to the State. He agreed with the second half of the report, since it contained a recommendation for projects originally proposed as part of the Manning Plan, presented in 1932 and paid for by the Precinct. He recommended the establishment of a Hampton Beach Reservation Commission charged with regulation of the conduct of people using the bathing beach, employment of lifeguards, supervision and enforcement of beach sanitation, parking regulations, supervision of State-installed bathhouses and toilets, planning of additional parking spaces, development of the state park brought about by the filling of 50 acres north of the north jetty, and control of the traffic. He urged the State to take over control of the Town-operated parking lot on State-owned land and to use the revenue to administer the State-owned property.
The Union was quick to respond to these charges in an editorial that asked how much good the "Village voters" did by deeding Town-owned land to the State and bonding the Town for a sewer system now that the Beach had filed a bill asking for two separate towns. An anonymous letter to the editor said that while community leaders were "endeavoring to satisfy the whims of an aged, self-styled beach benefactor, to separate the Beach from the Town of Hampton, they missed an opportunity to promote the town at the annual sportsmen's show in Boston."
There was a large turnout of Hampton people for the February hearing on the separation bill before the Rockingham County legislative delegation. Proponents were represented by attorney Robert W. Upton of Concord, who said the two communities had become incompatible and seemed not to be able to live together in harmony. "He stated that the Beach section paid two-thirds of the taxes and had only a small percentage of representation in town affairs. He regarded the situation as without parallel in New Hampshire and seemingly unfair." Attorney Robert C. Murchie, who represented the Town, said the move was instigated by nonresidents. He argued, "They propose to take the choicest part of the town that has been built up as a 'going concern' because of the constant interest, effort and money over a period of years by the town of Hampton and leave the town of Hampton in the position of an inland village deprived of its natural beach resource." Following a lengthy and crowded hearing, the bill was unanimously killed by the New Hampshire Legislature.
In 1937, the Precinct decided against setting up its own zoning ordinance. Opponents were led by Joseph Dudley, who said, "The greatest stagnation on Hampton Beach would be a zoning board."
A significant change in Precinct activities occurred in 1939, when the Legislature passed a bill, sponsored and supported by the Hampton Beach Village District, to amend chapter 57 of the state laws to permit village districts to raise money for recreational promotion. The Precinct was quick to adopt the change, and, at the 1939 meeting, $3,000 was appropriated for folders to be distributed at the New York World's Fair, with any balance to be used for erecting signs. That year the Precinct appropriated some $15,000, most of which supported the fire department, with $3,000 for promotion and $1,500 for the playground.
In 1946, a controversy developed over voting rights. The Precinct had rarely used a checklist. Back in 1930, when a voter asked that the checklist be used in the election for commissioner, "an old check list was dusted off." The list was used again for the office of treasurer, but, the Union reported,
"... for all other articles on the Warrant, the good old custom of everyone voting was followed -- tax payers and non-taxpayers, those not of age, non-residents, everyone voting, making motions, seconding same, appropriating money, raising the wages of the firemen equal to the police .... That resurrection of the long "mislaid" voting list brought great dismay to the many property owners who were hoping, as in years past, to have a voice in deciding how the precinct tax money should be spent."
There was no checklist by 1946, so that year and the following one, it was left up to the Precinct commissioners to decide who was a legal voter. In 1948, for the first time in the Precinct's history, a checklist was used for all voting. After being ordered by the 1955 meeting to correct the checklist, the commissioners announced in September 1956 that some 40 percent of the names had been dropped, leaving a total of 335 names. Fearful that the proposed New Hampshire seacoast turnpike would bypass the town, the 1947 meetings of the Precinct and the Town passed resolutions opposing the road's construction.
Although the Precinct had been formed to assist the Hampton Water Works Company to begin operations, there was continued controversy about water pressure in the hydrants. Finally, in 1949, the Precinct approved a $60,000 bond issue to construct its own saltwater hydrant system running along Marsh Avenue from the bridge to Island Path. When the 10-hydrant system was completed, the district hoped for a 15 percent reduction in insurance rates. Although the system was not operational at the time of the 1950 fire, firefighters used the fire trucks to pump water from the river through the newly installed mains. In 1951, the system was expanded from Island Path to Church Street. Corrosion from salt water made the system's pumps unreliable and, since the system leaked, its mains were charged with water from the water company. Finally, in 1981, by order of the New Hampshire Public Utilities Commission, the system was sold for $75,000 to the Hampton Water Works Company. The proceeds from the sale were placed in a Precinct capital reserve fund handled by the Trustees of the Trust Funds. Some of the principal and interest from this fund has been used to pay for various fire-truck renovations and purchases of new equipment. In 1988, about $5,000 was left in the fund. The water company maintains both its original hydrant system and the former saltwater system. Taxes pay for the rental of both systems.
By 1955, the Precinct budget was about $42,000, but $14,000 was budgeted for advertising, and some of the district's residents, who did not have a recreation business, began to question the expense. That same year, the Precinct came under the provisions of the Municipal Budget Law, although the commissioners resented the budget committee having a say in the district's affairs. Opposing further organization, the Precinct voted against hiring a district manager in 1956.
During this time, Jim Tucker began a campaign in his Hampton Union column calling for the end of the Precinct. While he gave the district great credit for its role in funding the original water company, for creating the town's first fire department and expanding the alarm system through the town, and for its important part in such events as the purchase of the old Mile Bridge and construction of the new bridge and the various seawalls, he believed that it had served the purpose for which it was formed and should be disbanded. He argued that the Precinct only existed for the fire department and Beach advertising. If the Town assumed the cost of the fire department, those who benefited most from the advertising could pay for it directly. The commissioners apparently were not bothered by Tucker's comments, for they announced plans in 1958 to have the Precinct build a convention center as an aid to the sagging Beach business economy.
The abolition movement picked up again in 1967, when voters at town meeting were asked to take over the Precinct's assets and liabilities. The motion failed, but voters were discussing the issue again in 1970, when the Precinct was budgeting some $94,000 and spending $35,000 for promotion. Commissioner John J. Foley expressed the feelings of his fellow Beach residents when he said in 1967, "The Precinct has its good points, and if there's something down here we want and the town won't get it for us, we can always get it for ourselves."
In the late 1970s, disagreements with selectmen and the town manager over the hiring of the fire chief led the Precinct again to consider secession. In the fall of 1977, the commissioners announced that a non binding resolution regarding secession would be on the 1978 Precinct warrant. On hearing that statement, the selectmen decided to postpone $20,000 in emergency repairs to the Beach fire trucks until after the Precinct meeting. The commissioners responded by prohibiting the Town from using the Beach trucks for inspections and training, limiting them just to fighting fires.
Into the midst of this debate came a petition to reduce the Precinct boundaries, a move that would have eliminated Boar's Head and the district lands north of it. The selectmen voted 3-1 against the change, but in January 1980, they approved a change eliminating the area south of L Street to the river, the North Beach area including Boar's Head, Church Street and the Ross Avenue areas, and the west side of Ashworth Avenue. This placed most of the residential areas, the Precinct fire station, and the residences of the three commissioners and the clerk-treasurer outside Precinct bounds.
In response to this action, Beach residents sponsored several articles calling for the Town to buy the Precinct's assets for some $3.1 million and the commissioners filed suit in Superior Court, asking for a temporary injunction against the changes in the boundaries. The 1980 town meeting voted down the special articles (including one that asked the Town to approve in principle the establishment of Hampton Beach as a separate and distinct town) and, after several meetings and receipt of petitions and proposals on boundary changes, the selectmen voted again on the Precinct boundaries, returning to the original lines but removing Surfside Park, a residential area off Winnacunnet Road.
Basic to the disagreements between some Beach residents and Precinct officials was the growing sum budgeted for advertising and recreational activities -- the latter including, at various times, the playground, band, fireworks, and Children's Day. In 1950, for example, some $12,000 was spent for advertising and recreational activities out of the $26,000 budget, while the fire department expense was also about $12,000. In 1960, the figures for advertising and recreation totaled $18,000, out of a total of $45,000. Fire department costs in 1960 were $9,800. In 1970, about $56,000 was spent for advertising and recreational activities out of a $94,000 Precinct budget. The fire department expense, including a new truck, was $43,000. While the 1979 advertising expenditure was $43,500, the 1980 advertising account was down to about $10,000 (kept lower on purpose to appease the people who wanted to dissolve the Precinct); the band, fireworks, and the playground totaled another $27,000 out of total appropriations of $135,000.
The portion of the budget for advertising and recreational activities was growing, and those Precinct property owners who did not use their houses for business purposes felt they should not have to pay for these other items. In 1979, State Senator Robert Preston filed successful legislation that established a Precinct Homestead Exemption, whereby single-family home owners would be exempted from paying that portion of the Precinct tax used for promotion.
A further assault on the Precinct was defeated in 1981, when an article to abolish the district was defeated (receiving a majority of votes to abolish but not the necessary two-thirds vote); voters instead supported a motion to establish a committee (with a $12,000 budget) to study secession. In the same year, Precinct voters also rejected articles to build a new fire station. Other articles to abolish the Precinct were defeated in 1983 and 1985, but opponents of the district devised another way to cut the Precinct in 1988, when selectmen approved petitions to eliminate Boar's Head and North Beach from the district.
In 1987, the Precinct spent $180,000 on advertising, entertainment (including band concerts), fireworks, Children's Day, and the playground. Only $82,000 was budgeted for fire department expenses, the original purpose for establishment of the Precinct, while the Town appropriated $1.75 million for the fire department. The debate likely will continue, for as the Precinct boundaries shrink, the majority of property owners left in the district are businesses. Currently these business property owners appear willing to tax themselves for Beach promotional advertising as an alternative to spending more money individually or making larger contributions to support Chamber of Commerce advertising. Still other proponents continue the argument that the commissioners, as a legally elected board, give the commercial interests at the Beach much more influence in dealing with the selectmen and with state officials than would occur if the district were abolished.