First published in 1876, the Dewey decimal system is like a trail guide leading one to a world of wonder and adventure. The call number 917.42 is like a clue that a history detective can follow to discover hidden treasures. In this case, it’s also like the call of the wild and a perfect seasonal companion to the recent welcoming weather.
917.42 is the Dewey Decimal classification for geography and travel in New Hampshire and if you follow it in the Henney History Room of the Conway Public Library you will find a fascinating collection of historic guide books.
If one studies the overall collection, you can see that writing and publication styles change over time. Take Eliphalet and Phinehas Merrill’s 1817 Gazetteer of New Hampshire. Bound in a plain brown wrapper of a cover, it has but two paragraphs on Conway noting in simple, practical and direct prose that the town contains 4 corn-mills, 5 saw-mills, 1 mill for dressing cloth, 2 carding-machines, 3 distilleries and 3 retail stores. The emphasis seems to be on guiding settlers and investors towards potential economic development.
Forty-five years later art and poetry has flavored our trail mix. Thomas Starr King’s, The White Hills; Their Legends, Landscape and Poetry (1862 edition) is profusely illustrated, gold edged and clothed in an embossed burgandy red cover. There are now 36 pages on Conway as part of a 106 page chapter with an emphasis on the beauties of the Saco Valley.
Practical information has been relegated to endnote sections and the focus there is on the comfort and convenience of tourists such as schedules and stops for stage coaches and trains and the costs of lodging with various rating systems for their dining tables. Advertisements present additional information in their own distinctive graphic styles.
While many of these books are now available online in a format that is easy to search, enlarge, share and print, nothing can replace experiencing the actual artifact itself. For me old books are a palpable, heart pumping, connection to the past.
You can spread them out of the table in front of you in a rainbow of teal blue, hunter’s green, mustard yellow, and strawberry red and revel in their bounty.
Speaking of strawberries, Starr King starts his chapter on the Saco Valley with a story.
“We once heard of a traveller who went down to New Orleans, every spring and came North just fast enough to keep pace with the strawberries. He managed to rise on the degrees of latitude at even speed with the bounteous vines and ascending village by village and city after city plucked and ate and thus extended the spring time for his palate all the way from the Gulf of Mexico to Montreal.” That's a trip I would like to try myself!
Happy hunting and happy trails to you