History of Derry

As narrated by our Town Historian, Richard Holmes
Beaver Lake
Beaver Lake

The origin of the Town of Derry goes back to the ancient Kingdom of Scotland. There for a hundred generations, the ancestors of the founders of our Town were farmers, herdsmen and weavers. There, from the misty Isle of Skye to the Port of Leigh, they struggled to survive on their small, rocky farms. In the 17th century the British put down a rebellion and confiscated much of Northern Ireland. This rich farm land - the Ulster Plantation - was offered to outsiders at very low rents. Soon thousands of Scots were sailing across the Irish Sea to claim this fertile land. With them they also brought to Ireland their Presbyterian faith and their Scottish culture. Our Town’s ancestors settled around the Town of Aghadowey in County Londonderry. To history these people would become known as Ulster Scots or Scotch Irish.

For many years all went well. In 1689, the native Irish rose up to reclaim their land. For months thousands of Ulster men and women were under siege in the fortified City of Londonderry. There, they were forced to survive by eating dogs, cats and mice. Finally on the 105th day, 12 year old Jamie McGregor, on the cathedral tower, fired a signal canon. This let the imprisoned people know that he had just seen the British ships break through the barriers on the River Foyle. Soon those ships would be unloading barrels of food at the quay; the siege was over!  McGregor would later go on to become the founder of our Town.

The years that followed were not all that good for the Ulster Scots. The King was threatening to sharply raise their land rents. Most of the Presbyterian Churches in Ulster were closed and given to Anglican pastors. The Scots weren’t even allowed to serve as teachers for their own children, or to hold any public office. The British also turned over the collecting of taxes to brutal “tax farmers.” In addition, the Presbyterians were required to pay a tithe of 10% of their income to the Church of England.

In 1718, a tiny Presbyterian congregation in Aghadowey decided that enough was enough; they would immigrate to the New World. These sixteen families, led by their Pastor Rev. James McGregor, boarded the good ship Robert and arrived in Boston on August 4, 1718. Here they found considerable hostility by the British colonists in Massachusetts. In time, however, they were able to secure a 100 square mile grant of land far into the northern wilderness. This uninhabited frontier land had previously been named Nutfield because of its many nut trees and wide expanse of marshy grasslands. On April 11, 1719, the sixteen families finally arrived at their new homes and knelt in prayer on the shores of Beaver Lake to thank God for giving them this land. Here they could raise their families, and live free from cultural, economic and religious oppression.

In 1722 they appealed to the royal government in Portsmouth to became a town. They threw off the old name of Nutfield and instead called their new town Londonderry - after their old home in Northern Ireland. This land included what is now the towns of Windham, Derry and Londonderry as well as portions of Salem, Manchester and Hudson. Here on their common field they planted what is claimed to be the first crop of potatoes in North America. To make money, almost every home had a patch of flax growing in their yards. From every house could be heard the sounds of looms making cloth. Their linen was sold all over New England. Even George Washington and Thomas Jefferson wore clothes made from Londonderry Linen. Soon however, weavers from other towns were making linen of inferior quality and claiming it was real, honest-to-goodness Londonderry Linen. To prevent their cloth from hurting the reputation of our weavers, the Town meeting in 1748 required that all locally made linen be marked with our Town’s name. Londonderry Linen is claimed to be the first trade-marked product in America.

During the Revolutionary War, the overwhelming majority of the townsfolk were decidedly on the side of the patriot cause. Men from our Town served first at Bunker Hill and continued on bravely to the end of the war at Yorktown. Matthew Thornton - from what is now Derry Village - was a signer of the Declaration of Independence. General John Stark who latter said “Live Free Or Die” was born here, as was General George Reid who served longer than any other Patriot leader except one - his best friend General George Dearborn who had enlisted one day earlier. There were a few from our town who remained loyal to the king. Foremost of these Tories was Colonel Stephen Holland who, while serving as our selectmen, was actually a major British spy.

During the years since 1719, our men and women have fought in a dozen wars. From the time of the French and Indian War, the Civil War and onto the current conflicts against terrorism, our sons and daughters have fought bravely and with pride. Too many of these warriors did not survive to return to Derry and grow old surrounded by friends and family in their hometown. The names of these Derry heroes are inscribed on a war memorial in East Derry and at the McGregor Park in West Derry.

Throughout the 18th century, pieces of the original Nutfield grant broke away to form separate towns. In 1825-1827 there were efforts made to separate the remaining area into 2 separate towns. There was considerable agitation both for and against the split. Finally, after much political rancor and ill will, the division was approved by the state government and signed into law on July 2, 1827. A new town was born which took the name of Derry - the original name of Londonderry in Northern Ireland which means a hill covered with oak trees.

The town maintained an agriculture-based economy until 1870 when Colonel William Pillsbury began shoe factories in the Broadway section of Town. Prior to Pillsbury, that part of Derry was home to a single store, a hotel, a lumber mill, 5 houses and a railroad depot. As the decades passed, Broadway began a remarkable growth because of the booming shoe factories. Soon the streets in western Derry were lined with new stores, churches and houses. Trolley lines were built to connect Derry to Manchester and Chester. One of our shoe factories claimed to be the longest wooden building in the country! The H.P. Hood Co. manufactured all of their butter from their Broadway creamery and rushed it daily to Boston - only an hour away by train. Each year millions of shoes were manufactured in Derry and shipped to 5 continents. By 1900 three-quarters of the Town’s population lived and worked within walking distance of Broadway.

During the early 20th century, the shoe industry began to move to the southern states and the Hood Company moved its operations to Massachusetts. In 1960, the last of our Broadway shoe factories was destroyed in a fire. More and more of our working men and women were now forced to drive to Manchester or to Massachusetts to find employment. A few of our local stores and apartment buildings actually closed and were boarded up. The population of Derry from 1900 to 1960 remained relatively unchanged as too many of our young people decided against remaining in Derry. They saw their futures lying in other towns. We were defiantly a part of the North-East Coast rust belt.  Derry was commonly perceived to be a town in decline with its best days behind it.

All this would change in July 1963 when Interstate Highway I-93 opened. Within a decade, our population doubled, and in 20 years it tripled. Derry’s population now is about 5 times larger then it was in 1963. With this increased population and prosperity came both problems and opportunities. Our former fields and forests were quickly turned into housing developments. The land that was once was pasture to a thousand cows is now the home to hundreds of apartment units. Once all of our shopping was done in the small stores on Broadway; now the many malls of Derry supply the needs and wants of our citizens. Each year more and more of our citizens find employment within the industrial parks of Derry. Once our children were educated in one of a dozen primitive one-room school houses; now our youth attend large, well appointed modern schools with state-of-the-art technology in every classroom. Pinkerton Academy, our Town’s high school, is the largest such school in America.

For nearly 300 years we have been a town and a community. During those years, hundreds of thousands of hard working men and women have called Derry home. We have also been home to many remarkable men and women who have gained national reputation. Among those that have not been previously mentioned are: Mary Lyon, a pioneer in the education of women; Robert Frost, America’s favorite poet; Buddy Stewart, a pioneer of jazz; Robert Rogers, a military innovator; Alan B. Shepard, America’s first man in space; George “Lefty’ Tyler, the star pitcher with the “Miracle Braves” of 1916; Samantha Brown, the star of many travel television shows; and Trish Dunn-Luoma, a multi-medal winning Olympian.

Richard Holmes - Town Historian

Monday: 8AM - 12PM
Tuesday: 4PM - 7PM
Or by appointment - (603) 434-6042