This column is provided by historian/author Richard Holmes and is a look back at Hood Park in Derry. Written in 2006, the park since then has become a major priority of the town.
Among the treasures of Derry is the beautiful Hood Park on Rollins Street. For over 65 years it has been a green oasis in our bustling town. It wasn’t always this way. The history of this park reflects the many changes that have happened to this part of Derry.
When old Nutfield was first settled in the early 18th century, the land around Hood Park was a part of the division of the town called Eayers Range. The land at the site of the park pond was granted to Elizabeth Wilson, her infant daughter "Ocean Born" Mary Wilson and John McClurg. At that time there was no pond — instead there was just the gentle, meandering Aikens brook.
In 1721, six men were granted the right to build a sawmill on the small stream. They constructed a dam to provide waterpower to turn the mill wheel. This dam created a pond. In 1849, a railroad causeway was built across this millpond and divided the sheet of water into two ponds. Today we call them Horne’s and Hood Ponds.
Over the years many commercial concerns have used the water of the bisected pond. For generations, the Horne family operated a water-powered sawmill on Maple Street.
Later the Pillsbury Shoe factory had a box factory in the area. The Derry Electric Company had its generating plant at the junction of Maple and Elm streets.
The last remnant of this was torn down in 2005. The area has also been home to several huge sprawling shoe factories, a multi-building mattress factory and a poultry slaughterhouse.
The idea of a recreation area in this part of Derry began in the mid-1930s. Elm Street resident George “Red” Lambert lamented that most of the population of Derry was in the western part of the town but the only swimming beach was miles away at Beaver Lake. He started to attend selectman’s meetings to push for support for a “park for the kids.” Every town meeting was not complete without Red Lambert making a speech on the need for a swimming park.
George Lambert was a man who was hard to ignore. He ran Picard’s Restaurant at 12¼ West Broadway and was known throughout the town for his loud voice. His pro-park interruptions at town meetings made him the bane of the town moderator.
One older citizen told me that if Red talked in his normal voice while standing by the Broadway train depot, he could be clearly heard by the traffic circle in Derry village. He was a man who, at public rallies, did not need amplification by a microphone when addressing a crowd.
In March 1937, Red stood up at the town meeting and announced that he was organizing a townwide canvas to collect money to buy a swimming area at Hood Pond.
Each June thereafter, he sent out an army of young people to sell little white tags that contributors could wear to show support for their cause. Onto the sidewalks and into the stores of Broadway they went, soliciting contributions for the park fund.
Potential donators were told, “Pay whatever price you can afford but give something.” This campaign took placed during the hardest years of the Great Depression, but still Lambert’s park fund began to grow.
The park committee consisted of George Lambert, president; Charlotte Willey, secretary /treasurer; Pinkerton Academy Headmaster John Bell; Superintendent of Schools Edward Erickson; junior high school principal Milton Knowlen and school teacher Martha Moore.
They used some of the money they collected to put a raft on Hood Pond despite the fact the town did not own any shorefront land. To swim the kids would have to trespass across private land or walk along the railroad tracks.
At the town meeting in 1938, Lambert asked the voters for funds to buy a beach at Hood Pond. The voters overwhelmingly voted the sum of $1,000 for the cause. As it turned out this money did not have to be spent. Mrs. Helen Hood, the widow of dairy king Gilbert Hood, offered to sell the nine-acre pond shore site to the town for a dollar. The town quickly accepted this offer.
On July 27, 1938, the town was awarded a $17,626 grant by the Works Progress Administration (WPA) to build the park. The town was required to contribute $5,460, as is share. Soon 50 workmen and a foreman began the task of landscaping the slope to the pond. Derry native Herbert Huntoon, a University of New Hampshire graduate and landscape architect for the National Park Service, designed the park. Selectman Everett Rutter, in his capacity as the town’s tree warden, was in charge of the forestry aspect of the design.
During the next year, the beach was cleared of rocks and sand trucked in. Walks and walls were built. Racks for bikes, a bathhouse, a wharf, seesaws, swings, a horseshoe court and a sliding hill were constructed. Electricity was brought in so the area could be used at night. Because of complaints from neighbors, a new town ordinance in 1940 outlawed any swimming in any pond from midnight to 6 a.m.
A controversy occurred when the selectman named the complex “Hood Park” after its chief benefactress, Mrs. Gilbert Hood. Without the permission of the town fathers, the Lambert Committee sponsored a contest in which the children in Derry select the name of the park. Many in town wanted it named Lambert Park but the Selectmen’s choice ultimately prevailed.
The dedication of the new Hood Park was held on Aug. 25, 1940. A grand parade marched down Broadway to Crystal Avenue and ended at Hood Park. Leading the parade, astride a chestnut-colored steed, was George “Red” Lambert smoking his usual cigar. Behind him marched Derry’s police and firemen, the Derry Brass Band led by Everett Stone, Uncle Bill's Corn Huskers, the St. Thomas Aquinas Girl’s Drill Team, the American Legion Junior Drum Corps and lots of kids with decorated bikes and baby carriages. The winner in the children’s division was little 4-year-old Barbara Potter who was dressed as an Indian maiden carrying a hatchet. She carried a sign that read “Has anyone seen Hitler.”
In the afternoon there were sports contests at the park including horseshoes, ping-pong, badminton and swimming races. The Corn Huskers and the Derry Band gave concerts. A beauty contest was won by Martha Alexander.
At the dedication, many local dignitaries spoke of the hard work that it took to bring the park into reality. All praised Red Lambert as being the “father” of the Derry park movement. At the conclusion of the ceremony, Lambert was given the privilege of officially dedicating the park. In his loud voice, he announced to the 2,000 spectators that the park will "henceforth be known as Hood Park in honor of Mrs. Hood and the Hood Corporation." Mrs. Hood would later donate the Gilbert Hood School to Derry.
One day not long after the park first opened, an older resident stood watching the throng of happy children at the park. In wonderment, he asked Recreation Director Neil Sullivan, “What I want to know is what all these youngsters did with themselves before we had this park?”
Each summer Hood Park is filled with our children swimming, learning crafts, fishing, climbing on the jungle gym, studying nature, playing basketball or taking part in the annual kid’s carnival. Some day Derry should install a plaque at the park in honor of Helen Hood and Red Lambert. We sure owe them a debt of gratitude.
The original architect plans for Hood Park are on display at the Derry Museum of History.
Richard Holmes is a historian and author of many books on local history.