EXETER — Longtime American Independence Museum volunteer Bob Mitchell has been the go-to man for more than 20 years in recruiting colonial artisans to show off their crafts at the American Independence Festival.
The working artisan village, sponsored by the New Hampshire State Council on the Arts, has become one of the highlights of the festival each year. This year’s festival will take place from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturday at the Independence Museum.
Mitchell is credited with helping to move the artisans from the Stratham Fair in the 1990s to be a part of the annual festival which celebrates the arrival of an original copy of the Declaration of Independence in town on July 16, 1776
“Some people call me a do-gooder,” Mitchell, a Stratham resident, said. “I’m just someone who never learned how to say no.”
As he worked to set up the tents for the village this week, Mitchell said this may be his last year organizing the coopers, the basket weavers, textile makers, masons and many more who have helped grow the festival over the last two decades.
He said he is looking to pass the torch as he turns 75 next month.
Mitchell said the main reason he wanted to have the artisans become a part of the American Independence Festival is because they were somewhat out of place at the Stratham Fair between the carnival games and rides.
“People go to the fair to have fun and relax, they’re not necessarily going to learn something,” Mitchell said. “The museum was the perfect place because people coming to a museum expect to learn something, so what a great event to showcase first-hand how our colonial ancestors lived day to day.”
Mitchell said he worked with the then-executive director to get the artisans to showcase their work at the bottom of the museum's hill along Water Street.
“I said let’s get these talented artisans outside, so people can see what they are making and take a real interest in it,” Mitchell said. "One year it was raining cats and dogs and we thought no one would show up, but there they were standing in the pouring rain watching these colonial artisans work at their craft.”
Mitchell said like the other volunteers and staff at the museum, he revels at the chance to provide first-person learning opportunities to children and their families.
“Our job is to expose children to this history, so the best is having inquisitive children because they ask the questions their parents are afraid to,” he added. “A wise stone mason once told me to answer the children but watch for their parents’ reactions because they’re learning just as much from their child’s question.
“If you ask kids where their clothes come from, they’ll say the store,” he said. “This year we’ll have someone spinning wool and a pen of about a dozen sheep next to her so the children can see the fabric being made at the source. The colonialists were remarkably self-sufficient.”
Mitchell was born and raised in New Jersey and had a long career as a machinist in the Midwest before coming to the Seacoast in the mid-1970s to help his parents settle in their new home in Rye for their retirement.
After his career in the Rust Belt, he said he worked a number of different jobs, doing everything from working as a stockbroker, to a computer science educator at UNH at the dawn of the digital age, to computer salesman, and connected American companies to manufacturers in China. He refers to himself as a “pinball going wherever the last flipper flipped” him.
However, one constant in his life since he moved to the area was his involvement with the American Independence Museum, he said. Through fellow Rotary Club member and friend Dick Brewster, Mitchell said he found out about the discovery of the Dunlap Broadside copy of the Declaration of Independence in the attic of the Ladd Gilman House in 1985. The discovery of the copy of the Declaration of Independence captured his imagination, he said, and spurred his involvement in the museum.
Today, Mitchell said he is proud of how much the museum has grown, and how the festival has become a marquee event in Exeter every summer. Though he said there’s always room to grow.
“I bet that 50 percent of people in Exeter don’t know this is here, they may drive by the building on the hill downtown and wonder what it is, but they haven’t been,” Mitchell said. “It’s a real collaborative effort with everyone at the museum. They make it so easy to work for them, and I’m very lucky to be involved with this great event.”
Victoria Su, events coordinator at the museum, said Mitchell has been an invaluable resource in finding talented artisans year after year.
“Bob’s involvement in the festival outdates all of us staff members, so without him (Executive Director Emma Bray) and I would’ve definitely lacked some guidance,” Su said. “He knew what needed to be done, how it needed to be done, and most importantly, who did it. I’ve really learned a lot from him.”
Tickets for the festival, which takes place from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., are $10 for adults, $5 for ages 6 to 18, and free for children under 6 and museum members. Courtesy of Chinburg Properties, free admission is also available to active/retired military, veterans, and their immediate families. All proceeds benefit the American Independence Museum and support future festivals.
To purchase tickets, or learn more about the museum, a National Landmark Property, visit www.independencemuseum.org.