Tales of My Home
Stories about the Lower Merrimack Valley region of Massachusetts
The Hampton Beach Labor Day Riot of 1964 (Or: Can I Ever Stop Writing About Riots??)
Above: Hampton Beach along the seawall near Concord Avenue, circa 1946. My father is on the far left. Grandfather standing right.
Hampton Beach, N.H. holds a central role in my family's history. My maternal grandparents owned hotels and roominghouses there into the early 1960s, such as the SeaCoy right on the boardwalk (now the main branch of Blink's Fried Dough), and the Sunrise Motor Court, New Hampshire's first actual motel built circa 1920; and on my father's side, numerous uncles and grandparents had cottages that were the locus of much family activity every summer, on Concord Avenue just off the beach. I spent a lot of time there as a kid, visiting uncles on both sides who had family cottages there.
Above: Steetcar to Hampton Beach, circa 1910
Even though the streetcars started to disappear in the 1930s, replaced by automobiles, the travelroutes had been established between the mill towns of the Merrimack Valley and these beach resort areas, leading to a particular culture of the area.
Whether you went to Salisbury or Hampton depended on a variety of factors, sometimes outside of your control. Italians almost universally went to Salisbury, as did most French Canadians. This was partially due to a prejudicial attitude held by the fathers of Hampton Beach, who did their best to exclude certain groups. (See the report http://www.hampton.lib.nh.us/hampton/history/randall/chap3/randall3_2.htm). Hampton's town fathers apparently tolerated the Irish, although only the "better sort."
In any case, by the early 1960s, Hampton had the view that "Salisbury is inclined to be classed as a honky tonk by Hampton's advocates, who have always prided themselves on keeping Hampton Beach a family resort, free from liquor, ferris wheels, roller coasters and the other gimcracks which can clutter and choke a vacation community." (Report of the Hampton Beach Office of Juvenile Delinquency and Youth Development on the 1964 Riot).
Yet this snooty, "middle class" attitude of Hampton Beach did not prevent a series of increasingly serious youth riots from breaking out each year starting in 1960, culminating in the 1964 Labor Day riot. In that event, between 2,500 and 10,000 youth clashed with "40 local police, 68 auxiliary police and 85 state police, ultimately assisted by the Rockingham County Sheriff's Department, the New Hampshire National Guard and a contingent of Maine state police."
Below: Newspaper coverage of the riot. Source: Hampton Historical Society
"Miraculously, no one was killed, although both police and rioters sustained extensive injuries. The expressed desire of the youth to burn the Hampton Beach Casino was thwarted, but two small buildings were burned down by Molotov cocktails, and approximately 155 youths were arrested."
As the report in the riot noted, on an average summer day there may be 25,000 to 30,000 persons at Hampton Beach. And at peak crowd periods, such as holiday weekends, there may be 100,000 persons at Hampton Beach.
Furthermore, "Of the total population, probably 75% of those at the beach center and 50% of those in the entire Hampton Beach area are under the age of 25. Thus there may well be 10,000 to 15,000 young people at the resort at any given time during the summer, or up to 50,000 or possibly more on holiday weekends."
The part that interests me: Most of these youth were presumably from the mill towns of the Merrimack Valley: Lowell, Lawrence, Haverhill.
Was their boisterousness related to local culture? Or were the riots more about "youth culture", the first hint that the "Baby Boomers" were going to be different, were going to expect to do things their way. How different was this riot from the Lawrence, Mass. riot of 1984?
One of the most interesting aspects of the post-riot report is the very detailed assessment of the various youth cliques that prevailed at Hampton Beach in the summer of 1964.
"1. The "C" Street gang" - young patrons and employees of the Patio Restaurant at the Ashworth Avenue end of C Street and of the Tiki Restaurant (in 1964 the Troll Bridge) near the Ocean Boulevard end of C Street. Probably 25 to 50 young people from this group were on the beach at all times through the summer; another 250 to 300 would come and go during various periods, with the peak on weekends. When a special party or outing - frequently a luau away from the Hampton Beach area - was held, nearly everyone from this group would be on hand. Of the various cliques on the beach it was the most cohesive, the most happy-go-lucky, probably the most casual in its attitudes towards sex and liquor.
Around this group - probably to a greater extent than with the other groups - there clustered a collection of hangers-on, particularly around the Tiki Restaurant. Of all the cliques on the beach the C Street gang was most "in." Perhaps "clannish" would be an appropriate term to apply to this clique, for on the occasion of its parties attendance was by invitation only; those not thoroughly accepted were pointedly omitted. Perhaps some of the hangers-on gave the C Street gang a worse reputation than it deserved, for although the Tiki and the Patio were never centers of trouble from a police viewpoint, it should be noted that some of the tougher kids of the beach did hang out there.
The C Street gang - and indeed all the other home-based groups on the beach - took a rather conspicuous stance against riots and rioters. These people came to Hampton Beach for a good time, and primarily they wanted to be left to their own devices. Specifically in the 1964 riot they had taken an active part in defending their own territory against the rioters and had prevented damage for the length of their street. Throughout the summer, many members of the C Street gang were on excellent terms with the police and the rapport was mutual.
2. "The Renwood Group", based around the employees of the Renwood Dining Room and Gift Shop, the Moulton Hotel and the Carrousel luncheonette, all properties of the Downer family. In this group there was a similar cohesive spirit. The individuals in the group were probably a little older - more of a college age - than those on C Street, and their behavior and attitudes a little more conventional. Of all the factions on the beach this one was least active in its participation in CAVE" (the Committee Against Violent Eruptions, which had been formed by the Hampton Beach police in response to the less severe 1963 riots, often referred to rumbles).
3. The Dunfey group, employees of Dunfey's Restaurant and various other beach enterprises and their friends. Through the years as the Dunfey enterprises have expanded and the Dunfeys themselves have had less opportunity to participate personally in their beach enterprises, their employees have become a less close-knit group. Nonetheless, this was a distinct faction in the beach society, both overlapping and in competition with the C Street group. For instance, during the summer of 1964 there was considerable horseplay over the "kidnapping" of the Dunfey piano by the habituees of the Troll Bridge and its subsequent recovery.
4.Casino employees - a distinct group in itself, especially around the employee domicile known as the Gink, but also fragmenting and taking part in the affairs of the various other cliques.
The remainder of the beach society was considerably more amorphous, composed of day visitors who came and went and smaller groups looking for beach outings or dates. As a rule there was very little cohesion along home-town lines. In some few instances there is contact between various members of these several groups during the winter season, but for the most part it centers around the beach itself, starting about mid-April and ending rather abruptly after Labor Day.
To some small extent there were some cultures around the few places of teenage entertainment on the beach. For instance, the Seagate Ballroom, running rock and roll bands four nights a week, consistently attracted a crowd of 14 to 16-year old youngsters who may have had other contacts during daytime hours. The Onyx Room, a teenage nightclub a mile to the north of the beach center, also had its own following, although here again there was overlapping, since much of its clientele obviously came from the C Street group."
Such an elaborately detailed, fine differentiation between and among the different youth cliques suggests that this "exuberance" was a youth-based event, rather than a class-based event. In fact, many of the reports emphasized that youth who came to Hampton dropped their hometown allegiances and did not run in cliques based on what town they were from. The post-riot study noted "it was quite clear that Lowell, Massachusetts, far outstripped any other community in its representation of young people at Hampton Beach." (Lowell being the biggest mill town.)
Cover of the guidebook listing my grandparents' properties in their heyday