Group restores Manchester's Stark Park, where 'Live Free or Die' coiner rests

New Hampshire Union Leader
October 06. 2013 9:12PM
Patricia Howard, president of the Friends of Stark Park, talks about the restoration of Gen. John Stark's grave site in Manchester. (DAVID LANE/UNION LEADER)

MANCHESTER — Patricia Howard hopes one day students will associate the phrase "Live Free or Die" with a local legend, instead of license plates.

It's a vision that has helped guide the work of the Friends of Stark Park, including months of restoration work at the grave sites of Gen. John Stark and members of his family.

"This has been a big project, and we're on the homestretch," said Howard, Friends of Stark Park president.

"We used to joke about running a contest, asking who is buried in Stark Park and seeing how many people get it right," said Robert Chase, the Friends' treasurer. "He was really one of the primary heroes of the American Revolution."

Oak Hill Construction of Framingham, Mass., restored cement pillars and curbing at the site, which appears on national and state registers of historic places. Cassidy Bros. Forge of Rowley, Mass., which also did restoration at Valley Street Cemetery in Manchester, worked to bring the 100-year-old fence that surrounds the graves back to its original glory.

"As far as the work goes, you can't even tell what's original and what's replaced they did such a great job," said Howard.

She pointed out that no work was done to the Stark family graves.

Gen. Stark's final resting place is marked by a granite obelisk. He and his wife, Molly, had 11 children; a monument marks the graves of the other family members. A road in front of the fenced area will be replaced by a grass apron soon — possibly this week — where future ceremonies and other events can be held.

"There'll be a brick patio, and a walkway out to the entrance," Howard said.

Chase said additional plans call for clearing underbrush behind and below the grave sites.

"This could be opened up, and eventually visitors would be able to see Mount Uncanoonuc, the same view visitors had decades ago," Chase said.

Gen. Stark commanded the First Regiment of New Hampshire at the Battle of Bennington on Aug. 16, 1777. Stark and his troops defeated a larger British force. Two months later, he and his soldiers sealed off the last escape route for British troops at the Battle of Saratoga. "Those two battles are frequently cited as turning points in the American Revolution," Chase said.

After returning to his Manchester farm, Stark became sick and was unable to attend a reunion with his troops. Instead, he wrote a toast to be read to his men, "Live free or die. Death is not the worst of evils."

The first four words of that toast became New Hampshire's state motto.

Gen. Stark died in 1822 and was buried in the family plot on North River Road. The 30-acre plot was dedicated as a public park in 1893.

By 2000, it had fallen into disrepair. A group of neighbors formed the Friends of Stark Park in 2004, with a mission to restore the park and the grave site according to a "preservation master plan" developed by the city.

Funds were donated to build a bandstand, constructed in 2009.

Howard said if all goes as planned, the completed project could be the focus of a celebration next summer, possibly on the anniversary of the Battle of Bennington on Aug. 16.

"We've raised just over $140,000," said Howard, including $20,000 from the Manchester Community Improvement Program and $10,000 from conservation "moose" license plate funds. "We tapped every resource we could, and we're very pleased with the work ... but more needs to be done."

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