Notes on Tamworth Lyceum

By Brandon Shockley

1.  You know you’re getting close to Tamworth, New Hampshire when on the radio, the wails of Tom Petty become the wails of Neil Young. A town of fewer than 3,000 (in peak season), Tamworth is home to the oldest summer theatre in New England, the world’s loudest and most irrepressible house fly, transcendental blueberry milk, —and the Tamworth Lyceum, a new store/art gallery/philosophical groundswell dreamt up by Steve Grasse and the folks at Quaker City Mercantile.

The Lyceum manages to be authentically rustic and at the same time futuristic. Books on the geometric theories of Buckminster Fuller share shelf space with a New England Almanac circa 1833. The coffee is fair trade, the wood is reclaimed, and the going rate for milk is 50 cents. Not that anyone asked, but I dig it.

2.  When we arrive in town we are greeted by Jamie Oakes, the caretaker of the Lyceum and a genuinely nice guy. We do a quick tour of the Lyceum’s shelves before setting out on an expedition to Conway for Thai food and travel supplies:

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The Lyceum intrigues me with its almond Dijon mustard and selection of well-named Zapp’s potato chips (with varieties including Voodoo, Mesquite BBQ, and Cajun Craw-Tator). What’s more, they sell old-school field notebooks (for the Jane Goodall in all of us), waterproof matches, bourbon-smoked sugar, and — did I mention? — blueberry milk. If you aren’t interested in wearing socks anymore, drinking Sherman Farm’s blueberry milk is a great way to knock em’ right off.

Being a city slicker, I find myself playing chicken with the rural-ness of Tamworth. Most of the time, I was expecting some contrived experience of “roughing it,” yet equally expecting some kind of cosmopolitan ex-urban crafts fair. Suffice it to say, the town and the surrounding areas are really neither. There is a WalMart, but it’s done up in a subdued stone exterior. There are cows, but they’re not just for show. And now, there is a Lyceum.

3.  On the second day we awake at dawn to capture some beautiful footage of the sun coming up over the mountains. In the early morning, just a short ways up the dirt road at the Grasse farm, there is a placid silence. The wind doesn’t blow and very few birds have the gumption to start singing that early. Jamie joins us with hot coffee and shows us the way up to Hemenway–not Hemingway–park. If I ever think of Autumn, I’ll have to think of this place.

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At the end of the hiking trail, we mount the lookout tower, erected in 1973 as a sentinel against forest fires, which could risk both lives and livelihood. From the top we get a view of this sprawling New England forest: nature writ large with the Tamworth church steeple as the only punctuation.

We spend the rest of the day exploring, filming, and eating pizza. In the process we learn that Lendl sleeps soundly in any vehicle going more than 14 miles per hour.

4.  In the evening, we sample some fine New England beer and photography. Jamie has curated a gallery exhibit at the Lyceum and, luckily for us, the opening is tonight.

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We have a great time chatting with the artist, Patricia Turner. Her photography is both abstract and modern; it honors an “old way of seeing” and the architectural lines of the small town. This affair evolves into a ROOT tasting, which is much less abstract. ROOT is a practical drink. I can vouch for it as a fine complement to porters, colas, hot chocolate, and, most of all, coffee. ROOT and coffee isn’t just “up my alley”; it’s the street I live on.


5.  (Awake at 2:30 a.m.)

Me: Goodnight sweet prince. We deserve each other. (SWAT)

House Fly: bzzzzzzzz . . .


6.  The next day we grab some more footage and sample the other varieties of Sherman Farm milk. Rather than spoil my vacation with more leisure time, I decide to catch up on some research and drink espresso with new friends on the porch of the Lyceum while Jen and Lendl chart the nooks and crannies of the Grasse farm.


7.  Footage gathered. Vacation days spent. It seems too soon, but just a few chicken wings later, we’re back on the road. In our rear-view mirror, the town of Tamworth looks much larger than it actually is.


8.  The phrase “As it turns out” is a more cunning way of saying unfortunately. Case in point: As it turns out, there are no decent stations rocking Neil Young on the entire stretch of I-95 from NH to PA. We drive our way right out of the light-hearted and smack into the heavy-handed. Nonetheless, I ‘keep-a searchin’ the stations to no avail.

I very much look forward to going back. Tamworth is home to a really great collection of people. In comparison to the day-to-day, the authenticity in Tamworth feels exotic and refreshing. It would be easy for a clumsy hand to crush this firefly, but the Tamworth Lyceum is more gentle: it only jars the bug for safe-keeping. Let’s see Tom Petty try to do that!