In the fall of 1973, the Greek oil shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis, husband of President John F. Kennedy's widow, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, and arguably the richest man in the world, proposed to build an oil refinery on the narrow New Hampshire coast, in the town of Durham. At the time, it would have cost $600 million to build and was expected to generate 400,000 barrels of oil per day, making it the largest oil refinery in the world. The project was vigorously supported by the governor, Meldrim Thomson, and by William Loeb, the notorious publisher of the only statewide newspaper, the Manchester Union Leader.
But three women vehemently opposed the project-Nancy Sandberg, the town leader who founded and headed Save Our Shores; Dudley Dudley, the freshman state rep who took the fight to the state legislature; and Phyllis Bennett, the publisher of the local newspaper that alerted the public to Onassis's secret acquisition of the land. Small Town, Big Oil is the story of how the residents of Durham, led by these three women, out-organized, out-witted, and out-maneuvered the governor, the media, and the Onassis cartel to hand the powerful Greek billionaire the most humiliating defeat of his business career, and spare the New Hampshire seacoast from becoming an industrial wasteland.
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About the Author
Rebecca Gibel, an award-winning stage, television, and voice actress, has worked across the country at theaters such as Trinity Rep, Cleveland Play House, and the Arden Theatre Company. Rebecca has narrated over fifty audiobooks and is facile in a wide variety of genres.
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Nancy Sandberg was startled when a large dark sedan crept its way up her driveway past the oak trees. She wasn't anticipating company, her friends would have called before coming over, and she wasn't wild about talking with any strangers. She had seen the car earlier, as it wound down the road toward her neighbors, and expected it would simply pass by on its return. That it was now coming directly toward her made her mildly anxious. She was working in her garden and looked a mess, her dark hair curling all over the place, her old shorts spattered with paint. It was a hot and humid August day, typical for that time of year in Durham, New Hampshire, and she was perspiring, hardly a condition for socializing with anyone, much less someone she didn't know.
A tall man wearing a dark suit and sun glasses, but no hat, emerged from the car, a city slicker, she thought as he approached her, maybe lost and needing directions. He was dark complexioned, looking like maybe he was from some place in the Mediterranean. He greeted her in a friendly tone, asking if she was Mrs. Sandberg, knowing her name, so also clearly not lost. He was interested in buying some property, he told her. He didn't need a lot of acreage, just a little for a house for himself and his family. He seemed so out of place, she couldn't imagine him actually building a house and living there, the bucolic life at complete odds with his whole persona.
She told him she couldn't sell the land. The land and the farm still belonged to her grandmother, who had suffered a stroke and was in a nursing home. Nancy and her husband were living there just to take care of the property, she told him. She didn't tell him that they expected to live there permanently, that eventually she expected her grandmother to give the land to her father, who would give it to her. That was none of his business.
Yes, he said, he knew about the actual ownership of the land, but certainly the occupants must have some control or influence on any decision to sell some acres. Nancy was startled by the level of his knowledge about her property, realizing that he must have been to the Town Hall to look at the tax map. This was no casual encounter. He said he realized there were forty acres around the farm house, but farther away was a woodlot of thirty acres. Couldn't he buy a few acres of that? Again, she said no, and again he claimed he needed only a small area for a home. Surely, she could afford to give up some part of the land for a reasonable price. Several times he reiterated his requirements in different ways, not so much asking, it seemed, as insisting, as though he had some right to acquire what was not his.
She thought maybe she wasn't being direct enough for him to get it through his head that there was no way she was going to sell any part of her grandmother's farmland. When her intentions finally became clear, he asked if he could talk with her husband. When would he be available? She was relieved at the request, because she knew Mal would back her up completely. Maybe he could be more forceful. Some men only listen to men, thinking women don't have the judgment necessary to make sound decisions about their own lives. The fact was, of course, that Mal had no legal or moral right to make any independent decision about the disposition of the land. He wasn't the one who had come here every Christmas as a child, as she had since the age of five, taking the fourteen-hour long car trip from New Jersey with her parents and younger sister, loving to be with her grandmother and in her grandmother's house, her own room situated at the top of the stairs overlooking the grandfather clock, which was so tall it extended in the stairwell above the second floor. During the holidays, she and her sister, and parents and grandparents, all played in the snow, sledding and making snowmen and snow angels, and afterward coming into the kitchen for warm apple cider. They would all open their presents on Christmas morning, though she remembered that one year, she and her sister had gotten up before dawn and were champing at the bit to open their presents when their grandmother came down, happy as always, sharing their eagerness, and letting them open some of their presents right then. Her parents were annoyed when they later came down to find they had missed some of the excitement. But her grandmother just waved off their objections with a laugh.
The original farm house was built by Jacob Mathes in 1861, on the site of an Army garrison established two centuries earlier, with some of the wood in the new house actually taken from that fort. Her grandparents had bought it from the Mathes family in 1916, and her dad had been raised there with his siblings. Not one of the kids in his generation had any interest in returning there when their mother had the stroke. Her dad was pleased when Nancy and Malcolm, who had just finished getting his degree at Boston University, volunteered to live at the farm and take care of it. Mal sought teaching jobs all over southern New Hampshire and eventually found a position at Exeter High School, about a half hour away. Nancy stayed home to take care of the house and the land, to help make the farm pay for itself with produce, and to raise their daughter, Betsy, who was now four years old. Nancy had a large garden of vegetables, and was taking care of an apple orchard that she and Mal had begun planting when they first arrived, two hundred new apple trees every spring, so that now they had eight hundred. It was hard work, but she couldn't imagine not living there. She was rooted there, as surely as the oak trees in the front yard, and she could never part with any portion of the land.
She agreed to meet with the man again, Peter Booras, he said, his Greek name confirming her instinct about his origins. The visit bothered her. His desire for a small piece of land didn't ring true. If that's all he wanted, there were lots of homes for sale in Durham. So why did he insist on having part of her farmland? Later, she picked up Betsy from nursery school and came home to fix the dinner. When Mal arrived, he told her about his day at school, preparing for the beginning of the new academic year. She told him all about the visit from Peter Booras. Who was he? She didn't know. He never said what he did or why he wanted the land, other than for his family. Mal agreed there was something fishy about Booras' request to buy some part of their land, and suggested that when the man came the next time, they should ask him some pointed questions and tape record what he told them. They considered whether it would be practical or wise to record him without his knowledge, but decided that if he was in their house, anything he said was a matter of record.
They bought a small recorder and set it up in their kitchen area. The meeting took place the next week, in the evening after dinner, Booras wearing a suit, but no tie, his white shirt open at the neck. He was tall and smooth and said he could stay for only a short time. They all sat on the chairs around the kitchen table as he reiterated his desire for some small piece of land, not much, just for a house for him and his family. Mal was firm in saying they would not, in fact could not, did not have the authority, to sell any of the land, and wouldn't do so even if they could. But when Mal began grilling Booras about why he was so intent on obtaining some part of their property, Booras gave vague answers about how beautiful their location overlooking the Oyster River was, and that other places didn't suit his needs. When he left, they realized they had nothing of use on the recorder. But the meeting reaffirmed their suspicions that Booras was not telling the whole truth. There was some secret agenda that he refused to reveal.
Over the next couple of weeks, Nancy talked with her neighbors and found that many of them had also been approached about selling their land. But it wasn't always the same man. Another man with a Greek name, George Pappademus, also claimed he was seeking property and had approached several households. The coincidence of the Greek names and vague reasons for wanting property on Durham Point Road led Nancy to believe that something else was going on. She contacted Francis Robinson, a fellow resident on Durham Point and a former, long-time Town Moderator, to see if he would preside over a neighborhood meeting to exchange stories. As it turned out, Pappademus had also tried to buy some of Robinson's property, so Francis was quite willing to grant Nancy's request.
One couple that had not been approached was Sharon and Dave Meeker, who had moved into a small, seven-acre ranch just down the road from the Sandburg's. Dave started teaching math at the University a couple of years earlier, and for two years the Meekers had lived in Dover, a small city less than ten miles away. But as their children were getting close to school age, they decided to move into the Oyster River School District, which included Durham and two other adjacent towns. The first person to visit and welcome them was Nancy, and they had been friends with both Sandbergs since. At their new ranch on Durham Point, Sharon and Dave had a couple of horses for them and their kids to ride. "We are both from out west," Dave later recalled. "We both rode horses and we wanted our children to have the same opportunity."
Before moving to New Hampshire, the Meekers lived in a community housing complex in New Jersey overseen by a federal agency, Housing and Urban Development (HUD). A major conflict arose between the tenants and the supervisors of the complex over the quality of the services that were supposed to be provided to all the residents. Sharon was heavily involved in the conflict, working on behalf of the tenants, keeping them informed of negotiations with HUD officials and providing the press with the latest updates. When Nancy informed her about the strange series of visits by Booras and Pappademus and suggested the neighborhood meeting, Sharon's political antennae told her something important was probably happening. She was eager to attend the meeting, to lend her skills and whatever knowledge she had gained from her experience in New Jersey. She and Dave assumed they had not been approached to sell their land because it was so small compared with the other properties being sought. "But I sensed right away there was something big going on," Sharon would say later. "Another case where the powers that be try to screw the common folk."
At the evening meeting in the UNH library, the neighbors shared stories of their encounters with the men who wanted to buy their land. To Sherwood "Woody" Rollins, whom Nancy had known for a long time, Pappademus said he wanted the land for "a game preserve"; to Connie Kitfield, a math teacher at Oyster River High School, Pappademus claimed he was "not in the real estate business – he just wanted a nice farm"; to Sam Smith on Durham Point Road, the man said he was just interested "in an older house"; and to the Langleys, Nancy's next door neighbors, he said there "absolutely would be no development." But Evelyn Browne's story was perhaps the most troublesome.
Ev, as Nancy called her, was also promised by the men who approached her that there would be no development. She was a professor of physical education at the University of New Hampshire, and lived on "Salty," a 170-acre estate that bordered Little Bay – an extension of Great Bay, a tidal body of water several miles inland from the Portsmouth coastline. Ev had been living on Salty with her partner, Marion Beckwith, also a UNH physical education professor, since 1948. The main house on Salty was originally built almost two centuries earlier, but it was virtually rebuilt by the two women after they bought it from the Rollins family. The property initially consisted of just 18 acres, but over the years the two women had gradually added to it, buying up available parcels when they could afford to do so. Now, a decade and a half later, they had no intention of selling it.
Ev and Marion were first approached by two men on either Thursday or Friday, September 20 or 21 — Ev couldn't remember which. The men identified themselves as Chris Booras (who, they later discovered, was the brother of Peter Booras) and a Mr. Belhumer, who owned the Hampton Motel in Hampton, New Hampshire. Ev recounted that the men "said they were looking for property for a friend who was looking for 'isolation.'" Ev told the men that Salty was not for sale. When they asked her if she had any other property for sale, Ev said she did – Ambler Acres, consisting of 35 acres and a two-apartment house, which she had listed for sale several years earlier. "However," she told the group, "I have resisted selling to real estate developers, as I did not want a Wedgewood [a new housing development in Durham at the time] down here." The men said they would report back. They never mentioned their client's name.
On Friday evening — either the same day or the day after the first encounter with the two men — Ev received a phone call from a man who identified himself as Mr. George Pappademus of Hampton, N.H., the client who wanted to buy Salty and Ambler Acres. "I would like to see you tomorrow morning," he said. "My wife and I have been down there and you were not at home and we walked around and peeked into your windows and we just love your big wide boards."
The notion that these people were poking around her house and property while she was gone did not sit well. "I already told those two men, Salty is not for sale," Ev told him. "If you want to discuss Amblers, I will meet with you. But I won't sell Salty."
Pappademus replied, "Little lady, I'll bet that we will buy your wide boards right out from under you."
Clearly, the arrogance and persistence of these men portended something of great consequence. For the next couple of hours, the neighbors engaged in animated conversation in the UNH library as they tried to figure out what might be happening in their neighborhood. Most certainly, there was some plan underfoot that threatened to change the character of Durham Point. Most probably, they thought, it would be a major housing development, because the scenic views of Little Bay and the Oyster River were certainly to die for. That the men were being so secretive about their intentions, and the fact that they were seeking so much property, suggested this was no small undertaking, but something major. Still, they didn't really know what they were fighting against.
"We need to have a name for our group," someone said. And that started an extended conversation about what the name could be. Someone suggested "Save Our Shores," which had the nice acronym of SOS – Help! – but others thought it was premature and perhaps not even relevant. Was it really their "shores" that needed saving, or was it more extensive, the whole area on Durham Point? Sharon Meeker liked the name, loved the acronym, and argued strongly for such a name that, from a public relations perspective, immediately conveyed the problem the neighbors faced. But wasn't that just the problem, someone argued, that SOS was really limited to only their neighborhood, and so could be seen as just another case of the NIMBY phenomenon – where people liked the advantages of economic development, as long as it's Not In My Back Yard?
It was getting late and they had argued long enough. "We need something to identify our movement," Sharon said. "Save Our Shores is a great name for whatever plan might be under way." In exhaustion, they agreed. SOS it would be. Someone suggested that Sharon should be president, but immediately she said, "No! Nancy should be president." Without further discussion, the group agreed. Nancy was too stunned to say anything.
When she got home, Mal was in bed. She woke him and told him what happened at the meeting. It took him a few moments to process her words, but when she concluded by noting that she was now the president of SOS, he grinned at her. "Now you've gone and done it!" What, actually, had she gone and done? She realized she was just a housewife and had no experience with anything like SOS, whatever it might turn out to be. The thought terrified her. She looked at Mal wordlessly, and perhaps it was the expression on her face that caused him to reconsider his reaction. He quickly added, "Don't worry, honey. You'll do great!" But Nancy wasn't so sure.
Excerpted from "Small Town, Big Oil"
Copyright © 2018 David W. Moore.
Excerpted by permission of Diversion Publishing Corp..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
1 The Stranger 1
2 Early Alert 10
3 Devising a Strategy 18
4 SOS Emerges 27
5 Abandoning the Dream 36
6 The Man Behind the Throne 44
7 The Man on the Throne 55
8 Meeting Olympic 62
9 Touring Durham Point 75
10 Town Meeting 84
11 Pursuing the Dream 90
12 Petitions and the Governor 96
13 The Oil Refinery-Nineteen Articles and Reports 100
14 Campaigning for Oil 107
15 The Richest Man in the World 112
16 The Oil Man Cometh 122
17 New Year, New Woes 135
18 More on the Petitions 144
19 The Economic Bonanza Myth 148
20 Rye Surprise 152
21 Saving the Dream 158
22 The Other Greek 166
23 SOS Panic Time 172
24 As Rich as Croesus 180
25 Final Preparations 186
26 Dudley's Hearing 196
27 Olympic Refineries Presentation 205
28 The Town Speaks 217
29 Concord Speaks 226
30 Immediate Aftermath 234
Photo Credits 245