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He knows where Uncle Sam was born

Mathew Thomas has been defying that puckish counsel since he was a teen-ager. At 24, he has already published three town histories, lectured dozens of people on America's presidents, and probed the pasts of hundreds of pedigree-hungry people.

In fact, there is nothing this sandy-haired historian would rather do than poke around old tombstones, leaf through dusty state register books, and scour yellowed newspapers.

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"That's the bad thing about history," he intones, his bushy brows arching over silver-rimmed glasses. "So many people think it's boring because they can't live it. It was the most boring class I had in school. History should be going out into cemeteries and rubbing down gravestones. It should be going out and exploring old cellar holes."

By day, Mr. Thomas works as a distribution manager at the New Hampshire Insurance Company in Manchester. By night, as well as on weekends and at any spare moment available, he digs in some historical vein, trying to unearth an interesting nugget.

Mr. Thomas runs the Colonial Poplin Research Center, a historical consulting firm. He traces family trees, unearths town histories, gauges the ages of homes , and lectures on everything from New Hampshire meetinghouses to old town names.He also writes a biweekly "History from a Poplin Scroll" column for the Kingstonian, an area paper. In short, he will run down just about any historical item anybody wants. Though a part-time job, history remains his full-time obsession.

"To me, the most relaxing way to spend a day is to go to the Exeter [New Hampshire] library and go through old microfilms," he says. "It is personally rewarding to be able to uncover these historical things."

Mathew (Sandy) Thomas is caught up in a fascination with history that is sweeping the country like designer jeans. Spurred by the book and television series "Roots," as well as by the Bicentennial celebration, everyone from graduate students to grandmothers is trying to make more sense out of the present by linking up with the past.

Scholars, too, are paying less attention to great wars and leaders and more to lore on the way ordinary people lived.

"It seems to be a time in which a lot of us, perhaps out of dissatisfaction with the federal government, perhaps out of not knowing where and who we are in this day of rapid social change . . ., are looking for something to grab hold of ," observes Gerald George, director of the American Association for State and Local History in Nashville.

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Last year alone the association's membership rose 17 percent, to 7,400. The history consulting business is small but growing.

"Consultants on history are becoming widespread, to the point where they are actually hanging up a shingle that says historian for hire," says Wesley Johnson , director of the public-history program at the University of California at Santa Barbara, a pioneer in public history. "Five years ago, you would have been hard pressed to count on your hand the number who were publicly doing this. Today these people have stationery, calling cards, and are listed in the phone book."

Mr. Thomas is short on calling cards, but he is long on stationery, brochures , and zest. With the help of three part-time researchers, he handles about eight clients a month.Calls have come in from almost every state in the union.

A West Newbury, Mass., woman recently wanted to know the background of Dominic Eagle, a Revolutionary War soldier. Mathew scrounged through county clerk records and military documents and eventually compiled a 4 1/2-page dossier.

Another client, from San Jose, Calif., wanted to know about all the past speakers of the New Hampshire House of Representatives. Mathew spent three months on and off flipping through dogeared books at the state library and several of his own historical volumes. The fee: $300.

Mr. Thomas lives in one wing of a chocolate-colored clapboard house in this southeastern New Hampshire town. The early Victorian home was built in 1854 by Fremont's last contribution to the state Senate, Isaiah Robinson. Thomas Jefferson peers out from a picture on one pine-paneled wall in the living room. Nearby sits a 120-year-old buffet, and not far from that a Winthrop desk bristling with kerosene lamps and flags.

Upstairs, past a sketch of the infamous Ford Theatre, lies his cramped but orderly office. A six-tier bookshelf sits against one wall, laden with dusty relics such as "Canal Days in America"; "The Old House Catalogue"; and "Abraham Lincoln, the Prairie Years." The room is festooned with yellowing maps and busts of America's founding fathers. Erect and resolute, Mathew points toward a bookshelf loaded with lore.

"Countless times I have seen the mistakes people have made because they haven't learned from the past," he says, waxing eloquent about the significance of the "Biographical Directory of the American Congress."

Mr. Thomas never was one to miss out on the lessons of the past. Early on he was leafing through books on Franklin Pierce (a president he thinks has been unduly besmirched) while his teen-age friends were content with the "Hardy Boys."

For an eighth-grade history project he dug into Fremont's stormy past. His 28-page treatise drew an A-plus and so much praise from classmates that he decided to stick with it. A year later, he began working on an expanded Fremont history, combing through county record books, clipping old newspapers, and interviewing more than 75 elderly people.He paid for the printing from money he earned working at a hamburger stand and a doghnut shop.

The result: 144 pages of unvarnished but comprehensive prose on the origins of Fremont. The soft-cover book came out in 1974, when he was in 10th grade. All 250 copies sold out within two months.

Shortly thereafter, he started working on a history of nearby Exeter. This 85-page booklet came out in 1976 -- in time to dedicate it to his graduating class (of which he was president). In 1978, he published another booklet, this one based on interviews with area senior citizens that he conducted together with a local resident. The 100-page history of Sandown, N.H., came out last July.

"There is so much that happened around here that people just don't realize," he says.

Indeed there has been. Consider, for instance, Samuel Wilson of Mason, N.H., who doled out beef rations during the War of 1812. His food barrels were branded "U.S." So it didn't take long before the flinty soldiers started calling him "Uncle Sam" -- not realizing their nicknamed cook would later become a national symbol.

Or consider what is believed to be the country's first recorded riot. It broke out in 1934 near Fremont over a spat about tree-cutting. Back in those days the cutting of certain trees was forbidden, because they were used for masts in the King of England's Royal Navy. But when a representative of the king journeyed to the area to check out reports of illegal cutting, he found a not-so-cordial reception. The loggers, masquerading as Indians, fired shots over the royal entourage from their wooded bunkers. They wound up sending him down the Exeter River in a leaky boat.

Of course, not all New Hampshire residents were so rebellious. Samuel Morey was too busy plying the mud-frothed Connecticut River in a steamboat. He did so in 1790 -- 17 years before Robert Fulton's famous run on the Hudson River. Then there was tinkerer Moses Gerrish Farmer, a native of Boscawen, N.H. He came up with an incandescent light two decades before Thomas Edison's breakthrough in 1878. The probing researcher also invented a "flying machine" in 1850, though he never tried it out. George E. Dodge of Barrington, N.H., made the first rubber boots.

Back in his office, Mr. Thomas walks over to a metal filing cabinet and pulls out a December 1791 issue of the New Hampshire Gazetteer. "Strayed from the subscriber sometime last spring," reads one brief, "a red, libeback, yearling steer, with a crop off his left ear. Whoever will give information of the same so that he may be recovered again, should be handsomely rewarded. . . ."

That may be a simple lost-and-found item to most, but to Mr. Thomas it is one more clue to solving the mystery of America's past. What's needed today, he believes, is more historical detectives.

"In high school you learn about the Louisiana Purchase and the expansion of the railroads," he says. "That's all fine and dandy, but it's not something that people can easily relate to. When you start talking about Indian raids in Fremont, kids really perk up."

Strong stuff for a 24-year-old. He seems bent on bearing out the old maxim: "Anybody can make history. Only a great man can writ e it."

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