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Ships: June 1, 2023
454 pages • 7.25” x 10”
100+ photos & Illustrations
A memoir by
John K. Bullard
British-born Joseph Rotch was the pre-industrial-age visionary who transformed New Bedford from a sleepy farm and fishing village to the global center of the whaling industry that endured for more than a century, shaping the city and region into the 20th century.
Rotch built a family home an easy walk from the harbor, and he got down to work, milling timbers to build ships broad-beamed and ample enough to carry cargo across the Atlantic. Before long, he was building the iconic whaling ship, with a barrel perched atop the mainmast that would position an eagle-eyed lookout aloft to scour the sea for prey. Tryworks were constructed on deck to melt down whale blubber, and oared pursuit boats were clamped to sturdy rails for easy dispatch of harpoon-darting crews after a whale sighting.
Henceforth, a Rotch or a Rotch descendant has almost always been present—be their names Rotch or Gardner or Morgan or Bullard—whenever decisions of great weight have been made in New Bedford.
John K. Bullard, the author of Hometown, grew up under the weight of all those ancestral expectations. He was, after all, the 13th in a succession of John Bullards. All had gone to Harvard College. Along with their names, all inherited certain responsibilities to their family and community—carrying forward the burden and bounty of those who had gone before. How our contemporary John Bullard has handled the weight of his inheritance is a sub-theme of this book.
In one sense, Hometown is Bullard’s personal story. But the book is also about New Bedford and the richness and diversity of its people. As a history book, it tells the tale of two cities: the New Bedford that was and the New Bedford that is now becoming as we move through the 21st century.
Way back when, favorable winds and a deep harbor played a considerable role in Joseph Rotch’s decision to bet his fortune on New Bedford. Today, it seems that the winds off New Bedford will likely play a key role in the city’s future as the world struggles to cope with profound climate change. Smack dab in the middle stands a Joseph Rotch descendant, John Bullard, as head of the Ocean Cluster team of advisors helping guide the city to manage the changes ahead in an economy that may well be wind driven.
John Bullard is a towering, robust, sea-loving bear of a man with a vigorous mind and a generous spirit who genuinely cares about the principles at stake in this often-muddled world. Preservationist, planner, and politician, Bullard has been head of heritage-saving WHALE and was New Bedford’s mayor. He helped rescue the Rotch-Jones-Duff house, the Zeiterion Theater, and the historic district. He forced, at the risk of his budding political career, a reluctant city to build a modern sewage treatment plant and create the park at Fort Taber. He’s made enemies, a few, while forging countless friendships.
In Hometown, Bullard piles on the details of hundreds of players in his narrative as if fearful their contributions to key planning or executive decisions might get overlooked in the story or lost to history. The author is serious about sharing the credit and/or the blame for the assorted outcomes. Conveniently, an index is provided.
One name repeatedly occurs, Sarah Delano. Bullard writes about this “graceful woman with the will of steel,” a Rotch descendent, by the way: “Sarah...brought an appreciation of New Bedford’s history, an eye for beauty and the significance of what WHALE was trying to save, and the courage, vision, and entrepreneurship of her whaling ancestors…She would work hard to avoid a battle, but if a battle was to be joined, she was always at the head of the pack, urging everyone on.”
He recalls the showdown within the WHALE executive committee when it faced a decision to outbid a would-be restaurant developer for the Rotch-Jones-Duff House or lose the historic home. The developer would remodel the interior and pave over the magnificent gardens for a parking lot unless WHALE met his bidding price. The board wrestled with the costs, seemingly wildly beyond its means.
According to Bullard, Sarah had the last word with this declaration to the timider officers: “No one is going to remember what we paid for this building. People will only remember whether we saved it.”
John K. Bullard was talking about the mind and spirit of Sarah Delano. He was reminding me a lot of the mind and spirit of John K. Bullard.
John Bullard’s career has been devoted to bettering the health of the oceans and improving his hometown of New Bedford, Massachusetts and other mostly coastal communities in America. To those ends he led the revitalization of New Bedford’s waterfront historic district, the rescue of the Zeiterion Theatre, the establishment of the Rotch-Jones-Duff House and Garden Museum and the saving of many other historic properties.
He served six years as mayor of New Bedford bringing the city into compliance with the Clean Water Act by building a secondary wastewater treatment plant at Fort Rodman and paving the way for offshore wind to be located at the former Standard-Times Field. This courageous decision cost him his job.
Bullard joined the Clinton Administration, establishing the first federal office of Sustainable Development in NOAA and later serving as Regional Administrator for NOAA Fisheries in the northeast.
Bullard co-founded the Southeastern Massachusetts Agricultural Partnership, the SouthCoast Learning Network, and the New Bedford Light, an online daily newspaper. He serves as Chair of the New Bedford Ocean Cluster and the Westport Community Resilience Committee and on the boards of the Buzzards Bay Coalition and the Westport Planning Board.
John and Laurie live in Westport and have three children and five grandchildren. Hometown is his first book.