Wednesday, November 18, 2015

In Search of Elder Abner Jones

by Barbara Rimkunas

This "Historically Speaking" column was published by the Exeter News-Letter on November 20, 2015.

It’s hard to categorize Elder Abner Jones, except to say that he was a restless man. Exeter’s claim on his biography is as his final resting place. Like many Americans who matured after the Revolution, he was a seeker. Born in Royalton, Massachusetts, in 1772, his family moved to Vermont when he was eight. His father raised him in the strict Calvinist Puritanism of New England, but a series of early events in the wilderness of Vermont – an Indian raid, an infestation of crop-eating worms and a neighbor’s terrible hunting accident – rattled his faith. “Although I was only 8 or 9 years old, the pride of my heart was so great that I was ashamed to let anyone know that I felt concerned about my soul; neither could I bear to have any one see me crying; and so quenched the spirit of the Lord I now felt the need of religion more than ever I had before, I was fully convinced that I must be born again or be damned.” It would take years before Abner Jones found his way.

Jones was caught up in a period known as the Second Great Awakening. Baptist and Methodist revival meetings travelled throughout the region. Young Abner attended many, but his conscience remained unsettled. He taught school and worried about his soul. He accepted baptism in his late teens. As an adult, he became interested in herbalism and took a course to learn the medical practices of Samuel Thomson, an early practitioner of alternative medicine.

Conventional medical treatment in the early part of the 19th century was as harsh and unforgiving as strict Puritanism. The body was believed to contain bad humors, which as the cause of disease, needed to be removed by bleeding, purging and excision. Often the treatment was so severe that the patient died not because of the illness, but because of the ‘cure.’ Thomson, who had studied the backwoods treatments of non-medically educated practitioners, preferred to use natural remedies derived from plants. His theory held that disease was caused by cold and could be cured by heat. Like the other medical men of his day, he believed purging was one of the ways to rid the body of disease and used copious amounts of lobelia (sometimes called ‘puke weed’) and cayenne to induce vomiting while warming the body. This was followed with steam baths. The treatment was met with no small amount of objection from the medically trained doctors of the time, although patients tended to prefer it over conventional treatment. Sure, neither method actually cured patients, but at least Thompson didn’t bleed anyone to death.

Jones was convinced that Thompson’s theories were sound. As an added benefit, he wouldn’t need to attend lengthy and expensive medical school. Thompson didn’t worry his practitioners with a need for anatomy or surgical knowledge. Jones set up practice in Vermont as was a well- respected ‘doctor’ to his community. He married and warned his new wife that he may not remain a country doctor for long. He still had a lingering call to God that he could not ignore. When he wasn’t seeing patients, he studied the Bible and gradually began to reject many of the teachings he’d been taught as a child. As he began preaching, he saw fewer and fewer medical patients, until much to the distain of his wife, he let the practice go and became an itinerant preacher. “When I searched the New Testament through, to my great astonishment, I could not find the denomination of Baptist mentioned in the whole of it. Christ called his disciples brethren and friends. In the time of the apostles, the disciples were first called CHRISTIANS at Antioch. After this search, I denied the name of a Baptist, and so I have continued to do unto this day.”

Preaching in New Hampshire, Vermont and Massachusetts, Jones and others spread their ideas of a primitive Christianity. New Hampshire was agonizing over the dilemma of long-established theocracy – was there room for these new religious movements in a society that had legal rights determined by one’s denomination? The state passed the Toleration Act in 1819, removing parish taxes and freeing people to practice their own faith. This opened the door for movements like Jones’ Christian Connection.

In 1840, after the death of his wife, Jones was living in Exeter on Maple Street – still not a settled minister because his faith required no such role – working as an itinerant preacher. He died there in 1841 and was buried in the now neglected Winter Street Cemetery alongside the town’s early citizens. His grave marker was still standing in 1938, but in recent years disappeared. Marilyn Easton, working for the Exeter Historical Society, managed to locate it in 1998. It had fallen and was badly cracked. Theology students often looked in vain for the stone hoping to find the final resting place of this restless man. We found it again in October and carefully excavated the stone. This time, the GPS coordinates were logged, but the stone is in such poor condition that it was felt best to simply leave it flat. The inscription reads, “This stone stands the mournful guardian of the day til Gabrial’s mighty army shall raise it to the Resurrection of the Dead.” Abner Jones is still waiting for that day to arrive.

Photos: A volunteer from the Exeter Historical Society excavates the grave marker of Elder Abner Jones. Jones, who died in 1841, was an important early church reformer in New England. He is buried in the Winter Street Cemetery in Exeter. Second photo: Current condition of Elder Abner Jones’ grave marker is poor. When excavated on October 10th, 2015, it was felt best to leave it flat. It’s location has now been logged with GPS coordinates to better find it in the future.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

The Problem of Tramps

by Barbara Rimkunas

This "Historically Speaking" column was published by the Exeter News-Letter on Friday, November 6, 2015.

“Tuesday night was the first of the winter in which no tramps sought shelter at Exeter’s Police Station,” the Exeter News-Letter noted in January of 1897. Wandering vagrants had always been a problem in towns along the railroad line, but the number of such people increased in the 1890s. Some towns erected small ‘tramp houses’ to accommodate – and incarcerate – people overnight. A bed and perhaps a meal would be exchanged for a small odd-job, such as cutting firewood, and then the tramps would be escorted out of town in the morning.

There is a romantic view of life lived in the rough. Bart Kennedy wrote of his tramping days at the turn of the century in A Man Adrift. “It may be that you feel the sense of freedom that comes from a total lack of responsibility. No one is dependent upon you. No one is waiting for you. If people have contempt for you, at least they leave you alone. And this is something.” Most men – and tramps were generally single men – took to the wandering life after an economic downturn. The Panic of 1893, what we would today call a recession, threw men out of work in many industrial cities. Factory workers found themselves without jobs and with no social support system. In New England, textile workers were often the ones left without jobs. Mills, including the Exeter Manufacturing Company, thought nothing of shutting down for weeks or months to conserve funds, leaving employees with no means of support. “To be penniless and on tramp is a curious experience,” Kennedy observed, “It may have been that at one time in your life you would have thought it impossible for you to beg. You would have shuddered at the bare idea. How shameful! You would have thought death would be preferable. If a man had said that you would come to this you would have struck him in the face.” But a life of begging for food and often receiving none caused many to turn to petty crime – pilfering eggs from the hen house, stealing apples from the orchard. Local officials considered tramps to be a public nuisance. Even the dictionary definition of tramp reflected this: “a foot traveler, often in a bad sense, a begging or thieving vagabond.”

Public opinion of tramps was split between those who believed they were down on their luck versus those who thought the men refused to work due to laziness. This old argument of the ‘worthy poor’ in contrast to the ‘unworthy poor’ had been floating around for centuries. Was it acceptable to provide aid or would that catapult them into a lifetime of dependency? The Progressives of the late 1890s believed that most tramps were honest men simply on hard times. Ossian Guthrie, observed in the Chicago Tribune of February 28, 1896: “After the war people looked forward to an era of crime, but the soldiers scattered over the country and settled down to the work they dropped when called to arms. With the return of prosperity in 1878, after a panic lasting five years, the tramp army melted. Where did they go? To work, as soon as there was work to be done. As the problem has solved itself in the past, so it will solve itself now. As business gradually improves, as factories start up and mines resume work with the old-time number of men, the tramp army will dwindle away till not more than 5 per cent, the really criminal portion is left.”

It was that criminal portion that concerned local officials. To keep the tramps from becoming a frightening threat, local police stations began lodging the men overnight. But while the practice had existed in earlier times – occasionally taking in one or two people and tossing them into the drunk tank with the locals, the numbers began rising in the 1890s. The News-Letter further commented, “Frequently 10 or more have been received on a single night and in one instance 18. The record for October was 136, for November 168, for December 170 and for January thus far 104. In the foregoing is included one woman. Measures which will abate the tramp nuisance are much to be desired.” In 1896, there were a total of 1007 ‘lodgers’ taken into the Exeter police station. The number continued to rise, topping out at 1366 in 1899. Then, as predicted by Ossian Guthrie, the job market began to open. The Police Commissioners were able to report in 1902, “the number of those unfortunates, called tramps, who have applied at the Police Station for lodgings has been considerably smaller than in past years.” 1902 saw only 340 requests for shelter – a number still quite high, but far lower than during the panic.

The number of tramps plateaued for several decades, not swelling again until 1934, when the Great Depression brought 1132 men into the police station. With no other means to manage the problem, the police continued to be the only source of shelter for homeless wanderers. After the new Safety Complex was built on Court Street in 1979, the practice was eliminated. By that time, there were more local organizations offering assistance. Today when people arrive at the police station in dire straits they are directed to Cross Roads House or the St. Vincent de Paul Society, both of which are better able to assist those in need.

Photo: Most tramps were considered a nuisance, but this man, who called himself “King David” was a local character. Travelling through town in the 1880s, he would sell photos of himself, talk religion and stayed wherever the townsfolk would put him up – most likely the Exeter Police Station.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

The Exeter Gas Light Company

by Barbara Rimkunas

This "Historically Speaking" column was published in the Exeter News-Letter on Friday, October 23, 2015.

“While gas has illuminated almost every village in the country, Exeter has sat in darkness, or in the shadow of whale oil, and those who have been far enough from home to see its light, have bewailed the deprivation of not having it here,” noted the Exeter News-Letter in October of 1861. The effort to sign up customers for the new gas service was difficult, falling as it did right at the onset of the Civil War. Yet gas had already arrived in most towns and by all measures it was a far superior product than those of the past.

The Exeter Gas Light Company incorporated on December 23, 1861, having completed construction of its gas plant on Green Street only a few weeks earlier. “Ours is to be coal gas, such as is produced from what is generally known as hard coal. There is no doubt but this must be classed with the luxuries of life. It may require considerable exertion to get the best class of customers, during war times, when taxes must be high. But gas light is far in advance of other lights generally in use.” Producing the product called ‘town gas’ from coal was a difficult and grimy process. Tons of coal was needed to feed the furnace, causing temperatures inside the plant to often reach 130 degrees. The by-product, coal tar, was leached into the ground, creating toxic waste problems that were left to the future.

Gas also had a reputation for being explosive. Overcoming this anxiety was problematic for the gas company. Every new technology has to convince consumers that it is somehow better than what was offered in the past. In Exeter, as in many towns, the way to prove that gas lighting was necessary was to get it installed. The gas company offered to illuminate the dark streets of Exeter as well as the Exeter Town Hall. John Gilman was spending the winter in Philadelphia when Exeter first lit up with gas light. His sister wrote to him about the Christmas fair held at Town Hall, “the hall was lighted for the first time with gas, which lent an attraction. This is a new thing for old Exeter, say you, and a great thing if it brings not too heavy a tax bill for us in the end. It is being introduced into various private dwellings, into most of the churches, and a few of the principal streets are being illuminated.” The brilliancy of the lighting quickly overcame most qualms held by the public. Gas had the added advantage of being versatile enough to be adapted for cooking and heating. Once the gas lines were snaked through town, it seemed like gas was the fuel of the future.

Until electricity arrived to run the streetcars, that is. Electricity seemed to have no downsides – it was clean, had no open flame and seemed safer. In 1898, the town began to debate which type of lighting was safer and more efficient. Although there were no explosive accidents to homeowners, an accident at the gas plant in late 1897 set people on edge. “An explosion of gas Tuesday morning caused less than $200 damages to the plant of the Exeter Gas Light Company,” reported the News-Letter. Albert Dewhirst, an employee, arrived early in the morning to take a meter reading. His lantern caught a small gas leak and the ensuing explosion threw him back into the street, shattering windows, lifting the roof and crumbling portions of the interior of the building. Although the damage was small, and Dewhirst was rumpled but unhurt, it did little to encourage the further use of gas. Electricity won out as the town lighting source. Gas continued to be used by many people only as fuel for stoves and furnaces.

The gas company upgraded to a cleaner form of gas production in 1927 and the old plant was converted to the new water process. At that time, an immense steel ball was erected across Water Street to contain the gas. A few years later, in 1931, the old coal gas machinery was unused and, “this came to the notice of Mr. Taylor, investigator and buyer for Henry Ford, who decided that the old gas plant would make a much–desired addition to the Ford enterprise at Dearborn, Michigan. He purchased the discarded apparatus, had it carefully taken down, marked, and shipped on freight cars to Dearborn, where it is now being re-erected for the manufacture of coal gas.” There it joined a few other Exeter edifices, the John Giddings house and the Lamson Pottery works, as part of the Henry Ford Institute.

With the advent of natural gas use in the 1950s, the gas plant was used less and less – primarily for peak shaving. Gas was shipped into town, the old plant on Green Street ceased to be used in the early 1970s and was taken down in 1975. The gas ball, once a landmark in town on the river, was removed in 1979 to make way for the construction of the Squamscott View Apartments, which opened in 1981. Unitil, the current owner of the old gas works site, has worked to landscape the site and is still working to abate the toxic residue of the manufactured gas era.

Photos: Exeter Gas Light Company gasworks on Green Street. This facility was used to produce coal gas for town use from 1861 until 1927 when the plant converted to a new process.   The gas storage ball, an immense reinforced steel structure, stood on the shore of the Squamscott River just opposite the gas works plant from 1927 to 1979. Although well known to Exeter residents, finding a photo proved to be exceedingly difficult for the Exeter Historical Society.

Friday, October 9, 2015

“Send Everything You’ve Got:” The Robinson Female Seminary Fire

by Barbara Rimkunas

This "Historically Speaking" column was published in the Exeter News-Letter on Friday, October 9, 2015.

“Smelled smoke strongly ½ hour before the alarm blew about 9 o’clock,” Betty Kreger wrote in her diary the night of October 5, 1961. Kreger, a widowed piano teacher, began to get whiffs of the disaster from her house on Ash Street. “Got up and rushed outside – staid outside till 10 or so.” The flames were visible from her home, but Betty, like countless other Exeter residents, raced to the fire scene and stood transfixed behind the police line to watch the towering Robinson Female Seminary burn to the ground.

For almost one hundred years, Exeter had been unique in its school structure. The town was happily surprised in 1864 to receive a bequest from the will of William Robinson to fund a school for girls. Robinson, who was born in Exeter in 1793, attended Phillips Exeter Academy and went on make his fortune in Georgia. His sisters, he felt, were never given the educational opportunities he had. The town built the school and the Robinson fund sustained the corps of teachers. Generations of young women in Exeter benefitted from Robinson’s gift. The school building was erected and dedicated in 1869 – a towering Second Empire style edifice with a globe proudly standing on the very top of its tower.

As early as 1928, there was talk of reunifying the town schools, but the movement never gained traction. After World War II, increasing student enrollment and a crumbling building made the move to coeducation more of a necessity. The final class graduated from the Robinson Female Seminary in 1955. Olive Tardiff discussed the closing of the Seminary in On Ever, Robinson, a small publication created by the RFS alumnae in 1988. “The High School was to be enlarged to accommodate grades seven through twelve for boys and girls, and the Talbot gymnasium to be added to the building. A new elementary school was to be built on Seminary property, with rooms in the Seminary building to be used for the superintendent’s office, a cafeteria for elementary pupils, and art and music classes. The names of Robinson and Tuck were to be abolished, and the combined school named Exeter High School.”

The school board struggled with the problem of what to do with the old building. Over time, the building began to look shoddy. During the summer of 1961 most of the contents were moved out and the Boy Scouts were notified that they could no longer use the facility for meetings. Plans were made to board up the building to prevent vandalism. “By closing it,” the Exeter News-Letter noted, “school officials expect to save $3,500 in fuel, light and maintenance costs annually.” But what to do with it? An article published in July posed the question, “Is Exeter building doomed to ‘White Elephant’ Status?” The functional restrooms in the basement led to the suggestion that perhaps the long wished-for town pool could be built on the property and the basement converted into locker rooms. Or, on a far more practical level given the Cold War times of the 1960s, perhaps the building could be torn down and the basement renovated to be a fallout shelter for St. Michael’s parochial school and Lincoln Street School. While dithering over a decision, the lower floors were boarded up. Vandals quickly began focusing on the windows in the upper floors. The last photo of the old school was published in the News-Letter on September 28th – just one week before the fire. In it, the sad school, its tower removed and lower floors boarded, is having the windows on the mansard roof boarded. Al Cote, who is seen hammering the plywood didn’t even get his bill submitted to the school board before the fire destroyed his work. When he went before the board with his bill the day after the fire, he was asked whether he could prove that the work had been completed. Ben Swiezynski’s photo served as his proof.

Several people reported smelling smoke as early as 6pm on the night of October 5th. The police investigated, but could find no fire. “At 8, fire Chief Toland drove through the property,” reported the News-Letter, but, being to windward of the probably smoke, failed to detect its presence.” It was at 9 o’clock – half an hour after Betty Kreger noticed a smoky smell – that Officer Richard Cole spotted a small blaze. The members of Engine 1 Company were holding their monthly meeting at the fire house and had just broken up to go home when the call came in. As soon as they arrived they knew this was no ordinary fire. “Fire out of control upon arrival,” reports the call book. “Removing a board from the basement window revealed a fire of severe dimensions already underway and the call went to the fire station ‘Send everything you’ve got’” the News-Letter quoted. “Over 8000 feet of 2 ½” hose used. Building a total loss. Hampton and Stratham fire departments called in to help,” the call book continues. The fire raged for hours. The floors, oiled annually, were highly combustible and sent flames 100 feet into the air. It was estimated that nearly 2000 onlookers- many of them Robinson Seminary grads – arrived to watch the beloved school burn. By 1:45 am, the fire was under control. The ruins would smolder and occasionally flame for the next week.

As sorry as most of the Seminary girls were, there was also some feeling of release. The old school was not ageing well and many felt it had been badly treated by the town. Elvira Benfield Collishaw, class of 1918, summed it up best in her 1980 paper, “The Building of the Seminary:” “It no longer stood alone, deserted, desecrated, defiled. It belonged to memory.”

First Baptist Church of Exeter

by Barbara Rimkunas

This "Historically Speaking" column was published in the Exeter News-Letter on Friday, July 27, 2007.

The First Baptist Church of Exeter organized in 1800 when the republic was still new. At that time, the state of New Hampshire still required residents to pay a church tax – and the newly formed Baptist Church was not one of the “accepted” denominations to receive these funds. The five men and five women who founded the church in Exeter had to scrape by for some years before they were able to build their first church building. A small squarish structure, built on Spring Street, was enough for the small congregation to get a foothold.

Baptists in America can trace their history back to Roger Williams. A separatist from England, Williams believed that the civil government should not interfere with a person’s “soul-liberty”. He was the first to use the phrase “wall of separation” in relation to civil and religious matters. The Baptist church in New Hampshire was one of the organizations that pushed for disestablishment of religion in the state, resulting in the Toleration Act of 1819. The act allowed churches to incorporate and the First Baptist Church quickly did. The Toleration Act made it far more agreeable for people to join a church that was more in line with one’s personal beliefs, and the Baptists attracted more people than in earlier times.

The congregation continued to grow and in 1833 a new church was erected on Water Street where the Folsom Tavern stands today. Within 40 years, they’d outgrown the new church and an ambitious new building project created the current building on Front Street with its distinctive eight pointed star window.

Perhaps the role of women helped to increase numbers in the congregation. From its very beginnings, women were an integral part of the church. Of the ten founders, five were women – and they were not simply the wives of the male founders. There was only one married couple included in the founding members. Missionary work – so important to Baptists – was usually organized by the women of the congregation, and the women’s organizations that have formed over the years have been the lifeblood of the church. They established the “Ladies Society” in 1845, and the “Ladies Social Circle” in 1880, which joined with the Women’s Missionary Society in 1946 to form the “Ladies Circle”.

Baptist Missionaries
In 1955, the American Baptist Church USA, the national organization with which the First Baptist Church of Exeter is affiliated, merged with the Baptist Women’s American Foreign Mission Society. On a national level, the numbers of women in leadership positions within the church began to drop. Women were allowed to go on mission work only if they were married. This hadn’t been the case in earlier decades. Women had been allowed ordination in the organization since the 1880’s and by 1898 there were 9 licensed and 17 ordained women serving in Free Will Baptist churches.

To off-set some of the restrictions, the First Baptist Church of Exeter amended its own by-laws to create circle ministries to “stimulate a wider women’s interest in missions.” These circles, organized and composed of women, focused on supporting specific missionary work – such as foreign missions in India, China, Alaska, Vietnam or within the country, or organizational charities like the White Cross and Love Gift programs. It was no coincidence that they named their circles - Ann Judson circle, Lula Shongo Circle, Helen Yost Circle, Marjorie Moreau Circle, Joan Donaldson Circle - for women missionaries.

On the weekend of October 17, 2015, the church - now called “The Red Brick Church” - will celebrate 215 years in Exeter.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

That Time the Klan Turned Up at Exeter’s Race Unity Day

by Barbara Rimkunas

This "Historically Speaking" column was published in the Exeter News-Letter on Friday, September 25, 2015.

You wouldn’t hold a pie eating contest to raise money for diabetes research, would you? Of course not. So in hindsight, it seems a bit ridiculous to try to drum up membership in your segregationist group outside a public gathering dedicated to race unity – but that was exactly what happened in Exeter in June of 1990.

June 11, 1991 See caption below.
Members of the Baha’i community in Exeter had been holding Race Unity Day annually for five years. Baha’i is a faith that holds racial equality and unity as one of its central teachings. The event was always peaceful and lightly attended. Jonathan Ring, the organizer of the event, recently told me that actually 1990 was the best attended Race Unity Day event held in Exeter – most likely because of the Klan presence. But let’s not give them credit. The Klan, after all, is a hateful group no matter how much they try to claim otherwise.

People hadn’t thought much about the Ku Klux Klan in Exeter. True, the Ioka Theater had famously opened its doors in 1915 with a showing of “Birth of a Nation” – a film based on the book “The Clansmen” – with costumed Klansmen riding around town on horseback. During that decade, the Klan saw a resurgence in membership and Klan rallies were held on Hampton Beach. In the following years of economic depression and wartime deprivation, the Klan seemed to retreat from the minds of New Englanders, relegated to the shadowy world of the segregated South. The civil rights movement of the 1960s was a reminder that it had never really disappeared.

But the arrival in town of Tom Herman, a KKK recruiter originally from Maine, was a startling revelation to most Exeter residents. He’d been living in town for a number of years, working as a radio technician with the Rockingham County Sheriff’s office and occasionally working as a part time police officer in Newfields. In the summer of 1989, people began finding flyers on their cars from the KKK. The phone number linked to an answering machine which intoned, in Herman’s voice, “White patriots, wake up. The media wants you to think that we are evil. The truth is they are terrified of us because we dare to stand up for decency.” Yes, the recording used the word ‘decency’ shortly after this bit: “Whites are a civilization. Blacks have yet to develop their own civilization. The best thing that we can do for them is to return them to the land of their ancestors. That way our civilization can remain pure and continue to grow.” That makes sense, let’s all return to the land of our ancestors. I’m sure Lithuania would love to have me, although I’d miss my husband who would have to somehow split himself between Scotland, Denmark and England.

How do you sweep a hate group from your midst? How do you ensure the constitutional right to free speech when that speech is hateful? This was the problem facing town officials and the population. New Hampshire was still dithering about whether to join the rest of the nation in making Martin Luther King Jr Day a state holiday in 1990. In spite of its unofficial status, events were still held and, true to their mission, Klansmen in robes and pointy hats turned up outside an Exeter MLK event. This type of activity – even though it was peaceful on the part of the Klan – didn’t sit well. Local ministers published a letter decrying the Klan’s stance. The Exeter High School branch of Amnesty International did the same. A new group formed, called the Seacoast Coalition for Justice and Unity, and it joined together with the Baha’i community to organize the June Race Unity Day.

On hearing of the event, the Klan asked if they could set up a booth to hand out educational materials. To the surprise of no one, the organizers of the event denied the request. The Klan came anyway, although after some legal wrangling, they had to move to the sidewalk. The organizers of the event ignored them, but people outside on Front Street honked horns, shouted obscenities and flashed disrespectful hand gestures. Really, what would it take to get these clowns out of town?

August 28, 1990 See caption below.
What if the Klan staged a rally and no one showed up? That’s the final chapter in this story. Herman applied for a permit to hold his own a rally on Swasey Parkway in August, but the parkway trustees turned him down. He held a ‘walk’ anyway with his usual sidekicks. The downtown merchants decided to festoon the town with yellow – yellow ribbons, yellow balloons, yellow everything to signify unity. While Herman mounted the Swasey parkway stage shouting about his constitutional right to be there, town officials and the police annoyingly refused to violate any of his constitutional rights. There were only “four juveniles and media personnel” in attendance, so they decided there was no reason to worry about crowd control. The Klansmen left after 45 minutes of not antagonizing anyone. They moved to a spot in front of the town office on Front Street, where they managed to attract a few onlookers until Exeter businessman John Ulery, dressed in a clown costume, drew their attention away by yelling, “I have the best costume! I have the best costume!” Herman and the Klan quietly left town the following summer.

Exeter hasn’t always led the way in race relations. It’s still a town where racism expresses itself in both casual lazy conversation and even more alarmingly in occasional drive-by outbursts. We’re not a very diverse community. For this reason alone, we need to be reminded that racism exists and should not be tolerated.

Images: 08-28-1990: “Exeter Police Lt. Joseph Bernstien, left, Sgt. Russell Charleston, Board of Selectmen Chairman Paul Binette and Town Manager George Olson discuss Saturday’s appearance of five Ku Klux Klan members on the stage at Swasey Parkway (staff photos/Matt Palmer)

06-11-1991: “youngsters attending Sunday’s Race Unity day festivities pay little attention to the Klansmen marching in the background.” (staff photo/Timothy Donovan)

Saturday, September 12, 2015

President Ford’s Exeter Visit, 1975

by Barbara Rimkunas

This "Historically Speaking" column was published in the Exeter News-Letter on Friday, September 11, 2015

Somewhere in the United States there must be a place that isn’t concerned with politics. New Hampshire is not that place. This is where you move if you LOVE being part of the insanity that is American politics but you’re not willing to move to D.C. In 1974, the New Hampshire Senate race took center stage at a time when the political scene had left most Americans disillusioned and cynical. Richard Nixon had resigned the presidency in August leaving Gerald Ford – an appointed Vice-President – to finish the term. All manner of subterfuge and skullduggery had tarnished the presidential campaign and Ford sought to move on from the “long national nightmare” by pardoning the former president.

When November arrived, New Hampshire’s open Senate seat was contested by Republican Louis Wyman, a seasoned four-term congressman; Democrat John Durkin, a newcomer to political office, having served only as State Assistant Attorney General and insurance commissioner; and Carmen Chimento, a 3rd party candidate running for the American Independent Party. When the votes were tallied after Election Day, Wyman had won the election by a slim 355 votes. As was to be expected, Durkin requested a recount, which resulted in his winning the election by four votes. Governor Meldrin Thompson issued a provisional certificate of election for Durkin. Not wanting the election to slip away, Wyman then requested a second recount, which again gave him the election – this time by two votes. The Governor retracted his certificate of election for Durkin and, after the sitting Senator Cotton resigned the seat early on December 31st, appointed Wyman to the Senate to serve out the remaining week of his term. But once that week was over in early January of 1975, it became obvious that the election had never really been decided.

Who actually won the election in November 1974? Our optical scanning method of voting today would make the recount tiresome, but accurate. Back in 1974, many municipalities used mechanical lever voting machines that were confusing to use and difficult to re-tabulate. The whole mess was tossed to the U.S. Senate, but they also could not decide on a winner and declared the seat vacant. With the August vacation looming, it was suggested that the two candidates come up with their own solution. Wyman suggested a run-off election in September, and Durkin agreed. A brief second campaign began in anticipation of the September 16th ballot.

Into the fray came the new President. Wyman was thought to be the stronger candidate – he had more experience and New Hampshire generally voted Republican. In the first week of September, it was announced that Gerald Ford would be making a one day visit to the state to support Louis Wyman. Exeter was chosen as one of the stops where the president would speak. With only a week to prepare, Exeter got busy. The town hall flagpole was painted, bunting was hung throughout the downtown and town officials were occupied with the insistent demands of the secret service, because the day after the visit was announced Manson family member Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme pulled a gun on the president in Sacramento. Taking no chances, secret service agents visited every shop on Water Street. The shops could remain opened on the day of the President’s visit, but no upstairs windows could be opened. All personnel had to be cleared. Even the pewter tankard that would be given to the president as a gift had to be checked and x-rayed before the big event.

On Thursday, September 11th, the town was abuzz with excitement. Although we have a steady stream of presidential candidates visiting during election years, this was the first time a sitting president had made a visit since Harry Truman arrived in 1952. He arrived a bit before 7pm accompanied by the Governor and candidate Louis Wyman. The speech at the bandstand was brief, but well received by the townsfolk who attended. Regardless of political leaning, the crowd seemed pleased to be chosen for a presidential visit. Of the thousands who attended the speech, most remember the secret service more than the president’s speech. Most of the memories gleaned from a recent Facebook post were about the intense security:

“I remember his motorcade traveling past West Side Drive and Ford waving to all. The secret service guys were jogging alongside and ‘politely’ moving anyone who got too close.”

“I was standing along the road in front of what is now Serendipity. A SS agent grabbed a guy behind us because it looked like he was going for a gun in his back pocket. It was his huge ‘Goody’ comb.” 

“Just before Ford arrived downtown a bird flew through an upstairs window of the building on Water Street across from Town hall. My father was called in to replace the glass as the Secret Service would not allow any open windows on the street.”

“I was in Bob Shaw’s lawyer office watching through the big picture window, then went down to the street and tried to shake his hand as the motorcade drove off and got pushed down by a secret service man!”

The town, as a whole, was pleased with Ford’s visit, even if it didn’t help Louis Wyman. He lost the run-off election in Exeter by 90 votes, and statewide he lost by 27,000. Jay Childs remembered, “Ford got a better reaction than Wyman as I recall.” We don’t know what the president’s thoughts were on his New Hampshire visit. A week later he was again in California when Sara Jane Moore fired shots at him in San Francisco. If nothing else, at least no one in New Hampshire tried to kill him.

Images: Two young people hold a sign to welcome the President, and President Ford addresses the crowd from the Swasey Pavilion – or the Bandstand – on September 11, 1975.

Many thanks to the Facebook group “You Know You’re From Exeter, NH.” Those quoted include, David Butler, Michael Perry, Paul Titus and Jay Childs.