Saturday, June 18, 2016

When the Band Comes to Town

by Barbara Rimkunas

This "Historically Speaking" column was published by the Exeter News-Letter on June 17, 2016.

Mid-summer Mondays in Exeter find many townies comfortably settled into lawn chairs, maybe with ice cream, listening to the Exeter Brass Band. Our band was organized in 1847, but even though we’ve loved our band for over a century, it wasn’t always the only show in town. In the late nineteenth century, there were other more famous bands that gave Exeter a thrill.

The first of the great bands was led by Patrick Gilmore, an Irish immigrant who is often credited as the “Father of the American Concert Band.” He arrived in Boston in 1849, at the age of 20 and quickly became a bandleader. During the Civil War he wrote, When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again under the pen name Louis Lambert. He led the Boston Brigade Band and the Salem Brass Band and established a Fourth of July concert on Boston Common that would rival the Pops at the Esplanade. According to the Boston College Burns Library, “Gilmore organized the National Peace Jubilee in 1869 to benefit the war widows and orphans of the Civil War, and to celebrate the peace of war’s end. A coliseum was specially built in Boston for the Jubilee, with seating for 30,000 audience members, 10,000 chorus members, and a 1,000 piece orchestra. Highlights from the festival included a performance of Verdi’s Il Trovatore, which included 100 Boston firemen striking anvils, a battery of cannon, chimes, church bells, a huge bass drum 8 feet in diameter, and a gigantic organ specially built for the occasion.”

Gilmore’s band came to town and played a matinee concert on January 27, 1888, at the Exeter Opera House. Nearly 300 people, mostly townspeople, attended the show. Gilmore introduced his players as the “Twenty-second Regiment Band of New York” but the music they played was not traditional marching band fare. “No music of the kind, at all approaching it for excellence, was ever before heard here,” commented the Exeter News-Letter. The selections were arrangements of classical pieces. Rossini’s Overture to Semiramide opened the program, with its beautiful French horn quartette. Harder to adapt, but with apparent success, was Rubinstein’s Valse Caprice, written for piano but, “its performance by Gilmore’s Band has widened the scope of its popularity by taking it out of the classic chamber, and playing it for the great majority,” as the program for the event explained. I was unable to find any recording of a stage band performing this piece, so we’ll have to take the word of the News-Letter that it was a success. “All were rendered with rare dash and with a perfection of harmony and time that completely entranced all hearers.” Gilmore saved his marches for the encores – of which there were many. On this occasion, it was not mentioned whether Gilmore played Hail! Columbia! - a brisk patriotic tune that he repeatedly campaigned to have declared the national anthem.

Gilmore’s popularity inspired other bandleaders, including John Philip Sousa, who would leave his long career with the U.S. Marine Corp band in 1892 to pursue touring with his own band. A musical prodigy, he’d been apprenticed with the U.S. Marine band at the tender age of 14. Gilmore didn’t live long enough to see Sousa’s band in concert, he died the same year the new band began a concert tour. In 1893, Sousa’s band was engaged to play at the World Columbian Exposition in Chicago. It was there that he played a piece he’d written for an unfinished stage show – the Liberty Bell March, now best known as the opening music to Monty Python. His band toured throughout the country and played in Exeter at least twice, in 1892 and 1894. Like Gilmore, he performed classical pieces adapted to the stage. His 1894 program included a finale of banjo music, hardly classical but very American. He also embraced his marches and included them in his main program as well as the encores. If he played the Liberty Bell March in Exeter we can assume it did not contain the raspberry and whoopee effects used in the Python series. His later work, The Stars and Stripes Forever, is far more popular today.

In 1896, Sousa related a tale from one of his Exeter concerts to the Concord Monitor. “When we reached the hall I found two juvenile residents of Exeter, who, by distributing handbills, had earned the privilege of hearing the concert from behind the scenes. The youngsters had some sort of quarrel, and when I came across them were making threatening demonstrations at the one another. I separated them, sat them down in two chairs and gave them a lecture on the sinfulness of fighting until it was time to go on the stage. From where I stood I could see the boys, each in his chair, out in the wings we began with one of Liszt’s Hungarian rhapsodies. First came a lively, rather martial allegro movement, and as the music proceeded the little fellows got out of their chairs, and sliding toward one another, took up the quarrel where they had left off. A collision was imminent, when the music ceased and a soothing andante movement followed. The boys resumed their chairs and listened quietly during this passage, even exchanging looks which I interpreted as conciliatory and repentant. Another allegro movement followed and the stage hands had to interfere to keep the youngsters from punching one another.” The pattern of behavior continued – fighting during the brisk numbers and calmly sitting when the music quieted. “The last I saw of them was the spectacle of their ejectment from the stage door, one of them stanching a profuse nasal hemorrhage, while the other nursed a badly blacked eye. It was the most forcible demonstration of the influence of music upon the human passions which I remember having seen.”

Exeter Brass Band concerts begin on Monday, June 27 this year. Try not to let passions go unchecked.

Image: an advertisement for a John Philip Sousa concert in Exeter at the Exeter Opera House in 1892.

Saturday, June 4, 2016

Brown & Warren – the Perfect Partnership

by Barbara Rimkunas

This "Historically Speaking" column was published by the Exeter News-Letter on June 3, 2016.

Often when people visit the Exeter Historical Society, the interior woodwork becomes as much a conversation topic as the history of the town. The striking quarter sawn oak, has aged to a dignified dark honey color. The oak is so hard that it is impossible to even push a thumb tack into it. In 2015, when the floors in several of the rooms were refinished, the workmen took time out to take photographs of the walls. Yes, they wanted pictures of woodwork. This woodwork is art.

The building was originally the Exeter Public Library. Built in 1894, it also served as the Civil War monument, which is why the names of Exeter’s Civil War servicemen are carved on tablets by the front door. Although designed by the Boston firm of Rotch & Tilden, the contract for the interior woodwork went to a long established Exeter firm called Brown & Warren.

Brown & Warren was a building, carpentry and contracting firm established in 1858 by two 27-year-olds named John H. Brown and Charles E. Warren. If ever there was a perfect partnership, it was Brown and Warren. Both men had spent time learning the trade in local carpentry firms, Brown working with his brothers Isiah and Sebastian Brown, and Warren in a competing firm of Alfred Connor. In 1855, Charles Warren married John Brown’s sister Frances and the two men, now related by marriage, decided to form their own business. The firm’s high quality work quickly took off. “The firm of Brown & Warren quickly assumed leadership in this section,” wrote the Exeter News-Letter in 1896, at the time of Brown’s death. “It has filled many large contracts in Exeter and orders from abroad frequently came to it. In Newburyport, Mass., for instance, it built the Five Cents Savings Bank block and the parochial school building; in Dover numerous dwellings; in Newfields, the Universalist church, in Randolph, Mass., another church, and at the state almshouse, Tewksbury, Mass., has done considerable work. In the development of Exeter it has taken very prominent part. Scores of dwellings, which include many of the costliest residences in town, can be set to its credit, and not a few has it built to its own account. It built the Episcopal and Unitarian churches, and did all carpenters’ work on the Baptist church, the Academy gymnasium, the town hall, the public library, the new court house, the original shoe factory and others of Exeter finest business and public structures.”

Of the buildings mentioned, only a few still exist. Christ Church Episcopal, once located on Elliot Street, was razed in 1965. A visit to the chapel, preserved in the new church building on Pine Street, can provide a feel for the work of Brown & Warren. The Unitarian Society, of which both Brown and Warren were members, was taken down in 1944 when wartime coal shortages convinced the congregation that the large building was not cost effective. The parishioners moved into their assembly hall, called Unity Hall and converted it into the new sanctuary. Unity Hall was also built by Brown & Warren. In its original form, it had had the same open frame construction with a hint of gothic. Today, the only remains of Brown & Warren’s design in the First Unitarian Universalist Society are the pews. The elegant timbers of the original ceiling are covered with drop acoustic tiles. 

The Rockingham County Courthouse featured interior woodwork by Brown & Warren, but it was torn down in 1969. The wood in the Exeter town hall was, at some point, painted – covering any of the features of the original that might still exist. Even some of the wood at the Exeter Historical Society succumbed to the painting fad of the post-war period. The dark tones of the wainscoting were deemed ‘stuffy’ in an era that longed for bright colors and clean optics. In our main meeting hall, if you look closely, the wainscoting has been painted and faux woodgrain applied during the 1988 renovations. To get the best view of the quality of work the firm was famous for, a visit to the First Baptist Church on Front Street is necessary. Stop by sometime when the sanctuary is open to really look at a Brown & Warren building. At one time the firm had over 20 skilled carpenters on staff.

The two men were alike in more than just their vocation. They belonged to the same town organizations: the Friendship Council, The Knights of the Royal Arcanum; both were active Republicans and both were part of the Exeter Fire Department – even serving as the chief engineer. Brown was fire chief in the 1870s, when the department took a technological leap forward with the purchase of the Eagle Steamer engine. Warren was so beloved as chief that hose company #2 was named the “Charles E. Warren Hose Company” in his honor – while he was still in it. Together they bought a duplex on Pine Street, renovated the interior and lived side by side to raise their families.

The partnership continued until 1894, when John Brown became ill with Bright’s disease. His death two years later at the age of 66 was a loss to his partner. Charles Warren continued to be active in town affairs, adding an interest in the sewer system to his resume. Warren’s obituary, in 1903, is so similar to his partner’s that it is easy to confuse them. Even the funerals were the same – held at their joint residence on Pine Street in mid-afternoon, Unitarian minister Reverend Edward Green presided at both. Perhaps the art of great carpentry is that same seamlessness that came naturally to the two men. Slight variations of grain form the brushstrokes that they set into the walls, doorways and arches of their buildings.

Photos: Detail of woodwork in the research library of the Exeter Historical Society, formerly the Exeter Public Library.

Exterior of Christ Church Episcopal c. 1890, Elliot Street – also built in 1867 by Brown & Warren. Razed in 1965.

Interior of the First Unitarian Society of Exeter c. 1890, corner of Elm and Maple Streets – built in 1867 by the firm of Brown & Warren of Exeter. Razed in 1944.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

The Steam Gristmill

by Barbara Rimkunas

This "Historically Speaking" column was published by the Exeter News-Letter on Friday, May 20, 2016.

 At one time, Exeter could boast ten gristmills. This type of mill, which produced flour, was so vitally important to the English who settled here that it was the first mill erected at the falls in the center of town. Historian Charles Bell explains, “The first mill in the town was for grinding grain, and was built by Thomas Wilson at the foot of the main falls on the easterly side of the island now reached by String bridge, near where a similar mill stands to this day (1888 – when Bell was writing his History of Exeter, New Hampshire). The mill site and the island, on which Wilson also erected his house, were granted to him by the town, probably in the very first season of their occupation, and before any formal records that we know of were kept.”

A gristmill was important to Englishmen. Their basic diet was bread, ale, cabbage, peas and a bit of meat. The native population made cornmeal cakes, grinding the corn into meal using a mortar and pestle. But the new settlers found this method to be cumbersome. Olive Tardiff, in her book Exeter Squamscott: River of Many Uses, explains the rush to build a gristmill: “Grinding by hand was much too time-consuming for the hewers of logs and builders of homes. A gristmill could free busy hands for more important work.”

Wilson, and later his heirs, functioned as the town’s only gristmill until 1670, when enterprising John Gilman decided to get in on the action and set up his mill on the opposite side of the falls. The townsmen must have felt that Gilman’s mill was superior to the old Wilson mill because they voted to, “give all the right the town have in the stream and island to Captain John Gilman, where the said Gilman’s corn-mill now stands, with privilege for a bridge to go on to the island; and the abovesaid John Gilman doth oblige himself to grind the inhabitants’ corn when wanted, for two quarts in every bushel.” Millers worked for shares. Cornmeal and flour were very marketable, so this was a good deal for Gilman. Travelers through Exeter, including George Washington, mention 10 gristmills along the Exeter River before 1800.

Most likely, the early Exeter gristmills were primarily grinding corn, although it can be difficult to tell from the records. Englishmen used the word ‘corn’ to mean any type of grain, but maize or Indian corn was locally the most successful crop. Within a few years of settlement, they would branch out to grow rye, wheat and barley. Barley was needed for the production of ale and beer. Rye flour was used with cornmeal to create the most common bread, usually called ‘rye ‘n’ injun,’ which was eaten all across New England. If we traveled back in time to the 18th century we’d discover the bread to be darker, heavier and chewier than any we’re used to today. On the whole, it was quite healthy.

The Phineas Merrill map of 1802 – our earliest accurate map of the town – shows four gristmills clustered around the falls in the center of town. Their location at the falls indicates that all are using water power. Even the gristmill mentioned by Charles Bell in 1888 is on the river. But sometime before Bell wrote his history, Exeter had its first steam powered gristmill.

First appearing on the 1874 map on Arbor Street, the steam gristmill doesn’t list an owner. Placed by the B&M depot, the business was well-placed for modern transportation of both raw material and finished product. But somehow, it didn’t prosper. In 1889, the Exeter News-Letter remarked that, “the project is discussed of organizing a company with almost $1200 of capital for the purchase and operation of a long disused steam grist mill. Well managed, the business would pay good return.” Within three months they could announce, “The entire plant was purchased by Francis Hilliard Esq. of Kensington. He has associated himself with Mr. C.S. Button, senior member of Button Brothers who will run the mill.” The Button Brothers bakery was a thriving business on Union Street. It was no wonder one of the brothers would be interested in milling flour. Improvements were made and the mill reported a year later that, “business is steadily increasing, a new roller mill now being introduced will greatly cheapen the cost of production and enable the firm to do wholesale business to better advantage.” Christian Button would remain the mill manager until it was sold to William Jenkins in 1897.

Primarily a wholesale dealer, Jenkins expanded to become a dealer in hay, grain, straw and feed. A business directory from 1907 declared that, “it requires 150 carloads of grain annually to meet the requirements of their trade. Special features are made of White Witch and White Lily flours. These brands have come to be recognized in this vicinity as the leaders in the flour trade.” White Lily flour is still popular today in the southern parts of the United States, although it cannot be found (or is difficult to find) in New England. W.M. Jenkins closed up for good in 1924. The buildings were later used by the Rockingham Farmers Exchange and later the Merrimack Farmers Exchange, which existed as a farmer’s collective until an embezzlement scandal in 1982 closed it down. The Merrimack Farmers Exchange was later purchased by Blue Seal. By that time, it was no longer functioning as a gristmill. Exeter’s founding mechanical industry was no longer needed.

Images: C.S. Button’s steam gristmill – taken from the 1896 Birdseye Map of Exeter (an illustration) and Jenkin’s steam gristmill – from a 1907 Business Guide to Exeter (a photo, admittedly quite fuzzy and dotty). It should be noted that these are the same gristmill on Arbor Street. Only the owners changed.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Our May 2016 Exeter History Minute

In the early 1900s, most nurses were educated at hospital-based schools and Exeter’s nurses were no exception. From 1906 to 1935, Exeter Hospital ran a successful training school for nurses – not only were the young women prepared for a career in nursing, but they were housed and paid during their training. In this episode of the Exeter History Minute -- click here to watch -- Barbara delves into the history of this local program that launched early 20th century women into careers while providing nursing staff for hospitals nation-wide. This history minute is generously sponsored by Exeter Hospital,

We have dedicated this Exeter History Minute to Pauline Fifield Kenick, a 1933 graduate of the Exeter Hospital Training School for Nurses. In 2006, Mrs. Kenick provided the majority of the photos for the history wall at Exeter Hospital, and donated her uniform – and other items – to the Exeter Historical Society. She died May 2, 2016, at the age of 106. 

In 2005, the NH Commission on the Status of Women conceived of the Women’s Heritage Trail to give visible recognition to the significant participation and contributions of women in the life and culture of the state since its founding. The Exeter Hospital Training School is featured on the trail. Visit their website to learn more:

To help us continue to produce Exeter History Minutes, go to to make a gift of any size. To learn more about Exeter history, visit our website, #ExeterHistoryMinute

Saturday, May 7, 2016

The Sidewalks

by Barbara Rimkunas

This "Historically Speaking" column was published by the Exeter News-Letter on Friday, May 6, 2016.

Of course, people used to walk a great deal more than we do today. Walking was how one got around town and did the marketing. But the walking wasn’t always that great. “The mud is ankle deep,” lamented B. Judkins Perkins in March of 1860, politely not mentioning that the roadway was a mix of mud and manure. Perkins lived a mile outside the center of town, he wouldn’t expect there to be any kind of sidewalk out in the sticks. Exeter’s business district was slightly better for foot traffic. Providing a safe and clean walkway for customers was considered necessary for the merchants of the town.

The first sidewalks were probably constructed of wood. Individual shop keepers constructed boardwalks to prevent people from tracking in too much crud from the street and, as they were raised higher than street level, to serve as a barrier for road traffic. You might think that a horse would know enough not to crash into a shop window, but you’d be wrong. Horses and oxen often went out of control. Wagons had only the most rudimentary brakes and sleighs had none. Keeping road traffic away from pedestrians and buildings was very important.

The downside of wood, of course, was that it needed to be repaired and replaced often. In some parts of town this wasn’t much of a problem – Court Street retained its plank walkways through the end of the nineteenth century. Planking was also used as seasonal walkways at the Robinson Female Seminary and Phillips Exeter Academy. If you’ve ever tried to shovel snow from a gravel driveway you’ll understand why it was easier to clear a planked sidewalk.

Sometime in the early nineteenth century the boardwalks in the downtown of Exeter began to disappear. Walkways were set apart from the street by the installation of curbstones. This was enough to stop an errant wagon. Granite hitching posts were added to create a psychological barrier most animals needed to keep them off the sidewalk. The path itself was then filled with ‘cinders,’ the crunchy residue left after burning coal. Once stomped down by enough pedestrians, it made a hard surface. Holes and divots could easily be filled with more cinders.

The next sidewalk idea was concrete. As the current sidewalks are excavated there has been some surprise as layers of old concrete are found. There is some written evidence that downtown businesses were installing concrete sidewalks as early as the 1860s. Concrete is not a new technology, although it has been greatly improved since the Romans used in in 70 AD to build the Colosseum. Nineteenth century concrete was prone to cracking and buckling as our wild temperature variations shift the ground beneath the sidewalks. By the late 1860s, our sidewalks were a mess of old concrete, cracked brick, packed cinder and old planking. In 1870, the local businesses and churches decided to pool their resources and have the whole job done by one firm – W.K. Stratton and Company. Each business paid a fee of 65 cents per yard. The town paid for sidewalks in front of public property – total cost for the project (both public and private) came to $1475.96. The whole thing was viewed favorably. Not only did the walking improve, but it spruced up the town. “We notice with pleasure the laying of a fine curbstone on Front Street from the Methodist Church to Water Street in front of the Town hall. The sidewalk is being widened in places and narrowed in other, thus giving it a desirable uniformity,” crowed the Exeter News-Letter.

These sidewalks lasted nearly twenty years before they inevitably cracked and were patched piecemeal with cement or brick. The next wave of sidewalk improvement happened in the 1920s. By this time, the rise of the automobile made the public far more aware of the need for smooth surfaces. The town approved the installation of granolithic concrete sidewalks – similar to old concrete, but with more stone imbedded for durability. Nancy Merrill tells us, in her History of Exeter, NH 1888-1988, that in 1925, “the Chamber of Commerce convinced the merchants along Water Street to purchase sidewalk flags. Sockets were drilled in the sidewalk along Water Street by the flag company. The new granolithic sidewalk on the northern side of water Street between the Merrill Block and the Janvrin Block was finished in mid- August. The chamber suggested ‘one more band concert’ to celebrate and to have all the new flags flying. It was a beautiful day for the celebration, and the square was thronged with those who enjoyed the ‘spectacle of great beauty;’ the band concert from 8:00pm to 9:00pm was followed by dancing in the square from 9:00pm until 10:00pm.” Exeter is possibly the only town that ever threw a party for new sidewalks.

Of course, those beautiful sidewalks also cracked, but they took longer to crack than earlier ones. Post World War II austerity patched the walks with asphalt – a quick fix, if imperfect. Our new sidewalks won’t last forever, but newer mixes of concrete and the inclusion of expansion joints should prolong their lifespan considerably. In the meantime, the improvements are pure joy to the walker. It’s practically a party just to navigate the downtown without tripping over loose pavement. Perhaps we should throw a second great sidewalk party and call it an Exeter tradition.

Image: The piecemeal condition of Exeter’s sidewalks before the installation of granolithic concrete in 1925 is evident in this photo of Haley’s Meat Market on Water Street.

Friday, April 22, 2016

Singing School

by Barbara Rimkunas

This "Historically Speaking" column was published by the Exeter News-Letter on Friday, April 22, 2016.

The Puritans who settled New England were not known for their singing talents. Music during a worship service was just a bit too close to entertainment, and so they had banned musical instruments and restricted music to a Capella singing. Psalms and other poetry from the Bible were considered prayer when sung, so the requirement was there – but apparently not the talent. With few psalm books available and no instrument to play the melody, hymns at church were sung using a system called lining-out. A clerk would read a line of the psalm and then the congregation would sing it in response, the tune differing from week to week and from church to church. Without guidance from a songbook or musical notation, the music was frequently garbled as it was easy to mix-up one tune with another.

In 1721, Reverend Cotton Mather of the Massachusetts Bay Colony preached (and later published) a sermon called, “The Accomplished Singer” encouraging the revival of ‘regular singing.’ Linda Ruggles, Lecturer of History at the University of Maryland, tells us that, “a number of ministers preached and wrote during the 1720s of the deplorable state of singing in the New England churches and strove to institute Regular Singing as the accepted style in worship.” But unsurprisingly, there was resistance from the congregation. Learning proper singing took effort and seemed like a frivolous endeavor. The pace of improvement was glacial. Still, Harvard was teaching its divinity students proper singing, and the practice and acceptance of singing schools slowly began to spread.

An early notice of a singing school in Exeter was placed in the Constitutionalist, a newspaper published in town in January of 1813. “William M. Butler would respectfully inform those from whom he has received encouragement and the young Ladies and Gentlemen in town and vicinity, that he should commence upon a second term on Tuesday Evening the 26th at the Centre School House. All those who subscribe to this school will be carried through the first principles of Musick, for the purpose of facilitating their future progress.” Mr. Butler’s singing school tuition was, “one dollar, to be paid at the end of the quarter; the Scholars furnishing the School with lights.”

Likewise, in 1818, Reverend Hosea Hildreth, an instructor at Phillips Exeter Academy, announced his singing school would open in February. “At the desire of several friends Mr. Hildreth will open a school on next Tuesday evening for instructing young Ladies and Gentlemen in Sacred Musick; provided twenty should previously apply for instruction.” Hildreth charged two dollars for his singing school.

Those who had presumably worked their way through a course in regular singing could join the Rockingham Sacred Musick Society, which met in Exeter or Portsmouth. Each year, at their annual meeting, the Society hosted an esteemed speaker – usually a local minister – to explain why choral singing, particularly good quality choral singing, was considered a form of prayer. North Hampton minister Jonathan French, in his 1816 address, made the case that music was always sacred, “we infer the fondness of the ancients for music from the wonderful effects they ascribe to it. It is said that by music diseases were cured, strong propensities controlled, seditions quelled, and passions raised and calmed.” But he was concerned that modern secular music was too profane for Sunday. “Does not performance of some, necessarily resemble the jargon of Babel, and the confused noise of the discordant assembly at Ephesus, some crying one thing, and some another?” Stick to sacred music, he encouraged, and not “modern fugueing tunes.”

Fuguing tunes were hardly gangsta rap. They were still hymns, but were set to four-part harmony. Both the Exeter singing masters taught this type of singing as evidenced by their use of the songbook, “Village Harmony.” This classic New England songbook was published in Exeter and went through multiple editions. Butler instructed his students, “It is earnestly recommended, that the scholars be furnished with the Eleventh Edition of the Village Harmony, a book containing a correct and pleasing variety of Psalmody.” Who wouldn’t want to learn from a book that advised: “Never sing through the nose, for that will spoil the voice, make the musick disagreeable, and have a disgusting effect upon the hearer.”

Whether singing schools improved the music in church was debatable. Elizabeth Dow Leonard remembered the music of her youth unkindly. “The volunteer choir troubles were often very amusing and always perpetual. The tune used to be started or ‘pitched,’ as it was termed, with a pitch-pipe, the leader and such of the choir as were supposed to be masters of music ‘beating time’ with the hand instead of a baton.” “The singers performed their parts with spirit and understanding also, making up what was deficient in science and harmony with unction and noise.” By mid-century, the co-educational nature of singing schools facilitated a shift from worship to courtship, and for this they were still a valuable occupation.

Image: New England singing schools used The Village Harmony as the songbook. This edition was published in Exeter by J.J. Williams in 1819, and was sold throughout the region.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

The Carriage Industry in Exeter

by Barbara Rimkunas

This "Historically Speaking" column was published by the Exeter News-Letter on Friday, April 8, 2016.

A visitor to Exeter in the early 1800s would have quickly noticed that one of the busiest industries in town was carriage manufacturing. Today we’re used to a landscape peppered with businesses associated with our cars. There are gas stations, repair stations, glass repair, body shops, muffler and oil change shops, car dealerships and tire sales. It’s not uncommon for our car to be serviced at three or four different types of establishments. Although it may seem like the horse and buggy days were a simpler time, the carriage industry required similar numbers of diverse support services.

Before the nineteenth century few people owned their own carriage. People traveled by walking, riding horseback or paddling across water. Goods were moved from one place to another largely with two-wheeled carts, either pulled by people or a single horse. It was so uncommon for individuals to own a light carriage that most towns in New England documented the first person to have one. Indeed, Exeter is no exception as historian Charles Bell notes in History of the Town of Exeter, New Hampshire, “The first light carriage used in the town, according to tradition, was introduced by the Rev. Daniel Rogers, about the year 1754. It was of two wheels, and without a top, much like what in later times, was termed a gig. Before that time Mr. Rogers always rode to his meetings on horseback. A few years afterwards, Brigadier Peter Gilman brought into town the first fall-back chaise with a square top.”

The chaise (sometimes spelled and pronounced ‘shay’ as in the ‘one-horse shay’) was well suited to the rough roads of the early nineteenth century. The wheels were quite large, lifting the rider well above the mud and slush of the unpaved roadway, and two wheels allowed it to bump along fairly easily. The names chaise and gig are often used interchangeably, but the distinction is that a gig, as Bell mentioned, did not have a top. A chaise had a retractable cover called a calash, which could be pulled overhead in case of rain or to provide shade. These early vehicles were purchased primarily by the wealthier people in town or, as in the case of the Rev. Rogers, those whose livelihoods required a great deal of travel such as ministers or doctors. Carriages were made slowly by local craftsmen and could be quite expensive.

Still, there was demand for less expensive models and this, combined with improvements in roads, created a strong market for four-wheeled carriages. By mid-century, the industry took off in Exeter. Bell says, “Chaise, carriage and harness making became subsequently a very considerable business in Exeter, for a long period, extending from the latter part of the last century down to near the present time (1888).

Records at the Exeter Historical Society tell us that in the 1872 town directory, when the population of Exeter was about 3,440, there were 41 men connected with the carriage business, and this doesn’t include apprentices. The businesses associated with the industry are described as: carriage manufacturer, carriage maker, carriage works, wagon maker, carriage trimmer, harness maker and trimmer, carriage woodworker, machine and carriage blacksmith, carriage painter, sign and carriage painter, carriage and sleigh painter, carriage painter and builder and carriage dealer. Nancy Merrill, the curator until 2000, wasn’t able to locate any wheelwrights in 1872, but there had been wheelwrights in town in previous decades. Perhaps the carriage makers in 1872 were securing the wheels from another town.

This diversification of the industry into select parts may seem inefficient, but it actually brought down both the price and production time of carriages. The basic frame and assembly might be completed in one shop and the paint job – and the paint was important to protect the wood and add an esthetically pleasing look – in another. Iron parts were produced and repaired in the same blacksmith shop that shoed one’s horse. And speaking of the horse, this was an entirely separate industry. The family horse needed to be housed either in the barn at home or boarded at the local livery stable. It needed medical care, proper shoes and a harness suited to its personal needs. Just as we have to put gas in the car and make sure the oil is changed regularly, a horse needed feed, water and regular stall cleaning. You couldn’t just park it for the season and forget about it.

With all the carriage manufacturing that went on in town, it’s a bit odd that we don’t have any examples of Exeter carriages to look at. They’re probably out there, but carriage makers didn’t commonly sign their work and unlike other craftsmen, they didn’t leave detailed plans describing their designs. Most of the wagons and carriages made in Exeter were produced before the 1890s and were simply allowed to decay in the following decades. By the turn of the century, carriage making in Exeter was on the decline. Bell’s theory was that there weren’t enough young men willing to take up the craft. This might be true, or it could be that the rise of the mail order catalog - the Amazon of its day – cut into local production. A lightweight carriage could be ordered from Sears and Roebuck or Montgomery Ward and it would arrive by rail. Either way, as we look back on the era from modern times we know that the carriage industry was doomed as soon as automobiles were invented. Who wants to muck out the horse stall when you can simply buy a few gallons of gas instead?

Fear not, however, the entire horse and buggy industry converted to the modern era. Livery stables and blacksmith shops became the mechanics garage. Gas stations popped up all over the place. As technology changes so does the commercial landscape. We no longer have video stores and travel agencies are waning, but smart phone repair shops are doing well. Soon we’ll all be lining up for self-driving car rental services and we’ll wonder why we ever bothered with car payments.

Photo: George Green poses in front of his carriage painting shop on Court Street in the mid 1870s. As both a blacksmith and painter, Green was part of the large carriage producing industry that once thrived in Exeter.