Thursday, January 12, 2017

A Puzzling Burial in the Winter Street Cemetery

by Barbara Rimkunas

This "Historically Speaking" column appeared in the Exeter News-Letter on January 13, 2017.

One of the wonders of strolling through a cemetery is encountering grave markers that tell a story. Most are quite sad, as death tends to be when a person dies young or a family suffers a quick succession of deaths. Some are final tributes to a long life well-lived. Occasionally, a grave marker hints at both a tragedy and a tribute. Such is the puzzling grave of Nathan Burnham in the Winter Street Cemetery.

The grave stone reads, “This stone is erected by the scholars of the town school in Exeter, as a token of respect for their beloved instructor, Nathan Burnham, who died April 2nd, 1821, Aged 21 Years. Go, fair example of untainted youth. Of mildest wisdom and pacific truth. Go live, for Heaven’s eternal year is thine. Go and exalt thy mortal to divine.” The verse was written by Alexander Pope in 1726. By the early 1800’s it had become a popular epitaph for young men, but did it apply to Exeter’s Nathan Burnham? Was he a “fair example of untainted youth, of mildest wisdom and pacific truth?” And why was his grave marker erected by his students instead of his family?

Usually, when presented with this kind of mystery, we can look at a death certificate, which will generally list the deceased’s parents, place of birth and cause of death. But Nathan Burnham turns out to be more mysterious than anticipated. His death certificate provides no more details than his grave marker. He is listed as “assistant schoolmaster, age 22” but with no other identifying information. If he was 21 or 22 years old, he must have been born in either 1799 or 1800. A quick run through the genealogical search engines finds a Nathan Burnham born in 1799 in Corinth, Maine – but Corinth’s online records do not verify this. There doesn’t seem to have been a Burnham family in Corinth at all. So, maybe he was born in Maine, but maybe not. He definitely wasn’t born in Exeter. There were no Burnhams in Exeter at that time either.

His passing was noted in the local newspaper, the Northern Republican. Of Nathan Burnham the paper said, “This amiable young man, though but recently a resident of this town, had, by his modest and religious deportment, secured the affections of a numerous and bereaved acquaintance. During the short, but severe sickness that preceded his dissolution, he often expressed a longing desire to be at home with his Saviour.” After the funeral, presided over by the Rev. Rowland, “his remains were attended from the meeting-house, to the place of interment, by a large and solemn concourse of people,” which no doubt included his students. It’s not a lot of information to go by, but it does seem that Nathan Burnham was cherished and his reported personality reflected the poetry on his grave marker.

And perhaps he had “secured the affections” of a couple named Robert and Margery Rogers. Two weeks after the young schoolmaster’s death, Margery gave birth to a boy who was named Nathan Burnham Rogers and the story continues. The Rogers family remained in town for a few more years. The next time we hear of Nathan Burnham Rogers was upon his graduation from Dartmouth College in 1845. Pious like his namesake, Rogers went on to the Theological Seminary in Andover and was ordained as a Congregational minister on December 6, 1848. He was called to serve at the South Congregational Church in Hallowell, Maine. It seemed that his life was a continuation of his namesake – perhaps the first Nathan Burnham would have gone into the ministry. In October of 1849 Rogers travelled to Hopkinton, New Hampshire to marry Lydia Bailey. The two were wed on October 9th and set off together on their honeymoon. On November 11th, the Exeter News-Letter sadly reported the sudden death of Nathan Burnham Rogers. “In Hallowell, Maine, of typhoid fever, Rev. Nathan Rogers, age 28. He was married about three weeks since, and was seized with the fatal disease the night of his return from his bridal journey.” The bereaved parishioners of Hallowell’s South Church buried him in their cemetery.

One grave marker in our cemetery ultimately tells the tragic stories of two gentle and kind men. We may not know about the origins or family (if there was any family) of the first Nathan Burnham, but we know his students loved him. Nathan Burnham Rogers, like his namesake, had a promising future of service waiting for him. He too, was loved. We need more monuments reminding us about love, even when tinged with sorrow.

Barbara Rimkunas is curator of the Exeter Historical Society. Her column appears every other Friday and she may be reached at

Photo: Winter Street Cemetery grave of Nathan Burnham, an assistant schoolmaster who died at the age of 21 in 1821. His bereaved students erected his grave marker. The photo was taken by Clair Cushman for Find-A-Grave and used by permission.

Saturday, December 31, 2016

Looking Back at 1916

by Barbara Rimkunas

This "Historically Speaking" column appeared in the Exeter News-Letter on Friday, December 30, 2016.

This year everyone seems glad to be rid of 2016. Too many celebrity deaths, the long grind that was the election, Exeter’s drought, civil unrest and frightening world events seem to have taken a toll on most everyone.

One hundred years ago, in 1916, celebrity deaths weren’t in the news much, but local deaths were. In March, the Exeter News-Letter reported the death of Freeman Wallace, “a highly respected Negro citizen.” Educated in Exeter schools, he was a Union Veteran having served in the Navy during the Civil War. Although he was, according to the News-Letter, “a genial worthy man, highly esteemed by fellow veterans,” his post-war life in Exeter was limited by his race. “Since discharge from the navy he had been a laborer in Exeter, his task of recent years having been to keep the streets and sidewalks free of paper.” Wallace’s family had been residents of Exeter for generations – his mother a descendant of Caesar Paul, who had been enslaved to Major John Gilman during the French and Indian War (and later freed). Black citizens of Exeter found employment difficult to come by. Wallace was 82 at the time of his death.

Dr. Abner Merrill, another Exeter native, died at the age of 90 in December of 1916. Educated at Phillips Exeter Academy and Harvard, Merrill trained to be a physician and after attending Harvard Medical School, studied with Exeter physician Dr. William Perry. Once finished his studies, he decided medicine was not to his liking and instead went into the family business with his brother Henry. Their hat manufactory and wool exchange brought enough wealth to allow Merrill to become a town philanthropist. He created the Merrill Institute, which brought educational speakers to town for over 70 years.

1916 was the first year New Hampshire held a presidential primary election, although it was quite different from the primary race of today. The men – it was only men who voted in 1916 – met in March to elect delegates. The News-Letter reported the “vote was light.” A partisan paper, the News-Letter endorsed the candidacy of George Hughes, a Republican, for the presidency. But even in a largely Republican town, the voters (men) were worried over the war in Europe and incumbent Woodrow Wilson promised to keep the United States out of the battle. Going to press just a few days after the election, the vote was too close to call. Wilson won the election in Exeter, in New Hampshire and in the nation. After having run a campaign with the promise, “He Kept Us Out of War,” Wilson would declare war just one month after his second inauguration.

The Democrats and Republicans weren’t the only political parties in 1916. They were challenged by the Progressive and Prohibition parties. The Republicans and Progressives held concurrent conventions in Chicago, both of which were covered by Exeter journalist Myra Richards. Richards had served as Rockingham County deputy register of probate after her husband’s illness prevented him from serving as register of probate. After his death, she was appointed to serve as a special correspondent in Washington for several New England newspapers. For over 10 years she was the only woman in the Senate press pool.

The weather in 1916 wasn’t particularly harsh. The winter was similar to our usual winters and summer had the usual storms and heat. New England can have some crazy extremes, as the March 2nd edition of the News-Letter was able to announce that, “Fred Colcord last week completed the harvesting of his ice crop,” in the same week that crocuses were reported to be in bloom on Elliot Street.

Exeter began the year with two theaters – the Exeter Opera House and the Ioka. By March, it was clear that the Ioka was in trouble. Edward Mayer, the man who built the theater, had left town followed by a trail of debt. The investors held the business together. Silent films played at the Ioka throughout the year, and the Opera House clung to life for a few more years. Most films were light-hearted comedies, although in October the Opera House brought a frightening film called “The Battle Cry of Peace” to town. The film, lost to history today except for a few scenes, depicted a United States unprepared for war – complete with scenes of terrified citizens escaping New York City. Dystopian nightmares, it seems, are not unique to modern times.

The greatest threat most people saw in the modern age was still the scourge of alcohol. Ralph Meras of Exeter ran for governor on the prohibition platform. He was soundly defeated even in Exeter, where the townsmen voted to stay dry. Not all modern things were to be feared. It was in 1916 that the Exeter Fire Department got its first motorized truck.

One shining light in 1916 was the donation, erection and dedication of the Swasey Pavilion – our beloved bandstand. Work on the structure was noted throughout the summer. One hundred years later, we can still appreciate this elegant centerpiece to our town.

Image: This advertisement for "The Battle Cry of Peace" ran in the Exeter News-Letter on October 20, 1916. The silent film was a warning to the United States to prepare for war.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Parcel Post Delivery Comes to Town

by Barbara Rimkunas

This "Historically Speaking" column appeared in the Exeter News-Letter on Friday, December 16, 2016.

Still waiting to mail your packages in time for the holidays? Even if you don’t quite make it, rest assured that the mail is much more efficient today than it was in the 19th century. Before 1900, mail wasn’t delivered to your door – it had to be picked up at the post office. Nearly every month the post office would publish a list of letters that hadn’t been claimed. Packages sent by US Postal Service had to weigh less than 4 pounds and even this was somewhat expensive – averaging 1 cent per ounce. But great changes would come as the nation’s railroad system sped up the system.

On January 1st, 1900, the US Postal Service introduced free carrier delivery to most towns. This took some getting used to by most postal customers, particularly in the way a letter was addressed. “Upon the institution of free delivery mail matter delivered by carrier must bear the street and number as a most essential part of the address, and patrons of the office are requested so far as practicable to give the necessary information to their regular correspondents. By postal regulations, the householder must, for his own convenience and advantage, and at his own expense, supply a suitable box for the reception of his mail,” reminded the Exeter News-Letter. When the big day finally arrived, a snowstorm slowed down door to door delivery considerably. “It was unfortunate that a snow storm of such severity should accompany the institution of free delivery. The carriers, Messrs. Scott, Sanborn and Gilmore, have worked zealously, but they are human, and there is a limit to their powers.”

Home delivery was certainly a convenience for people, but letters and small packages weren’t the only things traveling across country. The two powerhouse mail-order businesses from Chicago – Montgomery Ward and Sears, Roebuck & Company – had been doing a bang-up job of supplying goods all across the country for decades. By 1900, both companies were still struggling with the problem of shipping goods to the public. There were several options available to customers. A private express service, like American Express or Wells Fargo, would ship directly from Chicago to your hometown. These were efficient if there was an express office in your town. If there wasn’t, you might have to travel several towns away to pick up your goods. Sears advised, “If you live at a great distance from the express office, it might be more convenient to send an order by mail in two or more packages, each weighing four pounds.” At least your smaller packages would reach your local post office. This, of course, was impractical if you ordered anything over four pounds. If the order weighed more than 20 pounds it could be sent as freight by rail. To really play the shipping system, Sears reminded, “Railroad companies usually charge no more for 100 pounds than they do for 20 pounds. It would be a considerable saving of money if you could make up a larger order, either of your own wants or club together with your neighbors, as the freight charges will amount to comparatively very little more.” That way, if you only wanted to order a B flat alto ocarina for 29 cents, you could save on shipping if you combined it with your neighbor’s order of 25 pounds of flour. Clever.

But most people wanted their orders shipped directly to their own homes. The success of free carrier delivery convinced postal authorities that expanding the service might increase revenue. Farmers' cooperatives and the Grange, along with the mail-order houses, wanted the postal service to offer parcel post. It went into effect in 1913 – again on January 1st – this time without a snowstorm. “The parcels post system went into effect Wednesday and should prove a great convenience to the public,” reported the Exeter News-Letter. “Inez Josephine, the eleven-year-old daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Warren E. Peltier, was the first person in Exeter to make use of the parcel post on January 1. She sent a package containing a dressed chicken to her aunt in Cambridge, Mass.”

The U.S. Postal Service website tells us, “The year Parcel Post began, Sears handled five times as many orders as it did the year before. Five years later, Sears doubled its revenues.” The original weight limit of 11 pounds was quickly raised. Parcels from the Exeter office included, a can of milk, pumpkins, an umbrella and a “chine of pork” – a tasty dish of stuffed salt pork.

An interesting loop hole in the parcel post regulations was the lack of any limits on what could be shipped. Thus, there are several accounts of parents who shipped their babies and children by parcel post because it was cheaper than buying a railroad ticket. As funny as these stories are, it wasn’t a widespread practice. These were often stunts and the children were usually entrusted to friendly railroad conductors or were accompanied by a fare-paying adult. Local postmasters frequently reminded the public that, in spite of what they may have heard, they do not ship children via Parcel Post.

Barbara Rimkunas is curator of the Exeter Historical Society. Her column appears every other Friday and she may be reached at

Photo: “It took so much time to read Post Cards and now we must find out what is inside of all Parcel Post packages in Exeter, NH” mutter the exasperated postal clerks on this novelty post card produced by the Frank Swallow Post Card Company in Exeter, NH.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Exeter Historical Society History Bat

by Barbara Rimkunas

This "Historically Speaking" column appeared in the Exeter News-Letter on Friday, December 2, 2016.

The Exeter Historical Society’s mascot, History Bat, hasn’t been around much lately. When the town put a new roof on our headquarters at 47 Front Street back in 2012 it must have sealed up all the crevices that the bats used for entry. As glad as we are not to have bat visits, we still embrace our mascot.

Before History Bat there were the library bats. Our current home was the Exeter Public Library from 1894 until 1988. Pam Gjettum, who became the librarian in 1971, says there were bats in the building when she first arrived although she didn’t notice them much until the interior was painted in the mid-70s. She wrote about her experiences in the October, 1976 edition of Yankee magazine. “We first noticed the bats when the place was being repainted. Before then nobody ever saw them, or else figured that bats hanging from the ceiling were part of the Oppressive Late Victorian style of decoration.” The library staff wasn’t impressed with them. For one thing, they didn’t seem to be like other bats. These were, in Pam’s words, “Not stately, well-bred bats who swoop out gracefully at sunset, like the colony next door in the Baptist church. The library bats are raucous, stupid individuals, the sort of bats other bats tell their children not to play with.” Once the painters left, “They started turning up fairly often after that. Maybe the new gold and cream walls appealed to them. They would swoop silently down from the biographies and go flapping around the lobby. Sometimes, with their marvelous radar, they could find their way out through an open door or window, but most of the time they just flapped around in a fatheaded sort of way. They were probably looking for insects, but all we have in here is a spider over the main desk, and she is a pet.”

Sometime in the late 1970s, Catherine Geanoulis, a library staff member, snapped a photo of one of the bats comfortably napping on the toilet paper in the restroom. Its discovery must have been startling to say the least. The photo is now in the Historical Society archives listed as “bathroom bat.”
Attempts to eradicate the bat colony were usually foiled. Bats have to be moved out – you can’t simply spray deadly chemicals – and this requires some patience to wait for them to wake up from hibernation. And since they seem to be homebodies at heart, they have a tendency to come back. Since the Historical Society moved in there have been fewer bats, but we still have the occasional visitor.

People seem to naturally respond to bats the same way Homeland Security advises people to respond to an active shooter: Run. Hide. Fight. But rest assured, a wayward bat means no harm. They’re not wild about being stuck in a building and usually want to leave as soon as possible. They’re also not particularly interested in people unless those people are chasing them with murderous intent. I’ve found the best way to deal with a visit from the History Bat is to keep your wits about you and help the bat leave on its own.

Pam had her own tactic. “We evolved a regular bat drill. The first thing is to wait for the bat to land. If he was already asleep and we came to work and found him hanging there, so much the better. Library supplies come in small cardboard boxes just the right size for slapping over a quiescent bat and holding him in place while you slide a record album under him.” I prefer a butterfly net, but any type of containment will work. Take your bat outside and set it free. It might come back, but maybe it won’t flap its way into your work space again.

The library was concerned, correctly so, about the possibility of rabies. Exeter’s health officer, J. Harold Carbonneau, Sr. had Pam take one of the bats to the state lab for testing. None of the library bats suffered from rabies. Apparently they just had intense curiosity about books.

Our most recent bat was an art lover. Hanging on the wall in the main meeting room of the Historical Society is a beautiful painting by Elizabeth Gardner Bouguereau called “Crossing the Brook.” Of all the places to settle, the bat chose the painting. Out of reach of my net, and not wanting to injure the painting, we threw the front doors open and after some gentle prodding with a long bamboo pole, the history bat decided he had other things to do that day.

Rumor has it you might catch a glimpse of History Bat in the Holiday Parade this week.

Barbara Rimkunas is curator of the Exeter Historical Society. Her column appears every other Friday and she may be reached at

Photo: The History Bat (formerly the Exeter Public Library Bathroom Bat). Please be assured that the only bat you may encounter at the Exeter Historical Society today will be our cartoon mascot.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Adult Education Has a Long History in Exeter

by Barbara Rimkunas

This "Historically Speaking" column appeared in the Exeter News-Letter on Friday, November 18, 2016.

We can be rightly proud that Exeter Adult Education is now fifty years old. Tracing its birthday to the 1966 Adult Education Act signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson, Exeter’s program is actually a few years older than the legislation. And the program that Exeter launched in 1964 has its roots in earlier projects in adult education.

From 1892 – 1900, Exeter had a night school program led by local educator Rosa Akerman. Geared toward the growing population of immigrant workers living in town, Akerman focused on English language skills. Many factory workers in town had to depend on their children to translate for them. Akerman charged five cents per session and her classes were well attended. But rent for a meeting room had to be covered by donations and within a few short years Akerman found that local enthusiasm waned. The students were still interested, but with only factory wages, there simply wasn’t enough to pay increased costs.

The next wave of education was also aimed at the immigrant population. In 1917, the Women’s Club and the Civic Club worked with oversight from the town to provide more wide-ranging educational opportunities. Along with English, the program offered arithmetic, algebra, bookkeeping, mechanical drawing, stenography, fancy needlework, woodworking and sewing. Again, though, the program depended on donations. English language was again the most attended class, so there was still a need for this type of instruction. It was during this time that the country experienced something of an immigration backlash. The Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, worker unrest at home and the extreme patriotism of the First World War combined to create an atmosphere of distrust. Citizenship became a badge of honor and people of foreign birth were quick to apply. The days of unfettered immigration ended in 1924 when laws were created that imposed a quota system on new arrivals. With fewer immigrants coming to town, and the onset of economic depression in the northeast, English classes were in lower demand. The night school program faded by the end of the decade.

Perhaps it was the GI Bill that inspired the next period of adult education in Exeter. Servicemen returning from World War II were provided with unprecedented access to higher education. In the fall of 1947, the Exeter News-Letter announced the creation of The Exeter Program for Adult Education. “This program, designed for the greater community about Exeter, is in line with a trend throughout the country. Thousands of men and women are going back to school this fall enriching their own lives and strengthening American Democracy by taking courses.” The world had changed, bringing leaps forward in science and technology. This was reflected in the course offerings: “The Monday evening courses will include a laboratory course in photography, a lecture course on chemical and atomic energy, and a hobby group making and repairing furniture. On Tuesday evenings there will be two courses, the first, in public speaking, and the second a lecture on Russia. Wednesday evenings will be given over to a series of lectures dealing with great men (sorry, Eleanor Roosevelt, Grace Hopper and Jackie Cochran) and given by eight different speakers.” The instructors, all volunteers, were a mix of Phillips Exeter Academy teachers, Rev. Francis Curran of St. Michael’s church and a few vocational teachers from Exeter High School. At the same time, Ruth Stimson of the Cooperative Extension was offering classes on home economics throughout Rockingham County. The Cold War may have made people somewhat uneasy about the wider world, but they were eager to improve things at home. In the following years physical education was offered. When the program was renewed in 1948, the News-Letter noted that, “too much cannot be said in praise of this venture, or of those responsible for its institution. It was inaugurated for the purpose of bringing to the people of Exeter and nearby towns the opportunity of greater understanding of a fast changing world.” The Exeter Program for Adult Education continued until 1959, when it was decided to suspend the program until sustainable funding could be secured. Even with volunteer teachers, it was difficult to support the program.

After taking a breather for a few years, Exeter Adult Education was revived in 1964 as a cooperative program between Phillips Exeter Academy and Exeter High School. Courses reflected the times: “Government: a study of local, county and state government with a different speaker each week,” Personal Typing, Public Speaking, Oceanography, Election Backgrounds, Woodworking, The Meaning of History, and “Slimnastics for Women.” That last one perhaps because if women couldn’t be ‘great’ at least they could be slim. Programs expanded during the next few years, offering a wide variety of science, history, civics and math programs. In 1965, a course was offered in “new math” – a problem that befuddled parents in 1965 as much as it does today. The course promised to “present the fundamental ideas and applications of the new math in such a way that it can be clearly understood and effectively used by persons of different age levels, mathematical backgrounds, and abilities.”

Adult Education was expanded in the 1980s to include high school equivalency and diploma programs. English language instruction was reintroduced linking our current program with Rosa Akerman’s original vision in 1897. It’s never too late to learn something new – check out the Exeter Adult Education offerings and change your life a little or a lot.

Barbara Rimkunas is curator of the Exeter Historical Society. Her column appears every other Friday and she may be reached at

Photo: from the Exeter News-Letter, volunteer teaching staff of the Exeter Adult Education Program in 1948. Front Row: Rev. Francis Curran, Elbert Little, H. Darcy Curwen, Academy Principal William Saltonstall, Chairman Phillips Wilson, Superintendent of Public Schools Aura Coleman, Martin Sounders and Robert Kesler. Back Row: John Anderson, Arthur Landers, Oscar Pearson, W. Leonard Stevens, henry Bragdon, Norman Hatch, Jackson Adkins, Dan Fowler, Ralph Lovshin, Gordon Benn, henry Phillips, Robert Bates, Theodore Seabrooke and John Hogg.

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Why Exeter? What Brought Irish Immigrants to Exeter?

by Barbara Rimkunas

This "Historically Speaking" column appeared in the Exeter News-Letter on Friday, November 4, 2016.

Immigration is fueled by factors that both push people from their country of origin and pull them toward a new one. It’s easy to believe that the tremendous increase in immigration in the nineteenth century was the result of the industrial revolution, but in Exeter, that wasn’t the case until the 1890s. Before that, immigrants came for reasons that did not include factory jobs.

The population in Exeter remained about the same from the end of the Revolution until the 1820s, with about 1700 people in town during those years. New people arriving in town were few and rarely offset the number of people who decided to head for new farmland in the West. The economy was a mix of small farming and small industry. The town produced leather goods, printed materials and was known for carriage-making. None of these required huge numbers of workers. The Exeter Manufacturing Company – a cotton textile mill – was erected at the waterfalls in the 1830s as our first big industry. In its early years of operation, the mill tested the labor system used in Lowell and Lawrence, that of hiring local farm girls. Young women were inexpensive to employ, easily controlled and locally available. Or, so the mill owners thought. It turned out that few New England young women wanted to spend long hours in a dark mill. The system never took hold in Exeter and mill owners were forced to find labor elsewhere.

At just about the same time, Ireland experienced an agricultural catastrophe that would come to be known as the Irish Potato Famine. Scores of Irish, facing possible starvation, found their way to the United States and to Exeter. It would seem logical that the mill owners would hire the new Irish residents of town, but census records show otherwise. The 1850 census put the Exeter population at 3329 with 135 foreign born residents in town. Of these, 101 people had been born in Ireland. But they weren’t working in the cotton mill. Nearly all the Irish immigrants in the 1850 census were single, with women outnumbering men. Men tended to list their occupations as “laborer” and the women were working as domestic servants. “Very few people in Exeter kept more than one servant,” Elizabeth Dow Leonard recalled of her early nineteenth century childhood, “We had Yankee help in those days and queer touch-me-nots they were. We used to import them from the rural districts where they belonged to the first families and earned money in the summer at a dollar a week to attend some seminary of learning through the winter and perhaps themselves teach the young idea.” Local ‘help’ tended to be too haughty for domestic work and the servant problem was frequently a topic of discussion. Young Irish women were more than willing to work for local families.

Irish men were willing to take on whatever work was available. Many were quite used to farm labor and were quickly hired by aging farmers whose sons had gone west. By the 1860s, when the Ireland-born population of Exeter had grown to 183, 24 men listed their occupation as unspecified labor and 14 considered themselves farm laborers. Those without skills were able to find plenty of work as long as only a strong back was required. Exeter was moving goods by both the river and railroad. The mill may have only hired a few people of Irish origin (only 3 women and 2 men listed their employment in the textile mill), but there was plenty of work hauling, loading and building. The wool industry needed men to work as ‘wool pullers’, an occupation listed by 11 men of Irish origin. Wool pulling was a catch-all description of any job involved in the processing of raw wool; sorting, grading, hauling or even shearing from pelts. It was hard work, but it was work. Jobs inside the mill were monopolized by native New Englanders and skilled workers from England. It would take several decades for the Irish to fully integrate into New England mills. Like most immigrants, they took the only jobs offered to them when they first arrived.

Within twenty years, by 1870, the Irish began to integrate into the town’s native born population. A Roman Catholic church was erected in 1868. The period following the Civil War brought with it an increase in the town’s industrial growth. The need for labor would be acute by the late 1880s and 90s. When newer immigrants from Quebec, Germany, Poland and Lithuania arrived at the end of the century, the town was more prepared for the newcomers. This time, it was the lure of jobs that brought immigrants to town and mill owners were less discriminating about country of origin.

Barbara Rimkunas is curator of the Exeter Historical Society. Her column appears every other Friday and she may be reached at

Photo: In Exeter, Irish immigrants began arriving in the late 1840s. Although workers were needed for the cotton mill, Irish immigrants were not immediately welcome and worked instead as domestics or laborers. Pictured is Edward Graney Jr., who worked for the Anderson Coal Company delivering coal and ice.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Skeletons in All the Wrong Places

by Barbara Rimkunas

This "Historically Speaking" column was not published by the Exeter News-Letter on October 21, 2016.

Back in the 1980s there was an urban legend, posing as fact, that there are more people alive today than have ever lived. Do the living outnumber the dead? Sorry, calculations of population over the course of history give the debate to the dead. Scientific America’s Ciara Curtin, writing in 2007, ran the math and concluded, “despite a quadrupling of the population in the past century, the number of people alive today is still dwarfed by the number of people who have ever lived.”

We’re pretty sure we know where most of Exeter’s dead are buried since about 1700. Before that, things are kind of murky. There’s no trace of our Native burial grounds in Exeter and no indication that any particular spot was reserved by the Squamscotts in the text of the 1638 Wheelwright Deed. But then, we also aren’t quite sure where the Englishmen buried their dead. Most likely, they followed English tradition and established a graveyard near the first Meetinghouse, which was located near Salem Street by the railroad tracks. Historian Charles Bell places the first burial ground at the meetinghouse site, but noted, “for a long time past no traces of memorial stones have been visible there, and all feeling of sanctity about the spot has vanished.” Benjamin Franklin Swasey, writing in 1907, reminded readers that that particular area was later used as a clay pit for a brickyard. “Many of the bricks used in the building of our Cotton factory, in the Bruce house on Bow street, and other places were from this prolific source. Among those now living who worked there at brickmaking Mr. Francis Boardman remembers of human bones being found there in digging up the clay.” It seems some of our Exeter ancestors are now part of our downtown buildings.

Occasionally, skeletons have appeared where they don’t belong. There’s long been a story told that when Josiah Coffin Smith was digging the basement for his house off High Street in 1787 that a skeleton of an Indian and several pewter spoons were found. Unfortunately, that’s the entire story and it cannot be verified why the skeleton was presumed to be an Indian and not an Englishman. We can suppose that early prejudices would have prevented Smith from believing a ‘civilized’ people would bury a body without a marker, but the missing Meetinghouse graveyard indicates otherwise.

Twice in the early twentieth century skeletons were found at work sites in town. The November 17th, 1911 edition of the Exeter News-Letter reported: “the construction of the Walnut street sewer yesterday morning revealed two skeletons buried about three feet and a half below the surface of the street. The first discovered lay across the line of the sewer, the second nearby and at right angles to the other. Dr. John G.W. Knowlton, deputy medical examiner, viewed the skeletons and the bones of the first discovered were placed with the other, which was not disturbed. Dr. Knowlton thinks they were buried more than 50 and less than 100 years ago. No traces of coffins, wearing apparel or other articles were to be seen. The skeletons were of males. One was a man 60 years old or more and of a height in life of more than six feet. One skull showed a perforation.”

Two years later, Dr. Knowlton was called again: “on Tuesday afternoon workmen engaged in digging a trench for the service pipe which will connect the Kent barn on Chestnut hill with the water main unearthed portions of two human skeletons. The skull of one was in fair preservation, but both skeletons were completely disarticulated. A rusty nail probably came from a coffin. Additional bones were found nearby on Wednesday. They were viewed by Dr. John G.W. Knowlton, deputy medical examiner, who advised that they be replaced as nearly as possible in their long resting place.” 

Exeter’s rogue skeletons kept to themselves until 1970, when Robert Brockelbank unearthed several in the Simpson gravel pit on Kingston Rd. Eugene Finch, retired Phillips Exeter Academy instructor and co-founder of the New Hampshire Archeological Society was called in. Just as in Josiah Coffin Smith’s time, the skeletons were presumed to be Native American, the Exeter News-Letter commenting, “All indications point to a find made by Robert Brockelbank last Friday as the remains of several Indians buried in a banking of gravel he was loading on Kingston Rd.” Finch had the remains taken to the Department of Anthropology at Franklin Pierce College where Professor Howard Sargent determined, “the population represented by the few skeletons recovered from the Kingston site is European and that both males and females are present. The age of the cemetery is uncertain, but the hexagonal shape of the coffins that could be distinguished suggests that it dates from the late 18th or very early 19th century.”

Are there more skeletons waiting to be unearthed in town? Quite possibly. As mentioned earlier, there are more dead than living on earth. Should you find one, the best course of action should be what Dr. Knowlton seemed to encourage. Rebury them as near to where they are found as possible. There, they can rest in peace, hopefully away from any sewer lines.

Barbara Rimkunas is curator of the Exeter Historical Society. Her column appears every other Friday and she may be reached at

Photo: When skeletal remains are found and are not suspicious – merely old – investigations attempt to determine basic information. This photo, dated August 25, 1947, is most likely Eugene Finch, co-founder of the New Hampshire Archeological Society. Finch was called to investigate skeletons found at the Simpson gravel pit in 1970.