Thursday, April 10, 2014

Let's Put on a Show!

by Barbara Rimkunas

This "Historically Speaking" column appeared in the Exeter News-Letter on Tuesday, April 15, 2014.

As often happens in the research room of the Exeter Historical Society, one project leads to another. This past week, we were visited by Larry Benaquist, Professor Emeritus of Film Studies at Keene State College, who was seeking some assistance with identifying locations in recently discovered film footage produced in 1943 by Louis de Rochemont Associates. De Rochemont was the director of many “March of Time” newsreel films including “New England’s Eight Million Yankees,” which features scenes of Exeter in 1941. Although none of the stills or scenes he brought seem to be from Exeter, our newspaper index search led us to a different – and completely unrelated – film project that took place in Exeter in 1940- the “Movie Queen.”

While announcing the arrival of de Rochemont’s newsreel project, the Exeter News-Letter commented, “Unlike the never-to-be-forgotten fiasco, ‘Movie Queen,’ which descended upon Exeter not too many months ago, our little town is to play an important role in a ‘March of Time’ production.” “March of Time” newsreels, however much they leaned toward propaganda at times, were a well-respected source of news for most people. But what of “Movie Queen” and why did the News-Letter refer to it as a “fiasco?”

We first found an announcement on March 7th, that a parade would be held two days later. Imagine throwing together a parade in a matter of days, but this seems to be what happened. “On Saturday, March 9 at the Railroad Station at 12:30, the mysterious Hollywood movie queen will be presented the key to the town by the selectmen. Immediately thereafter a parade will commence, headed by the ‘Movie Queen’ and the selectmen.” More interesting was the next sentence: “Movies will be taken of all in the parade as well as lookers on. The movie will be screened at the Town Hall on March 19th and 20th, at the same time as the three-act play, ‘Movie Queen,’ is presented.”

By the following week, more information made its way into the press. The parade, it seems, was a great success. The Exeter News-Letter gushed, “townspeople of Exeter avow they haven’t seen such a turnout on the streets and station at Exeter as at the station last Saturday when charming Ruth Colby, daughter of Dr. and Mrs. C.W. Colby, alighted from a train and was revealed as Exeter’s ‘Movie Queen.’” The parade was also covered by the Portsmouth Herald, which provided far more details, “the parade formed at the Boston & Maine railroad station and proceeded down Main Street to the town hall. The parade was headed by the Junior Legion Drum Corps and the ‘movie queen,’ Miss Ruth Colby rode in a car with C.C. Russell, the Republican nominee for selectman. The parade also included several pieces of the local fire apparatus, as well as automobiles displayed by local dealers. This was the first activity in connection with the show, which is being sponsored by the Daughters of Suzanna of the Methodist church and the welfare department of the Exeter Lions club.”

There is more to this story, and it extends far outside Exeter and a multi-media production of local talent. The “Movie Queen” was a production of the Amateur Theatre Guild of Boston and the production crews travelled around the country staging essentially the same show from town to town. The business model shared profits from the show with local civic organizations on a 50/50 basis and counted on the excitement of the local population – especially those caught on film – to draw an audience. To pull this off, there had to be only goodwill between the crew and the townspeople. This is probably why the same edition of the News-Letter that reported on the parade also had a large ad which read, in part, “We apologize to the High School and Mr. McBride for seeming to want to compete with the school play. To prove our cooperation we have set back the date of our 3-act play ‘Movie Queen’ to March 25th and 26th. Help Mr. McBride get his athletic supplies – then come over to see yourself in the movies with the Movie Queen”

The program’s director, Dorothy Stone, was the organizer of the entire event. Women were commonly used by the Amateur Theatre Guild to promote their projects. It was probably felt that local people would be less suspicious if a woman was in charge. These were days when outsiders were still suspected of suspicious intent. The job must have been a mammoth one, considering everyone involved in the show – the News-Letter listed the cast as, “Miss Ruth Colby, Mr. George S. Carhart of the Academy faculty, Mr. George Knox and Mr. Thomas Norris of the high school faculty, Mr. and Mrs. Brown, Mr. Albert Taylor, Rev. Howard P. Weatherbee, Mr. Otis E. Hoyt, Mr. Gerald Chick, Manager Lothrop of the Atlantic & Pacific store, Mrs. Mabel E. Reed, County Commissioner Alvin E. Foss, Mr. and Mrs. Harold Wentworth; dancing chorus from the Seminary, and baby dancing chorus of 4-H girls. There will also be a swanky fashion show.”

After several delays, which may have been why it was later called a ‘fiasco’ along with the obvious courting of local vanity and capitalist motive, the show was finally presented on March 29th – several weeks after its initially scheduled debut.

Many towns in New England still have the reels of film associated with their own “Movie Queen” productions. The plot of these films is always the same; a local girl who has become famous is welcomed back to town arriving by train or boat. She is feted by the local businessmen and given the key to the town. Then there is a high-action sequence of attempted kidnapping thwarted by the local police. Where Exeter’s original film has gone is anyone’s guess. With any luck, it will turn up – as it has in many other towns – languishing in someone’s attic. If found, this little gem should provide us with the same thrill that people got when watching this earliest of ‘selfies’ back in 1940.

Image: This ad for a production of “Movie Queen” ran in the Exeter News-Letter on March 21, 1940. The film and stage show were the products of an itinerant film company called the Amateur Theatre Guild of Boston. By including scenes of townspeople and local businesses, the production was guaranteed a rapt audience.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Slate of Members for the Exeter Historical Society's Board of Trustees

Craig Boudreau
William Campbell
Katherine Cook
Robert Derosier
Pam Gjettum
Donna Goodspeed
Ron Goodspeed
Eren Kalfaoglu
Helene Kenney
Lionel Ingram
Stacy Penna
Jonathan Ring
Ann Schieber
Caroline Collins Siecke
Peter Smith
Molly Stevenson
Paul Young
Laurie Zwaan

Edward Chase
John Henson
Jeff Hillier
Edward Rowan

Thursday, March 27, 2014

The Park Skating Rink

by Barbara Rimkunas

This "Historically Speaking" column appeared in the Exeter News-Letter on Friday, March 28, 2014.

Fads and entertainments come and go, usually leaving no trace. In the 1880s, the United States was gripped with a fervor for roller skating and the excitement even reached Exeter. Roller skating was particularly popular in New England, perhaps because our long frigid winters encouraged ice skating. But what were Exeter’s skaters to do when there was no ice?

The first recorded roller skater was a Belgian inventor named John-Joseph Merlin, who strapped on a pair of in-line skates of his own making to wear to a masquerade in 1760. The crude skates were awkward and didn’t allow easy turning. Merlin was reported to have fallen and crashed more often than he remained upright. The idea of strapping wheels onto ones’ feet continued to intrigue inventors for another hundred years until James Plimpton of New York created a four-wheeled skate (aptly named the ‘quad skate’) in 1863 that allowed the wearer to gracefully turn just by shifting one’s weight.

Plimpton, more than anyone else, is given credit for popularizing roller skating as a recreational sport. After forming the New York Roller Skating Association, he and his club rented the Atlantic House in Newport, Rhode Island, in 1866, converting the dining room into the first public roller rink in the United States. Improvements in the roller skate continued and more rinks popped up, particularly in the larger cities of New England.

Exeter’s roller rink, the Park Roller Skating Rink, opened on November 15th, 1883, on Lincoln Street near the B&M depot. The building was massive – fifty feet wide and one hundred feet long – and carefully constructed to accommodate over one hundred skaters. The Exeter News-Letter described it, “the whole space forming a large room that is without any obstruction. The roof is trussed and braced in such a manner as to obviate the necessity for posts or pillars, and the disposition of the spectators at the side and end of the room permits the largest economy of space.” Skates could be rented at the front door for ten cents, or if one was not willing to try skating, you could still pay the twenty-five cent admission fee to sit in the gallery and enjoy the show.

And watching was entertainment enough. Often artistic skaters were brought in to put on a show. On opening day the News-Letter reported, “At about eight o’clock the floor was cleared and Miss Sylvester and Prof. B.L. Bailey, of Boston, gave an exhibition of plain and fancy skating. The grace and precision of many of the most difficult movements and the ease with which they were executed were the delight of the spectators and the envy of the amateurs, who were now arranged along the left of the room eagerly watching every step, and frequently bursting into hearty applause at some especially intricate or beautiful figure.” Professor Bailey was noted to be using “Mt Desert” skates, which were described as, “Evidently strong, well made skates, or they would never have stood the strain to which they were subjected.” Roller skates, at that time, would have been very rough to modern eyes. Mt. Desert skates had solid wooden soles that attached to ones’ shoes with leather traces. The wheels were also wood and had no ball bearings to smooth out the ride.

Even with such rigid skates, the Park Skating Rink was a hit with the crowd. “The scene from the seats was very pretty. Many of the gentlemen were very graceful, and among the ladies were several excellent skaters. At the time the floor was fullest there seemed to be nearly as many ladies as gentlemen on skates, and all seemed to thoroughly enjoy the sport.”

Yet, though the skating rink had a wildly popular opening, within four years it was gone. The skating rink changed hands several times and was even updated with electric lights, but it still wasn’t enough. Perhaps it was because roller skating fell out of popularity. Or perhaps it was simply overshadowed by a newer fad – bicycling, which allowed couples more freedom away from the public eye. In any event, the Park Roller Skating Rink disappeared from Exeter’s landscape in 1887.

Instead of being repurposed into some other type of business right where it stood, the rink was moved to a new location and began a second career at Hedding Camp Ground in Epping. The Methodist Church had run camp meetings at Hedding since the 1860s, and by 1887 had determined that they needed a large meeting hall. Somehow, and we don’t know exactly how, the entire building was moved to Epping. Most likely, it was disassembled and reassembled on site, but there is no record of the move. At the Hedding Campground it was renamed “Chautauqua Hall” and has been in constant use ever since the move. More people have known it at Hedding than ever knew it as the Park Roller Skating Rink in Exeter. Its brief time in Exeter is hard to document – it existed in a sliver of time when no maps were made of the town and no directories listed businesses. There are no photos (or at least we have found none) of the building when it was in Exeter.

Roller skating surged back to life many times in the following years. There was roller skating at Exeter’s Town Hall at times, and briefly another rink near the railroad tracks, but never again with the fanfare of the opening of the Park Roller Rink in 1883.

Image: Advertisement from the January 25th, 1884 edition of the Exeter News-Letter for the Park Roller Skating Rink.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Marking Time in Exeter

by Barbara Rimkunas

This "Historically Speaking" column appeared in the Exeter News-Letter on Friday, March 14, 2014.

Running late? Don’t blame the clock. Although many bemoan the fact that there are fewer and fewer public clocks (in much the same way that there are fewer and fewer public telephones), there are probably more ways to find the time today than ever before in human history. Younger adults have already largely given up wearing wristwatches – correctly understanding that these unitaskers are unnecessary when you have a small computer in your pocket. I still wear a watch, but it’s more out of habit. Even after my eyes have grazed the lower corner of the computer screen to check the time I’m apt to check my watch. It’s a hard habit to break.

Of course, people didn’t always worry so much about clock time. Time was marked by the progression of the sun – long days in summer, short days in winter. Mid-day was when the sun was at its highest point in the sky. And time was very local. Noon in Exeter, New Hampshire, was earlier than noon in, say, Buffalo, New York, because we’re farther east. Standardization of time zones in the United States didn’t happen until after railroads began to demand an end to the chaos in 1883.

But before that, local time needed to be marked in some way. Then, as now, there were early risers and night owls who were continually in conflict about when the business of the day should begin. In colonial New England, you could run your family farm or business any time you felt like it, but to keep the community running smoothly it was necessary to get people to church, school or town meeting at the same time. Some means of marking time was necessary.

Clocks were expensive and all but the most intricate were somewhat unreliable. It was considered an important civic investment to have a town clock that would be the local standard. This clock would determine when the town bell was rung and when the town crier announced the news. There were probably a few private clocks in Exeter in the late 1600s, and the First Parish church records mention that there was an hour glass on the pulpit during sermons in 1733. This must have been helpful to both the minister and the congregation who, for whatever purpose, were hanging on to every word preached, either hoping the sermon would continue to inspire or mercifully end.

The first town clock mentioned in Exeter is the one owned by the Reverend John Odlin. Odlin came to Exeter in 1706 to serve as minister after the death of Reverend Clark and his contract included the use of the parsonage, where he boarded for a time before marrying Clark’s widow. Having acquired an income, ministry, home, wife and step-children, he also seems to have acquired a tall clock imported from England. Accounts vary about how he got the clock. John Taylor Perry, in 1898, wrote that the clock, “was a tall one, bought in England for Mr. Odlin by Governor Benning Wentworth.” But Governor Wentworth wasn’t a well-loved character in New Hampshire history and in 1925, Frances Dudley, who had come to own the clock, disavowed the purchase story in a letter published in the Exeter News-Letter, “Governor Wentworth does not deserve credit for any such act of altruism. The clock was the personal property of Parson Odlin, who brought it through the agency of Governor Wentworth at a time when the Governor was importing one for himself.”

However he acquired it, Reverend Odlin’s clock served as the official town timepiece for many years. Townsfolk routinely checked the time by peering into the parsonage. The town bell, which was located in the church tower, was rung three times daily; morning, mid-day and night. The times for the bell varied, the morning might be rung at 7:00 in the summer and 7:30 in winter, mid-day might be noon or 1:00 and the evening bell could be as early as 8:00 or as late as 9:00. The times were often different for different days of the week. This would drive a modern person around the bend trying to figure out what time it is, but didn’t seem to concern people much in earlier times. The bell was also used to call people to fires and to announce important news.

Nancy Merrill, in her history of the First Parish Church written in 1969, remarked that “the town placed a clock with four faces in the tower in 1848, the condition that it be kept in perfect order and all damage repaired at public expense.” This clock was enormous, and quite visible to even myopic townsfolk.

The town supported the clock and its upkeep, noting in the 1861 town report that David Quimby was paid $10.00 for ‘care of the Town Clock.’ Edwin Dearborn earned $40.00 for ringing the bell.

It remained the official town clock until 1950, when it was redesigned (and made smaller) by William Perry Dudley. The church purchased the clock from the town that same year for $1.00. By that time, public clocks had sprouted all over the downtown – there was one in front of the Exeter Banking Company and another by Sleeper’s Jewelry. Today, it’s hard to find even a time and temperature clock at the bank. But then again, there’s a clock on the dashboard of your car that travels with you and, of course, that smart phone in your pocket that can even tell you the time on the other side of the globe.

Photo:  The town clock on the First Parish Church in Exeter (now known as the Congregational Church of Exeter) in a photo taken in the 1920s. The clock was installed on the church tower by the town of Exeter in 1848. It was so large that it obscured a small part of the window, thus infringing on the original architect’s design of the church. The clock was redesigned in 1950 and became property of the church.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Exeter History Minute - The Sled Dog Race

Do you ever wonder what Exeter folks did in the winter to beat off the winter blues before television and the internet? In 1938, the Exeter Lion's Club teamed up with the New England Sled Dogs Club to run a Sled Dog Race in January. Thousands of people came from far and wide to watch the dogs, women and men race. The Exeter Historical Society has many photos and color film footage of the event. Click here to watch this Exeter History Minute, which is sponsored by Exeter Mills.

To learn more about Exeter history -- or to support the Exeter Historical Society -- visit our website. #ExeterHistoryMinute

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Jude Hall and his Family

by Barbara Rimkunas

This "Historically Speaking" column appeared in the Exeter News-Letter on Friday, February 28, 2014.

Just off Drinkwater Road, on land owned by Phillips Exeter Academy, there’s a small body of water called ‘Jude’s Pond.’ This picturesque spot was once the home of Jude Hall, a former slave and Revolutionary War veteran. His life story reflects the difficulties that most New England African Americans had to bear in the early republic.

Hall was born in 1747, most likely in Newmarket, and was enslaved first to Philemon Blake and later to Nathaniel Healy. When the Revolution broke out, Hall ran away and joined the Continental Army. George Quintal’s “Patriots of Color,” which studied the battles of Bunker Hill and Battle Road, remarked, “This study confirms what the Revolutionary soldiers knew first-hand: the great mass of the 1775 army, excluding officers, was completely integrated. This level of integration did not occur in the Civil War, or for that matter World War II, but only reached similar levels in the Vietnam Conflict nearly two hundred years later.” Jude Hall remained with the Continental Army for seven years, and participated in fighting at Bunker Hill, Ticonderoga, Trenton, Hubbardton, Saratoga and Monmouth. Injured several times, he reenlisted and was discharged in 1783.

Granted his freedom and some land, he settled in Exeter. Exeter’s free-Black population swelled after the war, eventually comprising nearly 5% of populace in town. Jude Hall married Rhoda Paul in 1785 and together they had twelve children. Locating records for the family is difficult. Births were not always registered, so it can be difficult to document what happened to their children. Rhoda was descended from a noted Exeter family beginning with her father, Caesar Paul. Caesar had been enslaved in his youth to Major John Gilman and accompanied his master during the French and Indian War. On returning to town, he was freed in 1771 and shortly thereafter married Lovey Rollins, the daughter of Stratham lawyer Caleb Rollins. Rhoda was one of Caesar and Lovey’s ten children. Three of her brothers became noted Baptist preachers.

We know little about the everyday life of Jude and Rhoda. He is described as a ‘yeoman,’ or land-owning farmer, but it is doubtful that he was ever wealthy. When asked to describe his property to reapply for his military pension in 1820, he listed only: “One small one story house two rooms in it, a few plates, earthen shovel & tongs, a few other articles of furniture of small value.”

Hall served as a witness in the murder trial of John Blaisdell in 1822. The murderer, Blaisdell, had brought the victim, John Wadleigh, to Hall’s house. Jude assisted the injured man back to his own place and stayed with him through the night until he died. The trial transcript allows us to hear Hall’s voice, “After Wadleigh got over his chill and shuddering he said Captain (meaning me) how long have you been here - - and then he gave a sithe and was gone again.”

Although Jude Hall was trusted enough to testify in court, it was still not possible for free people of color to live unthreatened. Robert Roberts, who had married Jude and Rhoda’s eldest daughter, Dorothy, would later testify about the fates of three of the Hall children. James was kidnapped at the age of 18 from the Hall home. David Wedgewood, of Exeter, claimed that James owed him four dollars and that he was justified in dragging him away from his mother. He was sold into slavery and never returned to Exeter. Roberts said, in 1833, “He was seen, not long since, at New Orleans, by George Ashton, a colored man, from Exeter; he said he was chained up in the calaboose or jail, at New Orleans, as a run-away; and, in the mean time, his master came, and commanded him to be punished severely, and carried him back.”

Aaron, another son, put to sea in Providence and signed a promissory note for $20.00 to pay for his sea clothes. On his return, the merchant demanded $200.00. Roberts related his fate, “he started from Providence to carry his money to his father, and was overtaken to Roxbury, on his way home, and carried back, sent to sea, and has not been heard of since.”

William also thought a seafaring life would offer independence and income and sailed out of Newburyport. “After arriving at the West Indies, was sold there as a slave; and, after remaining in slavery ten years, by some means run away, and is now in England, a captain of a collier from Newcastle to London. About three years ago, his mother heard of him, the first time for upwards of twenty years.”

Jude Hall didn’t live long enough to hear from William. He died in 1827 at the age of 80. Rhoda moved to Belfast, Maine, to be with their daughter. She applied for and received the widow’s pension due her for her husband’s loyal service in the Revolutionary War. Jude Hall had fought to free a nation, but was ultimately unable to see his own children granted freedom.

Photo: Jude’s Pond, named for former slave and Revolutionary War veteran Jude Hall, off the Drinkwater Road in Exeter.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Exeter History Minute - The Mysterious Doctor Windship

Dr. Windship's name appears on the 1802 Map of Exeter, indicating that he occupied the house that sat approximately where the Folsom Tavern is now. For years, Dr. Windship mystified the staff of the Exeter Historical Society. He doesn't appear on either the 1800 or 1810 census, and did not own the house in which he lived. So, who was he? Tune in to this Exeter History Minute to find out! Click here to view. This Exeter History Minute is sponsored by Commonwealth Dynamics, Inc.

To learn more about Exeter history -- or to support the Exeter Historical Society -- visit our website, #ExeterHistoryMinute