Wednesday, July 23, 2014

The new Exeter History Minute - The Mysterious Gravesite in the Woods

Have you ever stumbled across a mystery in the woods? Many Exeter natives -- and some who are just passing through -- have found a lone gravesite in the Phillips Exeter Academy woods. Tune in -- click here to watch -- to hear Barbara tell the story behind the grave of Susannah Holman Brown. This history minute is generously sponsored by Phillips Exeter Academy.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Lithuanians in Exeter

by Barbara Rimkunas

This "Historically Speaking" column was published in the Exeter News-Letter on Tuesday, July 21, 2014.

“Were there Lithuanians in Exeter?” I’m often asked this question, probably because my name and the Exeter Historical Society just don’t seem to match. Surely a New England town like ours should have a less ‘ethnic’ sounding curator. Fear not! All is well. Although I am, in fact, a transplant to this town, there were Lithuanians here before me who paved the way.

Tracking down Lithuanians seems like it should be easy, but there are a number of bumps along the way. The first problem is that Lithuania, as a country, didn’t actually exist for whole decades. Like Poland, the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania were often absorbed into other kingdoms and nations. The boundary lines were elastic enough that the people within could have a Polish name, but be ethnically Lithuanian or Russian – or any mixture of the three. So, it’s important to set some clear boundaries about Lithuanian immigration patterns to the United States.

There would not have been any immigration before 1861 unless one was a nobleman or wealthy merchant. Lithuania was under the governance of the Russian Empire, where the peasants were enserfed. Serfdom was not the same as slavery in a few critical ways – serfs were not technically ‘owned’ by a master, but they didn’t have freedom to travel or move from their land, so the landlord essentially controlled their lives. Women were expected to move to their husband’s family, but unless they were drafted into the Tsar’s army – a commitment of 25 years – men stayed put. So, no one was hopping a boat to America unless they lied about their origins. Abolition of serfdom occurred under Tsar Alexander II just a few years before Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in this country.

After emancipation, many Lithuanians began to consider emigration. Improved transportation, droughts, famines and repression of the ethnic minorities by the Russian Empire made the decision to leave quite attractive. People arriving from Lithuania were listed as ‘Russian,’ so any search must begin by looking for Russians. Indeed, a search of Exeter’s vital records does not mention Lithuania as a country of origin until 1913. My Great-Grandmother’s passport, issued in 1914, is entirely in Russian. To add insult to injury (at least for Petronella Benitis) her name on the second page includes a Russian patronymic, Simonovna – a derivation of her father’s first name, which she would never have used. Good thing she was illiterate. If she heard it read off at either her place of embarkation or Ellis Island, likely she swallowed her thoughts. For our part, the family is glad those hated Russians included the patronymic as it is our only clue about the identity of her father, Simon Benitis.

Lithuanians begin to arrive in Exeter in the 1880s. The first to arrive were Jewish immigrants who most likely were feeling Tsarist repression much deeper than the Catholic Lithuanians who followed them here twenty or so years later. Zelig London and his family were quickly joined by the Cohens and Golds by 1887. By 1902, there were more people turning up in Exeter’s vital records with ‘Russia’ as a country of origin. Once arrived, they found work in the many factories in town, married and began to have families. Most have names that are traditionally Lithuanian – ending in ‘as,’ ‘is’ or ‘us’ – such as, Mazaluskas, Paszukonis, Raziskis and Cilcius. I’m often told my name looks Greek for this reason. Many other names have a decidedly Polish feel, Debrowska, Kudroski, Vitkoska. These names appear in marriage records and birth registrations. But when we try to find out where the Lithuanian population lived in Exeter our town directories list no such people. By and large, the Lithuanians altered or completely changed their names – sometimes several times. We recently tried to find the Kopesci family for some visitors to the historical society using directories, census listings and vital records, and it took hours just to determine that they arrived in town with the name ‘Skopackas’ but also used ‘Skapescki’ before settling on Kopesci. Rather unusually, the name was altered to blend in better with the larger Polish population in Exeter, and not the overwhelming English blue-bloods who ran the town. I guess they needed to keep some bit of pride.

And by the way, names were NOT changed at Ellis Island. For some reason, lots of families have stories that their names were changed there, but it simply didn’t happen. I’ll direct you to an excellent article online: “Why Your Family Name Was Not Changed at Ellis Island” written by the staff of the New York Public Library. Names were often changed, but usually it was the immigrants who changed them. They quickly tired of Americans stumbling over what to them was a simple name. Seriously. “Rimkunas” is perfectly phonetic, yet I’ve heard all variations of it – usually with a “Q” inserted somewhere in the middle.

The first two decades of the 20th century brought a huge influx of immigrants to the United States. The numbers finally began to abate after 1924 when strict immigration quotas were enacted. Lithuanians in Exeter, as elsewhere in New England, stuck together – even forming a Lithuanian Club that served as a mutual assistance society paying death, sickness and disability benefits to members. Finding your Lithuanian ancestors can be challenging, but isn’t necessarily impossible. Just don’t call them Russians. They don’t like that.

Image: Lithuanians immigrating to the United States carried Russian passports, like this – the passport of Petronella Benitis, great-grandmother of the author.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

The Long Hot Summer of President Garfield

by Barbara Rimkunas 

This "Historically Speaking" column was originally published in the Exeter News-Letter on August 26, 2005.


A few years back, the Exeter Historical Society received a request for genealogical information. An ancestor, it seems, had died in the area sometime in the summer of 1881 – would it be possible to search the back issues of the Exeter News-Letter to find the death listing? And so, down in the basement of our building in an area we refer to as “the newspaper morgue” I spent an afternoon hunting for a name in the papers. He was there, of course, but I’ve long forgotten the name. During the research, however, I got caught up in a national drama that occurred during the long hot summer of 1881.

While Exeter’s residents were considering how to celebrate the Fourth of July, President James Garfield was planning a trip. As he readied himself to board the train in Washington, D.C., a disgruntled office-seeker stepped forward and shot him twice. How quickly this news reached Exeter is unknown, the newspaper was published only on Fridays. For the next eleven weeks, updates on the President’s condition were the talk of the town and the biggest news item featured in the paper.

Initially, the doctors felt Garfield would live for at best a day. His wife was called and he seemed to deteriorate that evening. One of the shots had harmlessly grazed the President’s elbow, the other buried itself deep within his abdomen. He was examined at the train station and later transferred to the White House, where “precautions were immediately taken to preserve quiet and maintain order.” It’s a shame they didn’t also consider cleanliness, because the first doctor to examine him probed the wound with his unwashed finger and a dirty instrument in an attempt to find the bullet. He was unable to find it and the missing bullet became an obsession for Garfield’s doctors.

In Exeter, while the townsfolk were debating how to best remember the men who’d served in the Civil War fifteen years earlier, news of the President’s condition came in steadily. Washington, D.C. has a terrible climate in mid-summer. Lucretia Garfield, the First Lady had come down with malaria when she first arrived. To keep the feverish President cool, a crude air-conditioning system was rigged up which required 39 tons of ice each day – it would have used less, but the President insisted on leaving the windows open, an inclination shared by my kids. He was uncomfortable, but seemed to be in no real danger, so the doctors decided to go after the bullet again.

Alexander Graham Bell was called to locate the bullet with his “electrical apparatus”. It worked great during testing, but Bell wouldn’t commit to its accuracy when used on the President. The doctors, however, were thrilled when the machine seemed to confirm the location of the bullet. On July 29, it was reported that the wound was again probed, much more deeply this time. Several “pus cavities” were located and drained and it was believed that the President had fared well. Within a week, it was obvious that he was gravely ill again. They blamed it on “stomach problems” and not the operation. Garfield had been given only milk mixed with rum for sustenance and this disagreed with him. Further attempts to locate the bullet ended with failure. By September, the nation had been essentially without a President for two months. Congress was set to re-convene and Garfield was moved to the New Jersey seaside to recuperate. The President died suddenly on September 19th after clutching his chest. An autopsy revealed that the bullet was far from where the doctors had suspected, safely encapsulated in tissue, having missed all major organs and arteries. Dr. Bell’s equipment had only managed to locate the bedsprings beneath the stricken Garfield. The President died from heart failure, brought on, no doubt, by infection and re-infection by probing doctors and malnutrition. His attacker, Charles Guiteau, tried to plead that although he’d shot the President, the doctors had actually killed him. An unsympathetic jury found him guilty anyway and he was hanged the following summer. Exeter held a day of mourning and an un-named by-way off Lincoln Street – also named for a slain President – was christened “Garfield Street”.

Photo: The highly accurate historical re-enactment of the assassination of President Garfield. That's Trustee Pam Gjettum as Charles Guiteau, volunteer Alice Nickerson as the doomed President James Garfield and curator Barbara Rimkunas as Robert Todd Lincoln.

The 'Gentlemen of Exeter'

by Barbara Rimkunas

This "Historically Speaking" column was published in the Exeter News-Letter on Friday, July 4, 2014.

Early in the morning on July 4th, 1892, an odd collection of Exeter men began a journey to Chester – and it was considered the news of the day. The Exeter Gazette reported, “A royal good time was enjoyed by the Gentlemen of Exeter and their forty or more friends who visited Chester on the Fourth. An excellent dinner was served at Chester hotel and speeches were made.” The dinner, or what we would call ‘lunch,’ was followed by a baseball game in which Exeter beat Chester in what was described as a “hotly contested game.”

To understand how this event came about, we need to back up and look at how the Fourth of July was celebrated in earlier times. There were few holidays in New England in the years following the Revolution. Our Puritan founders frowned upon Christmas as a ‘papist’ celebration and substituted the civic holidays of Thanksgiving and the Fourth of July as public events. Elizabeth Dow Leonard , who was born in 1806, recalled, “the Fourth was ushered in with every variety of noise and natural discord the genius of man could devise and the prolific invention of boys could execute.” Celebrations began the evening before with a great bonfire in the town square. This was followed by a night of revelry which included all manner of explosive fun. Most town citizens got very little sleep due to the constant barrage of fire crackers and noise makers which were meant to simulate the great battles fought during the Revolution. On the Fourth itself, a grand procession of dignitaries (usually politicians) and a band marched to the meeting house where speeches were made. “The orator of the day,” wrote Leonard, “was usually some green bag (a nick-name for ‘lawyer’) venturing on his maiden speech, and due allowance was made by his kind neighbors.”

The march and speeches were followed by a grand picnic somewhere in the shade. The day tended to end early, as everyone was still a bit sleep-deprived from the night before.

After the Civil War, a new tradition developed in New England – the parade of ‘Antiques and Horribles.’ Described as a burlesque of local characters, it was held very early in the morning – sometimes before townsfolk were quite ready for the day – and featured men and boys of the town dressed as caricatures of certain occupations and town ‘types.’ As one might expect, lawyers and politicians took the hardest hits, although doctors and any notable citizens could expect to be mocked. The costumes were generally raggedy and unflattering. The Exeter News-Letter noted of the 1870 horribles, “Early in the morning, the Band playing lively airs, escorted a company of young men through the village, all of whom were dressed in the most grotesque style imaginable, the costumes varying according to the taste of the wearer or his perception of the ludicrous.” In 1875, the parade was accompanied by fighting: “the ancient spirit of contention led to one or two street broils in their ranks.”

Whatever the behavior of the ‘ancients and horribles,’ it served as a useful method of relieving some of the political steam during an era when political division was as acute as it is today. Perhaps we should consider reviving the festive mockery of costumed jesters to calm our current political tension.

The 1879 parade seems to have been the apex of the tradition. Awards were presented to both individuals and teams – often the teams included wagons. As always, the event was held early at 6:15 AM in the town square. Led by the Exeter Brass Band and its leader for the day, Mrs. Vandersnoozlewoozle – who looked a great deal like Elbridge Watson - first prize was given to the team of Daniel Colcord “who presented an Oriental conveyance representing the elephant of the ‘greatest show on earth,’ ingeniously contrived with the riders poised a dozen or more feet in the air, a position few would care to occupy on such an occasion.” The prize for ‘worst looking individual’ was won by John Somes, who was dressed as a “bugler mounted on a superb and spirited charger.” Several other entries never got the chance to compete, as the horses involved refused to participate while in full costume.

The practice of the Parade of Ancients and Horribles was waning in 1892 in favor of other, less mean-spirited events. And by this, we mean baseball. But old traditions die hard. When Chester invited Exeter to play a game on the fourth, it needed to be done with ceremony.

Forming up on Court Street at the usual early Fourth of July, the players and the band (dressed in plug hats and long dusters, a caricature of the Ancient and Horrible caricatures) marched through the town and set off by the carriage-load to Chester. Here they gave a concert, had lunch and played a rousing and probably fixed game of baseball. As Henry Shute wrote for the News-Letter, “every play by either nine was made the occasion for a blast of discordant noise from the band improvised by several of Exeter’s delegation which from time to time would circle the field, making perfect Bedlam.” A few bad calls and stolen, or “embezzled” bases later, gave the game narrowly to Exeter. After the band played a few more selections, the party headed back to Exeter arriving, after many stops along the way, in the town square after 10PM. There the party continued into the night, “amid a blaze of bonfires, rockets, Roman candles and red light, the final notes of the band the Gentlemen of Exeter disbanded until July 4, 1893, after the best day’s sport in the history of the organization.”

Photo: The Exeter Brass Band about to start for Chester escorting the Gentlemen of Exeter (baseball team) on July 4th, 1892.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Exeter History Minute -- The Old County Courthouse

Sometimes it seems as though the landscape of Exeter has barely changed in the last 100 years. Afterall, Abraham Lincoln actually spoke in the Exeter Town Hall way back in 1860! But alas, a few things have changed. For instance, has there always been a drive-thru bank and parking lot between Town Hall and the Congregational Church? Why, no. In our latest Exeter History Minute -- click here to watch -- Barbara addresses just this question.

This Exeter History Minute is generously sponsored by Stratham-Newfields Veterinary Hospital.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

The Umbrella Factory

by Barbara Rimkunas

This "Historically Speaking" column was published in the Exeter News-Letter on Friday, June 20, 2014.

There is a story that when Sir Arthur Conan Doyle gleefully killed Sherlock Holmes, a character he had come to loath, an enraged fan assaulted him with an umbrella on a London street. Whether the story is true or not – and who can speak for an anguished fan base – the choice of weaponry in the attack says something about the habits of people at the turn of the century. Umbrellas were common both in England and America. It might also have been somewhat reassuring to the assailant that if he’d broken the thing on Conan Doyle it could be repaired. We no longer repair umbrellas anymore, at least, duct tape and paperclips aside, not in a strict sense. Broken umbrellas are tossed in the trash because they are easily replaced.

The technology of umbrellas is older than we perhaps think. According to the umbrella division of the Oakthrift Corporation in the U.K., umbrellas can be found in art dating back to the 11th century B.C. in China and may date earlier in the Middle East. These early models most likely didn’t close – Oakthrift- which surely has a historian on staff to ponder such questions – theorizes that they took their design from spreading tree branches. In any case, we might more correctly call them parasols, since they were used to keep the sun off rather than the rain. These tended to be the accessory of choice for ladies, who wished to keep their skin fair and the elite, who didn’t like to sweat under the hot sun.

The Puritans in both Britain and America didn’t think much of parasols. They were frivolous things and far too showy for God’s elect. The real popularization of the parasol and umbrella came about after John Beale patented his ribbed umbrella design in 1786. The nineteenth century saw a huge rise in popularity in use. Most women owned at least a few parasols for special occasions. There are dozens in the collections of the Exeter Historical Society, along with that other ladies’ accessory of the day – the hand fan. Given that these were the corset-and-three-petticoat days, one would need any help possible to stay cool during American summers.

As the parasol grew in popularity, the umbrella began to unfurl as the masculine version. Not frivolous, it was designed to shed rain. Umbrellas kept one dry, comfortable and healthy – so much more than just portable sun block. Useful, but a bit delicate, Henry Shute wrote of them (in his boys’ dialect) in the novel Bright and Fair;“Sunday. Rainy and windy. Had to go to chirch. The only fun I had was to see peeples umbrellas blow rongside out and to hear them sware.” Umbrellas were made by skilled craftsmen and could be repaired by travelling umbrella peddlers. As the 20th century loomed, independent umbrella makers (and their parasol counterparts, milliners – who also designed and made hats), gave way to industrialization.

In 1911, the Exeter News-Letter announced, “a new promising industry, the Ball joint umbrella company, now quartered with the Gale Shoe Company at Portsmouth. Mr. Chester H. Smith will be the manager and at the start from 25 to 30, mostly girls, will be employed.” The business quickly changed its name to the Exeter Umbrella Company and took up residence on Water Street where, according to advertising, it was the, “sole manufacturers under basic patents.”

Within weeks, the business opened and the News-Letter was able to gush: “The beginning of work was made at the Exeter Umbrella Company’s shop last week, when the first of the equipment was received. The present week additions to the machinery have been arriving, although some shafting has still to be hung and the greater part of the machinery yet to come. A small force of girls is now engaged on hurry orders and the old plant at Portsmouth is also turning out orders and will so continue until the Exeter shop is completely equipped. By September first it is hoped to have the Exeter shop in shape to handle all the business, with a force of at least 20 hands employed.”

The business seemed off to a good start, but within a year there seemed to be trouble. Financial trouble. In early 1912, Chester Smith wrote a letter to a client, Mrs. Parker, in Portsmouth, “You need have no fear about your money. It is absolutely safe and before long I will be able to turn it back to you. The interest will be paid when due.” But a year later, he wrote to her again, “I have not been able to send you any money because I have not had it. I intend to be in Portsmouth very soon and I will call upon you. This is our busy season (November) and I have worked so much overtime that I am sick and have been obliged to leave the factory today and am home sick this afternoon.” The Exeter Umbrella Company was no longer listed in the town directory in 1918. Chester Smith is listed as a ‘commercial salesman.’

What happened to the seemingly thriving business? Perhaps the industrialization of umbrella manufacturing destroyed the marketability of small shops like Smith’s. The rise of the department store in the 1920s edged out the specialty shops and as umbrellas became cheaper to manufacture, they became cheaper to purchase and replace. Today’s umbrellas are both inexpensive and nearly disposable. However, they can still be used as weapons. In 2005, Brian Hahn, a mathematics professor in Cape Town, South Africa was beaten to death by a deranged student – with an umbrella.

 Image: The Exeter Umbrella Company had a workforce of 20-30 employees (mostly young women) who produced their wares in a shop on Water Street from 1911 – 1918.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Exeter's Secret Tunnels

by Barbara Rimkunas

This "Historically Speaking" column was published in the Exeter News-Letter on Friday, June 6, 2014.

Are there secret tunnels in Exeter? Lots of towns have stories about ‘secret tunnel’ systems that a few people say they’ve seen at some time in the past. Yet, none of these mysterious tunnels have ever been found. Most of the stories have connections to the colonial period or the Underground Railroad. Exeter is no exception to this type of legend and there are two tunnel stories that persist to this day.

Stories about a tunnel in the basement of the Gilman Garrison house begin to surface around 1900. The house, which sits on the corner of Water and Clifford Street, was built in 1709 by John Gilman. It changed hands over the years and by the time the tunnel story appears was owned by Jenny Harvey, a local school teacher. She and her sister, Asenath Darling, had begun the tradition of showing the house to interested visitors and school children. In his book about the house, The Old Logg House by the Bridge, Robbins Paxton Gilman tackles the legend and mentions that it was, perhaps, egged on by our local schools, “Some of our local senior Exeter citizens tell us that they have heard all their lives about the Garrison House tunnel and they assume that a tunnel either exists or has caved in. A few recount how Miss Elizabeth Baker’s eighth grade class at Exeter’s Robinson Female Seminary was taught as a factual matter in the study of New Hampshire history that a tunnel existed in the Garrison House. One lady recalls how she was taken by Miss Baker in the spring on a trip to the house and how the class walked through the tunnel to the river (‘It was lined with wood and damp’…’there was a niche in the wall where we were told the colonists stored gunpowder,’ etc.). Others note how, as children, they used to play in the entrance to the tunnel at the river’s edge until older and wiser people closed it up to prevent accidents.”

The house was purchased by the Dudley family in 1912 and William Perry Dudley was taken enough with the tunnel story to relate it to children while making classroom visits. In a note in the Exeter Historical Society files, however, his mother, Frances Perry Dudley, remarks; “There is a story that an underground passage led from the house to the river; but there is no trace of it now.”

In the 1930s, the United States Department of the Interior undertook a project to document the nation’s historic homes. The Garrison house was included in the survey and great pains were taken to document the architecture and construction. On one map there is a note explaining the excavations that were made to search for evidence of a tunnel. This same map has dotted lines showing “the location of the tunnel as remembered by various inhabitants.” There are three different ‘tunnels’ – leading in different directions. The study was unable to locate any tunnels. Gilman concludes, as we should also, “this extraordinary claim may reduce fascinating folklore to absurdity.”

There is also no evidence that the Underground Railroad existed anywhere near Exeter. Many of us were nursed through our nation’s troubling slave history with calming stories of devoted white northerners who hid whole slave families in hidden rooms of houses, spiriting them off to Canada through tunnels with secret signals. There are no accounts in the newspapers or town records from the early nineteenth century to indicate that fugitive slaves were seen or pursued in Exeter. But for many years, children in town were taught that the Odiorne Bickford house on Cass Street was a ‘station’ on the Underground Railway and the evidence was a hidden room.

To be fair, there is a hidden room in the house. I’ve been in it, but it’s not so much a hidden room as an architectural feature caused by a dead space around the chimney. Lots of old houses have such spaces. The house seems to have become part of the Underground Railway sometime around the 1950s, when the civil rights movement was heating up. During that time, everyone wanted to be part of the Underground Railway, and since there was little documentation about it, every crevasse or attic crawl space was considered proof. The house on Cass Street has a slightly troubled history with slavery in that slaves actually lived there for several decades. Perhaps the story evolved as a means to atone for its earlier history. At some point, the hidden room stuffed full with slaves grew into a passage through the floorboards that led to the basement and a tunnel that led to the river. Let’s be clear – there is no tunnel in this house. It sits on sandy soil and like all the neighboring houses, has to have a sump pump running nearly all year. There is an underground stream that runs through the yard. The amount of effort it would take to dig and maintain a tunnel would have been extraordinary, not to mention unnecessary considering the house sits roughly 1/16th of a mile away from the river.

Why do these stories exist? Are we that gullible, or do we simply like the romance of a tall tale? Peter Smith, who taught at the Exeter Junior High for decades, remembers the tunnel stories well. He summed them up well as, “a good gimmick to get kids interested in history, it’s gloomy and dark, but probably not too feasible.” Perhaps someone will really find a secret tunnel system in Exeter (aside from the very real ones that exist at Phillips Exeter Academy – but that’s a story for another time), and we can then marvel at our ancestor’s cleverness. But for now, the evidence just isn’t there.

Image: Map from the Historic American Building Survey done in Exeter in 1936 shows three different locations for the tunnel that, according to local legend, runs between the Gilman Garrison house on Water Street to the river. No tunnel has ever been found.