Friday, October 9, 2015

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

by Barbara Rimkunas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

First Baptist Church of Exeter

by Barbara Rimkunas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, September 26, 2015

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

by Barbara Rimkunas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, September 12, 2015

President Ford’s Exeter Visit, 1975

by Barbara Rimkunas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, August 29, 2015

When Did Playgrounds Become a Thing?

by Barbara Rimkunas

This "Historically Speaking" column was published in the Exeter News-Letter on Friday, August 28, 2015.

This summer’s improvement to the Main Street School playground prompts us to wonder how long playgrounds have been around. Children seem to have a playground RADAR system that can detect a swing set from a mile away. They can sense that these are places for them, and they are right about that. Playgrounds are designed and maintained for the use of children. Few communities would begrudge the youngsters this space even though in previous generations, playgrounds didn’t exist. 

The idea that children needed activity and imaginative play began to evolve in the middle of the nineteenth century with the teachings of Frederick Froebel. Froebel, who founded the kindergarten movement, theorized that children are not lumps of unformed, unschooled mini-adults waiting for better self-control and education. Rather, children learned through active engagement with the environment. A great deal of education, it seemed, was going on before the little ones ever set foot in a school room. Children absorb massive amounts of information about the environment, gravity, physics and symmetry by hanging upside down from a tree singing “The Muffin Man” for hours. Perhaps this kind of active play should be encouraged and finding safe spaces for it was a bit of a challenge in a world that was becoming more urbanized.

The first community in the United States to purchase land for a public playground was Brookline, Massachusetts, in 1872. Boston installed a sand garden in 1887 and the playground movement took off. Exeter joined the playground movement in the summer of 1917. The town set up a fundraising campaign to build a supervised playground at Tuck High School on Linden Street. The budget for the project was set at $150. Donations quickly rolled in and the playground was built by local businesses and volunteers. Robinson Female Seminary graduate Marion Louise Tyler was hired as the playground supervisor. Her report in October, rated the experiment a success. “They enjoyed the swings very much, and also the see-saws and slide.” She kept the children busy, “some of the games they liked to play were croquet, volley ball, and quoits. The boys liked field hockey. The youngest children had a fine time in the sand pile.” The only downside to the new playground was the lack of shade. “If a place could be arranged where the children could go in bathing, it would be a fine thing, especially during the hot days in the summer.”

In the years that followed, the town became preoccupied amid coal shortages, war news and influenza fears. Funding for public play didn’t reappear until 1922, when the physical education movement in schools began to grow. As Charles H. Smith noted in his letter to the Exeter News-Letter in that year, “A country having 30% of its male citizens rejected as unfit for military service in its defense during the World War evidently needs physical education.”

Smith made a plea to modernize. “I have heard but one objection thus far, and that particular objector feels that because the children of past generations got along without playgrounds the children of this day will do very well without such ‘newfangled ideas.’” Remember this is 1922 he’s talking about. “Twenty-five years ago there were only four automobiles in this country. Today there are 10,000,000. Who among us would exchange the comfortable automobile for the ancient stage coach; the modern electric lamp for the flickering candle; the electric locomotive for the old wood-burning engine; the electric car for the horse-drawn conveyance or the electric motion picture for the old magic lantern? We are living in a new environment of man’s own creating. It has been my contention that physical education should be a part of the school programme in a larger way than at present, and that the playground is a necessary complement of the public school.”

Apparently the Exeter Playground Committee agreed with Smith. Funds were raised and playground equipment – the old favorite slides, swings, see-saws and sandboxes – were installed in the Tuck High School play area: “for the younger children, a capacious sand-pit, where they can grub and dig to their hearts’ content; for the larger youngster, maple bedway slides, plain strong swings, see-saw boards with handles, a giant stride, traveling ring outfits, climbing poles and steel ladders.” The following year, playground equipment was installed in school yards and public parks.

Today, parents and children can still visit Exeter’s playgrounds. A quick circuit this week found children and parents busily playing at Winter Street (often called “Purple Dinosaur” playground), Park Street and Planet Playground at the Rec Park. Children were happily climbing, swinging and sliding on equipment similar to the type installed back in 1917. Although children back then would have been puzzled by playground toys shaped like spaceships or dinosaurs, they would have happily known this was their space.

Photo: Playgrounds were an outgrowth of the physical education movement of the early 20th century when there was widespread concern that children, such as this group of pals on River Street in Exeter, were becoming ‘soft’ due to the easy living of a modern life without any difficult chores.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Our new Exeter History Minute is Out of this World!

September 3, 2015 will mark the 50th anniversary of the infamous "incident at Exeter". In this Exeter History Minute, Barbara explores some of the facts - and the mystery - behind this strange occurrence. 

This History Minute is generously sponsored by Buxton Oil.

To find out more about Exeter's annual UFO Festival, check out their website. To learn more about Exeter history -- or to support the Exeter Historical Society -- visit our website. #ExeterHistoryMinute

Saturday, August 15, 2015

An Excursion Trip to See Prisoners of War

by Barbara Rimkunas

This "Historically Speaking" column was published in the Exeter News-Letter on Friday, August 14, 2015.

Courtesy of the Portsmouth Public Library.
“The opportunity to see the Spanish prisoners on Seavey’s island will not last much longer, and all those who have not done so, should be sure and make the trip.” Wait, what? This little notice published on August 19, 1898, in the Exeter Gazette immediately piques one’s curiosity. Why were there Spanish prisoners in Portsmouth harbor and why on earth would they be treated as a tourist attraction?

That summer, in 1898, the United States was fighting the Spanish American war – a three and a half month engagement that John Hay, serving as ambassador in London, would famously describe as, “a splendid little war.” Ostensibly fought to help Cuba gain independence from Spain, the United States had entered the fray after the battleship USS Maine had exploded in Havana harbor the previous February. The cause of the explosion has never been definitively proved, but the loss of 266 US sailors was enough to prompt President McKinley to press for a declaration of war.

The war began in late April and on July 3rd the Spanish navy was essentially destroyed during the battle of Santiago de Cuba. The defeat left nearly two thousand Spanish sailors captives of the United States and a decision was made to transport and imprison them on Seavey’s Island. Why so far? Most likely it was to remove them entirely from the field of action and to house them someplace with a healthier environment – away from the yellow fever and malaria of Cuba.

The big naval prison -- known as the ‘castle’ by most of us -- wasn’t built yet in 1898. In order to house the prisoners barracks had to be erected quickly on the island. Eight large sleeping quarters, six cook houses, three mess halls, two wash houses (one of which was reserved for officers) and one toilet facility were hammered together by an army of carpenters in two weeks.

The first of two cruisers, the St. Louis, arrived in Portsmouth harbor on July 10th with 746 prisoners on board. The Exeter News-Letter reported, “the prisoners on the lower decks of the ship, many of whom thrust their heads out of the ports to look in astonishment at the animated boatloads of ‘Americanos’ who swarmed around the St. Louis,” were, “pale and plainly wanting the stamina that good food gives men, these prisoners were a strange-looking lot of seamen to the eyes of New Englanders, accustomed to associate brawn and tan with men of the sea.” The accounts of the prisoners took on an almost anthropological tone, as if these strange foreigners were from another planet instead of Spain. “There were no smiles on the faces of the young officers, some of whom bore the unmistakable stamp of gentle blood. All were bearded, with pointed mustaches and small vandykes. All had the almost effeminate bearing of the gentler mold of men in the Latin races.” Oh, dear. Is it any wonder that they would attract curious visitors eager to quell the mid-summer slump as a looky loo?

Once on the island, there was no interaction between the locals and the prisoners except for a few reporters. The irony of sending the Spaniards to Maine, after the US became involved in the war because of a ship called the USS Maine was lost on no one. “One Spanish youth asked, by means of signs and some bad French, what country he was looking at. He was told it was New Hampshire. This conveyed nothing to his mind. He was then told that it was Maine, which was the fact. He smiled a comprehensive Latin smile. He had heard the word before.” The Spanish Admiral, Cervera, was on board the St. Louis, although he would continue on to be housed at the Naval Academy at Annapolis until August. His stately demeanor impressed all those who saw him. “He leaned on the rail about amidships,” commented the News-Letter, “The old man’s gaze rested on the water for a moment, and then extended to the Maine shore. He stroked his grizzled gray beard as he leaned on the rail and looked toward the shores of the state that to his nation bears a fateful name.”

“Miss Mary L. Leavitt and Miss Fannie Mitchell visited Seavey’s island, at Portsmouth Wednesday, having passes to go there, and saw the Spanish prisoners,” reported the Exeter Gazette in early August, “Portsmouth businessmen are congratulating themselves that they are getting a good part of the cash. Portsmouth is lucky with its big ‘side show’ this season.” A souvenir photo book was produced documenting the arrival of these strange foreigners. “The Kittery, Portsmouth and York electric railway is making money hand over fist over the presence of the Spanish prisoners at Kittery, its earnings having gone up to nearly $1000 per day. The cars and boats of our lines which pass there are not allowed to come to a standstill near, but they do run mighty slow as they go along there, and give the passengers all the show there is to get a glimpse at the prisoners.”

The war, which was very far away, swept into the public imagination. “Exeter has in its midst a man fully entitled to rank as one of the ‘Rough Riders.’ He is Fred H. Gray, who runs the steam road roller. He is not a dude, though undoubtedly one of the high rollers,” chirped the Gazette. In fact, there were only three men who served in the war from Exeter: Albert Dow, George Smith and Joseph Grouard, who, the Exeter News-Letter couldn’t resist mentioning, “has taken very prominent part in operations against Santiago, in daring work closely vying with Roosevelt’s ‘Rough Riders.’”

Two Exeter businessmen, Rufus Elwell and John Fellows, managed to make a visit to the St. Louis and after Admiral Cervera made a small purchase from a Portsmouth merchant, quickly bought the Spanish coins he used as payment. Described by the News-Letter as “valuable souvenirs of the war with Spain in the shape of 25 peseta gold pieces from the personal funds of Admiral Cervera himself” they were eager to show them off to anyone who might ask.

The prisoners remained at Seavey’s island until September 12, when they returned to Spain on the Steamer City of Rome. In total, 1562 prisoners served time in Portsmouth harbor, 31 died of injuries or illness contracted while in Cuba. These men were buried on the island, but were repatriated with great honor in April of 1916. Their departure coincided with the end of the summer tourist season, and voyeurs turned out to watch the big steamer depart. “As she passed down the harbor on her way to the sea, the spectators on small craft and on shore renewed their cheer, and the steam vessels blew their whistles for several minutes.” It was the end of a seeming small war, one that brought the United States into the international theater. What they couldn’t be aware of yet was that this ‘splendid little war’ would lure the nation into a quagmire in the Philippines that would last years.

Image: Courtesy of the Portsmouth Public Library. Prisoners from the Spanish American war were held at Seavey’s Island in Portsmouth harbor from July to September 1898. Seen here washing dishes, the prisoners became a tourist attraction to local visitors.