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.

Saturday, October 8, 2016

Fire Prevention Week

by Barbara Rimkunas

This "Historically Speaking" column was published by the Exeter News-Letter on October 7, 2016.

In September of 1925, President Calvin Coolidge issued a proclamation to observe National Fire Prevention Week. Citing the fire statistics from 1924, which indicated 15,000 deaths and property loss valued at $548,000,000.00, the proclamation declares, “This vast waste is incurred under conditions which cannot fail to arouse a sense of horror and shame, for our experience indicates a major portion of it is preventable.” Coolidge was spurred into action by the National Fire Protection Association, which had been pressing for national standards since the turn of the century. The NFPA has sponsored Fire Prevention Week ever since the proclamation was made.

The date for Fire Prevention Week was set as the week containing October 9th – to commemorate the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. That fire, which was still ripe in the minds of people in 1925, began late on the night of October 8th and burned until October 10th , killing at least 300 people. Legend always laid the blame on Mrs. O’Leary and her lantern-kicking cow, although she has since been exonerated by the City of Chicago. Scores of children knew the alternate lyrics to the tune A Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight : “Late last night when we were all in bed, Mrs. O’Leary hung the lantern in the shed, and when the cow kicked it over, she winked her eye and said, there’ll be a hot time in the old town tonight!” We should offer a posthumous apology to poor Catherine O’Leary. It’s a popular camp song to this day.

Although Fire Prevention Week is aimed at all ages, most of us remember it best from childhood. October is still early enough in the school year to make it practical for fire drills. The weather is still warm enough to enforce the, “Don’t stop to get your coat!” rule. The kids are still getting to know one another and their teachers, so compliance is easier. In 1935, it was still common for the governor to declare Fire Prevention Week. Was this actually necessary? The editor of the Exeter News-Letter thought not. In one stroke, Governor Winant signed proclamations for Fire Prevention Week, Casimir Pulaski Day and praise for Parent Teacher Associations. “If the state is to show its sympathy for every good cause by a proclamation in its favor, some other method should be devised to emphasize the supremacy of time-honored festivals, or of those important anniversaries of critical events in our history which no loyal citizen can disregard and still remain a loyal citizen.”

But think of the children. Every year the fire department got the chance to turn elementary school students into a little army of fire prevention soldiers. They were taught to clear out potential fire hazards like rubbish in the basement, to check the electric outlets for hazardous extension cords and to run beleaguered parents through home fire drills. Bolstering the lessons with filmstrip and movie presentations, the kids were thoroughly trained in the hazards of careless fires. The downside to this, of course, was that it fostered annual fire terror that, even if educationally sound, caused many sleepless nights. And adults were terrible role models for fire safety. They smoked cigarettes and cigars – leaving ash all over the place or flicking butts out car windows. Twenty or thirty years ago it was still considered okay to burn leaves in the street. “Watch this for a minute,” a neighbor once said to eight-year-old me, “I need to run inside to get another beer.” At any other time of year the pyromaniac in me would have loved to stand next to the burning leaves calmly raking them toward the smoldering center. But in October – after a week-long indoctrination from Sparky the Fire Dog – this was just way too much responsibility.

In the years leading up to World War II, the Fire Department in Exeter often didn’t have time to lecture classes on fire safety. In 1940, it was reported, “No talks were given in the public schools this week on fire prevention, but each had a fire drill.” Post war years, with their emphasis on Cold War civil defense, increased participation in Fire Prevention Week. Sparky the Fire Dog was created in 1951 as a mascot. Sparky’s counterpart was Smokey the Bear who intoned, “Only YOU can prevent forest fires.” With the encouragement of both, the Exeter Fire Department was able to report in 1968, that the school fire drills were a success. The high school’s 923 students evacuated the building in one minute and 20 seconds. The Junior High’s 680 students shaved 10 seconds off of that, and Lincoln Street School’s 600 elementary kids, perhaps because of their shorter legs, vacated the building in one minute and 45 seconds.

Home smoke detectors, which became common in the late 1970s, took some of the burden off of kids. They no longer had to lie awake sniffing the air for whiffs of smoke every few minutes. Today they’re still encouraged to check the house for fire hazards and practice home fire drills, but at least their only smoke related responsibility is to remind their parents to change the batteries in the smoke detector. This year, the NFPA would like to remind you that you should consider changing the entire smoke detector – they don’t last forever after all. “Don’t Wait, Check the Date” is the slogan to remind us that smoke detectors only last about 10 years. Take care of it, or Sparky the Fire dog will come growling at your door. Barbara Rimkunas is curator of the Exeter Historical Society. Her column appears every other Friday and she may be reached at

Photo: Fire Prevention Week, Exeter Elementary School (Lincoln Street School) around 1968. Firefighter Leslie Gatcomb visits the class of Mrs. Arlene Stewart.

Friday, September 23, 2016

Dirty Campaigns

by Barbara Rimkunas

This "Historically Speaking" column was published by the Exeter News-Letter on September 23, 2016.

Every four years we endure the onslaught of presidential campaigns, and every four years we declare this one to be the worst ever. The candidates are the worst ever. Politics has never been so bad. The only people not convinced of this are historians – because we see the long view. As crazy as recent decades have been, previous ones have also been crazy. It might be best to stop reading or listening to any political commentary that purports to label this election as insanely unique unless it includes the modifier “in our lifetime.” Unless one of our modern candidates publicly accuses the other of cannibalism, they aren’t even coming close to our great-grandfather’s campaigns.

In the collections of the Exeter Historical Society there is a folder of political campaign ephemera from bygone years. There are handbills and posters that were used to remind voters (and here, remember, read “Men”) of their civic duty. Also in the stack was a scary looking broadside with the title “A Brief Account of the EXECUTION of the Six Militia Men” illustrated with six stark coffins. With all the appeal of a Halloween decoration, this document had no explanation in our records. Turns out, it was part of one of the most notorious elections of all time – the election of 1828. Frequently called the dirtiest campaign, it was described by New York Magazine in 2012 as “The Tsunami of Slime Circa 1828.” The existence of a coffin handbill in Exeter proves that we participated. Why all the animus? We really need to start in 1824.

The campaign of 1824 was fierce, but relatively polite. There were four candidates running in the general election. John Quincy Adams, Henry Clay, William Crawford and Andrew Jackson – the hero of the Battle of New Orleans and Senator from Tennessee. Jackson won both the popular vote and the electoral count, but with no candidate receiving a majority of electoral votes the election was thrown to the House of Representatives. Jackson thought he had it in the bag. But after the fourth-place candidate Henry Clay was tossed off the ballot, he threw his support to Adams, who then rewarded Clay with the position of Secretary of State. Enraged, Jackson and his supporters, the Democratic-Republicans, called it the “corrupt bargain” and vowed to get even.

The Rockingham Gazette, widely read in Exeter, was simply glad the election was over. “Unless the spirit of controversy should subside, this four years’ war will hardly be closed, before another of equal duration and equal inveteracy, will begin.”

Jackson began his 1828 campaign shortly after Adams 1825 inauguration. Allying himself with Martin Van Buren of New York, he began shoring up his support in the north. Adams wasn’t particularly popular, so any mud-slinging that came his way tended to stick. He was accused of acting as a pimp to Tsar Alexander I during his time in Russia. His patrician values were played up to an electorate that was suspicious of the eastern merchant class. Jackson had tremendous appeal to the rural population. He was, after all, a war hero. His frequent duels and impetuous temperament were lambasted in the press by Adams supporters, but it was the publication by John Binns of Philadelphia of the famous ‘coffin handbills’ that would move the campaign to its lowest levels. The copy in the Exeter archives describes the execution of six militiamen during the Creek War. Whether their courts martial were legal or their executions humane, the document starkly describes how they were made to kneel on their coffins as the firing squad carried out the verdict. Jackson had signed the execution orders just after he’d been victorious at the Battle of New Orleans. “His crown of laurels had not yet withered, when blood, the life’s blood of his countrymen, of his fellow soldiers, flowed plentifully by his order,” read the text. “This case is horrible in all its aspects… It is revolting to every feeling of humanity and at war with every acknowledged principle of justice.”

Another of the coffin handbills, not in Exeter’s collections, goes on to relate other Jackson acts of cruelty, including the massacre of Natives in 1814: “these poor wretches were massacred in cold blood, without the least provocation.” After which, he “laid down composedly, and slept upon the field, surrounded by five hundred and seventy dead human carcasses!!!” When morning arrived, “Jackson began again to show his cannibal propensities, by ordering his Bowman to dress a dozen of these Indian bodies for his breakfast, which he devoured without leaving even a fragment.” Jackson was further accused of adultery and his wife of bigamy due to a slight legal kerfluffel forty years earlier. Jackson’s wife, Rachel, had thought herself divorced from her first abusive husband when she married Jackson. The oversight had been quickly corrected, but the mud-slinging accusation gave the impression of Jackson as a complete hick. In reality, he was the wealthiest man in Tennessee with extensive slaveholdings.

Negative campaigning is used, we hear, because it works. It didn’t work, however for John Quincy Adams. New Hampshire supported him, but most of the rest of the country still felt he’d stolen the election of 1824. In that earlier election, the Rockingham Gazette had lamented, “a foreigner, who has traced the progress of the controversy for the last year, through its interminable array of newspapers, hand-bills and pamphlets, could form no other conclusion, than that the people of these States had been seriously discussing the respective merits, and settling the comparative claims to office of gamblers, murderers, swindlers and hang-men.” Add pimps, cannibals and adulterers, and you may just have a perfect assessment of the election of 1828.

Picture: Exeter Historical Society's notorious "coffin handbill" from the archives. Anti-Jackson negative campaign ad from the election of 1828.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Low Bridge, Everybody Down

by Barbara Rimkunas

This "Historically Speaking" column was published by the Exeter News-Letter on September 9, 2016.
There’s a railroad bridge a mile and a half from Exeter’s downtown. When the Boston and Maine railroad arrived in 1841, the tracks needed to cross Newfields Road to maintain a relatively straight trajectory north towards Dover. We don’t have much information about this original bridge, except that it carried a single track and had substantial abutments to hold it up. Fifty years later, after the railroad had established its dominance in transportation, the Boston and Maine expanded the line to two tracks and the Newfields railroad bridge was too small.

The railroad had supplanted water traffic to town. In earlier days, Exeter’s raw materials and commercial goods travelled up the Squamscott to the wharfs and quays of businesses downtown. The railroad changed the way we moved people and goods. The industrial section of town drifted toward the depot on Lincoln Street. The railroad was king.

Work on the new bridge began in 1892. Not only was it planned to carry double tracks, it would have a wider span across the road. The old roadway was 16 feet wide – enough to accommodate a hay wagon, but not quite wide enough for two hay wagons to pass each other. The Exeter News-Letter was happy to announce, “On Sunday the Newmarket road bridge (as Newfields road was called then) was removed, and in its stead were substituted stringers supported by trestle work. The old abutments can now be taken down, and the work of constructing new be carried on without difficulty. This work was begun last week. Between the old abutments the roadway was but 16 feet in width. The distance between the new will be 26 feet.” While construction was underway, trains roared across the temporary wooden trestle with no lapses in service. “To insure the safety of travelers along the road a man is at all times on duty to lead horses through the bridge. No one should attempt to drive through unaided.” No kidding. To this day there are still people who refuse to drive under the bridge while there’s a train overhead, even though the train is the least of your problems.

Twenty-six feet seems like enough room – even modern trucks are only about eight feet wide. Yet the angle of the abutments turns away from the road in such a way that threading a car through it requires counterintuitive driving skills. More than one new driver in town has smacked the side of the railroad bridge and countless cars in town have the scars to prove it. “I pretty much thought I was going to die,” observed one such novice. Exeter author John Irving famously killed one of the characters in A Prayer for Owen Meany with death by railroad bridge. “There were still some emergency-road-repair cones and unlit flares off the side of the road by the trestle bridge, the abutment of which had been the death of Buzzy Thurston. The accident had made quite a mess of the cornerstones of the bridge, and they’d had to tar the road where Buzzy’s smashed Plymouth had gouged up the surface.” It’s one of those spots locals know enough to navigate with extreme care.

Not mentioned in the bridge upgrade was the height of the bridge. At 11 feet, it probably seemed more than adequate for any type of wagon that might have to pass beneath it. No one anticipated that the David to the railroad’s Goliath would be a weird sputtering horseless machine, just like we never thought the telephone would lead to us having a NASA-sized computer in our back pocket. Ten years after the new bridge was built there were a few wealthy hobbyists in town who drove cars around to the amusement of fellow townspeople. Twenty years later, the first traffic signs were erected. Thirty years later, after the First World War, trucks were hauling goods in and out of town. By the 1940s, trucks were getting larger. The bridge’s 11 foot overhead became a problem during the post-war years.

Today most large trucks are a towering 13 feet 6 inches in height – far too large to make it successfully down the length of Newfields Road in Exeter. Employees at the Exeter Public Works Department, which is located right next to the bridge, have the best view of trucks that underestimate (or perhaps ignore) the multiple warning signs. A sadder but wiser driver will realize the mistake just in time, but with no really good place to turn around, the Exeter police have to assist with traffic while the truck backs its way up to route 101. Those who aren’t paying close attention – or who are cocky enough to think they can make it – wind up peeling the top of the truck off. This has happened often enough that most Exeter residents think it’s a very common problem, although a safety representative of Pan Am Railway, which owns the tracks, say the average is only about once a year. There are more truck peeling accidents in Dover. Professional truckers are skilled and smart enough to avoid Newfields Road and Pan Am says they have never had a big-rig driver crash into the bridge. It’s usually someone with a U-Haul or a substitute driver in a panel truck.

The bridge isn’t enough of a hazard to warrant replacement. Neither the town nor the railroad has ever requested changing the 124 year old structure. Maybe it’s the train’s revenge. Maybe there’s just a hint of diabolical laughter to be heard every time the bridge sheers off the roof of a truck or scrapes the paint from the side of a car. “Show me who’s boss now,” it says.

Photo: The results of a July 2016 attempt by a truck to navigate under the Newfields Road railroad bridge. The photo was taken at the driveway to the Exeter Public Works Department. Jennifer Mates, the town’s assistant engineer observed, “the bridge always wins.”