Saturday, November 22, 2014

The Exeter Overmantel

by Barbara Rimkunas

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

When I first arrived at the Exeter Historical Society in 2000, Ed Chase, the former society president, welcomed me warmly, and among the many stories he told me about the organization was that of the Exeter overmantel. Although I’d studied early American material culture, I’d never heard of an overmantel, other than as an architectural feature – perhaps decorative woodwork, particularly small shelves for knick-knacks – located above a fireplace. The overmantel Ed was speaking about, however, was a landscape painting and it was no longer in town.

In the early nineteenth century, overmantel paintings were fairly common in grand houses of New England. There are numerous examples scattered in museums across the region. Usually painted on wood, these pieces generally depict landscapes and frequently include the owner’s house or land.

Josiah Coffin Smith was newly married in 1787, when he began building his house off High Street in Exeter. One legend, published in a 1928 pamphlet called Exeter Points of Interest, says “in digging the cellar a skeleton of an Indian and several pewter spoons were found.” One can only hope that the skeleton was respectfully interred else ware – we don’t know any more of the story. Smith lived in the home until his death in 1842, and sometime around 1800, he had the overmantel in his house painted.

The piece is not signed and it’s likely that the painting was done by an itinerant artist. In the usual style of overmantel paintings, it is a landscape of a town on a river – not unlike Exeter, but clearly not Exeter. Many examples of overmantel paintings include settings on waterways. Exeter, by 1800, was a bustling port town. The lumber industry had settled down after a century of furious deforestation and new businesses, including leather and printing, had filled the potential void.

The picture in Smith’s house depicts a prosperous homestead across the river from a bustling village where the villagers have come out to meet an approaching boat. Two towering church steeples overlook the town. Smith’s home was across the river from the town center, but this is where the similarity of Exeter to the painting ends. Both the homestead and the town are slightly too opulent for the time depicted. The river seems to broaden upriver, while in Exeter the river broadens downriver from Smith’s house after a series of waterfalls that do not appear in the painting at all.

If Smith hired an itinerant painter, as we’ve supposed, it’s odd that the painting isn’t more realistic. Of course, it’s entirely possible that the painter never visited Exeter or only had the merest of descriptions of the town. Maybe the painter was told, “our house is on the river, just over the bridge from the village” and that was all the information provided. We’ll never know, because there are no records surrounding its creation. Maybe the painter had a few standard paintings that he regularly produced, and made very simple changes at the request of the buyer.

The painting, oil on wood, remained part of the house until 1947. By that time, the house had changed hands and was eventually owned by brothers John and Gardiner Gilman. They rewarded their long-time housekeeper, Harriet Tilton, with the house. She rented it to Phillips Exeter Academy and it was used as a Greek fraternity house with Miss Tilton serving as matron. Upon her death, the Academy took ownership and the Exeter Historical Society was allowed to take a few items for its collections.

William Perry Dudley was serving as director of collections and eagerly requested the overmantel – sometimes called the “Gardiner Gilman overmantel” – but it won’t be found at the Exeter Historical Society today. The painting was sold in 1972, to the Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth, Texas.

It’s rare for a museum to allow such a treasure to leave its collections. Especially since this was a work of art that had its origins in the town of Exeter. Ed Chase, however, wasn’t troubled by the decision to sell the painting. In 1972, the society had taken on a very expensive piece of historic preservation by purchasing the Sullivan-Sleeper house in the town square. Funds were tight and some difficult decisions needed to be made. The painting, it was noted, did not depict Exeter. Nancy Merrill, our curator at the time of the sale, later remarked, “Our Society felt very badly about selling the overmantel piece. However, we desperately needed the money to take care of the Sullivan-Sleeper House. The overmantel piece has gotten much more publicity and attention in its new home and more people have been able to enjoy it.” Her observation was correct, but quite frankly, Fort Worth is a long way from Exeter. Happily, in 2004, the overmantel was purchased by the Currier Museum of Art in Manchester where it can still be visited today.

Ed Chase was not involved in the sale of the Exeter overmantel, but he was comfortable with the decision. He served for fifteen years as the president of the Exeter Historical Society, retiring from the position – but not the organization – in 2000. He passed along the story of the sale to remind us that sometimes stewardship requires us to let things go.

Caption: Overmantel painting, now at the Currier Museum of Art in Manchester, was once in the Gardiner Gilman house in Exeter. The Exeter Historical Society, in 1972, weighed the benefits of owning the piece against the need for funds for historic preservation and reluctantly sold it to a museum in Texas. Happily, it is now back in New Hampshire.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Oliver Moulton Chadwick

by Barbara Rimkunas

This "Historically Speaking" column was published in the Exeter News-Letter on Friday, November 7, 2014.


Oliver Moulton Chadwick wasn’t born in Exeter, but his family had been here for generations and when he was killed in World War I, the people of Exeter felt the loss as if he had been one of their own. Scrapbooks of his life, donated by the family, are in the collections of the Exeter Historical Society.

Chadwick was born in Lowell, Massachusetts, the only son of Austin Kilham Chadwick and Julia (Moulton) Chadwick. Austin Chadwick, born and raised in Exeter, had attended Phillips Exeter Academy and was president of the Lowell Five Cents Savings bank. Oliver’s boyhood was a happy one. He attended Lowell public schools before following the family tradition of entering Phillips Exeter Academy. As part of the class of 1907 he excelled at both athletics and academics, winning the Yale Cup upon graduation. His friend and eventual brother-in-law, Charles Parker Long, noted that he mastered any sport he took up primarily because he was in peak physical condition.

His approach to academics was similar to his devotion to sports. He kept up – or ahead of – his courses at all times, graduating from Harvard in 1911 and Harvard Law School in 1914. By that year, of course, war was brewing in Europe. He entered the legal firm of Stone and Webster in Boston, but the pull of military duty nagged at him.

The United States pledged to remain out of the European War. For the most part, public opinion agreed that the war was not our business. Oliver Chadwick, however, was eager to be involved viewing the conflict as a threat to democracy. He was troubled by a speech delivered by President Woodrow Wilson shortly after the sinking of the Lusitania in 1915, in which he justified non-intervention by stating: “There is such a thing as a man being too proud to fight. There is such a thing as a nation being so right that it does not need to convince others by force that it is right.” To Chadwick, such a statement was fraught with arrogance.

He tried to enlist in Canada, but was rejected numerous times because he was an American. He joined the National Guard to get some military training and found himself sent to the Mexican border for four months. On his return, he enrolled in the Curtiss Flying School in Newport News, Virginia, easily mastering the shaky new technology. As soon as he felt comfortable in the air, he set sail for France.

The trip was something of a ruse. The French Foreign Legion accepted men of all nationalities and Chadwick intended to sign up. To avoid problems with immigration, his passport listed his reason for visiting France as “student” in the field of “banking.” He brought with him a letter of recommendation vague enough to seem as though he was a student, but with enough affirmation of his character to provide ample evidence of his worthiness to serve in the military. His father must have been in on the sham, because Oliver mentioned to him in a letter, “I am enclosing a letter, ostensibly to explain why having come over on banking business, I am about to fight. Don’t use it unless necessary.” The letter read, in part, “France needs men and the Foreign Legion offers to Americans a chance to fight, as Americans, for what is most sacred in life. The aviation branch of the Legion is one for which I seem to be well fitted. That will explain the interruption in my studies.”

He arrived in Paris in January of 1917, as the United States was seriously pondering entering the war. Chadwick didn’t want to wait. He donated money to the French cause, commenting: “it gives great pleasure to the soldiers, that I have seen, and it does something toward wiping out the stigma of being a people who are too proud to fight, even when civilization is at stake.” He eagerly joined the Service Aeronautique and began training at various airfields in France. By July, he had become an accomplished pilot and was assigned to SPAD 73, becoming part of the Lafayette Escadrille.

The airmen in this corps were Americans volunteers. They were young, well-educated and fearless. Chadwick wrote that their duties were primarily, “attack and defend. Attack enemy machines and balloons and defend our own, also defend our position from spying eyes.” The lifespan of pilots in World War I tended to be short – averaging under 100 hours flight time. The airplanes were lightweight and unreliable. Dogfights between pilots were common. On August 14, 1917 – only a month after completing training – Chadwick volunteered to fly a patrol and when his British comrades were threatened by German planes, he broke formation and started to go after them. He was shot down from behind and his plane plunged into no man’s land below.

For a while, no one was certain that Chadwick was killed. The wreckage of his plane was located, but his body was not. It was discovered hastily buried nearby, as was customary from the enemy, not out of respect, but because pilots frequently carried intelligence and he was thoroughly searched. Oliver Moulton Chadwick was one month short of his 29th birthday. In 1928, his remains were moved to the Lafayette Escadrille Memorial in Parc De Villeneuve, L’Etang, France, where the inscription reads, “May this memorial quicken in mankind the spirit that animated the volunteers of the Escadrille Lafayette sons of the United States of America, Pioneers of her entry into the World War.”

Images: Oliver Moulton Chadwick, seen here in his 1907 Phillips Exeter Academy graduation photo, was eager to participate in the First World War. He volunteered for service in France before the United States was formally involved in the war, joining the Lafayette Escadrille. In the next image he is shown training in France in a Bleriot aircraft, which was slightly more fragile than the SPAD XII he would eventually fly in combat.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Anti-Suffragism in Exeter -- Exeter History Minute

Sometimes we take the right to vote for granted. In this episode -- click here to watch -- Barbara reminds us that some segments of society have had to fight for the vote, and they haven't always put forward a united front. Barbara contends that, at the turn of the 20th century, most women wanted a say in public affairs, but they didn't all agree that having the vote was the answer. This history minute is generously sponsored by Donahue, Tucker and Ciandella, PLLC.

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

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Tales from the Winter Street Cemetery

by Barbara Rimkunas

This "Historically Speaking" column was published in the Exeter News-Letter on Friday, October 24, 2014.

Exeter has dozens of small family graveyards scattered throughout town. Usually found in a corner of land long owned by a particular family, these burials can be hard to find. Records for small graveyards can be found at the Exeter Historical Society. There are no marked graves for the people who died in town in the 1600s – a hard truth for genealogists looking for their ancestors’ final resting places.

The earliest mention we have of any burial ground is in the town records from 1651. “It is granted to Mr. Dudley liberty to fence in that piece of ground where the graves are and to have the use of the land for grazing and feeding of cattle whilst he stayes in Exeter.” Reverend Samuel Dudley was the minister and the graves mentioned were most likely those surrounding the meeting house, which was near Salem Street. There is no longer any trace of the grave yard in this part of town. If there were gravestones, and none have been found, they were probably not the inscribed and decorated type we are familiar with today.

The second burial ground is located on the corner of Water and Green streets. Sometimes called ‘Gas House Cemetery,’ because a gas manufacturing plant once stood nearby, this is more of a family cemetery and there are only a handful of graves still there. A third early burial ground was located in the church yard of the Congregational Church on Front Street. In the early 1800s many of the graves were leveled to widen Front Street. Attempts to locate the stones in the 1930s found some of them and they were moved back to the church yard.

In 1742, the town received the land for the Winter Street Cemetery after the death of Colonel John Gilman. Gilman’s will donated, “forever for a burying place parte of that triangular piece of land in the common field aforesd that lyes near that which was lately the dwelling house of Samuel Sibley late of Exeter aforesd between the Road that leads from the Meeting house & that from the lanes end in Exeter aforesd to Kingston provided Sd town fence the Same within three years after my decease.” The town kept its part of the bargain and fenced the area. The triangular lot was truncated as Gilman left the three points of the triangle to each of his sons. Today, the points are not so obvious, one is built up with houses and shops, another holds the old town pound and a naval gun and the third has become a public playground (which includes a Barney-like bouncy ride – the reason many locals call the Winter Street Cemetery ‘Purple dinosaur cemetery’).

The cemetery served as the town’s public burial ground until the 1840s, when the Exeter Cemetery on Linden Street was created. There continued to be some burials in the Winter Street Cemetery in the decades that followed – mostly in family owned plots – and there were a few families that chose to have their ancestors disinterred and moved to the Exeter Cemetery. Still, if you are looking for the final resting place of Exeter’s Revolutionary War citizens, the Winter Street lot is the place to go. Strolling through a cemetery can reveal a lot of history and, providing you are careful, checking out the stones will tell you a lot about the people who lived here centuries ago.

In 1898, the Evening Gazette ran a story about the cemetery: “the old burying ground was surrounded by a two-board fence with two gates, one on Front Street for white people, and one at the back for colored people. The latter were all buried in the northeast corner of the yard. The bier house, so called, stood about where the Greeley house stands now, at the southeast corner. All the mourners, walked to the grave, and at short intervals, the bier was set down in order that the bearers might rest or be relieved by others.” There were not separate burial grounds in Exeter for white and black citizens, so everyone regardless of race or social class was interred in the same public cemetery. But the reticence to mingle unrestrained led to certain parts of the cemetery reserved for ‘colored’ citizens and paupers. Tobias Cutler, whose grave was recently found to be soiled with some type of tarry substance, was one of a number of black Revolutionary war veterans who settled in Exeter. His family went on to become businessmen in both Exeter and Hampton. Born into slavery, he was granted his freedom to serve in the Continental Army. Although his grave is located in the poorer section of the cemetery, he truly earned the right to be buried with the dozen or so other Revolutionary War soldiers in the Winter Street Cemetery. The presence of these men has led the Daughters of the American Revolution to adopt the cemetery and raise awareness of its importance.

Visiting the cemetery is to be encouraged. Walk among the stones and read the stories as you go by. Cemeteries shouldn’t be thought of as places of death or hauntings. They are the final chapter of everyone’s biography. In earlier times life was short. Children sometimes died tragically young. Husbands and wives called one another ‘beloved’. The art on the stones reflects beliefs about life after death and mortality was viewed with inevitability, sorrow or hope. But if you do visit, please take care. The Winter Street Cemetery is not seasonal entertainment. It is cherished by our town and is not a place for Halloween fun.

Photo: Gravestone in Exeter’s Winter Street Cemetery. The image carved is a ‘winged cherub’ – a softened view of the afterlife. Stones depicting a ‘flying death’s head’ with a skull in place of the cherub can also be found in the Winter Street Cemetery. The cemetery was in general use from 1742 until 1845.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Treasures in the Walls

by Barbara Rimkunas

This "Historically Speaking" column was published in the Exeter News-Letter on Friday, October 10, 2014.

Back in the summer of 2011, a local couple was busily engaged in insulating their century old house on Cass Street. During the necessary demolition, they uncovered a surprise. Liz Morse then wrote to the Exeter Historical Society; “we found a poster nailed to a wall for a lecture by Thomas Nast in 1873. Would someone from the historical society like to come see it? We are considering framing it and returning it to its original location, but thought it might be of interest to you.”

She was right. It was of interest to us. Now before you decide to call us, please know that the Exeter Historical Society cannot simply play “Antiques Roadshow” with all callers. As a museum, we are not legally allowed to do monetary appraisals and, although we will occasionally purchase items at public auction for our collections, we generally only take donations.

That said, we love seeing the artifacts that people find hidden in their basements, attics and barns. And the Morses live along my usual walk home. The poster was magnificent, and warranted some further research about the house and the advertised lecture.

Although it doesn’t appear on the 1874 map of Exeter, the house on Cass Street most definitely existed in 1873 when the poster was nailed to the wall. We have a directory of Exeter published in 1872, which does not provide helpful information – like house numbers – but does give us the names and occupations of householders in town. For Cass Street, it lists more residents than the 1874 map can accommodate. Most likely, the map was laid out well before its publication date and by that time at least two new houses had been built on the street. The plot of land for the Morse’s house was purchased in 1868 by Oliver Lane, a local merchant. He never appears to have lived there and must have built it for rental income. There are four households from the 1872 directory that cannot be placed in any specific house when compared to census records or ownership deeds. Three are headed by skilled workmen; a stonemason, carpenter and shoemaker. The fourth is a mother and daughter who would later run a boarding house. Any of these people could have been the occupants of the house where the poster was found. And most likely, any of them would have been enthusiastic to attend the Thomas Nast program.

Thomas Nast was a popular illustrator and political cartoonist. Born in Germany in 1840, he’d arrived in New York with his mother and sister at the age of six. Although children usually pick up new languages quickly, Nast seems to have struggled and even as an adult still spoke with a heavy accent and found reading and writing very difficult. His wife helped him by correcting his poor spelling in the cartoons he created. Yet, or perhaps because of this, he was able to reach broad swaths of the American population including recent immigrants. He began work, at age 15, for Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, as a sketch artist after talking his way into the job. As the Civil War began, Nast joined the staff of Harper’s Weekly, where he would work for roughly 25 years. After the war, he turned to political cartoons, using his talent and wits to attack the political corruption that was raging in New York. His depictions of the Tammany Hall political machine, depicted as a tiger, and his caricatures of William “Boss” Tweed , the corrupt and ruthless Democratic party enforcer, are credited with their fall from power. Nast would go on to popularize the political party symbols of the Democratic donkey and Republican elephant that we still use today. He is also credited with the creation of Christmas as we know it today, with his drawings of Santa Claus and his toy shop at the North Pole. 

In 1873, Thomas Nast was on a seven month speaking tour when he passed through Exeter. The ‘Exeter Lyceum’ program of lecture courses was thrilled to book him as a featured speaker. The review, published in the Exeter News-Letter the following week, raved; “Mr. Nast’s lecture was both entertaining and instructive, and his occasional foreign idioms and accent gave perhaps additional relish to the good things it contained. He commenced with a tribute to the fun-loving qualities of the American people, which he illustrated by choice examples; gave a short history of caricature, especially on its political side; and at length turned to what was of course most interesting to the audience, his own experience as a political caricaturist. From time to time he illustrated the subjects of his lecture, by drawing in colored chalks on a large easel in full view of the audience, some of those happy burlesques which have given him his world-wide reputation.”

Liz Morse reports that they did indeed frame the poster and it hangs near where it was originally found; “guests seem to find it interesting, and it gets us talking about our renovations (Ben loves that subject).”

Image: Poster found behind the wall in the house of Liz and Ben Morse on Cass Street. Advertisements, such as this one, were never meant to serve as documentary materials – they were considered disposable. Finding it intact provides us with a window into the interests of people in town in 1873. It has since been carefully preserved by the owners.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Our New Exeter History Minute

Exeter's history frequently overlaps with the history of other places -- sometimes it's Portsmouth, sometimes it's Boston, and on occasion, it's even further away. In this history minute -- click here to watch -- Barbara picks up the story of Suzannah Holman Brown's daughter, Julia, and ties it to three famous Boston dishes. (Warning, watching this segment may leave your mouth watering!) This history minute is generously sponsored by Citizen's Bank.

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

Special thanks to the Omni-Parker House for providing the photos of Harvey Parker and the Parker House, to Tom Kohn for the photo of the Boston Cream Pie and to Yankee Magazine for the photo of the Parker House Rolls.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Exeter Town Hall Controversy, 1931

by Barbara Rimkunas

This "Historically Speaking" column was published in the Exeter News-Letter on Friday, November 30, 2007.

Sometimes too much change too quickly can be downright threatening. Imagine if the town government identified a problem, say lack of downtown restrooms and insufficient town office space, and then proposed altering a cherished town edifice to provide these very things. This was the controversy facing Exeter in March of 1931.

It all started when Judge Ernest Templeton, son of the Exeter News-Letter editor, John Templeton, pointed out that the town needed a new police station, courtroom, and cells. At the annual town meeting in 1930, a committee was appointed to look into the problem and make some recommendations for the next meeting. The other sore point in town was the lack of public restrooms. Shopping in the downtown by necessity had to be done in short trips. Especially if one was traveling with small children. Local merchants were keen to make the downtown as inviting as possible.

The 1931 Warrant included a proposal that would solve all of these problems. The 1855 Town Hall building had a perfectly serviceable, but inaccessible basement that could be converted, quite inexpensively, to office space, the district court, holding cells and public restrooms. The renovations would require removing the embankment on the Water Street side of the building to create windows and an entryway, which would widen the street a bit and provide for a continuous sidewalk to the square and a few more parking spaces. It seemed like the perfect solution.

But when town meeting day dawned, considerable opposition had begun to swell. Perhaps it was a reaction to the numerous building projects already going on in the town, but changing the look of the Town Hall was just too much for many people to swallow. Ambrose Swasey had already had a number of old buildings moved or razed for his new parkway and Phillips Exeter Academy was in the midst of a building spree, erecting nine new buildings. It must have seemed that the whole of Exeter was changing in this new modern world. The rickety wooden structures of Water Street that seemed to stay upright only out of habit were rapidly disappearing. Opposition to the town hall renovations was fierce.

When the votes were tallied, Article 15 passed by a vote of 214 to 208. The six vote difference wasn’t enough for a very vocal number of citizens who petitioned the selectmen for a new meeting. A new warrant was posted, and another town meeting was scheduled for March 31st to vote to rescind the action taken on Article 15. In the meantime, the same group filed an injunction to prevent the selectmen from acting on the original vote until the second was taken, lest they try to stealthily install bathrooms during the intervening two weeks.

Handbills and letters flew in every direction. Those opposed were adamant that the building would be ruined architecturally. The beauty of the downtown would be destroyed. “The motive of the leadership in this movement appeared to be both rule and ruin,” commented John Templeton. Supporters countered, “It is a mere handful of sorehead politicians who have persuaded a certain class of our citizens to join them in this ‘rule or ruin’ move to overthrow the perfectly fair vote of March 10. The same class opposed the change from oxen to horses and from horses to automobiles, and always see calamity in progressive measures. We are sorry for them.”

Three times as many voters turned out for the special meeting as had voted originally. Although they tried to paint it as a small number of people in opposition, the vote was again very close – 891 in favor of renovations and 825 opposed. Remodeling went ahead but the defeat was painful. Months later, John Templeton was still grieving. “We know that many well meaning citizens supported this project, but in view of the fact that it was entirely unnecessary, it seems incredible that a majority of Exeter’s citizens should trample on the sentiment of their neighbors and needlessly embitter public feeling. It is not like Exeter. That this spirit is today in the ascendancy is Exeter’s shame.” Had the vote gone the other way, no doubt the wound would have been as deep.