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.

Exeter's New Historic Marker

by Barbara Rimkunas

This "Historically Speaking" column was published in the Exeter News-Letter on Friday, September 26, 2014.

Wondering about the mysterious sign in front of the town hall? The sign – to be unveiled on Saturday, October 4th – commemorates Abraham Lincoln’s visit to Exeter in 1860. Back in 2010 we celebrated the 150th anniversary of his visit and speech with all manner of public events. The permanent sign will recognize our town's connection to Abraham Lincoln to a wider audience.

Historic highway markers are nominated through the New Hampshire Division of Historical Resources. Exeter already has four such markers. If you’re interested in finding them all, start on outer Water Street where you’ll find a marker dedicated to Brigadier General Enoch Poor. Poor was a shipbuilder who served during the American Revolution. The Ladd-Gilman house, which is now the home of the American Independence Museum, bears a marker to remind us of its role as the state treasury. A marker dedicated to Exeter’s tenure as the state capital stands in front of the town offices and just up Front Street on the corner of Court Street another sign marks the spot where the Declaration of Independence was read aloud for the first time to citizens of New Hampshire.

Lincoln wasn’t a presidential candidate when he visited Exeter in the winter of 1860. His son, Robert, was attending Phillips Exeter Academy after spectacularly failing his Harvard entrance examinations. When Lincoln was hired to make a speech at the Cooper Union in New York in late February, he readily accepted and extended his trip to have enough time to slip up to New Hampshire to visit Robert. Lincoln had other ties to Exeter – he had befriended fellow congressman Amos Tuck during his time in the United States Congress in 1847. Tuck is widely credited with the creation of the Republican Party based on his objection to the spread of slavery into the western territories – a view he and Lincoln held in common. The Tuck family’s presence in Exeter most likely helped the decision to send Robert to Phillips Exeter Academy for a year of intense study. Upon Lincoln's arrival to town on February 29th, he was immediately asked to make speeches throughout the state and he found himself on a whirlwind tour of Concord, Manchester and Dover during his short stay in New Hampshire. Exeter was the site of the fourth speech he made in the state.

So what of it? Lincoln made speeches all the time. What’s one more? Lincoln’s northeastern trip that year introduced him to a skeptical audience. There were several candidates from the region likely to run for the presidency that year, but Lincoln’s debates about slavery against Stephen Douglas for the Illinois Senate had been carefully followed by many folks in the east. Slavery had nearly disappeared in the northern states and most thought ‘good riddance.’ It could stay where it was in the south, but when the western territories began to petition for statehood, decisions about the spread of slavery had to be made. Lincoln’s Cooper Union speech, which he paraphrased for the New England audiences, laid out his careful reasoning in opposing the extension of slavery. It also hinted that, perhaps, the system itself, although constitutionally acceptable, was a cancer on the nation. It was in New Hampshire that Lincoln first used the powerful metaphor of slavery as a snake in the bed to awaken the population’s sleepy complacency.

Of the four sites where Lincoln spoke in New Hampshire the Exeter town hall is the last one still standing. Concord lost Phenix Hall to a fire in 1893. Manchester’s Smyth Hall was torn down in 1970 and the Dover City Hall burned in 1866. Last year’s fire at the Exeter town hall, small though it was, was a reminder that these old buildings must be cherished.

The Exeter Historical Society was pleased when a local donor contacted us willing to assist with a petition to have the Exeter town hall recognized as a New Hampshire historic landmark. Please join us during the Exeter Fall Festival on October 4th at 12:30 on the steps of the town hall when we will be joined by Phillips Exeter Academy principal Tom Hassan and, perhaps, Abraham Lincoln himself, to unveil our new historic marker.

Image: Exeter Town Hall as it appeared to Abraham Lincoln during his visit in 1860.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Did we Mention that the Red Sox are playing the NYC Yankees?

Yes, you could win an iPad Mini, but did we forget to mention that the Red Sox tickets that you could win are for the September 27th game against the NYC Yankees? And that it is one of Derek Jeter's last games as a Yankee? No baseball fan should miss the chance to win tickets to this game and you could be in luck because the Exeter Historical Society is raffling off two tickets to this historic game. Raffle tickets are $10 each (or 3 for $25) and can be purchased online through the historical society's website, click here. The winning tickets will be drawn on Saturday, September 20 during the Society's annual bowling event. You need not be present to win (though we'd love it if you'd join us).

Friday, September 12, 2014

Fred Frame

by Barbara Rimkunas

This "Historically Speaking" column was published in the Exeter News-Letter on Friday, September 12, 2014.

Race car driver Fred Frame always said he was born in Exeter, New Hampshire. When I happened upon a file about Frame in the Exeter Historical Society archives, I was surprised that I hadn’t heard much about the man. Frame raced to fame when he won the Indianapolis 500 in 1932, yet there’s little acknowledgement of that achievement in his native town. So, was Frame from Exeter? Or, was that something he simply made up?

Frame is mostly associated with Pasadena, California – where he seems to have spent most of his life. The Exeter Frame family ties him to Charles E. Frame, who, it is said, served as his ‘foster father’ and was a well-known and respected cabinet and furniture maker. Perhaps, but no documentation connects the two as ever living together. The facts about Fred Frame’s early life turn out to be quite complicated. Fred himself filed only two documents that can be traced: his 1917 draft registration form and his 1915 marriage certificate. On both, he lists his date of birth as June 3, 1894, however, there is no such birth record in Exeter. This doesn’t necessarily mean he wasn’t born in Exeter. Babies were born at home in that time and sometimes they missed being noted in the town’s vital records.

On his draft record, he lists his name as Fred William Frame, born in Exeter, New Hampshire and currently working as a chauffeur for the very wealthy Charles F. Paxton in Pasadena. He was slightly more specific about his origins two years earlier when he reported, on his marriage license, that his parents were ‘C.J. Frame’ and ‘Issabella McClish.’ C. James Frame lived in Exeter in the 1880s and can be found on the 1910 census living with his wife Isabelle and step-son Frederick in Pasadena. So C.James Frame was not Fred’s biological father. That honor goes to Frank Colbath, who was Isabella McClish’s first husband. Colbath died in 1904 at the County Farm after a lengthy bout of tuberculosis. Isabella Colbath and her son, Fred Colbath are in Exeter at the time of the 1900 census. Her elder son, Benjamin, was living with his grandparents in 1900. It was probably difficult for her to make ends meet as a dressmaker without the support of her husband. Sometime after the death of Frank Colbath, Isabella married C.James Frame and moved with him and young Fred to California. Fred must have liked the arrangement because he took his step-father’s surname and used it for the rest of his life.

By most accounts, Fred was not much interested in school but was quite taken with cars. He chauffeured for a few years before taking up racing as a profession. His first Indy 500 was in 1927 when he placed 11th. The Indianapolis 500 was quite a different race in its early days. The event premiered in 1911 with the same 500 mile 200 lap race we have today, but the speedway was paved with brick, drivers had a passenger called a ‘ride-along mechanic’ and the cars looked like they belonged in a pinewood derby. But you won’t need a description, because the Indianapolis Speedway in 1932 has been immortalized in the Warner Brothers film The Crowd Roars. And, like a ghost from the past, Fred Frame appears in the film playing himself. Released in April of that year, Frame went on to win the Indy 500 on May 30th. He only gets a few lines in the film, but he delivers them well as he towers over Joe Greer, played by James Cagney. It’s not often that someone from our archives can be seen walking, talking and breathing, so it is quite a thrill watching him. The film can be rented and streamed over the internet through a well-known site that inexplicably has the name of a famous South American river.

The 1932 Indy 500 broke speed records that had been set seven years earlier by Peter DePaolo, averaging 104.44 mph (for comparison, the 2014 Indy 500 winner, Ryan Hunter-Reay averaged 186.563mph). Although Frame placed well in the years that followed, at 38 he was old for a driver. His son, Bob, became the racer in the family after Fred left the track in 1939 after a particularly bad accident. Bob was later killed in a race in Owatonna, Minnesota in 1947.

Frame died of a heart attack at his home in Hayward California in 1962. There was no obituary published in his home town of Exeter, New Hampshire. According to the Nancy Carnegie Merrill index of the Exeter News-Letter, the only time Fred Frame was ever mentioned in the newspaper was in 1941 when a relative, Joseph LaFramboise entered the New Hampshire Soap Box Derby. Fifteen-year-old Joe gets three columns including, “related to Freddie Frame, one-time winner of the 500-mile Indianapolis speed classic, LaFramboise finished second in the entire field in 1939, and last year reached the semi-finals before being eliminated.” Thanks. Nice that he got a mention. Fred Frame should be considered one of our home town heroes. Pass the word around.

Image: Exeter native, Fred Frame (on right), winner of the 1932 Indianapolis 500.

Friday, August 29, 2014

The Exeter Steamer House

by Barbara Rimkunas

This "Historically Speaking" column was published in the Exeter News-Letter on Friday, August 29, 2014.

In 1873, the Town of Exeter upgraded its antiquated fire department. The old fire engines – really just hand pumped ‘tubs’ on wheels -- had proven incapable of actually extinguishing fires. In earlier days, putting out a fire was never feasible, the goal of the fire department was to stop a fire from spreading by wetting down the surrounding buildings. But technology had advanced by the 1870s and a series of devastating downtown fires prompted the town to take action. A beautiful steam engine was purchased from the Amoskeag Company in Manchester at a cost of $4,400.00.

To support such an advanced piece of equipment, several things were needed – specifically horses to pull the heavy thing and an engine house to protect it. The horses were hired from a local livery stable and the engine, quickly named the “Eagle,” was temporarily housed on Clifford Street, conveniently near the horses. But it was recognized that this was a temporary solution. The new engine would need a new engine house – one that could eventually accommodate a pair of horses and new electrical alarm systems. The town meeting had decided that “the matter of providing a building for the new fire apparatus was left with the committee appointed at a previous meeting, to select a location and erect or otherwise provide a suitable building for the purpose.”

Uh, oh. Sure, it’s possible to set up a committee and get things done, but as we all know, committees are comprised of people who have varying agendas, and Exeter in 1873 had some big issues involved in the erection of a new engine house. The first problem was that of location. The obvious place for the engine would be the center of town – at that time recognized as near the central commercial district on Water Street. The major fires of the 1870s had all occurred in this part of town. But factories had been springing up in the western part of town near the B&M depot on Lincoln Street. This part of town suffered from a chronic lack of water and slow response times. Meanwhile, the Eagle proved its worth in August when Michael Murphy’s barn on Portsmouth Avenue caught fire. “The new steam fire engine was first at the scene and prove its power and usefulness,” noted the Exeter News-Letter, “The fire was soon extinguished, with slight loss.” Having proved that the horses provided the speed necessary, perhaps a downtown engine house could serve the entire town.

A special town meeting was called in October of 1873. The committee proposed building a two-story brick building on the Clifford Street site. To achieve this, they would require $3,000.00 more than the original appropriation. Unfortunately, the timing of the meeting couldn’t have been worse. The economic panic of 1873, which ushered in a period known as the ‘Long Depression’ lasting until 1879, hit during the same month. Skittish taxpayers, led by Jarvis McDuffie, balked at the extra costs. The News-Letter reported, “McDuffie opposed the adoption of the resolution on the ground that the appropriation already made was sufficient for the purpose, and the present high rate of taxation in the town and the threatening approach of hard times demanded the greatest economy. A lively discussion followed, which resulted in the rejection of the resolution.” ‘Lively discussion’ is another way of saying ‘loud shouting and fighting.’ It must have been an exciting meeting to say the least. Plans for the new engine house were tabled until everyone could cool down. It took almost an entire year for another town meeting to address the issue and in September of 1874, a new committee was appointed.

The men of Exeter met a week later to vote on the conclusions of the committee. A new, inexpensive wooden engine house would be built on the corner of Lincoln and Middle streets on land leased from the B&M railroad. The Clifford Street land owned by the town would be sold and the proceeds used to help finance the brick steam engine house on Water street on land leased from the Exeter Manufacturing Company. The resolution easily passed and ground was broken for the Water Street engine house within weeks.

Although barely mentioned in the two decades following its erection, the Exeter News-Letter saw fit to brag about the engine house in August of 1894: “Few Exeter organizations are so pleasantly housed as are the members of the Eagle Steamer company. A spacious hall occupies the greater portion of the second floor of the steamer house, and is in daily use by the members of the company and their occasional guests as a place of social enjoyment. It is comfortably furnished, and contains a pool table.” Water Street was the perfect location for the steamer company, but as firefighting equipment became motorized in the early 19th century, the sharp turn onto a main street became problematic. The Eagle was dispatched to its final fire in 1928. Sometime in the 1940s it was sold to collector James Filleul along with two other old Exeter engines, the 1835 Piscataqua and Fountain No. 1. In 1961, after Filleul’s death, the engines were returned to the town. A 1991 overhaul of the Eagle made the old steam engine functional again and it has made public appearances in town ever since.

The Eagle Steamer house on Water Street was sold in 1950 to Western Auto Associates, which installed a store front covering the old barn doors. Recent renovations have returned the building to its former appearance and there can be no confusion about its original purpose. The Steamer House has returned.

Image: The Eagle Steamer House on Water Street in the 1920s.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Scottish Prisoners in Exeter

by Barbara Rimkunas

This "Historically Speaking" column was published in the Exeter News-Letter on Friday, July 13, 2007. 

“Hello, I’m looking for the burial site of Alexander Gordon.” This frequent phone query sometimes makes me want to record the following message on our answering machine: “You have reached the Exeter Historical Society, we are open for genealogical research but we do not know where Alexander Gordon is buried.”

Alexander Gordon was the first Gordon to come to America and I realize that it is important for his genealogically curious descendants to want to find his final resting place. It’s just that we really don’t know exactly where he is buried. The best we can do is direct them to the Perkins Hill Cemetery, formerly the Gordon Hill Cemetery, and reassure them that Alexander Gordon’s son, Thomas, left his entire estate including, “half an acre of land to be reserved for a Burying place” to his own sons. As he had inherited the land from his father, it is more than likely that somewhere on the hill is the final resting place of Alexander Gordon. If it is, then Perkins Hill is the setting for the final chapter of a very exciting biography.

There was very little immigration from Scotland to New England in the early 1600s. The Scots were usually Presbyterians who tended to clash with New England Puritans. They also didn’t speak English, they spoke a form of Highland Gaelic, which may surprise many people today. During the volatile period of the English Civil War, Oliver Cromwell’s forces attacked Scotland not once but twice, both resulting in crushing Scottish defeats. At both the battles of Dunbar, in 1650, and Worcester, in 1651, thousands of very young Scotsmen were marched to England as prisoners of war. Most of them were in their teens and early twenties and it would have been dangerous to allow them to return to Scotland after the war ended. Angry young men tend to hold a grudge. The decision was made to sell the able-bodied into servitude in the colonies.

Fifteen year old Alexander Gordon was caught up in the conflict. Marched miserably to London to await transportation, he survived the cold and near starvation long enough to win a miserable three to four month cruise on an overcrowded fetid slave ship bound for the wilderness of America. Upon arrival in Massachusetts, he was sold for between 15 – 30 pounds for six years unpaid service. Americans were quite used to the systems of slavery and indentured servitude, but the Scotsmen were not. They tried, unsuccessfully, to use the colonial legal system to shorten their terms of service. Gordon himself filed suit in 1654 against John Cloyce, claiming he had been defrauded. Most of these cases were dismissed. After his attempt to manipulate the legal system, Gordon disappears from the record only to reappear in 1664 in Exeter, New Hampshire. There we find him working at the saw mill of Nicholas Lissen on the Exeter River. 

Lissen, an Englishman by birth, seems to have preferred the company of Scottish prisoners of war. He hired, or perhaps bought indentures of, at least three of them: Gordon, John McBean, and Henry Magoon. Conveniently, Lissen had three daughters and one after another they married the Scotsmen. Hannah married John Bean (he dropped the “Mc”) in 1654, Elizabeth and Henry Magoon were wed in 1657, and Mary hooked up with Alexander Gordon in 1663. One way to escape servitude, apparently, was to marry the owner’s daughter. All three men became landowners and partners in the saw mill. Another former prisoner in Exeter was John Sinkler, who worked in a saw mill on the other side of town.

The Scotsmen who came to Exeter all stayed and became equal citizens. According to Diane Rapaport, a writer on the subject, “There is little evidence that any of the men went back to Scotland” after they’d served their time. “What happened to the Scotsmen at that point varied greatly, depending upon who had owned them and where, whether they could read or write, and how well they could speak English.” The Lissen sisters must have been good teachers, because not only are there still a lot of Beans and Magoons living in New England, the Gordon Family returns to Exeter with some regularity to visit the spot where Alexander might be buried.

Image: The densely forested Piscataqua region of New Hampshire and Maine (depicted here in the 1670s) created a need for labor at the saw mills. Local mill owners were more than willing to purchase Scottish prisoners, who would then work off an indenture of 6-8 years with no compensation. Descendants of these prisoners still live in the region.