Thursday, July 3, 2014

The Long Hot Summer of President Garfield

by Barbara Rimkunas 

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

The 'Gentlemen of Exeter'

by Barbara Rimkunas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Exeter History Minute -- The Old County Courthouse

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

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

Thursday, June 19, 2014

The Umbrella Factory

by Barbara Rimkunas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Exeter's Secret Tunnels

by Barbara Rimkunas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Exeter Day School Marks 75 Years

by Barbara Rimkunas

This "Historically Speaking" column was published in the Exeter News-Letter on Tuesday, May 27, 2014.

Modern parents take it for granted that early childhood education is important, but this wasn’t always universally accepted. The town of Exeter had experimented with Kindergarten in the 1890s during the stirrings of the Progressive movement. The program was, within a few years, deemed a bit frivolous and expensive. Several private pre-schools and kindergartens had popped up over the years, but by the early 1930s there was little available in town for children before their entrance into the public school system at the first grade level. Children in first and second grade were crowded into small classrooms – sometimes 30 or more students – with a single teacher. This was hardly optimal for youngsters who were just beginning their educational lives, but the belief was that younger children required less discipline and thus more of them could be foisted upon an exhausted teacher. After all, it was just ABCs they were learning – really more babysitting than teaching was required.

Parents, of course, knew better about youngsters. Not only are kids this age quite a handful to watch over, they also have a seemingly infinite capacity to absorb knowledge. It was with this in mind that a group of parents – mothers primarily – decided to open their own school for the pre-school set.

Katharyn Saltonstall, in her brief history of the Exeter Day School written in 1979 describes a morning in 1934 when she and three other Phillips Exeter Academy faculty wives watched their children playing together. “As we chatted,” she writes, “we discovered that we shared a deep conviction that the elementary school years are the most important in the educational process, for it is during one’s first exposure to school that one’s attitude toward future learning is formed.” Together they began to formulate the type of education they wanted for their children, “social adjustments to other children and adults on a cooperative basis in an unpressured setting, flexible enough for individual children to proceed at their own pace.” The school would need to be small, but the original pool of children was small – mostly the children of Academy families, although they did not limit it as such.

The first few years the Exeter Day School met at the home of Helen Bourn on Pine Street. A teacher, Constance Amsden, was hired to teach a kindergarten class of seven children. It was hoped that the school would eventually expand up through the fourth grade to avoid the over-crowded Exeter public schools. The founding families of the school each donated $400 and agreed to pay $150 per year for tuition, no small contribution in the early ‘30s. The second year, they lowered the tuition to $100 to attract more students, but it was still far above the amount most local families could pay. Scholarship programs were created early on to assist some students.

By 1939, it was obvious that the school needed more room than they could secure in rented space. The parents determined that the experiment was a success and decided to build their own school. The Exeter Day School was incorporated as an educational non-profit institution – this is the date used to mark the school’s 75th anniversary celebrated this year. A local site for the new school was found at the end of Marlboro Street on Academy land that was leased for $1.00 per year. An anonymous donor gave the seed money of $3000 to get the building project underway. The new school building was ready for students in late October of 1939.

As a private school, fund-raising was a necessary activity. They depended on generous donors for their very existence. Parents participated in nearly every project the school needed – from building cubbies and playground equipment to planting flowers and landscaping. The children were included in many of these activities.

As the student body grew, the educational programs expanded. Children who attended the school from the age of five tended to thrive in the small sized classes. By the early 1950s the school offered classes to children through fifth grade. But by that time, the town of Exeter had worked to improve the public school offerings and, after the construction of Lincoln Street School in 1955, parents at the Exeter Day School became more confident in the quality of education offered there. Numbers in the upper grades at the day school decreased and the school began to re-focus on pre-school, kindergarten and first grade.

On Thursday evening, April 1, 1976, a burglary and fire at the school was reported to the Exeter Police Department. Although the school was well insured and repairs were quickly made, the children lost all of the school projects that were left inside. Trustee Donald Robie reassured parents that the school would reopen soon. The News-Letter reported that “one of Robie’s responsibilities included presiding over a short burial for two white rats that died in the fire which took place in the back yard ‘amongst tears.’”

At 75 years, the school still reflects the mission of its original founders – a dedication to high quality education for children from two to six years of age.

Photo: Exeter Day School students pose c. 1940

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Invasion of the Moths

by Barbara Rimkunas

This "Historically Speaking" column appeared in the Exeter News-Letter on Friday, May 9, 2014.

In the early years of the twentieth-century, New England was invaded and towns like Exeter scrambled to fight back. The invaders were two types of invasive moths – and their caterpillars – that had been accidentally introduced into the region. Both the gypsy moth and the brown-tailed moth were capable of stripping trees season after season resulting in the death of the tree.

Gypsy moths were brought to the United States by Frenchman Etienne Leopold Trouvelot in 1869. Trouvelot planned to cross-breed the moths and create a silk industry in Medford, Massachusetts. The project didn’t work and, unfortunately, the caterpillars escaped. At first, it didn’t seem like much of a problem and Massachusetts was able to contain the little bugs – for a while. By 1890, gypsy moths were extending their range to western Massachusetts and by 1900 they had reached Exeter.

Brown-tailed moths started arriving at roughly the same time. Transported to the U.S. from Europe through the importation of seedlings, brown-tailed moths were more difficult to control and were more hazardous to people than gypsy moths. The hairs of brown-tailed moths are barbed and can cause breathing difficulties, rashes, skin irritation and headaches.

The first plan to keep the pests at bay was to contain them. But this didn’t work because transportation had taken leaps forward in previous decade. “It is declared, and probably with truth, that the troublesome browntail moth has been carried into New Hampshire by the electric cars, and made a lodgment in Portsmouth, and that automobiles are transferring the gypsy moth into the White mountain region,” concluded the Exeter News-Letter in June of 1904. Scientists at the University of New Hampshire concurred. Unless everyone stayed at home, the moths were going to spread.

Both moths produce caterpillars that have devastating consequences for trees. These little pests can quickly defoliate entire trees and their favorite types of trees are those that are indigenous to New England – thus heavily threatened apple and maple syrup production. But it wasn’t just the commercial trees that were in danger, shade trees such as oak, birch, hickory, chestnut, beech, ash, walnut and elm were also delicious. Actually, looking over the lists of trees, shrubs and vegetation favored by the caterpillars, there isn’t much that would be left over. These bugs were members of the clean plate club.

In 1905 – the second year that this was identified as a real problem in town – the Town Improvement Association, a club of sorts, advertised that it, “would pay boys 25 cents a hundred for nests of the brown tail moth until April 1 – the nests to be gathered in the town or immediate vicinity and brought to Mrs. Walker, Court Street, Mrs. John E. Young, High Street or Miss Bell, Front Street.” There, the nests were burned. The boy who brought the most nests would also win an entire new suit of clothes from F.W. Ordway & Company. Apparently, and sadly, it never occurred to the organizers that allowing girls to participate might have doubled the moth army. Tree-climbing girls need not apply.

As enthusiastic as the boys were, some of the nests survived and caterpillars emerged during the summer months. In September, the News-Letter sadly reported, “it was hoped that the effective work in spring in removing nests of brown-tailed moths would do much to reduce their numbers, but we now find them much more numerous than ever before. Some apple trees have as many as a hundred nests, and on some trees half the foliage has already been destroyed.” The only time they weren’t eating was during the bitterest of months in winter. The town encouraged homeowners to remove the nests while it was still cold. The following year, in 1907, the town hired an adult to patrol and cut down nests. Meanwhile, the state of New Hampshire began introducing insect parasites to control the outbreak. Neither proved successful.

In July of 1909, the Exeter News-Letter reported, “The multiplicity and spread of tree pests is becoming a serious matter. The clouds of moths nightly seen indicate an increased number of brown-tails, the removal of whose nests will entail no little labor and expense. The belief is growing that the best way to combat this pest is in its present stage, by means of bonfires, streams of water or otherwise. Thousands, clinging to the walls of Water street buildings might have been killed during the past week with one’s bare palm.”

Trees were sometimes wrapped in burlap and creosote to stop the caterpillars from climbing up the trunks. These measures, as well as destroying the nests and introducing parasitic enemies were not enough to stop the pests. By 1910, it had been determined that the only way to completely eradicate a colony was to spray the tree with toxic chemicals. The poison of choice was arsenate of lead. If the name sounds terrifying from a public health standpoint, it was. But it was also considered less toxic than its predecessor, Paris Green, which burned the grass when sprayed. Both were discontinued when the modern alternative, DDT, was introduced in the late 1940s.

After spraying was introduced, the infestations were seen only occasionally. Memories of the seemingly biblical plagues remained with people for years.

Image: Brown-Tail and Gypsy moths infestations in the early 20th century became a problem throughout New England. This notice was placed in the Exeter News-Letter on March 3, 1905 encouraging people to remove dormant nests before warm weather arrived. Voluntary nest removal proved ineffective against the pests.