Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Sam Cote: An Immigrant’s Experience in Exeter

by Barbara Rimkunas

This "Historically Speaking" column appeared in the Exeter News-Letter on Friday, March 17, 2017. 

“We are of the people that were coaxed and induced to leave their farms along the Saint Lawrence to come here to New England to work in the textile mills and at brick making, to labor and sweat at starvation wages and to live in the cheap tenement houses that were owned by the corporation that we worked and slaved for.” Sam Cote’s family left Ile Verte, Quebec in 1888 when he was a young boy of about four years old. They settled first in Amesbury, Massachusetts to work in the textile mills. “I was one of a family of thirteen children, ten boys and three girls and we were all good steady workers.”

Cote’s experience was similar to many French Canadian families in the late nineteenth century. Farmers in Quebec found themselves unable to support their growing families. The industrial cities of New England promised steady wages. It may seem like it was a poor trade, but the promise of America beckoned many hard-off farmers. Often, as in the case of the Cotes, other family members had arrived first and perhaps because they missed their kin, wrote glowing letters home.

Young Sam Cote’s education is a bit of a mystery. He’s often described as someone who had only a third grade education, but he himself wrote, “School days were not as important then as they are today. We were all looking forward to the day that we would be allowed to go to work. Fourteen years of age was the time that we could go to work. The cotton mills was where we all took our apprenticeship in our journey through life.”

By the time he reached adulthood, Cote had moved to Exeter and was working in the shoe factory on Front Street. In 1909, he married Margaret Richard – a fellow shoe worker. Together they purchased a house on Washington Street and raised five children.

There is an added element of Sam Cote’s immigrant story – when he wasn’t lasting shoes and waiting for the slow factory clock to tick the time away, Sam Cote thought of himself as an artist. He sculpted animals out of scraps of wood and canvas. His granddaughter, Margaret, recalled, “as soon as the snow fell, he was outside, building snow figures. Every year he rendered his own version of Venus in front of the house. His interpretation turned out to be a positively buxom nude, thrusting her charms into the street. My mother recalls the year they awoke to find the ‘lady’ in a full set of underwear which she had acquired in the night.”

He sang continuously – sometimes the Irish songs he remembered from his boyhood in Massachusetts – but more often songs he composed himself. A self-taught piano player, he delighted his children and grandchildren with his pieces, although his grandson, Peter, remembers the tunes as being quite similar. “He played a kind of pounding marching tune, like he only knew one and just put different words to it.” The words to his songs came from the poems he wrote. Considering English was his second language and his education was spotty, his inner drive to express himself in verse is remarkable.

His family says there are over 5000 poems handwritten or meticulously typed. Margaret wrote that when he was courting his future wife, also named Margaret, “the first love note she received was sealed with a shoe sole tack from his workbench at the factory.” Sam himself said, “there is no subject that escapes the notice of a true poet.” Nothing escaped the notice of Sam Cote. He wrote verses on politics as an unrepentant liberal. He wrote about skunks, cigarettes, poker, girls, the moon, non-functioning plumbing, elm trees, Geritol, patriotism, local elections, war, bedpans and his love of his bicycle. At every family event he would pull out a poem to the delight of some, and the exasperation of others. Fiercely patriotic, he took on anything that he felt was an insult to the United States. He had no patience for McCarthyism and great contempt for William Loeb, the editor of the Union Leader. His poems made their way to the pages of the Exeter News-Letter, often as letters to the editor.

Recently, a scrapbook of Sam Cote’s poems made its way from the Exeter Public Library to the Exeter Historical Society. In it, Cote pasted his published poems and handwrote others. One of our favorites is “The Lasting Room Clock,” a shoe workers lament on the passing of time. It ends,

“It has hung for years on that wall
For many years to me it seems
Mid the rattle and clank of the lasting machines
it has ticked off the hours so that everyone would know
That it was time to work or it was time to go.
So wake up my friends wake up and make your hay
For the old clock is ticking your lives away.
So take heed to the ticking of the good old clock
Tick tock, tick tock, tick tock, tick tock.”

Sam Cote’s words are now part of our town’s history. An immigrant shoe worker’s poems now help us interpret the tumultuous times he lived through – two world wars, a presidential assassination, labor strikes, the rise of communism, wars in Korea and Vietnam and the sighting of a UFO in Exeter. All of these were addressed by a humble poet.

Image: Margaret and Sam Cote in 1909, the year they were married in Exeter. Sam was a shoe worker by trade, working in the lasting room, but his artistic expressions made him a local legend.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

News from the Board of Trustees

On Tuesday, February 14, the Board of Trustees of the Exeter Historical Society voted to accept a balanced budget for 2017. While the decision was made in the spirit of fiscal responsibility, the Board nonetheless wrestled with the reality that the organization would need to eliminate staff in order to achieve financial stability. The past few years have been challenging ones for the Exeter Historical Society. While membership numbers have remained stable and programming draws consistent interest from the community, fundraising efforts have not been successful at keeping up with costs. Shifts in patterns of philanthropic giving and declining revenues have dictated that the Board must cut expenses in order to maintain the Society. In light of this, the Board made the very difficult decision to eliminate the positions of Curator and Program Manager from the budget. 

Barbara Rimkunas has held the position of Curator for the past sixteen years. In that time, Ms. Rimkunas has come to be recognized as a vital member of the Exeter community for her wealth of knowledge about town history. She wrote the column “Historically Speaking” for the Exeter News-Letter and instituted the “Exeter History Minute” video series. Ms. Rimkunas is the author of two books about Exeter’s past, including Hidden History of Exeter and Exeter: Historically Speaking. She is a popular speaker for local organizations and a frequent presenter at RiverWoods and many other community venues. Laura Martin has worked for the Exeter Historical Society as Program Manager since 2005, helping to initiate the "Exeter History Minute" series and to develop popular programs on Abraham Lincoln's visit to Exeter, among other topics of local interest. She created and designed the Society's website and manages its social media presence.  

“This was an agonizing decision for the Board,” said Ann Gustafson Schieber, chair of the Board of Trustees, “but we had to move forward with a plan that would allow the Society to continue with its core mission of preserving and promoting the history of Exeter in the spirit of our late benefactor, Nancy Carnegie Merrill.” Schieber added, “By returning to our origins as a volunteer organization, we will have an opportunity to regroup and focus our efforts on solidifying the financial support for the organization. We will sorely miss Barbara’s and Laura's contributions to the Society, but hope the community will rally to our cause. Our program of events will be presented as scheduled, and we will continue to offer our members and area residents the best of local history.” 

Membership continues to form the backbone of the Society. We welcome Exeter residents and anyone with an interest in our rich history to join the Society. Members who are interested in volunteering are encouraged to call the Society at 778-2335, or contact us at

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Fake Cures Questioned in the Early 20th Century

by Barbara Rimkunas

This "Historically Speaking" column appeared in the Exeter News-Letter on February 10, 2017.

“Don’t believe everything you read,” goes the old saying. At the turn of the last century, Exeter had two local newspapers vying for attention: the Exeter News-Letter and the Exeter Gazette. Both tried to attract the attention of subscribers and accepted advertising from the pernicious patent medicine trade to finance publication.

‘Patent medicine’ is actually a misnomer. There were no patented medicines in the United States. There were, however, proprietary concoctions, derisively referred to as ‘nostrums,’ which Merriam-Webster tells us is, “a medicine of secret composition recommended by its preparer but usually without scientific proof of its effectiveness.” These were commonly sold at state fairs or by traveling salesmen. Patent medicines could come in many forms: syrups, ointments, bitters, powders, extracts, salves, pills, balms or liniments. Most had one thing in common – they did nothing to cure or treat illness.

Of course, the nation wasn’t exactly used to finding relief with medical treatment. Dr. William Perry, who practiced on Front Street in Exeter, kept a book of his favorite prescriptions, which is now in the collections of the Exeter Historical Society. He began jotting down his treatments in 1850. The maladies he sought to treat are an odd mixture of common complaints, such as hair loss, mild rashes and bad breath, horse problems and very serious illnesses. As such, the reader needs to carefully determine whether the liniment recipe is for bald spots, lameness due to a failed harness or consumption. Probably these didn’t work particularly well anyway – except maybe for the lame horse. Perry treated “rheumatism and gout” with a mixture of carbolic soda, ginger, Sulphur, guaiac, turkey rhubarb and saltpeter. Thankfully, the patient was advised to take only one teaspoonful every other morning. Much more than that would have certainly made the rheumatism and gout an afterthought.

Perry probably used more traditional hands-on medicine in his practice. Reassuring patients, prescribing heat or steam, waiting for a fever to break provided comfort more than actual cures. As his practice stretched into the era of germ theory, he would have encouraged sanitation, healthy food and rest, rather than medications. His prescription book indicates that he didn’t seem to overuse the most popular remedy of the time – opiates. Except for the occasional use of morphine for extreme pain or diarrhea, Perry doesn’t seem to have doped his patients into foggy oblivion.

For roughly 50 years following the Civil War, there were no regulations required to manufacture or sell medications. Hucksters quickly worked out what the most common complaints were. The problems people had back then weren’t much different from what we have today, although they used different names. Probably no modern doctor has had a patient complaining of “chronic catarrh” – a stuffy nose, or “scrufola” – swollen glands. “Well Doc, I’ve had awful quincey since the weekend.” In all fairness, these seemingly small annoyances had the potential to kill a person. Congestion could become deadly pneumonia. Swollen glands could easily be tubercular and “quincey,” or sore throat, could be an early sign of diphtheria. Given that doctors couldn’t prevent or cure such afflictions, it’s no wonder people turned to miracle concoctions. A child’s persistent cough might be seasonal allergies, or it might be the beginning of deadly tuberculosis. Exeter’s Dr. Edward Otis, a specialist in the prevention and treatment of tuberculosis, could only remind people, “we find that the four best preventatives for disease are fresh air, good food, cleanliness and cheerfulness.” Every little cough was a reminder that death was just around the corner. If Adamson’s Botanic Cough Balsam promised to stop the cough no one really wanted to know what was in it.

Both the Exeter Gazette and the Exeter News-Letter were filled with ads for patent medicine. The Gazette, on January 4, 1895, ran 29 advertisements for a wide variety of ailments. You could buy Dr. Pierce’s Pleasant Pellets for stomach and liver problems, Johnson’s Anodyne Liniment for aches and pains or a mysterious tonic called, P.P.P., which promised to cure all skin and blood diseases along with rheumatism, syphilis, ulcers, sores, malaria, catarrh, dyspepsia, menstrual irregularity and poisoned blood – all through a combination of prickly ash, poke root and potassium. It was too good to be true, but why not give it a try?

Ten years later, even after the Progressive movement began to question the safety of patent medicines, the Exeter News-Letter ran 23 patent medicine ads, including Piso’s Cough Syrup, which would cure consumption and had the additional benefit of tasting good.

Regulatory legislation was passed in 1906 through the Pure Food and Drug Act. Marketers had to list the dangerous ingredients and could no longer make fabulous claims. Years of testing and lawsuits followed. P.P.P was found to contain 16% alcohol and only 1.32 grams of potassium iodide. It didn’t appear to contain any poke root or prickly ash. Piso’s Cough Syrup, just before the regulations went into effect, was tested to contain alcohol, chloroform, opium and cannabis indica (hashish). The company was good enough to take out the opium after it was exposed by Collier’s magazine in 1906. Many of the medicines weren’t overtly dangerous. Ely’s Cream Balm contained only liquid petroleum with small quantities of thymol and menthol, so it was basically just scented Vasoline. Most contained enough alcohol to allow ‘patients’ to have a nip in an otherwise dry town. It was no wonder Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup calmed teething babies – it contained morphine and ammonia. The American Medical Association would later list it under “Baby Killers” in a publication printed in 1911, Nostrums and Quackery. Fake cures, it seemed were just that, and the public was well rid of them.

Barbara Rimkunas is curator of the Exeter Historical Society. Her column appears every other Friday and she may be reached at

Image: Ely’s Cream Balm ran this advertisement in the Exeter News-Letter in 1899. Like most patent medicines, it promised to cure a variety of ailments.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Peril on Exeter’s Rails – January Wrecks

by Barbara Rimkunas

This "Historically Speaking" column appeared in the Exeter News-Letter on January 27, 2017.

On a cold, foggy January night in 1930, residents in the western part of Exeter were jarred awake by a thunderous crash. Two freight trains, one headed for Ayer, Massachusetts, and the other for Worcester, had collided on the tracks near the Powder Mill road crossing. The archives at the Exeter Historical Society do not have any photos of the wreck, but there are two accounts of the accident.

The Exeter News-Letter dashed off a quick account of the accident a day after it occurred. “A locomotive and 16 cars were derailed, wrecked and strewn promiscuously around the road bed, blocking both tracks. Fortunately there was no loss of life or serious injury to any of the train crews,” it reported. “Just how the accident happened cannot be ascertained and, from the protection afforded by the block system and by rear brakemen, it seems unaccountable.” In 1990, some of the mystery was cleared up when the reminiscences of Arthur Eugley Jr. of Exeter were published in an article titled, “Two Incidents at Exeter,” in the B & M Bulletin. “This altercation involved two freight trains, the first of which stalled on the upgrade in poor visibility. The second train, meanwhile, came along and ran by a red signal, proceeding to ram into the caboose and rear end of the first. The impact was terrific as the second train was making a ‘run for the hill.’” The News-Letter added the detail that, “Much of the wreckage soon caught fire,” but this isn’t mentioned by Eugley. Exeter Fire Department records indicate that there was no call placed that night, so the fire may have been just a rumor. Eugley added, “Both tracks were blocked for two days, with detours being made over the Eastern division through Hampton and Portsmouth, NH, which was still a through route from Portland to Boston at that time.”

The tracks had been upgraded during the previous year to accommodate larger engines, but the force of the collision was enough to rip 75 yards of track to be ripped off the ties. A week later the News-Letter reported, “the train wreck continued to be a Mecca of attraction over the week-end and was visited by hundreds, who watched with interest the operations of the wrecking crews. Sunday saw the wrecked locomotive removed and both tracks in commission.” Still, the clean-up was completed in just four days, which is pretty impressive considering Eugley said of the locomotive, “getting this baby back on the iron really took some doing, as it weighed over 300 tons and was more than 100 feet in length.”

The other January rail accident Eugley recalled happened in 1966, so there are probably many current residents who remember it. The weather had been brutally cold. At about 5:45pm on Tuesday, January 11th, when most people were sitting down to dinner, “the crash sounded like the sonic boom of a jet aircraft, and the subsequent screeching of metal indicated that it was not an aircraft.” The Exeter News-Letter reported that, “A broken wheel was given as the cause of a spectacular freight train wreck, shortly before 6 pm Tuesday, which demolished the Railway Express Agency building in a 17-car pileup.” Like the wreck in 1930, the damage was extensive but no injuries were reported, although “Joseph Mantegani, the Railway Express agent, escaped certain death when he left the building but a few minutes before the long train came speeding down the eastbound track at 50 miles an hour.” Mantegani had decided to leave the office a bit early to visit his wife in the hospital. The decision likely saved his life.

More pressing, however, was the danger of the wreck itself. There were three propane tankers involved – one of which was overturned. This time, the fire department records agree with the newspaper accounts. “Box 29 sounded for train wreck near old depot. 17 cars derailed. Railway Express office destroyed when 3 cars crashed into building. 1 car of propane gas rolled over on its side, water was sprayed over tank car of propane gas until it was determined there were no leaks. Engine 4 and Crew remained at scene until 8:00am.” Also in the record, the chilling note: “temp: 4 above.” Thankfully, the propane did not ignite. The 49 cars north of the depot were moved on to Portland and the 70 or so that were south of the wreck were brought back to Lawrence, Massachusetts. Eugley mentions the derailed cars, “5 containing rock salt, 3 with soy meal, 1 carrying propane gas, 1 empty and 7 loaded with coal.” He added, “For over a week, the depot area was an interesting place to visit, and a good many extra cups of coffee were served at Gerry’s Restaurant to warm up the cold bodies of the sightseers.”

There was some discussion about whether freight trains should be barreling through town at 50 mph in the first place – particularly when carrying potentially explosive cargo. A flurry of meetings were held with the Boston and Maine and Public Utilities Commission to lower the in town speeds to 30 mph. There was no need, it seemed, to rush through densely populated areas. All the same, Exeter had dodged a bullet. The News-Letter reporting that, “the firemen and the police watched the area all night, principally to guard against an explosion which, with the nearness of the large tanks of the Dining Oil Co. could have laid waste, said Chief Toland, ‘to a large section of town.’ When asked to be more specific, the chief explained that the explosive force of the three tank cars and the storage tanks in the fuel depot nearby could damage virtually all property within a one-mile radius.” It was, as nearby resident Betty Kreger noted in her diary, an “awful mess at the depot.”

Barbara Rimkunas is curator of the Exeter Historical Society. Her column appears every other Friday and she may be reached at

Image: Young Sargent Kennedy poses next to the remains of the Railroad Express office at the Lincoln Street depot the morning after a derailment. (Photo courtesy of Frank Kennedy).

Thursday, January 12, 2017

A Puzzling Burial in the Winter Street Cemetery

by Barbara Rimkunas

This "Historically Speaking" column appeared in the Exeter News-Letter on January 13, 2017.

One of the wonders of strolling through a cemetery is encountering grave markers that tell a story. Most are quite sad, as death tends to be when a person dies young or a family suffers a quick succession of deaths. Some are final tributes to a long life well-lived. Occasionally, a grave marker hints at both a tragedy and a tribute. Such is the puzzling grave of Nathan Burnham in the Winter Street Cemetery.

The grave stone reads, “This stone is erected by the scholars of the town school in Exeter, as a token of respect for their beloved instructor, Nathan Burnham, who died April 2nd, 1821, Aged 21 Years. Go, fair example of untainted youth. Of mildest wisdom and pacific truth. Go live, for Heaven’s eternal year is thine. Go and exalt thy mortal to divine.” The verse was written by Alexander Pope in 1726. By the early 1800’s it had become a popular epitaph for young men, but did it apply to Exeter’s Nathan Burnham? Was he a “fair example of untainted youth, of mildest wisdom and pacific truth?” And why was his grave marker erected by his students instead of his family?

Usually, when presented with this kind of mystery, we can look at a death certificate, which will generally list the deceased’s parents, place of birth and cause of death. But Nathan Burnham turns out to be more mysterious than anticipated. His death certificate provides no more details than his grave marker. He is listed as “assistant schoolmaster, age 22” but with no other identifying information. If he was 21 or 22 years old, he must have been born in either 1799 or 1800. A quick run through the genealogical search engines finds a Nathan Burnham born in 1799 in Corinth, Maine – but Corinth’s online records do not verify this. There doesn’t seem to have been a Burnham family in Corinth at all. So, maybe he was born in Maine, but maybe not. He definitely wasn’t born in Exeter. There were no Burnhams in Exeter at that time either.

His passing was noted in the local newspaper, the Northern Republican. Of Nathan Burnham the paper said, “This amiable young man, though but recently a resident of this town, had, by his modest and religious deportment, secured the affections of a numerous and bereaved acquaintance. During the short, but severe sickness that preceded his dissolution, he often expressed a longing desire to be at home with his Saviour.” After the funeral, presided over by the Rev. Rowland, “his remains were attended from the meeting-house, to the place of interment, by a large and solemn concourse of people,” which no doubt included his students. It’s not a lot of information to go by, but it does seem that Nathan Burnham was cherished and his reported personality reflected the poetry on his grave marker.

And perhaps he had “secured the affections” of a couple named Robert and Margery Rogers. Two weeks after the young schoolmaster’s death, Margery gave birth to a boy who was named Nathan Burnham Rogers and the story continues. The Rogers family remained in town for a few more years. The next time we hear of Nathan Burnham Rogers was upon his graduation from Dartmouth College in 1845. Pious like his namesake, Rogers went on to the Theological Seminary in Andover and was ordained as a Congregational minister on December 6, 1848. He was called to serve at the South Congregational Church in Hallowell, Maine. It seemed that his life was a continuation of his namesake – perhaps the first Nathan Burnham would have gone into the ministry. In October of 1849 Rogers travelled to Hopkinton, New Hampshire to marry Lydia Bailey. The two were wed on October 9th and set off together on their honeymoon. On November 11th, the Exeter News-Letter sadly reported the sudden death of Nathan Burnham Rogers. “In Hallowell, Maine, of typhoid fever, Rev. Nathan Rogers, age 28. He was married about three weeks since, and was seized with the fatal disease the night of his return from his bridal journey.” The bereaved parishioners of Hallowell’s South Church buried him in their cemetery.

One grave marker in our cemetery ultimately tells the tragic stories of two gentle and kind men. We may not know about the origins or family (if there was any family) of the first Nathan Burnham, but we know his students loved him. Nathan Burnham Rogers, like his namesake, had a promising future of service waiting for him. He too, was loved. We need more monuments reminding us about love, even when tinged with sorrow.

Barbara Rimkunas is curator of the Exeter Historical Society. Her column appears every other Friday and she may be reached at

Photo: Winter Street Cemetery grave of Nathan Burnham, an assistant schoolmaster who died at the age of 21 in 1821. His bereaved students erected his grave marker. The photo was taken by Clair Cushman for Find-A-Grave and used by permission.

Saturday, December 31, 2016

Looking Back at 1916

by Barbara Rimkunas

This "Historically Speaking" column appeared in the Exeter News-Letter on Friday, December 30, 2016.

This year everyone seems glad to be rid of 2016. Too many celebrity deaths, the long grind that was the election, Exeter’s drought, civil unrest and frightening world events seem to have taken a toll on most everyone.

One hundred years ago, in 1916, celebrity deaths weren’t in the news much, but local deaths were. In March, the Exeter News-Letter reported the death of Freeman Wallace, “a highly respected Negro citizen.” Educated in Exeter schools, he was a Union Veteran having served in the Navy during the Civil War. Although he was, according to the News-Letter, “a genial worthy man, highly esteemed by fellow veterans,” his post-war life in Exeter was limited by his race. “Since discharge from the navy he had been a laborer in Exeter, his task of recent years having been to keep the streets and sidewalks free of paper.” Wallace’s family had been residents of Exeter for generations – his mother a descendant of Caesar Paul, who had been enslaved to Major John Gilman during the French and Indian War (and later freed). Black citizens of Exeter found employment difficult to come by. Wallace was 82 at the time of his death.

Dr. Abner Merrill, another Exeter native, died at the age of 90 in December of 1916. Educated at Phillips Exeter Academy and Harvard, Merrill trained to be a physician and after attending Harvard Medical School, studied with Exeter physician Dr. William Perry. Once finished his studies, he decided medicine was not to his liking and instead went into the family business with his brother Henry. Their hat manufactory and wool exchange brought enough wealth to allow Merrill to become a town philanthropist. He created the Merrill Institute, which brought educational speakers to town for over 70 years.

1916 was the first year New Hampshire held a presidential primary election, although it was quite different from the primary race of today. The men – it was only men who voted in 1916 – met in March to elect delegates. The News-Letter reported the “vote was light.” A partisan paper, the News-Letter endorsed the candidacy of George Hughes, a Republican, for the presidency. But even in a largely Republican town, the voters (men) were worried over the war in Europe and incumbent Woodrow Wilson promised to keep the United States out of the battle. Going to press just a few days after the election, the vote was too close to call. Wilson won the election in Exeter, in New Hampshire and in the nation. After having run a campaign with the promise, “He Kept Us Out of War,” Wilson would declare war just one month after his second inauguration.

The Democrats and Republicans weren’t the only political parties in 1916. They were challenged by the Progressive and Prohibition parties. The Republicans and Progressives held concurrent conventions in Chicago, both of which were covered by Exeter journalist Myra Richards. Richards had served as Rockingham County deputy register of probate after her husband’s illness prevented him from serving as register of probate. After his death, she was appointed to serve as a special correspondent in Washington for several New England newspapers. For over 10 years she was the only woman in the Senate press pool.

The weather in 1916 wasn’t particularly harsh. The winter was similar to our usual winters and summer had the usual storms and heat. New England can have some crazy extremes, as the March 2nd edition of the News-Letter was able to announce that, “Fred Colcord last week completed the harvesting of his ice crop,” in the same week that crocuses were reported to be in bloom on Elliot Street.

Exeter began the year with two theaters – the Exeter Opera House and the Ioka. By March, it was clear that the Ioka was in trouble. Edward Mayer, the man who built the theater, had left town followed by a trail of debt. The investors held the business together. Silent films played at the Ioka throughout the year, and the Opera House clung to life for a few more years. Most films were light-hearted comedies, although in October the Opera House brought a frightening film called “The Battle Cry of Peace” to town. The film, lost to history today except for a few scenes, depicted a United States unprepared for war – complete with scenes of terrified citizens escaping New York City. Dystopian nightmares, it seems, are not unique to modern times.

The greatest threat most people saw in the modern age was still the scourge of alcohol. Ralph Meras of Exeter ran for governor on the prohibition platform. He was soundly defeated even in Exeter, where the townsmen voted to stay dry. Not all modern things were to be feared. It was in 1916 that the Exeter Fire Department got its first motorized truck.

One shining light in 1916 was the donation, erection and dedication of the Swasey Pavilion – our beloved bandstand. Work on the structure was noted throughout the summer. One hundred years later, we can still appreciate this elegant centerpiece to our town.

Image: This advertisement for "The Battle Cry of Peace" ran in the Exeter News-Letter on October 20, 1916. The silent film was a warning to the United States to prepare for war.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Parcel Post Delivery Comes to Town

by Barbara Rimkunas

This "Historically Speaking" column appeared in the Exeter News-Letter on Friday, December 16, 2016.

Still waiting to mail your packages in time for the holidays? Even if you don’t quite make it, rest assured that the mail is much more efficient today than it was in the 19th century. Before 1900, mail wasn’t delivered to your door – it had to be picked up at the post office. Nearly every month the post office would publish a list of letters that hadn’t been claimed. Packages sent by US Postal Service had to weigh less than 4 pounds and even this was somewhat expensive – averaging 1 cent per ounce. But great changes would come as the nation’s railroad system sped up the system.

On January 1st, 1900, the US Postal Service introduced free carrier delivery to most towns. This took some getting used to by most postal customers, particularly in the way a letter was addressed. “Upon the institution of free delivery mail matter delivered by carrier must bear the street and number as a most essential part of the address, and patrons of the office are requested so far as practicable to give the necessary information to their regular correspondents. By postal regulations, the householder must, for his own convenience and advantage, and at his own expense, supply a suitable box for the reception of his mail,” reminded the Exeter News-Letter. When the big day finally arrived, a snowstorm slowed down door to door delivery considerably. “It was unfortunate that a snow storm of such severity should accompany the institution of free delivery. The carriers, Messrs. Scott, Sanborn and Gilmore, have worked zealously, but they are human, and there is a limit to their powers.”

Home delivery was certainly a convenience for people, but letters and small packages weren’t the only things traveling across country. The two powerhouse mail-order businesses from Chicago – Montgomery Ward and Sears, Roebuck & Company – had been doing a bang-up job of supplying goods all across the country for decades. By 1900, both companies were still struggling with the problem of shipping goods to the public. There were several options available to customers. A private express service, like American Express or Wells Fargo, would ship directly from Chicago to your hometown. These were efficient if there was an express office in your town. If there wasn’t, you might have to travel several towns away to pick up your goods. Sears advised, “If you live at a great distance from the express office, it might be more convenient to send an order by mail in two or more packages, each weighing four pounds.” At least your smaller packages would reach your local post office. This, of course, was impractical if you ordered anything over four pounds. If the order weighed more than 20 pounds it could be sent as freight by rail. To really play the shipping system, Sears reminded, “Railroad companies usually charge no more for 100 pounds than they do for 20 pounds. It would be a considerable saving of money if you could make up a larger order, either of your own wants or club together with your neighbors, as the freight charges will amount to comparatively very little more.” That way, if you only wanted to order a B flat alto ocarina for 29 cents, you could save on shipping if you combined it with your neighbor’s order of 25 pounds of flour. Clever.

But most people wanted their orders shipped directly to their own homes. The success of free carrier delivery convinced postal authorities that expanding the service might increase revenue. Farmers' cooperatives and the Grange, along with the mail-order houses, wanted the postal service to offer parcel post. It went into effect in 1913 – again on January 1st – this time without a snowstorm. “The parcels post system went into effect Wednesday and should prove a great convenience to the public,” reported the Exeter News-Letter. “Inez Josephine, the eleven-year-old daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Warren E. Peltier, was the first person in Exeter to make use of the parcel post on January 1. She sent a package containing a dressed chicken to her aunt in Cambridge, Mass.”

The U.S. Postal Service website tells us, “The year Parcel Post began, Sears handled five times as many orders as it did the year before. Five years later, Sears doubled its revenues.” The original weight limit of 11 pounds was quickly raised. Parcels from the Exeter office included, a can of milk, pumpkins, an umbrella and a “chine of pork” – a tasty dish of stuffed salt pork.

An interesting loop hole in the parcel post regulations was the lack of any limits on what could be shipped. Thus, there are several accounts of parents who shipped their babies and children by parcel post because it was cheaper than buying a railroad ticket. As funny as these stories are, it wasn’t a widespread practice. These were often stunts and the children were usually entrusted to friendly railroad conductors or were accompanied by a fare-paying adult. Local postmasters frequently reminded the public that, in spite of what they may have heard, they do not ship children via Parcel Post.

Barbara Rimkunas is curator of the Exeter Historical Society. Her column appears every other Friday and she may be reached at

Photo: “It took so much time to read Post Cards and now we must find out what is inside of all Parcel Post packages in Exeter, NH” mutter the exasperated postal clerks on this novelty post card produced by the Frank Swallow Post Card Company in Exeter, NH.