Thursday, October 20, 2016

Skeletons in All the Wrong Places

by Barbara Rimkunas

This "Historically Speaking" column was not published by the Exeter News-Letter on October 21, 2016.

Back in the 1980s there was an urban legend, posing as fact, that there are more people alive today than have ever lived. Do the living outnumber the dead? Sorry, calculations of population over the course of history give the debate to the dead. Scientific America’s Ciara Curtin, writing in 2007, ran the math and concluded, “despite a quadrupling of the population in the past century, the number of people alive today is still dwarfed by the number of people who have ever lived.”

We’re pretty sure we know where most of Exeter’s dead are buried since about 1700. Before that, things are kind of murky. There’s no trace of our Native burial grounds in Exeter and no indication that any particular spot was reserved by the Squamscotts in the text of the 1638 Wheelwright Deed. But then, we also aren’t quite sure where the Englishmen buried their dead. Most likely, they followed English tradition and established a graveyard near the first Meetinghouse, which was located near Salem Street by the railroad tracks. Historian Charles Bell places the first burial ground at the meetinghouse site, but noted, “for a long time past no traces of memorial stones have been visible there, and all feeling of sanctity about the spot has vanished.” Benjamin Franklin Swasey, writing in 1907, reminded readers that that particular area was later used as a clay pit for a brickyard. “Many of the bricks used in the building of our Cotton factory, in the Bruce house on Bow street, and other places were from this prolific source. Among those now living who worked there at brickmaking Mr. Francis Boardman remembers of human bones being found there in digging up the clay.” It seems some of our Exeter ancestors are now part of our downtown buildings.

Occasionally, skeletons have appeared where they don’t belong. There’s long been a story told that when Josiah Coffin Smith was digging the basement for his house off High Street in 1787 that a skeleton of an Indian and several pewter spoons were found. Unfortunately, that’s the entire story and it cannot be verified why the skeleton was presumed to be an Indian and not an Englishman. We can suppose that early prejudices would have prevented Smith from believing a ‘civilized’ people would bury a body without a marker, but the missing Meetinghouse graveyard indicates otherwise.

Twice in the early twentieth century skeletons were found at work sites in town. The November 17th, 1911 edition of the Exeter News-Letter reported: “the construction of the Walnut street sewer yesterday morning revealed two skeletons buried about three feet and a half below the surface of the street. The first discovered lay across the line of the sewer, the second nearby and at right angles to the other. Dr. John G.W. Knowlton, deputy medical examiner, viewed the skeletons and the bones of the first discovered were placed with the other, which was not disturbed. Dr. Knowlton thinks they were buried more than 50 and less than 100 years ago. No traces of coffins, wearing apparel or other articles were to be seen. The skeletons were of males. One was a man 60 years old or more and of a height in life of more than six feet. One skull showed a perforation.”

Two years later, Dr. Knowlton was called again: “on Tuesday afternoon workmen engaged in digging a trench for the service pipe which will connect the Kent barn on Chestnut hill with the water main unearthed portions of two human skeletons. The skull of one was in fair preservation, but both skeletons were completely disarticulated. A rusty nail probably came from a coffin. Additional bones were found nearby on Wednesday. They were viewed by Dr. John G.W. Knowlton, deputy medical examiner, who advised that they be replaced as nearly as possible in their long resting place.” 

Exeter’s rogue skeletons kept to themselves until 1970, when Robert Brockelbank unearthed several in the Simpson gravel pit on Kingston Rd. Eugene Finch, retired Phillips Exeter Academy instructor and co-founder of the New Hampshire Archeological Society was called in. Just as in Josiah Coffin Smith’s time, the skeletons were presumed to be Native American, the Exeter News-Letter commenting, “All indications point to a find made by Robert Brockelbank last Friday as the remains of several Indians buried in a banking of gravel he was loading on Kingston Rd.” Finch had the remains taken to the Department of Anthropology at Franklin Pierce College where Professor Howard Sargent determined, “the population represented by the few skeletons recovered from the Kingston site is European and that both males and females are present. The age of the cemetery is uncertain, but the hexagonal shape of the coffins that could be distinguished suggests that it dates from the late 18th or very early 19th century.”

Are there more skeletons waiting to be unearthed in town? Quite possibly. As mentioned earlier, there are more dead than living on earth. Should you find one, the best course of action should be what Dr. Knowlton seemed to encourage. Rebury them as near to where they are found as possible. There, they can rest in peace, hopefully away from any sewer lines.

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

Photo: When skeletal remains are found and are not suspicious – merely old – investigations attempt to determine basic information. This photo, dated August 25, 1947, is most likely Eugene Finch, co-founder of the New Hampshire Archeological Society. Finch was called to investigate skeletons found at the Simpson gravel pit in 1970.

Saturday, October 8, 2016

Fire Prevention Week

by Barbara Rimkunas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, September 23, 2016

Dirty Campaigns

by Barbara Rimkunas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Low Bridge, Everybody Down

by Barbara Rimkunas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, August 26, 2016

The Fan Ladies

by Barbara Rimkunas

This "Historically Speaking" column was published by the Exeter News-Letter on August 26, 2016.

There is not a theater program out there that has not been used as a hand fan. A small folding fan used to be a necessary accessory that every woman carried. Before we had air conditioning fans were necessary to provide a cooling breeze for women who wore long layered corseted dresses. And as often happens with accessories, they became useful in other ways. As a means of communication, a fan could be used to convey a wide variety of information and emotions. “Women are armed with fans as men with swords, and sometimes do more execution with them,” commented Joseph Addison in a 1711 edition of The Spectator. His humorous essay sought to create a militia of ladies trained in the proper use of the fan. “There is an infinite variety of Motions to be made use of in the Flutter of a Fan. There is an Angry Flutter, the modest Flutter, the timorous Flutter, the confused Flutter, the merry Flutter, and the amorous Flutter. Not to be tedious, there is scarce any Emotion in the Mind which does not produce a suitable Agitation in the Fan; insomuch, that if I only see the Fan of a disciplined Lady, I know very well whether she laughs, frowns, or blushes.” His essay, and others written afterward, are frequently used as proof that there was a ‘language of the fan’ that was understood by all, but this is most likely apocryphal.

One of the more unique aspects of the hand fan was that it was one of the few accessories that a woman could not produce herself. She couldn’t sew or knit or weave herself a fan. It was an article that had to be purchased. The cheapest fans were made of palm leaves. These were utilitarian fans to keep around the house. They didn’t fold and were probably useless for flirting. Montgomery Ward sold palm leaf fans at eighteen cents a dozen. The Exeter Historical Society has several palm leaf fans in the collections and they are deemed so dull we rarely put them on display. So too are the advertising fans handed out by local merchant that are merely pieces of cardboard with a printed picture glued on a stick.

The truly beautiful fans in our collections are those in the Perry Dudley Collection donated between 2000 and 2003. Twenty-three elegant fans were entered into the archives with basic descriptions such as, “red fan with black supports.” Really, was any more information needed? Occasionally, the fans have been displayed at the public library or RiverWoods, but quite frankly, we knew very little about them. A few other fans in the collection, from the Tuck Family, rounded out our holdings, but of these we also had very little information.

Enter the heroes of our story: Exeter Historical Society members Viki and Katherine Lukas. Who, along with fellow members of the Fan Association of North America, visited on a chilly day this past March day to turn their expert attention to our collection. Most of our fans date between 1870 and 1900. They were produced in a multitude of countries - Japan, China, France, Italy and Germany -, reflecting the upper-class status of the family. Some were likely purchased as souvenirs while others were imported. In Exeter, fans were purchased at the jewelers shop. In 1877, William Currier, dealer in watches, clocks and jewelry on Water Street, advertised “the finest FANS made” for sale at his shop. Maybe Frances Perry Dudley purchased her white goose feather fan from him. Or perhaps she brought her white silk fan with bone sticks and guards back from a grand tour of Europe. Julia Tuck, the wife of banker Edward Tuck, purchased her exquisite mother-of-pearl and lace fan in Paris, where she lived most of her adult life.

The small group of fan experts became delighted each time another fan was carefully unwrapped. Among the most exciting finds was a late-1800s Mandarin style fan made for European export. The fan is decorated with five large style figures with ivory faces and applied fabric costumes. This type of fan is commonly known as a “hundred face” fan, as some of the more elaborate examples have dozens of characters on them. It’s a real treasure to have one within our walls.

The collection is currently on display in the museum room of the Exeter Historical Society, along with a few more contemporary fans. Mrs. C.A. White, when writing of fans in Godey’s Lady’s Book in 1854 mused that fans were terribly ordinary, but nonetheless worthy of note. “Trifles make up the pith and marrow of all that is useful and interesting in the world’s history,” she wrote. And that is something I’d like stitched into a needlepoint pillow.


Members of the Fan Association of North America, L-R: Vicki Lukas, Linda Rousseau, Katherine Lukas and Shelly Goncalves, explore the collections of the Exeter Historical Society.

Mandarin export fan, and example of a “hundred faces” fan. The figures are created with fabric costumes and painted ivory faces.

The Exeter Historical Society at 47 Front Street, Exeter, is open on Tues and Thurs from 2:00 – 4:30 and Saturday morning from 9:30 – Noon.

Friday, August 12, 2016

The Dashed Hopes of the 1916 Olympics

by Barbara Rimkunas

This "Historically Speaking" column was published by the Exeter News-Letter on August 12, 2016.

Quick, where were the 1916 Olympics held? Trick question – the 1916 Olympics were cancelled due to the outbreak of World War I.

The modern Olympic Games were still new, having only been revived in 1894 by Baron Pierre de Coubertin. Exeter’s residents had followed the 1912 games in Stockholm, Sweden, with interest. The Exeter News-Letter, which rarely followed international news, gave the games three large entries over the course of the games, although it should be noted that the Olympics shared the front page with articles like, “Traction Engines Used in Plowing” and “Farmers Day at Hampton Beach.” 1912 was the year of Jim Thorpe, who won both the pentathlon and decathlon events. “James Thorpe, of the Carlisle Indian School, proved himself easily the greatest all around athlete in the decathlon, which provided a variety of tests of speed, strength and quickness” the News-Letter crowed. Thorpe wasn’t the only Native American to represent the United States in 1912 – Andrew Sockalexis, of the Penobscott Nation in Maine, ran the marathon, coming in mere seconds behind the third place winner.

The US Team fared well in 1912 – winning more gold medals than any other country, although Sweden was able to nudge us out of first place for total medals. The strength of our team was noted by other countries. Germany, in particular, sent envoys to investigate the American training program, which turned out to be our college athletics programs. Considering this is still our training program for professional sports, the finding isn’t too surprising. Other nations fared better than the US in fields such as equestrian events, which drew participants from military training. The Tug of War competition, an event that was dropped after 1920 but should totally be revived, was comprised of teams from police departments. The Stockholm Police won the tug of war over the City of London Police after two members of the London team dropped from sheer exhaustion. I mean, I’d watch that.
With the Olympics being such a new event – this was only the fifth Olympiad – much of the pomp and ceremony we’re used to today hadn’t been established yet. There was no Olympic flag, no torch relay, no fast-food endorsements and little in the way of established ritual. The Swedes were left to create the award ceremony as they wished. “The presentation of the prizes Monday afternoon was a spectacle nearly as thrilling as the opening ceremony,” the News-Letter remarked, “All the winners of the first, second and third prizes marched into the arena and assembled in three groups before the stands.” Gold medals were presented by the king, Silver medals by the crown prince and lowly Bronze medals were granted by the king’s brother, Charles. Lest we believe that the Olympics today spend too much media time on fashion, the News-Letter was completely besotted with the athlete’s wardrobe. “The procession into the arena was a remarkable sight. Every sort of civil and military costume figured, from full-dress military with plumed and shining helmets and much gold lace to simple khaki, and from frock coat and silk hat to running tights. The women swimmers and tennis players wore pink and white dresses, while the women gymnasts made a very charming appearance in sailor frocks.”

Things were looking good for the 1916 Olympics – there was worldwide support, the events were set and the venue chosen: Berlin, Germany. No problem there, right? An extensive new stadium was completed three years before the games were set to begin; a standard later Olympic venues have never matched. War broke out in the summer of 1914 but the games weren’t cancelled on the assumption that the fighting would be over long before 1916. Even as late as 1915, Germany was convinced the games would go off. There was some talk of moving them to the United States, but the IOC refused to move the games without consent from the host country and Germany wouldn’t budge. And, of course, crossing the Atlantic Ocean had become quite perilous what with all the submarine warfare. In the end, the games of the Sixth Olympiad are still credited to Berlin – even though the games never took place. They’re the ghost games – picture a huge empty stadium silent except for the whistling wind and possibly the sound of distant cannon fire. It could have killed the entire Olympic movement.

The games returned in 1920, but coverage in the Exeter News-Letter did not. The Olympics were not mentioned at all except for a quick ‘history of the ancient Olympics’ fluff piece – and really, who reads that kind of stuff. Baseball had taken over the hearts and minds of Exeter’s citizens. It was also an election year, although in all fairness, Olympic years are always election years. But in 1920, the nation was voting to allow women’s suffrage. On August 18th, at the height of the Olympic Games in Antwerp, Belgium, the 19th Amendment was ratified and New Hampshire’s female voters were unleashed on the polls for the primary election a few weeks later. Apparently, no one in Exeter was interested in an international tug of war competition with that type of excitement going on.

Photo: Exeter citizens eagerly followed news of the 1912 Olympics, but after the cancellation of the 1916 Olympics interest flagged. Most residents were far more interested in local baseball teams, such as this Grand Templar team.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Swasey Pavilion at 100 Years

by Barbara Rimkunas

This "Historically Speaking" column was published by the Exeter News-Letter on July 29, 2016.

Maybe they talked about Abraham Lincoln. In the summer of 1915, three men – Ambrose Swasey, Daniel Chester French and Henry Bacon – made a visit to Exeter, New Hampshire. Swasey and French were both born in Exeter and may have known each other as boys. Both had made their fortunes elsewhere, Swasey as an engineer and French as a world renowned sculptor. They knew Exeter well and on this trip they seemed to be planning something – looking over locations and beauty spots – to the puzzlement of local people.

Henry Bacon, an architect, had no ties to the town but was a friend and collaborator of French. For the previous 17 years he’d been consumed with one project – the creation of a great Greek temple dedicated to the memory of Abraham Lincoln. His single-mindedness had broken up his partnership with James Bright. Bright had been the financial administrator of the firm and Bacon’s often unpaid time devoted to the project had caused the rift. By 1915, the Lincoln Memorial was finally under construction and Bacon was able to focus on other projects. Yet here he was, standing in the square in Exeter, New Hampshire, directly in front of the Exeter town hall where Lincoln had addressed the town in 1860.

French had been a boy of 10 and Swasey was 14 when Lincoln arrived. French may have missed the event, his family was preparing to move away from town, but Swasey and his brother Eben memorably set a bonfire alight at the family homestead on Newfields Road to mark the event. The fire department had to be called to save the farm.

Also at the Lincoln speech was the Exeter Brass Band, at that time called the Exeter Coronet Band. James Prescott would later recall, “The Exeter Band was trying to ‘blow’ out in front of the Town Hall. Robert Atkins and I got up on the steps and listened. Pretty soon the band went around the building and in the back door, and blew some more inside.” The band had been organized in 1847, and was frequently called upon to play at town events and particularly political rallies.

The three men – the engineer, the sculptor and the architect – were planning something for Exeter. Swasey, who still spent summers in town, wanted to give his hometown a gift. Something monumental, but practical. He’d already donated money to his church and would later pay for the beautiful Swasey Parkway that is beloved by Exeter residents to this day. In 1915, he decided the town needed a bandstand.

There had, of course, been a bandstand in the center of town. In the 1890s, a wooden bandstand was erected to hold summer concerts. By 1902, however, the Exeter News-Letter reported that it was in poor repair and was slated to be removed. “In the square the stand constantly threatened accident, but was too long tolerated for the pleasure derived from midsummer concerts.” The bandstand was moved to the commons on Park Street, where it suffered from vandalism and neglect. It was later sold and moved again, leaving the band with no fixed place to perform. Swasey’s permanent bandstand, announced in early 1916, would be an ornament in the town.

The town accepted Ambrose Swasey’s generous offer. Henry Bacon set about designing an architectural gem worthy of a town that had hosted his idol, Abraham Lincoln. Whether French contributed any flourishes is unknown. He and Bacon were toiling away on the Lincoln Memorial project – French having been awarded the commission to sculpt the mammoth seated Lincoln. One thing is certain, the bandstand, officially known as the Swasey Pavilion, was far more ornate and elegant than any Exeter resident had expected.

The bandstand was built in the summer of 1916 at lightning speed. Ground was broken in May and it was ready for dedication in mid-August. The Norcross Brothers Company of Worcester served as the contractors, building the bandstand with modern construction – steel trusses and concrete form the base – and old-world style design. Pink granite with marble flooring creates the base of the bandstand, which is roofed with copper. Looking at it from the outside it is beautiful, but to really appreciate the design one has to step inside. From there the mosaic ceiling and floor can be viewed closely. The ornamental electric light chandelier has to be seen to be fully appreciated. In the center of the floor is a bronze plate with compass bearings and the zodiac – homage to Ambrose Swasey’s work with telescopes. A pine cone finial stands at attention on the peak of the roof, which has 16 lion’s head gargoyles to discharge rain water. Other towns may have bandstands, but Exeter has a temple.

The dedication was held on August 10th, 1916 – a day later than planned due to rain. Ambrose Swasey was there to hand over the symbolic keys to the Town of Exeter (no key is needed to visit the bandstand – it is accessible to the public at all times). A few speeches were made; there was polite applause and a bit of jovial horseplay. Finally the Exeter Brass Band took the stand for the first summer concert of 1916. As war was overtaking Europe, the first piece of music played on the Swasey Pavilion was a march called “International Peace.” From her home on Pine Street half a mile away, Helen Tufts wrote in her diary, “dedication of Pavilion going on. I can hear band.” Somewhere Abraham Lincoln was smiling.

Swasey Pavilion under construction during the summer of 1916. From a snapshot taken by an employee of Exeter Hampton Electric.
Swasey Pavilion shortly after its dedication on August 10, 1916.