Wednesday, August 25, 2010

George Lewis Stokell – Exeter Postmaster

Barbara's latest "Historically Speaking" article appeared in the Exeter News-Letter on August 20, 2010.

When Ruth Stokell Challis wrote her essay, “I Grew Up in New Hampshire,” in 1944, she mentioned her father as a kind man who gave her a set of encyclopedias for her birthday. The large ever- expanding family lived on the outskirts of town on Epping Road near Old Town Farm Road. She recalled that “One of the earliest things I remember is the birth of one of my sisters.” It was the kind of memory that would be repeated often as her mother produced 11 children, eight of whom survived to adulthood.

Ruth’s memories about growing up in Exeter in the late 1800s included stories of school and play and losing (and later finding) a little sister. She mentions her parents as a child might, with little specific detail. She left out the most obvious feature of her father – he had only one arm. One might think that a one-armed father would be an interesting part of one’s childhood, but to Ruth he was simply “Father” and the arm, or lack thereof, didn’t seem to matter much.

George Lewis Stokell was born in Lowell, Massachusetts on April 1, 1846. His father, also named George Stokell, headed for California in search of gold in 1849 and told tales of the gold fields for the rest of his life. He didn’t strike it rich, however, and returned home to his family, moving them to Portsmouth, New Hampshire where he worked in the building and construction industry. Young George was quick to sign up when the Civil War broke out. He enlisted in 1861, at age 17, in his birth state of Massachusetts with the 18th Massachusetts Regiment and re-enlisted three years later.

The War took him to most of the engagements of the Army of the Potomac, including the Second Battle of Bull Run, Chancellorsville and Gettysburg. While fighting in the Battle of the Wilderness in Spotsylvania, Virginia in May of 1864, his regiment lost track of him. He was listed as “missing in action” and was presumed dead. The Wilderness was the first battle that pitted General Ulysses S. Grant against General Robert E. Lee. Both sides saw heavy casualties.

After the battle, the Confederate Army found Stokell still alive on the field. His right arm had been shot. Ruth would later write, not in her memoir but in a letter to her daughter, “the old soldiers did not like to talk about those things, and he had a hell of a time. He had a gold ring like an old wide gold band his mother had given him. The Doctor took it off his right hand and put it on his left finger,” shortly before his right arm was amputated. He told his daughter, “If it hadn’t been for the Southern Women, coming nights to give him hot soup, and food, dressings and such he would have died.”

After his recovery, Stokell became a prisoner of war for nine long months. Imprisoned at various camps, including Andersonville, Lynchburg, Danville, Florence and Charleston, Stokell survived and was repatriated during a prisoner exchange. Conditions in the camps were so harrowing, so appalling, that Stokell couldn’t bring himself to talk about it in his later years. All he told his children, according to Ruth, was that, “they were starving, Southerners and prisoners.”

He was discharged in March of 1865 – just a month before the war ended. He returned to Boston to take up business, but later returned to New Hampshire where his parents were living. In 1882, already a widower with a young son, he bought a farm on Epping Road in Exeter and married Alberta Carroll – the twenty year- old daughter of Exeter’s Dr. Albert Carroll. Alberta was a graduate of the Robinson Female Seminary. The farm was able to support the growing family for many years. When the town of Exeter decided to close down the District Three School on Epping Road because of low attendance, Alberta simply set up her own school room and taught the children at home.

It was common, for decades after the War, to appoint veterans to public office. In 1904, according to historian Nancy Merrill, “the office of postmaster became a matter of rivalry between the current postmaster, George N. Julian, and Judge Thomas Leavitt. About forty influential citizens sent a petition to President Theodore Roosevelt favoring a third candidate, George L. Stokell, Jr. Stokell’s nomination appealed to the president and was accepted by the Senate. Mr. Stokell began his new duties on April 1, 1904.”

The family moved to Gill Street to be closer to the public schools and the post office. Stokell served the town as postmaster for eight years, a well-deserved reward for his army service. When his final term was up, he moved to Medford, Massachusetts where he became commander of the Grand Army of the Republic post. In 1931, at the age of 87, the old soldier died. He’d been looking forward to marching in one last Memorial Day parade, but missed it by two weeks. The flags in Medford were put at half-staff in his honor.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

The Exeter Water Works

"Historically Speaking" by Barbara Rimkunas, Exeter News-Letter, August 6, 2010.

Exeter’s location on the falls between the Exeter and Squamscott Rivers, gives it an aura of water abundance, but the earliest residents of Exeter were faced with the problem of procuring clean drinking water. The Squamscott River, which looks appealing, is salty, thanks to its tidal nature coming in from Great Bay. The freshwater of the Exeter River was only available to those living close by and it became fouled when lumber mills began dumping copious amounts of sawdust into the water in the mid-1600s.

Most people would sink a well on their property if they wanted fresh water. It was an easy low-tech way to get water for your own family and animals. But by the late 1800s, it was becoming increasingly evident that small family wells were not the best solution for the town’s water problems. They dried up easily in summer and harbored a load of unsavory bacteria and natural contaminants, like arsenic.

As an added problem, the lack of water made firefighting difficult in certain parts of town. Townspeople looked enviously at places like New York City, which had created a reservoir and set up a gravity fed system to supply the entire city in 1842. By 1880, Exeter was still supplied by a haphazard system of wells, springs and private cisterns.

In spite of the obvious need, the citizens of Exeter refused to build a water works. It was too expensive. Seeing an opportunity for profit, a group of local businessmen banded together and in 1885 created the Exeter Water Works Company.

A small stream off Portsmouth Avenue, called Wheelwright’s Creek, provided the water. To create a reservoir, Nancy Merrill wrote, in her History of Exeter, NH: 1888 – 1988, “this venture involved a tremendous amount of hand-digging and horse-hauling. It was reckoned that when the area was flooded, it encompassed almost twenty-three acres, with a depth ranging from nine to twenty feet, and held twenty to thirty million gallons of water.” The town of Exeter made a deal with the Water Works to supply the town with water for firefighting and municipal purposes for $2000.00 annually. It also gave the town the right to eventually buy the water works.

Although the water works itself was privately owned, the town paid for a sewerage system and required most homeowners to hook into it. At the same time, inspectors condemned many of the private wells and residents had no other option than to tie into the new water mains. None of this happened without the typical grumbling. One annoyed taxpayer wrote to the Exeter News-Letter, “Will you please inform me through the News-Letter where the statue can be found which makes it legal for the selectmen of the town to lay a sewer and raise the rate of taxation on property to pay for it – then compel owners of real estate to enter their drains into it at their own expense – and then assess them a large percent to pay for the privilege of entering the sewer? Can this be right?” The editor grimly replied that the town health officer could indeed compel abutters to link into the sewer lines when it was for the public good.

The new system may have been for the public good, but the water wasn’t good for at least the first two years. Residents accustomed to cold crisp, if unsafe, well water were taken aback with tepid sometimes foul smelling public water. One letter to the editor said, “When first drawn from the pipes the water is hardly suitable for domestic purposes, cooking especially, and, if allowed to stand any length of time, its unfitness is still more apparent. There is danger that a cold bath, even, may become a penance instead of a pleasure. The water, after being heated, takes on a strange color and quality, clothing washed in it looks dubious, and dish-washing ceases to be an unalloyed delight.”

The water was tested every six months and judged safe. The strange taste and color were caused by vegetative matter in the holding pond. This was eventually alleviated through the installation of filtration systems.

The Exeter Water Works Company served as a local monopoly for decades, but not necessarily because it wanted to. The town repeatedly discussed buying the water works so they could control the quality and pricing of water. Each time, from 1893 until 1950, the voters refused to pay for the system – even when it was determined that the Exeter Water Works pricing, based on the number of spigots, animals and cars one had, would be reduced if home meters were installed. When, after much discussion and debate, the water works was finally sold to the town, the meters went in a mere month after the purchase was made. Water quality quickly improved when new deeper wells were dug and the stagnant Water Works Pond was no longer used as the primary source for the town’s water.