Thursday, December 15, 2011

How String Bridge Got Its Name

by Barbara Rimkunas
This "Historically Speaking" column appeared in the Exeter News-Letter on Friday, January 13, 2006.


There are two ways to get across the river in downtown Exeter. The Great Bridge crosses the river at the upper falls and the String Bridge crosses at the lower. Sometimes when people cross the Great Bridge they don’t even realize they’ve crossed a bridge at all, and certainly don’t notice the falls. Great Bridge is our primary bridge in Exeter; perhaps this is why it has such an impressive name. Our waterfalls may not be as spectacular as Niagara Falls, but they’re important to us and are the reason the town exists at all. We have every right to call our bridge “Great”.

The String Bridge sits over the lower falls at the point where the Exeter River meets the Squamscott River. The first mill ever built in Exeter was built on the little island that makes up the center of the bridge. You see, String Bridge is actually two bridges and an island. When Thomas Wilson first set up his gristmill in the 1640’s on the eastern side of the island, he most likely threw together a bridge so his patrons could carry sacks of grain across without needing a boat. This early bridge, although not specifically described in any of the early records, was most likely a narrow pedestrian arrangement made up of a single “stringer” log. So, no, we never had a rope bridge crossing the river in Exeter, however romantic that idea may be.

When Captain John Gilman built his gristmill on the western side of the island, he was given the right by the town to build a more substantial bridge. His bridge system was described by Charles Bell as “nothing more than one or two timbers laid across each of the channels of the river, with hand rails at the side”. It remained a pedestrian bridge for over one hundred years. This is the bridge that appears on our earliest map of Exeter in 1802.

Around 1817, it was decided to make the String Bridge, as it was now called due to its early construction, a carriage bridge. New stringers were installed with planking laid across wide enough to allow a single horse and carriage to pass. The construction was paid for by the townspeople of Exeter who made pledges for the cost. This incarnation of the bridge served the town well, even if it did still cause a bit of traffic disruption when two carriages wanted to pass at the same time. By 1888, however, the bridge was showing its age. The Exeter News-Letter reported, “On Thursday afternoon of last week Brown & Warren made an examination of the southern portion of String Bridge, finding the planking and cross timbers so unsound as to make the bridge really unsafe.” Repairs were ordered immediately. Within a short time it was determined that simple repairs were not enough and the bridge system was almost entirely rebuilt.

The bridges were enlarged in 1910 to accommodate two carriages to pass, but the structure we know today was eventually built in 1935. If you walk across the bridge today you can still see this date carved into the railing. The Exeter News-Letter boasted at the time “all materials, where possible, are to be purchased from Exeter merchants.”

The island has had many names over the years, usually based on the names of businesses that were located on it. The current agreed-upon designation is “Kimball’s Island” named for Kimball’s Hardware. Over the years the island was used for mills, warehouses and even a blacksmith shop owned by Swedish immigrant, Olaf Hanson. For a while, the address for this business was “Chestnut Hill Avenue”, but today the simpler “String Bridge” is used.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Searching for Home in the Land of Oz

by Barbara Rimkunas
This "Historically Speaking" column appeared in the Exeter News-Letter on Friday, November 4, 2005.

Polish American Club, c. 1930s
New England rarely looks like a promised land. With our harsh climate, rocky soil and stoic citizenry, we’re hardly somewhere over the rainbow, but for many groups of people in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, New England had a great deal to offer – even if it didn’t quite turn out to be the magical Land of Oz.

Dorothy’s homeland of Kansas was dismal. L. Frank Baum was very clear about that: “When Dorothy stood in the doorway and looked around, she could see nothing but the great gray prairie on every side. Even the grass was not green, for the sun had burned the tops of the long blades until they were the same color to be seen everywhere.” It was a life without color or hope. There was no chance to pursue one’s dreams in this gray world.

Neither was there much hope for many of the people trapped in an endless cycle of economic bondage in parts of Europe. Even Exeter had fallen into a listlessness of declining population and abandoned farms as the Yankees moved west. As the nineteenth century progressed, industrialism crept into the area and the need for labor increased. Exeter attracted some close neighbors before it began casting about. French Canadians began drifting into the region as early as the 1840s. They brought with them no illusions about the landscape – Canada’s climate being quite similar to ours. When they arrived in Exeter they discovered another group filtering in from the wasted potato fields of Ireland. Together, these two groups worked the early mills of Exeter and brought their common Roman Catholic faith to the universally Protestant town. Agricultural failure had prompted both groups to leave their homelands and they mingled together, frequently intermarrying, as they integrated into the town.

Far, far away, behind the moon, beyond the stars, more people were aching to find a place where dreams really do come true. In eastern portions of Europe people in the late nineteenth century lived on the edge of poverty like Dorothy’s Uncle Henry who “never laughed. He worked hard from morning till night and did not know what joy was.” To countless peasants in Poland and Lithuania, a dream began to grow. Somewhere over the rainbow, or at least over the Atlantic Ocean, was a place where dreams really do come true. Coming, as they did, from miserable tenant farming, extreme poverty cycles, brutal military conscription and few educational opportunities, America with its streets paved in gold must have appeared to be the most glorious place on the face of the earth or the sky. This purely imaginary world had to be better than the one they were in. The dream told them: “hold onto your breath, hold onto your hearts, hold onto your hope,” and it carried them away to the golden land of America.

The first Polish and Lithuanian immigrants arrived in Exeter in the 1870s. Unlike the Irish and Canadian immigrants who’d come thirty years earlier, the newcomers must have been startled to discover that this new country wasn’t quite the pot of gold they’d expected. The factory work they’d longed for turned out to be just as punishing as the fieldwork they’d left behind. They soon noticed that everyone in the factories had a ghostly pallor and factory owners cared little about working conditions. Child labor was common in Exeter even into the 1920s. Racism provided Europeans with an uncomfortable edge in the marketplace. Many immigrants decided early that they would return home as soon as they were able.

Just as Dorothy discovered that her imaginary world wasn’t as welcoming as she expected, our newest neighbors also came face to face with some harsh realities. We never really know what happens to Dorothy after she returns to Kansas (in the film and stage versions of the story, that is). Most likely she still had to contend with an angry Almira Gultch who was still after poor little Toto, but I like to think she brought a little bit of Oz back to Kansas. Home is, after all, where your feet are and the recent arrivals in Exeter soon discovered that the yellow brick road was leading their children to a much better life. They stayed. They went to school. They became citizens. “They” became “Us” and together we are a town.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Sarah Orne Jewett

by Barbara Rimkunas
This "Historically Speaking" column appeared in the Exeter News-Letter on Friday, October 27, 2011.

“On the brink of the hill stood a little white schoolhouse, much wind-blown and weather-beaten…” wrote Sarah Orne Jewett. During the early part of the twentieth century, Jewett was an accomplished author – writing primarily about nature and life in small town New England. Although she wasn’t born in Exeter and never lived here, she had strong ties to the town through her ancestry and often visited for long periods.

Born in South Berwick, Maine, in 1849, Jewett was a doctor’s daughter. Her father, Theodore Jewett, had studied medicine at Harvard and completed his practical studies in Exeter under the capable guidance of Dr. William Perry. While in Exeter, Jewett had met and married Perry’s daughter, Caroline Gilman Perry. Once his studies were complete, Dr. Jewett returned to his family’s hometown of South Berwick.

Sarah was a sickly child, suffering from rheumatoid arthritis, and was often absent from school. The nature of the disease caused acute flare-ups that would primarily affect her knees and shoulders. Once the swelling went down – and she sometimes reported that her knees would swell so badly that she couldn’t see her feet – the pain would linger for days or weeks. It might seem that this would lead her to be a bookish girl with endless hours spent on a couch reading, but for Sarah it was just the opposite. Classrooms were like prisons for her and only increased her discomfort. She preferred wandering the woods and fields of her village to sitting still at a desk. Arthritis is sneaky that way – it can make one immobile for stretches of time, yet it is best treated with movement. Children today, even with much better treatment, concur that sitting in school all day only makes things worse.

Luckily for Sarah, her father indulged her self-treatment and allowed her to skip school. He took her on his calls around town and she got to know village life in depth. She also visited her grandparents and cousins in Exeter very frequently. During the summer of 1857, she stayed in Exeter at her grandparents’ house on the town square to attend the summer term of school. Old Doctor Perry proved to be just as adept as his son-in-law at treating the girl with care. She was probably lucky that both her father and grandfather ignored the common treatments of the day and felt that fresh air and sunshine were the best treatments for her aching body. Dr. Perry’s medical text (currently in the collections of the Exeter Historical Society) - “First Lines of the Practice of Physic” by Dr. William Cullen, published in 1807- advocated topical bleeding, purging and a bland vegetarian diet for the treatment of chronic rheumatism.

Her father undertook to educate his daughter primarily at home after her reluctance to attend school was identified. She wrote later, “in these days I was given to long, childish illnesses, and it must be honestly confessed, to instant drooping if ever I were shut up in school. I had apparently not the slightest desire for learning, but my father was always ready to let me be his companion in long drives about the country.” She may not have liked to read or study, but she did adore taking in the sights and the characters they encountered on their travels.

“I used to linger about the busy country stores, and listen to the graphic country talk. I heard the greetings of old friends, and their minute details of neighborhood affairs,” she wrote. Her life was filled with the people of New England and her later writings would include dialogue that would read just as it sounded to her young ears.

At the age of 19 she began sending stories to magazines such as Atlantic Monthly and quickly made a name for herself. Although she suffered from arthritis flare-ups for the remainder of her life, she never allowed it to control her ambitions. She traveled the world, but always returned to South Berwick. Her serialized stories were published in book format, the most well-known include A Country Doctor, published in 1884, and The Country of the Pointed Firs, published in 1896.

In an undated letter, she wrote to the librarian of the Exeter Public Library, “I do not forget that I am a grandchild of the old town and of the Gilmans who always have had its well being so close to their hearts. Believe me.” She may be associated with South Berwick, but Exeter was dear to her.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

When Trick or Treating Came to Town

by Barbara Rimkunas
This "Historically Speaking" column originally appeared in the Exeter News-Letter on Friday, October 30, 2009.

Halloween is that weirdest of holidays – a children’s event that adults also celebrate – not quite official, you don’t get the day off school, but only the most sadistic of teachers would assign homework on trick or treat night. It was, in Europe, a religious festival with deep roots. In the United States, it emerged at the end of the nineteenth century as a light-hearted affair.

To track down when Halloween became a holiday locally, we turn to the local newspapers. As early as 1891, there are notices of parties at private homes: “Halloween parties were given Saturday night by Mrs. Dr. J.E.S. Pray and by Miss Lillie Colton”. Costumed dances were hugely popular in Exeter in the first two decades of the twentieth century. Trick or treating, however, was a much later development.

Official events are easy to spot. But the unofficial Halloween is a bit more slippery. Like the Fourth of July, which was often a loud and unruly nighttime event, Halloween provided a time when local kids let loose with mild vandalism that generally went unpunished. Clothes lines were cut down, fence gates and wagon wheels were often removed and even the family outhouse might be found in a different location when morning arrived. “Two students charged with extinguishing street lights are to have a hearing before Judge Shute next Saturday,” noted the News-Letter in early November of 1891.

Most of the activity was more nuisance than harmful, but it created an atmosphere of hooliganism that wasn’t tolerated the rest of the year. In 1943 – the year before trick or treating began – the Exeter News-Letter noted, “considerable damage was done Sunday night by hoodlums. Three of the cement benches on the Parkway were rolled into the river, an express truck from the railroad station was hauled on top of the steps at the Front Street entrance of the Seminary, a mail receptacle box from Elliot and Front Streets was moved into Phillips Hall and several sections of fences on Pine and Front Streets were ripped down.”

The first documentation of trick or treating in the archives of the Exeter Historical Society is a diary entry of Helen Tufts who, on October 30th, 1944, noted the date as, “Beggar’s Night: ‘Beggars’ came – 3 lots!”. This was the first time she mentions this kind of activity. The Exeter New-Letter never mentions children going door to door before this date. It’s odd that trick or treating began during the sugar rationing days of World War II, but this was when it was first reported in other parts of the country as well. Perhaps most of the treats were apples, nuts and popcorn. It’s also to be noted that the kids were out on October 30th – the traditional “mischief night” - rather than Halloween proper on October 31st. This is still done in much of the state of New Hampshire, and sets us apart from the rest of the country.

In 1948, in an effort to curb some of the unruliness, Ben Swiezynski, Jr., a local photographer, began the tradition of showing free movies on Halloween night at the Town Hall. “Two and one-half hours of entertainment is scheduled for the youngsters who are urged to come early to get good seats.”

By 1950, trick or treating was in full force. In 1957 it was reported that, “no incidents of mischief requiring the attention of police were reported last night. Residents, however, report a heavy run on ‘treats’ made available for the masked ‘goblins.’” Helen Tufts also noted the heavy turnout, “Around 50 Trick or Treaters – my supplies gave out at 7:30 so I wrote a letter to Barbara in the bathroom so no light would show.”

Trick or Treating still requires the participation of both the children and the residents. Although some adults consider it a type of extortion - and we have had a few notorious incidents, like when our local white supremacist, Tom Herman, in 1990 handed out candy on Salem Street in full Ku Klux Klan regalia, a teachable moment if ever there was one - on the whole it’s a fun time for everyone. Sometimes the only way we get to meet our neighbors is when we dress up the little urchins and go door to door. For their part, kids define the word “neighborhood” as the area one can reasonably trick or treat in two hours, and neighbors are sometimes remembered as “the guy in the goofy pumpkin sweatshirt who gave out orange taffy” instead of “Mr. Nickerson.” But really, what’s wrong with a little toilet paper decorating the maple tree? It’s only once a year, after all.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Connections to Slavery: Exeter

by Barbara Rimkunas
This "Historically Speaking" column appeared in the Exeter News-Letter on Friday, October 14, 2011. 

In 1938, the town of Exeter celebrated its 300th birthday. A grand parade was held on July 4th and was, according to the Exeter News-Letter, “easily the best ever witnessed in Exeter.” One of the town’s premier employers, the Exeter Manufacturing Company, chose the plantation South as its float’s theme. Described by the News-Letter as “Cotton and Colored Folk”, the float bore the title: “Exeter Manufacturing Company: 1827-1938 Over a Century of Progress.” It was a curious choice, but an apt depiction of the conflicted historical perspective most northern towns have with their relationship to slavery.

To provide some social framework, it’s important to note that Margaret Mitchell’s nostalgic, if historically dubious, Gone With the Wind, had been published the year before Exeter’s tercentenary parade. The old South was hot, in much the same way pirates and vampires are hot today. If we are very generous, we can view the parade float as a reflection of the fad of the time, when it was not unusual to see caricatures of African-Americans lurking in our culture. Minstrel shows were still wildly popular in town and would remain so through the 1950s.

But deeper than just a cultural fad, the float holds a great deal more accuracy than one might imagine. There were no cotton plantations in New Hampshire. Cotton requires a hot climate and better soil than we have in New England. Slavery was legal in New Hampshire until 1857, when the legislature finally decided to abolish a practice that had already died out of its own accord. Portsmouth historian, Valerie Cunningham, remarked in her book, Black Portsmouth, “Individual emancipation and gradual abolition notwithstanding, white Yankees promoted slavery by indifference to its persistence and its expansion elsewhere, and by consuming slave-produced products.” Every bale of cotton spun into thread and woven into fabric at the Exeter Manufacturing Company from its beginnings until 1861 was grown, tended and harvested by enslaved hands. The 1938 parade float was a celebration of that system.

Exeter Manufacturing Company was well aware of its past. The factory had struggled during the Civil War when its supply of cotton had been cut off. In August of 1861, shortly after the war had begun, the board of directors announced that the factory would close down for a while, leaving the mostly immigrant employees out of work. The American Ballot, an Exeter newspaper of the time, announced the news with the snarky comment, “operations have been suspended in the mill, and the operatives are to have a vacation of two months, which assurance gives no pleasure to many of them, much as they need rest and relaxation.” It didn’t occur to anyone to consider the lives of the field hands that had picked that cotton, instead the focus was placed on local workers. Hannah Brown, a seamstress in Exeter, noted in her diary early in the war, “Business is dull as ever, very little work to be done, the war puts a stagnation on everything. If the war continues until winter it will be so hard for poor folks. I don’t know what will become of them.”

The two month furlough turned into an entire year. The mill sat idle, yet the stockholders at the 1862 meeting were rewarded with a dividend of $25.00 per share. The trustees of the mill had cleverly determined that the real profit would be had from raw cotton. When the mill shut down in August of 1861, the cotton in the warehouse was carefully saved until the price soared the following year. Other textile mills were happy to buy it. This tactic only worked for that first year, however, and once the cotton was sold the company needed to find a new source of income. No one had thought the war would last as long as it did. The Exeter News-Letter is silent for the remainder of the war on how the cotton mill continued, but a local minister, Elias Nason, mentioned in his published account of the war that, “about one-third of the Exeter Cotton mill is in operation” in January of 1863. It was likely that the mill obtained cotton from any source it could find – including occasionally buying mattress filling from local residents, which was noted in the Lowell newspapers later that same year. The records of the stockholders meetings make no mention of where the cotton came from during the latter part of the war; they are filled, instead, with the time and place of meetings and the unanimous re-elections of the board members.

There was talk of turning to Central America for cotton where, “both native labor and free negro immigrant labor can, it is said, be obtained and the quality of the cotton there raised is known to be excellent,” the News-Letter reported. The comment reflects the desire of northerners, at least by the end of the Civil War, to obtain cotton farmed by free hands. The end of the war brought about great expansion in the output of the mill, and this is the usual record we find when reading the mill’s history. Steam engines installed in the 1870s, but never any mention of its participation in America’s “peculiar institution” of just a decade before.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Exeter and the Chinese Educational Mission

by Barbara Rimkunas
This "Historically Speaking" column appeared in the Exeter News-Letter on Friday, September 16, 2011.

See caption below. Photo courtesy of Phillips Exeter Academy.
The rolls of Phillips Exeter Academy students for the 1880s include the names of seven students from China. Their presence here was a unique experiment of the Qing government called the Chinese Educational Mission, which turned out to be both a great success and a great failure.

The original idea behind the mission was to send Chinese students to educational institutions in the United States to learn about Western technology and military arts. It was hoped that the boys would eventually attend such venerated military institutions as West Point and the Naval Academy, but before they would be eligible for college-level study, the boys had to attend prep schools.

Led by Yung Wing, who had himself studied in the United States, the program was headquartered in Connecticut. The boys were the brightest students in China. Schooled for a time in Shanghai to acquire enough skills in English, the first group of 30 boys set sail for the United States in late 1872. They attended many of New England’s finest prep schools and, in 1879, five boys arrived in Exeter. Two more would come the next year.

The boys boarded in local homes, the largest number staying with retired minister, Jacob Chapman at his house on Middle Street. They were required to return to Connecticut several times each year to continue their Chinese studies, but the remainder of their time was spent in Exeter. Even with the preparation they had received in Shanghai, the boys found life in New England to be very different from that of China, an empire traditionally suspicious of all things foreign. They had been instructed to maintain their Chinese identity and habits. Commissioner Woo Tsze Tun, in a letter to the boys in 1880, reminded them, “since your stay here is brief, as compared with the time you have to spend in China, foreign habits should not become so rooted as that you cannot change them.” They were not to violate Chinese tradition by cutting off their long braided queue. They were not to become U.S. Citizens. They were not to take an American bride. They were not to become Christian. And they were not to succumb to “western” frivolities – especially the playing of sports.

But not all of their time was taken up in study. It was true that they attended to their schoolwork – these were scholarly boys by their very nature – but they also went to baseball games, attended dances and went to church with their host families. Living with a retired minister and attending a school that began each day with prayer, it would have been impossible for them to ignore the importance of the central messages of nineteenth century Protestant theology; that of redemption, personal responsibility and individual saving grace.

Iris Chang, in her book The Chinese in America, noted, “what the Qing government did not recognize until much later was that these American-educated students would be internally transformed.” By 1881, it had become apparent that the boys, although doing well academically, were picking up American customs and habits. It was also becoming obvious that the United States government, far from extending goodwill to China by allowing students to attend public schools, was not going to allow any of them to study at West Point. The United States was on the brink of passing the Chinese Exclusion Act, which forbade Chinese immigration into the country. Bad feelings on both sides led to the end of the program. All the boys, regardless of how far they had come in their studies, were recalled to China in 1881.

The Exeter News-Letter sadly announced in early August, “It seems that the cause of the action was report by a dignitary sent to inspect the schools, which stated that the boys were forgetting the customs of their country and becoming rapidly Americanized. No amount of subsequent explanation was able to correct the erroneous impression thus conveyed, and the order to return is preemptory.”

The return to China was difficult for most of the boys. They had been promised a full education and had been looking forward to returning to their country as respectable men. Instead, they were treated as failures – boys who had forsaken their great nation. Kin Ta Ting, who attended Phillips Exeter Academy from 1879 to 1881, wrote to Reverend Chapman, “The Chinese consider denationalization a great crime. This is the chief reason for our recall.” He was bitter and it shows in his early letters.

Most of the Chinese Educational Missionary students went on to do well for themselves in China. A few managed to make it back to the United States, but most did not. Those who remained in China were assigned to military positions or further education. Kin Ta Ting was assigned to the Beiyang Medical School and became a medical officer in the Imperial Army. He was killed in action during the 1900 Boxer Rebellion. Of his time in Exeter, he fondly recalled:

“I think the P.E.A. Professors ought to be proud of their pupils in China when they hear of their good standing in various schools. That shows the good instructions have been given by them. Their names will never be forgotten by us so long as we live. We often talk of them. How we would like to see their faces again in classrooms! We all want very much to be present at the hundredth anniversary of the Academy. It make us homesick to think of it.”

Photo: One of the boys from the Chinese Educational Mission joined the Phillips Exeter Academy baseball team and posed for this 1881 photo. Baseball was seen by the Chinese government as a particularly insidious expression of "westernization". The team had a particularly bad year in 1881 - losing to Andover 5 - 13. Courtesy of Phillips Exeter Academy.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

A Labor Story

by Barbara Rimkunas
This "Historically Speaking" column appeared in the Exeter News-Letter on Friday, September 2, 2011.

In 1899, a shoe worker at the Exeter Boot and Shoe Company earned, at the top pay-scale, two dollars and forty-three cents per day if he could stitch 90 dozen pairs of men’s shoes in one day. Women and children at the factory earned far less.

During the waning years of the 19th century, prices for most manufactured goods dropped. Factory owners responded by cutting costs in the easiest way they could – reducing workers’ pay. In 1898, most New England manufacturers, primarily in the textile and shoe industries, instituted a “cut down” of 10% for the majority of workers.

At the Exeter Boot and Shoe Company, General Stephen Gale notified all the workers in October that the cut down was the only way to keep the factory going. He assured them that it would last no longer than six months. The cut down began in December and the shoe workers tightened their belts, grateful to still have a job.

But by the following summer, it became apparent that there was more to Gale’s strategy than nobly saving their livelihoods. He opened another shoe shop in Hampton and hired workers there, but didn’t restore the cut down rates, as other New England mill owners had. The Exeter Gazette reported in April that, “the restoration in the wages of the employees of many of the mills of New England to practically the same basis as that in existence before the general cut down of a year ago went into effect yesterday, and the result is generally a satisfactory one to all concerned.”

Mills at Lowell, Massachusetts, and the mighty Amoskeag mills of Manchester reinstated pay rates for their workers, but Gale held back. Instead of paying his employees their original wage-rate, he began to play games with the economics of his factories.

The workers at Exeter produced three types of shoes: men’s, boys’ and youths’. According to the workers, in a statement published in both the Gazette and the Exeter News-Letter, “previous to the winter of 1898, the employees were paid the same price for men’s and boys’, while they did 72 pairs of youths’ for the price paid for 60 pairs of men’s or boys’.” But after the cut down, Gale began to pay for the boys’ shoes at the same rate as the youths’. Then he moved the more lucrative men’s shoe division to his new Hampton shop where he paid the workers less than his more experienced Exeter workers. Regardless of the fact that boys’ and youths’ shoes were smaller, they took the same amount of time to produce as the men’s because the tight turns required more accuracy and skill.

In August, the workers had had enough. On August 4th, 300 workers at the factory walked off the job.

Gale was incensed – particularly when it was noted in the Gazette that, “General Gale has a finely trained and well organized body of workers with a reputation outside of Exeter. A representative of a Boston shoe firm was in town yesterday looking after employees and another Boston firm offers positions to 15 stitchers.” Did this prompt him to offer the workers what they demanded: a restoration of pre-cut down wages? Of course not. Instead, he blamed the workers for their own predicament. In a letter sent to the newspapers, he whined that the workers should have put the six month deadline in writing when it was negotiated the previous year, “It would have been better for them to have given notice that it was their intention to ask for an advance to go into effect at some definite time, thereby giving both parties an equal opportunity to adjust themselves to the situation. The reduction of 10 per cent in the Exeter Boot and Shoe Co. was by mutual concession, and before it went into effect ample opportunity was offered the employees to look around and seek other situations where conditions might offer as good or better wages.”

At a mass meeting held at Foresters Hall, the workers issued a response to Gale, “This is unfair to the employees. They are not attorneys to be exact as to forms. They consider that there should be general good faith from employer to employed. If Gen. Gale wishes to remind us that we have been unbusinesslike in not having a written agreement, we shall gladly remedy that mistake in the future.”

Gale stood his ground and, as was usually the case in early labor relations, the workers suffered the most. Facing long-term unemployment, they had to decide whether to fight on for better wages or take whatever they could.

By December, the strike had dissolved. Gale never increased wages and would, in later years, put down any attempts his workers made to unionize. John Donovan, the leader of the strikers, found work in an iron foundry. The Gazette reported in January of the following year that “a party of button hole operatives leave here today for Norway, Maine, where they have secured employment with Spinney Brothers.”

Exeter never became a union town in any of her industries. Stephen Gale went on to serve several terms in Congress – happily elected by the other leaders of industry.

Photo caption: The Exeter Boot and Shoe Company (later Gale Brothers). The business began operations in 1885 and quickly became the town’s largest employer. In 1899, 300 of the 700 employees went on strike due to a reduction in pay.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Bowling in Exeter

by Barbara Rimkunas

In celebration of the 20th anniversary of Shooter's Pub, we are posting this "Historically Speaking" column which appeared in the Exeter News-Letter on September 1, 2006.

When Robert Lincoln was told his father had been nominated as a candidate for President in 1860, he was standing in a bowling alley in Exeter. “Good!” he is said to have replied, “I will write home for a check before he spends all of his money in the campaign.” He was probably hanging out in the bowling alley because Phillips Exeter Academy had forbidden the students from the town’s billiard parlors. Gambling at the pool hall was “the first big step on the road to the depths of degradation”. Bowling seems to have had only a slightly better reputation in American life.

The game itself is quite ancient and was brought to the New World by some of the earliest European settlers. By the early 1800’s it had evolved into the ninepin game that Rip Van Winkle encountered in New York State. But, like billiards, the frequent gambling that accompanied ninepins prompted most communities to outlaw the game. Enterprising bowlers simply added another pin to create a new legal game they creatively called “ten-pins”. By 1895, when the rules were standardized and the American Bowling Congress was officially created in New York City, ten-pin bowling had evolved into a wholesome national game.

However, in New England and the eastern provinces of Canada, ten-pin bowling had been overtaken by a quirky variation called candlepin bowling. Created by a bowling alley owner named Justin White in Worchester, Massachusetts, candlepin bowling is played with smaller balls and tall lanky pins. The rules of candlepin bowling vary from ten-pin in that three balls are played in each frame and dead pins are not removed from the field of play. Most candlepin bowlers will tell you that it’s a much more challenging game to play then ten-pins, which is another way of saying it’s harder. My own experience on the Exeter Hospital bowling league in the early 1990s would back this up, famous as I was for the “three gutter” frame and an overall average of about 45.

We played at the Exeter Bowling Lanes on Columbus Avenue. Built in 1946 by Frank Wentworth and originally called the Exeter Bowling Alley, the business is now celebrating its 60th anniversary. Designed before automatic pinsetters were developed in the 1950s, the pins were originally set up by teenagers called pinboys. Automation arrived just in time for the golden age of bowling in the 1950s and 60s. Father and son, Mike and Rob Ficara, have owned the Exeter Bowling Lanes since 1986. During this time, there have been more major changes – one of the most significant was when the facility went non-smoking. Shooter’s Pub was added in 1991 and the old grill was removed from the bowling area.

Bowling continues to be a popular sport in Exeter. Fall leagues will be forming soon with divisions for kids, seniors, men, women, mixed and competition. Rob Ficara says that some of the most exciting bowling in Exeter was when the New Hampshire State Tournament was held at the bowling alley from 1995 – 2000. It would have most certainly been more exciting than the game Robert Lincoln played back in 1860. At least Robert was able to find a lane – his father, also trying to kill some time that day, found that the bowling alley in Springfield was filled to capacity and he was turned away.

Friday, August 19, 2011

What's in a Name?

by Barbara Rimkunas
This "Historically Speaking" column appeared in the Exeter News-Letter on Friday, August 19, 2011.

The Exeter Combination, July 4, 1639 (see image below)
How did Exeter get its name? The simple answer, and ultimately the correct one, is that Exeter, New Hampshire was named for Exeter, Devon in England. David Corbett, now of this town but originally from Britain, wrote me a quick note on the origins of the name ‘Exeter’ and its Roman origins: “The Romans called their fortress town Isca Dumnoniorum. In the ancient Celtic language, ‘Isca’ meant river and ‘Dumnoniorum’ was the name of a Celtic tribe – hence, ‘the riverside settlement of the Dumnnonii.’ So how did Isca Dumnoniorum become ‘Exeter’? One theory is that after the Romans left Britain in the fifth century A.D., the Anglo Saxons called the town ‘Isca-Castra’ (castra being Latin for a military camp). By the ninth century it had become Escanceaster. That, in turn, became ‘Exeter’.”

When John Wheelwright arrived in 1638, a religious outcast from Massachusetts Bay Colony, it had already been decided – by someone – that the area was to be called Exeter. Before gaining its English name, the place was generally referred to by its proximity to the river – the Squamscott River, or sometimes the Piscataqua River, but it never seems to have been called simply ‘Squamscott’. There is no evidence that Wheelwright named it Exeter. He wasn’t from Exeter, which is located in the south western part of England, he was from Lincolnshire, which is 240 miles to the northwest.

Charles Bell, author of History of Exeter, NH, noted that, “of course this name was borrowed from Exeter in England. The cause of its selection is unknown. There is no evidence that Wheelwright ever had any acquaintance with the English Exeter, and the only one of his companions who is known to have come from that place, or its vicinity, was Godfrey Dearborn.” So, we don’t really know who decided upon the name.

We can, however, look to other towns named Exeter to see how the name spread around the world. There are at least 13 Exeters in the United States according to our most reliable source, the National Weather Service. Two of these, Exeter Green, Maryland and Exeter, Virginia, aren’t really towns at all. Exeter Green is called a ‘populated place’ on the U.S. Census, whatever that means.

Two more Exeters can be directly linked to Exeter, New Hampshire. Exeter, Maine, population 997, was named by some of its original settlers who were from Exeter, New Hampshire. Exeter, Nebraska, according to Nebraska Place Names, by Lilian Fitzpatrick, was so named because it was, “suggested for this town by a family that came to the neighborhood from Exeter, New Hampshire. The name happened to fit in with the alphabetical system of naming towns along the Burlington railroad, so it was adopted.” It sounds like Exeter, Nebraska, came within a hair’s breath of being named Epping.

The remaining Exeters in the United States- those in Wisconsin, Connecticut, Missouri, Illinois, Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, California, and Michigan- were all named for Exeter in England. Each one seems to have some major claim to fame. Exeter, Missouri, was originally named El Paso. Exeter, California is famous for a 1929 Anti-Filipino Race Riot. The best story of all, short of our claim as the UFO Capital of New England, is in Exeter, Rhode Island. Their town Wikipedia entry boldly states, “Exeter is noted by folklorists as the site of one of the best documented examples of vampire exhumations: the Mercy Brown Vampire incident of 1892.” There’s definitely a story there.

Australia has three places named Exeter. Exeter, New South Wales, population 397, is most famous for its fatal railroad accident in 1914. Exeter, South Australia, is actually a suburb of Adelaide and doesn’t seem to consider itself an actual town. Exeter, Tasmania, with a population of only 339, is located in Tasmanian wine country, although there do not seem to be any vintners who print “Exeter, Tasmania” on the label, which is a shame as something like that would make a fabulous Christmas gift.

Exeter, New Hampshire, home of the annual UFO Festival and former home of the Alewife Festival, is sadly and soundly outdone by Exeter, Ontario. Bragging that it is “Home of the White Squirrel” – a genetic variant of the lowly gray squirrels seen around here – the town hosts the annual White Squirrel Festival , primarily a folk music event, each May. The town mascot is Willis the White Wonder, who appears at many local events. We just don’t have anything like that.

Outside of Exeter, England we are the largest Exeter in terms of population. Here at the Exeter Historical Society we often get emails requesting information about the other Exeters. Occasionally, this has led to hours of time searching for records for someone who lived hundreds of years ago in another state, but more often we’re able to quickly realize that they’re looking for the wrong town. To the best of my knowledge, there have been no vampire exhumations here.


On July 4th, 1639, John Wheelwright, the founder of Exeter, New Hampshire, penned a document called “The Exeter Combination”, a framework for the town’s governance (see above). In his own handwriting, he spelled the town’s name “Exceter.” The misspelling shouldn’t trouble current residents – he incorrectly spelled his own name “Whelewright” later in the same document.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

The "Bandstand" Turns 95

"Exeter in Perspective" by Nancy Merrill, appeared in the Exeter News-Letter, January 28, 1971

Swasey Pavilion, or Exeter's "Bandstand", between 1916 and 1929.

“Start at the Bandstand…” begins many a direction given by an Exeter resident to either a newcomer or a passing motorist. What is this Bandstand? When was it built? What story does it have to tell?

Some accounts of Exeter say it was built in 1913, others say 1917. One way to find out is to look in the old News-Letters, but more important -- first ask the town clerk, Evelyn Zarnowski, who keeps a little book of the most frequently asked questions.

Looking under “B” for Bandstand or “S” for Swasey Pavilion, she finds that 1916 was the year; then you are referred to the town records for 1916 and find that a special town meeting had been called for a Saturday evening. John Templeton read the resolution as is recorded in the town records and also The News-Letter for Jan. 14, 1916: “The citizens of Exeter, in a special town meeting assembled, hereby accept the offer of Mr. Ambrose Swasey to beautify the Square by erecting an ornate Pavilion therein, and the town clerk is directed to convey to Mr. Swasey, a loyal and distinguished son, the deep appreciation of the Town of Exeter for his beautiful gift.


“And the Hon. Edwin G. Eastman, the Rev. Dr. S.H. Dana and the hon. Albert S. Wetherell are hereby appointed a committee to act with the donor and architect in the erection of the Pavilion and in locating a new granite watering trough, also the gift of Mr. Swasey, in such place as seems advisable.”

Subsequent perusals of The News-Letter reward the reader with the following weekly observations:

Ambrose Swasey
May 5 -- The Swasey Pavilion
“The material for the marble pavilion which Mr. Ambrose Swasey is to erect in the Square as a welcome gift to his native town has been shipped. The work will begin upon its arrival and will be completed before July 4.”

May 12 -- Work on Swasey Pavilion
“Work preliminary to the erection of the Pavilion in the Square, the welcome gift of Mr. Ambrose Swasey began Wednesday when the fountain was removed to a site at the Town Hall corner. There it is intended to place it in temporary operation.
“On Wednesday also began the digging required for the Pavilion foundations. At a depth of four feet was found a deep layer of oyster shells. The trusses and other steel material was hauled to the Square yesterday.
“As announced, the Norcross Brothers Company, Worcester, Mass., is the contractor for the work of erection.”

May 26 -- The Pavilion
“Much has been done this week on the Swasey Pavilion. The three courses of Milford pink granite which constitutes the ashler have been set and nearly all forms for beams of re-enforced concrete which will support the platform are in place. The granite curbing around the space which will form a grass plot is being set. Delivery of marble is being made.”

June 9 -- Work In The Square
“The marble floor of the Pavilion is nearly laid and the laying of curbing around the enclosure has begun.
“The base of the granite drinking trough has been set in deep foundations of concrete and the water main from the opposite side of the Square has been laid. The base, a fine block weighing nearly seven tons, was put in place by Contractor Irving W. Brown without the use of a derrick.”

June 23 -- Town Affairs
“The last marble column of the Pavilion in the Square was set Tuesday and the last stone of the architrave Wednesday. The placing of the steel roof trusses in position was then begun.”

July 7 --
“At the initiative of Mr. Edward E. Norwell and with consent of the Boston and Maine, the fountain which until recently has stood in the Square will at once be placed on railroad land beyond the freight house and slightly back from Front Street. There it should do good service.”

July 14 --
“The Pavilion floor is receiving its finishing touches, beautiful mosaic work around the central bronze plate. The roof has received its copper covering, with pine cone finials and several lion heads as gargoyles to discharge rain water. (During our recent cold weather, several of the lions looked as though they had icicle goatees.) The material for the mosaic ceiling, shipped a fortnight ago and delayed on the way, arrived yesterday.”

The Pavilion under construction
July 21 --
“The ceiling of the Pavilion is completed save for a narrow stripe around the border, which is partially filled in. The design and color effect is eminently pleasing. The grading contract has been awarded to Mr. C. Charles Hayes, who will begin work as soon as possible.”

July 28 -- Town Affairs
“On Tuesday the Norcross Brothers Company, Worcester, Mass., completed its work upon the Pavilion and Mr. C. Charles Hayes finished the grading around it. Stripped of staging the Pavilion reveals a beauty that compels admiration. Approval of the architect and delivery to the town have yet to be made. The beautiful bronze chandelier for electric lighting made to special design, should be delivered early in August. It is hoped to have the dedication on a day when the generous donor, Mr. Ambrose Swasey can be present.”

August 4 -- Dedication of the Pavilion
“The Pavilion in the Square will be dedicated at 8 o’clock next Wednesday evening. Hon. Albert S. Wetherell will preside. There will be music by the Exeter band and addresses by Rev. Dr. S. H. Dana and, probably Hon. John Scammon. (Hon. Edwin G. Eastman had died before the Pavilion was completed.) The donor, Mr. Ambrose Swasey, will present the Pavilion key to the selectmen.
“After the exercise the Pavilion will be open to the public.”
“Following is the program of next Wednesday evening’s band concert, to be given after the Pavilion dedication, if rainy, the next fair evening.” (Eleven tunes were listed.)

It did indeed rain that Wednesday evening, August 9.

The “next fair evening” proved to be August 10, when many gathered in the square to thank Mr. Ambrose Swasey for his “sumptuous gift to his birthplace.” “It was said” that Daniel Chester French got his idea from a pavilion in the gardens at Versaille.

The dedication was largely attended. Hon. Albert S. Wetherell, of the committee which had supervision of the erection, presided. Its other member, Rev. Dr. S. H. Dana, made a felicitious address. It will be recalled that in the summer of 1915 no little curiosity was aroused by Mr. Swasey’s visit to the Square with a distinguished son of Exeter, Mr. Daniel Chester French, and Mr. Henry Bacon, of New York, one of the country’s most eminent architects. Alluding to this visit, Dr. Dana outlined its results and devoted much of his address to the notable trio. Greeted by hearty cheers and applause, the public-spirited donor then presented the Pavilion keys to the selectmen, with acceptance by Chairman Clarence Getchell. Music by the Exeter Band completed the programme.

“The Pavilion is of exquisite beauty. Upon deeply laid foundations of concrete rest three courses of pink Milford granite, which constitute the ashler. Then comes a course of white marble, from which rise eight graceful columns of marble which support the marble architrave. The steps are marble. The floor is of re-inforced concrete, with marble surface save for the central bronze plate showing the zodiac, especially fitting in view of the donor’s interest in astronomy, and the encircling mosaic work. The enclosing railing and gate are of bronze.
“The mosaic ceiling, in its design and the rich colors of its central sunburst and delicate tracery, is a gem. From its center hangs a bronze chandelier of pleasing design, with eight arms pointing to the columns. There are electric lights at the extremities of the arms and a ninth pendent from the center.
“There is much ornamental work in the copper roof, notably the 16 gargoyles, lions’ heads, and the pine cone finial.
“About the Pavilion is a narrow plat which turfed Monday, enclosed by granite curbing, and around this is a finely paved border.
“Mr. Swasey’s gift also includes a granite watering trough set at the west side of the Square.”
Architect Henry Bacon
“As the above implied, the architect was Henry Bacon, of New York, and Exeter is fortunate in the possession of a sample of his work. The principal contractor was the Norcross Brothers Company, Worcester, Mass. (According to Perley Gardner, this company had done larger jobs, but none any better.) The chandelier was made to special design by E. F. Caldwell and Co., Inc., New York, and the electric wiring was done by C. Fred Fifield, Of Exeter, C. Charles Hayes did the grading and turfing.”

The News-Letter of Sept. 15, 1916 shows a picture of the bronze plaque in the floor of the Pavilion. There is the “conventional sun in the center and a border formed of the signs of the zodiac. The first of these plaques was made for the Swasey Observatory at Denison University, O. The second and third are in scientific buildings in China. This one in Exeter is the fourth. It will reward a close inspection. The marble floor itself is of artistic design, and the mosaic ceiling is one of the most beautiful in the country.”

The Lincoln Memorial, designed by Bacon, under construction in 1916

Friday, August 5, 2011

The Squamscott Oxbow

by Barbara Rimkunas
This "Historically Speaking" column appeared in the Exeter News-Letter on Friday, August 5, 2011.

When John Wheelwright first arrived in Exeter in March of 1638 he complained of the deep snows that he had to traverse, “it was marvelous that I got thither at that time…by reason of the deep snow in which I might have perished.” He waited a few months before sending for his wife and children so that they could make the trip more easily by boat. As she traveled up the Squamscott, Mary Hutchinson Wheelwright must have wondered about the unusual course the river took as it made its way to the headwaters at the falls where her husband was waiting.

About three miles out of town, the river took an unexpected twist to the right and just as suddenly looped back to the original path. This loop would trouble navigators for the next 250 years.

Called an oxbow, the loop is a natural formation caused by meandering of the riverbed. Sometimes an oxbow can curl all the way around stranding the land in the center. The Squamscott oxbow showed no signs of closing at the base. Its only contribution to Exeter’s busy seaport was to snarl up river traffic.

Exeter residents traveled the river in small crafts until the 1700s, when shipbuilding became an important industry in town. The river was deep enough to accommodate ships – providing they could be transported downstream to Great Bay. That oxbow, or “great roundabout” as it was sometime called, created no end of trouble. To navigate the double twists in a time before motorized engines, the crew would resort to pushing the vessel with long poles or casting the anchor forward and pulling it to get around the bends. William Saltonstall noted, in his Ports of Piscataqua, “no wind could have been fickle enough to get a boat equipped with sails through the Great Roundabout” and Olive Tardiff followed this in Exeter Squamscott: River of Many Uses, with, “Sometimes it was necessary for a vessel to wait as long as a week for favorable winds and tides in order to reach Exeter.”

By 1880, Charles Bell observed, “the navigation of the channel had become so obstructed by rocks and shoals that it was found necessary to petition Congress for an appropriation for its improvement.” The petition was granted and it was decided that instead of simply cleaning up the oxbow, it would be cut through. At the point where the looped ends nearly came together, a channel would be dug to allow a straight entrance to Exeter’s harbor.

Work began in the early Fall of 1881. Although it was nothing like the digging of the Panama Canal, it was made more difficult by an unusually hot Indian Summer. The Exeter News-Letter noted that Wednesday, September 28th was the “hottest day since July 14th.” It was muggy and already 70 degrees at sunrise. To get the miserable job done quickly, the News-Letter advertised, “It is intended to push the work of cutting off the ox-bow as rapidly as possible, and for that purpose, we are informed, employment will be given to any number of laborers from this town at $1.50 a day. As many hands as are wanted can readily be secured from other places, but the contractor prefers as far as possible to secure his laborers from this town.”

You’d think there would have been an excited and jubilant outcry in the newspapers once the oxbow was finally bypassed, but instead the news was silent. It must have been one of those satisfying, but nearly invisible triumphs – like cleaning the oven – that affects only a few and excites even fewer. Nonetheless, river traffic picked up for a time and coal schooners routinely made the trek up river.

The oxbow was still navigable by small boats after the cut was made. John Hurlbert wrote an account of a schooner trip up the Squamscott in 1897 and noted, “A short way down from Exeter there is a triple bend of the river which is called the oxbow. The river winds from shore to shore in graceful curves, but grace and utility cannot always be combined, so a few years ago there was a channel cut close to the right bank. As we sailed down between the high banks of clay we envied the little boat that flitted around the curves, dipping in the breeze like a swallow, and doubtless the occupants envied us as they put about to look at us.”

Fun, perhaps, for a small pleasure craft at the time, but today the oxbow is nearly gone. It can be viewed from above or by zooming in on Google Earth. From the river, if one is in a kayak or canoe, the entrances to the oxbow are tantalizingly broad enough to lure the paddler in. But, unless you are very adept at back-paddling, it is inadvisable to attempt to navigate the entire oxbow. After several hundred feet of pretty surroundings and tall grass the channel narrows until the kayak becomes mired in the spongy undergrowth and shallow water. The wildlife of the area will offer no assistance to the desperate paddler and will only mock you with deep throated croaking. I did get out, eventually, a tired but wiser adventurer.

The images: Top - The Squamscott Oxbow, here called “Roundabout Marsh” as seen on the 1802 Merrill Map of Exeter. The oxbow impeded the easy flow of river traffic in Exeter for nearly 250 years. Today it is almost gone. Bottom - The Oxbow today, courtesy Google Maps

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Engraved Tusk will Celebrate Lincoln's 1860 Visit to Exeter

To some it may be an unusual way to commemorate history, but to William Markey it's the perfect way to make use of an elephant tusk that has been in his family for more than 70 years.

With the help of a scrimshaw carver from New York, Markey is using the two-foot-long tusk to commemorate Abraham Lincoln's 1860 visit and speech in Exeter.

The tusk will be engraved with Lincoln's image and will have the date of his visit to the town on it.

Markey is hoping to present the tusk as a gift to the town upon its completion this fall.

Markey said the tusk once belonged to his father and was just sitting around his Newmarket home. Because ivory dries up, he knew he needed to do something productive with it when he started to see cracks developing. "I wanted to do something good with it, something the family could be proud of," he said.

The 77-year-old's love for history and Lincoln helped to inspire the idea, along with an article written in a civil war magazine that talked about Lincoln's 1860 visit to Exeter and other Granite State communities.

"I figured I got a story, an idea and a tusk that I don't know what to do with," he said.

Markey said the article he read put great emphasis on the importance of Lincoln's visit to the state in 1860.

"I went through the schools in Exeter and then went to school at UNH (University of New Hampshire) and not a breath was uttered about Abe Lincoln's visit to Exeter," said the Newmarket resident.

Lincoln in 1858.
Lincoln gave speeches in Concord, Manchester, Dover and finally Exeter, where he also visited his son Robert at Phillips Exeter Academy.

His visit to the state went a long way to winning over the support of seven of the state's 10 delegates four months later during the Republican convention in Chicago, Markey said.

New Hampshire, which was mostly a democratic state at the time, eventually supported Lincoln in the presidential election. "New Hampshire had an important say in Lincoln's election," Markey said.

Markey later contacted the author of the article he read, Ron Soodalter, who is also an accomplished scrimshaw artist, about his tusk idea.

"He loved it," Markey said. "He wanted to help out."

Soodalter is currently working on the tusk in New York.

Markey expects the tusk to be finished in September, at which point he plans on giving it as a gift to the Exeter Public Library.

Markey and Soodalter are still working on ideas for mounting the tusk and the display case. Markey said the tusk should be in a glass-enclosed case for the proper protection and kept at the correct humidity to avoid cracks.

He is also currently examining insurance options for the tusk, so it's insured in case of an unexpected loss.

Exeter Public Library Director Hope Godino said the library plans on accepting the tusk as a gift and would likely display it on its adult services floor for awhile before moving it to the historical collection area.

Markey is hoping to have a presentation ceremony when the tusk is complete.

Markey is a retired Air Force officer and once survived a jet bomber crash in 1961 that killed three of his co-pilots.

Article appeared in the July 29, 2011 issue of the Exeter News-Letter.

Friday, July 22, 2011

The Grand Regatta

by Barbara Rimkunas
This "Historically Speaking" column appeared in the Exeter News-Letter on Friday, July 22, 2011.

In 1872, there were over 150 regattas held in North America. The schoolboys of Phillips Exeter Academy decided they should hold a regatta of their own. The Boat Club at the academy was still in its infancy and had not yet begun to encourage rowing as a team sport.

Exeter’s downtown merchants still shipped goods up and down the river in 1872. Gundalows carried lumber, bricks and fish and schooners were towed into the harbor with tons of coal. Alongside the commercial traffic were many different types of small boats. Some were pleasure boats, others were tough little rowboats and canoes used by sportsmen for fishing and hunting. True rowing sculls, as we are used to seeing today, were rare on the river.

They set their ‘grand regatta’ for a Wednesday afternoon in late Spring. Then, as now, students at the academy had only a half day of classes on Wednesdays and Saturdays. The afternoon was free and the boys were only lightly supervised. They scrounged boats from wherever they could and determined to hold four separate races.

The first race was single scull. Four boys were set to start the race, but when the starting line-up was called two of them dropped out. “Harwood and Hodges, nursing their strength to keep it fresh for the four-oared race, failed to make their appearance,” reported the Exeter News-Letter. Perhaps they were unable to find a boat small enough for the race. The remaining two racers, Charles Bell, class of 1872, and Robert Blodgett, class of 1873 had decidedly different types of boats. Blodgett had a racing scull, but the best Bell was able to come up with was a heavy dory called a ‘wherry’. He’d fitted it out with racing outriggers to hold the oars high above the water, but it still wasn’t up to the challenge. The judges generously gave him a 12 second handicap.

The News-Letter’s fledgling attempt at sports writing read as follows, “The word ‘go’ is sounded, and the race begins. Blodgett with a firm and steady stroke pulls as for dear life; Bell keeps along space, when a sad mishap occurs; his out-riggers break, and Blodget wins the race and the prize, a silver ladle; time, 6.58; course, 1 ¼ miles.”

Three boys were entered in the sailboat race, but as in the first race not all of them made it to the starting line. William Swift, of New Bedford, Massachusetts, didn’t quite get there in time with his lapstreak centerboard boat. Lapstreak, or lapstrake, boats are made with overlapping planking like a Viking boat. They’re strong, but slightly less agile in the water. The two remaining boats in the sailing race were a flat-bottomed boat called Mary Jane, captained by Trueman Heminway, class of 1873 and the keel-bottomed Flying Dutchman with Isaiah Thomas, class of 1872 at the helm.

The Flying Dutchman took an early lead, but ran aground on the third tack, leaving the Mary Jane as the only survivor to cross the finish line. Heminway won a silvered fruit dish as his prize.

Neither of these first two races satisfied the onlookers – considering both had been won due to mechanical problems. The real race of the day was the four-oared contest. Two teams readied themselves for the race; the Una, a lapstrake racing shell representing the Class of 1872 and the Wyoma entered by the class of 1873. Both carried crews of five boys – four rowers and one coxswain. “While the Una crew boasts the best oar – Jones, the popular man of his class, the Wyoma’s friends rely upon the unyielding pluck of her crew; and even feign to believe that intelligence and scholarship must count in their favor,” observes the News-Letter. But intelligence would not rule the day. The Una quickly outpaced the Wyoma to win the race a full minute ahead. Each boy was awarded a prize cup.

The final race of the Grand Regatta was a tub race. “The gazing throng now prepare for a laughing excitement; for the tub race is announced. Six ordinary tubs are launched upon the water, and the sportive youths enter the same, each ‘to paddle his own canoe’ to gain the coveted prizes. The leaky and unstable condition of the novel vessels results in many an overturn and apparently sinking hopes; but a cooled person and uncooled ardor lead to braver exertions, and the race is won by Brown of ’74; Harwood of ’73 was ahead most of the time, but a luckless foul with another boat, when nearing the shore, lost to him the prize.” The winner received $2.00 – perhaps by this time they were fresh out of silver kitchenware to award.
For all of its mishaps, the Grand Regatta was pronounced a success and for years afterward, at least until rowing became a more organized sport at Phillips Exeter Academy, a regatta was held each spring.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Lady Justice is Watching You

by Barbara Rimkunas
This "Historically Speaking" column appeared in the Exeter News-Letter on Friday, July 8, 2011.

High above the street level in downtown Exeter, Lady Justice stands guard over the town. In 1855, when our town hall doubled as the county courthouse, the statue was erected with little fanfare. It was the town hall itself that attracted everyone’s attention. The decision to build a new town hall was the culmination of a two year battle between bickering factions of townspeople. Should it be a simple structure reflecting a small town or a grander design reflecting a vision of Exeter as commercial center?

In the end, the visionaries won, and the new Town Hall housed both the offices of the town of Exeter and Rockingham County – including the county court. As part of his design, architect Arthur Gilman included a large wooden statue of Lady Justice standing tall on the very top of the cupola. Construction began in May of 1855.

There was little statuary in Exeter in at that time. Although the town wasn’t aware of it, we had in our midst a little boy who would one day become one of the nation’s most treasured sculptors. Daniel Chester French was born on Court Street in 1850. His young eyes must have wondered about the magical lady atop the town hall cupola. French would go on to sculpt the Concord “Minuteman” and the Lincoln Memorial’s seated Abraham Lincoln. But in his younger days, Lady Justice was the only statue he knew.

She was hoisted aloft when French was 5 years old. The Exeter News-Letter commented, “Since the elevation of Justice, which we confess looks perplexed at its location on the dome of that building, the community, having the fear of her two-edged sword and scales before their eyes, are walking soberly and discreetly, and if vice is still abroad, she shrinks into cellars or retreats behind the good lady’s back.”

Popular depictions of Justice often involve the elements seen on our statue. In a tradition dating back to ancient Greece, justice is portrayed as a woman. In one hand she holds a set of scales for weighing the evidence before her. In her right hand, she grips a double bladed sword of justice, ready to mete out punishment quickly and efficiently. A bit like your own mother, really. Maybe that’s why Justice is always a woman.

Exeter’s Justice, like many similar courthouse statues, is blindfolded. Although it may seem that justice should be eagle-eyed, checking into every bit of possible evidence, the blindfold is symbolic of objectivity. Justice should not be swayed by outward appearances or the court of public opinion. The evidence is weighed carefully and a decision is reached.

Her presence in the town square was quickly used to bolster the temperance movement. Before the Town Hall was even officially dedicated, a letter writer to the News-Letter advised that she should, “make it certain that nothing is yet sold in Water Street which ‘men may put into their mouths to steal away their brains.’”

Justice was never able to avoid the one thing that was irresistibly attracted to her – lightning. Over the years she was struck many times and an intricate system of lightning rods was installed. Two main rods jutted from behind her like antennae and attached to a grounding system that encircled her waist. Close-up, the statue must have looked like she was caged in a medieval torture device.

A Halloween storm in 1917 nearly destroyed her. “In Exeter,” reported the News-Letter, “the most notable damage wrought by the wind was to the statue of Justice surmounting the Town Hall cupola. This was tipped to a dangerous angle and there were grave fears that it might topple over. Fortunately, lightning rod wires and other supports averted this misfortune.” The statue was carefully taken down and assessed for damage. “Exposure to the elements for more than three score years has much damaged the statue, and much of the wood is badly decayed.” However, repairs were made and the statue was re-set on the cupola in time for the New Year.

By 1991, she had taken quite a beating. Aloft for 136 years, she was nearly blown to bits by the remnants of Hurricane Bob. Town officials decided that the piecemeal repairs were no longer enough. The statue was removed and carefully reproduced by sculptor Langford Warren of Kittery, Maine. His pencil marks can still be seen on the original statue that now resides in the Exeter Historical Society. Her twin, made of sturdy mahogany rather than the original’s pine, stands proudly atop the Exeter Town Hall. The building no longer doubles as a courthouse, but the intent of the statue still holds. As a letter writer to the News-Letter wrote back in 1855, “the artist and sculptor may paint and mould the form, but the fire from heaven which makes it a living soul can neither be stolen nor created.”