Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Can you Identify the Sons of Abraham & Mary Lincoln?

This c. 1861 painting shows the Lincolns and their three sons.*  (Their second son, Edward, had died in 1850, missing his fourth birthday by just over a month.) 

To learn more about Robert, attend the Exeter Historical Society's next meeting on Tuesday, April 5th at 7:30pm.  In an illustrated presentation entitled "Whatever Happened to Robert Todd Lincoln?" curator Barbara Rimkunas will explore the somewhat challenging life of Abraham Lincoln's only surviving son. 

*Robert, the eldest -- who attended Phillips Exeter Academy -- is standing.  Willie, who died in 1862, is seated in front of the table, and Tad (Thomas) is with his father.

Historian Tweets about Civil War to Bring Back Era

A new Twitter feed commemorates the 150th anniversary of the Civil War by tweeting recorded letters from the period
by Tom Breen, Associated Press

Two months before the start of the Civil War, a North Carolina belle named Catherine Ann Devereux Edmondston tapped out a frustrated message about her secession-opposing sibling in a tweet to her followers: "Sister Frances is a terrible Unionist!"

She might have tweeted, that is, if Twitter had existed in 1861. Instead, Edmondston and other long-dead North Carolinians from a bygone era are having their social networking done for them posthumously. A Raleigh-based historian is using the popular service to bring the home front of a war to modern day audiences nearly a century and a half later.

"We're not imposing any of our words. This is purely from men, women, and even teenagers who stayed at home and fought the war in their own ways," said LeRae Umfleet, the historian who manages the collections at the North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources.

Since last week, Umfleet has been tweeting from the account @CivilianWartime with the words of an escaped slave, a woman whose husband owned a plantation and others. The tweets are moving roughly in chronological order along with the war, meaning that so far the messages mostly express the foreboding and uncertainty of people in North Carolina as they watched war clouds build.

"I have just seen the President's message," Umfleet tweeted in the March 11, 1861 words of Mary Bethell. "Mr. Lincoln, I think he intends to coerce those seceding States."

The Twitter account is part of the ongoing effort of the cultural resources department's ongoing effort to mark the 150th anniversary of the bloodiest conflict in American history. It seeks to highlight the experiences of those who remained at home while others went off to war -- a conflict ever more dire as the battles drag on.

"By the end of the war, we will have seen conflict on North Carolina soil, and we'll have heard from people with firsthand knowledge of that," Umfleet said.

from Tom Breen's article, "Historian Tweets about Civil War to Bring Back Era" in, March 22, 2011.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

We Have a Winner for our Surprise Historical Artifact!

David Linehan, of To the Point Marketing System, is the winner of our facebook posting challenge!  David is now the proud owner of the 1938 Exeter Tercentenary Commemoration booklet.  Congratulations, David!

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Fire at the Box Factory

The latest "Historically Speaking" column appeared in the March 18th issue of the Exeter News-Letter.

by Barbara Rimkunas

In the early morning hours of March 10th, 1899, the Exeter Fire Department was called out to a fire at John H. Fellows’s box factory on Rockingham Street. Clarence Warner had arrived at the stables adjoining the factory just before 5 a.m. to feed the horses when he noticed smoke issuing from the main building. He raced to the railroad depot where the telegraph operator turned in the call. Within minutes, two nearby hose companies had arrived and attached lines to the hydrants, but with the notoriously low water pressure of Exeter’s west end, it would do little good against the fast moving fire. They would need the pumper – Exeter’s magnificent Amoskeag Eagle Steamer – if they were going to make any headway with this fire.

The steamer was housed in the downtown on Water Street a mile away from the fire. On a clear day with dry roads it would have been a quick trip up Front Street to reach the box factory, but because Warner had gone to the depot and the alarm had been sounded from there, the steamer mistakenly traveled up Lincoln Street, losing valuable time as it had to turn around to circle back to Rockingham Street across the railroad tracks. Had Warner run just a bit further down Railroad Avenue and turned the alarm from the shoe factory, the steamer would have made a more direct trip.

Compounding the misdirection was the fickle New Hampshire weather. March has the potential to be a beautiful Spring-like month, but it can also spew Winter right back at you. On the day of the fire the Exeter News-Letter had noted, “The weather of the past week has been extraordinary in its variety. A downpour of rain was followed early Sunday morning by three vivid flashes of lightening and loud bursts of thunder. Tuesday was typical of the most blustery days of March. The wind fairly howled from the northeast, and at times one could scarcely see for the clouds of snow, of which half a foot fell. In the afternoon, as another remarkable phenomenon for this season, came more thunder and lightning.” The coldest day of the month was the day before the fire when the temperature plummeted to 8 degrees. The west end of town had not yet cleared the snow from the streets when the Eagle steamer was making its trip to the box factory.

The Exeter Gazette noted that, “the steamer was delayed by the deep snow, and from going down Lincoln street, so it took a full half hour to get around.” The delay would be costly, but not devastating, to the box factory.

John H. Fellows was a relative newcomer to town when he bought the old Elwell box-making plant in 1896. The production of both wooden crates and paperboard boxes was a lucrative trade.

The bulk of Fellows’s work was making shoeboxes. When he purchased the plant he immediately began enlarging this part of the business. The News-Letter had enthusiastically reported on the expansion, “the plant will include a well equipped office for two or three printers to print great variety of labels required for shoe boxes.” Within a year, Fellows had increased the number of employees from 40 to 60 – mostly young women. His shoeboxes and packing crates were being shipped all over New England.

The cause of the fire was never fully determined. The machinery was entirely run by a steam engine housed separately from the shop floor and when the Gazette spoke with the boiler room engineer it reported, “Mr. Hayes says it was all swept clean about the engine room at 6 o’clock, Thursday night, and there was no fire in the building that he knows of.” There was no electrical supply to the factory and they eventually concluded that the fire had been set by arsonists.

Fighting the fire proved to be difficult. With several wooden structures filled with flammable materials, the firefighters could do little to save the wood shop that was fully ablaze when they arrived. “The hydrant streams were rather weak, but sufficed to keep the other parts of the factory wet down. The brick boiler house annex had its roof burned off, and the flames were creeping along the L to the paper box factory when the steamer began to get in its work, knocking the cinders away and heading off the flames.” When the fire was finally knocked down, it was estimated that forty percent of the factory was destroyed. Fellows immediately began planning its full reconstruction.

As the smoke began to clear, the Gazette’s headline of the fire was “GOOD LUCK THAT IT DID NOT SWEEP THE ENTIRE PLANT.” The men of the Eagle Steamer Company knew better, noting in their official log, “It looked awhile as if the whole plant would be destroyed but by hard work on the part of the firemen the largest part of the buildings were saved.” Luck had little to do with it.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Smithsonian Uses Social Media to Expand Its Mission

From the New York Times...

by Elizabeth Olson

The Smithsonian Institution is shaking off its image as “the nation’s attic” brimming with arcane treasures and using Web and mobile projects to enlist the public in delving into its collections, expanding its research and, sometimes, just adding interesting postscripts to history.

Best known for its stately museums on the National Mall, the 164-year-old Smithsonian also conducts wide-ranging scientific research, part of its original mission to increase and spread knowledge. But instead of relying on its small cadre of experts, the institution is embracing social media to involve the public.

“We are more than museums,” said Michael Edson, the Smithsonian’s director of Web and new-media strategy. No more than 1 percent of the huge complex’s 137 million items are on public display at any time.

“We’re operating telescopes in space, preserving ancient languages, studying biodiversity, evolution and history — a vast distributed network of scholars and researchers active in over 100 countries,” he said.

In addition to bolstering scholarship, social media also is helping the Smithsonian solve puzzles like identifying an early 20th-century woman whose illustrations humorously conveyed economic data to the public, or the purpose of the “perforating paddle” used by early postal workers.

Also, the Smithsonian has been able to uncover new information about historic events like the trial of John T. Scopes for teaching evolution, and assemble a worldwide network to capture wild animal behavior and another to map American tree species.

“What we are doing is more lively and accessible than developing an exhibit and providing a catalog,” said Mr. Edson.

Crowd-sourcing and user-generated content are not new to the Smithsonian, said Pamela Henson, the institution’s historian, pointing to the creation in the 1850s of what later became the National Weather Service. The Smithsonian’s first secretary, Joseph Henry, enlisted volunteers around the country to gather observations about storms and other weather occurrences and to mail or telegraph them to Washington.

“The volunteers helped us establish weather patterns,” she said, “Also, a source of our earliest collections were trappers, explorers and others who collected plants and animals and gave them to the Smithsonian.”

Even so, the 21st-century Smithsonian was somewhat slower to embrace unfettered public involvement, fearing it would undercut the institution’s scientific credibility. After debate, the Smithsonian began moving ahead in the social media realm in early 2009, encouraged by its new secretary, G. Wayne Clough, who had served as president of the Georgia Institute of Technology.

“We’re now broadcasters of knowledge,” Mr. Edson said of the Smithsonian’s efforts. “It’s invigorating, and a real collaboration.”

The use of social media led to identification of a photograph that had been on the Smithsonian “Portraits of Scientists” since 2003. The Smithsonian added the image to its photo-sharing Web site,. Flickr users began contributing clues, like a wedding announcement, to pinpoint the woman in the picture as 21-year-old Ida Elizabeth Sabin Goodwin, an artist hired in the 1920s at a science news service.

Her granddaughter, Linda Sabin Eisenstadt, recognized the Flickr photo and contributed details of her grandmother’s life and some of her drawings — noting that she had found two unknown cousins as a result.

Ms. Goodwin’s “cartoonographs” amusingly depicted rising commodity prices, political campaign spending, spending on oil and the impact of new communications technologies, all still timely topics, said Effie Kapsalis, head of Web and new media for the Smithsonian Archives.

Previously unpublished photos of the Scopes trial in Tennessee posted on Flickr resulted in a donation of 10 black-and-white photographs from Henrietta S. Jenrette, who said they had been taken by her father, who attended the trial with his former high school biology teacher. She wanted them to be online for anyone to see.

With more than six million objects, and only four curators, the National Postal Museum created an online database called Arago for those who want to study particular objects, said Marshall Emery, the museum’s internal affairs manager. While the postal museum is small compared with other Smithsonian museums, its Web site, named after Francois Arago, a French scientist and friend of the Smithsonian’s founder, James Smithson, drew 26.4 million page views from 158 countries in fiscal 2010.

Philatelic experts around the world can research — and sometimes pinpoint inaccuracies in — the museum’s collection, which includes every United States postage stamp, Amelia Earhart’s flight suit and unusual objects like an 1899 perforating paddle that was used to stab holes in mail envelopes so it could be fumigated inside railway mail cars. The purpose was to prevent letters from carrying yellow fever, then thought to be spread by such contact.

A recently introduced Smithsonian digital endeavor to discover what environmental factors most influence the size of wildlife populations relies on a broad network of volunteers, rather than specialists. In late February, its Museum of the Natural History introduced “Smithsonian Wild,”, with links on Facebook, Flickr and Twitter. It can “can only be accomplished using citizen scientists — not unlike the annual bird counts — only this is for mammals, which are mostly nocturnal,” said Robert Costello, the museum’s outreach program manager.

The site brings together 202,000 wildlife photos from various Smithsonian and other research projects where motion-sensitive cameras were installed to capture close-range images of elusive species like the jaguar.

This gives the public “a better sense not only of the diversity of wildlife, but also of the diversity of the Smithsonian’s wildlife research,” said Mr. Costello.

On the heels of that project, the Smithsonian began broadening its mobile offerings with a free new app, called Leafsnap, to identify tree species by their leaves. Smartphone apps typically help users to navigate their visit — the Smithsonian has them for its popular National Air and Space Museum as well as the Postal and Natural History — and to complement specific exhibitions.

Leafsnap is the first of a series of electronic field guides that researchers from the Smithsonian, Columbia University and the University of Maryland have developed to help identify species from photographs. The Web site field guide currently includes the trees of New York City and Washington and will expand to include trees across the continental United States.

The app can also be used to map tree diversity and location by sending global positioning data back to scientists. Other apps to raise awareness of biodiversity will be introduced in the future.

“A few years ago, it was unusual for a museum to have social media,” said Mr. Edson. “Now it’s just assumed to be part of what museums offer — like the heat.”

Article is from the New York Times.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Town Meeting in Exeter

The latest "Historically Speaking" column appeared in the March 4th issue of the Exeter News-Letter.

by Barbara Rimkunas

Our venerable New Hampshire practice of holding town meetings each year dates to the 1630s. Back then, the practice was simple enough – get all the voting men together for the day, grease them up with a fair amount of rum or hard cider, talk about the important town issues and vote on how to act on the issues.

Shortly after Europeans began arriving in Exeter in 1638, meetings were held fairly frequently to divvy up the land and make sure everyone got a share. These early town meetings probably weren’t very exciting – at least as far as the records tell us: “ Robert Smyth 6 acers 30 poole butting as aforesayd: Goodman Littlefejld 4 acers 20 poole butting as aforesayd….” the lists go on and on. It takes a fair amount of reading before you finally get to the town’s real issue in 1641:
“Its ordered yt Goodman (name obscured) shall allow the Indeans one bushel of corne for yr labor wch was spent by ym in replaynting of yt corne of yrs wch was spoyld by his swine, and hee to make up yr lose at harvest according as yt corne may be indged worse then there corne wch was nevr hurt.”

Although the spelling might lead one to believe that early Exeter citizens were the inventors of text speak that our kids use, it really indicates a much larger problem within the town. The Squamscott natives had been guaranteed the right to plant and harvest their own crops, and one of the townsmen had been foolish enough to let his pig run wild through the fields. Pigs were the biggest problem in early Exeter. Mandatory fencing laws quickly followed.

Under the old calendar system the year began in March, so that was when the meeting was held. There were quite a few drawbacks to a March meeting. Travel is poor during the mud and slush season and some of our biggest snowstorms have taken place in March. Nonetheless, March it was and March it would continue to be.

The tradition of town meeting continued, unchanged, after the American Revolution. The town was small enough that most of the men could fit into a single space. Not all of the men would show up anyway, so they never realistically had to make room for everyone. Those who did appear, it was thought, were those who really mattered. In Exeter, as in most towns, it was vital to hold the meeting in the center of town near the local taverns. Town meeting was a long day and refreshment, of one kind or another, was needed.

Once the beautiful Exeter Town Hall was erected in 1855, the meeting took on a more distinguished locale. The men could gather on the floor and the ladies could listen – but not participate – from the gallery above. The floor was strewn with sawdust to absorb the inevitable mud tracked in from the street and the participants argued the warrant with enthusiasm. In 1890, the Exeter News-Letter advised: “Every voter should carefully read the town warrant and decide upon his course of action before he becomes confused with town meeting oratory.”

There was no secret ballot at the town meeting, a vote of “aye” or “nay” would carry or defeat such important issues as were brought up. In 1890, the issues involved approving the new street gas lights, extending sewers to Grove, Elliot, Court and Elm Streets and where to place the new hose company house. They also appropriated $800.00 to purchase a pair of horses for the fire department.

When the secret ballot (or Australian ballot as it was known) was approved for the November elections, the News-Letter sadly commented, “whatever may be merits or demerits of Australian balloting, it has certainly robbed election meetings of nearly all interest to the spectator.” Luckily, it was never used for town meeting. Town meeting was all about entertainment.

In 1898, Exeter judge Henry Shute complained about the general levity of town meeting. “The hall is full of smoke, there are not seats enough, and the people walk restlessly to and fro, talk gossip, laugh and pay but little attention to the speakers, unless the discussion waxes warm, when there is a rush forward, and the speakers are loudly applauded or roundly hooted, as their opinions find favor or otherwise with the audience. Small boys and some not so small chase each other and wrestle, and the occasional attempt of some inebriated gentlemen to harangue the crowd in the back part of the hall meets with great favor.” In spite of his indignation, there is little evidence that the atmosphere changed much over the years.

In 1996 New Hampshire towns were allowed to adopt a balloting system. Hated by some and loved by those of us who could never attend town meetings because of work schedules or lack of childcare, it was adopted in Exeter in 1998. Voting on a ballot may not be as entertaining as getting caught up in the verbal sparring at a town meeting, but it does calm down the mob rule feel of the old days.