Friday, June 24, 2011

Moving the Tenney House

by Barbara Rimkunas
This "Historically Speaking" column appeared in the Exeter News-Letter on Friday, June 24, 2011.

In order to move an enormous house across a river you need an enormous bridge. Exeter’s “Great Bridge” is hardly suitable for the job; in fact, its name seems like a put-on. In spite of its small stature, the bridge has actually had a huge house trundle across it. It was back in 1893.

Samuel Tenny wasn’t born in Exeter, he was from Byfield, Massachusetts. He was educated at Dummer Academy and Harvard, graduating with the class of 1772. He studied medicine with Dr. Kittredge in Andover after leaving Harvard. There were few medical colleges at that time, and it was more common for a physician to learn the trade under the tutelage of another doctor. The New Hampshire Medical Society History, published in 1966, notes, “It would be a mistake to assume that the establishment of medical schools in the colonies attracted throngs of students to their lecture halls, or that their degrees were looked on as requisite to practice. The 3,500 physicians active at the beginning of the American Revolution included a mere 400 with medical degrees. The remaining 3,100 qualified themselves mainly under the apprenticeship system, learning by observing and assisting in practice of experienced physicians.”

Tenney arrived in Exeter in 1775, intending to set up practice, but quickly got caught up in the American Revolution. When the fighting began at Bunker Hill, Dr. Tenney signed on and treated the Continental Army throughout the war – including during the long winter at Valley Forge with General Washington.

After the war, he returned to Exeter and formed a circle of friends – among them some of the most innovative and intellectual men in town. He was a member of many literary and historical organizations, writing a description of Exeter for the Massachusetts Historical Society in 1795. In it, he expressed his enthusiasm for education and a outright distrust of ‘common labourers’; “this, at least, is certain, that the morals of the inhabitants of country villages, which, in New England, are tolerably pure, would run a great hazard of being contaminated and depraved, by an intermixture of too many foreigners of the lower class of manufacturers, who, it is well known, are too generally idle, intemperate, and disorderly.”

In 1797, he and Oliver Peabody, Benjamin Abbot, Gideon Lamson and Ebenezer Clifford incorporated the first library in Exeter. He also took a bride – successfully wooing and winning the elegant and intelligent Tabitha Gilman.

But his interest in medicine waned. Politics held more of an attraction and he successfully ran for Congress, serving three terms in Washington. It was lucky, perhaps, for him that the ‘lower class of manufacturers’ were barred from voting thus giving him an edge with the property owning men who did elect him. Before he and Tabitha packed up for Washington, they hired his friend, Ebenezer Clifford, to build a house in the center of town.

Clifford styled the house on an English mansion and, with the assistance of Bradbury Johnson, who was himself a fine architect, built the house in Exeter’s town square right next to the newly erected First Parish Church, which the two men had also erected.

The magnificent house they created was striking. The fa├žade was so unusual that when Phineas Merrill sketched his map of Exeter in 1802, he carefully reproduced the profile of the Tenney house instead of inserting his usual cartoonish and very generic house outline to mark the owner’s address.

Samuel Tenney lived in the house until his death in 1816. It was sold following the death of Tabitha in 1837, to Tristram Shaw, who, like Tenney, served in the United States Congress. The house’s location – right in the center of town – made it desirable, or at least made the property desirable.

In 1893, the Rockingham County Commissioners decided to build a new courthouse in Exeter, which was then the County Seat. The most obvious location for such an edifice was the town square. The Tenney house would have to go. Rather than tear the old building down, it was sold with the understanding that it would need to be moved. The ell was separated from the house and moved around the corner to River Street. Dana Baker, who purchased the main house, wanted it on his new lot on High Street.

Moving the house must have been the highlight of the summer of 1893, yet there is barely any mention in the local newspapers. Great Bridge, which had been reinforced heavily with solid timbers, bore the strain heavily on a Wednesday afternoon in June. No doubt everyone involved heaved a great sigh of relief. The house then traveled to its current location. “The Dr. Tenney house has this week been moved to a lot on High street and when located, with alterations and improvements, will be occupied by Mr. D. W. Baker,” commented the Exeter Gazette taciturnly, as if hundred year old houses of Revolutionary War veterans commonly wandered around town. It stands today, a member of the National Registry of Historic Places, on the corner of High and Gardner Streets.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Exeter High School Students Win Naval History Award at National History Day Contest for Documentary on Portsmouth Peace Treaty

Exeter High School NH History Day Senior Group Documentary team with their medals
The Exeter High School team who won top honors in the statewide History Day competition in April won the runner-up national honors for the Naval History prize and “Outstanding Senior Entry” among all New Hampshire participants at the national competition held at the University of Maryland, June 12-16, 2011.

Chandra Boudreau, Zachary Keefe, Charles Rickarby, Arielle Fleischer, and Ian Smith competed against more than forty films from U.S. states and territories. The students spent eight months researching, filming and editing their 10-minute documentary, “The Portsmouth Peace Treaty: A Victory for the World.”

“It was an outstanding experience, from start to finish,” said Chandra Boudreau. “When we were doing the research and interviews and then editing down all the material we had, it seemed like it would never end. But then when we were in Baltimore, representing New Hampshire and competing with all those others kids and some really amazing projects, it was all worthwhile. We definitely increased awareness of the Russo-Japanese War and the lasting importance of the Portsmouth Peace Treaty."

In addition to research in original source documents related to the Portsmouth Peace Treaty that was negotiated at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard over nearly 30 days in August 1905, the students toured the Shipyard Building 86 Peace Building Museum and the Portsmouth Peace Treaty exhibit in downtown Portsmouth. They interviewed Charles B. Doleac, chairman of the Portsmouth Peace Treaty Forum and author of An Uncommon Commitment to Peace: Portsmouth Peace Treaty 1905, Peter Randall, author of There Are No Victors Here: A Local Perspective on the Treaty of Portsmouth; Navy Public Affairs Officer Gary Hildreth at the Shipyard and Barbara Rimkunas, curator of the Exeter Historical Society. The students’ documentary includes clips of the interviews and historic photographs of the Russian and Japanese envoys in Portsmouth in 1905 and their welcome by local citizens.

The students' film also competed against fifty-six other student productions at the New Hampshire Student Short Film Festival. Their film was a Jury Finalist and earned the Audience Choice Award.

In congratulating her students, Ms. Stevenson said "This is authentic learning at its best. The students did the work of historians and added to the public's understanding of a past event and why it still matters today."

According to the website, “National History Day (NHD) is a highly regarded academic program for elementary and secondary school students. Each year, more than half a million students, encouraged by thousands of teachers nationwide participate in the NHD contest. Students choose historical topics related to a theme and conduct extensive primary and secondary research through libraries, archives, museums, oral history inter views and historic sites. After analyzing and interpreting their sources and drawing conclusions about their topics’ significance in history, students present their work in original papers, websites, exhibits, performances and documentaries.”

The Kenneth E. Behring National History Day Contest in June is the final stage of a series of contests at local and state levels, across the country. The contest is named for Mr. Behring in recognition of his support of NHD. The theme for 2011 was “Debate & Diplomacy in History: Successes, Failures & Consequences.” In addition to discovering the exciting world of the past, NHD also helps students develop the following attributes that are critical for future success such as critical thinking and problem-solving skills, res earch and reading skills, oral and written communication and presentation skills, self esteem and confidence and a sense of responsibility for and involvement in the democratic process.

For more information on National History Day, visit
For more information on the Portsmouth Peace Treaty see

Friday, June 10, 2011

The Legacy of Richie McFarland

by Barbara Rimkunas
This "Historically Speaking" column appeared in the Exeter News-Letter on Friday, June 10, 2011.

Richie McFarland (courtesy of Jane McFarland)
In the summer of 1970, Richard and Jane McFarland received the heart-breaking news that their one-year-old son, Richard Jr., was suffering from a rare genetic disorder known as Hurlers Syndrome. Unless there was a medical breakthrough within the next few years, Richie’s prognosis was grim. Facing a gradual decline in mental abilities, physical strength and language skills, the boy’s life was destined to be short. His parents, faced with this future, sought ways to make Richie’s life full.

In a letter written several years later, Jane McFarland said, “Richie is thoroughly enjoying his life; he is a beautiful, happy and very active child; he seems to thrive on being with other people. It was when I first sensed this that I began to make inquiries about a nursery school for special children. A pediatrician at the Exeter Clinic informed me that we were very sadly lacking any such facility in the area. Subsequently a group was formed involving interested parents, physicians and others.”

By 1971, there was a growing consensus that early intervention for handicapped children would greatly enhance their ability to learn later on, but there were few resources for parents to turn to. The child’s specific needs made families feel isolated from the rest of society – particularly when there were no places that would accommodate the child’s needs. The group Jane McFarland spoke of in her letter first met in July of 1971. They quickly determined their goal: open a nursery school for handicapped children ages 3 to 6 by October. They hired a professional teacher, obtained space at the Bixler House on Center Street and called their school the Rockingham Children’s Center. The main goal of the school, according to a press release in the Exeter News-Letter that ran in September was, “to provide early educational experiences and socialization,” for “youngsters who are handicapped and who would be ineligible for other nursery schools.” With eight students enrolled, the school opened three days a week on October 5th, 1971.
Before the advent of mainstreaming, students who were physically, emotionally or educationally challenged were sent to schools outside the public school system. In Exeter, the similarly named Rockingham School for Special Children had served the needs of school-aged children of varying needs since 1959. But it was unable to provide services for very young children. The new Rockingham Children’s Center sought to fill that gap. Emphasis was placed on self-care, socialization, language skills and music. During its first year, the school functioned with one paid teacher, two music volunteers and a number of volunteer aides. By 1973, the school had grown to include 20 children - some handicapped and some not - with an expanded staff of one head teacher and two teacher aides. Occupational therapy was now offered, but the school had outgrown its location and, in 1974, moved to 11 Prospect Avenue.

In February of 1974, Richie McFarland’s short life ended. The board of trustees immediately proposed a name change for the center to honor the little boy who had inspired its creation. In a unanimous vote, the Rockingham Children’s Center became the Richie McFarland Children’s Center.

The center moved to its permanent location in Stratham in 1985 and continues to serve young children in Rockingham County. An additional center is now located in Portsmouth at the Pease International Tradeport. The mission of the center has not changed much from its original intent, providing developmental and support services for children with special needs, assistance to their families and assistance in the use of community and health resources. Countless families in Rockingham County have been helped by this organization, started 40 years ago by a small group of people who envisioned a better future, not just for their own, but for all children.

You can learn more about the Richie McFarland Children's Center by visiting their website,, "liking" their facebook page, following their Twitter feed or by calling 603-778-8193.