Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Greenhouses in Exeter

The latest "Historically Speaking" column appeared in the February 22nd issue of the Exeter News-Letter.

by Barbara Rimkunas


The first commercial greenhouse in Exeter was built by Daniel Hayes on Jady Hill near where Bittersweet Lane is located today. Hayes was a local farmer who also had a milk route in town. Of him, the Exeter News-Letter said, “While still keeping his farm in full and successful operation, he had since 1866 been a leading florist of the town, from time to time adding to his plant until he had in successful operation three large greenhouses, in the aggregate covering a space of 6,000 square feet and excellently equipped and stocked.”

Within just a few years, Hayes’ greenhouses were joined by others in town. The 1874 map shows two greenhouses on Pine Street. The first was operated by Charles Burley, who described himself as a florist in the town directory. His advertisement in 1887 offered, “garden flowers, fine roses, cut flowers, bouquets and decorations – orders by mail or express promptly attended to.”

The other Pine Street greenhouse was owned by Nathaniel Gordon. Gordon was a lawyer by training who had decided to leave the profession in the 1850s and go into business. He invested in California silver-mining and government bonds during the Civil War. As his profits grew, he was able to purchase a large homestead on Pine Street that had formerly belonged to Judge Henry Flagg French. French had maintained the property as a model farm with modern drainage and a steady water supply. Gordon began tinkering with the idea of hothouse flower cultivation and eventually built several large greenhouses.

Both of the Pine Street greenhouses were eventually leased and then purchased by George W. Hilliard in the 1890s. Hilliard was one of Exeter’s most active businessmen. According to Nancy Merrill’s History of Exeter, New Hampshire, “Mr. Hilliard’s business enterprises included billiard and pool rooms in Exeter and a large summer hotel in the White Mountains. His greatest success, however, was as a florist; his rose conservatories were known throughout New England.”

Hilliard moved Burley’s greenhouse from Pine Street to Grove Court. He then expanded the enterprise over the next few years. By 1893, his Grove Street greenhouses were heralded in the Exeter News-Letter, “five houses, each of 100 by 15 feet, of which the first is stocked with violets, carnations and orchids, a particularly rare and handsome variety of the latter now in bloom being the odontoglossum grande. The other houses are successively stocked with perle de jardin and nephetos roses; with mermet and bride roses; with bride and Wootten roses, and with Woottens, lilies of the valley, colei, smilax, chrysanthemums and bavardia.”

But Hilliard’s greatest triumph was his American Beauty roses, cultivated in the former Gordon greenhouses. He partnered with Hilding Karlson, to create the firm of Hilliard and Karlson. Karlson, a native of Sweden, was, according to the News-Letter, “not only exceptionally skilled as a florist, but ambitious to master all sciences that bore upon his profession. For two years he had made private studies with Mr. White, of the Academy faculty, in agricultural chemistry, the two often working till the small hours of the night at the Academy laboratory.” Together Hilliard and Karlson began the cultivation of roses fine enough to enter regional flower competitions. The partnership was cut short when Karlson was killed during a freak storm on the 4th of July at Hampton Beach, but his level of scientific skill marked Hilliard’s later successes.

In early 1899, the American Florist noted that “Exeter had the honor of sending to Boston the finest American Beauty roses in the market for Christmas. They came to Welch Brothers from Hilliard and Karlson and no better blooms have ever been seen here.”

Hilliard renamed the business “Exeter Rose Conservatories.” In 1901, his roses took second prize at the Massachusetts Horticultural Society exhibition with stiff competition from other florists throughout New England, New York and New Jersey. Five years later at the same show he would win the Kasting Cup – top prize for the best 50 blooms – and the Welch Brothers’ Cup for the best vase of roses in the show. He shipped over 5,000 roses to Boston and Maine markets for Easter alone in 1907. By 1910, the Exeter Rose Conservatories was one of the largest in New England. The business flourished into the 1920s.

These pioneers of early greenhouse propagation led the way for later flower and nursery businesses in Exeter. John Lovering established the first greenhouse on Lincoln Street that would later become Dot’s Flower Shop. Forrest Ellison started his business on Brentwood road in 1910 with a converted chicken coop. Today greenhouse and garden establishments show no signs of disappearing from the landscape. During the dry frigid days of winter there is nothing as uplifting as a visit through the lush fragrant climate of a well-maintained greenhouse.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

5th Annual Nancy Carnegie Merrill History Award Contest 2011


Every winter the Exeter Historical Society invites students in grades 6 to 12 to compete for the Nancy Carnegie Merrill History Award in honor of our esteemed former curator for her invaluable contributions to the preservation and interpretation of our local history.

Students at the Cooperative Middle School and Exeter High School, as well as from the greater Seacoast area, are invited to enter by contacting faculty members in their social studies departments or the historical society directly for further information.

This year, the theme is "Exeter at the Time of the Civil War". We ask that in their research papers, the students explore an aspect of life in Exeter at the time of the Civil War, such as life on the homefront, family life, politics, industry, transporation, education, recreation, military life, or fashion, etc.  The papers must be turned in to the student's faculty liaison, to to the Exeter Historical Society by Tuesday, March 22, 2011.

A panel of judges will choose one entry from each division (Middle School and High School) that best meets the criteria of outstanding achievement in format, historical accuracy, originality, and style. A $100 prize will be awarded to each winner. Also, winning papers will be read by the authors at our annual Youth Night awards ceremony on Thursday, April 21 at 7pm. For the fifth consecutive year, Youth Night is sponsored by Seacoast Credit Union.  It is our hope that the Nancy Carnegie Merrill Award will foster an appreciation for our community and an interest in its past.

For additional information, please contact Laura Gowing, Program Manager.  Also, see the Flyer and Cover Sheet for 5th Annual Nancy Carnegie Merrill History Award.  (To download the flyer, click the green "Download" button in the right bottom corner, choose "PDF" and save to your computer.)

Friday, February 4, 2011

Have You Checked the Forecast Lately?


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

by Barbara Rimkunas

In 1892, the United States Weather Bureau decided that the town of Exeter should have a weather notification system. The Weather Bureau had been transferred the year before from the U.S. Army Signal Corps to the Department of Agriculture, and some changes were occurring quickly. And so the town decided to notify the population through a series of steam whistle blasts from the Exeter Machine Works near the railroad depot. Although crude, it was still an improvement over previous systems.

In the nineteenth century, most people relied on folk wisdom and the farmer’s almanac for weather information. “Clear moon, frost soon,” went one old saying, along with, “much noise made by rats and mice indicates rain.” Some folk wisdom was actually scientifically accurate – anvil-shaped clouds do frequently indicate a thunderstorm, for instance. But “Hark! I hear the asses bray, I think we’ll have some rain today,” wasn’t really a good prognosticator of the weather.

Almanacs then, as today, were also very poor predictors of the weather. The Old Farmer’s Almanac for 2011, for instance, lists the weather for February 1-4th as “sunny, mild”. It may boast of being 80% accurate, but it really only manages about 10%, and even that is only because it correctly predicts that winter will be cold and summer will be hot.

The most popular almanac in New Hampshire during the nineteenth century was Leavitt’s Farmer’s Almanac, first published in 1797 by Exeter-born Dudley Leavitt. Leavitt, and later his son William, provided weather forecasts similar to the modern Old Farmer’s Almanac. Checking the accuracy of Leavitt’s weather predictions is easier than one might think. Exeter’s Nathaniel Shute kept records of the weather from 1873 until just before his death in 1886. For February 1st, 1878, Leavitt predicted the weather would be “mild”. Shute recorded the day’s actual weather as “a violent snow storm.” Good thing he hadn’t relied on the almanac and planned a sleigh ride to Boston that day.

Actually, Leavitt didn’t get a single weather event correct that month. When Leavitt said it would snow, Shute recorded the weather as “fair”; when Shute recorded“rain and sleet,” Leavitt predicted fair skies. Really, the most reliable way of predicting the weather may well have been grandpa’s trick knee.

It was the telegraph that made weather forecasting practical. It had been noted for a long time that weather systems moved across the country in a predictable manner. But when it took four days to ride from Philadelphia to Boston, the weather usually got there first. It was impractical to send weather dispatches by horse and rider. Even the railroad wasn’t quicker than a storm front. But a telegraph operator in Buffalo could send word of an impending snowstorm in seconds. The Army Signal Corps had capitalized on the extension of the telegraph system and began gathering and disseminating weather data at the request of President Ulysses S. Grant.

By 1891, when the Weather Bureau became a civilian organization, there was a definite desire for accurate weather forecasting. Exeter had to figure out how to get the information to its citizens. Earlier attempts, in the 1880s, to use signal flags had proved costly and impractical. Placing the flags on the roof of the Exeter News-Letter building on Water Street was more difficult than anticipated during winter. The flags were expensive and quickly became tattered. The practice was discontinued within two years.

It was decided in early 1892 to use the steam whistle at the Exeter Machine Works. Close to the telegraph office and nearly central to the town, the Machine Works was an ideal location. The whistle was already being used as a fire alarm system. The Exeter Gazette noted, “Signals will be sounded by the Exeter Machine Works whistle daily, Sundays excepted, at 12:50 P.M., immediately after the fire alarm whistle. Indications are for 24 hours following. The warning signal, to attract attention, will be a long blast of from fifteen to twenty seconds duration. After this warning signal has been sounded, long blasts (of from four to six seconds duration) refer to weather, and short blasts (of from one to three seconds duration) refer to temperature; those for weather to be sounded first.”

A signal card was available at Wetherall’s Drug Store to decode the blasts, but the system was simple: one blast was fair weather; two blasts meant rain or snow. Short staccato blasts indicated changes in temperatures and three such blasts meant a cold spell was on the way.

The system was only used for a few years. Perhaps the noise began to wear on people’s nerves (count twenty seconds and try to imagine a long, loud steam whistle blast of that duration every single day, excepting Sunday, of course). The new Weather Bureau tried a number of new ways to notify the public, but by the early twentieth century telephones made communication even faster than telegraph and by the 1920s, radio broadcasts brought news - including weather - right into people’s homes.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Brewing in NH Program RESCHEDULED

Rescheduled, Tuesday, February 8

Brewing in New Hampshire: An Informal History of Beer in the Granite State from Colonial Times to the Present
Glenn Knoblock will explore the fascinating history of NH’s beer and ale brewing industry from Colonial days to today’s modern breweries. This program is sponsored by the NH Humanities Council.