Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Schooners in Exeter

by Barbara Rimkunas, "Historically Speaking", Exeter News-Letter, May 27, 2011

“The three-masted schooner, Benjamin T. Biggs of Exeter, H.W. Anderson controlling owner, was abandoned Sunday in a water logged condition 55 miles south-west of Seguin, an island off the mouth of the Kennebec,” related the Exeter News-Letter in July of 1900. The Biggs was a frequent visitor to the wharves of Exeter, hauling coal by the ton for H.W. Anderson. But she didn’t survive her trip down the Kennebec River. When Anderson traveled to Maine to check on his schooner, it was too late.

The Squamscott River connects to Great Bay and ultimately the Atlantic Ocean. In the early part of the 19th century, salt, bricks, paper, fish, cotton and textiles made their way up and down the Squamscott in elegant schooners. The final miles were accomplished with the help of a tugboat, as the twisting nature of the riverbed made navigation difficult. On the river, the schooners faced few risks. Out at sea, the trip could be far more perilous.

The Mary Manning hauled coal for H.W. Anderson, but this wasn’t the only type of cargo she hauled. In 1900, she was carrying a full load of ice out of Bangor, Maine when she grounded at the mouth of the Penobscot River. The inquest placed the blame firmly on the tugboat Seguin, which had allowed too much towing line. The ship wasn’t badly damaged and was soon put to work again. In March of 1906, the Mary Manning left Florida with a full load of yellow pine and railroad ties headed for New York. Off the coast of Boston a gale blew up and the ship was struck by lightning. “Before the storm had reached its height a bolt struck the main boom, which broke off, carrying away the mainsail and foretopmast staysail. The vessel was swamped by heavy seas and all the boats were swept away or smashed. The schooner carried a donkey engine to hoist the sails, but a giant sea flooded the engine room, smashed the forward house, and ruined all the provisions except the canned goods,” reported the New York Times on March 7th.

The ship soon sprung a leak and the desperate crew tried to keep it afloat for 110 hours. “With two of his ribs beaten in by a shifting deckload of lumber, Ingebard Gjerteen, a Norwegian sailor, dived from the wrecked Mary Manning, a four-masted schooner, in the height of a gale on Saturday last, and saved the life of Joseph Arie of Waretown, N.J., the mate, who had become delirious and jumped overboard,” the Times continued. The ship was going down when the crew was rescued by the Casilda. All hands were saved, but their condition was “so grave that it was difficult to keep life in them.” The Mary Manning was last seen sinking to the bottom of the sea.

Anderson’s Benjamin T. Biggs didn’t fare much better. Loaded with Maine lumber for New York, she, like the Manning, hit a gale and quickly swamped. The crew was picked up 17 hours later. The Exeter News-Letter quoted Captain Tibbetts as saying, “When we left the vessel she was beginning to break up forward and at one place in the cabin floor. We had quite a rough experience. We saved only our dunnage.” Tugs were sent out to tow the ship to shore, but Anderson would find that his ship – which should have been able to recover – was destroyed by the rescuers.

By the time the wreck was towed back to Rockland, “attempt had previously been made to burn her as a dangerous derelict, and she was ablaze when picked up. As a result of this fire, which destroyed her deck and upper works, the Biggs is a hopeless wreck, and only her anchors and chains can be saved,” reported the News-Letter.

Anderson had lost one of his most dependable schooners. The following year he began hiring sturdy gundalows to haul coal. “Each year sees a dimunition in the number of small schooners and Mr. Anderson finds it difficult to charter all he needs. He has been compelled to have 600 tons of coal delivered at Portsmouth to be brought up river by his own and chartered gundalows,” the News-Letter reported.

Within two decades, most of the coal used in Exeter would be brought in by rail and freight trucks. They may not have had the majesty of the schooners, but they were much safer for the crew.

The Civil War Begins

by Barbara Rimkunas, "Historically Speaking", Exeter News-Letter, April 15, 2011

When Abraham Lincoln won the presidential election in November of 1860 there was celebrating in the streets of Exeter. The Exeter News-Letter reported, “the streets were filled with the multitude of men, women and children. The wide awakes, in uniform and with torches blazing marched through the principal streets, throwing off fireworks and giving hearty cheers as they passed along preceded by the Exeter Cornet Band, whose excellent music was frequently praised by the spectators. The bells of the several churches were ringing during the evening until 10 o’clock.”

But the celebrations were tempered within a week with threats of secession from South Carolina and Georgia. In Exeter, as in other parts of the country, the sword rattling seemed premature and uncalled for, “They know, or they ought to know, that Mr. Lincoln will not interfere with slavery in the States where it is established by law,” commented the News-Letter editor. The Constitution allowed slavery, and, as far as most Exeter citizens were concerned, it could continue to exist in those states that allowed it. Lincoln was opposed to the spread of slavery in the western territories. Why should his opposition to slavery in, say, Kansas, be cause for breaking up the Union?

As the New Year arrived, Americans were still in disbelief that the South could take such steps. “The Constitution, which all the states have adopted, makes no provision for the secession of a state, however much she may feel herself aggrieved. It is her duty to try to redress her grievances in the Union,” noted the News-Letter. “The present rebellion will probably terminate after much bloodshed, unless the government of the United States consents to let the secessionists have their own way and go out of the Union without opposition.” They worried about Lincoln’s inauguration – his election was the only reason given by the southern states for disunion.

“There is nothing of importance transpiring now, except the disunion movement which is the topic of conversation in every circle,” wrote Exeter resident B. Judson Perkins in his diary. On March 4th he noted, “This is a beautiful day. Pres. Lincoln was inaugurated today without any opposition. It was celebrated in this town by the ringing of bells and firing cannon.”

The new president made no overt moves to eliminate slavery, but the south still threatened to leave the Union. When a brief mention was made that the Exeter Town Hall had settled slightly into its foundation, the News-Letter’s editor used it to make a point – “Perhaps the basement is seceding, who knows? Gravitation admits of no compromises with her principles, and Constitutions should not. The Court would rule, that the walls should be coerced by bolts and bars; indeed this would be a decision of habit.”

When the war actually began in April, Exeter was quite clear on why it was happening: the South was in rebellion against the Union because it feared for its system of slavery. It was a Constitutional requirement that the Union be maintained, and that was what drew young men to join the army and the general population to support the effort.

“Our country has cost us too much blood and is of too much value to ourselves and to the world, to be sacrificed to a lawless band of desperadoes,” wrote a clergyman from Exeter in an open letter to the president. Elias Nason, pastor at the First Congregational Church in town, preached a fiery war sermon the week after war was declared in which he pronounced, “Down with the Rebellion! The South of this great country is on fire for war. Rebellion anarchy and ruffianism on the one hand; liberty, law and order on the other. Our nation’s flag has been insulted; our integrity broken and hatred and full defiance backed with cannon in the hands of traitors, hurled against the supporters of the law.”

New Hampshire didn’t have a trained army when war broke out and it took some time to get one organized. In late May the first group of Exeter men left town, “The volunteers who have enlisted at Exeter N.H. and been residing here for some time, left Saturday afternoon for Portsmouth. They were escorted by the Exeter cornet Band to the railroad station, and followed by the company of Students of the Academy, who have been in the practice of drilling for several weeks past,” reported the News-Letter.

The war had begun, and Exeter committed itself to preserving the Union. The problem of slavery didn’t seem to be the cause they were fighting about in 1861. Even Exeter historian, Charles Bell, titled his chapter on the Civil War as “The War for the Union”. But patriotism ran high, as this incident in the News-Letter attests, “On Thursday morning last, as a butcher from South Newmarket was stopping near the Post Office in this town, one of the soldiers lately enlisted placed a small flag, the Stars and Stripes, in the horse’s harness. This so incensed the butcher, that he took down the flag, and rent it in pieces. The last seen of said butcher he was fleeing down Stratham road at 240 speed, with about 30 of the soldiers following him.”

Sunday Baseball in 1917

by Barbara Rimkunas, "Historically Speaking", Exeter News-Letter, May 6, 2011

In the years just following the Civil War, baseball began to be referred to as the “national sport”. The soldiers had played the game whenever they hadn’t been fighting and it was brought home to the thousands of small towns across America. Exeter was no exception and baseball became quite popular in town.

According to an Exeter News-Letter article published in 1943, the first baseball team in town was formed in the early 1870s. A purely amateur team, the Exeter Eagles played any other team that challenged them. The News-Letter mentioned that, “by and large only a few towns have had a baseball team strictly on an amateur basis and composed entirely of representatives of the town as Exeter had in the Eagles in their day.”

The game was played quite differently in its early years, “the players used no gloves at all and the modern ‘baskets’ worn by the players of today would amaze them,” continued the News-Letter, “They had no masks or pads. The distance of the pitcher from the home plate varied and there was no well defined box. Later he was allowed to run a few steps before pitching. The catcher stood back and caught the ball on the bound as a rule so that base stealing was easy, but he always came up behind the bat when there was a runner on third base.”

The Eagles disbanded after a few seasons, but other teams were formed in town. The fire department’s Hook and Ladder Company took on the M.D.F. Steere Company of Amesbury in 1899 and won 16 to 3. Always good hosts, both teams then repaired to the Hook and Ladder house for a hearty supper – which was interrupted twice by working fires. The Amesbury team pitched in to help and neither fire kept them from their dinner and dancing for very long.

Phillips Exeter Academy and Exeter High School both brought to the sport to their students. The annual Exeter –Andover game became a local event.

As enthusiasm for baseball grew, the sport became more organized. The New England League got its start in 1886 and went through several incarnations before finally folding in 1949. New Hampshire had minimal participation in the league due to restrictive blue laws – most of the games were played on Sunday, which was against the law in the state. Although officially on the books, the ban on playing sports on the Sabbath was largely overlooked in the amateur level. When, in 1917, the New Hampshire General Court proposed, and then rejected, taking the ban off the books, J.D. Leach wrote an angry letter to the News-Letter:
“I have been in Exeter for two years and am returned for a third. During the last two years baseball is played in this town during the months of May and June on pleasant Sundays. This isn’t heresy, it is a fact. Baseball was played last Sunday. When the House of Representatives overwhelmingly defeated that bill to allow Sunday baseball the inference is that the above law holds good. Will it in Exeter? What will the officers do in upholding this law? Are they waiting for someone to make a complaint? If they are it will be forthcoming. I will everlastingly denounce and condemn any form of lawlessness whether it is participated in by society so-called or mob rule.”

Leach doesn’t seem to have attracted many fellow-travelers to his baseball ban. The games continued on Saturdays and Sundays. Some teams, like the firefighters, challenged other teams in their profession. In 1891, the Exeter Printers defeated the Haverhill Printers 16 to 11.

The Clippers were a favored Exeter team for many years and the Exeter Bears, the town’s only semi-pro team, went all the way to nationals in 1950. By that time, the game was standardized and the teams played on the high school field. It was a far cry from the way the Eagles had played, on the Park Street plains eighty years earlier. The News-Letter remarked, “While the Eagles were a splendid team in those days and in a class all by themselves they would probably make a poor showing today if stacked up against a team of only moderate ability due to the change in playing. Although heavy batters in their day they would probably be helpless before a good pitcher now.”

Ranesford Rogers and the White Caps

by Barbara Rimkunas, "Historically Speaking", Exeter News-Letter, April 1, 2011

Tucked away in the back of Charles Bell’s History of the Town of Exeter, New Hampshire, is a small anecdote about a group of treasure hunters who were duped by a transient rogue named Rainsfield Rogers. Bell was a cautious historian who wouldn’t have included the story if he wasn’t sure it was true, but he also didn’t want to embarrass the people involved. And so we have a somewhat funny story which, due to Bell’s reticence, has few verifiable elements.

In the tale, Rogers arrives in town and is able to convince about a dozen Exeter men that there is treasure buried somewhere within the town limits. The men formed a work gang and night after night they followed Rogers into the woods and swamps to dig for gold. That they never found anything didn’t seem to have discouraged any of them – nor did it make them question Roger’s ability to pick the sites for digging.

In 1800, around the time this incident seems to have occurred, Exeter was still a strict Protestant town. Parish taxes were collected and church membership was considered a civic duty. But within this stringent society there was still an undercurrent of the occult. “White magic” practitioners were occasional visitors to the landscape and were granted a certain amount of credibility. These people, sometimes known as cunning folk, were contacted to help find lost items or to locate water by dowsing. Among the many types of cunning folk were money-diggers. Tracing their trade back to ancient alchemistic traditions, it was commonly believed that mists and gasses deep within the earth produced hordes of precious metals – particularly mercury and gold. Or the belief might have been that there were piles of gold coins buried by the ancients, or even pirates. However it may have gotten there wasn’t as important as the absolute fact that there was gold in them thar hills.

The New Hampshire Sentinel reported in 1822, “Every country has its money diggers, who are full in the belief that vast treasures lay concealed in the earth. So far from being a new project, it dates its origin with the first man who ever wielded a spade. Even in these latter days, we find men so much in love with the ‘root of all evil’ and so firm in the belief that it may be dug up, that they will traverse hill and dale, climb the loftiest mountain, and even work their way into the bowels of the earth in search of it. Indeed digging for money hid in the earth, is a very common thing; and in this State, it is even considered an honorable and profitable employment.” So perhaps it’s not too surprising that Rogers was able to convince the treasure hunters in Exeter that quick riches only required some digging.

What the Exeter men didn’t know was that Rainsford Rogers had a long history of swindling gullible people out of their own money. He’d been involved in a well-publicized scheme in New Jersey that was published in a book called, “The Morris-Town Ghost: An Account of the Beginning, Transactions and Discovery of Ransford Rogers, who seduced many by pretended Hobgoblins and Apparitions, and thereby extorted Money from their Pockets,” in 1788. He slipped away from Morris County, changed his name to “Rice Williams” for a while and continued to ply his trade as a dowser of gold until he arrived in Exeter sometime around 1800. Charles Bell picks up the story from there, “he came to Exeter, bearing his true name of Rainsford Rogers, which had, perhaps, not acquired so bad an odor in New England as in some other quarters.” He asked the men to wear white caps while digging, perhaps to make it easier to spot them all in the dark.

At one point in the Exeter escapade, Rogers used a tactic he’d used before – he dressed up as a ghost to further convince the diggers that they were in the right place. The ghost muttered something unintelligible, to which one of the men inquired, “a little louder, Mr. Ghost; I’m rather hard of hearing!” The men dug with renewed enthusiasm.

Bell continued, “After a time Rogers disclosed what he declared to be the reason of their want of success. The golden deposit was there, beyond question; but they needed one thing more to enable them to find and grasp it. That was a particular kind of divining-rod.” Naturally, this would cost money. The men raised several hundred dollars, loaned Rogers a horse and off he rode to Philadelphia (or so they thought) never to be heard from again.

Exeter, being a small town, had long been aware of the midnight digging sessions of the “secret” little group. When it was revealed that Rogers was gone, the men involved received no end of ribbing from the population and were thereafter branded with the moniker “white caps.” According to Bell, “The deaf man who required the ghost to ‘speak a little louder’ never heard the last of his unfortunate speech.”

Baby Week 1917

"Historically Speaking", by Barbara Rimkunas, Exeter News-Letter, May 13, 2011

“Health authorities unite in saying that public interest is now needed to put into operation methods for infant welfare which are well ascertained and tested. The observance of a Baby Week is an expedient for securing attention to facts about the needs of babies which are well known by scientific authorities and which if popularized will greatly reduce the loss of infant life throughout this country,” so said Julia Lathrop, the director of the United States Children’s Bureau in 1915.


Lathrop was a social reformer during a period known as the Progressive Era, which stretched from the 1890s through the 1920s. During this time, social reform became governmental policy – often spearheaded by women. The reformers tackled the problems of unsafe working conditions, substandard wages, overcrowded housing, poor education, food safety and public health.

In large cities, disease and early death were endemic. Overcrowded housing and a lack of basic hygiene created a cesspool of pathogens that could easily overwhelm neighborhoods. When the Children’s Bureau was first created in 1915, there were few statistics kept regarding the health of infants because there had never been adequate recordkeeping. One of the first steps the bureau took was the creation of mandatory birth registration. The new records revealed horrifying infant mortality rates of up to 10% in many places.

Inspired by this new statistical method of gauging infant mortality and public health, the town of Exeter launched its own social survey in 1915 and found that Exeter mirrored many of the larger cities. In the previous nine years, the usual birth rate for the town was just over 100 live births; of these, anywhere from 7-14 would result in the death of the baby before the age of one. “A little child,” read the report, “should have a better chance of reaching the age of one year than he has had during the last nine years as indicated by our figures. For we do not have to contend against the conditions which make the infant mortality rate so high in the cities, where the death rate is in some cases lower than in Exeter.”

Babies died from a number of causes, including diarrhea, pneumonia and infection. The survey committee recommended draining the old tanning pits on Academy Lane. The standing water in the unused pits was a breeding ground for mosquitoes, which had recently been discovered to be carriers of malaria. They also declared that they would, “through the health officer, provide for the proper disposal of garbage and for such care and treatment of stable manure as will prevent the breeding of flies.”

It was also recommended that, “a definite attempt be made to impress parents with the importance of the subject of personal hygiene both for themselves and their children.” Hygiene lessons were introduced into the schools, but this would not necessarily trickle into the home. Although attempts were made to teach the ‘little mothers’ (or older sisters of infants), it was really the actual mothers who had to be reached and educated. This could only be done through a public campaign highlighting the importance of healthy babies.

Large cities held week-long events that celebrated babies. Exeter couldn’t quite involve as many people, but the Exeter Women’s Club was able to garner support in 1917 from the local merchants, who were more than willing to highlight their baby-related merchandise in attractive window displays. The Social Welfare Department of the Women’s Club hosted the eminent Dr. John Lovett Morse, author of Diseases of Nutrition and Infant Feeding, at a public lecture. Dr. Morse believed, “saving babies is essentially the privilege and duty of the mother. These little lives are not preserved by heroic or spectacular deeds, but by the patient, tireless devotion to routine details, hour by hour, and day by day, thus making the debt of the child to its parent so great that it can only be repaid by the same self-sacrifice to the next generation.” He encouraged breastfeeding and, aside from discouraging too much interaction with a baby, which he felt would upset it, his advice was not much different from childcare advice we receive today. Keep the baby clean. Keep the baby well-fed. Take the baby out into the fresh air as much as possible.

The Baby Week Campaign succeeded in improving conditions and survival rates for infants , even though it was held only once in Exeter. With the outbreak of the First World War the following year, people had other public efforts to attend to. The influenza struck at the war’s end and the lessons of public health became more critical as Exeter faced this crisis. Medical advances following World War II would further improve infant health, but it was the pioneers of public health – arising from the Progressive Era – who realized that the health of the individual strengthened the health of the community. Right down to its smallest members.

Exeter Historical Society's New Exhibit: The Art and Archaeology of William White

Join the Exeter Historical Society on Saturday, June 11 from 12:00 pm to 2:00 pm for the opening of the new exhibit, “The Art and Archaeology of William White”. The reception will include light refreshments and will take place at the Exeter Historical Society, 47 Front Street, Exeter. After the reception, the exhibit will be open to the public during the Society’s open hours and is free, though donations to help cover the costs of our programs are always welcome.

Born in 1916, Bill White worked on the Linden Street farms of Frank Brown and Frank Wadleigh while still a schoolboy. Here, weeding carrots or hoeing corn, he found his first “arrowhead” and a lifelong interest in prehistory was born. As a young man he collected many artifacts while working on farms in Kensington, cultivating the fields of Frank Kimball, Hibbert Baker, Sherman Shaw and others. He widened his explorations by walking or cycling to search plowed ground in surrounding communities.

These pursuits were interrupted by World War II, in which he saw combat in New Guinea and the Philippines. After returning to Exeter, Bill came to know Laurence Crosbie, then teaching at Phillips Exeter Academy and a well-known collector of prehistorical artifacts. In 1947, Bill, Laurence Crosbie and others founded the New Hampshire Archaeological Society. Soon Bill was participating in the Society’s excavations, some of which were conducted on sites that he had discovered. He shared his interest in archaeology with such friends as Mike Jenkinson and Zike Burke, both of whom became serious amateurs attending or hosting “digs”. With Eugene Finch, Bill co-authored several reports, including one on the important site at Newfields Road. In 1982, he received the Society’s highest award, the Chester B. Price Memorial Award, in recognition of his contributions to the archaeology of the state of New Hampshire.

Today, the plowed fields around Exeter where Bill collected have all but vanished, lost to development or abandoned to a returning forest, but his sharp-eyed and energetic searching has yielded a wealth of material from the area’s long and complex prehistory. His collection of thousands of pieces, each carefully marked to locality, was generously donated to the New Hampshire Archaeological Society in 2004.

In addition to his archaeology, Bill was also a prolific artist, primarily working as a sculptor and painter. Here are two examples of his artwork. In the photo, Bill is on the left, working on a stone sculpture. The other image is one of his striking watercolors. For more information, contact Barbara Rimkunas, curator, at the Exeter Historical Society at 603-778-2335 or info@exeterhistory.org.

The Exeter Historical Society is a non-profit organization dedicated to the research and preservation of Exeter’s past. The Historical Society is open to the public on a weekly basis, Tuesdays and Thursdays from 2 – 4:30 pm, and on Saturdays from 9:30 am to noon. Exeter Historical Society, 47 Front Street, PO Box 924, Exeter, New Hampshire, 03833, 603-778-2335, info@exeterhistory.org, www.exeterhistory.org.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Footsteps of Heroes: Civil War Walking Tours of Newburyport

As part of the Sesquicentennial of the Civil War commemoration, please join the Civil War Roundtable on Memorial Day, Monday, May 30, 2011 at 2 p.m. for walking tours of Newburyport.

The 90 minute walking tour features sites and stories of Newburyport’s Civil War history including Albert W. Bartlett and the first troops who left the Clipper City; stories of the shipyard; a local politician (and dear friend of Jefferson Davis) who almost ran against Lincoln for president; stories of Frederick Douglass’ visit; a Newburyporter who would become a Confederate General; and more!

The tour begins and ends at 57 State Street (Arthur Page Insurance Co). Please wear appropriate clothing and comfortable shoes. Tips are welcome, a portion of which will go to historic preservation.

For more information, please email William Hallett.