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.