Monday, December 24, 2012

Exeter History Minute -- Nancy Carnegie Merrill

In this episode of the Exeter History Minute, we explore the contributions of Nancy Carnegie Merrill to the history of the Town of Exeter. Upon moving to the town, Nancy served as a school nurse for SAU16, and then went on to become a reference librarian and Exeter historian extraordinaire. (Click here to watch.) This episode is brought to you by Exeter Hospital,

To learn more about Exeter history -- or to support the Exeter Historical Society -- visit our website, #ExeterHistoryMinute

Friday, December 21, 2012

The Pioneer Chemical Fire Company

by Barbara Rimkunas

This "Historically Speaking" column appeared in the Exeter News-Letter on Friday, December 21, 2012.

In 1873, the Exeter Fire Department, with great fanfare, purchased the giant Eagle Steam engine from the Amoskeag Manufacturing Company in Manchester, New Hampshire. Capable of hurling 700 gallons of water per minute on a fire, this new monster changed the way fires were fought in town. The old hand pumped ‘engines’, which were dragged to a fire scene by fast-footed firefighters, and sometimes filled by bucket brigade, were rendered obsolete by the Eagle. But just before the purchase of the steam engine, the town had already taken steps to modernize the department by obtaining the latest technologically advanced piece of equipment: the waterless fire extinguisher.

Chemical fire extinguishers were invented in France in the mid-1860s, when it was demonstrated that mixing bicarbonate of soda and sulfuric acid would create carbon dioxide, which would suffocate a fire. The reaction of these two chemicals is similar to mixing baking soda and vinegar together – something most of us have tried while making a volcano in fourth grade science class. The resultant foam even self-propels itself through a rubber hose making any pumping mechanism unnecessary.

We’re comfortable with similar home extinguishers in use today, although they are mostly designed to use dry chemicals and are far safer and smaller than the ones used on the extinguisher trucks of the 19th century. Exeter purchased its Babcock Chemical apparatus from the New England Fire Extinguisher Company, a Massachusetts firm, for $800.00. The piece consisted of a hand-drawn wagon with two enormous tanks of chemicals and sufficient rubber hose. The practicality of the device, according to the sales pitch, was in its very small size. It had no complex machinery, no fire to stoke or steam to generate, it was cheaper to purchase and use, could be pulled quickly by a few firemen, produced no water damage and was always ready. What could be the downside to this quirky piece of fire equipment?

The Babcock was housed in the Spring Street engine house with a company of 12 men who specialized in its use. They called themselves the Pioneer Chemical Company – all were men who lived near the station. They wrote up the usual by-laws for a fire company and set the fines for those who didn’t turn up at a fire scene without a good excuse. The Pioneer Chemical Company met each month to test the equipment. As was typical of fire companies at this time, they met also to discuss town events and generally fraternize with one another. This was, after all, the era of clubs and fraternal organizations. Like other groups - such as the Masons, Odd Fellows and Red Men- fire companies nominated members and voted on whether to accept applicants. And every now and then they reported to an actual fire scene.

The Pioneer proved to work very well at extinguishing small fires in tight places. For downtown business owners, the chemical extinguisher company was a wonder. A small fire in a bakery kitchen could be put out quickly and would leave little damage. Pulled to the scene quickly by men, the Pioneer would arrive on scene and rapidly put out the fire, whereas the Eagle Steamer would have needed time to stoke a fire in the engine, hitch up the horses and find a water source. Then it would have thrown 700 gallons of water onto the fire, possibly destroying the kitchen in the process.

However, for large structure fires and brush fires, the Pioneer Chemical Company was not at its best. Most of these fires would find the company marginalized to tamping out embers – an important job, but not something that couldn’t also be handled by someone with a wet mop. The Pioneer log book more often than not lists fire calls where the engine “did not play” – a phrase used by firefighters to mean “did not get to spray the fire” and a deep disappointment to all involved.

In spite of its usefulness, within 10 years, the Fire Department began to question the value of the chemical company. For one thing, businesses began to purchase their own fire extinguishers as prices came down. And another problem was that with ever more frequency, the chemical equipment failed to work at all. Entries in the log in the 1890s alternate between “chemical did not play” and “chemical did not work.” At one point, in 1892, the State of New Hampshire Board of Engineers chastised the company for not keeping the tanks clean and neat. The town Fire Chief also had little love for the chemical company finding it generally unnecessary and an expense to the town. Finally, in 1894, much to the sorrow of the dedicated Pioneer Chemical Company members, the Fire Chief announced that, “the soda fountain has been condemned, so it is laid aside.” Members of the company lost their progressive status and were absorbed into the far less exciting hose companies that were scattered around town.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Pearl Harbor and the Exeter Aftermath

by Barbara Rimkunas

This "Historically Speaking" column appeared in the Exeter News-Letter on Friday, December 07, 2012

News of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor began to trickle into Exeter in the early afternoon. Most Exeter folks had already gone to church and finished lunch when the news broke. Although everyone was expecting war to break out, the suddenness startled the community.

Plenty of local men had already joined the armed forces — selective service had begun in September — and some Exeter men were at Pearl Harbor. Their safety was an immediate concern, "Japan's savage assault last Sunday on the United States' far eastern possessions had its effect in bringing the war close to Exeter," said the Exeter News-Letter on Dec. 11, "for several Exeter service men are stationed in that area." It would be weeks, and even months, before all were accounted for.

"Welcome news last Saturday," came a notice on Dec. 18, "to Mr. and Mrs. Robert W. Varrill a telegram from their son, Robert A. Varrill, in the Navy at Pearl Harbor, who is safe (although he was in the fighting)."

The following week — Christmas week — "Mr. and Mrs. Charles H. Batchelder have received word from their son, Private John E. Batchelder, who is stationed with the air corps at Hickam Field, Honolulu. He was unhurt in the Japanese attack on December 7th." It took until March 28 for the Richard family to get word that their son, Donald, was safe and still stationed at Pearl Harbor.

Because war had been anticipated for some time, people were quick to take action when it actually arrived. Foremost on everyone's mind was threat of bombing raids. Exeter's citizens had seen newsreel footage of German raids on Britain since August. Their namesake, Exeter, England, had been hard hit that fall with the central part of the city flattened by bombing.

"As a result of America's startling involvement in the World War last Sunday," the Exeter News-Letter announced, "all Exeter agencies connected with civilian defense and the support of our nation's armed forces are hastily making preparations for any eventuality."

Along the eastern seaboard of the United States a series of watchtowers were fitted out to search for enemy planes. Exeter's initial tower was at the Robinson Seminary on Lincoln Street. At first, it was assumed that veterans would staff the air raid watch towers. The News-Letter, on Dec. 11 reminded, "All veterans are to meet tonight (Thursday) in the Town Hall to get observation assignments." It was soon discovered, however, that there were not enough veterans to go around. The best people for the job of plane spotting turned out to be high school students — they were dependable, eager and their hearing and visual acuity was far superior to the over-40 crowd.

The paper reported: "to indicate a blackout, the electric company will pull a master switch extinguishing all electric lights two times. At such signal, or in the event of an air raid alarm at night, all illumination which might be observed from the sky must be concealed by means of window shades and blinds and the use of low-wattage lamps if illumination is needed within." People were also cautioned that cigarettes could be seen from the sky during a blackout and should be extinguished during an air raid drill. Neighborhoods were assigned volunteer air raid wardens, who patrolled their territory during the drills.

The Fire Department put out a call for extra volunteer firefighters. Should an air raid take place, there would be a great need for firefighters. Dr. Louis Theobald became head of the defense medical division. His greatest concern was for nurses and he put out a call to anyone who had any formal nursing training. The town was divided into medical districts; each assigned a physician, nurses, aids and couriers. All nurses living in town were required to register at the Town Hall. The Red Cross bulked up its Motor Corps and began teaching first aid classes, which were heavily attended. There were also notices in the newspapers about keeping one's pets calm during an air raid. People were encouraged to create an evacuation plan for themselves and their pets.

Yet, with all this preparation, in December of 1941 life went on. Intermixed with dire warnings about war preparation are the usual notices of Christmas pageants, Academy lectures and road repairs. Stores advertised Christmas toys right next to blackout panels for the windows. Even in Concord, the mix of fear and routine was noted. "Meanwhile, the machinery of state government has to keep grinding, whether we are at war or at peace," said a dispatch from the statehouse.

There were no air raids in Exeter during the war. The most frightening aspects of war did not reach our shores, but the threat was ever present. Like most places on the East Coast, the town managed its fear through action — preparation. Had the enemy come calling, Exeter would have been ready.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Exeter History Minute -- The Hurricane of 1938

With hurricanes fresh on our minds, in our sixth Exeter History Minute, we examine the devastation of the Hurricane of 1938, which hit Exeter on September 21. (Click here to watch.) This episode is brought to you by Exeter's Hampton Inn and Suites.

To learn more about Exeter history -- or to support the Exeter Historical Society -- visit our website, #ExeterHistoryMinute

The Exeter Holiday Parade

by Barbara Rimkunas

This "Historically Speaking" column appeared in the Exeter News-Letter on Friday, November 23, 2012

Most Exeter residents have fond memories of shopping in the downtown at Christmastime and the fun that takes place as the season kicks off. Since the 1890s, when local merchants began actively advertising gift items, the town has decorated and encouraged people to join in the festivities.

After 1916, when the bandstand was constructed it became the focal point of the downtown. Easily decorated to accommodate the season, the bandstand was the obvious place to hold Christmas events. Annually, there would be a discussion of whether to erect a tree and who would pay for decorations. A considerable amount of money was sunk into the lights just after World War II. It seems that people in town were eager to put blackouts and wartime austerity behind them.

In 1948, Exeter joined many communities in the United States by holding a parade. The ‘Santa Claus Parade’ was sponsored by local merchants and the Exeter Chamber of Commerce. Snaking around the downtown, the parade featured local school bands, the fire department, fraternal organizations like the Improved Order of Red Men – who marched in full regalia – and church groups, including St. Michaels’ CYO. The Kiwanis Club float carried the Exeter High School and Robinson Seminary glee clubs. At the end of the parade, on a huge flatbed truck with an igloo affixed, was Santa Claus himself.

Parades dedicated to the Christmas shopping season had been around for decades before Exeter joined the party. The granddaddy of them all was not the Macy’s parade in New York, but the Toronto Santa Claus parade, which first stepped out in 1905 and is still held today. In Canada the season starts earlier than in the United States. Canadian Thanksgiving is celebrated on the second Monday in October and Christmas is fair game after that. Here in the US we expend a considerable amount of whining about how the holiday starts earlier and earlier every year even though a careful study of newspaper accounts for the previous 100 years indicates that we’ve pretty much stuck to kicking things off around the end of November. Although the 1948 Exeter parade was held on December 10th, in 1973 it swung through the downtown on November 24. Today the parade committee keeps it on the first Saturday of December.

The Santa Claus parade marched for two years: 1948 and 1949. “The parade drew laughs, applause and shrieks of joy from the kiddies as their traditional Christmas hero, rode through snowless streets on a white truck on which was a white reindeer, Santa in his sleigh, and a white igloo,” wrote the Exeter News-Letter. Who knew Santa lived in an igloo?

The following year, however, parade Grand Marshal, Lyman Collishaw, had to admit that the post-war economy was tougher than expected. He wrote, in a letter to the editor of the Exeter News-Letter, “These parades in the past were paid for by businessmen and civic-minded citizens. This year we did not have the courage to again solicit for this feature.” The Chamber of Commerce arranged for the triumphant arrival of Santa, but had a more subdued tree-lighting ceremony instead of a parade.

The full parade returned in 1957 as the ‘Exeter Christmas Parade’ when, we can suppose, the economy made an uptick. Unhappily, the 1959 parade was rained out and most of the bands set to perform were unable to make the rescheduled event. They didn’t even attempt to have a parade in 1960, although Santa arrived for public appearances. Throughout most of the 1960s there is little mention of the parade. Either it wasn’t held or wasn’t promoted well. But in the 1970s it returned as an annual event.

Part of the charm for over 20 years was the participation of Francis Wentworth –owner and founder of Wentworth Lumber Company. Wentworth was a driving force behind the parade and participated every year. He may have been hard to spot, unless you were looking carefully. Children know the real Santa Claus is in our parade, but for 20 years he looked just a bit like Francis Wentworth. In 1993, Wentworth was pronounced “Citizen of the Year” by the Chamber of Commerce and somehow managed to be in the parade twice – leading it off as Grand Marshall, and managing to bring up the end as, well, you know who.

In 1994 the parade changed its marching time to evening, making Exeter’s parade one of the few held in the dark. The lights of the floats and the fireworks that followed for many years brought out larger crowds. Even the marching bands get into the fun by placing twinkling lights on their instruments and music holders. Today it’s called the Exeter Holiday Parade to broaden the appeal to all citizens, but there are no restrictions on what type of cheer the participants extend. Church groups march alongside Scout Troops. Both religious and secular seem to coexist happily and that, after all, is a good reason to hold a parade.

Photo:The Exeter High School and Robinson Seminary Band march up Water Street in the 1948 Santa Claus Parade. Parades have been a popular kick-off to the holiday shopping season in Exeter since 1947. One feature that has always been involved – the arrival of Santa Claus at the end of the parade.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Influenza 1918

by Barbara Rimkunas

This "Historically Speaking" column appeared in the Exeter News-Letter on Tuesday, November 13, 2012.

“We should surely remain calm and not lose our good sense,” advised the New Hampshire State Board of Health, “We must have confidence that our physicians and health officers, who have the real facts before them will give the situation every consideration.” In the fall of 1918 the ‘situation’ at hand was the arrival of a deadly world-wide influenza pandemic.

Individual cases of flu began to appear in Exeter in mid-September. School had been in session for only a few weeks and the newspapers were still full of news of the war. Although many newspapers suppressed information regarding the flu to prevent panic, the Exeter News-Letter began to run stories directly related to the outbreak in the last weeks of the month. By that time, it would have been difficult to ignore the flu’s grip on the town.

The 1918 influenza, sometimes called ‘Spanish Influenza,’ was caused by a quick spreading virus that could incapacitate its victims in hours. Some sufferers would slowly recover, others would develop deadly pneumonia and die within days – and the victims were generally people in the prime of life. Most flu epidemics preyed on the weakest members of society – the very old and the very young. This flu liked adults between the ages of 15 and 55.

On September 27th, the News-Letter reported, “The ‘Spanish Influenza,’ so-called, probably the grippe in severe form after a cycle of comparative mildness, has gained a strong foothold in Exeter. Hundreds are affected by severe colds, grippe and too many by pneumonia. To list its victims is impracticable. They are of all classes and ages and in instances entire families are affected. Manufactories, stores, and schools have their victims.” Exeter’s public schools stopped all classes. The Ioka was ordered closed by the Board of Health. The following week most clubs, churches and public meetings were postponed due to the flu. Phillips Exeter Academy continued to hold classes, fearing that sending the students home might only spread the disease, but the boys became sick and the gymnasium had to be converted into an infirmary.

There was no need to panic, the public was counseled, even though the Cottage Hospital was quickly overwhelmed with critical patients and much of the staff became ill. Dr. William Day fell victim and his slow recovery kept him from treating his patients. Not that there was much that could be done for flu victims. Even today there is little but supportive care that can be done for those suffering from influenza.

By the first week in October the death toll became a daily feature in the obituary columns. Boston postmaster  William Murray died. Democratic Congressional candidate Edward Cummings died. And well-loved townspeople died.

“Mr. Charles B. Edgerly, superintendent of lines for the Exeter & Hampton Electric Company , and Miss Marion I. Fogg, of Hampton Falls, long a clerk in its office were married here last Saturday by Rev. John W. Savage, of Seabrook. It was necessarily a simple wedding, the bride then being affected by the influenza. Her condition since failed and early in the week she was compelled to enter the hospital, where she died last night of pneumonia.”

So many people died during the week of October 4th that the News-Letter headed an entire column, “Deaths from Pneumonia.” Immigrants, like 33 year old Stanislaus Yankowskas, a shoe-worker, died as quickly as wealthy high-born people. The Kent family, owners of the Exeter Manufacturing Company, lost their eldest son, Robert, who, like Yankowskas, was 33 years old. Robert Kent had been slated to take over management of the mill. His death left the job to his widowed mother, Adelaide.

No family in Exeter suffered as much as the Tewhill family of Garfield Street.  A tight-knit Irish family, the Tewhills lost three family members to the flu. At one point during the epidemic there were five gravely ill people in the household, leaving the remaining two as caretakers. Stories such as this trickled in from all parts of the country. The death toll in Exeter was thought to be around 25 but might have been higher if you count those who died of pneumonia just before or just after the height of the epidemic.

After the terrible month of October the town began a slow recovery.  Schools re-opened in the first week of November. The Exeter Public Library graciously provided amnesty for any overdue book fines for books checked out after September 21st.  Reports changed from obituary notices to those of recovery. “Chief (of police) Elvyn A. Bunker resumed his duties on Monday after a long sickness from the influenza,” chirped the News-Letter on October 25th. “We seem to be passing from out the shadow of the pestilence, and there is a marked decrease in the number of new cases. Many who have been seriously ill are now nearing recovery.”

As hopeful rumors of a possible armistice in Europe began to surface in town, no news was received as joyfully in the tired town as this: “Miss Ellen Tewhill, who has been so seriously ill, on Tuesday walked from her Garfield Street home down town and back.”


Robert Kent, seen here as a student at Phillips Exeter Academy in 1905, died of influenza in November of 1918 at the age of 33. The Kent family owned and managed the Exeter Manufacturing Company. His death left management of the factory to his widowed mother, Adelaide.

Join the Exeter Historical Society for “The 1918 Flu Pandemic”, in which historian Marion Girard-Dorsey will explore the many factors that enabled the 1918 flu pandemic (Spanish Flu) to spread across the world, making it ‘the greatest medical holocaust in history’.  Exeter Historical Society, 47 Front St, Exeter. Refreshments will be served at 7:00pm; Program is at 7:30pm. This program is free and open to the public, no reservations are required.

Friday, October 26, 2012

The Mixed-Up Files of Nancy Carnegie Merrill

by Barbara Rimkunas

This "Historically Speaking" column appeared in the Exeter News-Letter on Friday, October 26, 2012.

Among the research tools at the Exeter Historical Society are nine grey boxes filled with index cards. At one time, the cards were kept untidily in shoe boxes – different brands of shoes, different sized boxes. On the cards were one hundred years of the town’s history – indexed, alphabetized and referenced. If Nancy Merrill, the director of collections, needed to find information about the ‘Robinson Female Seminary,’ she knew exactly which box to check – it might be the Nike box or the Dexter box, but only Nancy knew which one. When a helpful staff member reassigned the cards to archival boxes with alphabetical labels, Nancy found that using them became more difficult for her. But by that time, even though her everyday memory was slipping, her grasp of Exeter’s history remained firm.

Nancy Carnegie Merrill served as the Director of Collections for the Exeter Historical Society from 1972 until her retirement in 2000 – just after her index was moved out of her understanding. She had trained as a nurse and came to Exeter in 1949 to be the SAU 16 traveling school nurse, days filled with tonsils and head lice. The real scourge of the times was polio. The October 13th, 1955, front page of the Exeter News-Letter features a photo of young Paul LeVasseur receiving one of the first polio vaccinations in town, given by Dr. Edwin Lee and assisted by a youthful ‘Mrs. David Merrill, RN.’

As her family grew, Nancy kept herself busy doing historical and genealogical research, which necessitated hours of time in the local library. Nancy turned this into an avocation, studying for her Master’s Degree in Library Sciences and taking a job with the Exeter Public Library. By 1983, when the town was making preparations for its 350th anniversary, the selectmen knew that she was the person to spearhead the creation of an updated history of the town.

Nancy began the project by taking on the monumental task of indexing the Exeter News-Letter from 1888-1988. Using the index, a committee would create the new book. In the dark and damp basement of the library, Nancy spent her time carefully reading each page of one hundred years of local news. Her children describe this period as a time when “supper discussions became exercises in time travel, as current events became interspersed with century-old news bulletins.” Each event was indexed onto a card with quotes and page references. She still organized her thoughts and notes like a nurse, using medical abbreviations and terminology (‘polio’ is indexed as ‘infantile paralysis’ and sometimes just ‘infantile’). When the book was finished in 1988, the committee voted to have Nancy’s name placed on the cover. She later told reporter, Terry Date; “that was the biggest tribute I could ever have.” The book has since sold out its initial printing.

But apart from the book, the index has remained a vital source of information for researchers. I arrived at the Exeter Historical Society as curator in 2000 and encountered Nancy and the index at roughly the same time. She was no longer working as director of collections, but volunteered regularly and was more than willing to train me. Her memory problems were profoundly helpful to me, as she had a tendency to forget whether she’d told me a particular story before. Sometimes, she’d tell me the same thing three or four times in a single afternoon. This Suzuki style training imprinted my brain with Exeter’s rich history, and on those times when she described something unclearly, I could always go to the index to find the reference. It was usually there, although Nancy used her own filing system. The medical jargon wasn’t troublesome – my husband is a nurse, so I’m used to finding odd abbreviations on the supermarket list – but her nomenclature and subject headings could be challenging. We refer to the index as the ‘mixed-up files of Nancy Carnegie Merrill’ sometimes. She made the index for herself as a reference, after all, and told me that she’d never intended to save it after the project was done.

Along with the News-Letter index, Nancy also kept files on Exeter topics. Inside each folder are pages of her research notes. Most of the time, one can just pick up where Nancy left off confident that if she’d already checked, say, the deeds, they were thoroughly checked. One mystery she never solved was the identity of Jolly Rand. The Jolly Rand Road was dedicated in 1980 as a scenic trail – but the question of how it got its name puzzled everyone. Nancy’s folder on the subject is a study in frustration as her notes list multiple people named ‘Rand’ but none that lived near where the trail is located (these are marked with a “NO” written in red pencil). Any time she had a spare moment, she’d go back to that folder, but she never uncovered who Jolly Rand was. I’m still searching for him.

Nancy continued to volunteer at the historical society for years after her official retirement. Her insight was always valued – even if sometimes her memory failed her. Her index became a mystery for her, but not for the rest of us. Nancy may no longer be physically here with us, but every day I am at the historical society I use her work. I touch her writing, read her words, hear her voice and marvel at her devotion to this town. We were lucky to have had her.

Photo: Nancy Carnegie Merrill in October of 1999 at the Jolly Rand Scenic Road clean-up day.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

The Adventists

by Barbara Rimkunas

This "Historically Speaking" column appeared in the Exeter News-Letter on Friday, October 12, 2012.

In the summer of 2010, the Exeter Historical Society received two separate requests for information regarding the 1844 Advent Christian camp meeting held in town. We have a lot of materials in our archives, but as far as we could tell, there wasn’t anything about a camp meeting. Odd, we were told, because this particular camp meeting was considered one of the most important theological events in the development of their church. It was in Exeter that the Reverend Samuel Snow had set the date for the Second Coming of Christ as October 22nd, 1844.

There were two main questions we were trying to answer: where, exactly, did the meeting take place and who was George Stacy – a man listed in Adventist records as the contact person for the meeting in Exeter.

Stacy lived most of his life in Exeter working as a cobbler. His shoe shop was, for a time, located in the Folsom Block on Pleasant Street coinciding with the time when Robert Lincoln boarded in one of the upstairs rooms. Stacy would have most certainly been working in his shop when Abraham Lincoln stopped by in 1860. Although this was interesting enough to us, it wasn’t the bit of information that Andrews University (affiliated with the Seventh-Day-Advent Church) was looking for. They were more interested in George Stacy’s involvement with the local church and not his probable stumbling into Abraham Lincoln’s life.

When we checked our records for the Exeter Advent Christian church, George Stacy is one of the first names mentioned. The church records are incomplete and even the church clerk, who typed up the brief bits we have, admitted, “There is a great discrepancy between dates which we do not understand.” The church seems to have formed as early as 1843 as the Christian Fellowship, but may not have been particularly organized until 1853.

“George T. Stacy (saw the stars fall in 1833)” is the way Stacy appears in the record. ‘When the stars fell’ - whatever could this mean? George Stacy of Exeter saw the most brilliant Leonid meteor shower ever recorded in the early morning hours of November 13, 1833.

The Exeter News-Letter reported on the meteors: “This morning, between half past 3 and half past 4 o’clock, there was a war of shooting stars in the northwest. For an hour, meteor succeeded meteor in such rapid succession that it was impossible to count them; at times the sky seemed full of them, and the earth was illuminated as with a morning light. They were many thousands in number, and as they shot from one part of the heavens to the other, they would burst like rockets, discharging balls of fire in all directions.”

This event, known for generations but now largely forgotten, caused a great deal of distress to those who witnessed it. For many it was a sign that the end times were near. It must have troubled George Stacy, because soon after he became enamored with the teachings of William Miller – the spiritual founder of the Advent movement.

Miller, hailing from New York State, preached that the Second Coming of Christ was going to happen soon. Very soon. At least before 1843. In the spring of 1844 Miller was uncertain about why his prediction hadn’t come to pass. One of his followers, Samuel Snow, recalculated the prophecies and set the actual date to be sometime in the fall of 1844.

At a camp meeting held in Exeter from August 12 – 17th, Snow brought his new calculations to a large group of Adventists. The Advent Herald reported, “We were much gratified to witness so large a congregation present. There were nearly twenty tents on the encampment, from different and distant places, from the east, the west, the north and the south.” James White, who attended the meeting, later wrote that it became very solemn after the pronouncement. “And now,” he wrote later, “the work of waking up the slumbering believers, and giving the last warning to the world, seemed to be crowded into a few weeks.” Although they worked hard to prepare themselves and the world, the date passed without the arrival of predicted Second Coming.

All this happened in Exeter, New Hampshire – but where? The church records, if accurate, place the fledgling Exeter congregation on Franklin Street, but even in 1844 there wasn’t enough space for twenty tents on Franklin Street. Quite by accident, we found the answer in the writings of Benjamin Swasey. Swasey was a child of six or seven in 1844 but still remembered the Advent Camp meetings because they were held close to his father’s farm. “In the grove nearly opposite the Hardy house but on the Haley land the Methodists held a camp meeting in 1842, and in ’43 & ’44 the Adventists held one in the same place.” This would place the meeting of 1844 on Newfields Road just north of the 101 overpass.

The failure of the predicted date has come to be called ‘The Great Disappointment’. Some followers suffered a crisis of faith and left the movement, but more were like James White, who commented, “and now to turn again to the cares perplexities, and dangers of life in full view of the jeers and revilings of unbelievers who now scoffed as never before, was a terrible trial of faith and patience.” George Stacy persevered until his death in 1887. The Advent Christian church in Exeter remained active until 1966.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

The October Exeter History Minute -- The Perfect Crime?

What constitutes the perfect crime? Is is bloodless? Victimless? Must the criminal get away with it? Learn the strange tale of Nathaniel Appleton Shute's bank robbery in the fifth episode of our new monthly series, the Exeter History Minute, which focuses on tidbits from the rich history of our town. (Click here to watch!) This episode is brought to you by The Provident Bank. #ExeterHistoryMinute

To learn more about Exeter history -- or to support the Exeter Historical Society -- visit our website,

Friday, September 28, 2012

Exeter - Publishing Town

by Barbara Rimkunas

This "Historically Speaking" column appeared in the Exeter News-Letter on Friday, September 28, 2012.

The first newspaper published in Exeter was called The New Hampshire Gazette or Exeter Morning Chronicle. Its first editor was an infamous character named Robert Luist Fowle, who moved to Exeter in 1776 from Portsmouth to escape the radical politics of his uncle, Daniel Fowle. In Exeter, Fowle managed to publish his newspaper without troubling the local patriots and won their confidence enough to receive some official printing jobs. Historian Charles Bell wrote of the subsequent events, “he was discreet enough to gain the confidence of the leading men in the popular movement, so that he was at length employed in the delicate and confidential business of printing the bills of credit for the State. It was not long before counterfeits were discovered, of these, and of the similar paper currency of other States, and suspicion arose, from various circumstances, that Fowle was concerned in issuing the spurious bills.” Fowle was arrested but escaped from the Exeter jail and found his way to the British lines. After the war, he returned to Exeter but not in the capacity of a printer.

The printing industry, however, took off after the war. A series of newspapers were published in town and by the early 1800s, books were being produced. Henry Ranlet opened his print shop in 1785 and began printing books for out of state booksellers. Ranlet was one of the first local printers to publish music – a type of printing only undertaken by a skillful printer. After Ranlet’s death in 1807, his print shop was dormant until purchased in 1818 by brothers John and Benjamin Williams of Exeter.

John was a trained printer and Benjamin was a bookbinder. They set up shop and then had two fine houses, nearly identical, built for themselves. John lived in the house at 80 Front Street, which today is well-known as the setting for John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany. Benjamin lived off Center Street in a house that sits across the parking lot from the American Independence Museum.

The Williams brothers produced a wider variety of books than did Ranlet. Bell describes the output as, “some were books of sterling value, and put forth in handsome style; perhaps a greater number were novels and tales.” Novels were viewed quite unfavorably at the time, so this was no great compliment from Mr. Bell.

The social status of printers was a bit above the average tradesman, but not quite high enough for the upper crust. Elizabeth Dow Leonard, on remembering her life in Exeter in the early 1800s recalled, “A curious discussion was once raised to what position a printer might venture to aspire, when a gentlemanly and intelligent young man of that class, fell violently in love with one of the belles of the village, who was so injudicious as to return his grande passion. There was great commotion in her act and so much opposition to the consummation so devotedly wished in such cases, that the poor girl would have been obliged to run off with her lover or give him up, had not the reigning powers, in solemn debate on the subject, wisely decided that a printer was not exactly a mechanic, inasmuch as his stock in trade was words and letters. He was so far literary and therefore ordinary rules did not apply so stringently to their case. They promised his absolution and they were married.”

In 1831 the print shop of J & B Williams was visited by a reporter for the Exeter News-Letter who walked away soundly impressed. “We believe that few of our townsmen are aware of the extensive business which is effected at this establishment.” The Williams brothers were producing 250,000 ‘handsomely bound’ volumes annually, including 10,000 copies of Scott’s Napoleon. They also sold blank and ruled books for general and merchant use.

Output was high because demand in Exeter was high. Elizabeth Leonard noted, “The passion for reading was very intense in Exeter. We should, as young ladies, have been very much ashamed of ignorance of the current literature of the day and of classical works. A delightful class of books were constantly being published.”

After John J. William’s death in 1845, the publishing industry in Exeter began to wane. Textile and shoe factories became the driving economy. But Exeter’s ‘passion for reading’ did not disappear. Private lending libraries flourished and the Exeter Public Library – free to all citizens – opened in 1853. Our voracious appetite for reading continues today, although some of it is done on electronic readers. Although the printing industry is dealing with its own commercial transitions, reading, whether on the page or the screen, still captures our imagination.

Imprint of J & B Williams printers of Exeter, NH. The Williams Brothers produced thousands of publications between the years of 1818 and 1845. This particular book, published in 1842, was a collection of strange tales including “The Murderous Barber; Or, Terrific Story of the Rue de la Harpe at Paris” and “An Atrocious and Shocking Murder by a French Clergyman.” Although Charles Bell referred to such titles derisively as “novels and tales” they were not restricted from Exeter’s reading public.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Exeter History Minute -- Exeter's Secondary Schools

Ralph Adams Cram
Fall is here and the kids are back in school, so...September's "Exeter History Minute" focuses on the town's secondary schools. As a community we are fortunate to have a top-notch public high school with an interesting history, as well as one of the premier prep schools in the nation. Tune in to the latest history minute, sponsored by Service Credit Union, to learn more!
Tune in here to check it out! 
Right: Ralph Adams Cram, graduate of Exeter's Tuck School for Boys (now Exeter High School). Cram designed the "new" Tuck High School, built in 1912, as well as three beautiful buildings at Phillips Exeter Academy.

Friday, September 14, 2012

School Lunch in Exeter

by Barbara Rimkunas

This "Historically Speaking" column appeared in the Exeter News-Letter on Friday, September 14, 2012.

In 1946, the Federal Government passed the National School Lunch Act. It had been noted, during World War II, that 16% of draftable men had been underweight and ineligible for service. The effects of the Great Depression had taken a toll on children’s health. After the war, with the peacetime economy beginning to surge, there was both public and government support for implementation of a school lunch program. After all, how could the United States maintain superiority over the Soviet Union and international communism with a population that was skinny and ill fed? The irony of implementing a nation-wide federally funded nutrition program to defeat communism was willfully ignored.

Many parts of the country, including Exeter, had long had concerns about student undernourishment. As early as 1920 school superintendent Clifton Towle expressed concern in the annual school district report that, “provision be made for the preparation and serving of some very simple, hot and nourishing addition to the lunch brought from home.” Some students were clearly hungry and the school nurse reported that the two greatest health problems facing Exeter’s school children were poor dental health and undernourishment. The 1928 report found 396 student with ‘defective teeth’ and 38 suffering from malnutrition.

Local organizations responded to the need. Dental clinics were set up for students and were paid for by the West End Neighborhood Club. The Lions Club made contributions to provide milk for needy students. The milk fund was also assisted by a donor, who supported the effort for over nineteen years. Dr. Oscar Gilbert’s health report year after year listed this generous unknown donor, who, in 1946 was finally revealed to be Arthur Conner, a local businessman and philanthropist. The milk was a great help, although the goal of hot food was difficult to achieve. Schools were small and spread out across the town. Most students went home for lunch, but that didn’t guarantee a healthy lunch. Those remaining at school for the lunch hour commonly ate a very simple meal of bread and butter and perhaps some fruit.

Some of the town’s schools were able to provide a warm drink to students – although the reports do not specify what this might have been. It was considered quite a challenge to manage students during the noon hour. Traditionally, the teachers had this time to eat their own lunch and prepare for the afternoon classes. Some supervision of students who ‘stayed over’ at school was needed. In spite of the complicated logistics, both the superintendent and the health supervisor of schools repeatedly urged school lunch programs.

Wartime rationing became a reality in 1942 and everyone felt the pinch. ‘Thrift’ became a teaching-point to all local classrooms. The issue of school lunch was pushed aside while the nation re-tooled its industry to a wartime economy. At the end of the war, Congress took up the problem of underfed school children. Selective Service had unwittingly created a national database of the relative health of young men. Funds for launching school lunch programs became available in the late 1940s.

In Exeter, there were other school issues that took immediate need. The high schools were still gender segregated and elementary schools were sprinkled in diverse locations. In order to run an efficient school lunch program, centralized schools were needed. It also became evident, by the early 50s, that the school age population was exploding. More classroom space was needed, and this could only be accomplished by building new and bigger schools, which could be designed with lunchrooms and kitchens.

Exeter High School and the Robinson Seminary merged in 1955. Renovations to the Tuck High School building to accommodate the influx of students finally provided enough space for a hot lunch program. The Exeter News-Letter reported in September of 1956 that there were now four hundred high school students enrolled in the hot lunch program. “It wasn’t filet mignon to the strains of a string quartet a News Letter reporter experienced in the cafeteria of the Exeter High School last Tuesday forenoon, but what was dished out to him and over 400 students and teachers in two shifts was good, wholesome food. Baked ham, boiled macaroni, and beets was the principal fare served from the spotless kitchen. In addition, each serving tray contained a one-half pint bottle of milk, two slices of buttered bread and dessert choice of sliced pears or peaches in a large bowl – all for 30 cents!”

Elementary school students were, for a few years, served hot lunch at the unused Seminary Building before a working cafeteria was built at Lincoln Street School. By the 1960s, students no longer went home during the noon hour and such menu items as “luncheon meat, cheese slice, mashed potatoes, peas and cherry crunch” were featured.

Today’s lunch programs focus on healthy eating habits. Students are reminded of balanced meals and the benefits of fruits and vegetables. Although universally considered horrid by students, the complaints probably have more to do with individual food quirks and the pleasure of shared experiences than actual menu quality. The spaghetti at Lincoln Street School is quite tasty. Cooperative Middle School students are given options based on a fruit and vegetable rich diet and the a la carte kitchen at Exeter High School provides some of the tastiest wrap sandwiches in town. It’s a long way from the cold bread and butter sandwiches of their grandparents or wretched ‘baloney cups’ served to this writer in third grade back in 1971.

Photo caption: This photo ran on the front page of the Exeter News-Letter on September 20, 1956. The caption read: “Here is a general view of the cafeteria at the Exeter High School on Tuesday with the hot lunch program going into its second day of operation. This is the second of two groups who received meals in one hour. (Swiezynski Photo).”