Tuesday, February 21, 2012

The West End Hall

by Barbara Rimkunas
This "Historically Speaking" column appeared in the Exeter News-Letter on Friday, February 17, 2012.

In 1889, Exeter businessmen Herbert Dunn and Frank Swallow purchased a chunk of land off Front Street just west of the railroad tracks. They called their endeavor the Exeter Park Land Company and quickly set to work laying out streets.

In a publication called Leading Business Men of Exeter, they outlined their goals; “the chief aim of the company is to build this up as a residential section and there are excellent reasons for the abundant success thus far attained in this direction. Many of the best residences in Exeter are on Front Street, which runs through the center of the property, and another prominent thoroughfare is Washington Street, which is laid out from Front Street to Brentwood County Road, with a width of 50 feet and with and eight-foot walk each side. A capacious sewer runs through this street, insuring perfect drainage, and as Washington street connects two much-traveled thoroughfares, it is probably destined to become one of the most important and finest streets in town, especially as it is but three to five minutes walk from twelve manufacturing plants, the railway station, schoolhouse, grocery and provision store, etc. “

The area surrounding the rail depot had begun to grow just after the Civil War. Goods and materials were brought through town by train, instead of up river. A wide variety of industries took advantage of the new transportation and clustered around the Lincoln Street area. There were two shoe factories, the Lane Machine Shop, Exeter Steam Grist Mill, Greely Marble Works, Clark’s Carriage Works, Exeter Machine Works, Exeter Brass Works, the Rockingham Machine Company, Exeter Granite Works and Lamson’s Pottery – all within a short distance of one another. All that was needed were workers, and during this time period workers walked to their jobs.

In a matter of just a few years, the Exeter Park Land Company developed Washington, McKinley, Hobart and Cottage Streets. Swallow, realizing that there were now enough people in the area for a business to thrive, decided to erect a building for commercial purposes. His original intention was to make a store complex with room for four business tenants. His wife, Jennie, had other ideas.

With the expanded population in the west side of town came a need, as far as Jennie and a few of her friends were concerned, for a Christian mission. Devoted to their various Protestant churches, Jennie Swallow, Rosa Ackerman and Annie Marseilles successfully urged Swallow to include a large meeting hall in his plans. This would be used for non-denominational services on Sunday afternoons with Sunday School classes for the children.

There were plenty of churches in Exeter at the time, but as the Exeter News-Letter pointed out many years later, “those whose homes were nearer the center of the community could walk very comfortably to and from their Sunday morning devotions, but to journey the entire length of Front Street in time for the service, especially if there were small children to be considered, was not an easy task, and was not attempted with any great degree of regularity.” The distance seems small when one is driving a car, but a recent hike with a group of Girl Scouts took 20 minutes to travel from the Historical Society in the downtown to the Winter Street Cemetery – and those girls were unencumbered by toddlers or restrictive clothing.

The “West End Mission” proved to be a great success. The News-Letter reported at its opening in October of 1896, “The West End Enterprise has secured its main portion for a hall, with a seating capacity for 200 people, to be used for religious, social and educational purposes. In the rear of the hall, and connected with it are two ante-rooms, one for use as a reception room and the other as a kitchen. The rest of the building is finished into two stores, one occupied as a grocery, the other as a barber shop.” Within a short time, Frank Swallow set up a printing shop in the rear of the building, printing local postcards that are still the delight of postcard collectors.

Jennie kept the mission running with weekly church services for 28 years – from 1896 until 1924. The Sunday School continued through 1937. After the death of her husband in 1927, the childless Jennie ran both the postcard company and the West End Mission. “Mrs. Swallow gave generously of her time and thought for all those 40 years,” noted the News-Letter, “and her influence has touched more lives than will ever be realized. To those who have worked with her and to those who have learned to love her as a teacher, it is little wonder that the mission proved to be such a success. Her personality could not have made it otherwise.”

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