Saturday, April 28, 2012

Exeter High School Students Win New Hampshire History Day Contest for Documentary on Emancipation Proclamation

Two students from Exeter High School traveled to Plymouth State University on March 31st to compete with students from 14 school districts around the state for honors in the 9th annual New Hampshire History Day competition.

The 2012 National History Day theme is “Revolution, Reaction and Reform.” The students, Chandra Boudreau and Ainsley Katz, both juniors, won First Place in the Senior Group documentary category for their film, “By Word and Sword: Revolutionary Reactions to Lincoln's Wartime Reform.” The film examined goals for the Emancipation's issuance, reactions from different groups in the North and South, and the enduring legacy of the document.

Chandra and Ainsley began work on their film last June, just as the national commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the American Civil War was underway. Chandra Boudreau was able to conduct interviews with leading Civil War historians while attending the Civil War Institute during the summer. As a member of the First Place Senior Group Documentary team from Exeter High School who participated in the Nationals last year, Chandra applied insights she learned to make this year's film a stronger entry. “We learned a great deal during the research process,” Chandra said. “It was amazing to speak with so many historians for modern perspectives on the Emancipation Proclamation.”

Her partner, Ainsley Katz said, "We chose this topic because the complexity of the Emancipation Proclamation is often overlooked. Not only did the North have infighting over emancipation, but Lincoln himself struggled between his morality and his strong commitment to salvaging the Union."

The two students are now eligible to travel to the National History Day competition in Maryland, June 10-14, 2012 and will be working between now and then to raise the funds necessary for the trip. Their faculty coach, Exeter High School history teacher Molly Stevenson, who accompanied them to the History Day in New Hampshire competition, commented The extensive primary and secondary research as well as the interviews of historians and skills required to craft the film is a great example of real-world history work. There are clear deadlines and the final product needs to be educational and engaging for a public audience.”

The students now need to raise funds for the cost of their trip to Nationals. They are also very interested in showing the film to local groups or classes. For more information, contact Molly Stevenson at or 603-395-2574
The Kenneth E. Behring National History Day Contest in June is the final stage of a series of contests at local and state levels. The contest is named for Mr. Behring in recognition of his support of NHD. Each year roughly 2,400 students and their parents and teachers gather at the University of Maryland, College Park for the week-long event. These enthusiastic groups come from all over the United States, Guam, American Samoa, Department of Defense Schools in Europe, and even Shanghai, China. “The National History Day excitement can be felt across the campus,” says the National History Day website. “After spending months on research and preparing their projects, and competing at local and state contests, these students are eager to show their hard work at the national level.” For more information on National History Day, visit

Photo:Exeter High School students Chandra Boudreau (left) and Ainsley Katz (right) win History Day in New Hampshire competition. 

Friday, April 27, 2012

History Ignored

by Barbara Rimkunas
This "Historically Speaking" column appeared in the Exeter News-Letter on Friday, April 27, 2012.

Titanic in Southampton, England.
When the world commemorated the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic, the Exeter Historical Society did not. Except for a few little teasers on our Facebook feed, there was no mention of the event – no guest speaker, no local tie-in and no column in the Exeter News-Letter about what people thought about the event back in 1912. Did we miss something?

It wasn’t for lack of trying. We searched the archives for some sort of local response, but found none. Helen Tufts, who kept a diary for nearly all of her ninety years in Exeter, was 15 years old in 1912. Her entries for the week the Titanic sank are full of local events, but silent on the one big international story of the week. From her we find out that April 16th – the day after the ship went down – the weather in Exeter was “Hot”. There were thundershowers in the afternoon and Helen had to stay at school until 4:30 because she didn’t bring her umbrella. The unseasonal heat and perhaps seasonal allergies combined to give her a terrible sore throat the following day, but she didn’t add ‘at least I’m not clinging to an ice floe in the freezing North Atlantic’ to her entry for the day.

The Portsmouth Herald, a daily paper, ran a front page headline and story on Tuesday – “OCEAN LINER TITANIC SINKS: GREAT LOSS OF LIFE.” The Herald kept the story alive on the front page for another four days before deciding the public had had enough. The final front-page headline read: “TITANIC SANK AS BAND PLAYED ‘NEARER MY GOD TO THEE,’” and then the story sank as well.

The Exeter News-Letter, then a weekly paper, ran a story about the Titanic on Friday, April 19th. The problem with a weekly paper is that sometimes events are already old news before they can be published. By the time the story ran most people already knew about it from other sources. The restrained headline read; “Appalling Marine Disaster.” John Templeton, the editor, then managed to condense the tragedy in his impeccably well written first sentence, “More than 1500 persons, it is feared, sank to their death early Monday, when within four hours after she crashed into an iceberg, the mammoth White Star line steamer Titanic, the largest vessel ever built, bound from Liverpool to New York on her maiden voyage, went to the bottom of the Newfoundland banks.” A few more small facts were added before he summed it up with a single sentence: “The money loss is enormous.” Until the movie came out in 1997, the Titanic was never mentioned again in the Exeter News-Letter. It was just another sunken ship.

One hundred years before the Titanic non-story, newspapers in Exeter were filled with news of the War of 1812. New Englanders opposed this war and were never supportive of the conflict. And yet, they followed the war news closely. Partially, this was because the British were attacking the east coast and there was a great deal of concern that Portsmouth and Exeter would find themselves burned to the ground like Washington D.C. Elizabeth Dow Leonard, then a young girl living in Exeter, would later remember how frightening the news could be. “Every little while during the war would come more or less graphic and horrible accounts of the landing of the enemy at one of those out-of-the-way places, who were always coming directly to invade our quiet village, kill all the men and make prisoners of war of the women and children whom they did not eat on the spot!” She goes on to describe intricate plans to evacuate the inhabitants to the countryside in case of attack, “We children promised to be transported in heavy wagons to places of safety, where they (the British) would hunt in vain to find us. Couriers were sent to the inland towns, and there would be a general uprising of the New Hampshire yeomanry.”

And yet, when Charles Bell sat down to write “A History of Exeter, New Hampshire” in 1888, he barely mentioned the War of 1812. It had been forgotten, consumed by the Civil War fought nearly fifty years later. In a way, the War of 1812 disappeared from nineteenth century history with the same ferocity that the story of the Titanic would later emerge as one of the pivotal events of the twentieth. By the 1880s, no one remembered veterans who’d fought in the War of 1812, but you couldn’t get elected to office if you hadn’t served during the Civil War. Strangely similarly, someone living in 1930 might vaguely recall the sinking of the Titanic, but by the 1980s even children knew that the ship once called ‘unsinkable’ didn’t have enough lifeboats for everyone and its sinking was a very metaphor for human hubris.

All of this highlights how slippery history can be. The Civil War overshadowed the War of 1812 and the Titanic disaster only became important decades after it happened. Ignored history sometimes reemerges when we need it, but it also sometimes remains ignored. Even now we are more focused on the 150th anniversary of the Civil War – marking every battle fought – than we are on the bicentennial of the War of 1812. Our view of history, it seems, says more about our current needs than on events as they originally happened.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Have you Hugged your Library Today?

by Barbara Rimkunas
This "Historically Speaking" column appeared in the Exeter News-Letter on Friday, April 13, 2012.

As this week is National Library Week, it seems an opportune time to discuss Exeter’s public library. Not only does the Exeter Historical Society, from where this column comes, inhabit the old public library building, but library employees have a habit of haunting our archives after retirement. One of our current volunteers, and member of the Board of Trustees, is Pam Gjettum – who for many years was the head librarian in Exeter. Our former curator, and author of Exeter, New Hampshire: 1888-1988, was Nancy Carnegie Merrill, who served as reference librarian. Working at the historical society is to be in the constant presence of librarians, it seems.

Exeter’s early libraries weren’t ‘public’ as a library is today. Social libraries were created by subscribers, who paid a fee to collect volumes. Exeter had several social libraries the first opened in 1779. These required incorporation, as they were business arrangements amongst the members. Oddly, they didn’t make provisions to add new books to the collection, and so they dissolved presumably once everyone in the group had read all the books. The first of these was called the Social Library, followed a few years later in 1797 by the more geographically specific Exeter Social Library. Both seem to have disbanded by the early 1800s. The Mechanick Social Library incorporated in 1815 when the word ‘mechanic’ still had a futuristic and scientific ring to it – much the same way we use ‘cyber’ today. The men who formed the Mechanick Social Library were largely professionals who were decidedly bookish.

Once the social libraries died out, a new type of system developed called a circulating library. In this system, the local bookseller gathered a collection of books and charged a fee per book or annual rate to patrons. Henry Ranlet of Exeter was one such proprietor. His book collection was eventually sold in 1817 to Nathaniel Boardman. Boardman sold the collection to Francis Grant, who ran the circulating library from his shop on Water Street. Albertus T. Dudley, in a presentation to the Exeter Historical Society in 1943, said of Grant’s shop, “his store must have presented the appearance of an over-stuffed curiosity shop. (In 1829) he advertises 133 different articles which he ‘has constantly on sale at his bookstore.’ Noteworthy among them are quills; various kinds of paper and ink; wafers; black sand; pounce; water colors; slates and slate pencils; horn, wood, and ivory pocket combs; mathematical instruments; razors; soap; hairbrushes; steel mounted spectacles for every age; beads; violin and viol strings; clarinet reeds; battledores and shuttlecocks; backgammon men; dice; playing cards…” The list goes on and on as if Grant was the nineteenth century equivalent of Walmart. Keeping track of the circulating library must have been quite a task.

Exeter’s first publically supported library opened its doors in 1853 at the old town house on Court Street (today the Exeter Senior Center). There was no Dewey Decimal system yet to classify and organize books, so patrons had to consult an alphabetical catalog to find the book they were looking for. Each book was assigned a number and it was this number that was submitted to the librarian when requesting the book. The librarian’s job was to check books in and out and protect the stacks (visitors to the library were not able to browse the volumes as we can today).
The rules and regulations were strict. A family could only have two books at any given time. Fines were steep for the time – 1 cent per day for overdue books and 50 cents for any damage. The library was open only two days per week – Wednesday and Saturday. All books had to be returned in June for the annual inventory. Reference works could not be checked out of the library – which given the lack of seating made research somewhat difficult.

But one of the final rules makes it clear that even though the dingy library room had all the ambiance of a drive-thru bank, it was still a place that drew people in. “Rudeness and boisterousness of deportment, and loud talking are positively forbidden; nor is the library open for the accommodation of Loafers or idlers; all violations of this rule will be summarily dealt with,” it read.

By the late 1880s, the deficiencies of the library facilities were apparent. In 1892, the town approved $15,000.00 to build a new library building. The new library – which doubled as a Civil War monument – opened its doors on September 24, 1894. It still had closed stacks, but at least there were two large reading rooms available for patrons. The hours were extended to every weekday afternoon and evening. An addition was built onto the back of the building in 1942 to accommodate an expanded children’s room. Today, this serves as the archives for the historical society.

In 1987, the library moved again to its current site on the river. It remains a vibrant place – probably a bit less quiet than it was in previous years – and still the place to gather for the love of books.