Saturday, June 30, 2012

Presidential Visit, Summer of 1889

by Barbara Rimkunas

This "Historically Speaking" column appeared in the Exeter News-Letter on Friday, August 10, 2007.

Just about everyone in Exeter knows that George Washington visited the town in 1789. It was part of his presidential visit to see the New England states. Prior to the 1950’s, when New Hampshire became the Primary State that it is today, few candidates made their way to Exeter. And let’s face it, once the primary is over and the endless parade of candidates has packed up, the winners don’t return. Maybe that’s why we hold Washington’s visit in such high regard. He was already elected when he stopped by to check up on us. It was like a phone call from your Dad, “How are you doing? How’s the weather down there? Don’t forget to get your oil changed. Bye, now.”

In the summer of 1889 excitement was high in expectation of another rare presidential visit. Benjamin Harrison, on his way to Bar Harbor, Maine, was due to stop briefly at the Exeter depot on Lincoln Street. Harrison is one of those easily forgotten one-term presidents, the bologna in the Grover Cleveland sandwich. During an era when machine politics could put modern lobbyists to shame, he managed to defeat the incumbent Cleveland by losing the popular vote but winning the Electoral College. Cleveland would fight back in the next election, much to the dismay of Exeter’s Republicans.

He was a protectionist and believed in high tariffs, supporting the McKinley Tariff Act that ultimately led to the disastrous economic depression of the 1890’s. But he also saw six new states admitted to the Union – Montana, Idaho, Washington, Wyoming and the Dakotas. Like two squabbling twins, North and South Dakota each wanted to be granted statehood before the other. Harrison decided the issue by covering the bills, shuffling them, and then signing them quickly without ever knowing which came first.

There are two accounts of Harrison’s visit to Exeter. The Exeter News-Letter reported that “the presidential train drew into the station at Exeter at fourteen minutes past ten. Citizens of Exeter and neighboring towns, irrespective of party and including many ladies, crowded the platforms. Twelve hundred would be a moderate estimate of their number, and good judges set it at fifteen hundred.” The Exeter Gazette, however, was less caught up with specifics. “Shortly after 10 o’clock the special train bearing the President arrived at the depot where a crowd numbering several hundred was awaiting his arrival. As soon as it came to a standstill a rush was made for the end of the rear car where the President was discovered standing on the platform.”

At this point, the two reporters (most likely John Templeton of the News-Letter, and James Wingate of the Gazette) tell similar tales. Templeton: “men swarmed upon the track and surged towards the train until they could grasp the President by the hand. Ladies and children crowded upon the car steps for the same purpose.” Wingate: “the President stood there shaking hands with the crowd who surged around him in the desire to seize his hand. There were quite a number of ladies among the number who had the pleasure of shaking hands with the Chief Magistrate.”

Both mentioned the ladies as if surprised that women could be interested in the President. Politics were, after all, part of the messy world that was owned by men. The ladies had no more say in government than the children. Perhaps they were attracted to the outfit the President was wearing. The News-Letter wasn’t particularly impressed, “The President wore a suit of drab, the Prince Albert coat closely buttoned,” but the Gazette could hardly contain itself, “The President, who was bare-headed, wore a neat fitting gray Prince Albert suit and a black four-in-hand tie.”

The whole event was over quickly. The News-Letter, in its typically careful way summed up the visit, “The train remained in Exeter seven minutes.” “After a stop of about fifteen minutes the train proceeded on its way,” responded the Gazette.

Whether he was well dressed or in “drab,” stayed for seven minutes or fifteen, the President’s visit excited the town to a degree not felt since James K. Polk stopped by thirty years earlier. A few other sitting Presidents would visit – Theodore Roosevelt, Harry Truman, and Gerald Ford, but they were here for campaign purposes and Roosevelt’s train didn’t even stop – it just slowed down at the depot. Harrison may not have stepped off the train, but at least he stopped.

NOTE: In addition to President Harrison, five other sitting U.S. Presidents have visited Exeter, New Hampshire. They are as follows: George Washington (November 4, 1789), James Polk (July 2, 1847), Theodore Roosevelt (August 26, 1902), Harry Truman (October 17, 1952) and Gerald Ford (September 11, 1975).

Friday, June 29, 2012

Introducing the Exeter History Minute!

We are pleased to debut our new series, the Exeter Historical Society's History Minute. Okay, it's a little longer than a minute -- maybe even two. But you get the idea. In this series, we hope to present a tidbit of the history of Exeter, New Hampshire, using our vast collection of documents, artifacts and photographs pertaining to the town. This one is brought to you by the generosity of Commonwealth Dynamics, Inc. Check it out right here!

Filming the Exeter Historical Society's first "History Minute".

Thursday, June 28, 2012

The Exeter Relief Society

by Barbara Rimkunas

This "Historically Speaking" column appeared in the Exeter News-Letter on Friday, June 22, 2012.

In January of 1848 a group of concerned Exeter citizens – primarily from local churches – met at the Elm Street Chapel to create an organization that would provide assistance to the town’s poor. They quickly drafted a constitution and called themselves the Exeter Relief Society. The group determined that they would provide short-term help to keep people out of the town poor farm, which was perceived by most as a place of last resort. Membership was available to anyone in town; dues were $1.00 per year for those over the age of 20 and fifty cents for those under. Life membership could be purchased for $25.00. The town was divided into districts and each district was assigned a relief society visitor who would inspect homes and determine any need. In this way, it was hoped, people wouldn’t fall into abject destitution.

It turned out to be mostly families who needed help in Exeter. The relief visitors discovered quickly that the primary needs of the poor were food, shoes and fuel. It was also quickly discovered that the best people to have making home visits were women. The Exeter Relief Society was uniquely coed during a time when nearly every other organization was defined as ‘men only’ or ‘women only’.

Each year’s annual meeting would assign visitors to various districts in town. Most often, the district relief visitor lived in the neighborhood and already knew most of the inhabitants. The visitor’s job was to keep an eye on things – find out if someone was unemployed or the family breadwinner was too ill to work. The Relief Society would provide grocery vouchers or deliver heating and cooking fuel to identified families.

These were the early days of social work and it took a few decades before organizations such as the Relief Society figured out that poverty was not so much caused by sin and corruption as it was bad luck, unemployment and poor health. In 1885 the group set up a labor bureau to assist those out of work. It rarely offered long-term employment, but did provide day-labor jobs that might provide at least some income until a more permanent job could be secured.

The twentieth century brought with it more organizations devoted to social issues and the Relief Society found itself competing with other groups. In 1915, the group decided to ‘hold a series of talks on the right methods of living’ (meaning proper sanitation, healthy home environment and food preparation) only to discover the Exeter Women’s Club had already begun exactly the same program. The Relief Society received a request from the Lions Club for a list of families who should receive Christmas baskets of food. Rather than compete with these other organizations, the society began to work collaboratively with them and provided referrals for specific needs. The Children’s Aid Society was contacted to help one boy, and the district health nurse was asked to help identify those who might need assistance with dental or medical bills.

The Great Depression began early in New England. The Relief Society began feeling an increase in aid requests in the 1920s. The 1928 report noted, “In regard to the expenditures Dr. Bixler inquired why they had been larger for the past two years than formerly. To this the treasurer replied that owing to business depression in town more people had needed aid and that the price of supplies had increased.”

Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal brought much needed funds to town in the form of CWA construction projects. State and County aid increased during the 1930s and the Relief Society again found itself being cautious of duplication. The organization raised funds through its annual Tag Day. Each year citizens would be asked to donate to the fund and would receive a small tag as a thank-you. It also incorporated through the state and could now legally accept large gifts.

After World War II, there were fewer requests for direct aid in the form of food and fuel – but the polio epidemics had created a need for aid to handicapped children. During the war, health examinations of drafted young men had uncovered basic deficiencies in the nation’s overall physical health. Large numbers of men were undernourished and suffering from vitamin deficiencies. Public health officials, and the Exeter Relief Society, began providing homogenized milk and cod-liver oil (which provided vitamin D and prevented rickets) to school children.

By 1963, the Relief Society was spending most of its funds for “medical, food, speech therapy and guidance for mentally and disturbed children.” The last time the Exeter News-Letter mentions the group is in 1973. Most of the records are gone. Two decades later, in 1995, Margaret Tate tried to track them down. In a letter to lawyer Edward Gage, she wrote, “I find that the records of this once active group are incomplete and I am hopeful that since its need seems to have been taken over by other groups the papers relating to it (ERS) could be placed at the Historical Society so there would be a complete file on its history.” But even without all the log books, we can still piece together the history and hard work of this once very progressive organization.

History Bat has a New Look

We are thrilled to announce that History Bat has a new look! Artist Nathan LaMontagne, formerly of Exeter, created the new image for our friendly bat colleague. (You can check out some of Nate's artwork, music and educational feats at his website. As you can see from what he has featured, he's a great friend of the historical society!)

For those of you unfamiliar with History Bat (also known as HB), you should know that HB is a friendly bat who, after a flying visit to the Exeter Historical Society in the spring of 2010, decided to stay and dedicate him -- or her -- self to the study of the history of the town of Exeter, New Hampshire. As long as HB stays primarily online -- and not swooping over our heads -- we are happy to host such a sweet history-loving bat. You can find History Bat on Facebook and Twitter.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Exeter's Civil War Monument

by Barbara Rimkunas
This "Historically Speaking" column appeared in the Exeter News-Letter on Friday, June 8, 2012. 

This year for the first time, Exeter’s Memorial Day parade paused to place a wreath of remembrance on the steps of the Exeter Historical Society. A number of people were curious about this slight deviation from our usual parade route and have asked why the historical society was added to the commemorations. The simple answer is that the building is the town’s Civil War monument and, since the nation is now remembering the 150th anniversary of that conflict, it seemed appropriate to pause for a short time to honor those men from Exeter who participated in the war.

When looking at records and remembrances of the war closer to the time it occurred, it’s noticeable that it was not called the ‘Civil War.’ A dog tag in the collections of the historical society, made for a soldier named J.D. Pedrick in the 10th Regiment, is optimistically stamped, “War of 1861.” Governor Charles Bell, author of The History of the Town of Exeter, New Hampshire, called it ‘The War for the Union.’ When we research individuals involved in the war we turn to “The Register of Soldiers and Sailors of New Hampshire in the War of the Rebellion.”

The memorial plaques on the Exeter Historical Society similarly make no mention of the Civil War. The men listed are the ‘Roll of Honor 1861-1865.’ Nevertheless, it is a Civil War monument and it was intended to be a Civil War monument.

Monuments were expensive so Exeter, like many New England towns, chose to have it serve a dual function – library and monument. Civil War veterans had organized themselves into a local chapter of the Grand Army of the Republic and felt it was time, by 1894, to finally list all the men from town who had served during the war. Actually creating a list, however, proved to be far more difficult than anticipated. The nature of enlistment during the war created some immediate problems. After the first heady rush to volunteer, the Union Army found that enlistments were trailing off. Too many men, it seemed, had figured out that this was not to be a ‘war of 1861’ and would instead linger for years – increasing one’s chances of injury, illness or death. In response to the dwindling numbers a national draft was instituted in 1863.

The system worked by quota – each state was required to furnish a certain number of men and each state further broke it down to a specific number of men from each town. Some towns easily filled their quotas, but others had to recruit from other towns. So, sometimes men from somewhere else were credited to Exeter. To compound the problem, wealthier citizens could hire a substitute to serve in their place. These substitutes were frequently not from Exeter – many, in fact, were new immigrants to the United States.

So creating a list of men from Exeter who served in the Civil War was not an easy task. By 1894, when the library/monument was nearing completion, the list was still clumsy. The task of settling on a final list fell to George Gadd of the local G.A.R. post and Professor B.L. Cilley of the library committee. They compiled an extensive list and published it in the Exeter News-Letter with the admonition: “It is exceedingly desirable that the list should be complete and accurate, and all who can make additions or corrections are earnestly invited to confer.” Pared down, Gadd and Cilley added a few names and removed 72.

Those 72 missing names have long troubled anyone doing Civil War research in town. It seems somehow crass to not acknowledge those who served in such an awful conflict. There has been talk over the years, of adding a plaque – mentioning the names of those men who were removed from the list. What we seem to forget is that Gadd and Cilley had some pretty good reasons for removing those 72 names. Nearly half of the eliminated men didn’t fight in a New Hampshire regiment and seemed to have no clear connection to the town of Exeter. Why they were included on the original list is a mystery. A few men were from Exeter, but were ‘reduced in rank’ in the final months of the war. Perhaps these men were locally scorned for some untoward infraction. The remaining 35 men had one thing in common – they all deserted shortly after enlisting. Some were hired substitutes; many were Irish or Canadian. None of them seemed to be committed to the cause. Desertion could be perilous – if caught a soldier could face execution.

The complete list-including deserters, out-of-towners and desultory characters- can be found in the Exeter Historical Society’s basement Civil War exhibit. The memorial plaques on the outside of the building can be seen at any time.