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.