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).”

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Tuck High School Centennial

by Barbara Rimkunas This "Historically Speaking" column appeared in the Exeter News-Letter on Friday, August 31, 2012.

On Monday, September 9, 1912, most of the town of Exeter took the afternoon off to celebrate the dedication of the new high school on Linden Street. The Tuck High School replaced the old Exeter High School on Court Street, which lately had proved inadequate. With only 60 available desks, the 80 students who reported to school in September created quite a problem. But then, facilities for secondary school students in Exeter had been complicated for many years.

A full four year high school education was still seen as a luxury at the start of the twentieth century. Students who intended to go to college needed the rigorous training in mathematics and Latin that a prep school provided, but those going into business or trades usually left school at the age of 16. Plenty of kids in Exeter applied for a work certificate at age 14 and dropped formal education. But if they wished to continue in school, there were three options in town.

From 1781, Exeter was home to Phillips Exeter Academy – a college preparatory school for boys. With a long list of notable alumni the Academy had a solid reputation for a well- disciplined course of study. Exeter’s meager high school, opened to both boys and girls in 1848, paled somewhat in comparison. Girls would sometimes choose to attend the Exeter Female Academy, but this was considered primarily a finishing school with an emphasis on embroidery and deportment.

In 1864, an Exeter native, William Robinson, left the town funds to build a girls school that would rival the education the boys at Phillips Exeter Academy received. The new Robinson Female Seminary opened in 1867 and all the girls in town were removed from the coed grades of 6 through 12, leaving the boys on their own.

This odd three tiered educational system continued for years. Boys heading for college went to the Academy, girls – whether college prep or not – went to the Seminary, and the residual boys went to Exeter High School. One such boy, Ralph Adams Cram, seemed perfectly content to graduate from Exeter High School in 1880. Cram, who was born in Hampton Falls, was the son of an Academy graduate. In spite of what many would perceive to be a ‘lesser education’, Cram went on to become a prominent architect in Boston.

In 1908, the school board made the decision to improve the academics at Exeter High School. Too many boys, it seemed, were transferring to the Academy to take the courses required to get into college. A more rigorous four-year curriculum was developed including Latin, higher mathematics, physics and chemistry. Miss Gertrude Bartlett was hired as the physics and chemistry teacher and by 1910 the school board could report, “a good supply of apparatus has been furnished for her use.” Understanding that not all of the boys intended to go on to higher education, a business and manual education course was included for them. Since nearly the entirety of high school was still considered optional, the board seemed a bit perplexed that so many boys enthusiastically requested the entire program and worked toward their high school diplomas. The school board report of 1910 pondered, “Ought it not to be a matter for congratulation to the citizens of Exeter that the high school has out-grown its present quarters?” The only solution was to build a bigger school. A building committee was formed with the task of designing a high school for boys that would accommodate at least 120 students.

Phillips Exeter Academy was happy to swap a piece of land on Linden Street for an old Spring Street School property, so the new high school had an admirable site. The architect chosen was none other than Ralph Adams Cram, class of 1880. Cram’s firm was also working on plans for the Davis Library at Phillips Exeter Academy. The cornerstones for both buildings were dedicated on the same day – October 26, 1911. But Cram’s design was a bit too expensive for the Town of Exeter. Donations were sought, the largest coming from Edward Tuck, who graciously agreed to donate $5000.00 providing the high school was named in honor of his father, Amos Tuck.

Tuck High School served as the boys’ high school in Exeter from 1912 to 1955 when the girls of the Robinson Female Seminary joined them. The building was expanded in size and the Talbot gymnasium added to accommodate the new coed student body, and the ‘Tuck High School for Boys’ became Exeter High School.

By 2000, it was clear that the aging school was again too small for the student body. Additionally, new technologies were needed to educate students in the new wired world of the 21st century. The high school students moved out in 2006. Today, called the Tuck Learning Center, the old building has a new life as the offices of SAU 16 , Exeter’s Adult Education Program and various other organizations. Still elegant and dignified at the age of 100, the building continues to serve as an educational home to the town of Exeter.