Saturday, November 24, 2012

Exeter History Minute -- The Hurricane of 1938

With hurricanes fresh on our minds, in our sixth Exeter History Minute, we examine the devastation of the Hurricane of 1938, which hit Exeter on September 21. (Click here to watch.) This episode is brought to you by Exeter's Hampton Inn and Suites.

To learn more about Exeter history -- or to support the Exeter Historical Society -- visit our website, #ExeterHistoryMinute

The Exeter Holiday Parade

by Barbara Rimkunas

This "Historically Speaking" column appeared in the Exeter News-Letter on Friday, November 23, 2012

Most Exeter residents have fond memories of shopping in the downtown at Christmastime and the fun that takes place as the season kicks off. Since the 1890s, when local merchants began actively advertising gift items, the town has decorated and encouraged people to join in the festivities.

After 1916, when the bandstand was constructed it became the focal point of the downtown. Easily decorated to accommodate the season, the bandstand was the obvious place to hold Christmas events. Annually, there would be a discussion of whether to erect a tree and who would pay for decorations. A considerable amount of money was sunk into the lights just after World War II. It seems that people in town were eager to put blackouts and wartime austerity behind them.

In 1948, Exeter joined many communities in the United States by holding a parade. The ‘Santa Claus Parade’ was sponsored by local merchants and the Exeter Chamber of Commerce. Snaking around the downtown, the parade featured local school bands, the fire department, fraternal organizations like the Improved Order of Red Men – who marched in full regalia – and church groups, including St. Michaels’ CYO. The Kiwanis Club float carried the Exeter High School and Robinson Seminary glee clubs. At the end of the parade, on a huge flatbed truck with an igloo affixed, was Santa Claus himself.

Parades dedicated to the Christmas shopping season had been around for decades before Exeter joined the party. The granddaddy of them all was not the Macy’s parade in New York, but the Toronto Santa Claus parade, which first stepped out in 1905 and is still held today. In Canada the season starts earlier than in the United States. Canadian Thanksgiving is celebrated on the second Monday in October and Christmas is fair game after that. Here in the US we expend a considerable amount of whining about how the holiday starts earlier and earlier every year even though a careful study of newspaper accounts for the previous 100 years indicates that we’ve pretty much stuck to kicking things off around the end of November. Although the 1948 Exeter parade was held on December 10th, in 1973 it swung through the downtown on November 24. Today the parade committee keeps it on the first Saturday of December.

The Santa Claus parade marched for two years: 1948 and 1949. “The parade drew laughs, applause and shrieks of joy from the kiddies as their traditional Christmas hero, rode through snowless streets on a white truck on which was a white reindeer, Santa in his sleigh, and a white igloo,” wrote the Exeter News-Letter. Who knew Santa lived in an igloo?

The following year, however, parade Grand Marshal, Lyman Collishaw, had to admit that the post-war economy was tougher than expected. He wrote, in a letter to the editor of the Exeter News-Letter, “These parades in the past were paid for by businessmen and civic-minded citizens. This year we did not have the courage to again solicit for this feature.” The Chamber of Commerce arranged for the triumphant arrival of Santa, but had a more subdued tree-lighting ceremony instead of a parade.

The full parade returned in 1957 as the ‘Exeter Christmas Parade’ when, we can suppose, the economy made an uptick. Unhappily, the 1959 parade was rained out and most of the bands set to perform were unable to make the rescheduled event. They didn’t even attempt to have a parade in 1960, although Santa arrived for public appearances. Throughout most of the 1960s there is little mention of the parade. Either it wasn’t held or wasn’t promoted well. But in the 1970s it returned as an annual event.

Part of the charm for over 20 years was the participation of Francis Wentworth –owner and founder of Wentworth Lumber Company. Wentworth was a driving force behind the parade and participated every year. He may have been hard to spot, unless you were looking carefully. Children know the real Santa Claus is in our parade, but for 20 years he looked just a bit like Francis Wentworth. In 1993, Wentworth was pronounced “Citizen of the Year” by the Chamber of Commerce and somehow managed to be in the parade twice – leading it off as Grand Marshall, and managing to bring up the end as, well, you know who.

In 1994 the parade changed its marching time to evening, making Exeter’s parade one of the few held in the dark. The lights of the floats and the fireworks that followed for many years brought out larger crowds. Even the marching bands get into the fun by placing twinkling lights on their instruments and music holders. Today it’s called the Exeter Holiday Parade to broaden the appeal to all citizens, but there are no restrictions on what type of cheer the participants extend. Church groups march alongside Scout Troops. Both religious and secular seem to coexist happily and that, after all, is a good reason to hold a parade.

Photo:The Exeter High School and Robinson Seminary Band march up Water Street in the 1948 Santa Claus Parade. Parades have been a popular kick-off to the holiday shopping season in Exeter since 1947. One feature that has always been involved – the arrival of Santa Claus at the end of the parade.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Influenza 1918

by Barbara Rimkunas

This "Historically Speaking" column appeared in the Exeter News-Letter on Tuesday, November 13, 2012.

“We should surely remain calm and not lose our good sense,” advised the New Hampshire State Board of Health, “We must have confidence that our physicians and health officers, who have the real facts before them will give the situation every consideration.” In the fall of 1918 the ‘situation’ at hand was the arrival of a deadly world-wide influenza pandemic.

Individual cases of flu began to appear in Exeter in mid-September. School had been in session for only a few weeks and the newspapers were still full of news of the war. Although many newspapers suppressed information regarding the flu to prevent panic, the Exeter News-Letter began to run stories directly related to the outbreak in the last weeks of the month. By that time, it would have been difficult to ignore the flu’s grip on the town.

The 1918 influenza, sometimes called ‘Spanish Influenza,’ was caused by a quick spreading virus that could incapacitate its victims in hours. Some sufferers would slowly recover, others would develop deadly pneumonia and die within days – and the victims were generally people in the prime of life. Most flu epidemics preyed on the weakest members of society – the very old and the very young. This flu liked adults between the ages of 15 and 55.

On September 27th, the News-Letter reported, “The ‘Spanish Influenza,’ so-called, probably the grippe in severe form after a cycle of comparative mildness, has gained a strong foothold in Exeter. Hundreds are affected by severe colds, grippe and too many by pneumonia. To list its victims is impracticable. They are of all classes and ages and in instances entire families are affected. Manufactories, stores, and schools have their victims.” Exeter’s public schools stopped all classes. The Ioka was ordered closed by the Board of Health. The following week most clubs, churches and public meetings were postponed due to the flu. Phillips Exeter Academy continued to hold classes, fearing that sending the students home might only spread the disease, but the boys became sick and the gymnasium had to be converted into an infirmary.

There was no need to panic, the public was counseled, even though the Cottage Hospital was quickly overwhelmed with critical patients and much of the staff became ill. Dr. William Day fell victim and his slow recovery kept him from treating his patients. Not that there was much that could be done for flu victims. Even today there is little but supportive care that can be done for those suffering from influenza.

By the first week in October the death toll became a daily feature in the obituary columns. Boston postmaster  William Murray died. Democratic Congressional candidate Edward Cummings died. And well-loved townspeople died.

“Mr. Charles B. Edgerly, superintendent of lines for the Exeter & Hampton Electric Company , and Miss Marion I. Fogg, of Hampton Falls, long a clerk in its office were married here last Saturday by Rev. John W. Savage, of Seabrook. It was necessarily a simple wedding, the bride then being affected by the influenza. Her condition since failed and early in the week she was compelled to enter the hospital, where she died last night of pneumonia.”

So many people died during the week of October 4th that the News-Letter headed an entire column, “Deaths from Pneumonia.” Immigrants, like 33 year old Stanislaus Yankowskas, a shoe-worker, died as quickly as wealthy high-born people. The Kent family, owners of the Exeter Manufacturing Company, lost their eldest son, Robert, who, like Yankowskas, was 33 years old. Robert Kent had been slated to take over management of the mill. His death left the job to his widowed mother, Adelaide.

No family in Exeter suffered as much as the Tewhill family of Garfield Street.  A tight-knit Irish family, the Tewhills lost three family members to the flu. At one point during the epidemic there were five gravely ill people in the household, leaving the remaining two as caretakers. Stories such as this trickled in from all parts of the country. The death toll in Exeter was thought to be around 25 but might have been higher if you count those who died of pneumonia just before or just after the height of the epidemic.

After the terrible month of October the town began a slow recovery.  Schools re-opened in the first week of November. The Exeter Public Library graciously provided amnesty for any overdue book fines for books checked out after September 21st.  Reports changed from obituary notices to those of recovery. “Chief (of police) Elvyn A. Bunker resumed his duties on Monday after a long sickness from the influenza,” chirped the News-Letter on October 25th. “We seem to be passing from out the shadow of the pestilence, and there is a marked decrease in the number of new cases. Many who have been seriously ill are now nearing recovery.”

As hopeful rumors of a possible armistice in Europe began to surface in town, no news was received as joyfully in the tired town as this: “Miss Ellen Tewhill, who has been so seriously ill, on Tuesday walked from her Garfield Street home down town and back.”


Robert Kent, seen here as a student at Phillips Exeter Academy in 1905, died of influenza in November of 1918 at the age of 33. The Kent family owned and managed the Exeter Manufacturing Company. His death left management of the factory to his widowed mother, Adelaide.

Join the Exeter Historical Society for “The 1918 Flu Pandemic”, in which historian Marion Girard-Dorsey will explore the many factors that enabled the 1918 flu pandemic (Spanish Flu) to spread across the world, making it ‘the greatest medical holocaust in history’.  Exeter Historical Society, 47 Front St, Exeter. Refreshments will be served at 7:00pm; Program is at 7:30pm. This program is free and open to the public, no reservations are required.