Friday, March 30, 2012

The Story of Hobart Street

by Barbara Rimkunas
This "Historically Speaking" column appeared in the Exeter News-Letter on Friday, March 30, 2012.

In 1889, Herbert Dunn and Frank Swallow began to develop the land lying on the western side of the railroad tracks. New streets were laid out and lots were sold to potential homebuilders before any thought was given about what to name the new streets. The first street was named “Washington Street,” which seemed fitting. Who could argue with naming a street for George Washington, the father of our country? The other presidential streets in town, Lincoln Street and Garfield Street, were both named for presidents who had been slain while in office. As the Dunn and Swallow streets built up, more names were needed. One short stump of a street was sympathetically named “Hobart Street” in honor of Vice President Garret Hobart and the reason so quickly fell into obscurity that people have been asking about it ever since.

If anything could be said of Hobart it is that he was a local politician. Born, bred and educated in New Jersey, he was comfortable remaining there his whole life. Trained as a corporate lawyer, he became involved in state politics in his late 20s – serving as speaker of the New Jersey Legislature before he turned 30. He was frequently urged to run for governor but always declined. As a member of various corporate boards, he was hesitant to have all of his time eaten away with politics. Like Robert Todd Lincoln, he made most of his income through railroad investments. By all accounts he was an amiable man – a likeable personality able to get things done through reasoned thinking.

At the Republican Party convention in 1896, William McKinley, of Ohio, secured enough delegates to win the nomination. Usually, when a western candidate was brought forward for president, the vice presidential nomination went to someone from the east – usually from New York. But the New Yorkers were still nursing a slow burn after their favorite son, Levi Morton, had lost the nomination. The best solution was to find a solid candidate from the east who wasn’t from New York. Even though few people had heard of Hobart, he was the man chosen for the job.

Following McKinley’s election, Hobart and his wife, Jeannie, moved into a home across the street from the White House. Unlike most vice presidents, Hobart took an active role advising the president. Jeannie became close to McKinley’s often ailing wife, Ida, who suffered from epilepsy and was often unable to serve as White House hostess. Jeannie Hobart, her trusted friend, often filled in for her.

For two years, Hobart served capably as vice president. He took his job overseeing the Senate quite seriously – pushing forward legislation that seemed to be dragging its feet. The Spanish American War was fought during his tenure and Hobart helped propel the country into the war.

In late 1898, he became ill with myocarditis, an inflammation of the heart muscle. Depending on its cause, the condition could sometimes clear up on its own. Doctors were hopeful that Hobart would rally and placed him on complete rest for months at a time. He removed himself from the political fray and returned to New Jersey to rest and feed his pet fish (the gold one nicknamed “McKinley” and the silver one “Bryan” to reflect the opposing views on the gold versus silver standard). He seemed to be recovering when he became ill with the flu in the fall of 1899. By October, President McKinley was informed that Hobart would not recover. He died on November 21st to the surprise of most Americans.

It was quickly pointed out by New Hampshire newspapers that Hobart had New England roots. The Exeter News-Letter mentioned, “Northern new Hampshire claims both Garret A. Hobart and his wife, since the ancestors of both made their abiding place for many years in the county of Coos. Mr. and Mrs. Hobart many times visited relatives in this region, it having been Mrs. Hobart’s practice before her marriage to spend each summer at Littleton.”

It’s always interesting to ponder the ‘what ifs’ of history. Garret Hobart, had he remained healthy, would have been reelected with McKinley in 1900 and it would have been Hobart who subsequently became president in 1901 when McKinley was assassinated instead of ‘that damned cowboy,’ Theodore Roosevelt.

Instead, Hobart fell off the edge of history; his street in Exeter as short as his tenure on the national political scene. Jennie Hobart was crushed by the death of her husband, but her experience helped her to later comfort her friend Ida McKinley when she also lost her spouse. The two women remained friends, bonded together through grief.

For their part, Herbert Dunn and Frank Swallow named another of their streets for William McKinley. The two streets meet at an intersection rarely used by most people in town. A reminder of the tragic political scene of the turn of the last century.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Girl Scouts in Exeter

by Barbara Rimkunas
This "Historically Speaking" column appeared in the Exeter News-Letter on Friday, March 2, 2012.

The Girl Scouts of the USA are celebrating their 100th anniversary on March 12, 2012. The organization was founded by Juliette Gordon Low, who had encountered the world wide Girl Guide movement while in England. Her first troop consisted of 18 girls, mostly family friends, who met in her hometown of Savannah, Georgia.

The Girl Scouts took a few decades to spread across the United States. In Exeter, evidence of the first troop doesn’t appear until 1938. In that year, the Exeter News-Letter’s May 27th edition noted that “On Sunday, the Exeter troop of Girl Scouts, under the captaincy of Mrs. Harold Gross, will parade and attend the Memorial Day service at 11:45 A. M., at Christ Church. During the service the troop will perform the allegiance to the flag and recite the Girl Scout oath.” There appeared to have been only one Girl Scout troop. At the time of her death in 1963, it was noted in the obituary of Mary E. Gross that she was, “active in the Motor Corps of the Exeter Red Cross, the Exeter Players and in the Woman’s Guild of Christ Church. She had lived in Exeter since 1936, and was organizer of the first Girl Scout troop in Exeter.”

In the early years of scouting, troops were formed independently of one another from town to town. Mary Ellen Hettinger, communications manager of the Girl Scouts of Green and White Mountains, said recently that “often the troops formed from other groups – a lot of times drum and bugle corps.” The first Girl Scout troop in New Hampshire was formed in Portsmouth in 1916. Because they were all independent, the state might have any number of ‘Troop 1’, ‘Troop 2’ and ‘Troop 3’. It was all very confusing, but there weren’t all that many troops in the early days. In Exeter, there were quite a number of other activities and groups for girls to join. Camp Fire Girls were very active (it was a former Camp Fire Girl, Jessie Griffin, who famously named the Ioka Theater in 1915 – believing the name meant “Indian Playground”). There was also a Fire Side Club for girls, a group called ‘Girls Work’ and the Jenny Wren Club. As wonderful as all these groups were, an awful lot of girls saw their brothers joining the Boy Scouts and yearned for something similar. The Boy Scouts were affiliated with the local Y.M.C.A. in their early years. They combined outdoor skills with patriotism.

Girl Scouting began exploding after World War II. By the 1950’s Exeter’s Girl Scout troops were drawing over 300 girls into the organization. Viewed by the public as a wholesome group that would somehow defend the world against the Cold War (really, at the 1951 Girl Scout National Convention, Dr Edward Lindeman spoke about how Girl Scouts can be an active force for freedom. How they might achieve this by hiking, selling cookies and making s’mores is anyone’s guess). The Girl Scouts in Exeter had widespread community support. The annual Antiques Show held at the Exeter Town Hall in the 1950s was sponsored by the Girl Scouts had 149 business sponsors.

Cookie sales began in the 1920s, when a standard recipe for a simple shortbread cookie (similar to the “Trefoil” cookies on sale currently) was circulated to all the troops. The girls baked their own cookies for many years. Today, the annual cookie sale provides funds for local Girl Scout councils, summer camps and individual troops. In our local council – the Girl Scouts of Green and White Mountains – individual girls earn ‘cookie dough’ credit to help pay for summer camp programs, equipment and uniforms.

As the Girl Scouts grew, there was a need for better organization and standardized training for the leaders. In New Hampshire, it took until 1958 for the scouts to organize themselves into what became the Swift Water Girl Scout Council. Another restructuring occurred in 2009, when New Hampshire and Vermont merged to become the Girl Scouts of Green and White Mountains. Locally, the scouts you encounter are part of the Tides to Timber Community, which is comprised of girls from Brentwood, East Kingston, Epping, Exeter, Newfields, Newmarket and Stratham. Most girls still choose to participate in troop scouting, but there are a variety of other options. Girls can join as independent members, or only for summer camp. There are also special interest groups such as the Coastal Rompers, who focus on the coastal environment, and an Anime group, which fosters and interest in Japanese animation.

Girl Scouts are encouraged to try new things, provide service where they see a need and work together to solve problems. They are apolitical and remain neutral on many of the divisive issues that challenge society today, trusting instead that girls and their families can make their own decisions. Juliette Gordon Low’s vision was that the group would be ‘girl-centered’ and the mission to this day remains the same. Girl Scouting builds girls of courage, confidence and character who make the world a better place.

Photo: (A Ben Swiezynski Photo) From the Exeter News-Letter June 16, 1955, “Organizers of the refreshment table at the annual antique show sponsored by the Girl Scouts this year were ready and waiting for hungry and thirsty visitors inside the Exeter Town Hall entrance last weekend. Shown above are members of Senior Troop 6, left to right: Mrs. Robert Ellison, assistant leader; Kathleen Moore, Patricia Ellison, Sandra Anderson and Mrs. Jesse Tharin, leader.”