Saturday, July 28, 2012

Exeter Red Cross Motor Corps

by Barbara Rimkunas

This "Historically Speaking" column appeared in the Exeter News-Letter on Tuesday, July 24, 2012.

In November of 1940, over a year before the United States got involved in World War II, a group of Exeter women met to form a branch of the American Red Cross Motor Corps. Most were the middle-aged spouses of Phillips Exeter Academy instructors, and a few were town society ladies. None of them seemed at the time to be the type who would take up emergency and convoy driving, but as the war loomed and news of air attacks on London filtered into town, these were unusual times.

Helen Stuckey would later recall that the motor corps was perfect for those, “who wanted to do something for the war effort besides taking First Aid courses, rolling bandages, knitting, and packing Bundles for Britain at Olive Otis’s house.” The Motor Corps purpose, according to the by-laws in Exeter, was to “furnish efficient transportation whenever or wherever it is needed in Red Cross work. Also to furnish authorized transportation for welfare cases. Active members were on-call all the time to Red Cross officials or local doctors. Participants could also choose to join as reserve members, who filled in as substitutes for the active members.

Fourteen women signed up immediately and began training in earnest. By January of 1941, the corps was ready for active duty and more intensive drills. They submitted to written tests, physical exams and finally driving drills. Stuckey remembered, “we went to the Academy cage. Barrels had been put up about a car length apart. We practiced parallel parking, we moved in and out of the barrels, stopping at a whistle, reaction time measured, all this has stood us in good stead over the years.” All this took place during a time period when it was generally believed that women were by nature poor drivers. The Red Cross Motor Corps would help dispel some of this belief.

“We learned to do blackout driving in convoy,” Stuckey explained, “half of each headlight blacked out. Eight cars then drove to the Coast Guard Station in Newcastle near Wentworth-by-the-Sea for stretcher and ambulance drill, two drivers to each car so that if one was incapacitated the other could take over. When we arrived the sirens screamed, huge search lights probed us, our cars, and out to sea, (where a French submarine, the Surcoeuf, was anchored). A Coastguardsman hopped on each running board to guide us to the building for drill. If they expected a group of jittery females they were mistaken.”

A trailer had been donated to the corps by Malvina Hoffman, an artist from Little Boar’s Head. Hoffman had been an ambulance driver during World War I and had had the trailer refitted for Red Cross use. Helen Stuckey remembered, “we had a hitch put on our red Cross station wagon, and found learning to drive with a trailer a new challenge. Some never did learn. We took the canteen trailer to the B&M Station, helped the Canteen Corps serve coffee and doughnuts to selectees going off to war.”

The Motor Corps served in various capacities during the war – with gasoline and rubber rationed, having available transportation was invaluable for both servicemen and their families. The News-Letter reported in 1943, that the “Motor Corps has driven 18,824 miles, put in 16,934 hours, taken 1,339 trips; this is a daily average of about three hours’ time and 20 miles’ driving. Motor Corps has driven for the following: Pre-school dental clinics, Boston Children’s Hospital, Manchester Clinics, Mitchell Hospital, Blood Donor trips, nutrition classes, observation posts, Burlingame block fire, Production, Canteen, RC War Fund, housing survey, lost blueberry picker, first aid courses, Camp and Hospital Council meetings, Portsmouth Naval Hospital clinics, Nurse’s Aides, Junior Red Cross book and scrap collections, Home Service, Selective Service, farm labor and Navy Yard.” It was also noted that “when requested they have taken a part in parades”, which must have seemed like light duty after all the other driving.

After the war, the motor corps continued to assist the Red Cross and veterans. By the 1950s, the bulk of their time was spent assisting veterans and their families. The polio epidemic created a need for transportation to various rehab centers and hospitals. Stuckey recalled, “once I was taking a boy to the artificial lung there (Elliot Hospital). He was gasping and I speeded up. An officer stopped me, I explained, and he escorted me, siren sounding, to the hospital.”

In 1971, the Red Cross retired the Motor Corps service. After having served loyally for just over 31 years, it was felt that the corps was no longer necessary. Helen Stuckey summed up her years of service well, saying “all in all, it was an interesting, rewarding, unforgettable experience,” and a way in which a number of dedicated Exeter women made a tangible difference for the community.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Exeter History Minute - The Glorious Sixteenth

Ever wondered why the Town of Exeter, New Hampshire, celebrates Independence Day two weeks later than the rest of the nation? With the Independence Festival around the corner, we thought we'd focus on the Declaration's arrival in Exeter. Click HERE to see our second Exeter History Minute. And thanks, American Independence Museum, for throwing such a grand party in celebration of the Glorious Sixteenth!

Friday, July 6, 2012

"Nebraska-Aid" and the Grasshopper Plagues of the 1870s

by Barbara Rimkunas

This "Historically Speaking" column appeared in the Exeter News-Letter on Friday, July 6, 2012.


On a cold February night in 1875, the townspeople of Exeter held a great charity show at the town hall. “The expenses are very light, as many of our citizens have generously given their services and aid free, and it only needs a generous patronage to make this a financial success,” read the handbill. The recipients of this local largess were to be the ‘sufferers in Nebraska’. If the crisis in Nebraska in 1875 isn’t ringing any bells, don’t be dismayed. There’s only a small subset of Americans (outside of Nebraska, anyway) who might know about the terrible grasshopper plagues that struck the region in the 1870s.

In July and August of 1874, as the crops were just about ready to harvest, farmers looked up in horror as huge clouds of glittering grasshoppers descended on the land and ate every piece of vegetation – sometimes including the handles of shovels and plows. Laura Ingalls Wilder, of Little House on the Prairie fame, was 7 years old when her parent’s farm in Minnesota was destroyed utterly by the Rocky Mountain Locust. In a particularly unsettling chapter of On the Banks of Plum Creek, Wilder described the day her family was gazing at the magnificent wheat crop – the crop that would pay for their house and solve all their financial woes – until a silvery cloud blocked out the sunlight and began raining something unexpected. “The cloud was hailing grasshoppers. The cloud was grasshoppers. Their bodies hid the sun and made darkness. Their thin, large wings gleamed and glittered. The rasping whirring of their wings filled the whole air and they hit the ground and the house with the noise of a hailstorm.”

Rocky Mountain locusts cursed the American plains throughout the 1870s. They bred in larger numbers than any other species of locust. During the dry years of the late nineteenth century, they were carried eastward by the low level jet stream. At the end of their journey, they would lay billions of eggs in the dry ground ensuring that there would be more of them the next season. Farmers were at a loss to fight them. Wilder’s family tried creating smoke screens, but the pests were too numerous. Life during the invasion was a horror story. “The grasshoppers were eating. You could not hear one grasshopper eat, unless you listened very carefully while you held him and fed him grass. Millions and millions of grasshoppers were eating now. You could hear the millions of jaws biting and chewing.” Children could not run barefoot on the crunching slimy bodies of grasshoppers crushed underfoot. They got into clothing, drinking water and the milk pail. They had to be skimmed out of food. And all the while, there were the terrible sounds of grasshoppers eating every living thing. All the food and livelihood of the people who had worked so hard was gone.

Nights were no better than days. “In bed,” Wilder wrote, “Laura and Mary could still hear the whirring and snipping and chewing. Laura felt claws crawling on her. There were no grasshoppers in bed, but she could not brush the feeling off her arms and cheeks. In the dark she saw grasshopper’ bulging eyes and felt their claws crawling until she went to sleep.” And once the grasshoppers laid their eggs or flew to another region, the people began to starve.

The scope of the disaster began to hit Exeter during the following winter. As early as November, the Exeter News-Letter ran a quick piece about the habits of the grasshopper referring to Professor Humiston of Minnesota, who most likely was relying on eyewitness accounts. By December, widespread famine was reported. Bookstore owner, George Lane, began collecting funds to send to the stricken areas. “There is no doubt,” the News-Letter reported, “that thousands in each of these states will perish unless sustained for some months by charity and the demand is so great, and will continue so long, that all parts of the country ought to do something.”

The charity show that followed, on February 17th, was hailed as a great success. With a low admission of 35 cents for adults and 20 cents for children, it was no great sacrifice for most townspeople to attend. The Town Hall was filled and the News-Letter later reported, “its only fault being its great length, owing to too frequent encores.” Musical acts and short skits were performed by local talent (including, unfortunately, ‘Songs of Slaveland’ by the Hampton Falls Colored Students – most likely a group in comical blackface).

Grasshopper plagues in the American west were confined to this short period in history. Within 30 years, the Rocky Mountain Locust was extinct – the last known sighting of one was in 1902. Without the help of insecticides, farmers, ever optimistically, continued to plow the land each spring. Professor Humiston had pondered the best way to eradicate the pests, “perhaps the best mode of treatment is back setting, or ploughing the field and thus turning the surface soil, with its store of eggs, several inches under. This prevents hatching, and though not a complete remedy, is very useful.” It turned out that Humiston was right.