Friday, October 26, 2012

The Mixed-Up Files of Nancy Carnegie Merrill

by Barbara Rimkunas

This "Historically Speaking" column appeared in the Exeter News-Letter on Friday, October 26, 2012.

Among the research tools at the Exeter Historical Society are nine grey boxes filled with index cards. At one time, the cards were kept untidily in shoe boxes – different brands of shoes, different sized boxes. On the cards were one hundred years of the town’s history – indexed, alphabetized and referenced. If Nancy Merrill, the director of collections, needed to find information about the ‘Robinson Female Seminary,’ she knew exactly which box to check – it might be the Nike box or the Dexter box, but only Nancy knew which one. When a helpful staff member reassigned the cards to archival boxes with alphabetical labels, Nancy found that using them became more difficult for her. But by that time, even though her everyday memory was slipping, her grasp of Exeter’s history remained firm.

Nancy Carnegie Merrill served as the Director of Collections for the Exeter Historical Society from 1972 until her retirement in 2000 – just after her index was moved out of her understanding. She had trained as a nurse and came to Exeter in 1949 to be the SAU 16 traveling school nurse, days filled with tonsils and head lice. The real scourge of the times was polio. The October 13th, 1955, front page of the Exeter News-Letter features a photo of young Paul LeVasseur receiving one of the first polio vaccinations in town, given by Dr. Edwin Lee and assisted by a youthful ‘Mrs. David Merrill, RN.’

As her family grew, Nancy kept herself busy doing historical and genealogical research, which necessitated hours of time in the local library. Nancy turned this into an avocation, studying for her Master’s Degree in Library Sciences and taking a job with the Exeter Public Library. By 1983, when the town was making preparations for its 350th anniversary, the selectmen knew that she was the person to spearhead the creation of an updated history of the town.

Nancy began the project by taking on the monumental task of indexing the Exeter News-Letter from 1888-1988. Using the index, a committee would create the new book. In the dark and damp basement of the library, Nancy spent her time carefully reading each page of one hundred years of local news. Her children describe this period as a time when “supper discussions became exercises in time travel, as current events became interspersed with century-old news bulletins.” Each event was indexed onto a card with quotes and page references. She still organized her thoughts and notes like a nurse, using medical abbreviations and terminology (‘polio’ is indexed as ‘infantile paralysis’ and sometimes just ‘infantile’). When the book was finished in 1988, the committee voted to have Nancy’s name placed on the cover. She later told reporter, Terry Date; “that was the biggest tribute I could ever have.” The book has since sold out its initial printing.

But apart from the book, the index has remained a vital source of information for researchers. I arrived at the Exeter Historical Society as curator in 2000 and encountered Nancy and the index at roughly the same time. She was no longer working as director of collections, but volunteered regularly and was more than willing to train me. Her memory problems were profoundly helpful to me, as she had a tendency to forget whether she’d told me a particular story before. Sometimes, she’d tell me the same thing three or four times in a single afternoon. This Suzuki style training imprinted my brain with Exeter’s rich history, and on those times when she described something unclearly, I could always go to the index to find the reference. It was usually there, although Nancy used her own filing system. The medical jargon wasn’t troublesome – my husband is a nurse, so I’m used to finding odd abbreviations on the supermarket list – but her nomenclature and subject headings could be challenging. We refer to the index as the ‘mixed-up files of Nancy Carnegie Merrill’ sometimes. She made the index for herself as a reference, after all, and told me that she’d never intended to save it after the project was done.

Along with the News-Letter index, Nancy also kept files on Exeter topics. Inside each folder are pages of her research notes. Most of the time, one can just pick up where Nancy left off confident that if she’d already checked, say, the deeds, they were thoroughly checked. One mystery she never solved was the identity of Jolly Rand. The Jolly Rand Road was dedicated in 1980 as a scenic trail – but the question of how it got its name puzzled everyone. Nancy’s folder on the subject is a study in frustration as her notes list multiple people named ‘Rand’ but none that lived near where the trail is located (these are marked with a “NO” written in red pencil). Any time she had a spare moment, she’d go back to that folder, but she never uncovered who Jolly Rand was. I’m still searching for him.

Nancy continued to volunteer at the historical society for years after her official retirement. Her insight was always valued – even if sometimes her memory failed her. Her index became a mystery for her, but not for the rest of us. Nancy may no longer be physically here with us, but every day I am at the historical society I use her work. I touch her writing, read her words, hear her voice and marvel at her devotion to this town. We were lucky to have had her.

Photo: Nancy Carnegie Merrill in October of 1999 at the Jolly Rand Scenic Road clean-up day.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

The Adventists

by Barbara Rimkunas

This "Historically Speaking" column appeared in the Exeter News-Letter on Friday, October 12, 2012.

In the summer of 2010, the Exeter Historical Society received two separate requests for information regarding the 1844 Advent Christian camp meeting held in town. We have a lot of materials in our archives, but as far as we could tell, there wasn’t anything about a camp meeting. Odd, we were told, because this particular camp meeting was considered one of the most important theological events in the development of their church. It was in Exeter that the Reverend Samuel Snow had set the date for the Second Coming of Christ as October 22nd, 1844.

There were two main questions we were trying to answer: where, exactly, did the meeting take place and who was George Stacy – a man listed in Adventist records as the contact person for the meeting in Exeter.

Stacy lived most of his life in Exeter working as a cobbler. His shoe shop was, for a time, located in the Folsom Block on Pleasant Street coinciding with the time when Robert Lincoln boarded in one of the upstairs rooms. Stacy would have most certainly been working in his shop when Abraham Lincoln stopped by in 1860. Although this was interesting enough to us, it wasn’t the bit of information that Andrews University (affiliated with the Seventh-Day-Advent Church) was looking for. They were more interested in George Stacy’s involvement with the local church and not his probable stumbling into Abraham Lincoln’s life.

When we checked our records for the Exeter Advent Christian church, George Stacy is one of the first names mentioned. The church records are incomplete and even the church clerk, who typed up the brief bits we have, admitted, “There is a great discrepancy between dates which we do not understand.” The church seems to have formed as early as 1843 as the Christian Fellowship, but may not have been particularly organized until 1853.

“George T. Stacy (saw the stars fall in 1833)” is the way Stacy appears in the record. ‘When the stars fell’ - whatever could this mean? George Stacy of Exeter saw the most brilliant Leonid meteor shower ever recorded in the early morning hours of November 13, 1833.

The Exeter News-Letter reported on the meteors: “This morning, between half past 3 and half past 4 o’clock, there was a war of shooting stars in the northwest. For an hour, meteor succeeded meteor in such rapid succession that it was impossible to count them; at times the sky seemed full of them, and the earth was illuminated as with a morning light. They were many thousands in number, and as they shot from one part of the heavens to the other, they would burst like rockets, discharging balls of fire in all directions.”

This event, known for generations but now largely forgotten, caused a great deal of distress to those who witnessed it. For many it was a sign that the end times were near. It must have troubled George Stacy, because soon after he became enamored with the teachings of William Miller – the spiritual founder of the Advent movement.

Miller, hailing from New York State, preached that the Second Coming of Christ was going to happen soon. Very soon. At least before 1843. In the spring of 1844 Miller was uncertain about why his prediction hadn’t come to pass. One of his followers, Samuel Snow, recalculated the prophecies and set the actual date to be sometime in the fall of 1844.

At a camp meeting held in Exeter from August 12 – 17th, Snow brought his new calculations to a large group of Adventists. The Advent Herald reported, “We were much gratified to witness so large a congregation present. There were nearly twenty tents on the encampment, from different and distant places, from the east, the west, the north and the south.” James White, who attended the meeting, later wrote that it became very solemn after the pronouncement. “And now,” he wrote later, “the work of waking up the slumbering believers, and giving the last warning to the world, seemed to be crowded into a few weeks.” Although they worked hard to prepare themselves and the world, the date passed without the arrival of predicted Second Coming.

All this happened in Exeter, New Hampshire – but where? The church records, if accurate, place the fledgling Exeter congregation on Franklin Street, but even in 1844 there wasn’t enough space for twenty tents on Franklin Street. Quite by accident, we found the answer in the writings of Benjamin Swasey. Swasey was a child of six or seven in 1844 but still remembered the Advent Camp meetings because they were held close to his father’s farm. “In the grove nearly opposite the Hardy house but on the Haley land the Methodists held a camp meeting in 1842, and in ’43 & ’44 the Adventists held one in the same place.” This would place the meeting of 1844 on Newfields Road just north of the 101 overpass.

The failure of the predicted date has come to be called ‘The Great Disappointment’. Some followers suffered a crisis of faith and left the movement, but more were like James White, who commented, “and now to turn again to the cares perplexities, and dangers of life in full view of the jeers and revilings of unbelievers who now scoffed as never before, was a terrible trial of faith and patience.” George Stacy persevered until his death in 1887. The Advent Christian church in Exeter remained active until 1966.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

The October Exeter History Minute -- The Perfect Crime?

What constitutes the perfect crime? Is is bloodless? Victimless? Must the criminal get away with it? Learn the strange tale of Nathaniel Appleton Shute's bank robbery in the fifth episode of our new monthly series, the Exeter History Minute, which focuses on tidbits from the rich history of our town. (Click here to watch!) This episode is brought to you by The Provident Bank. #ExeterHistoryMinute

To learn more about Exeter history -- or to support the Exeter Historical Society -- visit our website, www.exeterhistory.org.