Monday, December 24, 2012

Exeter History Minute -- Nancy Carnegie Merrill

In this episode of the Exeter History Minute, we explore the contributions of Nancy Carnegie Merrill to the history of the Town of Exeter. Upon moving to the town, Nancy served as a school nurse for SAU16, and then went on to become a reference librarian and Exeter historian extraordinaire. (Click here to watch.) This episode is brought to you by Exeter Hospital, www.exeterhospital.com.

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

Friday, December 21, 2012

The Pioneer Chemical Fire Company


by Barbara Rimkunas

This "Historically Speaking" column appeared in the Exeter News-Letter on Friday, December 21, 2012.

In 1873, the Exeter Fire Department, with great fanfare, purchased the giant Eagle Steam engine from the Amoskeag Manufacturing Company in Manchester, New Hampshire. Capable of hurling 700 gallons of water per minute on a fire, this new monster changed the way fires were fought in town. The old hand pumped ‘engines’, which were dragged to a fire scene by fast-footed firefighters, and sometimes filled by bucket brigade, were rendered obsolete by the Eagle. But just before the purchase of the steam engine, the town had already taken steps to modernize the department by obtaining the latest technologically advanced piece of equipment: the waterless fire extinguisher.

Chemical fire extinguishers were invented in France in the mid-1860s, when it was demonstrated that mixing bicarbonate of soda and sulfuric acid would create carbon dioxide, which would suffocate a fire. The reaction of these two chemicals is similar to mixing baking soda and vinegar together – something most of us have tried while making a volcano in fourth grade science class. The resultant foam even self-propels itself through a rubber hose making any pumping mechanism unnecessary.

We’re comfortable with similar home extinguishers in use today, although they are mostly designed to use dry chemicals and are far safer and smaller than the ones used on the extinguisher trucks of the 19th century. Exeter purchased its Babcock Chemical apparatus from the New England Fire Extinguisher Company, a Massachusetts firm, for $800.00. The piece consisted of a hand-drawn wagon with two enormous tanks of chemicals and sufficient rubber hose. The practicality of the device, according to the sales pitch, was in its very small size. It had no complex machinery, no fire to stoke or steam to generate, it was cheaper to purchase and use, could be pulled quickly by a few firemen, produced no water damage and was always ready. What could be the downside to this quirky piece of fire equipment?

The Babcock was housed in the Spring Street engine house with a company of 12 men who specialized in its use. They called themselves the Pioneer Chemical Company – all were men who lived near the station. They wrote up the usual by-laws for a fire company and set the fines for those who didn’t turn up at a fire scene without a good excuse. The Pioneer Chemical Company met each month to test the equipment. As was typical of fire companies at this time, they met also to discuss town events and generally fraternize with one another. This was, after all, the era of clubs and fraternal organizations. Like other groups - such as the Masons, Odd Fellows and Red Men- fire companies nominated members and voted on whether to accept applicants. And every now and then they reported to an actual fire scene.

The Pioneer proved to work very well at extinguishing small fires in tight places. For downtown business owners, the chemical extinguisher company was a wonder. A small fire in a bakery kitchen could be put out quickly and would leave little damage. Pulled to the scene quickly by men, the Pioneer would arrive on scene and rapidly put out the fire, whereas the Eagle Steamer would have needed time to stoke a fire in the engine, hitch up the horses and find a water source. Then it would have thrown 700 gallons of water onto the fire, possibly destroying the kitchen in the process.

However, for large structure fires and brush fires, the Pioneer Chemical Company was not at its best. Most of these fires would find the company marginalized to tamping out embers – an important job, but not something that couldn’t also be handled by someone with a wet mop. The Pioneer log book more often than not lists fire calls where the engine “did not play” – a phrase used by firefighters to mean “did not get to spray the fire” and a deep disappointment to all involved.

In spite of its usefulness, within 10 years, the Fire Department began to question the value of the chemical company. For one thing, businesses began to purchase their own fire extinguishers as prices came down. And another problem was that with ever more frequency, the chemical equipment failed to work at all. Entries in the log in the 1890s alternate between “chemical did not play” and “chemical did not work.” At one point, in 1892, the State of New Hampshire Board of Engineers chastised the company for not keeping the tanks clean and neat. The town Fire Chief also had little love for the chemical company finding it generally unnecessary and an expense to the town. Finally, in 1894, much to the sorrow of the dedicated Pioneer Chemical Company members, the Fire Chief announced that, “the soda fountain has been condemned, so it is laid aside.” Members of the company lost their progressive status and were absorbed into the far less exciting hose companies that were scattered around town.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Pearl Harbor and the Exeter Aftermath

by Barbara Rimkunas

This "Historically Speaking" column appeared in the Exeter News-Letter on Friday, December 07, 2012

News of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor began to trickle into Exeter in the early afternoon. Most Exeter folks had already gone to church and finished lunch when the news broke. Although everyone was expecting war to break out, the suddenness startled the community.

Plenty of local men had already joined the armed forces — selective service had begun in September — and some Exeter men were at Pearl Harbor. Their safety was an immediate concern, "Japan's savage assault last Sunday on the United States' far eastern possessions had its effect in bringing the war close to Exeter," said the Exeter News-Letter on Dec. 11, "for several Exeter service men are stationed in that area." It would be weeks, and even months, before all were accounted for.

"Welcome news last Saturday," came a notice on Dec. 18, "to Mr. and Mrs. Robert W. Varrill a telegram from their son, Robert A. Varrill, in the Navy at Pearl Harbor, who is safe (although he was in the fighting)."

The following week — Christmas week — "Mr. and Mrs. Charles H. Batchelder have received word from their son, Private John E. Batchelder, who is stationed with the air corps at Hickam Field, Honolulu. He was unhurt in the Japanese attack on December 7th." It took until March 28 for the Richard family to get word that their son, Donald, was safe and still stationed at Pearl Harbor.

Because war had been anticipated for some time, people were quick to take action when it actually arrived. Foremost on everyone's mind was threat of bombing raids. Exeter's citizens had seen newsreel footage of German raids on Britain since August. Their namesake, Exeter, England, had been hard hit that fall with the central part of the city flattened by bombing.

"As a result of America's startling involvement in the World War last Sunday," the Exeter News-Letter announced, "all Exeter agencies connected with civilian defense and the support of our nation's armed forces are hastily making preparations for any eventuality."

Along the eastern seaboard of the United States a series of watchtowers were fitted out to search for enemy planes. Exeter's initial tower was at the Robinson Seminary on Lincoln Street. At first, it was assumed that veterans would staff the air raid watch towers. The News-Letter, on Dec. 11 reminded, "All veterans are to meet tonight (Thursday) in the Town Hall to get observation assignments." It was soon discovered, however, that there were not enough veterans to go around. The best people for the job of plane spotting turned out to be high school students — they were dependable, eager and their hearing and visual acuity was far superior to the over-40 crowd.

The paper reported: "to indicate a blackout, the electric company will pull a master switch extinguishing all electric lights two times. At such signal, or in the event of an air raid alarm at night, all illumination which might be observed from the sky must be concealed by means of window shades and blinds and the use of low-wattage lamps if illumination is needed within." People were also cautioned that cigarettes could be seen from the sky during a blackout and should be extinguished during an air raid drill. Neighborhoods were assigned volunteer air raid wardens, who patrolled their territory during the drills.

The Fire Department put out a call for extra volunteer firefighters. Should an air raid take place, there would be a great need for firefighters. Dr. Louis Theobald became head of the defense medical division. His greatest concern was for nurses and he put out a call to anyone who had any formal nursing training. The town was divided into medical districts; each assigned a physician, nurses, aids and couriers. All nurses living in town were required to register at the Town Hall. The Red Cross bulked up its Motor Corps and began teaching first aid classes, which were heavily attended. There were also notices in the newspapers about keeping one's pets calm during an air raid. People were encouraged to create an evacuation plan for themselves and their pets.

Yet, with all this preparation, in December of 1941 life went on. Intermixed with dire warnings about war preparation are the usual notices of Christmas pageants, Academy lectures and road repairs. Stores advertised Christmas toys right next to blackout panels for the windows. Even in Concord, the mix of fear and routine was noted. "Meanwhile, the machinery of state government has to keep grinding, whether we are at war or at peace," said a dispatch from the statehouse.

There were no air raids in Exeter during the war. The most frightening aspects of war did not reach our shores, but the threat was ever present. Like most places on the East Coast, the town managed its fear through action — preparation. Had the enemy come calling, Exeter would have been ready.