Sunday, December 29, 2013

The Last Exeter History Minute of 2013 - Old Dr. Perry

Every small town has at least one legendary doctor, and Exeter's Doctor William Perry (the first one) definitely fits the bill! In this Exeter History Minute, Barbara examines some of the special traits and talents that made Old Dr. Perry so memorable. Click here to watch!

This history minute was made possible by the generous support of Exeter Hospital. To learn more about Exeter history -- or to support the Exeter Historical Society -- visit our website. #ExeterHistoryMinute

Friday, December 20, 2013

The Rise of the Supermarket

by Barbara Rimkunas

This "Historically Speaking" column appeared in the Exeter News-Letter on Friday, December 20, 2013. 

It’s so easy to pick up food nowadays, that it’s easy to forget how complicated it once was. By the dawn of the 20th century, most people in Exeter purchased their food. They may have kept a garden and a few chickens, but most would need to buy provisions from the local merchants. Luckily, in Exeter, there were lots of little grocery stores to choose from. Small local markets were sprinkled around town – most advertising ‘groceries, provisions and dry goods.’ These shops tended to specialize in ‘dry groceries’ the type of canned goods and non-perishables that could be stored for a while. Most of these products were ordered by phone, charged to an account and delivered to the customer’s door. If quicker service was needed, the customer could walk to the store or send one of the household’s children. It was counter service – the clerk would take the list, bundle up the purchases and move on to the next customer – leaving customers to chat amongst themselves.

Dairy products were delivered to homes daily, so there was no need for local grocery stores to sell milk or butter. Meats were sold at the butcher shop, fish at the fish shop and fruits and vegetables at the green grocer. The bakery might be another stop if bread wasn’t made at home. Imagine paying five or six different bills every month just for food., a very comprehensive on-line history of grocery stores and supermarkets, says that most delivery and charge services stopped by the 1920s, but Exeter lagged behind the national trend. In 1946, although buying groceries on account was rare, it was still common for local grocers to advertise delivery services. Haley’s Suprette, which was part of the Independent Grocers Alliance or IGA, opened the first self-service market in Exeter on Water Street. The idea of allowing customers to browse the products was only about 20 years old at the time. Self-service required a complete redesign of the store – moving the food out from behind the counter. It also gave the customer more independence and, it turned out, browsing increased sales. Contrary to what many store owners believed about their customers, who were primarily women, shoppers preferred to choose and handle their own purchases.

The next big leap in food sales came when the specialty services, meat, baked goods, fruits & vegetables, began to appear in ordinary grocery stores or shopping plazas to make weekly marketing more efficient. This transition took place over several decades just after World War II. In 1946 in Exeter, there were three large markets, Haley’s Superette on Water Street, Walsh’s Market on Front Street and Woodman’s Cash Market on Lincon Street, that all followed the model of offering a variety of canned or dry foodstuffs along with meats, fish, fruits and vegetables. Walsh’s and Woodman’s still offered delivery. Alongside these larger stores there were still a dozen or so traditional small grocery shops and a few chain stores such as First National. Most of the small stores would disappear within the next two decades.

In 1954, the Exeter News-Letter, noted that supermarkets were changing the landscape of town. “With the opening of Paquette’s new supermarket today at the Portsmouth Avenue Shopping Center,” it noted on November 4th, “it is apparent that food merchants in town have taken the lead in streamlined merchandizing. Both the Exeter Food Center and the First National Stores on Water Street within recent years have been remodeled and gone to self-service.” Haley’s Market had already moved to the less congested Portsmouth Ave earlier that year and both it and Paquette’s offered the shopper one-stop self-service shopping with ample parking. The post-War society embraced the ease and convenience of driving in much the same way we now enjoy on-line shopping. Exeter’s downtown, with parking meters and perpendicular spaces were considered a hassle to most shoppers – especially if one was also wrestling with small children while fumbling for a nickel or navigating a tight space. Open parking lots seemed luxurious. And then the supermarket itself was seemingly enormous with everything conveniently located in one shop. No need to bring a battered old shopping basket, the new wheeled shopping carts provided a place to seat (and contain) the toddler while the customer could browse and comparison shop to her heart’s content. The shopping cart also allowed her to purchase more than she could carry. Now, the week’s worth of food could be purchased and transported home in just one trip. Innovations at Paquette’s, according to the news account, included, “conveyor belts on cashier counters operated by a foot lever. In the rear of the store is a built-in meat storage room, which can be maintained at any desired temperature. Popular music will be brought to the ears of shoppers by means of a high fidelity recording set.”

Paquette’s soon sold the store to the Champagne Company, New Hampshire’s largest chain at the time. Romeo Champagne, president and treasurer of the company, praised the previous owner in the Exeter News-Letter just after the sale in 1955, “We are all aware of the fine accomplishments of Mr. Paquette in the food industry in southeastern New Hampshire. He has served his community well and over the years he has been a leader in bringing to this area the most advanced marketing facilities available.” Stores compete with one another through special give-aways of dishware or trading stamps.

Today, of course, there are no supermarkets in Exeter proper, but given our continued love of the car it’s not particularly burdensome to drive to the next town to buy food. The small corner grocery stores of the early part of last century are either gone or converted into convenience stores. Although the mighty supermarket may the most efficient way to buy food, every now and then we still need to send one of the kids to a ready-mart for a can of cat food or hamburger buns.

Photo: Champagne’s Super Market on Portsmouth Avenue, seen in this Ben Swiezynski photo taken in 1958 for the Exeter Chamber of Commerce. Supermarkets provided one-stop shopping for customers along with valuable incentives such as S & H green stamps.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

New Exeter History Minute: "Hey, What is that Thing?" Church Edition

This is the second installment of our new Exeter History Minute series, "Hey, what is that thing?" Church Edition. Tune in as we explore one of the mysterious religious symbols imbedded in our local architecture. (Click here to watch.) This Exeter History Minute is sponsored by Buxton Oil.

If you enjoy our Exeter History Minutes, consider donating to our Annual Fund (if you haven't done so already.) We count on donations to provide programs, including the Exeter History Minutes, and to save and share the history of our wonderful town of Exeter. You can easily make a donation -- any size helps! -- through our website, Check it out, and please share it with your friends! Also, we welcome your input, so send us your ideas for future episodes of the History Minute!

The Exeter Players

by Barbara Rimkunas

This "Historically Speaking" column appeared in the Exeter News-Letter on Friday, December 6, 2013.

“Under the direction of Mr Edward R. Scott, the Exeter Players will stage their first play in the Town Hall on Friday and Saturday evenings, October 28 and 29, at 8 o’clock,” announced the Exeter News-Letter in 1938. Thus began the 58 year run of the Exeter Players – the town’s lauded community theater group. The first play performed was “The Late Christopher Bean”, an American adaptation of a French play called, “Prenez-garde a la Peinture,” which had a very favorable run in the early 1930s in both New York and London.

In May of that year, a group of Phillips Exeter Academy faculty and spouses had banded together under Scott’s direction to form the social and dramatic arts group. With all proceeds going to the American Red Cross, the production proved to be just the thing Exeter needed that fall. The year had begun with the excitement of the town’s Tercentenary celebrations but the enthusiasm came to a crashing halt in September when the hurricane of ’38 crashed through town destroying most of the elegant trees in the downtown. A witty play about a New England doctor’s family discovering that a collection of seemingly worthless paintings left in the attic were, in fact, quite valuable was just the thing to brighten storm-dampened spirits.

Although the group was founded by Phillips Exeter Academy staff, participation was not closed to the public. Indeed, the first mention of the group in the News-Letter, encouraged, “it is hoped that as interest in the venture grows, other townspeople will be encouraged to join, so that what has begun in a small way may become something of a community venture.” The notice proved to be prophetic as the group grew in size quite quickly. Productions increased from two per year to four or five.

World War II proved to be a challenging time for the group. Isabel Macomber, a founding cast member, told the News-Letter in 1996, “During World War II, when a lot of men were in the service, their wives came back to Exeter. We had to select plays with very few men in the cast. One of them was ‘Cradle Song,’ about a nunnery and a child left at its door. We took the play to a convent and the nuns loved it!”

Activity with the group demanded total commitment. Actors helped build sets and all members attended monthly meetings to help pick new material. Theatrical talent, or lack of talent, was not a requirement for these casual thesbians. And yet, there were some very talented people who participated in the Exeter Players. One of the greatest pleasures of attending community theater is the surprise that comes when one discovers that one’s dentist or realtor or cafeteria lady can transform on stage. It’s like having Superman living in the apartment next door. Who knew, right?

Beginning in the 1970s, the Players stored sets and props in the Fieldsends family barn in Newfields, but eventually it became too expensive to heat the old place and the group began renting the second floor of the Exeter Town Hall. For the next 20 years, until the Exeter Players folded in 1996, the Town Hall was home.

The players chose comedies, dramas and musicals. In the group’s early days, plays were frequently chosen based on how many set changes were required – the fewer the better. Musicals were usually the most popular and tended to draw more sponsors. Like most small organizations, funding was often very tight. Proceeds from the shows typically went to charities, but donors were recruited from the entire community. Small grants could be obtained from the New Hampshire Commission for the Arts. But to say they ran on a shoestring budget would be an understatement. Only in the movies could Andy Hardy raise a small fortune by putting on a show. Locally, it was more typical to simply break even.

In 1965, the Exeter Players had a bit of competition from the Exeter Minstrels – a group that staged variety style shows. The two groups seemed to coexist well and there didn’t seem to be a drain of talent. By the 1990s it was becoming harder and harder to find enough people willing to participate in local theater. In 1996, the Exeter Players donated their records to the Exeter Historical Society and the massive collection of sets, costumes and props went to the Exeter High School drama department. The Town Hall still retains an excellent stage and can serve as a venue for performances of all kinds. Perhaps it’s time to rekindle the excitement and find out if Superman does indeed live on your street.

Photo: The Exeter Players stage a scene from “The Pirates of Penzance” in November of 1981 at the Exeter Town Hall. Musicals were very popular with the local audience, this production was directed by Robert True, musical direction by Andrew Inzenga and choreographed by Hazel Lunardo. Seen here, the Pirate King (Jefferson Wells) threatens Major-General Stanley (Richard Brown).

Thursday, November 21, 2013

The Day Kennedy Died

by Barbara Rimkunas

This "Historically Speaking" column appeared in the Exeter News-Letter on Friday, November 22, 2013.

Fifty years ago the nation reeled from the news that President John F. Kennedy had been assassinated in Dallas. The first news that something had happened trickled into town just before 2:00pm Eastern time and by 2:30, the official announcement of the president’s death arrived. People heard the news on radio or television and word quickly spread. The weekend that followed, unseasonably warm in Exeter, has been described as one of suspended animation by most people who remember it.

Kennedy was a familiar figure to most of the town’s citizens. He had visited the town in 1956 while on a campaign tour for the Democratic Party. Senator Kennedy had just lost a bid for vice-president at the Democratic Convention during the summer and by September, when he came to Exeter, he was stumping for party votes. His speech at the bandstand, which began an hour late due to delays earlier in the day in Manchester, was well received by the local Democratic Party members. But the Republican Party was still dominant in town and the crowd, although polite, was probably not won over by his speech. The Exeter News-Letter, in its coverage of the event, noted of his convention loss, “Many attribute his defeat to his courageous Senate vote in support of the Republican administration’s flexible farm price program in defiance of the Democrat Party stand for firm 90 percent parity prices.” It would seem that the most complimentary thing to say about a Democrat in Exeter was that he voted against his own party.

When the election of 1960 rolled around the News-Letter endorsed Richard Nixon. “As New Hampshire people living under the aegis of the state motto ‘Live Free or Die,’ we strongly oppose any further retreat under the umbrella of welfarism. It is time to restore the attitudes of thrift, self-discipline and morality to the national character. Some Democrats by their voting records indicate they believe in these principles, but Senator Kennedy is notably absent from the list.” The election results indicate that a majority of the town agreed with the paper. Turnout that year was high; 3,747 voters cast ballots and Nixon soundly won the town with 2,273 of those votes. Republicans won the entire ticket in Exeter and Nixon received all of New Hampshire’s electoral votes.

Exeter in 1963 was still relatively small. The 1960 census estimated the town’s population to be 7,243 persons, or roughly half of what it is today. The Ioka Theater was the center of entertainment, although many people now owned television sets. For the week of November 20th, the big draw was a Disney film called “The Incredible Journey.” Exeter High School students were performing “Pride and Prejudice” on Thursday and Friday. The Thursday show was a great success, but Friday, with news of the assassination, the performance was postponed until the following week.

Various civic and fraternal groups scrambled to respond to the tragedy. Chief Ranger Walter Gadd, of the Foresters of America, called an emergency meeting of the officers and planned a memorial service. They also decided to drape the Court Charter for 30 days – a tradition that was usually reserved for members only. 

After President Johnson declared Monday, November 25th a day of mourning, many more postponements and services were planned. The High School trip to New York City that was scheduled to leave on Monday was moved to December. All town schools were closed on Monday – the students had a very short week given that the end of the week was Thanksgiving Break. St Michael Church held a special Mass on Monday at 10:00 that was attended by over 800 people.

Yet within all this, life still went on. Not to be deterred by events, there were four babies born on November 22nd. Not everyone halted their plans for the day. Helen Kreger’s diary indicates that after receiving the news that afternoon, she went to dinner with friends at Kurtz’s diner and went to see “The Incredible Journey” (rating it as “Good” – underlined twice). The following day she notes, “Radio – all tragic news and music, of course.”

Thirty days of mourning followed and there was no small amount of hand-wringing about the safety precautions that were overlooked in Dallas. “It is our belief that United States Presidents have always exposed themselves unnecessarily. Unfortunately our political system calls for their exposure to tremendous crowds. Somehow, the goings and comings of these eminent persons must not be publicized,” opined the Exeter News-Letter. But the wounds were deep. There were few around who could remember the assassination of President McKinley in 1901, which was also attributed to a President unnecessarily exposing himself to public crowds. In the end, the News-Letter lamented, “a man who is President of the United States is something special. His ‘family’ transcends the relationship of blood and heredity. As the elected leader of 180 million Americans, this personage has the awesome duty of promoting the welfare of each and every one of us.” He may not have been Exeter’s candidate, but John F. Kennedy was their President and the sudden loss touched everyone.

Photo: Senator John F. Kennedy visited Exeter on September 25th, 1956 while campaigning for the Democratic Party. He spoke for just under an hour at the Swasey Bandstand in the downtown. Pictured with the Senator are: Frances Smith Adams, John Sullivan, John Cahill (back row) Walter Driscoll, Thomas Fecteau, Lawrence Pickett and John Lusona. Ben Swiezynski, a local photographer, took the picture.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Radio Comes to Town

by Barbara Rimkunas

This "Historically Speaking" column appeared in the Exeter News-Letter on Friday, November 8, 2013.

1924 was the year radio sales exploded. Commercial broadcasting had begun a few years earlier, but few people owned receivers. In Exeter, only William Folsom and Frank Cilley had sets in 1922. Radio broadcasting, although still in its infancy, had received a boost in 1924 after the November presidential election when it was widely reported that Calvin Coolidge listened to the returns on the radio. Coolidge, then as now, was not particularly known for being an early adopter of technology, but apparently he embraced the 1920s version of the information superhighway. Even though the economy was in a rut in New England, suddenly everyone wanted a radio.

Olive Tardiff recalls that her family had a radio by the time she was ten years old. “You can work out when that was,” she told me. Olive was born in 1916, so her family purchased a radio around 1926 – or pretty early in the rush. At the time, there were few offerings coming across the airwaves. Broadcasters were still trying to determine what people wanted to hear. Victrola sales had been building for over two decades, so there seemed to be a public demand for music. Most stations included blocks of music – often performed live – during the course of the day. Victor Talking Machine Company was so concerned about the competition from radio that it began advertising victrola cabinets that could be adapted and would either play records or radio. An ad from December, 1924 declared that, “we have modified the construction of our instruments that virtually any of the more reliable radio sets may be installed as a complete unit ready to operate as soon as delivered.”

If you did buy yourself a combination victrola/radio or even just a radio cabinet, which could be purchased in Exeter at Ralph Meras Company, the radio itself could be picked up at either McIntyre’s Radio Shop in Portsmouth or at D.C. Higgins in Exeter. Both establishments offered Magnavox, Freed-Eisemann, Radiola or Crosley equipment. But even when the radio was installed and warmed up, broadcasts were pretty slim. Olive recalls that in Exeter they listened to stations from New York, not New Hampshire. Listings from the Portsmouth Herald back this up – in October of 1924 there were only three stations available: KYW from Chicago, WBZ from Boston and KOKA in Pittsburg. Programming was heavy on obvious things, like music and news, but also included a bedtime story at 7:30 for kids and Edna Goodman: “Her experiences in canning.” There was slightly more programming on weekends.

According to the New Hampshire Association of Broadcasters, the first radio station licensed by the FCC was WEAQ, which broadcast from Berlin in the Summer of 1922. There was really nothing available for the seacoast until WHEB took to the air in 1932 out of Portsmouth. Originally licensed as a daytime only station, WHEB could only broadcast until 8:30pm. The station, due to its location near the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, reported on a number of maritime disasters in its early years – most notably the 1939 sinking of the submarine Squalus. National reports of the recovery efforts came directly from WHEB.

Exeter itself finally got a radio station in 1966. Created by Concord radio manager, Frank Estes, the NHAB says, “WKXR’s creation was a fluke. FCC policy prevented stations sharing a frequency if their signals overlapped. Estes realized the Exeter area was unserved by a local station, so he proposed a 1,000 watt daytime station at 1540kc. He convinced the Commission to grant a waiver to the rule ‘because the area of overlap was over salt water,’ namely the Atlantic Ocean.” Exeter got her radio station. The following year, Phillips Exeter Academy was licensed with a small FM station to serve the student body.

WKXR broadcast out of a small location on Downing Court, covering local events including the annual Exeter town meeting. It remained a local station broadcasting on both AM and FM frequencies from 1972 until it was split into two separate stations, WERZ FM 107.1 and WXEX AM 1540 in 1982. Today, only the AM station is still broadcast from Exeter -WERZ is now licensed in Exeter, but broadcasts from Portsmouth. And for radio in Exeter, that’s the way it was. Photo caption: The unassuming broadcast headquarters of WKXR in Exeter on Downing Court. The station began broadcasting in 1966.

New Exeter History Minute -- The IOKA

The IOKA Theater opened on November 1, 1915, and despite the owner's bankruptcy, still managed to put The Opera House out of business within just a few years. In this episode of the Exeter History Minute -- click here to watch -- Barbara dispels some of the urban legends that the IOKA can't seem to shake. If you want to learn more about the Exeter Theater Company's efforts to save the IOKA, visit their website, This Exeter History Minute is sponsored by Hampton Inn and Suites. To learn more about Exeter history -- or to support the Exeter Historical Society -- visit our website, #ExeterHistoryMinute

Friday, October 25, 2013

Remember, Remember the 5th of November

by Barbara Rimkunas

This "Historically Speaking" column appeared in the Exeter News-Letter on Friday, October 25, 2013.

The Puritans who settled New England weren’t keen on holidays. They refused to celebrate most of the festivals we consider to be ‘traditional’ including Christmas and Easter on the grounds that these were too ‘papish’ (read: Catholic), unbiblical and merely a debauched excuse for excessive drinking and hooliganism. But they did turn a blind eye to one British custom that was primarily marked by the young men and boys of the town – Guy Fawkes Day on November 5th.

Back in Britain, the day remembered the attempt of Fawkes and his fellow conspirators to blow up the king and members of Parliament in 1605 – an event called the Gunpowder Plot. Fawkes, who was Catholic, believed this would remove the hated Protestants from government and return England to the true faith because, you know, terrorism always works well that way. Unfortunately for him, he was discovered standing next to 36 barrels of gunpowder in the basement of Parliament before he was able to light the fuse. Fawkes and his fellow conspirators were captured, tortured, convicted and executed in short order. The gunpowder plot was thwarted and should have been forgotten. But as the years passed and the government remained stoutly Protestant, people began to realize just how close they’d come to becoming a Catholic nation again. By the late 1600s, effigies of Guy Fawkes were burned every year on November 5th to commemorate the triumph over the plotters.

So, why did this weird holiday and not Christmas make it to New England? The ugly side of Guy Fawkes Day is its anti-Catholic message and not its anti-terrorist triumph. And the Puritans really, really hated Catholics, so much so that when young John Gyles of Pemaquid, Maine was taken captive by Natives and brought to Canada, his mother wrote to him; “I had rather follow you to your grave, or never see you more in this world, than you should be sold to a Jesuit.” What’s a little bit of mischief if it reminds the kids that the Pope is evil incarnate leading his followers into certain damnation? In America, Guy Fawkes Day was transformed into Pope’s Day. Boston took the lead in marking the day with rival gangs of apprentices and boys building parade floats with huge puppet-like caricatures of the Pope, the devil and any other momentary enemies. These would be wheeled around the city while the boys blew on horns, banged drums and created general mayhem begging for donations from the crowd. As the procession continued, the various gangs would try to destroy the float of their rivals. At night it all culminated with enormous bonfires and a great deal of drinking.

Accounts of Pope’s Day in Boston are many and some of our early patriots were eager participants. Historian and author Esther Forbes described the scene in her book, Paul Revere and the World He Lived In, “For twenty-four hours Boston was in the hands of a mob which custom, if not law, had legalized.” The uncontrolled riots were a contributing influence on the revolutionary fervor that would grip the city before 1775.

In New Hampshire, as in most small communities, the night was more a nuisance than anything. There were few Catholics in the region to offend with its overt prejudice. The only account of the event happening in Exeter is from Charles Bell’s History of Exeter, where he relates the town’s response to the hated Stamp Act in 1765. “Three effigies, representing, according to the Rev. Mr. Rogers, the pope, the devil and a stamp master, but according to another eye witness, Lords North and Bute as two of the characters, were carried about the streets of the town, and finally taken across the river, to the front of where the jail afterwards stood and set fire to and burnt to ashes.”

Perhaps it was this political turn that prompted New Hampshire, in 1768, to pass an act prohibiting Pope’s Day festivities. “Be it enacted by the Governor Council and Assembly that henceforth all such clubs and companies and assemblies for celebrating or commemorating the day aforesaid with the usual shows and mock representations of the Pope and other exhibitions usually carried from place to place with the rude noisy speeches and demands of money or liquor frequently made at peoples doors and the making of bonfires are strictly forbidden to be done.” But although the act was passed and punishments were threatened, Pope’s Day continued to be observed throughout the region. It finally came to a screeching halt in 1775 when George Washington, who had been courting the support of Canada, was horrified to discover his New England troops preparing for the event. He issued a directive stating, “As the commander in Chief has been apprized of a design form’d for the observance of that ridiculous and childish custom of burning the effigy of the pope – he cannot help expressing his surprise that there should be officers and soldiers in this army so void of common sense as not to see the impropriety of such a step at this juncture; at a time when we are soliciting, and have really obtain’d, the friendship and alliance of the people of Canada.” Officially, Pope’s Day was over.

The remnants lived on, in a fashion, under the name ‘Pork Day’ for over a century in Portsmouth, where young boys stalked the streets up through the 1890s plugging each other with chestnuts and carrying pumpkin lanterns. Over time, Guy Fawkes and Pope’s Day were forgotten as the modern observance of Halloween grew in childhood importance. It’s probably best that this particular holiday has ceased to exist.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Powering the Town of Exeter

by Barbara Rimkunas

This "Historically Speaking" column appeared in the Exeter News-Letter on Friday, October 11, 2013.

Exeter’s oldest citizens can no longer remember a time before electricity. They may remember a time before we had all our current electrical things, but there is no longer anyone alive who was born before electricity was introduced to America. It goes back farther than we might imagine.

Benjamin Franklin played around with electricity, we all know this from grade school, but it didn’t become particularly useful until it was needed to run telegraph equipment in the 1850s. Samuel Morse’s code allowed people to communicate across wires using electrical pulses, and since it was faster than a speeding locomotive, trains were dispatched via telegraph by 1851. Trains and telegraphs were a match made in heaven. Telegraph wires had to be strung across great distances with no obstructions. Running them alongside the railroad tracks became the perfect solution, and trains needed instant communication to avoid crashing into other trains.

Exeter had telegraph communication by the 1860s when the Civil War was raging. It no longer took days or weeks for news to reach the town. But for the next three decades, this was the only use the town had for the new technology of electricity. Most homes were heated by coal and lighted by gas or kerosene. There just didn’t seem to be any need for electricity.

And then summer came and everyone wanted to go to the beach. Travelling to Hampton beach from Exeter took a long time. Walking at a good pace, which would be ‘walking without children in tow’, took 2-3 hours. If you were lucky enough to own your own horse, it would have to be put up at a livery stable once you arrived. In 1897, the Exeter Street Railway began construction of electric trolley lines that would take people to the beach. To power the streetcars electricity was generated at a coal-fired plant in Hampton. A separate company, called the Rockingham Electric Company, was created to sell the excess power to the towns of Exeter and Hampton for electric street lighting.

There was much discussion as to whether electric street lights were superior to the town’s existing gas lights, but within a few years the gaslights had disappeared from town streets. Electric lines ran from the power plant to the Exeter Opera House and continued to the Fellow’s Box Manufacturing Company near the Lincoln Street depot. As people became accustomed to seeing electricity in use at public places, they began to view it as something that might be useful in the home.

The Exeter Street Railway continued to bring people to the beach until 1927, when it was dismantled for lack of use – a victim of the growing popularity of automobiles. Electricity for home lighting took off and Rockingham Electric expanded, building a larger generating plant in Portsmouth. The trolleys may have brought electricity to Exeter, but it was the electric company that survived, later changing its name to the Exeter Hampton Electric Company – still in existence today as part of Unitil.

Although people were enthusiastic about electric lighting, it was difficult to sell them on more electric products. Fans were popular in the summertime, but most everything else could be done the ‘traditional’ way: the furnace and stove still burned coal. Sure, by 1920 there were all sorts of labor saving devices for housework, but trying to convince the average New England housewife that these weren’t frivolous was difficult. Perhaps it was baseball that led to the tremendous expansion in home electric use.

Baseball had become one of the most wildly popular sports in the country. By the 1920s, baseball had expanded to a system of national teams and the games were broadcast on the radio. Suddenly, everyone needed a radio, and while buying that, one of those new-fangled irons was very tempting. The Exeter-Hampton Electric Company had a store in the downtown on Water Street that sold all the latest gadgets alongside the necessary radios.

Advertisements in the 1920s included all manner of electric goods – vacuum cleaners, toasters, coffee percolators and many others geared toward improving life. Wiring your house for electricity meant you could have a telephone and at one time there were three telephone companies in town. Far from being frivolous, it turned out that people couldn’t live without the new technology – a curse we’re still living with today each time a new phone hits the market.

By the 1930s, there were still a few holdouts who eschewed electricity. In 1939 a model home was built by the Exeter and Hampton Electric Company on Warren Avenue billed as an “ALL ELECTRIC HOME.” It featured a fully wired home with General Electric products including, according to its advertisement: “the General Electric Kitchen, complete with General Electric range, refrigerator, disposal, dishwasher-sink and all steel cabinets. See a home adequately wired for lighting and appliance use with convenience outlets properly distributed. See the general Electric furnace with winter air conditioning equipment and the General Electric water heater.” Electricity, it seems, was here to stay. Now even a few hours without power seems like an eternity and few people venture off the grid unless roughing it in the wild.

Photo: Exeter and Hampton Electric advertised all the new electrical gizmos in this ad from the Exeter News-Letter, December 19, 1924.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Our September Exeter History Minute - The Academy's First Chinese Students

In 1872, China sent 120 boys to the United States in hopes that they would be accepted into the U. S. military academies. Nine of these boys ended up at Phillips Exeter Academy for a short time. In this Exeter History Minute -- click here to view -- we focus on the Chinese students' experience in our town (until their government pulled the plug on the program and called the students back). We'd like to thank the Phillips Exeter Academy Library for providing the photos, and for their assistance with the research.

Check it out, and please share it with your friends! Also, we welcome your input, so send us your ideas for future episodes of the History Minute!

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

French Canadian Immigrants

by Barbara Rimkunas

This "Historically Speaking" column appeared in the Exeter News-Letter on Friday, September 27, 2013.

In 1891, the Exeter News-Letter took note of the rising immigrant population in town, “What a cosmopolitan population Exeter is acquiring, to be sure. Our Italian residents are rapidly growing in numbers. Then we have our Polish colony of upwards of fifty souls, and rapidly increasing. Our quota of French Canadians is considerably larger than the Poles, and then we have our earlier accessions of English and Irish, the latter counting well into the hundreds. Smaller representations are here from Scotland, France, Germany, Russia, Bulgaria, China and other countries.” The editor, John Templeton, was an immigrant himself, having arrived at the age of 10 from Scotland with his family.

Exeter’s original European population had come from England in the 1600s, and the town remained primarily English for its first two hundred years. Exeter, actually New Hampshire in general, considered itself to be a Protestant and English outpost – the New Hampshire Constitution affirmed this by mandating that elected state representatives had to be Protestant, which was only repealed in 1877. But in the mid-1800s, New Hampshire was becoming an industrialized state, and this attracted workers from farther ports. Exeter, like the rest of the state, found itself changing as the new population brought different customs to town.

Irish immigrants began trickling into town just after the Civil War, and after that the slow stream of people from Canada became a sudden flood. Canada found itself in dire economic straits in the late nineteenth century. The short growing season and expanding population produced intense poverty. With traditional large families, both English speaking Canadians from the Maritime Provinces and French Canadians from Quebec began to see New England’s textile mills as a means to improve life. The journey to America was hardly the arduous one traveled by Europe’s immigrants – from Canada one merely had to take a train to Boston, Manchester or Lewiston. Those arriving from New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island quickly assimilated into Exeter. Speaking English and worshipping in the local churches was simple for this group. 

French Canadians had a bit more difficulty moving within Exeter society. Not only was the language difference a challenge, but they were Roman Catholic to boot. Exeter was founded by Puritans who soundly rejected anything and everything that had to do with the ‘Romanish’ church. No liturgical calendar was followed in town – there wasn’t even a celebration of Christmas, which was thought of as a pagan bacchanalia by most of the town’s population. In many parts of New England, French Canadian immigrants banded together to protect their language and religion creating neighborhoods of “Little Canada.” Exeter was too small for this. They had to figure out how to bridge the gap between English and French customs. The new immigrants learned English and sent their children to the public schools.

But religion was non-negotiable. By the 1880s, when Exeter’s French Canadians began arriving in large numbers, there was a fledgling Catholic church in town. It had been established by Irish immigrants who arrived a few decades earlier. Mass was, of course, said in Latin, so there was little difficulty for congregants to participate, but it must have been tough when one’s home language was French, the local language was English and the church’s language Latin. The immigrant’s children quickly adapted to this crazy tower of Babel – but then, the usual pattern of immigrant’s language skills hasn’t changed over time. The first generation speaks the home language and haltingly learns the local language, their children comfortably speak both and grandchildren speak only in the local language. Thelma Cote Barlow, in an interview taped by the historical society for the Girl Scouts in 2006, recalled that when she started school at age 6 in 1921, “I couldn’t speak English and we had a lovely neighbor who was a teacher in first grade. She took me to school until November and she told my parents that by September I’d be able to speak English and I’d be fine in school.” “And did you?” I asked. “Yes! And I forgot how to speak French as I grew older!”

In 1901, Joas Jette, who ran a laundry in town, attended a French congress in Springfield, Massachusetts. The Exeter News-Letter reported, “he was questioned regarding Exeter’s French population. He guessed 85 families and 500 people. Since returning to Exeter he has made a careful canvass for Rev. John Canning of the town and Eno’s brickyard. He found 114 French families in town and 11 at the brickyard, numbering respectively 574 and 48 persons, a total of 125 families and 622 persons.” Exeter’s population at the 1900 census was 4923 people with 1006 listed as ‘foreign born’ – making French Canadians the largest immigrant group in town.

Exeter today is still filled with people of French Canadian ancestry. Of the six obituaries published in the Exeter News-Letter on April 2, 1926 three of them were people who had been born in Quebec Province and found their way to Exeter. “Mr. Louis Ritchie, Exeter’s first citizen of French-Canadian birth, was buried in Exeter last Monday, Rev. Daniel J. Cotter performing a committal service after the funeral in Newmarket, where Mr. Ritchie had latterly lived with a son. He came to Exeter about 1870 with the late Louis Novell, and soon anglisized his name from Richard, as did his early follower, Mr. Beaudoin to Boardman. All were held in the highest esteem, as have been others of their compatriots.”

Photo: Eno’s Brickyard in 1920. Peter Eno, from Quebec, founded the brickyard in 1890 on outer Front Street. After Peter Eno’s death in 1906, the firm was run by his son, Alfred Eno. Seen here in the foreground, L-R: Amide Fournier, Agenor Pelletier, Ernest Eno and Alfred Eno.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

The Corps of Teachers

by Barbara Rimkunas

This "Historically Speaking" column appeared in the Exeter News-Letter on Friday, August 30, 2013.

The records do not show any organized public schools in Exeter until 1703 when the town voted to hire a schoolmaster. Three years later, they decided they needed an actual school building. For the next hundred years, the record merely tells us the names of each schoolmaster.

In 1847, the State required towns to create graded schools and also mandated that the school board had to prepare an annual report for the town. That year, the Superintending School Committee created an unfiltered view of the town’s teachers and their schools. It couldn’t have been easy teaching in those early schools. Most classes were large – you might even say huge – with upwards of 50 to 60 pupils attending on any given day. Parents would sometimes send children too young for school to tag along with an older sibling for the day. Imagine how challenging it would be to try to teach a class of 50 students, all at different grade levels, with a few three year olds underfoot.

In spite of this, there were a few schools the report felt were excellent. The classroom of Charlotte Ellis, who taught the primary students at Hall Place, was singled out as superior. Charlotte and her sister, Rhoda, would both serve long tenures in Exeter’s schools and are commended in nearly every school report during their long careers. They must have had nerves of steel.

J. S. Rollins fared much worse in the report. He was an older teacher and seems to have been unable to control the students. “Under such circumstances, when the teacher from any cause, real or imagined,” the report reads, “has lost a controlling influence, and the scholars are disrespectful, disobedient, boisterous and impudent, the school-room becomes a nursery for every unscholarlike and pernicious habit – a sort of hot-house in which all the vices take ready root, and grow with a forced and unnatural luxuriance: for the boundary line between the outward demeanor and the inward character, like some of the lines in Geography, is only an imaginary one.”

Mary Jewell, who taught some of the youngest students, was given a bit of leeway given her inexperience. “It was, however, her first attempt and her children were small – many of them too small to be out of the nursery, and some of them had evidently been ruling sovereigns too long at home to become at once, and without a struggle, submissive subjects at school.”

Of one issue the report was clear: woman made better teachers than men. And the reasons were blatant. “We believe that most of the schools in this town would be better managed and better taught by properly educated females than by males. Besides, while a better instruction is obtained, the employment of female teachers is a matter of great economy to the District. The same money would generally secure the services of a female twice as long as a male.” Hire women, they’re cheaper!

This policy of hiring female teachers was taken to heart in Exeter. There were generally three times as many women teaching than men (sometimes much higher). In 1852, male teachers were paid between $15.00 and $39.00 per year while the women were paid $6.00 to $9.00 per year. By 1889, when there were 2 male teachers – both at the all-boys high school – to 13 female teachers, the men received $750.00 and $900.00 while the women’s pay averaged $216.00 per year. And women were required to leave teaching if they got married, as in 1900 when the supervisory committee reported, “Miss Florence Weeks, after several years of faithful, honest and successful teaching, resigned to be married and her school was taken by Miss Jewell.”

Finding people willing to teach our large classes at low pay was sometimes problematic. In 1900, the report commented, “we had no little difficulty in securing a satisfactory teacher for the Primary school on the Plains. Seven teachers more or less directly refused it. Finally Miss Mary F. Hallier was engaged and is doing well.” The Plains school, on Park Street, was notorious as an overcrowded, dark, airless building with no inside toilets or plumbing. It’s no wonder it was hard to find a woman willing to teach 50 little children for only $250.00 per year at that school.

Some of the women teachers could earn a decent living teaching. High School teachers were paid at a higher rate – mostly because they often had a college degree rather than Normal school training. But it still must have burned Mildred Diman, who had a bachelor’s degree from Brown, to be earning two hundred and fifty dollars less than Donald Wight, who also had a bachelor’s degree, even though she’d been teaching in the high school for eleven years and he was a new hire. It wasn’t until 1937 that a woman in the Exeter corps of teachers finally out-earned a man.

Gradually, in the twentieth century, it was determined that large class sizes did not foster learning. Studies began to show that students needed more time with teachers and less time memorizing endless facts. The school system in Exeter adapted well to the changes. Our teachers today know their subject areas in far greater depth than teachers of previous generations and, much to the relief of students, they are no longer required to follow rules such as this one from the 1860 General Regulations of the Public Schools: “when good order cannot be preserved by milder measures, (teachers) may inflict corporal punishment. And it shall be the duty of all the teachers to keep a private record of all instances of inflicting corporal punishment.”

Photo: The children of the primary class at the Plains School on Park Street on April 28, 1908. This particular day the teacher got lucky and only had to manage 47 students.

The Arrival of Photography

by Barbara Rimkunas

This "Historically Speaking" column appeared in the Exeter News-Letter on Tuesday, September 17, 2013.

The technological advances of the industrial revolution touched many areas of everyday life. Along with mass-produced textiles and improved transportation networks, we should not overlook how the advent of photography changed the world. We photograph nearly everything today – I’ve been known to snap a picture of my kids’ school schedule so that I’ll have it, carefully stored in my phone, for whenever I need it. It’s almost hard to imagine a world when this couldn’t be done. Imagine relying on your memory for nearly everything and the difficulty involved in describing places and people without a reliable image to prompt your memory.

Wealthy people could afford to have portraits painted in the early 1800s, but ordinary people could not. The Exeter Historical Society is frequently asked if we have pictures of the town or of its people in eras when photography didn’t exist (we were recently asked if we had any photos of soldiers in uniform during the War of 1812). Sorry to say, the record is slim on images before the 1850s. In 1837, Louis Daguerre and his partner Nicephore Niepce, began experimenting with a camera obscura – a device created to reproduce art – and discovered that it could be used to record exact images. It wasn’t true photography – each daguerreotype was unique with no negative from which to reproduce the image – but it did allow an image to be recorded. It was quicker and less costly than sitting for a portrait and people marveled at this new technology.

In Exeter, in 1841,advertisements for ‘Mr. Plumbe, Professor of Photography’ began running in the Exeter News-Letter. Mr. Plumbe, “proposes to instruct a limited number of Ladies and gentlemen in this beautiful and valuable art, who will be furnished with complete sets of the improved patent apparatus, by means of which any one may be enabled to take a likeness in an ordinary room without requiring any peculiar adjustment of the light.” The technology must have seemed near-miraculous to many people, since Mr. Plumbe had to explain that, “the process is simple; it requires no acquaintance with chemistry and no knowledge of drawing or painting, for the light engraves itself upon the prepared plate.” Imagine that! An image without paint or pen! It reminds me of my grandmother’s marveling at the microwave oven – cooking without heat – imagine that!

Daguerrotypes and their cousins, ambrotypes, caught on quickly and it was most often portraiture that the public demanded. The reasons were quite simple and expressed eloquently in an 1847 ad; “who has not at one time or other vainly endeavored to recall the features that once reflected all our dreams of love and beauty? The smiling lip and laughing eye – the manly brow and thoughtful gaze of some dear companion, parent or friend, and sighed to think that they were lost to us forever? Who does not love, whilst pondering o’er the sunshine and shadows of the past to be able to gaze on the countenance of some dear and early loved, but now mourned and buried friend?” Tugging at the heartstrings sold a lot of pictures, it seems. But even if the language of the ad seems romantic and a bit over the top, it wasn’t hard to sell photographs. Life in the 1850s was perilous. Children died young, beloved family members sometimes moved great distances away. You couldn’t simply keep in touch through Facebook and poorly taken selfies. Freed from the high costs of sitting for a painted portrait, “at an expense so trifling that almost every person can obtain a likeness not only of himself but of every member of his family,” people in Exeter – as elsewhere – flocked to the photographer’s studio.

Photographs, like most new inventions, became less expensive as the technology improved. Daguerrotypes gave way to ambrotypes – both fixed on glass plates with no negative. These were superseded by ferrotypes or ‘tin types’, although as their true name suggests, they were made of iron and not tin. ‘True’ photography, pictures made from a negative image, was popularized around the time of the Civil War. Because they utilized a wet plate negative, true photographs could be easily reproduced. Matthew Brady’s war photographs, as well as his portraits of Abraham Lincoln, were reprinted thousands of times from the original negatives.

Exeter’s early photographers - Thomas Boutelle, George Sawyer, the Davis Brothers and William Hobbs - set up shops all along Water Street. Davis Brothers advertised that “likenesses of sick and deceased persons can be taken at their residences.” If you happen to be leafing through old family pictures and come across photos of sleeping children, beware. They may not be sleeping. Although post mortem photographs seem morbid to us today, for grieving parents the ability to look upon the face of their deceased child was a great comfort.

Until the creation of digital photography, the technology involved in taking pictures didn’t change much after the 1850s. The technology revolutionized the world not only by bringing far-away places into our homes, but by seemingly bringing the dead back to life and allowing us to see our children as babies even as they passed into middle-age.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Community & Education at the Exeter Historical Society

The 375th anniversary of Exeter is an ideal time for us to reflect on our town's rich history and how it shapes our community now and in the future. At the Exeter Historical Society we strive to inspire a passion for our shared past by engaging and educating present and future Exonians. Curator Barbara Rimkunas and I have the distinct privilege of working with this amazing town. As students of local history, we have come to realize that as we enter this community -- whether as infants, high school students, job-seekers, or retirees -- we become part of the town's history. Local history is community; we are the history makers.

Part of our responsibility as historians is to document present-day events in our town. But looking towards the future includes taking advantage of 21st century technology. We joined Facebook in 2009, and maintain a very active page. One of our most popular posts is the “Local history is…” photo series, through which we demonstrate that ordinary aspects of community life are part of history. Last year we created a monthly series on YouTube, the Exeter History Minute; in each brief video segment Barbara explores a different aspect of Exeter’s history. And this month our mascot, History Bat, will be hanging around a number of downtown retailers to help answer Exeter trivia questions. (History Bat also has his own Facebook page and Twitter feed!) In addition, you can find us on Twitter, Pinterest and Instagram, as well as on our website and blog. Though our doors are not always open in the literal sense, we invite conversation at all times through these online channels.

By offering a variety of learning -- and teaching -- opportunities, we are always seeking to increase our audience. In addition to social media, we share historical knowledge through our written histories, classroom visits and programs. Just a few examples include reprinting Nancy Carnegie Merrill's "History of Exeter: 1888 - 1988" in celebration of the 375th; Barbara's bi-weekly column, "Historically Speaking,” for the Exeter News-Letter; more than a dozen presentations at the Historical Society each year; and educational programs in the public schools.

Despite rumors to the contrary, the Exeter Historical Society is not a dust-covered pile of old books or a collection of unwanted items from Grandma’s attic. Sure, we have a large library of old books and a wonderful collection of artifacts from Exeter’s 375-year history, but we are so much more. We are a resource – an organization that strives to educate people of all ages about our rich local history. But most importantly, we serve as our community’s collective memory. And if you were born, studied, lived, worked, or retired in Exeter, you are part of our story.

by Laura Martin Gowing, Program Manager

This editorial appeared in the September 2013 Exeter Area Chamber of Commerce's monthly journal, Tradewinds.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

August's Exeter History Minute -- Scottish Prisoners of War in Exeter

During Barbara's recent trip to Scotland, she reflected on the origins of some of Exeter's early families, including the Beans and the Gordons. Did you realize that some of these Scottish men came to Exeter as indentured servants because they were prisoners of war? Click here to view his month's History Minute, which was shot on location at Loch Ness in the Scottish Highlands. 

This Exeter History Minute is brought to you by The Provident Bank in Exeter.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Exeter Manufacturing Company

by Barbara Rimkunas

This "Historically Speaking" column appeared in the Exeter News-Letter on Tuesday, August 20, 2013.

When, in 1829, the Exeter Manufacturing Company erected its textile mill on the eastern bank of the Squamscott River, it created the largest building in town. The industrial revolution in New England had proven that such mills could be wildly profitable, and to the local investors it was well worth the money spent. The bricks used in construction were locally purchased, but the machinery was largely imported from England. Power was provided by the Exeter Mill and Water Power Company, which had spent the better part of the previous year buying up all the smaller mills upstream on the Exeter River to ensure the new mill, would have enough power. With four huge water wheels, the mill was entirely run by water power until the 1870s.

The first employees to work in the mill were women and girls, similar to the workers in most New England mills. In 1938, Frank Goodale wrote his Historical Sketch of the Exeter Manufacturing Company, which was then read at a meeting of the Exeter Historical Society. In it, he describes conditions at the mill: “The working hours were long and the regulations strict in the old days. Deduction of time for eating left the average working day 12 ¾ hours prior to 1847. The operatives were largely women and girls. No female was allowed to live more than five minutes’ walk from the mill and they were obliged to work two and a half hours before breakfast.”

By the 1850s, new workers were available – the potato famine in Ireland brought Irish immigrants to New England and an influx of French Canadian families meant that finding people would not be a problem. Left out of the workforce were the many African Americans – descendants of Revolutionary War veterans – who lived in town. Mill owners would not hire Black workers, preferring instead to hire white immigrants, some of whom could barely speak English.

By 1854, the workday was reduced to 11 hours, with work beginning at 6:30 AM in the summer and 7:00 AM in the winter. The mill must have been a dark place to work in the winter months; the only available lighting was through the use of whale oil lamps. When the old office building was razed in 1918, Goodale reports that, “several hundred of these lamps were found stored in the attic.”

In summer, the top floors of the building were inhumanely hot and oppressive, and since the mill had to shut down when water levels were low, sometimes the workers got an unexpected vacation – without pay, of course. Before child labor laws were passed in the early 1900s, it was not unusual to find children working in the mill. After that date, children had to be 14 years old to seek employment. The 1903 school census indicates that 7 children received a work certificate and left school to work beside the adults at the mill. Men did the heavy work of moving bales of raw cotton and finished fabrics. They also worked in the dangerous bleachery with its toxic chemical stew and fixed the large equipment. Women and children tended the looms and spinning machinery. Margaret Kucharski remembered, “In the twenties, there was no water inside the factory at all. You had to go outside to the spring, and drink out of a big metal pail, with a dipper.”

If you’ve been lucky enough to catch a viewing of the “March of Time” episode, “New England’s Eight Million Yankees,” you’ll see footage of the interior of the Exeter Manufacturing Company in 1941. The mill was busy during the war with plenty of work for anyone who wanted it. Oddly, the film is careful to avoid showing women at work, but women made up a sizeable portion of the workforce even before the war. Kucharski recalls, “Lots of women worked during the twenties, in the weaving and spinning rooms. Twelve hours a day. No breaks, you worked right through, you had to eat lunch on the floor, couldn’t go anywhere. There were no coffee breaks.”

The long work hours were reduced to eight hours during the depression when labor standards changed with the New Deal. The mill remained open throughout the 30s, and World War II brought with it round the clock production, increasing the workforce. The company employed between 200 and 300 people before the war, and the numbers swelled to over four hundred during the conflict.

The Kent family ran the mill from 1895 until 1966, when it was sold to Deering-Milliken. Hervey Kent, Jr is still remembered in Exeter for his opposition to unions – there never was a union at the Exeter Manufacturing Company. During the 1930s and 40s, it seemed like Hervey Kent ran the entire town with a controlling interest in the Exeter Banking Company. His brother, Richard, ran the Exeter Handkerchief Company on Lincoln Street. 

The Milliken purchase in 1966 changed both the work and the conditions at the mill. Air-conditioning was installed, wages raised and cafeteria facilities installed. The mill no longer produced cotton fabrics – it instead churned out synthetics for industrial and automotive use. Improved automation reduced the number of people working there. The mill changed hands again in 1981 when Nike Shoe Company moved in to produce simulated suede for sneakers. This business move out two years later and the mill was repurposed into apartments, preserving the buildings that were so integral to the town economy for over 150 years.

Photo: Exeter Manufacturing Company employees around 1900. The mill, primarily run by the Kent family, produced cotton textiles for over 150 years.

Note: In Barbara's original article, she noted that Hervey Kent had controlling interest in both the Exeter Banking Company and the Exeter News-Letter. Harry Thayer corrected us by saying, "Yes, he owned the bank but did not have anywhere near a 'controlling interest' in the News-Letter. My father had controlling interest, owning 51% of the stock. Hervey Kent owned 10%. Other stock owners were Walter Pennell, George Scammon, William Saltonstall and Dean Thorp, Sr."

July's Exeter History Minute -- Hey, What is that Thing?

In this Exeter History Minute, we introduce a new series entitled, Hey, what is that thing? Tune in as we explore one of the many strange structures and places in the town of Exeter, New Hampshire. 

This Exeter History Minute is sponsored by Foy Insurance.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Elizabeth Dow of Exeter

by Barbara Rimkunas

This "Historically Speaking" column appeared in the Exeter News-Letter on Tuesday, August 6, 2013.

To get a better picture of everyday life, historians look to diaries and memoirs. There are several types of diarists – those who record events: ‘went to grocery store. Weather fair. Spoke with Mrs. Watson’ – and those who record thoughts. Hannah Brown of Exeter mostly recorded her thoughts. October 24, 1857; “Since I took my pen, there has nothing new happened worth writing you.” Thanks for that, Miss Brown.

A memoirist, however, writes with a purpose. Usually, he or she wants to talk about what their life was like and the mundane ‘dinner at 6:00 – chicken, potatoes, corn’ turns into a commentary on what the food was like. One Exeter memoirist, Elizabeth Dow Smith Leonard, wrote her thoughts in 1878 remembering what life was like when she was a girl. Sure, she’s offering us an adult’s version of what her childhood was like, but this provides us with the reflection necessary to understand how much things have changed and that was her goal.

Elizabeth Dow Leonard was born in Exeter in 1806 to comfortable conditions. Her family lived on Front Street in one of the finer houses until she reached about the age of 10. Then, like so many families, they experienced some financial downturns that forced the family to sell most of their real estate and settle into an older house on Water Street. There is an edited version of her memoir, “A Few Reminiscences of My Exeter Life” that was published in 1972, which leaves out some of her early life, but the original manuscript resides at the Exeter Historical Society.

Unmarried into her late twenties, she was nearly considered an old maid. Leonard helped her mother manage the household and taught a bit of school on the side. She was well-educated in spite of her criticism of public education for girls in the first part of the 19th century. “At the age of sixteen, after sufficient instruction was supposed to have been given in those schools to keep us from fire and water, we were sent out of town to boarding school, where we were taught general literature and gentility, which unfitted us for the practice of all the duties we had ever learned before.” She was sent to a private ladies school in town where the focus was placed on making shirts. “Oh, the time and misery spent on that shirt! Our brothers learned all their declensions in Latin grammar while we were toiling over it. The very fine waistbands were twice stitched, and if the number of threads taken exceeded two, the work was taken out and done over; then the shoulders and collars were dealt with in the same way, and the gathering was done just as strictly by the rule of two threads taken and four left. We were advanced to do the higher mysteries of the art, and our brothers were almost ready for college.” This shirt making skill, “soon became superfluous, as our brothers early learned to prefer those they found in stores.”

The lack of opportunity for women annoyed Leonard into her later years. Writing the memoir in 1878, even as Exeter had improved womens’ education with the creation of the Robinson Female Seminary, she still decried the inequality, “we are still of a belief that whatever woman knows even in 1878, she must learn at the point of the bayonet. While man votes for her, her advantages for education will always be kept inferior, and whether St. Peter or St. Paul hold the keys of knowledge, till she wrests them away, the doors will be kept bolted.”

She agreed with Jeremiah Smith’s first wife, Elizabeth, who advised her on the realities of married life, “She was the first woman who disabused me of the supposed felicity of honeymoons, the food of romances and silly girls, who so seldom look into life beyond them. Have not all women passed through very much the same discipline, being courted in poetry and living in prose?”

Nearly thirty when she married Samuel Smith, a consumptive man who died a few years after their union, Leonard must have wondered about the silliness of romance. Her second husband, the Reverend Levi Leonard, was a Unitarian minister from Dublin, NH. The couple seems to have split their time between the two towns and Levi was, for a time, in charge of the editorial content of the Exeter News-Letter. Elizabeth was able to express herself during this time as the News-Letter noted after her death, “she was an extensive contributor to the literary department of the News-Letter at the time her husband was the editor.” But there must have been some grudging resentment that her entrance into the literary world was dependent on her association with her husband. No wonder she so often grumbled about limitations placed on women.

Elizabeth Dow Leonard didn’t live long enough to see women gain the right to vote. She never knew that one day women would enter college at rates higher than men. She wouldn’t know Elena Kagan or Condoleeza Rice, but if her memoir is any indication, she would have applauded their ambition.

Photo: Childhood home of Elizabeth Dow Leonard taken around 1895. The house stood on Water Street where today the Squamscott Building stands. In 1895 it was called the Exeter Inn. It was razed in 1958.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Making Paper in Exeter

by Barbara Rimkunas

This "Historically Speaking" column appeared in the Exeter News-Letter on Friday, July 19, 2013.

We don’t think of Exeter as a paper town, at least those of us who have lived in the vicinity of an actual paper-producing town don’t. Suffice to say that when residents of a paper mill town throw open the window and breathe in the morning air, their first thought isn’t “what a beautiful day,” it’s “I live in a paper town.” Paper towns, no matter how nice they are, have an identifiable aroma that stays with you. The sulfury smell – a bit like rotten eggs if the eggs were pickled first – is caused by the processing used to cook down wood into pulp. Locals say it smells like money.

Exeter wasn’t a paper town on the scale of Berlin or Gorham in upstate New Hampshire, but we did have a paper mill that operated for nearly 100 years. After the Revolution, Exeter’s lumber and shipbuilding industries had collapsed – primarily because the area was suffering from deforestation. New industries were needed to replace the old. In this void, printing and leather tanning began to grow in importance.

These two industries may not seem related unless you realize that books were bound in leather. Each could still exist without the other – Exeter’s books could have been bound in another place, like Portsmouth, and Exeter’s leather could have been sold to cobblers, tack shops or even carriage makers – but books had to be printed on paper. Paper was expensive and hard to come by in America. A local paper mill was a great idea.

Richard Jordan erected his paper manufactory at King’s Falls (so named because the rights to the falls were granted, in 1652, to Thomas King) and ran it for ten years before selling it to Eliphalet and William Hale. They sold it to Stephen and Gideon Lamson in 1806, and they, in turn, sold it to Enoch Wiswall in 1813. Wiswall sold it to Thomas Wiswall, perhaps his brother, and he entered into a partnership with Isaac Flagg in 1815. For the next 60 years, the paper mill was known as “Flagg and Wiswall.”

Isaac Flagg had lived in Exeter since babyhood, he and his wife produced a large family and three of their sons eventually worked in the paper mill. The paper they produced was used throughout Exeter and sold to larger markets. The earliest examples of Exeter paper are poor in quality with disparities in thickness and ragged edges. This was commonly used for newspapers and not books. High quality paper was needed for the printers. Over time, the paper produced by Flagg & Wiswall improved to become the smooth and creamy paper that printers demanded.

Every few weeks, Flagg and Wiswall sent paper to Portsmouth – hiring Captain Joseph Fernald to ship it down the Squamscott. Fernald captained a small fleet of packets and gundalows that made regular trips up and down the river in the months that it wasn’t frozen. In his account book, Fernald lists the firm of “Wiswall and Flagg” and notes the shipments. Unlike almost every other citizen or merchant in Exeter, the paper mill stuck pretty much to business – shipments heading out included paper and pasteboard. Shipments back included ‘junk’ and rags. Also unlike most of his other customers, Flagg and Wiswall usually paid in cash. During the entire year of 1820, the firm only once paid Captain Fernald in fish.

Flagg and Wiswall needed the rags to produce their paper. Paper was made from the fibers of cotton, linen and wool textiles. Scraps of any kind were greatly appreciated – so much so, that the newspaper advertised for good quality rags. These were mixed with water and ground to a pulp and the resultant slurry was poured onto screens and dried into large sheets. These, in turn, were pressed or rolled to remove any remaining water, smoothed with sizing made of gelatin, dried and cut into uniform sheets. With the mill located away from the center of town and the process not using any sulfur agents, it never emitted the same aroma that identifies modern wood-based pulp and paper mills.

Flagg and Wiswall continued the business, passing down management to their sons, until 1871 when the mill was destroyed by a fire. The previous summer had been unusually hot and dry and the paper mill wasn’t the only casualty to fire that season. The Exeter Foundry and Machine Company and Phillips Exeter Academy both had major structures destroyed in the autumn of 1870. For Flagg and Wiswall, the fire was the end of the business. The remaining property was sold Exeter’s years as a paper town ended.

Friday, July 5, 2013

Exeter and the Declaration of Independence

by Barbara Rimkunas

This "Historically Speaking" column appeared in the Exeter News-Letter on Friday, July 5, 2013.

It’s pretty quiet in Exeter on the Fourth of July. Most likely, it was pretty quiet back on July 4th, 1776, when things at the Continental Congress in Philadelphia became very, very exciting. On that day, representatives of the American Colonies of Great Britain became the United States of America. But the news didn’t reach New Hampshire for another two weeks.

After the vote for independence was taken and the declaration was approved, a draft copy was sent to the print shop of John Dunlap for a rush printing job. Copies were needed to get the word out – the question of independency had been debated for months. John Hancock, then serving as the President of Congress, ordered that copies of the document be sent to the various colonies – now ‘states’ of the new union.

On July 16th, the Committee of Safety in Exeter sent a reply to John Hancock: “Sir, This moment the Committee were Honoured with the receipt of your letter of the 6th inclosing a Declaration separating the United States of America from any connection with Great Britain, and for their being Independent States. It is with pleasure we assure you, that notwithstanding a very few months since many Persons in this Colony were greatly averse to any thing that look’d like Independence of Great Britain, the late measures planned & Executing against us, have so altered their opinions that such a Declaration was what they most ardently wished for; and I verily believe it will be received with great satisfaction throughout the Colony, a very few Individuals excepted.”

In a post script, it was noted, “The General Court and Committee of Safety sit at Exeter, where you will please to direct in future. This Express went 30 miles out of his way by being directed to Portsmouth.”

The Declaration of Independence was quickly copied and Robert Luist Fowle, a local printer, published it in a special edition of the New England Gazette dated that same day - July 16th. It was publicly read aloud on the steps of the Exeter Town House by a young John Taylor Gilman. Gilman was the son of New Hampshire State Treasurer, Nicholas Gilman Sr. Among the people who gathered to hear it read was Matthew Thornton, who would later sign the official copy in Philadelphia joining the other members of the New Hampshire delegation, Josiah Bartlett and William Whipple.

Where the New Hampshire copy went after its public reading is something of a mystery. It was, after all, considered a piece of ephemera – a piece of paper meant to be read and then disposed of. Then, in 1985, a Dunlap Broadside, as this printing is called, was found in the attic of the Ladd-Gilman house (known as Cincinnati Memorial Hall) in downtown Exeter by some electricians including Dick Brewster. The building was owned by the New Hampshire Society of the Cincinnati – an organization of the male descendants of George Washington’s officer corps. Realizing that they had found a valuable document, the New Hampshire Society members decided to sell it and use the money to fund scholarships and upkeep on the building.

This all came to a crashing halt when the State of New Hampshire, believing it to be the official broadside sent by Hancock, declared it to be the property of the state. The legal wrangling lasted five years before it was decided to share the document. The state reserves the right to display the document up to 100 days per year. And from this agreement, the American Independence Museum was founded in 1991.

For two centuries Exeter, like the rest of the nation, celebrated independence – often quite loudly and with casualties – on the 4th of July. Gradually, however, after the American Independence Museum began hosting “Revolutionary War Days”( in coordination with the town’s Old Home Days, which had settled into mid-July), a more focused approach to the festival began to develop. Called the Revolutionary War Festival until 2006, the American Independence Festival has come to reflect our expression of how the events of 1776 actually played out. The arrival and reading of the Declaration of Independence continues to be the highlight of the event, although many would argue that anything that brings soft-serve ice cream and fried dough to town is welcome. The often raucous concert on Swasey Parkway in the evening brings out large crowds to celebrate and watch fireworks. So what if Exeter is a ghost town on July 4th – at least we’re authentic.

John Adams wrote to Abigail that “I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated, by succeeding Generations, as the great anniversary Festival. It ought to be commemorated, as the Day of Deliverance by solemn Acts of Devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more." Of course, he was talking about July 2nd – the day the Second Continental Congress voted for independence. They would vote to adopt the Declaration of Independence on July 4th. In Exeter, we’ll take July 16th as our “great anniversary Festival.”

Photo caption: Exeter reenacts the arrival of the Declaration of Independence during the Tercentenary Celebrations in 1938.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

June Exeter History Minute -- the Exeter Combination

The Wheelwright Deed of April 3, 1638, established the town of Exeter, but the settlers waited another year to create a plan for a civil government. The resulting Combination was signed on July 4, 1639. Oddly, the fourth isn't much of a holiday in Exeter; we reserve our celebratory merrymaking for the Independence Festival, about 2 weeks later. (You can check out our History Minute about The Glorious Sixteenth at

Tune into our latest episode of the Exeter History Minute to learn more about the Exeter Combination -- click here to view -- brought to you by the Members of the Exeter Historical Society. And to become a member, visit our website:

Friday, June 21, 2013

The Secessionists

by Barbara Rimkunas

This "Historically Speaking" column appeared in the Exeter News-Letter on Friday, June 21, 2013.

Exeter used to be much larger. When Reverend John Wheelwright first organized the town in 1638, he wasn’t too certain where the actual boundaries were, so he drafted two separate deeds to sign with the native Squamscotts. Over the course of the next 150 years, the town shrank to its current size as portions of town petitioned to secede.

Back in Wheelwright’s day, everyone in town had to pay taxes to both the town and the parish. There was only one church with only one meeting house. Whether you subscribed to the particular denomination or not, you still had to pay for the church, the minister and the minister’s upkeep. This was no small requirement considering the town church often functioned as the town government. However, they were required to attend church services – a difficulty if you happen to live on the outskirts of town. Schlepping in for Sunday services in the dead of winter could be a huge project in an era before there were halfway decent roads.

Newmarket was the first part of Exeter to request a separation. The meeting house was simply too far away for most people and it had become a problem. It was only eight miles away, but that was quite a trek by horse cart. In 1727, they petitioned the town of Exeter to be allowed to form their own parish. Exeter approved the separation – but continued to charge taxes for municipal expenses until 1737, when the Provincial Legislature granted Newmarket complete town privileges.

Of course, there were two parts of Newmarket in 1727. There was the Newmarket we know today on the Lamprey River and the portion known as ‘Newfields’ on the Squamscott River. These separate parts of town had separate post offices, the Newmarket branch and the Newfields branch, which was called ‘South Newmarket.’ When the two towns separated in 1849, Newfields, for simplicity sake, called itself ‘South Newmarket.’ It continued to be called South Newmarket for the next 26 years. All the men who served in the Civil War from the town are listed as being from South Newmarket. Finally, in 1895, the town officially changed its name to Newfields after the will of Dr. John Brodhead gifted the town $10,000.00 to buy books for a public library – but only if it changed its name officially to Newfields.

Far in the northwest corner of Exeter was a heavily wooded area. To encourage settlement, the town gave away woodlots to anyone willing to move there. In 1741, the people in this part of town voted to ask Exeter to let them form into their own town. Named for Epping Woods in England, Epping – the self-described ‘center of the universe’- was granted township rights in early 1742. Theirs was a peaceful and uncomplicated separation. The same cannot be said for Brentwood and Fremont.

Brentwood asked to leave Exeter at about the same time as Epping. Like the other towns, the difficulty of getting to the Exeter meetinghouse and the requirement to pay Exeter taxes were cited as reasons to become independent. Exeter had no real objections to allowing Brentwood its freedom, and it was granted separation in June of 1742. But within the town of Brentwood there was discontent. The new town was still too large – at least it was according to the people who lived in the western part of town. They repeatedly cranked about the new Brentwood meeting house being too far away and in 1744 declared themselves to be a separate town – Keeneborough.

But Keeneborough was never legally incorporated as a town. Brentwood continued to assess taxes on the residents, who appealed to the Governor and the Provincial Council in 1748. The fight was then thrown to the local minister, Nathaniel Trask, who managed to calm everyone down and reunite the two squabbling factions. The illegal charter was thrown out in 1750 and Keeneborough ceased to exist – if it had ever existed in the first place.

But the people of the defunct Keeneborough could not be kept quiet. In 1757 they again petitioned to separate from Brentwood and again were denied. In 1763 they tried to join the town of Chester, when this was refused; they tried to join Epping, which wisely refused to get involved in the dispute. Finally, in 1764, Brentwood decided the recalcitrant part of town was too much trouble to keep and snapped the leash free. The new town named itself ‘Poplin’ for reasons that are unclear. Even within the new boundaries, there were still some rebellious folks. In 1765 the northern part of Poplin tried, unsuccessfully, to join with Epping.

The request was again denied. Epping was happy being Epping and didn’t need a cousin Oliver to mix things up. Poplin patched up its internal differences and unified to become a town. Except no one really liked the name ‘Poplin.’ In 1853, they almost changed their name to ‘Lindon’ but thought better of it. Finally, the following year, riding high on the exploits of John C. Fremont – a western adventurer who had no ties to Poplin or New Hampshire – the townsfolk voted to change the name to ‘Fremont’ and thus it has been ever since.

Photo Caption: June 30, 1938 – Couriers on horseback are dispatched from Exeter to the towns of Newmarket, Epping, Brentwood, Newfields and Fremont inviting them to participate in Exeter’s 300th Anniversary. All these towns were once part of Exeter.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

The Mast Tree Riots of 1734

by Barbara Rimkunas

This "Historically Speaking" column appeared in the Exeter News-Letter on Friday, June 7, 2013.

Lumber was so important to Exeter’s early residents that it was used in place of money. It was common for debts to be paid in barrel staves. So it’s no wonder that people considered trees the most valuable asset in town, considering they grew here for free and were, in the words of one historical society volunteer, “like thousand dollar bills sprouting from the ground.”

To the British government, New England’s towering pine trees were perfect for masts on his majesty’s naval vessels. In 1705, an Act was passed reserving the largest trees for the King’s Navy. A Surveyor General was appointed to locate any trees measuring larger than 24 inches at one foot from the base. These trees were then marked with three strokes of a hatchet that produced a pattern called the broad arrow. Locals were not allowed to cut these huge trees, the work was done by a local contractor who would find a crew to cut the tree, trim it and haul it to the nearest port. The contractor was also in charge of producing or improving long straight roadways to transport the trees. Exeter, like many towns, had a road that was called the “Mast Way” (later called “Lane’s End” and “Katy’s Lane,” today the old Mast Way is Park Street). 

New Englanders resented the act and most would at some point just get fed up and cut the tree down. The boards cut from it would be milled down to less than 24” in width; the owner made a small fortune and no one was the wiser. At least, that’s how things went for nearly 40 years. No one asked a lot of questions.

But there’s always that one guy – probably the same one who used to ask the teacher if there was any homework – who couldn’t shake the feeling that someone somewhere was getting away with something. That man, in 1734, was the Lieutenant Governor David Dunbar. Dunbar was also the Surveyor General and he was convinced (probably rightly) that the people of Exeter were cheating on the 24 inch rule. He trudged out to the Copyhold Saw-mill in a part of Exeter that would later become Brentwood. While he was on the road, the local lumbermen caught wind of his plans and greeted him with shouts and gunfire to scare him off. Dunbar made a hasty retreat, fearing for his life.

More convinced than ever, he returned to Portsmouth and hired a motley gang of ten men to sail up the Squamscott to do his dirty work. They arrived on the evening of April 23rd, checked into Simon Gilman’s tavern on Water Street and began drinking the night away. Loosened up with ale, the men bragged about their errand. Gilman then told them that the local men had taken up a collection and hired some Indians to murder Dunbar and two of his associates as soon as they left in the morning for the Black Rocks mill. Gilman was bluffing, but they didn’t know that.

Meanwhile, the local men were meeting at Gidding’s Tavern over on the Mast Way. Dressing unconvincingly as “Indians,” they made their way to Simon Gilman’s tavern and attacked the Surveyor General’s frightened and intoxicated men. According to his deposition taken the following day, James Pitman swore under oath that, “about thirty men broke into the room and put out their candles and did then and there beat us and dragged us about and at length got us to the head of the chamber stairs and pulled us down one over another headlong ‘till they got us to the door and pulled us out then with a club did knock him down upon the ground giving him several blows with which was in great danger of his life having received several wounds and lost a great deal of blood.” Joseph Cross testified to Justice of the Peace John Penhallow, “that he was knocked down with a club, otherwise abused, and his life threatened; that he got away and hid behind a fence until morning.” William Stiggins and William Tarrat stated, “that hearing the cry of murder they got out of the house and mixed with the crowd, escaping thus from injury.” Benjamin Dockum ran as fast as he could and hid under the wharf for the night. Joseph Miller told of being “pulled out of the house and after that they took him by the arms and legs and dragged him to the bank where there was a pile of boards over which they threw him and down the bank about fifteen foot, by which he received a great hurt in his back, where he lay ‘till next morning being afraid to be seen again least he should be murdered, but being hard of hearing could not understand their discourse afterwards.”

The only one to escape entirely was a man named ‘Negro Peter’ who said he was forewarned and kept out of the way. The Surveyor General’s men never made it to the Copyhold mill or the Black Rocks mill further up the river in what is Fremont today. The accounts of the Mast Tree Riot may be somewhat exaggerated – most likely so – but who could blame the men who wanted to make it abundantly clear that they had reason to avoid setting foot in Exeter ever again. Dunbar must have been furious, but he also was well aware of the neighborliness of annoyed Exeter lumbermen.