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: