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.