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.