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.

Groceteria.com, 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, www.exeterhistory.org. 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).