Wednesday, December 31, 2014

1915 – Looking Back 100 Years Ago

by Barbara Rimkunas

This "Historically Speaking" column was published in the Exeter News-Letter on Friday, January 2, 2015.

As we launch ourselves forward into a new year, it’s always interesting to look back one hundred years, with a great deal of hindsight, to see what was happening. There was a lot of change happening in 1915 and a great deal of anxiety about changes that were unmistakably coming. Picture 1915 to be like a plane sitting on the tarmac waiting for take-off, only the passengers and pilots has no idea where the destination will be.

Europe had erupted with war the previous year, but the United States was still not involved in 1915 – nor did it want to be. The Exeter News-Letter took no stand on the issue. There were no dueling letters to the editor on isolationism v. involvement. Yet it is clear that the war in Europe could not be ignored. The steamship Lusitania was torpedoed off the coast of Ireland in May with many Americans on board. What to think about this? We’d been warned by the Germans that shipping might be at risk. John Templeton, the News-Letter editor, took issue with the sinking, commenting, “the vessel itself would have been her rightful prey, but its sinking with hundreds of innocent non-combatants, scores of babes included, was simply massacre.” Yet, as appalled as we were, no one was ready to call this an act of war, although there was growing unease in 1915 that we would not be able to avoid it.

There was also a sense of unease about technology. 1915 was the year that electricity became more commonplace in town. Electric street lighting was approved at the town meeting in March, although they did not approve installing electric lighting in the public library. Electricity was safe, everyone was told, safe enough to have in your own home. Yet lineman Gilbert French was seriously burned after touching a wire with 4000 volts and Robert Ballard, an electrician with Exeter & Hampton Electric, was similarly injured. Both men recovered, but to many it seemed like electricity was dangerous and unpredictable. A lightning storm in August “burned all the fuses on the telegraph switchboard of the Boston & Maine ticket office. The fuses were thrown in all directions and the brass cap of one was driven into the switchboard. A ball of fire danced about the office, which was filled with smoke.” Reports such as these in the News-Letter, gave people pause.

If growing discomfort with world events and the frightening world of technology weren’t enough, social issues continued to trouble people. The two major issues of the era, prohibition and women’s suffrage, continued to vex the population. Exeter was a strongly prohibitionist town – there is scant evidence that drinkers were willing to challenge the rising tide of temperance. But women? Come on, did they really need to vote? There seem to have been equal numbers of suffragist and anti-suffragists in town – both male and female. Their meetings and missives lobbed back and forth all year. “Suffrage should not be forced on women!” screamed one headline, while Thomas Leavitt mourned, “I see that all four of the men sent to represent Exeter at the General Court voted against the bill extending to women the right to vote in municipal elections. Did they truly represent the sentiment or wishes or opinions of the town in so doing?”

Health was also changing in 1915 as the idea that germs might really be a thing continued to catch on. Dentist Dr. Charles Gerrish got it, advising “cleaning the teeth may be the most important and expert thing you can do. Thus cometh the gold days of ‘prevention.’” But the esteemed Dr. Otis – a nationally recognized expert on tuberculosis who lived on Front Street – advised clean air, nourishing food, adequate rest and exercise to avoid catching the killer disease, without any comment on hygiene. Regulations passed in 1911 that outlawed common drinking cups and shared public towels seemed to many to be unnecessary restrictions.

The landscape of the town changed in 1915. There were three major building projects taking place from the very beginning of the year. Phillips Exeter Academy was still scrambling to replace its main building, which had burned on July 3rd the previous year. Updates on the construction appear nearly every week up to its dedication and opening on September 15th. Judge Edward Mayer announced in January that he was building a new theater – the Ioka – that would be fully equipped for moving pictures. It opened on November 3rd with a showing of “Birth of a Nation” – a film based on a novel called “The Clansmen.” Although boycotted by the NAACP in most major cities, the film ran for three nights in Exeter with no obvious objections. Promoted with “two horsemen in Ku Klux costume” riding through town, it was viewed as a great success. The Smith Block on Water Street opened in early October with the new Woolworth’s 5 and 10 cent store bringing mass-marketing to town.

All this newness, both the good and bad, led editor Templeton to marvel at the way the world was going. At the end of the year, his one overriding concern continued to be the war. “The outstanding feature of the waning year has been the great war, which has convulsed half the world and has in more ways than one affected all neutral nations. We, of this favored land, have enjoyed increasing prosperity and the blessings of peace. It is devoutly to be hoped that the year about to open will see the closing of the deplorable war, now far protracted beyond all expectations.” It was not to be. The war raged on and in 1917 the United States was drawn in.

Image: (ad for Exeter & Hampton Electric) In 1915, people still had to be coaxed into installing home electricity. This advertisement ran in the Exeter News-Letter in July during the worst of the summer heat.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Exeter History Minute - Christmas in Exeter



Have you often wished for a more traditional holiday season -- to celebrate Christmas the way our ancestors did? In this Exeter History Minute -- click here to watch -- Barbara explores the history of Christmas in Exeter, and it's a little different than you might expect. This history minute is generously sponsored by Exeter Hospital.

To learn more about Exeter history -- or to support the Exeter Historical Society -- visit our website, www.exeterhistory.org. #ExeterHistoryMinute

Sunday, December 21, 2014

The Town Christmas Tree

by Barbara Rimkunas

This "Historically Speaking" column was published in the Exeter News-Letter on Friday, December 19, 2014.

According to David Robson of the University of Illinois horticulture extension program, “By 1900, one in five American families had a Christmas tree, and 20 years later, the custom was nearly universal.” How do we account for the rise in popularity? Most likely, it was due to electricity. Christmas trees had gained a following after the 1848 publication of an engraving of Queen Victoria and her family gathered around a decorated tree. New Hampshire’s only president, Franklin Pierce, is credited with setting up the first Christmas tree in the White House in 1853.

Still, few people had a tree at home. Christmas trees were lit with candles – an obvious fire risk – and most families didn’t want to take that chance. It was more common for clubs and churches to ‘hold a Christmas tree’ as an event, rather than a decorative item. It would be lit for a short time only and accompanied by presents, which were often used as decorations on the tree itself. In 1912, the city of New York erected the first community Christmas tree – illuminated with electric lights.

Exeter took the plunge in 1916, with the assistance of Exeter and Hampton Electric Company and the Exeter Women’s Club. The Exeter News-Letter announced that the community tree would be lit on Christmas Eve, “if the weather is unsuitable Sunday evening, these exercises will be postponed until the first fair night. The church bells will be rung at 7 o’clock as a signal that the celebration will take place. The community chorus will be led by Mr. W.H. Nute, and the school chorus by Mr. Brooks.” In conjunction with this, a gift-tree for children was planned for December 26th, “this is the first community gift-tree ever held in Exeter. What can lighten the hearts of the children more than the giving of gifts to them at this holiday season?”

The review of the event reported, “the church bells rang at 7:15 o’clock Sunday evening as a signal that the exercises were to be held at 8 o’clock. A bugle call opened the evening’s programme.” The wait was not appreciated by Helen Tufts, who wryly wrote in her diary, “went down to the community tree and stood around over half an hour for it to begin. It was not a grand success,” although she noted, “singing in the pavilion led by Mr. Nute, was fine.”

The thrilling part of the event had to be the brilliantly lit tree. “The lighting of the tree, which was illuminated with 500 red and green electric lights, with a white star in the top outlined with electric lights, was generously given by Mr. George D. Baxter.” Baxter served as the manager of Exeter and Hampton Electric for 30 years. Promoting the use of home electricity was still important in 1916, when many families still weren’t wired up. “Mr. Baxter,” the News-Letter continued, “has spent much time and labor in enabling the committee to make the first community tree a success. A large number of townspeople as well as many from neighboring towns attended the evening’s programme.” The tree was lit from Christmas Eve to New Year’s Eve – a relatively short time period by today’s standards, but tremendously long for those accustomed to candle-lit trees.

After Christmas, the gift-tree was held for local children. “The Community gift-tree was held in the Town Hall Tuesday afternoon. A Christmas programme for the children preceded the distribution of gifts by Santa Claus, very cleverly impersonated by Mr. Stewart E. Rowe, much to the enjoyment of the children. Gifts and candy bags were given to nearly 800 children. In connection with this tree 35 baskets of fruit were distributed by the Boy Scouts in Mr. W.S. Peters’ automobile, kindly loaned by him for this occasion. These baskets were given to people confined to their homes.”

The following year, 1917, the world was at war. Most of the news involved Red Cross work to help support the Allied Forces. Still, the Community Christmas tree was lit and gifts were distributed to the town’s children. But the following year most of the festivities had been curtailed due to influenza. The Exeter News-Letter noted, “The community Christmas tree will stand on the Square this season, as in the past two years, but because of the special danger this year of sickness from exposure to possible severe weather, the singing will not take place.” It wasn’t exposure to the weather that townsfolk had to fear, it was exposure to one another. Canceling the singing was not a bad idea.

Since these early days, Exeter has decorated the downtown every year. For the past 16 years, the Festival of Trees has been held by the Exeter Area Chamber of Commerce to support the Chamber Children’s Fund. This year they were able to raise over $25,000.00 to provide warm clothing to area children. Unitil, our utilities company and the direct descendant of Exeter and Hampton Electric Company, still assists the town free of charge to hang the lights. Although some of the details have changed, the purpose of our downtown tree has remained the same – spread good cheer, help those in need and light up our dark December nights.

Photo: Christmas trees in the home increased in popularity after electricity became a common home utility. This tree in a local Exeter home, was photographed in the 1920s.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

The Exeter Mill Girls

by Barbara Rimkunas

This "Historically Speaking" column was published in the Exeter News-Letter on Friday, December 5, 2014.

“Here am I, a health new England Girl, quite well-behaved, bestowing just half of all my hours including Sundays, upon a company, for less than two cents an hour, and out of the other half of my time, I am obliged to wash, mend, read, reflect, go to church?? I repeat, what are we coming to?” So wrote a young woman who identified herself as ‘Octavia’ in an 1843 periodical called The Factory Girl, published in Exeter. There’s a stack of similar papers in the archives of the Exeter Historical Society, all testaments to the Exeter Manufacturing Company’s short-lived practice of hiring New England farm girls to work in the textile mill on the river.

The Exeter Manufacturing Company began production in the 1830s. The Industrial Revolution was beginning to take hold of river towns and like the enormous mills in Lowell, Massachusetts; the original plan was to hire local girls to tend the machines. They could be paid cheaply and would live in boardinghouses owned and operated by the company. It seemed like a perfect system – the mill had a bright, energetic and totally controllable workforce and the girls could earn some money for a dowry. Rules for the girls were strict. Each worker was required to sign a ‘regulation paper,’ which laid out the rules and included restrictions for their off-hour lives. They were required to attend church, in some towns they were required to attend a specific church, usually the one the company owners attended, no matter what denomination the girls may have been.

The work proved to be quite different from what the girls were used to on the farm. At home, working day may have been long, but at least the tasks varied. The factory required them to stand all day – often 15 or more hours – in an oppressively hot and dim room, the noise so loud it made conversation impossible. The weekly or bi-weekly newspapers that the girls assisted in producing helped keep their young minds from turning to mush with the daily grind.

The earliest factory girl paper we have in our collections is called The Factory Girl and Ladies’ Garland, published in December of 1841. On the front page, just under the masthead, is an engraving of the Exeter Manufacturing Company. The scene in the picture is idyllic. The mill sits on the river, a cozy smoke stack seems inviting and a leisurely fisherman is seen standing in his dory in the waters of the Squamscott River. A table of statistics next to the image reveals that, “the number of females employed is 212, the number of males 40.” Wages ranged from $1.25 per week in the card-room to $3.50 in the dressing room, with the men making the high end of that range. Unlike the Lowell mills, however, there was no boarding house system run by the company. “The girls are not compelled to board in the houses belonging to the company, but are allowed the privilege of boarding wherever they please – within five minutes walk of the mill.” If the rates were similar to Lowell, each girl would have spent just under half of her weekly wages on room and board.

The paper continues to brag, “there are but very few ever employed in the Mill under 16 years of age; and there is not any who are unable to read or write.” The literacy statistic is meant to compare the American system of wage labor to that of Great Britain, where it was already obvious by 1841 that factory work was done by the lowest class of people. In America, education was the element that raised people up from the gutter. The girls were encouraged to join lending libraries, attend free or low-cost educational salons, where the topics ranged from religion, current events, mesmerism or phrenology. How they managed to stay awake for these programs after working a 16 hour day is a mystery known only to teenagers.

Factory girl papers came and went quickly in Exeter. With names like The Factory Girls’ Garland, The Factory Girl, The Factory Girl’s Album and The Messenger, Wreath and Garland, competition was fierce. Published during the 1840s, most addressed issues that would carefully coach the workers into being virtuous women and eventually wives. “No young woman is fit to be married till she has learned to keep house,” The Factory Girl chided in 1845 – with no perceived irony considering the girls it addressed were unable to keep house while walking the factory floor. “Industry will make a purse, and frugality will give you strings to it,’ advised The Factory Girl and Ladies’ Garland, “the purse will cost you nothing. Draw the strings as frugality directs, and you will always have money at the bottom.”

The system of hiring factory girls began to fade in Exeter by the 1850s. By that time, it was cheaper to hire whole immigrant families from Ireland and Canada. These new workers remained on the payroll far longer than the farm girls, and their children could be hired for pennies on the dollar.

Was the factory girl system sound? Octavia, quoted above, seemed to feel her life was ebbing away under the factory system, and there were some highly publicized cases of abuse – both physical and sexual. But there were also many women who benefited from the financial freedom it incurred. Harriet Robinson, who began working in the Lowell mill at the age of 11, wrote in 1898: “I do not know why it should not be just as commendable for a woman who has risen to have been once a factory-girl, as it is for an ex-governor or a major-general to have been a ‘bobbin-boy.’ A woman, ought to be as proud of being self-made as a man; not proud in a boasting way, but proud enough to assert the fact in her life and in her works.”

Image: The Exeter Manufacturing Company as depicted on the front page of Factory Girl and Ladies’ Garland, a periodical published in Exeter in December of 1841. Small newspapers such as this encouraged mill girls to read and endorsed ‘womanly’ virtues such as modesty, frugality and industry.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Exeter History Minute - the Exeter Historical Society

The Exeter Historical Society has been collecting and preserving Exeter's history since 1928. In this Exeter History Minute -- click here to watch -- Barbara gives us an overview of the Society: our history, the services we provide, and how you can help us! This history minute is generously sponsored by Buxton Oil. Check it out and please share it with your friends!

Also, if you enjoy our Exeter History Minutes and would like to support the Exeter Historical Society, please click here to become a member or here to donate to our Annual Fund. Thank you!

Saturday, November 22, 2014

The Exeter Overmantel

by Barbara Rimkunas

This "Historically Speaking" column was published in the Exeter News-Letter on Friday, November 21, 2014.

When I first arrived at the Exeter Historical Society in 2000, Ed Chase, the former society president, welcomed me warmly, and among the many stories he told me about the organization was that of the Exeter overmantel. Although I’d studied early American material culture, I’d never heard of an overmantel, other than as an architectural feature – perhaps decorative woodwork, particularly small shelves for knick-knacks – located above a fireplace. The overmantel Ed was speaking about, however, was a landscape painting and it was no longer in town.

In the early nineteenth century, overmantel paintings were fairly common in grand houses of New England. There are numerous examples scattered in museums across the region. Usually painted on wood, these pieces generally depict landscapes and frequently include the owner’s house or land.

Josiah Coffin Smith was newly married in 1787, when he began building his house off High Street in Exeter. One legend, published in a 1928 pamphlet called Exeter Points of Interest, says “in digging the cellar a skeleton of an Indian and several pewter spoons were found.” One can only hope that the skeleton was respectfully interred else ware – we don’t know any more of the story. Smith lived in the home until his death in 1842, and sometime around 1800, he had the overmantel in his house painted.

The piece is not signed and it’s likely that the painting was done by an itinerant artist. In the usual style of overmantel paintings, it is a landscape of a town on a river – not unlike Exeter, but clearly not Exeter. Many examples of overmantel paintings include settings on waterways. Exeter, by 1800, was a bustling port town. The lumber industry had settled down after a century of furious deforestation and new businesses, including leather and printing, had filled the potential void.

The picture in Smith’s house depicts a prosperous homestead across the river from a bustling village where the villagers have come out to meet an approaching boat. Two towering church steeples overlook the town. Smith’s home was across the river from the town center, but this is where the similarity of Exeter to the painting ends. Both the homestead and the town are slightly too opulent for the time depicted. The river seems to broaden upriver, while in Exeter the river broadens downriver from Smith’s house after a series of waterfalls that do not appear in the painting at all.

If Smith hired an itinerant painter, as we’ve supposed, it’s odd that the painting isn’t more realistic. Of course, it’s entirely possible that the painter never visited Exeter or only had the merest of descriptions of the town. Maybe the painter was told, “our house is on the river, just over the bridge from the village” and that was all the information provided. We’ll never know, because there are no records surrounding its creation. Maybe the painter had a few standard paintings that he regularly produced, and made very simple changes at the request of the buyer.

The painting, oil on wood, remained part of the house until 1947. By that time, the house had changed hands and was eventually owned by brothers John and Gardiner Gilman. They rewarded their long-time housekeeper, Harriet Tilton, with the house. She rented it to Phillips Exeter Academy and it was used as a Greek fraternity house with Miss Tilton serving as matron. Upon her death, the Academy took ownership and the Exeter Historical Society was allowed to take a few items for its collections.

William Perry Dudley was serving as director of collections and eagerly requested the overmantel – sometimes called the “Gardiner Gilman overmantel” – but it won’t be found at the Exeter Historical Society today. The painting was sold in 1972, to the Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth, Texas.

It’s rare for a museum to allow such a treasure to leave its collections. Especially since this was a work of art that had its origins in the town of Exeter. Ed Chase, however, wasn’t troubled by the decision to sell the painting. In 1972, the society had taken on a very expensive piece of historic preservation by purchasing the Sullivan-Sleeper house in the town square. Funds were tight and some difficult decisions needed to be made. The painting, it was noted, did not depict Exeter. Nancy Merrill, our curator at the time of the sale, later remarked, “Our Society felt very badly about selling the overmantel piece. However, we desperately needed the money to take care of the Sullivan-Sleeper House. The overmantel piece has gotten much more publicity and attention in its new home and more people have been able to enjoy it.” Her observation was correct, but quite frankly, Fort Worth is a long way from Exeter. Happily, in 2004, the overmantel was purchased by the Currier Museum of Art in Manchester where it can still be visited today.

Ed Chase was not involved in the sale of the Exeter overmantel, but he was comfortable with the decision. He served for fifteen years as the president of the Exeter Historical Society, retiring from the position – but not the organization – in 2000. He passed along the story of the sale to remind us that sometimes stewardship requires us to let things go.

Caption: Overmantel painting, now at the Currier Museum of Art in Manchester, was once in the Gardiner Gilman house in Exeter. The Exeter Historical Society, in 1972, weighed the benefits of owning the piece against the need for funds for historic preservation and reluctantly sold it to a museum in Texas. Happily, it is now back in New Hampshire.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Oliver Moulton Chadwick

by Barbara Rimkunas

This "Historically Speaking" column was published in the Exeter News-Letter on Friday, November 7, 2014.


Oliver Moulton Chadwick wasn’t born in Exeter, but his family had been here for generations and when he was killed in World War I, the people of Exeter felt the loss as if he had been one of their own. Scrapbooks of his life, donated by the family, are in the collections of the Exeter Historical Society.

Chadwick was born in Lowell, Massachusetts, the only son of Austin Kilham Chadwick and Julia (Moulton) Chadwick. Austin Chadwick, born and raised in Exeter, had attended Phillips Exeter Academy and was president of the Lowell Five Cents Savings bank. Oliver’s boyhood was a happy one. He attended Lowell public schools before following the family tradition of entering Phillips Exeter Academy. As part of the class of 1907 he excelled at both athletics and academics, winning the Yale Cup upon graduation. His friend and eventual brother-in-law, Charles Parker Long, noted that he mastered any sport he took up primarily because he was in peak physical condition.

His approach to academics was similar to his devotion to sports. He kept up – or ahead of – his courses at all times, graduating from Harvard in 1911 and Harvard Law School in 1914. By that year, of course, war was brewing in Europe. He entered the legal firm of Stone and Webster in Boston, but the pull of military duty nagged at him.

The United States pledged to remain out of the European War. For the most part, public opinion agreed that the war was not our business. Oliver Chadwick, however, was eager to be involved viewing the conflict as a threat to democracy. He was troubled by a speech delivered by President Woodrow Wilson shortly after the sinking of the Lusitania in 1915, in which he justified non-intervention by stating: “There is such a thing as a man being too proud to fight. There is such a thing as a nation being so right that it does not need to convince others by force that it is right.” To Chadwick, such a statement was fraught with arrogance.

He tried to enlist in Canada, but was rejected numerous times because he was an American. He joined the National Guard to get some military training and found himself sent to the Mexican border for four months. On his return, he enrolled in the Curtiss Flying School in Newport News, Virginia, easily mastering the shaky new technology. As soon as he felt comfortable in the air, he set sail for France.

The trip was something of a ruse. The French Foreign Legion accepted men of all nationalities and Chadwick intended to sign up. To avoid problems with immigration, his passport listed his reason for visiting France as “student” in the field of “banking.” He brought with him a letter of recommendation vague enough to seem as though he was a student, but with enough affirmation of his character to provide ample evidence of his worthiness to serve in the military. His father must have been in on the sham, because Oliver mentioned to him in a letter, “I am enclosing a letter, ostensibly to explain why having come over on banking business, I am about to fight. Don’t use it unless necessary.” The letter read, in part, “France needs men and the Foreign Legion offers to Americans a chance to fight, as Americans, for what is most sacred in life. The aviation branch of the Legion is one for which I seem to be well fitted. That will explain the interruption in my studies.”

He arrived in Paris in January of 1917, as the United States was seriously pondering entering the war. Chadwick didn’t want to wait. He donated money to the French cause, commenting: “it gives great pleasure to the soldiers, that I have seen, and it does something toward wiping out the stigma of being a people who are too proud to fight, even when civilization is at stake.” He eagerly joined the Service Aeronautique and began training at various airfields in France. By July, he had become an accomplished pilot and was assigned to SPAD 73, becoming part of the Lafayette Escadrille.

The airmen in this corps were Americans volunteers. They were young, well-educated and fearless. Chadwick wrote that their duties were primarily, “attack and defend. Attack enemy machines and balloons and defend our own, also defend our position from spying eyes.” The lifespan of pilots in World War I tended to be short – averaging under 100 hours flight time. The airplanes were lightweight and unreliable. Dogfights between pilots were common. On August 14, 1917 – only a month after completing training – Chadwick volunteered to fly a patrol and when his British comrades were threatened by German planes, he broke formation and started to go after them. He was shot down from behind and his plane plunged into no man’s land below.

For a while, no one was certain that Chadwick was killed. The wreckage of his plane was located, but his body was not. It was discovered hastily buried nearby, as was customary from the enemy, not out of respect, but because pilots frequently carried intelligence and he was thoroughly searched. Oliver Moulton Chadwick was one month short of his 29th birthday. In 1928, his remains were moved to the Lafayette Escadrille Memorial in Parc De Villeneuve, L’Etang, France, where the inscription reads, “May this memorial quicken in mankind the spirit that animated the volunteers of the Escadrille Lafayette sons of the United States of America, Pioneers of her entry into the World War.”

Images: Oliver Moulton Chadwick, seen here in his 1907 Phillips Exeter Academy graduation photo, was eager to participate in the First World War. He volunteered for service in France before the United States was formally involved in the war, joining the Lafayette Escadrille. In the next image he is shown training in France in a Bleriot aircraft, which was slightly more fragile than the SPAD XII he would eventually fly in combat.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Anti-Suffragism in Exeter -- Exeter History Minute

Sometimes we take the right to vote for granted. In this episode -- click here to watch -- Barbara reminds us that some segments of society have had to fight for the vote, and they haven't always put forward a united front. Barbara contends that, at the turn of the 20th century, most women wanted a say in public affairs, but they didn't all agree that having the vote was the answer. This history minute is generously sponsored by Donahue, Tucker and Ciandella, PLLC.

To learn more about Exeter history -- or to support the Exeter Historical Society -- visit our website, www.exeterhistory.org. #ExeterHistoryMinute

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Tales from the Winter Street Cemetery

by Barbara Rimkunas

This "Historically Speaking" column was published in the Exeter News-Letter on Friday, October 24, 2014.

Exeter has dozens of small family graveyards scattered throughout town. Usually found in a corner of land long owned by a particular family, these burials can be hard to find. Records for small graveyards can be found at the Exeter Historical Society. There are no marked graves for the people who died in town in the 1600s – a hard truth for genealogists looking for their ancestors’ final resting places.

The earliest mention we have of any burial ground is in the town records from 1651. “It is granted to Mr. Dudley liberty to fence in that piece of ground where the graves are and to have the use of the land for grazing and feeding of cattle whilst he stayes in Exeter.” Reverend Samuel Dudley was the minister and the graves mentioned were most likely those surrounding the meeting house, which was near Salem Street. There is no longer any trace of the grave yard in this part of town. If there were gravestones, and none have been found, they were probably not the inscribed and decorated type we are familiar with today.

The second burial ground is located on the corner of Water and Green streets. Sometimes called ‘Gas House Cemetery,’ because a gas manufacturing plant once stood nearby, this is more of a family cemetery and there are only a handful of graves still there. A third early burial ground was located in the church yard of the Congregational Church on Front Street. In the early 1800s many of the graves were leveled to widen Front Street. Attempts to locate the stones in the 1930s found some of them and they were moved back to the church yard.

In 1742, the town received the land for the Winter Street Cemetery after the death of Colonel John Gilman. Gilman’s will donated, “forever for a burying place parte of that triangular piece of land in the common field aforesd that lyes near that which was lately the dwelling house of Samuel Sibley late of Exeter aforesd between the Road that leads from the Meeting house & that from the lanes end in Exeter aforesd to Kingston provided Sd town fence the Same within three years after my decease.” The town kept its part of the bargain and fenced the area. The triangular lot was truncated as Gilman left the three points of the triangle to each of his sons. Today, the points are not so obvious, one is built up with houses and shops, another holds the old town pound and a naval gun and the third has become a public playground (which includes a Barney-like bouncy ride – the reason many locals call the Winter Street Cemetery ‘Purple dinosaur cemetery’).

The cemetery served as the town’s public burial ground until the 1840s, when the Exeter Cemetery on Linden Street was created. There continued to be some burials in the Winter Street Cemetery in the decades that followed – mostly in family owned plots – and there were a few families that chose to have their ancestors disinterred and moved to the Exeter Cemetery. Still, if you are looking for the final resting place of Exeter’s Revolutionary War citizens, the Winter Street lot is the place to go. Strolling through a cemetery can reveal a lot of history and, providing you are careful, checking out the stones will tell you a lot about the people who lived here centuries ago.

In 1898, the Evening Gazette ran a story about the cemetery: “the old burying ground was surrounded by a two-board fence with two gates, one on Front Street for white people, and one at the back for colored people. The latter were all buried in the northeast corner of the yard. The bier house, so called, stood about where the Greeley house stands now, at the southeast corner. All the mourners, walked to the grave, and at short intervals, the bier was set down in order that the bearers might rest or be relieved by others.” There were not separate burial grounds in Exeter for white and black citizens, so everyone regardless of race or social class was interred in the same public cemetery. But the reticence to mingle unrestrained led to certain parts of the cemetery reserved for ‘colored’ citizens and paupers. Tobias Cutler, whose grave was recently found to be soiled with some type of tarry substance, was one of a number of black Revolutionary war veterans who settled in Exeter. His family went on to become businessmen in both Exeter and Hampton. Born into slavery, he was granted his freedom to serve in the Continental Army. Although his grave is located in the poorer section of the cemetery, he truly earned the right to be buried with the dozen or so other Revolutionary War soldiers in the Winter Street Cemetery. The presence of these men has led the Daughters of the American Revolution to adopt the cemetery and raise awareness of its importance.

Visiting the cemetery is to be encouraged. Walk among the stones and read the stories as you go by. Cemeteries shouldn’t be thought of as places of death or hauntings. They are the final chapter of everyone’s biography. In earlier times life was short. Children sometimes died tragically young. Husbands and wives called one another ‘beloved’. The art on the stones reflects beliefs about life after death and mortality was viewed with inevitability, sorrow or hope. But if you do visit, please take care. The Winter Street Cemetery is not seasonal entertainment. It is cherished by our town and is not a place for Halloween fun.

Photo: Gravestone in Exeter’s Winter Street Cemetery. The image carved is a ‘winged cherub’ – a softened view of the afterlife. Stones depicting a ‘flying death’s head’ with a skull in place of the cherub can also be found in the Winter Street Cemetery. The cemetery was in general use from 1742 until 1845.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Treasures in the Walls

by Barbara Rimkunas

This "Historically Speaking" column was published in the Exeter News-Letter on Friday, October 10, 2014.

Back in the summer of 2011, a local couple was busily engaged in insulating their century old house on Cass Street. During the necessary demolition, they uncovered a surprise. Liz Morse then wrote to the Exeter Historical Society; “we found a poster nailed to a wall for a lecture by Thomas Nast in 1873. Would someone from the historical society like to come see it? We are considering framing it and returning it to its original location, but thought it might be of interest to you.”

She was right. It was of interest to us. Now before you decide to call us, please know that the Exeter Historical Society cannot simply play “Antiques Roadshow” with all callers. As a museum, we are not legally allowed to do monetary appraisals and, although we will occasionally purchase items at public auction for our collections, we generally only take donations.

That said, we love seeing the artifacts that people find hidden in their basements, attics and barns. And the Morses live along my usual walk home. The poster was magnificent, and warranted some further research about the house and the advertised lecture.

Although it doesn’t appear on the 1874 map of Exeter, the house on Cass Street most definitely existed in 1873 when the poster was nailed to the wall. We have a directory of Exeter published in 1872, which does not provide helpful information – like house numbers – but does give us the names and occupations of householders in town. For Cass Street, it lists more residents than the 1874 map can accommodate. Most likely, the map was laid out well before its publication date and by that time at least two new houses had been built on the street. The plot of land for the Morse’s house was purchased in 1868 by Oliver Lane, a local merchant. He never appears to have lived there and must have built it for rental income. There are four households from the 1872 directory that cannot be placed in any specific house when compared to census records or ownership deeds. Three are headed by skilled workmen; a stonemason, carpenter and shoemaker. The fourth is a mother and daughter who would later run a boarding house. Any of these people could have been the occupants of the house where the poster was found. And most likely, any of them would have been enthusiastic to attend the Thomas Nast program.

Thomas Nast was a popular illustrator and political cartoonist. Born in Germany in 1840, he’d arrived in New York with his mother and sister at the age of six. Although children usually pick up new languages quickly, Nast seems to have struggled and even as an adult still spoke with a heavy accent and found reading and writing very difficult. His wife helped him by correcting his poor spelling in the cartoons he created. Yet, or perhaps because of this, he was able to reach broad swaths of the American population including recent immigrants. He began work, at age 15, for Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, as a sketch artist after talking his way into the job. As the Civil War began, Nast joined the staff of Harper’s Weekly, where he would work for roughly 25 years. After the war, he turned to political cartoons, using his talent and wits to attack the political corruption that was raging in New York. His depictions of the Tammany Hall political machine, depicted as a tiger, and his caricatures of William “Boss” Tweed , the corrupt and ruthless Democratic party enforcer, are credited with their fall from power. Nast would go on to popularize the political party symbols of the Democratic donkey and Republican elephant that we still use today. He is also credited with the creation of Christmas as we know it today, with his drawings of Santa Claus and his toy shop at the North Pole. 

In 1873, Thomas Nast was on a seven month speaking tour when he passed through Exeter. The ‘Exeter Lyceum’ program of lecture courses was thrilled to book him as a featured speaker. The review, published in the Exeter News-Letter the following week, raved; “Mr. Nast’s lecture was both entertaining and instructive, and his occasional foreign idioms and accent gave perhaps additional relish to the good things it contained. He commenced with a tribute to the fun-loving qualities of the American people, which he illustrated by choice examples; gave a short history of caricature, especially on its political side; and at length turned to what was of course most interesting to the audience, his own experience as a political caricaturist. From time to time he illustrated the subjects of his lecture, by drawing in colored chalks on a large easel in full view of the audience, some of those happy burlesques which have given him his world-wide reputation.”

Liz Morse reports that they did indeed frame the poster and it hangs near where it was originally found; “guests seem to find it interesting, and it gets us talking about our renovations (Ben loves that subject).”

Image: Poster found behind the wall in the house of Liz and Ben Morse on Cass Street. Advertisements, such as this one, were never meant to serve as documentary materials – they were considered disposable. Finding it intact provides us with a window into the interests of people in town in 1873. It has since been carefully preserved by the owners.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Our New Exeter History Minute

Exeter's history frequently overlaps with the history of other places -- sometimes it's Portsmouth, sometimes it's Boston, and on occasion, it's even further away. In this history minute -- click here to watch -- Barbara picks up the story of Suzannah Holman Brown's daughter, Julia, and ties it to three famous Boston dishes. (Warning, watching this segment may leave your mouth watering!) This history minute is generously sponsored by Citizen's Bank.

To learn more about Exeter history -- or to support the Exeter Historical Society -- visit our website, www.exeterhistory.org. #ExeterHistoryMinute

Special thanks to the Omni-Parker House for providing the photos of Harvey Parker and the Parker House, to Tom Kohn for the photo of the Boston Cream Pie and to Yankee Magazine for the photo of the Parker House Rolls.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Exeter Town Hall Controversy, 1931

by Barbara Rimkunas

This "Historically Speaking" column was published in the Exeter News-Letter on Friday, November 30, 2007.

Sometimes too much change too quickly can be downright threatening. Imagine if the town government identified a problem, say lack of downtown restrooms and insufficient town office space, and then proposed altering a cherished town edifice to provide these very things. This was the controversy facing Exeter in March of 1931.

It all started when Judge Ernest Templeton, son of the Exeter News-Letter editor, John Templeton, pointed out that the town needed a new police station, courtroom, and cells. At the annual town meeting in 1930, a committee was appointed to look into the problem and make some recommendations for the next meeting. The other sore point in town was the lack of public restrooms. Shopping in the downtown by necessity had to be done in short trips. Especially if one was traveling with small children. Local merchants were keen to make the downtown as inviting as possible.

The 1931 Warrant included a proposal that would solve all of these problems. The 1855 Town Hall building had a perfectly serviceable, but inaccessible basement that could be converted, quite inexpensively, to office space, the district court, holding cells and public restrooms. The renovations would require removing the embankment on the Water Street side of the building to create windows and an entryway, which would widen the street a bit and provide for a continuous sidewalk to the square and a few more parking spaces. It seemed like the perfect solution.

But when town meeting day dawned, considerable opposition had begun to swell. Perhaps it was a reaction to the numerous building projects already going on in the town, but changing the look of the Town Hall was just too much for many people to swallow. Ambrose Swasey had already had a number of old buildings moved or razed for his new parkway and Phillips Exeter Academy was in the midst of a building spree, erecting nine new buildings. It must have seemed that the whole of Exeter was changing in this new modern world. The rickety wooden structures of Water Street that seemed to stay upright only out of habit were rapidly disappearing. Opposition to the town hall renovations was fierce.

When the votes were tallied, Article 15 passed by a vote of 214 to 208. The six vote difference wasn’t enough for a very vocal number of citizens who petitioned the selectmen for a new meeting. A new warrant was posted, and another town meeting was scheduled for March 31st to vote to rescind the action taken on Article 15. In the meantime, the same group filed an injunction to prevent the selectmen from acting on the original vote until the second was taken, lest they try to stealthily install bathrooms during the intervening two weeks.

Handbills and letters flew in every direction. Those opposed were adamant that the building would be ruined architecturally. The beauty of the downtown would be destroyed. “The motive of the leadership in this movement appeared to be both rule and ruin,” commented John Templeton. Supporters countered, “It is a mere handful of sorehead politicians who have persuaded a certain class of our citizens to join them in this ‘rule or ruin’ move to overthrow the perfectly fair vote of March 10. The same class opposed the change from oxen to horses and from horses to automobiles, and always see calamity in progressive measures. We are sorry for them.”

Three times as many voters turned out for the special meeting as had voted originally. Although they tried to paint it as a small number of people in opposition, the vote was again very close – 891 in favor of renovations and 825 opposed. Remodeling went ahead but the defeat was painful. Months later, John Templeton was still grieving. “We know that many well meaning citizens supported this project, but in view of the fact that it was entirely unnecessary, it seems incredible that a majority of Exeter’s citizens should trample on the sentiment of their neighbors and needlessly embitter public feeling. It is not like Exeter. That this spirit is today in the ascendancy is Exeter’s shame.” Had the vote gone the other way, no doubt the wound would have been as deep.

Exeter's New Historic Marker

by Barbara Rimkunas

This "Historically Speaking" column was published in the Exeter News-Letter on Friday, September 26, 2014.

Wondering about the mysterious sign in front of the town hall? The sign – to be unveiled on Saturday, October 4th – commemorates Abraham Lincoln’s visit to Exeter in 1860. Back in 2010 we celebrated the 150th anniversary of his visit and speech with all manner of public events. The permanent sign will recognize our town's connection to Abraham Lincoln to a wider audience.

Historic highway markers are nominated through the New Hampshire Division of Historical Resources. Exeter already has four such markers. If you’re interested in finding them all, start on outer Water Street where you’ll find a marker dedicated to Brigadier General Enoch Poor. Poor was a shipbuilder who served during the American Revolution. The Ladd-Gilman house, which is now the home of the American Independence Museum, bears a marker to remind us of its role as the state treasury. A marker dedicated to Exeter’s tenure as the state capital stands in front of the town offices and just up Front Street on the corner of Court Street another sign marks the spot where the Declaration of Independence was read aloud for the first time to citizens of New Hampshire.

Lincoln wasn’t a presidential candidate when he visited Exeter in the winter of 1860. His son, Robert, was attending Phillips Exeter Academy after spectacularly failing his Harvard entrance examinations. When Lincoln was hired to make a speech at the Cooper Union in New York in late February, he readily accepted and extended his trip to have enough time to slip up to New Hampshire to visit Robert. Lincoln had other ties to Exeter – he had befriended fellow congressman Amos Tuck during his time in the United States Congress in 1847. Tuck is widely credited with the creation of the Republican Party based on his objection to the spread of slavery into the western territories – a view he and Lincoln held in common. The Tuck family’s presence in Exeter most likely helped the decision to send Robert to Phillips Exeter Academy for a year of intense study. Upon Lincoln's arrival to town on February 29th, he was immediately asked to make speeches throughout the state and he found himself on a whirlwind tour of Concord, Manchester and Dover during his short stay in New Hampshire. Exeter was the site of the fourth speech he made in the state.

So what of it? Lincoln made speeches all the time. What’s one more? Lincoln’s northeastern trip that year introduced him to a skeptical audience. There were several candidates from the region likely to run for the presidency that year, but Lincoln’s debates about slavery against Stephen Douglas for the Illinois Senate had been carefully followed by many folks in the east. Slavery had nearly disappeared in the northern states and most thought ‘good riddance.’ It could stay where it was in the south, but when the western territories began to petition for statehood, decisions about the spread of slavery had to be made. Lincoln’s Cooper Union speech, which he paraphrased for the New England audiences, laid out his careful reasoning in opposing the extension of slavery. It also hinted that, perhaps, the system itself, although constitutionally acceptable, was a cancer on the nation. It was in New Hampshire that Lincoln first used the powerful metaphor of slavery as a snake in the bed to awaken the population’s sleepy complacency.

Of the four sites where Lincoln spoke in New Hampshire the Exeter town hall is the last one still standing. Concord lost Phenix Hall to a fire in 1893. Manchester’s Smyth Hall was torn down in 1970 and the Dover City Hall burned in 1866. Last year’s fire at the Exeter town hall, small though it was, was a reminder that these old buildings must be cherished.

The Exeter Historical Society was pleased when a local donor contacted us willing to assist with a petition to have the Exeter town hall recognized as a New Hampshire historic landmark. Please join us during the Exeter Fall Festival on October 4th at 12:30 on the steps of the town hall when we will be joined by Phillips Exeter Academy principal Tom Hassan and, perhaps, Abraham Lincoln himself, to unveil our new historic marker.

Image: Exeter Town Hall as it appeared to Abraham Lincoln during his visit in 1860.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Did we Mention that the Red Sox are playing the NYC Yankees?

Yes, you could win an iPad Mini, but did we forget to mention that the Red Sox tickets that you could win are for the September 27th game against the NYC Yankees? And that it is one of Derek Jeter's last games as a Yankee? No baseball fan should miss the chance to win tickets to this game and you could be in luck because the Exeter Historical Society is raffling off two tickets to this historic game. Raffle tickets are $10 each (or 3 for $25) and can be purchased online through the historical society's website, click here. The winning tickets will be drawn on Saturday, September 20 during the Society's annual bowling event. You need not be present to win (though we'd love it if you'd join us).

Friday, September 12, 2014

Fred Frame

by Barbara Rimkunas

This "Historically Speaking" column was published in the Exeter News-Letter on Friday, September 12, 2014.

Race car driver Fred Frame always said he was born in Exeter, New Hampshire. When I happened upon a file about Frame in the Exeter Historical Society archives, I was surprised that I hadn’t heard much about the man. Frame raced to fame when he won the Indianapolis 500 in 1932, yet there’s little acknowledgement of that achievement in his native town. So, was Frame from Exeter? Or, was that something he simply made up?

Frame is mostly associated with Pasadena, California – where he seems to have spent most of his life. The Exeter Frame family ties him to Charles E. Frame, who, it is said, served as his ‘foster father’ and was a well-known and respected cabinet and furniture maker. Perhaps, but no documentation connects the two as ever living together. The facts about Fred Frame’s early life turn out to be quite complicated. Fred himself filed only two documents that can be traced: his 1917 draft registration form and his 1915 marriage certificate. On both, he lists his date of birth as June 3, 1894, however, there is no such birth record in Exeter. This doesn’t necessarily mean he wasn’t born in Exeter. Babies were born at home in that time and sometimes they missed being noted in the town’s vital records.

On his draft record, he lists his name as Fred William Frame, born in Exeter, New Hampshire, and currently working as a chauffeur for the very wealthy Charles F. Paxton in Pasadena. He was slightly more specific about his origins two years earlier when he reported, on his marriage license, that his parents were ‘C.J. Frame’ and ‘Issabella McClish.’ C. James Frame lived in Exeter in the 1880s, and can be found on the 1910 census living with his wife Isabelle and step-son Frederick in Pasadena. So C.James Frame was not Fred’s biological father. That honor goes to Frank Colbath, who was Isabella McClish’s first husband. Colbath died in 1904 at the County Farm after a lengthy bout of tuberculosis. Isabella Colbath and her son, Fred Colbath are in Exeter at the time of the 1900 census. Her elder son, Benjamin, was living with his grandparents in 1900. It was probably difficult for her to make ends meet as a dressmaker without the support of her husband. Sometime after the death of Frank Colbath, Isabella married C.James Frame and moved with him and young Fred to California. Fred must have liked the arrangement because he took his step-father’s surname and used it for the rest of his life.

By most accounts, Fred was not much interested in school but was quite taken with cars. He chauffeured for a few years before taking up racing as a profession. His first Indy 500 was in 1927, when he placed 11th. The Indianapolis 500 was quite a different race in its early days. The event premiered in 1911, with the same 500 mile 200 lap race we have today, but the speedway was paved with brick, drivers had a passenger called a ‘ride-along mechanic’ and the cars looked like they belonged in a pinewood derby. But you won’t need a description, because the Indianapolis Speedway in 1932 has been immortalized in the Warner Brothers film The Crowd Roars. And, like a ghost from the past, Fred Frame appears in the film playing himself. Released in April of that year, Frame went on to win the Indy 500 on May 30th. He only gets a few lines in the film, but he delivers them well as he towers over Joe Greer, played by James Cagney. It’s not often that someone from our archives can be seen walking, talking and breathing, so it is quite a thrill watching him. The film can be rented and streamed over the internet through a well-known site that inexplicably has the name of a famous South American river.

The 1932 Indy 500 broke speed records that had been set seven years earlier by Peter DePaolo, averaging 104.44 mph (for comparison, the 2014 Indy 500 winner, Ryan Hunter-Reay averaged 186.563mph). Although Frame placed well in the years that followed, at 38 he was old for a driver. His son, Bob, became the racer in the family after Fred left the track in 1939, after a particularly bad accident. Bob was later killed in a race in Owatonna, Minnesota, in 1947.

Frame died of a heart attack at his home in Hayward, California, in 1962. There was no obituary published in his home town of Exeter, New Hampshire. According to the Nancy Carnegie Merrill index of the Exeter News-Letter, the only time Fred Frame was ever mentioned in the newspaper was in 1941, when a relative, Joseph LaFramboise, entered the New Hampshire Soap Box Derby. Fifteen-year-old Joe gets three columns including, “related to Freddie Frame, one-time winner of the 500-mile Indianapolis speed classic, LaFramboise finished second in the entire field in 1939, and last year reached the semi-finals before being eliminated.” Thanks. Nice that he got a mention. Fred Frame should be considered one of our home town heroes. Pass the word around.

Image: Exeter native, Fred Frame (on right), winner of the 1932 Indianapolis 500.

Friday, August 29, 2014

The Exeter Steamer House

by Barbara Rimkunas

This "Historically Speaking" column was published in the Exeter News-Letter on Friday, August 29, 2014.

In 1873, the Town of Exeter upgraded its antiquated fire department. The old fire engines – really just hand pumped ‘tubs’ on wheels -- had proven incapable of actually extinguishing fires. In earlier days, putting out a fire was never feasible, the goal of the fire department was to stop a fire from spreading by wetting down the surrounding buildings. But technology had advanced by the 1870s and a series of devastating downtown fires prompted the town to take action. A beautiful steam engine was purchased from the Amoskeag Company in Manchester at a cost of $4,400.00.

To support such an advanced piece of equipment, several things were needed – specifically horses to pull the heavy thing and an engine house to protect it. The horses were hired from a local livery stable and the engine, quickly named the “Eagle,” was temporarily housed on Clifford Street, conveniently near the horses. But it was recognized that this was a temporary solution. The new engine would need a new engine house – one that could eventually accommodate a pair of horses and new electrical alarm systems. The town meeting had decided that “the matter of providing a building for the new fire apparatus was left with the committee appointed at a previous meeting, to select a location and erect or otherwise provide a suitable building for the purpose.”

Uh, oh. Sure, it’s possible to set up a committee and get things done, but as we all know, committees are comprised of people who have varying agendas, and Exeter in 1873 had some big issues involved in the erection of a new engine house. The first problem was that of location. The obvious place for the engine would be the center of town – at that time recognized as near the central commercial district on Water Street. The major fires of the 1870s had all occurred in this part of town. But factories had been springing up in the western part of town near the B&M depot on Lincoln Street. This part of town suffered from a chronic lack of water and slow response times. Meanwhile, the Eagle proved its worth in August when Michael Murphy’s barn on Portsmouth Avenue caught fire. “The new steam fire engine was first at the scene and prove its power and usefulness,” noted the Exeter News-Letter, “The fire was soon extinguished, with slight loss.” Having proved that the horses provided the speed necessary, perhaps a downtown engine house could serve the entire town.

A special town meeting was called in October of 1873. The committee proposed building a two-story brick building on the Clifford Street site. To achieve this, they would require $3,000.00 more than the original appropriation. Unfortunately, the timing of the meeting couldn’t have been worse. The economic panic of 1873, which ushered in a period known as the ‘Long Depression’ lasting until 1879, hit during the same month. Skittish taxpayers, led by Jarvis McDuffie, balked at the extra costs. The News-Letter reported, “McDuffie opposed the adoption of the resolution on the ground that the appropriation already made was sufficient for the purpose, and the present high rate of taxation in the town and the threatening approach of hard times demanded the greatest economy. A lively discussion followed, which resulted in the rejection of the resolution.” ‘Lively discussion’ is another way of saying ‘loud shouting and fighting.’ It must have been an exciting meeting to say the least. Plans for the new engine house were tabled until everyone could cool down. It took almost an entire year for another town meeting to address the issue and in September of 1874, a new committee was appointed.

The men of Exeter met a week later to vote on the conclusions of the committee. A new, inexpensive wooden engine house would be built on the corner of Lincoln and Middle streets on land leased from the B&M railroad. The Clifford Street land owned by the town would be sold and the proceeds used to help finance the brick steam engine house on Water street on land leased from the Exeter Manufacturing Company. The resolution easily passed and ground was broken for the Water Street engine house within weeks.

Although barely mentioned in the two decades following its erection, the Exeter News-Letter saw fit to brag about the engine house in August of 1894: “Few Exeter organizations are so pleasantly housed as are the members of the Eagle Steamer company. A spacious hall occupies the greater portion of the second floor of the steamer house, and is in daily use by the members of the company and their occasional guests as a place of social enjoyment. It is comfortably furnished, and contains a pool table.” Water Street was the perfect location for the steamer company, but as firefighting equipment became motorized in the early 19th century, the sharp turn onto a main street became problematic. The Eagle was dispatched to its final fire in 1928. Sometime in the 1940s it was sold to collector James Filleul along with two other old Exeter engines, the 1835 Piscataqua and Fountain No. 1. In 1961, after Filleul’s death, the engines were returned to the town. A 1991 overhaul of the Eagle made the old steam engine functional again and it has made public appearances in town ever since.

The Eagle Steamer house on Water Street was sold in 1950 to Western Auto Associates, which installed a store front covering the old barn doors. Recent renovations have returned the building to its former appearance and there can be no confusion about its original purpose. The Steamer House has returned.

Image: The Eagle Steamer House on Water Street in the 1920s.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Scottish Prisoners in Exeter

by Barbara Rimkunas

This "Historically Speaking" column was published in the Exeter News-Letter on Friday, July 13, 2007. 

“Hello, I’m looking for the burial site of Alexander Gordon.” This frequent phone query sometimes makes me want to record the following message on our answering machine: “You have reached the Exeter Historical Society, we are open for genealogical research but we do not know where Alexander Gordon is buried.”

Alexander Gordon was the first Gordon to come to America and I realize that it is important for his genealogically curious descendants to want to find his final resting place. It’s just that we really don’t know exactly where he is buried. The best we can do is direct them to the Perkins Hill Cemetery, formerly the Gordon Hill Cemetery, and reassure them that Alexander Gordon’s son, Thomas, left his entire estate including, “half an acre of land to be reserved for a Burying place” to his own sons. As he had inherited the land from his father, it is more than likely that somewhere on the hill is the final resting place of Alexander Gordon. If it is, then Perkins Hill is the setting for the final chapter of a very exciting biography.

There was very little immigration from Scotland to New England in the early 1600s. The Scots were usually Presbyterians who tended to clash with New England Puritans. They also didn’t speak English, they spoke a form of Highland Gaelic, which may surprise many people today. During the volatile period of the English Civil War, Oliver Cromwell’s forces attacked Scotland not once but twice, both resulting in crushing Scottish defeats. At both the battles of Dunbar, in 1650, and Worcester, in 1651, thousands of very young Scotsmen were marched to England as prisoners of war. Most of them were in their teens and early twenties and it would have been dangerous to allow them to return to Scotland after the war ended. Angry young men tend to hold a grudge. The decision was made to sell the able-bodied into servitude in the colonies.

Fifteen year old Alexander Gordon was caught up in the conflict. Marched miserably to London to await transportation, he survived the cold and near starvation long enough to win a miserable three to four month cruise on an overcrowded fetid slave ship bound for the wilderness of America. Upon arrival in Massachusetts, he was sold for between 15 – 30 pounds for six years unpaid service. Americans were quite used to the systems of slavery and indentured servitude, but the Scotsmen were not. They tried, unsuccessfully, to use the colonial legal system to shorten their terms of service. Gordon himself filed suit in 1654 against John Cloyce, claiming he had been defrauded. Most of these cases were dismissed. After his attempt to manipulate the legal system, Gordon disappears from the record only to reappear in 1664 in Exeter, New Hampshire. There we find him working at the saw mill of Nicholas Lissen on the Exeter River. 

Lissen, an Englishman by birth, seems to have preferred the company of Scottish prisoners of war. He hired, or perhaps bought indentures of, at least three of them: Gordon, John McBean, and Henry Magoon. Conveniently, Lissen had three daughters and one after another they married the Scotsmen. Hannah married John Bean (he dropped the “Mc”) in 1654, Elizabeth and Henry Magoon were wed in 1657, and Mary hooked up with Alexander Gordon in 1663. One way to escape servitude, apparently, was to marry the owner’s daughter. All three men became landowners and partners in the saw mill. Another former prisoner in Exeter was John Sinkler, who worked in a saw mill on the other side of town.

The Scotsmen who came to Exeter all stayed and became equal citizens. According to Diane Rapaport, a writer on the subject, “There is little evidence that any of the men went back to Scotland” after they’d served their time. “What happened to the Scotsmen at that point varied greatly, depending upon who had owned them and where, whether they could read or write, and how well they could speak English.” The Lissen sisters must have been good teachers, because not only are there still a lot of Beans and Magoons living in New England, the Gordon Family returns to Exeter with some regularity to visit the spot where Alexander might be buried.

Image: The densely forested Piscataqua region of New Hampshire and Maine (depicted here in the 1670s) created a need for labor at the saw mills. Local mill owners were more than willing to purchase Scottish prisoners, who would then work off an indenture of 6-8 years with no compensation. Descendants of these prisoners still live in the region.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Brewitt’s Funeral Home – 100th Anniversary

by Barbara Rimkunas

This "Historically Speaking" column was published in the Exeter News-Letter on Friday, August 15, 2014.

In the spring of 1963, Carl and Richard Brewitt donated an ambulance to the town of Exeter. The gift made it possible for the town to begin offering emergency medical services to the general public, which had not been available before. That it came from the owners of a successful local funeral home didn’t seem weird at all.

Thomas Brewitt, the founder of Brewitt Funeral Home, had purchased the business in 1914 when it was a furniture and undertaking business in Epping. In the nineteenth century it wasn’t unusual for a furniture business to have an undertaking department. Caskets were, after all, produced by the same cabinetmakers who made tables, chairs and beds. In one of his early advertisements, Brewitt assured the public, “Having purchased the Furniture and Undertaking business formerly conducted by C.W. Chesley, I shall continue the business and am prepared to serve you. Thomas Brewitt, Undertaker and Embalmer. Telephone at store and residence – Lady Assistant.” Although Brewitt was serving a utilitarian role, it is clear he understood that this particular line of work required a level of comfort that, say, an appliance business would not. Having a ‘lady assistant’ answering the telephone most likely helped. In 1930, he expanded his business into Exeter. By this time, words like ‘undertaker’ and ‘embalming’ were no longer used, replaced instead with the use of ‘funeral services.’

When Brewitt brought the business to Exeter, he expanded his services. No longer tied to the furniture trade, his new advertising announced, “We are prepared to serve the people of Exeter and vicinity when in need of Funeral and Ambulance service.” Say what? To understand why the business took this seemingly odd turn, it’s important to understand how medical services functioned in the early part of the twentieth century.

Today if someone becomes suddenly ill or is injured, our first call is 9-1-1 to get immediate help. But this is a relatively new experience. In earlier times, when there were no emergency departments in hospitals, the first call would be directly to a doctor – if one could be found. Think of every old movie you’ve seen on cable, the cry of “Somebody call a doctor!” is heard instead of “call an ambulance!” Sure, some large cities might have had a hospital big enough to have an ambulance, but most small towns – including Exeter – had no such service. If you managed to get Timmy out of the well, you either tossed him in the backseat of the car and drove him to the doctor’s office, or you put him to bed and waited for the doctor to come to you. In fact, more effort was expended by local police and fire departments to get the doctor to a patient than to get the patient to the doctor. There seemed to be little need of an ambulance in the days of home care.

Exeter Hospital opened in 1897 and had the services patients required once they were there, but not the ability to get the patient to the hospital. There wasn’t even an emergency department until 1960. Before ambulance service, if someone needed to be transported due to illness or injury, the only vehicle in town that was long enough to move a supine person (other than, perhaps a delivery truck) was, you guessed it, a hearse. This wasn’t unique to Exeter. Across the nation the need for patient transportation had provided local funeral homes with the opportunity to provide ambulance services. Although funeral work is always needed, it wasn’t always particularly steady. Sending the ambulance – which was frequently the converted old hearse with an emergency light on top – filled the time and brought in a small income.

Brewitt Funeral Home, like other funeral homes, provided no-frills ambulance services. The patient was simply given a ride to the hospital in the most comfortable manner available. Of course, there was no expectation of anything further. The only place severely injured patients received pre-hospital treatment was on the battlefield. A 1966 report commissioned by the Johnson administration titled, “Accidental Death and Disability: The Neglected Disease of Modern Society” concluded that for victims of automobile accidents, “chances of survival would be better in the zone of combat than a city street.” The report is largely credited with the creation of emergency medical services as we know it today.

Tom Brewitt, who currently owns Brewitt Funeral Home along with his brother, John, recalls that the ambulance responded all over Rockingham County, but didn’t bring in much income. People paid what they could and the Brewitts weren’t inclined to aggressively collect outstanding ambulance bills. When the service was turned over to the town, new regulations were enacted, which limited use to the confines of Exeter except in extreme emergencies and, “calls for the ambulance must be initiated by a doctor, the state, or county or local police.” Townspeople were reminded “Chief Toland urges all citizens placing phone calls through the operator to make sure it is specified whether it is a fire or ambulance emergency,” to avoid sending the wrong vehicle.

Ambulance services offered by funeral homes played an important role in the development of modern emergency medical care. They provided a bridge between the days of home care and hospital-based emergency care that we have come to expect today. Brewitt Funeral Home has expanded to three locations in Epping, Exeter and Raymond during its 100 years in business. The current owners are the third generation to operate locally and there will most likely be another generation to carry on the business in years to come.

Photo: On April 1, 1963 the Brewitt Funeral Home ceased operations of its ambulance service by officially donating the 1962 Cadillac ambulance to the Exeter Fire Department. Seen here (L – R), Selectmen Dean Thorp and Thomas Cronshaw, Carl Brewitt, Fire Chief Vincent Toland and Town Manager Elton O. Feeney.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

The Robinson Seminary Alumnae Association

by Barbara Rimkunas

This "Historically Speaking" column was published in the Exeter News-Letter on Friday, August 1, 2014.

On August 9th, a group of about fifty women will get together for lunch in Exeter to reminisce about a school that has been closed for nearly sixty years. The 124th annual meeting of the Robinson Female Seminary Alumnae Association has plenty to talk about. Memories of the school have not dimmed since the last class graduated in 1955.

The first class graduated in 1870, and the first Alumnae event appears to have taken place shortly thereafter. By 1890, when the Robinson Seminary Alumnae Association wrote their constitution, members were already celebrating the third “Quinquennial,” or an event held every five years. From the onset, the women of Robinson realized that their school was unique.

Created in 1867 from funds donated to the Town of Exeter by William Robinson, the all-girls school was an unusual academic institute in an era when most girls attended finishing school. Robinson, who was born in Exeter, earned his fortune in the cotton business in Georgia. His thoughts on education for women were included in the will, “In my poor opinion there is altogether too much partaking of the fancy in the education that females obtain, and I would most respectfully suggest such a course of instruction as will tend to make female scholars equal to all the practical duties of life; such a course of education as will enable them to compete, and successfully too, with their brothers throughout the world, when they have to take their part in the actual of life.”

Robinson’s mother had been widowed at an early age, and it may have been her struggle to support the family that inspired him to donate funds to the town. Whatever his motivations may have been, William Robinson’s bequest made Exeter’s public high school system quite different from most towns’.

At the 1890 meeting of the Robinson Alumnae, they decided to create a typical organizational structure – a constitution was written and officers were elected. The purpose of the group, as stated in the constitution, was to “encourage social intercourse among its members, and to promote interest in the Seminary.” Today we often look down on ‘social’ clubs, as though they have no real purpose except gossip. But what among our current circles are not, at the core, social groups? We may meet with a great purpose – to raise funds, promote scholarship, provide service or raise awareness – but it wouldn’t be the same if we didn’t actually hold meetings and chat. If anything, we sometimes decry the lack of pure socialization in our lives now that we have so much computer based ‘interaction.’ Perhaps the Robinson ladies were on to something.

Meetings of the membership were held annually and a more lavish event would be held every five years, on the Quinquennial – a phrase that needs resurrecting along with pure social clubs. In 1895, the Quinquennial Reunion was held in the gymnasium of the Seminary with one hundred twenty-five members in attendance. There is no mention in the minutes of guests, so it appears that spouses were not part of the event. The ladies ate well – seven courses and coffee were served to the hungry crowd. Each course had a variety of options, the ‘cold meats’ course alone had four options, two of which, Dressed Cucumbers and Dressed Tomatoes weren’t even meat. Considering how much we fuss over food restrictions today, we might want to duplicate a festive luncheon such as this one. No one would have gone home hungry when the options include a variety as wide as roast turkey, cold tongue, cold ham, lobster salad, chicken croquettes and hot mashed potatoes. Heck, I would have gone just for the cakes: white mountain, macaroons, sponge drops, fancy cakes and kisses. Sign me up.

After luncheon, there were several welcoming speeches and a series of toasts, which were a tradition with the group. They toasted the school, the town of Exeter, the “old teachers,” who probably appreciated being referred to in that way, the Alumnae and the faculty. All these presumably with lemonade, because Exeter was a dry town at the time. There was an address, given by Miss Mabel S. Emery, class of 1876, on “What shall a woman do with her education?” followed by an ode to Phillips Exeter Academy by Miss Blanche J. Conner. The Robinson Seminary ladies felt a close bond of friendship to PEA, due to William Robinson’s association with the school. This left the beleaguered Tuck High School boys feeling somewhat left out, no doubt.

Over the years, the Robinson Seminary Alumnae Association has continued to meet. Dues collection at meetings was mandatory until recently and the funds raised were used for many purposes including scholarships. In 2003, Lincoln Street School, which stands on the Seminary grounds, was expanding the playground and the teachers felt the Seminary needed a better memorial .The Alumnae Association raised funds by selling commemorative paving bricks. The resultant memorial garden, now beautifully maintained by the Exeter Parks and Recreation Department, is a fitting reminder of the graduates of the elegant school. Visiting the site, you almost feel the need to wear white gloves and a breezy summer hat. If you find yourself passing through – maybe on the way to a ball game – take a moment to toast the ladies of the Robinson Female Seminary. They’ll be meeting next week to carry on the tradition.

Image: The ladies of the Robinson Seminary Alumnae Association gather for the 1965 Quinquennial Reunion under the tent at the Exeter Inn.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

The new Exeter History Minute - The Mysterious Gravesite in the Woods

Have you ever stumbled across a mystery in the woods? Many Exeter natives -- and some who are just passing through -- have found a lone gravesite in the Phillips Exeter Academy woods. Tune in -- click here to watch -- to hear Barbara tell the story behind the grave of Susannah Holman Brown. This history minute is generously sponsored by Phillips Exeter Academy.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Lithuanians in Exeter

by Barbara Rimkunas

This "Historically Speaking" column was published in the Exeter News-Letter on Tuesday, July 21, 2014.

“Were there Lithuanians in Exeter?” I’m often asked this question, probably because my name and the Exeter Historical Society just don’t seem to match. Surely a New England town like ours should have a less ‘ethnic’ sounding curator. Fear not! All is well. Although I am, in fact, a transplant to this town, there were Lithuanians here before me who paved the way.

Tracking down Lithuanians seems like it should be easy, but there are a number of bumps along the way. The first problem is that Lithuania, as a country, didn’t actually exist for whole decades. Like Poland, the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania were often absorbed into other kingdoms and nations. The boundary lines were elastic enough that the people within could have a Polish name, but be ethnically Lithuanian or Russian – or any mixture of the three. So, it’s important to set some clear boundaries about Lithuanian immigration patterns to the United States.

There would not have been any immigration before 1861 unless one was a nobleman or wealthy merchant. Lithuania was under the governance of the Russian Empire, where the peasants were enserfed. Serfdom was not the same as slavery in a few critical ways – serfs were not technically ‘owned’ by a master, but they didn’t have freedom to travel or move from their land, so the landlord essentially controlled their lives. Women were expected to move to their husband’s family, but unless they were drafted into the Tsar’s army – a commitment of 25 years – men stayed put. So, no one was hopping a boat to America unless they lied about their origins. Abolition of serfdom occurred under Tsar Alexander II just a few years before Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in this country.

After emancipation, many Lithuanians began to consider emigration. Improved transportation, droughts, famines and repression of the ethnic minorities by the Russian Empire made the decision to leave quite attractive. People arriving from Lithuania were listed as ‘Russian,’ so any search must begin by looking for Russians. Indeed, a search of Exeter’s vital records does not mention Lithuania as a country of origin until 1913. My Great-Grandmother’s passport, issued in 1914, is entirely in Russian. To add insult to injury (at least for Petronella Benitis) her name on the second page includes a Russian patronymic, Simonovna – a derivation of her father’s first name, which she would never have used. Good thing she was illiterate. If she heard it read off at either her place of embarkation or Ellis Island, likely she swallowed her thoughts. For our part, the family is glad those hated Russians included the patronymic as it is our only clue about the identity of her father, Simon Benitis.

Lithuanians begin to arrive in Exeter in the 1880s. The first to arrive were Jewish immigrants who most likely were feeling Tsarist repression much deeper than the Catholic Lithuanians who followed them here twenty or so years later. Zelig London and his family were quickly joined by the Cohens and Golds by 1887. By 1902, there were more people turning up in Exeter’s vital records with ‘Russia’ as a country of origin. Once arrived, they found work in the many factories in town, married and began to have families. Most have names that are traditionally Lithuanian – ending in ‘as,’ ‘is’ or ‘us’ – such as, Mazaluskas, Paszukonis, Raziskis and Cilcius. I’m often told my name looks Greek for this reason. Many other names have a decidedly Polish feel, Debrowska, Kudroski, Vitkoska. These names appear in marriage records and birth registrations. But when we try to find out where the Lithuanian population lived in Exeter our town directories list no such people. By and large, the Lithuanians altered or completely changed their names – sometimes several times. We recently tried to find the Kopesci family for some visitors to the historical society using directories, census listings and vital records, and it took hours just to determine that they arrived in town with the name ‘Skopackas’ but also used ‘Skapescki’ before settling on Kopesci. Rather unusually, the name was altered to blend in better with the larger Polish population in Exeter, and not the overwhelming English blue-bloods who ran the town. I guess they needed to keep some bit of pride.

And by the way, names were NOT changed at Ellis Island. For some reason, lots of families have stories that their names were changed there, but it simply didn’t happen. I’ll direct you to an excellent article online: “Why Your Family Name Was Not Changed at Ellis Island” written by the staff of the New York Public Library. Names were often changed, but usually it was the immigrants who changed them. They quickly tired of Americans stumbling over what to them was a simple name. Seriously. “Rimkunas” is perfectly phonetic, yet I’ve heard all variations of it – usually with a “Q” inserted somewhere in the middle.

The first two decades of the 20th century brought a huge influx of immigrants to the United States. The numbers finally began to abate after 1924 when strict immigration quotas were enacted. Lithuanians in Exeter, as elsewhere in New England, stuck together – even forming a Lithuanian Club that served as a mutual assistance society paying death, sickness and disability benefits to members. Finding your Lithuanian ancestors can be challenging, but isn’t necessarily impossible. Just don’t call them Russians. They don’t like that.

Image: Lithuanians immigrating to the United States carried Russian passports, like this – the passport of Petronella Benitis, great-grandmother of the author.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

The Long Hot Summer of President Garfield

by Barbara Rimkunas 

This "Historically Speaking" column was originally published in the Exeter News-Letter on August 26, 2005.


A few years back, the Exeter Historical Society received a request for genealogical information. An ancestor, it seems, had died in the area sometime in the summer of 1881 – would it be possible to search the back issues of the Exeter News-Letter to find the death listing? And so, down in the basement of our building in an area we refer to as “the newspaper morgue” I spent an afternoon hunting for a name in the papers. He was there, of course, but I’ve long forgotten the name. During the research, however, I got caught up in a national drama that occurred during the long hot summer of 1881.

While Exeter’s residents were considering how to celebrate the Fourth of July, President James Garfield was planning a trip. As he readied himself to board the train in Washington, D.C., a disgruntled office-seeker stepped forward and shot him twice. How quickly this news reached Exeter is unknown, the newspaper was published only on Fridays. For the next eleven weeks, updates on the President’s condition were the talk of the town and the biggest news item featured in the paper.

Initially, the doctors felt Garfield would live for at best a day. His wife was called and he seemed to deteriorate that evening. One of the shots had harmlessly grazed the President’s elbow, the other buried itself deep within his abdomen. He was examined at the train station and later transferred to the White House, where “precautions were immediately taken to preserve quiet and maintain order.” It’s a shame they didn’t also consider cleanliness, because the first doctor to examine him probed the wound with his unwashed finger and a dirty instrument in an attempt to find the bullet. He was unable to find it and the missing bullet became an obsession for Garfield’s doctors.

In Exeter, while the townsfolk were debating how to best remember the men who’d served in the Civil War fifteen years earlier, news of the President’s condition came in steadily. Washington, D.C. has a terrible climate in mid-summer. Lucretia Garfield, the First Lady had come down with malaria when she first arrived. To keep the feverish President cool, a crude air-conditioning system was rigged up which required 39 tons of ice each day – it would have used less, but the President insisted on leaving the windows open, an inclination shared by my kids. He was uncomfortable, but seemed to be in no real danger, so the doctors decided to go after the bullet again.

Alexander Graham Bell was called to locate the bullet with his “electrical apparatus”. It worked great during testing, but Bell wouldn’t commit to its accuracy when used on the President. The doctors, however, were thrilled when the machine seemed to confirm the location of the bullet. On July 29, it was reported that the wound was again probed, much more deeply this time. Several “pus cavities” were located and drained and it was believed that the President had fared well. Within a week, it was obvious that he was gravely ill again. They blamed it on “stomach problems” and not the operation. Garfield had been given only milk mixed with rum for sustenance and this disagreed with him. Further attempts to locate the bullet ended with failure. By September, the nation had been essentially without a President for two months. Congress was set to re-convene and Garfield was moved to the New Jersey seaside to recuperate. The President died suddenly on September 19th after clutching his chest. An autopsy revealed that the bullet was far from where the doctors had suspected, safely encapsulated in tissue, having missed all major organs and arteries. Dr. Bell’s equipment had only managed to locate the bedsprings beneath the stricken Garfield. The President died from heart failure, brought on, no doubt, by infection and re-infection by probing doctors and malnutrition. His attacker, Charles Guiteau, tried to plead that although he’d shot the President, the doctors had actually killed him. An unsympathetic jury found him guilty anyway and he was hanged the following summer. Exeter held a day of mourning and an un-named by-way off Lincoln Street – also named for a slain President – was christened “Garfield Street”.

Photo: The highly accurate historical re-enactment of the assassination of President Garfield. That's Trustee Pam Gjettum as Charles Guiteau, volunteer Alice Nickerson as the doomed President James Garfield and curator Barbara Rimkunas as Robert Todd Lincoln.