Friday, January 31, 2014

Industry in Exeter after the Civil War

by Barbara Rimkunas

This "Historically Speaking" column appeared in the Exeter News-Letter on Friday, January 31, 2014.

On a Sunday afternoon in June of 1861, Hannah Brown of Exeter summed up the economic life of the town in her diary, “Things go on the same as ever, business dull as ever, very little work to be done, the war puts a stagnation on everything. If the war continues until winter it will be so hard for poor folks. I don’t know what will become of them.” Hannah herself was hardly wealthy – she eked out a living with dressmaking and invalid care – but she was right to be concerned about the well-being of her fellow townsfolk. The Exeter Manufacturing Company, the cotton textile mill in the downtown, was virtually shut down during the war, only managing to squeeze out one-third of its pre-war production levels by the very end of the war. Former employees had to migrate to other towns with other factories to find work. Uncertainty in the future tended to slow even household improvements – sending a bevy of painters, carpenters and day laborers out of work.

At the conclusion of the war, Exeter, like most New England towns, was ready to get back to work. And, like most New England towns, a host of new industries and businesses began to flourish during a period stretching from 1870 – 1900, sometimes called the ‘second industrial revolution.’ The northern states came out of the war with infrastructure intact. All that was needed was a renewed workforce and an injection of capital to pull the economy out of the doldrums.

In the years just after the war, heavy industry developed near the railroad depot. Exeter Machine Works manufactured heavy boilers, radiators, blowers and exhaust systems. Many of the older homes in Exeter still have radiators embossed with the name “Exeter Machine Works” on the fins. The business incorporated in 1876 at a time when central heating systems were still considered a luxury.

Nearly on the same spot was the Exeter Brass Works. With a workforce of sixty people, Eben Folsom and Joseph Wiggin incorporated the business in 1892. Turning out high-quality fittings for water, gas and steam, the foundry also produced some fancy goods. Brass candlesticks bearing the Exeter Brass Works logo can still be found in estate auctions throughout New England.

Production methods used during the war created an entirely new way of creating goods. Assembly line production and mass produced items changed the purchasing habits of the population. Instead of having a pair of shoes made by a cobbler, one might be able to walk into a shop and buy a pair ready-made at a shop. The Exeter Boot and Shoe Company was founded on Front Street in 1882 and by 1911 was producing 125 sixty pair cases of women’s shoes per day.

But the factories and machine shops weren’t the only change in the local economy. In the business district of town, down by the river, new stores advertised a wide variety of consumer goods in the late 1800s. A small booklet entitled, “Exeter. Resources, Development and Progress, A Series of Comprehensive Sketches” published in 1902 was a veritable booster for the downtown merchants. “Capital and business enterprises have given Exeter good stores and stocks of merchandise and other essentials being rich and varied and, as freight rates are comparatively low, prices are quoted accordingly, so that people from the surrounding districts come here to buy. The business men are so fully alive and attentive to the wants of the community, that there is no necessity for going outside to get anything, for here everything that can be required for a family can be had, of the latest make and at prices which compare favorably with those ruling in the great metropolitan centers.” No need to take the train to Boston, Exeter had everything you could want right here.

At James Batchelder’s book shop on Water Street one could browse through a wide variety of goods. The “Business Guide to Exeter,” published in 1911, related that Batchelder had opened his business in 1883 and, “in addition to a select stock of stationery and accessories, he is a large handler of wall papers, music and musical instruments, post cards, leather goods and novelties.”

At Lucy B. Getchell’s millinery shop, which opened in 1881, the “Business Guide to Exeter” said, “may be found a most complete stock of millinery, embroidery goods, laces, ribbons, in fact an almost endless variety of new, fresh and up-to-date goods.”

Most shops, by 1900, had ceased to confine themselves to single item wares. Shoe shops, like Thomas Smith’s, offered not just shoes but “an excellent assortment of footwear, consisting of everything that is desirable in boots, shoes, rubbers and slippers for men women, and children.” Even the druggist, A.S. Wetherell, no longer sold only medicine. “The house was established in 1873,” states the guide, “and since that time it has steadily increased in popularity. Mr. Wetherell carries a complete line of drugs, medicines, trusses, toilet articles and physicians supplies. The quality of ice cream and soda furnished here makes it a very popular resort.” 

Our consumer economy, it seems, has its roots in the Gilded Age. We appreciate one-stop shopping as much as our predecessors. Is it any wonder, then, that we can pick up a rice cooker at the drug store or oatmeal at the gas station?

Photo: This well-stocked Exeter shop on Water Street from about 1906 offered a wide variety of goods to shoppers. The consumer economy as we know it today developed in the years following the Civil War.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Kossuth Street

by Barbara Rimkunas

This "Historically Speaking" column appeared in the Exeter News-Letter on Friday, January 17, 2014.

Just off Front Street right near the railroad crossing lays tiny Kossuth Street. Not only small in length, the street is also one of the narrowest in town – just a bit more than a car width wide. Driving down Kossuth Street, especially in winter, takes a bit of pre-planning. Several times, over the years, proposals have been made to widen it, but it remains narrow and is generally used only by the residents who live there. Besides its odd size, the other curious feature of the street is its name. Our former Historical Society curator, Nancy Merrill, once commented, “When one stops to think about it, Kossuth Street does not sound like the average Yankee Street name.” She’s right about that; it’s not an English name. “Kossuth” is most definitely a Hungarian name, but how did it find itself in a New England town?

Although we have no written statement to prove it, the street is most likely named for Hungarian nationalist, Lajos Kossuth. Kossuth rose to fame in 1848 when Hungarians rose up in opposition to their Austrian monarch, Franz Ferdinand. Although briefly successful, the revolution was crushed within a few years when Russia came to the aid of Austria. Hungarian independence was swallowed into the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Kossuth became the Governor-President during the brief period of revolutionary rule. Europe was rife with revolution in 1848 with uprisings in France, Italy, the German states, Denmark – few parts of the continent were untouched. Lajos Kossuth gained a reputation as a patriot for the democratic cause. After the fall of the revolutionary government, Kossuth escaped to Turkey and, in 1851, was allowed to leave Europe.

Here’s where the story acquires an Exeter connection. The United States sent a steam frigate called Mississippi to pick up Kossuth – who was viewed by many as the Hungarian George Washington. The captain of the ship was John C. Long of Portsmouth, New Hampshire (later Commodore Long). Long was married to Mary O. Gilman of Exeter. Historian Charles Bell summed up Captain Long’s experience with Lajos Kossuth in The History of Exeter, New Hampshire, “One of the most unpleasant of his employments was the transportation of Louis (Lajos) Kossuth and his followers to this country on board the steam frigate Mississippi. The Hungarian exile so entirely mistook the purpose of our government in offering him a conveyance on a national vessel, that he insisted on making an inflammatory address from the ship to the red republicans in the harbor of Marseilles. The captain firmly forbade conduct so certain to embroil us with a friendly power. The result was that Kossuth withdrew from the vessel.”

Notwithstanding Captain Long’s experience, Kossuth was greeted as a hero in Britain and the United States. He’s one of those unusual figures who was more popular after his political career than he was during it. His speeches were well attended and widely reported in the press. He had a mastery of English which impressed Americans and his dedication to liberal democratic ideals (back then, these included self-rule, freedom of speech and economic independence) made him a very popular speaker. He was feted by Daniel Webster, among others. Following his tour of the United States, Kossuth made an equally triumphant tour of Britain. His later years were spent in exile in England and Italy, but he was never forgotten in the U.S. where there are a sprinkling of municipalities named ‘Kossuth’ (usually, like in Exeter mispronounced “KO-suth” or “Ko-SUTH”, in spite of the correct Hungarian pronunciation of “KO-shoot”). Kossuth County, Iowa was named, in 1852, for Lajos Kossuth.

How did Exeter acquire its Kossuth Street? We’re not entirely sure what democratic fervor overtook the town, or indeed, exactly when the street acquired the name. But the 1845 map of Exeter has no street on that location and by the 1857 map; Kossuth Street appears in all its narrow glory. As this brief time span corresponds with the height of Lajos Kossuth’s popularity in the United States, there’s no reason to think the street was named for anyone else. It is notable that there was no Hungarian population living in Exeter, nor can any families of Hungarian origin be found residing on the street on the 1857 map. The Exeter News-Letter covered nearly every move of his United States tour, so perhaps the street acquired its name based purely on the man’s celebrity.

At the end of a long naval career, Commodore John Long and his wife, Mary Gilman Long settled in Exeter in 1861. By all accounts, Long was an amiable man very unlike the bombastic revolutionary Lajos Kossuth. He and his wife lived quietly in a house on Court Street until his death in 1865. One can only wonder about his opinion of Kossuth Street – a mere quarter mile from his home – named for the man he threw off his ship in Marseilles in 1851.

Photo: Commodore John Collins Long had a well-respected lengthy career in the U.S. Navy. In 1851 he was tasked with transporting Hungarian patriot Lajos Kossuth from Turkey to the United States for a speaking tour. Things did not go well and the outspoken Kossuth was put ashore at Marseilles.

Friday, January 3, 2014


by Barbara Rimkunas

This "Historically Speaking" column appeared in the Exeter News-Letter on Friday, January 3, 2014.

What can we expect for the year 2014? Chances are whatever predictions we make have a slight statistical chance of proving correct, so let’s go with the obvious: this winter will be cold and snowy and the summer will be hot and steamy. But the historian’s job is not that of prediction, it is that of reflection, so let’s take a look at Exeter, New Hampshire, in 1914,one hundred years ago.

The basic layout of the town was the same as it is today, but some landmarks that we’re used to seeing weren’t built yet. The Ioka Theater didn’t exist in 1914. Movies and live shows were performed at the Exeter Opera House on lower Water Street where the Folsom Tavern sits today. The Swasey Pavillion, which most of us know as the bandstand, also wasn’t built yet. Each summer a rickety wooden bandstand was dusted off and hauled from storage into the center of town for evening band concerts. By 1914, it was so structurally unsound that band members feared for their safety while performing.

Portsmouth Avenue was sprinkled with homes and farms and not businesses. Phillips Exeter Academy was a cluster of buildings on Front Street. Exeter Hospital had moved from its original location on Pine Street to its current location on Buzzell Avenue back in 1906. Technologically, we were more mechanized than in previous generations – cars were becoming common, electricity was buzzing through many homes, central heating and plumbing were viewed as necessities.

Woodrow Wilson, a Democrat, was president in 1914. The political climate in the nation was still firmly planted in the Progressive Era, which was characterized by political and social reform. This may have been the reason the January 2nd edition of the Exeter News-Letter announced that, “the morning bell of the Exeter Manufacturing Company for commencing work will ring at 10 minutes before seven instead of 6:20 as has been the custom for upwards of one half a century. The change is occasioned by the new labor law of 55 hours a week, which now goes into effect. There will be no reduction of wages for the shorter working hours, the new law in this respect giving a net gain of time to employees.” That breaks down to a ten-hour workday with a half day on Saturday. With a work certificate, one could start working in the mill at the age of 14. So, for labor at least, conditions were improving. In August, the Exeter Manufacturing Company stopped production for three weeks for renovations. Luckily, the furloughed employees were paid a generous 5% of their usual wages while waiting for the mill to reopen.

“The Main Academy has burned!” detailed a young Betty Tufts in her diary on July 3rd, 1914. Phillips Exeter Academy had just announced the hiring of their new principal, Lewis Perry, when the fire struck mysteriously in the middle of the night. Tufts, like many Exeter residents, spent a good part of the night on Front Street watching fire fighters extinguish the blaze. The building was a total loss, but there were no injuries. A fire in Salem, Massachusetts, in June was far more devastating, burning an estimated 253 acres of the downtown and leaving 20,000 people without homes. The Salem fire could be seen from Hampton Beach. The same edition of the Exeter News-Letter that described the Academy fire also reported that a fundraiser at the Exeter Opera House, held just two days after the Exeter fire, had raised $40.25 for the suffering families in Salem. Phillips Exeter Academy was quickly able to raise funds for a new building.

The summer brought news from Europe that Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria was assassinated, leading to escalating tensions. On August 2nd , Germany invaded Belgium launching the hostilities that would begin World War I. If there was any concern in Exeter, it was lost among a week-long celebration of Trade and Carnival Week. There were events held all week including two separate parades. The Trade and Mercantile parade on August 4th was enormous and featured nearly every business and civic organization in town. A motorists’ parade was held several days later allowing residents to show off their new cars. This event was followed by a ‘slow’ race through town, which would disqualify any speeders or drivers who changed gears too quickly.

As the war in Europe heated up, concern for local people traveling was expressed frequently, but the idea that the United States would be directly involved was discounted. The election in November brought the Republican Party back to the Governor’s office with the election of Rolland Spaulding. His campaign material boasted, “He is a young man, progressive, aggressive, thoroughly representative of modern political ideas and ideals!” The town also voted to stay dry, opposing the chance to license saloons in town.

1914 ended with the usual crush of Christmas events and preparations. Most likely people in Exeter would later look back on the year and remember it for its local events – the fire at Phillips Exeter Academy and the Trade and Carnival Week – as well as the world events that would later overtake the news. But at the beginning of the year it was nearly impossible to predict the events that took place, except that the winter did prove to be cold and snowy and the summer was indeed hot and steamy.

Photo Caption: In 1914 Exeter held Trade and Carnival Week during the first week of August. The parade was held on Tuesday, August 4th. At the same time in Europe, World War I began when Germany invaded Belgium.