Thursday, March 27, 2014

The Park Skating Rink

by Barbara Rimkunas

This "Historically Speaking" column appeared in the Exeter News-Letter on Friday, March 28, 2014.

Fads and entertainments come and go, usually leaving no trace. In the 1880s, the United States was gripped with a fervor for roller skating and the excitement even reached Exeter. Roller skating was particularly popular in New England, perhaps because our long frigid winters encouraged ice skating. But what were Exeter’s skaters to do when there was no ice?

The first recorded roller skater was a Belgian inventor named John-Joseph Merlin, who strapped on a pair of in-line skates of his own making to wear to a masquerade in 1760. The crude skates were awkward and didn’t allow easy turning. Merlin was reported to have fallen and crashed more often than he remained upright. The idea of strapping wheels onto ones’ feet continued to intrigue inventors for another hundred years until James Plimpton of New York created a four-wheeled skate (aptly named the ‘quad skate’) in 1863 that allowed the wearer to gracefully turn just by shifting one’s weight.

Plimpton, more than anyone else, is given credit for popularizing roller skating as a recreational sport. After forming the New York Roller Skating Association, he and his club rented the Atlantic House in Newport, Rhode Island, in 1866, converting the dining room into the first public roller rink in the United States. Improvements in the roller skate continued and more rinks popped up, particularly in the larger cities of New England.

Exeter’s roller rink, the Park Roller Skating Rink, opened on November 15th, 1883, on Lincoln Street near the B&M depot. The building was massive – fifty feet wide and one hundred feet long – and carefully constructed to accommodate over one hundred skaters. The Exeter News-Letter described it, “the whole space forming a large room that is without any obstruction. The roof is trussed and braced in such a manner as to obviate the necessity for posts or pillars, and the disposition of the spectators at the side and end of the room permits the largest economy of space.” Skates could be rented at the front door for ten cents, or if one was not willing to try skating, you could still pay the twenty-five cent admission fee to sit in the gallery and enjoy the show.

And watching was entertainment enough. Often artistic skaters were brought in to put on a show. On opening day the News-Letter reported, “At about eight o’clock the floor was cleared and Miss Sylvester and Prof. B.L. Bailey, of Boston, gave an exhibition of plain and fancy skating. The grace and precision of many of the most difficult movements and the ease with which they were executed were the delight of the spectators and the envy of the amateurs, who were now arranged along the left of the room eagerly watching every step, and frequently bursting into hearty applause at some especially intricate or beautiful figure.” Professor Bailey was noted to be using “Mt Desert” skates, which were described as, “Evidently strong, well made skates, or they would never have stood the strain to which they were subjected.” Roller skates, at that time, would have been very rough to modern eyes. Mt. Desert skates had solid wooden soles that attached to ones’ shoes with leather traces. The wheels were also wood and had no ball bearings to smooth out the ride.

Even with such rigid skates, the Park Skating Rink was a hit with the crowd. “The scene from the seats was very pretty. Many of the gentlemen were very graceful, and among the ladies were several excellent skaters. At the time the floor was fullest there seemed to be nearly as many ladies as gentlemen on skates, and all seemed to thoroughly enjoy the sport.”

Yet, though the skating rink had a wildly popular opening, within four years it was gone. The skating rink changed hands several times and was even updated with electric lights, but it still wasn’t enough. Perhaps it was because roller skating fell out of popularity. Or perhaps it was simply overshadowed by a newer fad – bicycling, which allowed couples more freedom away from the public eye. In any event, the Park Roller Skating Rink disappeared from Exeter’s landscape in 1887.

Instead of being repurposed into some other type of business right where it stood, the rink was moved to a new location and began a second career at Hedding Camp Ground in Epping. The Methodist Church had run camp meetings at Hedding since the 1860s, and by 1887 had determined that they needed a large meeting hall. Somehow, and we don’t know exactly how, the entire building was moved to Epping. Most likely, it was disassembled and reassembled on site, but there is no record of the move. At the Hedding Campground it was renamed “Chautauqua Hall” and has been in constant use ever since the move. More people have known it at Hedding than ever knew it as the Park Roller Skating Rink in Exeter. Its brief time in Exeter is hard to document – it existed in a sliver of time when no maps were made of the town and no directories listed businesses. There are no photos (or at least we have found none) of the building when it was in Exeter.

Roller skating surged back to life many times in the following years. There was roller skating at Exeter’s Town Hall at times, and briefly another rink near the railroad tracks, but never again with the fanfare of the opening of the Park Roller Rink in 1883.

Image: Advertisement from the January 25th, 1884 edition of the Exeter News-Letter for the Park Roller Skating Rink.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Marking Time in Exeter

by Barbara Rimkunas

This "Historically Speaking" column appeared in the Exeter News-Letter on Friday, March 14, 2014.

Running late? Don’t blame the clock. Although many bemoan the fact that there are fewer and fewer public clocks (in much the same way that there are fewer and fewer public telephones), there are probably more ways to find the time today than ever before in human history. Younger adults have already largely given up wearing wristwatches – correctly understanding that these unitaskers are unnecessary when you have a small computer in your pocket. I still wear a watch, but it’s more out of habit. Even after my eyes have grazed the lower corner of the computer screen to check the time I’m apt to check my watch. It’s a hard habit to break.

Of course, people didn’t always worry so much about clock time. Time was marked by the progression of the sun – long days in summer, short days in winter. Mid-day was when the sun was at its highest point in the sky. And time was very local. Noon in Exeter, New Hampshire, was earlier than noon in, say, Buffalo, New York, because we’re farther east. Standardization of time zones in the United States didn’t happen until after railroads began to demand an end to the chaos in 1883.

But before that, local time needed to be marked in some way. Then, as now, there were early risers and night owls who were continually in conflict about when the business of the day should begin. In colonial New England, you could run your family farm or business any time you felt like it, but to keep the community running smoothly it was necessary to get people to church, school or town meeting at the same time. Some means of marking time was necessary.

Clocks were expensive and all but the most intricate were somewhat unreliable. It was considered an important civic investment to have a town clock that would be the local standard. This clock would determine when the town bell was rung and when the town crier announced the news. There were probably a few private clocks in Exeter in the late 1600s, and the First Parish church records mention that there was an hour glass on the pulpit during sermons in 1733. This must have been helpful to both the minister and the congregation who, for whatever purpose, were hanging on to every word preached, either hoping the sermon would continue to inspire or mercifully end.

The first town clock mentioned in Exeter is the one owned by the Reverend John Odlin. Odlin came to Exeter in 1706 to serve as minister after the death of Reverend Clark and his contract included the use of the parsonage, where he boarded for a time before marrying Clark’s widow. Having acquired an income, ministry, home, wife and step-children, he also seems to have acquired a tall clock imported from England. Accounts vary about how he got the clock. John Taylor Perry, in 1898, wrote that the clock, “was a tall one, bought in England for Mr. Odlin by Governor Benning Wentworth.” But Governor Wentworth wasn’t a well-loved character in New Hampshire history and in 1925, Frances Dudley, who had come to own the clock, disavowed the purchase story in a letter published in the Exeter News-Letter, “Governor Wentworth does not deserve credit for any such act of altruism. The clock was the personal property of Parson Odlin, who brought it through the agency of Governor Wentworth at a time when the Governor was importing one for himself.”

However he acquired it, Reverend Odlin’s clock served as the official town timepiece for many years. Townsfolk routinely checked the time by peering into the parsonage. The town bell, which was located in the church tower, was rung three times daily; morning, mid-day and night. The times for the bell varied, the morning might be rung at 7:00 in the summer and 7:30 in winter, mid-day might be noon or 1:00 and the evening bell could be as early as 8:00 or as late as 9:00. The times were often different for different days of the week. This would drive a modern person around the bend trying to figure out what time it is, but didn’t seem to concern people much in earlier times. The bell was also used to call people to fires and to announce important news.

Nancy Merrill, in her history of the First Parish Church written in 1969, remarked that “the town placed a clock with four faces in the tower in 1848, the condition that it be kept in perfect order and all damage repaired at public expense.” This clock was enormous, and quite visible to even myopic townsfolk.

The town supported the clock and its upkeep, noting in the 1861 town report that David Quimby was paid $10.00 for ‘care of the Town Clock.’ Edwin Dearborn earned $40.00 for ringing the bell.

It remained the official town clock until 1950, when it was redesigned (and made smaller) by William Perry Dudley. The church purchased the clock from the town that same year for $1.00. By that time, public clocks had sprouted all over the downtown – there was one in front of the Exeter Banking Company and another by Sleeper’s Jewelry. Today, it’s hard to find even a time and temperature clock at the bank. But then again, there’s a clock on the dashboard of your car that travels with you and, of course, that smart phone in your pocket that can even tell you the time on the other side of the globe.

Photo:  The town clock on the First Parish Church in Exeter (now known as the Congregational Church of Exeter) in a photo taken in the 1920s. The clock was installed on the church tower by the town of Exeter in 1848. It was so large that it obscured a small part of the window, thus infringing on the original architect’s design of the church. The clock was redesigned in 1950 and became property of the church.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Exeter History Minute - The Sled Dog Race

Do you ever wonder what Exeter folks did in the winter to beat off the winter blues before television and the internet? In 1938, the Exeter Lion's Club teamed up with the New England Sled Dogs Club to run a Sled Dog Race in January. Thousands of people came from far and wide to watch the dogs, women and men race. The Exeter Historical Society has many photos and color film footage of the event. Click here to watch this Exeter History Minute, which is sponsored by Exeter Mills.

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