Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Exeter Day School Marks 75 Years

by Barbara Rimkunas

This "Historically Speaking" column was published in the Exeter News-Letter on Tuesday, May 27, 2014.

Modern parents take it for granted that early childhood education is important, but this wasn’t always universally accepted. The town of Exeter had experimented with Kindergarten in the 1890s during the stirrings of the Progressive movement. The program was, within a few years, deemed a bit frivolous and expensive. Several private pre-schools and kindergartens had popped up over the years, but by the early 1930s there was little available in town for children before their entrance into the public school system at the first grade level. Children in first and second grade were crowded into small classrooms – sometimes 30 or more students – with a single teacher. This was hardly optimal for youngsters who were just beginning their educational lives, but the belief was that younger children required less discipline and thus more of them could be foisted upon an exhausted teacher. After all, it was just ABCs they were learning – really more babysitting than teaching was required.

Parents, of course, knew better about youngsters. Not only are kids this age quite a handful to watch over, they also have a seemingly infinite capacity to absorb knowledge. It was with this in mind that a group of parents – mothers primarily – decided to open their own school for the pre-school set.

Katharyn Saltonstall, in her brief history of the Exeter Day School written in 1979 describes a morning in 1934 when she and three other Phillips Exeter Academy faculty wives watched their children playing together. “As we chatted,” she writes, “we discovered that we shared a deep conviction that the elementary school years are the most important in the educational process, for it is during one’s first exposure to school that one’s attitude toward future learning is formed.” Together they began to formulate the type of education they wanted for their children, “social adjustments to other children and adults on a cooperative basis in an unpressured setting, flexible enough for individual children to proceed at their own pace.” The school would need to be small, but the original pool of children was small – mostly the children of Academy families, although they did not limit it as such.

The first few years the Exeter Day School met at the home of Helen Bourn on Pine Street. A teacher, Constance Amsden, was hired to teach a kindergarten class of seven children. It was hoped that the school would eventually expand up through the fourth grade to avoid the over-crowded Exeter public schools. The founding families of the school each donated $400 and agreed to pay $150 per year for tuition, no small contribution in the early ‘30s. The second year, they lowered the tuition to $100 to attract more students, but it was still far above the amount most local families could pay. Scholarship programs were created early on to assist some students.

By 1939, it was obvious that the school needed more room than they could secure in rented space. The parents determined that the experiment was a success and decided to build their own school. The Exeter Day School was incorporated as an educational non-profit institution – this is the date used to mark the school’s 75th anniversary celebrated this year. A local site for the new school was found at the end of Marlboro Street on Academy land that was leased for $1.00 per year. An anonymous donor gave the seed money of $3000 to get the building project underway. The new school building was ready for students in late October of 1939.

As a private school, fund-raising was a necessary activity. They depended on generous donors for their very existence. Parents participated in nearly every project the school needed – from building cubbies and playground equipment to planting flowers and landscaping. The children were included in many of these activities.

As the student body grew, the educational programs expanded. Children who attended the school from the age of five tended to thrive in the small sized classes. By the early 1950s the school offered classes to children through fifth grade. But by that time, the town of Exeter had worked to improve the public school offerings and, after the construction of Lincoln Street School in 1955, parents at the Exeter Day School became more confident in the quality of education offered there. Numbers in the upper grades at the day school decreased and the school began to re-focus on pre-school, kindergarten and first grade.

On Thursday evening, April 1, 1976, a burglary and fire at the school was reported to the Exeter Police Department. Although the school was well insured and repairs were quickly made, the children lost all of the school projects that were left inside. Trustee Donald Robie reassured parents that the school would reopen soon. The News-Letter reported that “one of Robie’s responsibilities included presiding over a short burial for two white rats that died in the fire which took place in the back yard ‘amongst tears.’”

At 75 years, the school still reflects the mission of its original founders – a dedication to high quality education for children from two to six years of age.

Photo: Exeter Day School students pose c. 1940

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Invasion of the Moths

by Barbara Rimkunas

This "Historically Speaking" column appeared in the Exeter News-Letter on Friday, May 9, 2014.

In the early years of the twentieth-century, New England was invaded and towns like Exeter scrambled to fight back. The invaders were two types of invasive moths – and their caterpillars – that had been accidentally introduced into the region. Both the gypsy moth and the brown-tailed moth were capable of stripping trees season after season resulting in the death of the tree.

Gypsy moths were brought to the United States by Frenchman Etienne Leopold Trouvelot in 1869. Trouvelot planned to cross-breed the moths and create a silk industry in Medford, Massachusetts. The project didn’t work and, unfortunately, the caterpillars escaped. At first, it didn’t seem like much of a problem and Massachusetts was able to contain the little bugs – for a while. By 1890, gypsy moths were extending their range to western Massachusetts and by 1900 they had reached Exeter.

Brown-tailed moths started arriving at roughly the same time. Transported to the U.S. from Europe through the importation of seedlings, brown-tailed moths were more difficult to control and were more hazardous to people than gypsy moths. The hairs of brown-tailed moths are barbed and can cause breathing difficulties, rashes, skin irritation and headaches.

The first plan to keep the pests at bay was to contain them. But this didn’t work because transportation had taken leaps forward in previous decade. “It is declared, and probably with truth, that the troublesome browntail moth has been carried into New Hampshire by the electric cars, and made a lodgment in Portsmouth, and that automobiles are transferring the gypsy moth into the White mountain region,” concluded the Exeter News-Letter in June of 1904. Scientists at the University of New Hampshire concurred. Unless everyone stayed at home, the moths were going to spread.

Both moths produce caterpillars that have devastating consequences for trees. These little pests can quickly defoliate entire trees and their favorite types of trees are those that are indigenous to New England – thus heavily threatened apple and maple syrup production. But it wasn’t just the commercial trees that were in danger, shade trees such as oak, birch, hickory, chestnut, beech, ash, walnut and elm were also delicious. Actually, looking over the lists of trees, shrubs and vegetation favored by the caterpillars, there isn’t much that would be left over. These bugs were members of the clean plate club.

In 1905 – the second year that this was identified as a real problem in town – the Town Improvement Association, a club of sorts, advertised that it, “would pay boys 25 cents a hundred for nests of the brown tail moth until April 1 – the nests to be gathered in the town or immediate vicinity and brought to Mrs. Walker, Court Street, Mrs. John E. Young, High Street or Miss Bell, Front Street.” There, the nests were burned. The boy who brought the most nests would also win an entire new suit of clothes from F.W. Ordway & Company. Apparently, and sadly, it never occurred to the organizers that allowing girls to participate might have doubled the moth army. Tree-climbing girls need not apply.

As enthusiastic as the boys were, some of the nests survived and caterpillars emerged during the summer months. In September, the News-Letter sadly reported, “it was hoped that the effective work in spring in removing nests of brown-tailed moths would do much to reduce their numbers, but we now find them much more numerous than ever before. Some apple trees have as many as a hundred nests, and on some trees half the foliage has already been destroyed.” The only time they weren’t eating was during the bitterest of months in winter. The town encouraged homeowners to remove the nests while it was still cold. The following year, in 1907, the town hired an adult to patrol and cut down nests. Meanwhile, the state of New Hampshire began introducing insect parasites to control the outbreak. Neither proved successful.

In July of 1909, the Exeter News-Letter reported, “The multiplicity and spread of tree pests is becoming a serious matter. The clouds of moths nightly seen indicate an increased number of brown-tails, the removal of whose nests will entail no little labor and expense. The belief is growing that the best way to combat this pest is in its present stage, by means of bonfires, streams of water or otherwise. Thousands, clinging to the walls of Water street buildings might have been killed during the past week with one’s bare palm.”

Trees were sometimes wrapped in burlap and creosote to stop the caterpillars from climbing up the trunks. These measures, as well as destroying the nests and introducing parasitic enemies were not enough to stop the pests. By 1910, it had been determined that the only way to completely eradicate a colony was to spray the tree with toxic chemicals. The poison of choice was arsenate of lead. If the name sounds terrifying from a public health standpoint, it was. But it was also considered less toxic than its predecessor, Paris Green, which burned the grass when sprayed. Both were discontinued when the modern alternative, DDT, was introduced in the late 1940s.

After spraying was introduced, the infestations were seen only occasionally. Memories of the seemingly biblical plagues remained with people for years.

Image: Brown-Tail and Gypsy moths infestations in the early 20th century became a problem throughout New England. This notice was placed in the Exeter News-Letter on March 3, 1905 encouraging people to remove dormant nests before warm weather arrived. Voluntary nest removal proved ineffective against the pests.