Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Exeter History Minute -- The Old County Courthouse

Sometimes it seems as though the landscape of Exeter has barely changed in the last 100 years. Afterall, Abraham Lincoln actually spoke in the Exeter Town Hall way back in 1860! But alas, a few things have changed. For instance, has there always been a drive-thru bank and parking lot between Town Hall and the Congregational Church? Why, no. In our latest Exeter History Minute -- click here to watch -- Barbara addresses just this question.

This Exeter History Minute is generously sponsored by Stratham-Newfields Veterinary Hospital.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

The Umbrella Factory

by Barbara Rimkunas

This "Historically Speaking" column was published in the Exeter News-Letter on Friday, June 20, 2014.

There is a story that when Sir Arthur Conan Doyle gleefully killed Sherlock Holmes, a character he had come to loath, an enraged fan assaulted him with an umbrella on a London street. Whether the story is true or not – and who can speak for an anguished fan base – the choice of weaponry in the attack says something about the habits of people at the turn of the century. Umbrellas were common both in England and America. It might also have been somewhat reassuring to the assailant that if he’d broken the thing on Conan Doyle it could be repaired. We no longer repair umbrellas anymore, at least, duct tape and paperclips aside, not in a strict sense. Broken umbrellas are tossed in the trash because they are easily replaced.

The technology of umbrellas is older than we perhaps think. According to the umbrella division of the Oakthrift Corporation in the U.K., umbrellas can be found in art dating back to the 11th century B.C. in China and may date earlier in the Middle East. These early models most likely didn’t close – Oakthrift- which surely has a historian on staff to ponder such questions – theorizes that they took their design from spreading tree branches. In any case, we might more correctly call them parasols, since they were used to keep the sun off rather than the rain. These tended to be the accessory of choice for ladies, who wished to keep their skin fair and the elite, who didn’t like to sweat under the hot sun.

The Puritans in both Britain and America didn’t think much of parasols. They were frivolous things and far too showy for God’s elect. The real popularization of the parasol and umbrella came about after John Beale patented his ribbed umbrella design in 1786. The nineteenth century saw a huge rise in popularity in use. Most women owned at least a few parasols for special occasions. There are dozens in the collections of the Exeter Historical Society, along with that other ladies’ accessory of the day – the hand fan. Given that these were the corset-and-three-petticoat days, one would need any help possible to stay cool during American summers.

As the parasol grew in popularity, the umbrella began to unfurl as the masculine version. Not frivolous, it was designed to shed rain. Umbrellas kept one dry, comfortable and healthy – so much more than just portable sun block. Useful, but a bit delicate, Henry Shute wrote of them (in his boys’ dialect) in the novel Bright and Fair;“Sunday. Rainy and windy. Had to go to chirch. The only fun I had was to see peeples umbrellas blow rongside out and to hear them sware.” Umbrellas were made by skilled craftsmen and could be repaired by travelling umbrella peddlers. As the 20th century loomed, independent umbrella makers (and their parasol counterparts, milliners – who also designed and made hats), gave way to industrialization.

In 1911, the Exeter News-Letter announced, “a new promising industry, the Ball joint umbrella company, now quartered with the Gale Shoe Company at Portsmouth. Mr. Chester H. Smith will be the manager and at the start from 25 to 30, mostly girls, will be employed.” The business quickly changed its name to the Exeter Umbrella Company and took up residence on Water Street where, according to advertising, it was the, “sole manufacturers under basic patents.”

Within weeks, the business opened and the News-Letter was able to gush: “The beginning of work was made at the Exeter Umbrella Company’s shop last week, when the first of the equipment was received. The present week additions to the machinery have been arriving, although some shafting has still to be hung and the greater part of the machinery yet to come. A small force of girls is now engaged on hurry orders and the old plant at Portsmouth is also turning out orders and will so continue until the Exeter shop is completely equipped. By September first it is hoped to have the Exeter shop in shape to handle all the business, with a force of at least 20 hands employed.”

The business seemed off to a good start, but within a year there seemed to be trouble. Financial trouble. In early 1912, Chester Smith wrote a letter to a client, Mrs. Parker, in Portsmouth, “You need have no fear about your money. It is absolutely safe and before long I will be able to turn it back to you. The interest will be paid when due.” But a year later, he wrote to her again, “I have not been able to send you any money because I have not had it. I intend to be in Portsmouth very soon and I will call upon you. This is our busy season (November) and I have worked so much overtime that I am sick and have been obliged to leave the factory today and am home sick this afternoon.” The Exeter Umbrella Company was no longer listed in the town directory in 1918. Chester Smith is listed as a ‘commercial salesman.’

What happened to the seemingly thriving business? Perhaps the industrialization of umbrella manufacturing destroyed the marketability of small shops like Smith’s. The rise of the department store in the 1920s edged out the specialty shops and as umbrellas became cheaper to manufacture, they became cheaper to purchase and replace. Today’s umbrellas are both inexpensive and nearly disposable. However, they can still be used as weapons. In 2005, Brian Hahn, a mathematics professor in Cape Town, South Africa was beaten to death by a deranged student – with an umbrella.

 Image: The Exeter Umbrella Company had a workforce of 20-30 employees (mostly young women) who produced their wares in a shop on Water Street from 1911 – 1918.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Exeter's Secret Tunnels

by Barbara Rimkunas

This "Historically Speaking" column was published in the Exeter News-Letter on Friday, June 6, 2014.

Are there secret tunnels in Exeter? Lots of towns have stories about ‘secret tunnel’ systems that a few people say they’ve seen at some time in the past. Yet, none of these mysterious tunnels have ever been found. Most of the stories have connections to the colonial period or the Underground Railroad. Exeter is no exception to this type of legend and there are two tunnel stories that persist to this day.

Stories about a tunnel in the basement of the Gilman Garrison house begin to surface around 1900. The house, which sits on the corner of Water and Clifford Street, was built in 1709 by John Gilman. It changed hands over the years and by the time the tunnel story appears was owned by Jenny Harvey, a local school teacher. She and her sister, Asenath Darling, had begun the tradition of showing the house to interested visitors and school children. In his book about the house, The Old Logg House by the Bridge, Robbins Paxton Gilman tackles the legend and mentions that it was, perhaps, egged on by our local schools, “Some of our local senior Exeter citizens tell us that they have heard all their lives about the Garrison House tunnel and they assume that a tunnel either exists or has caved in. A few recount how Miss Elizabeth Baker’s eighth grade class at Exeter’s Robinson Female Seminary was taught as a factual matter in the study of New Hampshire history that a tunnel existed in the Garrison House. One lady recalls how she was taken by Miss Baker in the spring on a trip to the house and how the class walked through the tunnel to the river (‘It was lined with wood and damp’…’there was a niche in the wall where we were told the colonists stored gunpowder,’ etc.). Others note how, as children, they used to play in the entrance to the tunnel at the river’s edge until older and wiser people closed it up to prevent accidents.”

The house was purchased by the Dudley family in 1912 and William Perry Dudley was taken enough with the tunnel story to relate it to children while making classroom visits. In a note in the Exeter Historical Society files, however, his mother, Frances Perry Dudley, remarks; “There is a story that an underground passage led from the house to the river; but there is no trace of it now.”

In the 1930s, the United States Department of the Interior undertook a project to document the nation’s historic homes. The Garrison house was included in the survey and great pains were taken to document the architecture and construction. On one map there is a note explaining the excavations that were made to search for evidence of a tunnel. This same map has dotted lines showing “the location of the tunnel as remembered by various inhabitants.” There are three different ‘tunnels’ – leading in different directions. The study was unable to locate any tunnels. Gilman concludes, as we should also, “this extraordinary claim may reduce fascinating folklore to absurdity.”

There is also no evidence that the Underground Railroad existed anywhere near Exeter. Many of us were nursed through our nation’s troubling slave history with calming stories of devoted white northerners who hid whole slave families in hidden rooms of houses, spiriting them off to Canada through tunnels with secret signals. There are no accounts in the newspapers or town records from the early nineteenth century to indicate that fugitive slaves were seen or pursued in Exeter. But for many years, children in town were taught that the Odiorne Bickford house on Cass Street was a ‘station’ on the Underground Railway and the evidence was a hidden room.

To be fair, there is a hidden room in the house. I’ve been in it, but it’s not so much a hidden room as an architectural feature caused by a dead space around the chimney. Lots of old houses have such spaces. The house seems to have become part of the Underground Railway sometime around the 1950s, when the civil rights movement was heating up. During that time, everyone wanted to be part of the Underground Railway, and since there was little documentation about it, every crevasse or attic crawl space was considered proof. The house on Cass Street has a slightly troubled history with slavery in that slaves actually lived there for several decades. Perhaps the story evolved as a means to atone for its earlier history. At some point, the hidden room stuffed full with slaves grew into a passage through the floorboards that led to the basement and a tunnel that led to the river. Let’s be clear – there is no tunnel in this house. It sits on sandy soil and like all the neighboring houses, has to have a sump pump running nearly all year. There is an underground stream that runs through the yard. The amount of effort it would take to dig and maintain a tunnel would have been extraordinary, not to mention unnecessary considering the house sits roughly 1/16th of a mile away from the river.

Why do these stories exist? Are we that gullible, or do we simply like the romance of a tall tale? Peter Smith, who taught at the Exeter Junior High for decades, remembers the tunnel stories well. He summed them up well as, “a good gimmick to get kids interested in history, it’s gloomy and dark, but probably not too feasible.” Perhaps someone will really find a secret tunnel system in Exeter (aside from the very real ones that exist at Phillips Exeter Academy – but that’s a story for another time), and we can then marvel at our ancestor’s cleverness. But for now, the evidence just isn’t there.

Image: Map from the Historic American Building Survey done in Exeter in 1936 shows three different locations for the tunnel that, according to local legend, runs between the Gilman Garrison house on Water Street to the river. No tunnel has ever been found.