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.

The 'Gentlemen of Exeter'

by Barbara Rimkunas

This "Historically Speaking" column was published in the Exeter News-Letter on Friday, July 4, 2014.

Early in the morning on July 4th, 1892, an odd collection of Exeter men began a journey to Chester – and it was considered the news of the day. The Exeter Gazette reported, “A royal good time was enjoyed by the Gentlemen of Exeter and their forty or more friends who visited Chester on the Fourth. An excellent dinner was served at Chester hotel and speeches were made.” The dinner, or what we would call ‘lunch,’ was followed by a baseball game in which Exeter beat Chester in what was described as a “hotly contested game.”

To understand how this event came about, we need to back up and look at how the Fourth of July was celebrated in earlier times. There were few holidays in New England in the years following the Revolution. Our Puritan founders frowned upon Christmas as a ‘papist’ celebration and substituted the civic holidays of Thanksgiving and the Fourth of July as public events. Elizabeth Dow Leonard , who was born in 1806, recalled, “the Fourth was ushered in with every variety of noise and natural discord the genius of man could devise and the prolific invention of boys could execute.” Celebrations began the evening before with a great bonfire in the town square. This was followed by a night of revelry which included all manner of explosive fun. Most town citizens got very little sleep due to the constant barrage of fire crackers and noise makers which were meant to simulate the great battles fought during the Revolution. On the Fourth itself, a grand procession of dignitaries (usually politicians) and a band marched to the meeting house where speeches were made. “The orator of the day,” wrote Leonard, “was usually some green bag (a nick-name for ‘lawyer’) venturing on his maiden speech, and due allowance was made by his kind neighbors.”

The march and speeches were followed by a grand picnic somewhere in the shade. The day tended to end early, as everyone was still a bit sleep-deprived from the night before.

After the Civil War, a new tradition developed in New England – the parade of ‘Antiques and Horribles.’ Described as a burlesque of local characters, it was held very early in the morning – sometimes before townsfolk were quite ready for the day – and featured men and boys of the town dressed as caricatures of certain occupations and town ‘types.’ As one might expect, lawyers and politicians took the hardest hits, although doctors and any notable citizens could expect to be mocked. The costumes were generally raggedy and unflattering. The Exeter News-Letter noted of the 1870 horribles, “Early in the morning, the Band playing lively airs, escorted a company of young men through the village, all of whom were dressed in the most grotesque style imaginable, the costumes varying according to the taste of the wearer or his perception of the ludicrous.” In 1875, the parade was accompanied by fighting: “the ancient spirit of contention led to one or two street broils in their ranks.”

Whatever the behavior of the ‘ancients and horribles,’ it served as a useful method of relieving some of the political steam during an era when political division was as acute as it is today. Perhaps we should consider reviving the festive mockery of costumed jesters to calm our current political tension.

The 1879 parade seems to have been the apex of the tradition. Awards were presented to both individuals and teams – often the teams included wagons. As always, the event was held early at 6:15 AM in the town square. Led by the Exeter Brass Band and its leader for the day, Mrs. Vandersnoozlewoozle – who looked a great deal like Elbridge Watson - first prize was given to the team of Daniel Colcord “who presented an Oriental conveyance representing the elephant of the ‘greatest show on earth,’ ingeniously contrived with the riders poised a dozen or more feet in the air, a position few would care to occupy on such an occasion.” The prize for ‘worst looking individual’ was won by John Somes, who was dressed as a “bugler mounted on a superb and spirited charger.” Several other entries never got the chance to compete, as the horses involved refused to participate while in full costume.

The practice of the Parade of Ancients and Horribles was waning in 1892 in favor of other, less mean-spirited events. And by this, we mean baseball. But old traditions die hard. When Chester invited Exeter to play a game on the fourth, it needed to be done with ceremony.

Forming up on Court Street at the usual early Fourth of July, the players and the band (dressed in plug hats and long dusters, a caricature of the Ancient and Horrible caricatures) marched through the town and set off by the carriage-load to Chester. Here they gave a concert, had lunch and played a rousing and probably fixed game of baseball. As Henry Shute wrote for the News-Letter, “every play by either nine was made the occasion for a blast of discordant noise from the band improvised by several of Exeter’s delegation which from time to time would circle the field, making perfect Bedlam.” A few bad calls and stolen, or “embezzled” bases later, gave the game narrowly to Exeter. After the band played a few more selections, the party headed back to Exeter arriving, after many stops along the way, in the town square after 10PM. There the party continued into the night, “amid a blaze of bonfires, rockets, Roman candles and red light, the final notes of the band the Gentlemen of Exeter disbanded until July 4, 1893, after the best day’s sport in the history of the organization.”

Photo: The Exeter Brass Band about to start for Chester escorting the Gentlemen of Exeter (baseball team) on July 4th, 1892.