Friday, August 29, 2014

The Exeter Steamer House

by Barbara Rimkunas

This "Historically Speaking" column was published in the Exeter News-Letter on Friday, August 29, 2014.

In 1873, the Town of Exeter upgraded its antiquated fire department. The old fire engines – really just hand pumped ‘tubs’ on wheels -- had proven incapable of actually extinguishing fires. In earlier days, putting out a fire was never feasible, the goal of the fire department was to stop a fire from spreading by wetting down the surrounding buildings. But technology had advanced by the 1870s and a series of devastating downtown fires prompted the town to take action. A beautiful steam engine was purchased from the Amoskeag Company in Manchester at a cost of $4,400.00.

To support such an advanced piece of equipment, several things were needed – specifically horses to pull the heavy thing and an engine house to protect it. The horses were hired from a local livery stable and the engine, quickly named the “Eagle,” was temporarily housed on Clifford Street, conveniently near the horses. But it was recognized that this was a temporary solution. The new engine would need a new engine house – one that could eventually accommodate a pair of horses and new electrical alarm systems. The town meeting had decided that “the matter of providing a building for the new fire apparatus was left with the committee appointed at a previous meeting, to select a location and erect or otherwise provide a suitable building for the purpose.”

Uh, oh. Sure, it’s possible to set up a committee and get things done, but as we all know, committees are comprised of people who have varying agendas, and Exeter in 1873 had some big issues involved in the erection of a new engine house. The first problem was that of location. The obvious place for the engine would be the center of town – at that time recognized as near the central commercial district on Water Street. The major fires of the 1870s had all occurred in this part of town. But factories had been springing up in the western part of town near the B&M depot on Lincoln Street. This part of town suffered from a chronic lack of water and slow response times. Meanwhile, the Eagle proved its worth in August when Michael Murphy’s barn on Portsmouth Avenue caught fire. “The new steam fire engine was first at the scene and prove its power and usefulness,” noted the Exeter News-Letter, “The fire was soon extinguished, with slight loss.” Having proved that the horses provided the speed necessary, perhaps a downtown engine house could serve the entire town.

A special town meeting was called in October of 1873. The committee proposed building a two-story brick building on the Clifford Street site. To achieve this, they would require $3,000.00 more than the original appropriation. Unfortunately, the timing of the meeting couldn’t have been worse. The economic panic of 1873, which ushered in a period known as the ‘Long Depression’ lasting until 1879, hit during the same month. Skittish taxpayers, led by Jarvis McDuffie, balked at the extra costs. The News-Letter reported, “McDuffie opposed the adoption of the resolution on the ground that the appropriation already made was sufficient for the purpose, and the present high rate of taxation in the town and the threatening approach of hard times demanded the greatest economy. A lively discussion followed, which resulted in the rejection of the resolution.” ‘Lively discussion’ is another way of saying ‘loud shouting and fighting.’ It must have been an exciting meeting to say the least. Plans for the new engine house were tabled until everyone could cool down. It took almost an entire year for another town meeting to address the issue and in September of 1874, a new committee was appointed.

The men of Exeter met a week later to vote on the conclusions of the committee. A new, inexpensive wooden engine house would be built on the corner of Lincoln and Middle streets on land leased from the B&M railroad. The Clifford Street land owned by the town would be sold and the proceeds used to help finance the brick steam engine house on Water street on land leased from the Exeter Manufacturing Company. The resolution easily passed and ground was broken for the Water Street engine house within weeks.

Although barely mentioned in the two decades following its erection, the Exeter News-Letter saw fit to brag about the engine house in August of 1894: “Few Exeter organizations are so pleasantly housed as are the members of the Eagle Steamer company. A spacious hall occupies the greater portion of the second floor of the steamer house, and is in daily use by the members of the company and their occasional guests as a place of social enjoyment. It is comfortably furnished, and contains a pool table.” Water Street was the perfect location for the steamer company, but as firefighting equipment became motorized in the early 19th century, the sharp turn onto a main street became problematic. The Eagle was dispatched to its final fire in 1928. Sometime in the 1940s it was sold to collector James Filleul along with two other old Exeter engines, the 1835 Piscataqua and Fountain No. 1. In 1961, after Filleul’s death, the engines were returned to the town. A 1991 overhaul of the Eagle made the old steam engine functional again and it has made public appearances in town ever since.

The Eagle Steamer house on Water Street was sold in 1950 to Western Auto Associates, which installed a store front covering the old barn doors. Recent renovations have returned the building to its former appearance and there can be no confusion about its original purpose. The Steamer House has returned.

Image: The Eagle Steamer House on Water Street in the 1920s.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Scottish Prisoners in Exeter

by Barbara Rimkunas

This "Historically Speaking" column was published in the Exeter News-Letter on Friday, July 13, 2007. 

“Hello, I’m looking for the burial site of Alexander Gordon.” This frequent phone query sometimes makes me want to record the following message on our answering machine: “You have reached the Exeter Historical Society, we are open for genealogical research but we do not know where Alexander Gordon is buried.”

Alexander Gordon was the first Gordon to come to America and I realize that it is important for his genealogically curious descendants to want to find his final resting place. It’s just that we really don’t know exactly where he is buried. The best we can do is direct them to the Perkins Hill Cemetery, formerly the Gordon Hill Cemetery, and reassure them that Alexander Gordon’s son, Thomas, left his entire estate including, “half an acre of land to be reserved for a Burying place” to his own sons. As he had inherited the land from his father, it is more than likely that somewhere on the hill is the final resting place of Alexander Gordon. If it is, then Perkins Hill is the setting for the final chapter of a very exciting biography.

There was very little immigration from Scotland to New England in the early 1600s. The Scots were usually Presbyterians who tended to clash with New England Puritans. They also didn’t speak English, they spoke a form of Highland Gaelic, which may surprise many people today. During the volatile period of the English Civil War, Oliver Cromwell’s forces attacked Scotland not once but twice, both resulting in crushing Scottish defeats. At both the battles of Dunbar, in 1650, and Worcester, in 1651, thousands of very young Scotsmen were marched to England as prisoners of war. Most of them were in their teens and early twenties and it would have been dangerous to allow them to return to Scotland after the war ended. Angry young men tend to hold a grudge. The decision was made to sell the able-bodied into servitude in the colonies.

Fifteen year old Alexander Gordon was caught up in the conflict. Marched miserably to London to await transportation, he survived the cold and near starvation long enough to win a miserable three to four month cruise on an overcrowded fetid slave ship bound for the wilderness of America. Upon arrival in Massachusetts, he was sold for between 15 – 30 pounds for six years unpaid service. Americans were quite used to the systems of slavery and indentured servitude, but the Scotsmen were not. They tried, unsuccessfully, to use the colonial legal system to shorten their terms of service. Gordon himself filed suit in 1654 against John Cloyce, claiming he had been defrauded. Most of these cases were dismissed. After his attempt to manipulate the legal system, Gordon disappears from the record only to reappear in 1664 in Exeter, New Hampshire. There we find him working at the saw mill of Nicholas Lissen on the Exeter River. 

Lissen, an Englishman by birth, seems to have preferred the company of Scottish prisoners of war. He hired, or perhaps bought indentures of, at least three of them: Gordon, John McBean, and Henry Magoon. Conveniently, Lissen had three daughters and one after another they married the Scotsmen. Hannah married John Bean (he dropped the “Mc”) in 1654, Elizabeth and Henry Magoon were wed in 1657, and Mary hooked up with Alexander Gordon in 1663. One way to escape servitude, apparently, was to marry the owner’s daughter. All three men became landowners and partners in the saw mill. Another former prisoner in Exeter was John Sinkler, who worked in a saw mill on the other side of town.

The Scotsmen who came to Exeter all stayed and became equal citizens. According to Diane Rapaport, a writer on the subject, “There is little evidence that any of the men went back to Scotland” after they’d served their time. “What happened to the Scotsmen at that point varied greatly, depending upon who had owned them and where, whether they could read or write, and how well they could speak English.” The Lissen sisters must have been good teachers, because not only are there still a lot of Beans and Magoons living in New England, the Gordon Family returns to Exeter with some regularity to visit the spot where Alexander might be buried.

Image: The densely forested Piscataqua region of New Hampshire and Maine (depicted here in the 1670s) created a need for labor at the saw mills. Local mill owners were more than willing to purchase Scottish prisoners, who would then work off an indenture of 6-8 years with no compensation. Descendants of these prisoners still live in the region.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Brewitt’s Funeral Home – 100th Anniversary

by Barbara Rimkunas

This "Historically Speaking" column was published in the Exeter News-Letter on Friday, August 15, 2014.

In the spring of 1963, Carl and Richard Brewitt donated an ambulance to the town of Exeter. The gift made it possible for the town to begin offering emergency medical services to the general public, which had not been available before. That it came from the owners of a successful local funeral home didn’t seem weird at all.

Thomas Brewitt, the founder of Brewitt Funeral Home, had purchased the business in 1914 when it was a furniture and undertaking business in Epping. In the nineteenth century it wasn’t unusual for a furniture business to have an undertaking department. Caskets were, after all, produced by the same cabinetmakers who made tables, chairs and beds. In one of his early advertisements, Brewitt assured the public, “Having purchased the Furniture and Undertaking business formerly conducted by C.W. Chesley, I shall continue the business and am prepared to serve you. Thomas Brewitt, Undertaker and Embalmer. Telephone at store and residence – Lady Assistant.” Although Brewitt was serving a utilitarian role, it is clear he understood that this particular line of work required a level of comfort that, say, an appliance business would not. Having a ‘lady assistant’ answering the telephone most likely helped. In 1930, he expanded his business into Exeter. By this time, words like ‘undertaker’ and ‘embalming’ were no longer used, replaced instead with the use of ‘funeral services.’

When Brewitt brought the business to Exeter, he expanded his services. No longer tied to the furniture trade, his new advertising announced, “We are prepared to serve the people of Exeter and vicinity when in need of Funeral and Ambulance service.” Say what? To understand why the business took this seemingly odd turn, it’s important to understand how medical services functioned in the early part of the twentieth century.

Today if someone becomes suddenly ill or is injured, our first call is 9-1-1 to get immediate help. But this is a relatively new experience. In earlier times, when there were no emergency departments in hospitals, the first call would be directly to a doctor – if one could be found. Think of every old movie you’ve seen on cable, the cry of “Somebody call a doctor!” is heard instead of “call an ambulance!” Sure, some large cities might have had a hospital big enough to have an ambulance, but most small towns – including Exeter – had no such service. If you managed to get Timmy out of the well, you either tossed him in the backseat of the car and drove him to the doctor’s office, or you put him to bed and waited for the doctor to come to you. In fact, more effort was expended by local police and fire departments to get the doctor to a patient than to get the patient to the doctor. There seemed to be little need of an ambulance in the days of home care.

Exeter Hospital opened in 1897 and had the services patients required once they were there, but not the ability to get the patient to the hospital. There wasn’t even an emergency department until 1960. Before ambulance service, if someone needed to be transported due to illness or injury, the only vehicle in town that was long enough to move a supine person (other than, perhaps a delivery truck) was, you guessed it, a hearse. This wasn’t unique to Exeter. Across the nation the need for patient transportation had provided local funeral homes with the opportunity to provide ambulance services. Although funeral work is always needed, it wasn’t always particularly steady. Sending the ambulance – which was frequently the converted old hearse with an emergency light on top – filled the time and brought in a small income.

Brewitt Funeral Home, like other funeral homes, provided no-frills ambulance services. The patient was simply given a ride to the hospital in the most comfortable manner available. Of course, there was no expectation of anything further. The only place severely injured patients received pre-hospital treatment was on the battlefield. A 1966 report commissioned by the Johnson administration titled, “Accidental Death and Disability: The Neglected Disease of Modern Society” concluded that for victims of automobile accidents, “chances of survival would be better in the zone of combat than a city street.” The report is largely credited with the creation of emergency medical services as we know it today.

Tom Brewitt, who currently owns Brewitt Funeral Home along with his brother, John, recalls that the ambulance responded all over Rockingham County, but didn’t bring in much income. People paid what they could and the Brewitts weren’t inclined to aggressively collect outstanding ambulance bills. When the service was turned over to the town, new regulations were enacted, which limited use to the confines of Exeter except in extreme emergencies and, “calls for the ambulance must be initiated by a doctor, the state, or county or local police.” Townspeople were reminded “Chief Toland urges all citizens placing phone calls through the operator to make sure it is specified whether it is a fire or ambulance emergency,” to avoid sending the wrong vehicle.

Ambulance services offered by funeral homes played an important role in the development of modern emergency medical care. They provided a bridge between the days of home care and hospital-based emergency care that we have come to expect today. Brewitt Funeral Home has expanded to three locations in Epping, Exeter and Raymond during its 100 years in business. The current owners are the third generation to operate locally and there will most likely be another generation to carry on the business in years to come.

Photo: On April 1, 1963 the Brewitt Funeral Home ceased operations of its ambulance service by officially donating the 1962 Cadillac ambulance to the Exeter Fire Department. Seen here (L – R), Selectmen Dean Thorp and Thomas Cronshaw, Carl Brewitt, Fire Chief Vincent Toland and Town Manager Elton O. Feeney.