Saturday, October 25, 2014

Tales from the Winter Street Cemetery

by Barbara Rimkunas

This "Historically Speaking" column was published in the Exeter News-Letter on Friday, October 24, 2014.

Exeter has dozens of small family graveyards scattered throughout town. Usually found in a corner of land long owned by a particular family, these burials can be hard to find. Records for small graveyards can be found at the Exeter Historical Society. There are no marked graves for the people who died in town in the 1600s – a hard truth for genealogists looking for their ancestors’ final resting places.

The earliest mention we have of any burial ground is in the town records from 1651. “It is granted to Mr. Dudley liberty to fence in that piece of ground where the graves are and to have the use of the land for grazing and feeding of cattle whilst he stayes in Exeter.” Reverend Samuel Dudley was the minister and the graves mentioned were most likely those surrounding the meeting house, which was near Salem Street. There is no longer any trace of the grave yard in this part of town. If there were gravestones, and none have been found, they were probably not the inscribed and decorated type we are familiar with today.

The second burial ground is located on the corner of Water and Green streets. Sometimes called ‘Gas House Cemetery,’ because a gas manufacturing plant once stood nearby, this is more of a family cemetery and there are only a handful of graves still there. A third early burial ground was located in the church yard of the Congregational Church on Front Street. In the early 1800s many of the graves were leveled to widen Front Street. Attempts to locate the stones in the 1930s found some of them and they were moved back to the church yard.

In 1742, the town received the land for the Winter Street Cemetery after the death of Colonel John Gilman. Gilman’s will donated, “forever for a burying place parte of that triangular piece of land in the common field aforesd that lyes near that which was lately the dwelling house of Samuel Sibley late of Exeter aforesd between the Road that leads from the Meeting house & that from the lanes end in Exeter aforesd to Kingston provided Sd town fence the Same within three years after my decease.” The town kept its part of the bargain and fenced the area. The triangular lot was truncated as Gilman left the three points of the triangle to each of his sons. Today, the points are not so obvious, one is built up with houses and shops, another holds the old town pound and a naval gun and the third has become a public playground (which includes a Barney-like bouncy ride – the reason many locals call the Winter Street Cemetery ‘Purple dinosaur cemetery’).

The cemetery served as the town’s public burial ground until the 1840s, when the Exeter Cemetery on Linden Street was created. There continued to be some burials in the Winter Street Cemetery in the decades that followed – mostly in family owned plots – and there were a few families that chose to have their ancestors disinterred and moved to the Exeter Cemetery. Still, if you are looking for the final resting place of Exeter’s Revolutionary War citizens, the Winter Street lot is the place to go. Strolling through a cemetery can reveal a lot of history and, providing you are careful, checking out the stones will tell you a lot about the people who lived here centuries ago.

In 1898, the Evening Gazette ran a story about the cemetery: “the old burying ground was surrounded by a two-board fence with two gates, one on Front Street for white people, and one at the back for colored people. The latter were all buried in the northeast corner of the yard. The bier house, so called, stood about where the Greeley house stands now, at the southeast corner. All the mourners, walked to the grave, and at short intervals, the bier was set down in order that the bearers might rest or be relieved by others.” There were not separate burial grounds in Exeter for white and black citizens, so everyone regardless of race or social class was interred in the same public cemetery. But the reticence to mingle unrestrained led to certain parts of the cemetery reserved for ‘colored’ citizens and paupers. Tobias Cutler, whose grave was recently found to be soiled with some type of tarry substance, was one of a number of black Revolutionary war veterans who settled in Exeter. His family went on to become businessmen in both Exeter and Hampton. Born into slavery, he was granted his freedom to serve in the Continental Army. Although his grave is located in the poorer section of the cemetery, he truly earned the right to be buried with the dozen or so other Revolutionary War soldiers in the Winter Street Cemetery. The presence of these men has led the Daughters of the American Revolution to adopt the cemetery and raise awareness of its importance.

Visiting the cemetery is to be encouraged. Walk among the stones and read the stories as you go by. Cemeteries shouldn’t be thought of as places of death or hauntings. They are the final chapter of everyone’s biography. In earlier times life was short. Children sometimes died tragically young. Husbands and wives called one another ‘beloved’. The art on the stones reflects beliefs about life after death and mortality was viewed with inevitability, sorrow or hope. But if you do visit, please take care. The Winter Street Cemetery is not seasonal entertainment. It is cherished by our town and is not a place for Halloween fun.

Photo: Gravestone in Exeter’s Winter Street Cemetery. The image carved is a ‘winged cherub’ – a softened view of the afterlife. Stones depicting a ‘flying death’s head’ with a skull in place of the cherub can also be found in the Winter Street Cemetery. The cemetery was in general use from 1742 until 1845.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Treasures in the Walls

by Barbara Rimkunas

This "Historically Speaking" column was published in the Exeter News-Letter on Friday, October 10, 2014.

Back in the summer of 2011, a local couple was busily engaged in insulating their century old house on Cass Street. During the necessary demolition, they uncovered a surprise. Liz Morse then wrote to the Exeter Historical Society; “we found a poster nailed to a wall for a lecture by Thomas Nast in 1873. Would someone from the historical society like to come see it? We are considering framing it and returning it to its original location, but thought it might be of interest to you.”

She was right. It was of interest to us. Now before you decide to call us, please know that the Exeter Historical Society cannot simply play “Antiques Roadshow” with all callers. As a museum, we are not legally allowed to do monetary appraisals and, although we will occasionally purchase items at public auction for our collections, we generally only take donations.

That said, we love seeing the artifacts that people find hidden in their basements, attics and barns. And the Morses live along my usual walk home. The poster was magnificent, and warranted some further research about the house and the advertised lecture.

Although it doesn’t appear on the 1874 map of Exeter, the house on Cass Street most definitely existed in 1873 when the poster was nailed to the wall. We have a directory of Exeter published in 1872, which does not provide helpful information – like house numbers – but does give us the names and occupations of householders in town. For Cass Street, it lists more residents than the 1874 map can accommodate. Most likely, the map was laid out well before its publication date and by that time at least two new houses had been built on the street. The plot of land for the Morse’s house was purchased in 1868 by Oliver Lane, a local merchant. He never appears to have lived there and must have built it for rental income. There are four households from the 1872 directory that cannot be placed in any specific house when compared to census records or ownership deeds. Three are headed by skilled workmen; a stonemason, carpenter and shoemaker. The fourth is a mother and daughter who would later run a boarding house. Any of these people could have been the occupants of the house where the poster was found. And most likely, any of them would have been enthusiastic to attend the Thomas Nast program.

Thomas Nast was a popular illustrator and political cartoonist. Born in Germany in 1840, he’d arrived in New York with his mother and sister at the age of six. Although children usually pick up new languages quickly, Nast seems to have struggled and even as an adult still spoke with a heavy accent and found reading and writing very difficult. His wife helped him by correcting his poor spelling in the cartoons he created. Yet, or perhaps because of this, he was able to reach broad swaths of the American population including recent immigrants. He began work, at age 15, for Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, as a sketch artist after talking his way into the job. As the Civil War began, Nast joined the staff of Harper’s Weekly, where he would work for roughly 25 years. After the war, he turned to political cartoons, using his talent and wits to attack the political corruption that was raging in New York. His depictions of the Tammany Hall political machine, depicted as a tiger, and his caricatures of William “Boss” Tweed , the corrupt and ruthless Democratic party enforcer, are credited with their fall from power. Nast would go on to popularize the political party symbols of the Democratic donkey and Republican elephant that we still use today. He is also credited with the creation of Christmas as we know it today, with his drawings of Santa Claus and his toy shop at the North Pole. 

In 1873, Thomas Nast was on a seven month speaking tour when he passed through Exeter. The ‘Exeter Lyceum’ program of lecture courses was thrilled to book him as a featured speaker. The review, published in the Exeter News-Letter the following week, raved; “Mr. Nast’s lecture was both entertaining and instructive, and his occasional foreign idioms and accent gave perhaps additional relish to the good things it contained. He commenced with a tribute to the fun-loving qualities of the American people, which he illustrated by choice examples; gave a short history of caricature, especially on its political side; and at length turned to what was of course most interesting to the audience, his own experience as a political caricaturist. From time to time he illustrated the subjects of his lecture, by drawing in colored chalks on a large easel in full view of the audience, some of those happy burlesques which have given him his world-wide reputation.”

Liz Morse reports that they did indeed frame the poster and it hangs near where it was originally found; “guests seem to find it interesting, and it gets us talking about our renovations (Ben loves that subject).”

Image: Poster found behind the wall in the house of Liz and Ben Morse on Cass Street. Advertisements, such as this one, were never meant to serve as documentary materials – they were considered disposable. Finding it intact provides us with a window into the interests of people in town in 1873. It has since been carefully preserved by the owners.