Saturday, November 29, 2014

Exeter History Minute - the Exeter Historical Society

The Exeter Historical Society has been collecting and preserving Exeter's history since 1928. In this Exeter History Minute -- click here to watch -- Barbara gives us an overview of the Society: our history, the services we provide, and how you can help us! This history minute is generously sponsored by Buxton Oil. Check it out and please share it with your friends!

Also, if you enjoy our Exeter History Minutes and would like to support the Exeter Historical Society, please click here to become a member or here to donate to our Annual Fund. Thank you!

Saturday, November 22, 2014

The Exeter Overmantel

by Barbara Rimkunas

This "Historically Speaking" column was published in the Exeter News-Letter on Friday, November 21, 2014.

When I first arrived at the Exeter Historical Society in 2000, Ed Chase, the former society president, welcomed me warmly, and among the many stories he told me about the organization was that of the Exeter overmantel. Although I’d studied early American material culture, I’d never heard of an overmantel, other than as an architectural feature – perhaps decorative woodwork, particularly small shelves for knick-knacks – located above a fireplace. The overmantel Ed was speaking about, however, was a landscape painting and it was no longer in town.

In the early nineteenth century, overmantel paintings were fairly common in grand houses of New England. There are numerous examples scattered in museums across the region. Usually painted on wood, these pieces generally depict landscapes and frequently include the owner’s house or land.

Josiah Coffin Smith was newly married in 1787, when he began building his house off High Street in Exeter. One legend, published in a 1928 pamphlet called Exeter Points of Interest, says “in digging the cellar a skeleton of an Indian and several pewter spoons were found.” One can only hope that the skeleton was respectfully interred else ware – we don’t know any more of the story. Smith lived in the home until his death in 1842, and sometime around 1800, he had the overmantel in his house painted.

The piece is not signed and it’s likely that the painting was done by an itinerant artist. In the usual style of overmantel paintings, it is a landscape of a town on a river – not unlike Exeter, but clearly not Exeter. Many examples of overmantel paintings include settings on waterways. Exeter, by 1800, was a bustling port town. The lumber industry had settled down after a century of furious deforestation and new businesses, including leather and printing, had filled the potential void.

The picture in Smith’s house depicts a prosperous homestead across the river from a bustling village where the villagers have come out to meet an approaching boat. Two towering church steeples overlook the town. Smith’s home was across the river from the town center, but this is where the similarity of Exeter to the painting ends. Both the homestead and the town are slightly too opulent for the time depicted. The river seems to broaden upriver, while in Exeter the river broadens downriver from Smith’s house after a series of waterfalls that do not appear in the painting at all.

If Smith hired an itinerant painter, as we’ve supposed, it’s odd that the painting isn’t more realistic. Of course, it’s entirely possible that the painter never visited Exeter or only had the merest of descriptions of the town. Maybe the painter was told, “our house is on the river, just over the bridge from the village” and that was all the information provided. We’ll never know, because there are no records surrounding its creation. Maybe the painter had a few standard paintings that he regularly produced, and made very simple changes at the request of the buyer.

The painting, oil on wood, remained part of the house until 1947. By that time, the house had changed hands and was eventually owned by brothers John and Gardiner Gilman. They rewarded their long-time housekeeper, Harriet Tilton, with the house. She rented it to Phillips Exeter Academy and it was used as a Greek fraternity house with Miss Tilton serving as matron. Upon her death, the Academy took ownership and the Exeter Historical Society was allowed to take a few items for its collections.

William Perry Dudley was serving as director of collections and eagerly requested the overmantel – sometimes called the “Gardiner Gilman overmantel” – but it won’t be found at the Exeter Historical Society today. The painting was sold in 1972, to the Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth, Texas.

It’s rare for a museum to allow such a treasure to leave its collections. Especially since this was a work of art that had its origins in the town of Exeter. Ed Chase, however, wasn’t troubled by the decision to sell the painting. In 1972, the society had taken on a very expensive piece of historic preservation by purchasing the Sullivan-Sleeper house in the town square. Funds were tight and some difficult decisions needed to be made. The painting, it was noted, did not depict Exeter. Nancy Merrill, our curator at the time of the sale, later remarked, “Our Society felt very badly about selling the overmantel piece. However, we desperately needed the money to take care of the Sullivan-Sleeper House. The overmantel piece has gotten much more publicity and attention in its new home and more people have been able to enjoy it.” Her observation was correct, but quite frankly, Fort Worth is a long way from Exeter. Happily, in 2004, the overmantel was purchased by the Currier Museum of Art in Manchester where it can still be visited today.

Ed Chase was not involved in the sale of the Exeter overmantel, but he was comfortable with the decision. He served for fifteen years as the president of the Exeter Historical Society, retiring from the position – but not the organization – in 2000. He passed along the story of the sale to remind us that sometimes stewardship requires us to let things go.

Caption: Overmantel painting, now at the Currier Museum of Art in Manchester, was once in the Gardiner Gilman house in Exeter. The Exeter Historical Society, in 1972, weighed the benefits of owning the piece against the need for funds for historic preservation and reluctantly sold it to a museum in Texas. Happily, it is now back in New Hampshire.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Oliver Moulton Chadwick

by Barbara Rimkunas

This "Historically Speaking" column was published in the Exeter News-Letter on Friday, November 7, 2014.


Oliver Moulton Chadwick wasn’t born in Exeter, but his family had been here for generations and when he was killed in World War I, the people of Exeter felt the loss as if he had been one of their own. Scrapbooks of his life, donated by the family, are in the collections of the Exeter Historical Society.

Chadwick was born in Lowell, Massachusetts, the only son of Austin Kilham Chadwick and Julia (Moulton) Chadwick. Austin Chadwick, born and raised in Exeter, had attended Phillips Exeter Academy and was president of the Lowell Five Cents Savings bank. Oliver’s boyhood was a happy one. He attended Lowell public schools before following the family tradition of entering Phillips Exeter Academy. As part of the class of 1907 he excelled at both athletics and academics, winning the Yale Cup upon graduation. His friend and eventual brother-in-law, Charles Parker Long, noted that he mastered any sport he took up primarily because he was in peak physical condition.

His approach to academics was similar to his devotion to sports. He kept up – or ahead of – his courses at all times, graduating from Harvard in 1911 and Harvard Law School in 1914. By that year, of course, war was brewing in Europe. He entered the legal firm of Stone and Webster in Boston, but the pull of military duty nagged at him.

The United States pledged to remain out of the European War. For the most part, public opinion agreed that the war was not our business. Oliver Chadwick, however, was eager to be involved viewing the conflict as a threat to democracy. He was troubled by a speech delivered by President Woodrow Wilson shortly after the sinking of the Lusitania in 1915, in which he justified non-intervention by stating: “There is such a thing as a man being too proud to fight. There is such a thing as a nation being so right that it does not need to convince others by force that it is right.” To Chadwick, such a statement was fraught with arrogance.

He tried to enlist in Canada, but was rejected numerous times because he was an American. He joined the National Guard to get some military training and found himself sent to the Mexican border for four months. On his return, he enrolled in the Curtiss Flying School in Newport News, Virginia, easily mastering the shaky new technology. As soon as he felt comfortable in the air, he set sail for France.

The trip was something of a ruse. The French Foreign Legion accepted men of all nationalities and Chadwick intended to sign up. To avoid problems with immigration, his passport listed his reason for visiting France as “student” in the field of “banking.” He brought with him a letter of recommendation vague enough to seem as though he was a student, but with enough affirmation of his character to provide ample evidence of his worthiness to serve in the military. His father must have been in on the sham, because Oliver mentioned to him in a letter, “I am enclosing a letter, ostensibly to explain why having come over on banking business, I am about to fight. Don’t use it unless necessary.” The letter read, in part, “France needs men and the Foreign Legion offers to Americans a chance to fight, as Americans, for what is most sacred in life. The aviation branch of the Legion is one for which I seem to be well fitted. That will explain the interruption in my studies.”

He arrived in Paris in January of 1917, as the United States was seriously pondering entering the war. Chadwick didn’t want to wait. He donated money to the French cause, commenting: “it gives great pleasure to the soldiers, that I have seen, and it does something toward wiping out the stigma of being a people who are too proud to fight, even when civilization is at stake.” He eagerly joined the Service Aeronautique and began training at various airfields in France. By July, he had become an accomplished pilot and was assigned to SPAD 73, becoming part of the Lafayette Escadrille.

The airmen in this corps were Americans volunteers. They were young, well-educated and fearless. Chadwick wrote that their duties were primarily, “attack and defend. Attack enemy machines and balloons and defend our own, also defend our position from spying eyes.” The lifespan of pilots in World War I tended to be short – averaging under 100 hours flight time. The airplanes were lightweight and unreliable. Dogfights between pilots were common. On August 14, 1917 – only a month after completing training – Chadwick volunteered to fly a patrol and when his British comrades were threatened by German planes, he broke formation and started to go after them. He was shot down from behind and his plane plunged into no man’s land below.

For a while, no one was certain that Chadwick was killed. The wreckage of his plane was located, but his body was not. It was discovered hastily buried nearby, as was customary from the enemy, not out of respect, but because pilots frequently carried intelligence and he was thoroughly searched. Oliver Moulton Chadwick was one month short of his 29th birthday. In 1928, his remains were moved to the Lafayette Escadrille Memorial in Parc De Villeneuve, L’Etang, France, where the inscription reads, “May this memorial quicken in mankind the spirit that animated the volunteers of the Escadrille Lafayette sons of the United States of America, Pioneers of her entry into the World War.”

Images: Oliver Moulton Chadwick, seen here in his 1907 Phillips Exeter Academy graduation photo, was eager to participate in the First World War. He volunteered for service in France before the United States was formally involved in the war, joining the Lafayette Escadrille. In the next image he is shown training in France in a Bleriot aircraft, which was slightly more fragile than the SPAD XII he would eventually fly in combat.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Anti-Suffragism in Exeter -- Exeter History Minute

Sometimes we take the right to vote for granted. In this episode -- click here to watch -- Barbara reminds us that some segments of society have had to fight for the vote, and they haven't always put forward a united front. Barbara contends that, at the turn of the 20th century, most women wanted a say in public affairs, but they didn't all agree that having the vote was the answer. This history minute is generously sponsored by Donahue, Tucker and Ciandella, PLLC.

To learn more about Exeter history -- or to support the Exeter Historical Society -- visit our website, www.exeterhistory.org. #ExeterHistoryMinute