Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Exeter House of Delegates

by Barbara Rimkunas

This "Historically Speaking" column was published by the Exeter News-Letter on December 18, 2015.

For over a decade a yellowing packet of papers lingered in the uncatalogued collections of the Exeter Historical Society. When it was finally opened in 1986, the archivist was only able to enter “received before 1972”into the record. What was known, however, was that it came from the estate of Dr. William G. Perry (called “young Doctor Perry” to distinguish him from his father of the same name and occupation). Perry was born in Exeter in 1823and worked his entire life in town. After his death in 1910 the family found a host of historical gems in his papers. One of these was the packet labeled, “Records of a debating society called Exeter House of Delegates, started Oct. 28, 1848.”

Every era has its divisive and seemingly intractable issue. Today the issue is probably guns. Our constitution allows us to own guns, but it doesn’t provide us with enough details about how to live with them. The writers of the Constitution couldn’t have anticipated the leaps in technology that would create weapons capable of tearing apart a schoolroom of little children. Nor did they anticipate that people would want to keep this type of weapon at home to protect themselves against the other guy with the same kind of gun. How are we going to get ourselves out of this mess? Both sides of the issue are dug in. We’ve gotten to the point where we can’t even talk about it.

In 1848, the intractable issue was slavery. The Constitution, although never using the word “slavery,” allowed it. For the first few decades of our country’s history slavery was tolerated – providing it remained in the states where it had become the accepted economic system. Compromises had been made regarding governmental representation based on population. There was a balance, of sorts, between those states that were slave and those that were free, and both sides profited from the other. It was an uneasy truce, but one that was largely accepted by both camps. The Mexican-American War, which ended in 1847, threw that balance off. What would happen now that the United States was expanding? Would the new territories be slave or free? What guidance did the Constitution provide? Even in New Hampshire, which one might think would be against slavery’s expansion, the issue was contentious. Tempers flared.

How best to discuss the elephant in the room without flipping tables at the local tavern? In Exeter, where the county court met and the public often attended court proceedings for entertainment, the local lawyers, businessmen and other educated sorts created a debating society to have a forum to discuss – in a civilized way – the problem. The Exeter House of Delegates mimicked, to a certain degree, the United States House of Representatives. Members participated as “representatives” of the states, thus Dr. William Perry served as the delegate from New Jersey, even though in real life he had no connection to that state.

Their dedication to civility and rules is obvious. About half of the business of the Exeter House of Delegates is what we would call housekeeping. Dates and times of meetings were discussed, “Resolved, That hereafter this House shall not be adjourned before hour 10pm except by vote of two thirds of the members present.” “Resolved, That all absentees be allowed to present their excuses for absence immediately after the resolutions have been called by the Speaker and before any special orders of the evening.” “Resolved, That no member shall speak longer than twenty minutes at a time upon any subject before the House.”

You have to admire their insistence on decorum, especially considering the actual U.S. House of Representatives was a violent place. Yale professor Joanne Freeman has commented on the dangerous machismo of the House, “In the rough-and-tumble Congress of the 1830s, 1840s and 1850s, politicians regularly wore weapons on the House and Senate floors, and sometimes used them.” During the discussions leading up to the Compromise of 1850, Senator Henry Foote threatened to shoot Senator Benton. He was stopped (luckily) when other members wrestled him to the floor.

The packet of documents contains only the rules and resolutions of the group. Rarely does it mention whether a particular resolution was passed and it never records the actual debates. They debated resolutions to reduce postage, outlaw usury, allow Athiests to serve as witnesses in court, reduce taxes on manufactured cotton goods. In the spirit of a good role-playing game, they even debated resolutions put forward by imaginary people, in this case women – one that requested outlawing the use of “a certain weed called tobacco” and another that would impose “a duty (tax) upon foreign unmarried females sufficient to prevent competition with the domestic article.” Both were withdrawn before serious debate began. I mean, really.

But by far, the most frequent resolutions dealt with the complicated problems that the nation as a whole could not solve. “Resolved, that we regard the passage of a law by the Congress of the United States abolishing slavery or the slave trade in the District of Columbia as direct attack upon the institutions of the Southern States to be resisted at every hazard.”

“Resolved, that whenever any member shall offer any petition…touching in any manner the subject of slavery in the states where it now exists – or the District of Columbia – or any territory South of the line of the Missouri Compromise – the motion to receive the same shall lie upon the table.” “Resolved, that any petition …shall be introduced touching in any manner the subject of slavery…it shall take precedence of all other business of the House.”

“Resolved, that it is expedient to legislate for the abolition of the slave trade between the several states of the United States.”

“Resolved, that a special committee be appointed to take into consideration the expediency of legislation for the gradual emancipation of the slaves in the several States.”

The Exeter House of Delegates ceased to meet after 1851. The Compromise of 1850, shaky though it was with the North hating the fugitive slave act and the South hating abolition of the slave trade in Washington D.C., bought the nation another decade before war ultimately decided the fate of the slave system. The Delegates, committed as they were to civil debate, were not able to bring forward any of their imagined legislation, however, by participating in the game they found that they could at least talk about the painful divisiveness of the day.

Photo: Materials in the handwriting of Dr. William G. Perry – member of the Exeter House of Delegates

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Charles Marseilles

by Barbara Rimkunas

This "Historically Speaking" column was published by the Exeter News-Letter on December 4, 2015.

The youngest man ever to own the Exeter News-Letter was a fascinating 20 year old Phillips Exeter Academy drop out named Charles Marseilles. Lucky enough to have been born into a family of means, he had ambitions to become an editorial kingmaker – devoted to Republican politics. He didn’t always succeed, although to read his own press one might believe he had. At his death in 1920, his obituary writer in Exeter found it hard to sum up the life of the man, commenting only, “despite his interest in politics, Mr. Marseilles never held public office. He was a man of much native ability and of marked individuality.”

Marseilles was born in Philadelphia in 1846, the son of a comfortable wholesale merchant. In 1862, at the age of 16, he entered Phillips Exeter Academy. He remained there for less than a year. The reasons for his leaving are uncertain, although these were uncertain times. The Civil War was raging and within a year Marseilles entered Norwich University – a military academy – in Vermont. Even though his time at Phillips Exeter was short, it held enough social clout for him to remind anyone who would listen that he had attended the school. In a Granite Monthly profile of Marseilles written in 1897, author Henry Robinson wrote, “of the boys whom Mr. Marseilles personally remembers at this superior institution are Robert Todd Lincoln, son of President Lincoln; Ulysses S. Grant, Jr., son of General Grant; Levi Woodbury Blair, son of Montgomery Blair; August Belmont Jr., son of August Belmont and many others equally distinguished by their parentage or their own advancement in later years.” But he couldn’t have ‘personally remembered’ them. None of these boys attended Phillips Exeter at the same time as Marseilles.

He remained at Norwich until the war ended in the spring of 1865. Realizing he didn’t need to prepare himself as a military officer, he left the school and went to Boston to work at the publishing firm of Ticknor and Fields. This venerable firm published many of the respected authors of the day, including the likes of Hawthorne, Dickens, Tennyson, Thoreau, Emerson and Whittier. Marseilles absorbed all the publishing knowledge he could and seemed to believe that his short tenure with the company yielded him friendly relationships with the authors. He worked there for less than a year. John Greenleaf Whittier, who later autographed a volume for him, seemed to need reminding of who Marseilles was. When inscribing a book to him in 1891, he wrote, “To Charles Marseilles, who was an attaché of the store of Ticknor and Fields when it was first issued I am sure this little volume will not be unacceptable, with the good will and wishes of its author – John G. Whittier.” It was like that with Marseilles. The publishing house instilled in him an obsession with books and autograph collecting. His extensive personal library began to grow.

He must have heard, while still working at Ticknor and Fields that the Exeter News-Letter was up for sale. He returned to Exeter and purchased the newspaper hiring Andrew Hoyt to serve as his editor and printer. From the very start the two men decided to change the sleepy agricultural paper into a political journal. Jumping into the politics of the post-war period, “politically, we believe the News-Letter to be on the right track,” they wrote in their first edition on September 17th, 1866, “and amid the present chaotic state of politics, we unhesitatingly unfurl the UNION REPUBLICAN banner.” Together Marseilles and Hoyt expanded the paper and introduced decidedly partisan editorial content. Hoyt left the paper in 1871. Marseilles, who had set down roots in Exeter by marrying Annie Leavitt in 1869, inherited a great deal of money from his father’s estate in 1878. He purchased two more newspapers in Kingston, New York, the Daily Freeman and the Journal. This necessitated moving to New York, although he still maintained control of the Exeter News-Letter through the capable editorship of William Morrill. In Kingston, he took credit for the success of Republican candidates in the elections of the 1880s. Granite Monthly would later crow, “at the first election following the transfer of the journals, a Republican county treasurer was elected, for the first time in many years; two years later, led by Marseilles, in the Freeman and the Journal, the Republicans captured the county, which was held by them until the Democratic landslide of 1892.” Although he liked to take credit, this was most likely a reflection of the political winds in that decade.

He didn’t stay in Kingston very long. Overwork began to wear on him, even though he loved the excitement of politics. As something of a gadfly, his journalistic credentials allowed him contact with politicians at all levels. He supported Republican candidates and eagerly name-dropped any he shook hands with. To meet Charles Marseilles was to become his dearest friend – at least to his mind. He wrote to his old ‘school friend’ Robert Todd Lincoln, requesting an autographed photo. The publicity-shy Lincoln sent him the photo – but told him it was NOT for publication.

In 1882, Marseilles became ill. “He fell victim to nervous prostration from overwork and malaria,” explained the Granite Monthly before mentioning that he consulted with the esteemed Dr. John H. Douglas of Brooklyn, NY, physician to General Ulysses Grant. Most likely, he simply wrote him a letter. After taking some time in Vermont to gain strength, he returned to Exeter, sold his newspapers and settled into a life of collecting autographed books and political punditry. Although he was called, “the political prognosticator and Presidential prophet of Exeter, NH” by the Rhode Island Gazette and Chronicle, he rarely picked a winning candidate. In 1899, he enthusiastically encouraged Admiral George Dewey, the hero of the Battle of Manila, to seek the Republican nomination for president. The problem was Dewey, who had sent Marseilles an autographed photo, turned out to be a terrible candidate. He admitted he’d never voted in a presidential election and once it was obvious that the Republicans weren’t interested in him, he simply switched parties and tried to capture the Democratic nomination.

By the turn of the century, Marseilles seemed to be out of his own influence. His wife died in 1904, leaving Charles alone in his house full of books. The entire collection was sold at auction in 1907. Marseilles himself never fully recovered from his earlier illness – which proved to be not malaria but syphilis. He entered the state hospital in Concord in 1908, his health slowly deteriorating for the 12 remaining years of his life. Before his illness took hold of him, he received accolades from many sides. Henry Robinson, the Granite Monthly author and perpetual fan-boy wrote of him, “How many things Charles Marseilles knows, which to tell would make him a brilliant newsman!”

Photo: Charles Marseilles became the sole proprietor of the Exeter News-Letter in 1866 at the tender age of 20.

Saturday, December 5, 2015

Our new Exeter History Minute

Most kids play with dolls at some point during childhood, whether it be a baby doll, GI Joe, Barbie or all three. In this episode, Barbara explores the interesting and unique back-stories of two of the dolls in the collections of the Exeter Historical Society. 

This History Minute is generously sponsored by Anne Swane of Citizens Bank.

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

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

In Search of Elder Abner Jones

by Barbara Rimkunas

This "Historically Speaking" column was published by the Exeter News-Letter on November 20, 2015.

It’s hard to categorize Elder Abner Jones, except to say that he was a restless man. Exeter’s claim on his biography is as his final resting place. Like many Americans who matured after the Revolution, he was a seeker. Born in Royalton, Massachusetts, in 1772, his family moved to Vermont when he was eight. His father raised him in the strict Calvinist Puritanism of New England, but a series of early events in the wilderness of Vermont – an Indian raid, an infestation of crop-eating worms and a neighbor’s terrible hunting accident – rattled his faith. “Although I was only 8 or 9 years old, the pride of my heart was so great that I was ashamed to let anyone know that I felt concerned about my soul; neither could I bear to have any one see me crying; and so quenched the spirit of the Lord I now felt the need of religion more than ever I had before, I was fully convinced that I must be born again or be damned.” It would take years before Abner Jones found his way.

Jones was caught up in a period known as the Second Great Awakening. Baptist and Methodist revival meetings travelled throughout the region. Young Abner attended many, but his conscience remained unsettled. He taught school and worried about his soul. He accepted baptism in his late teens. As an adult, he became interested in herbalism and took a course to learn the medical practices of Samuel Thomson, an early practitioner of alternative medicine.


Conventional medical treatment in the early part of the 19th century was as harsh and unforgiving as strict Puritanism. The body was believed to contain bad humors, which as the cause of disease, needed to be removed by bleeding, purging and excision. Often the treatment was so severe that the patient died not because of the illness, but because of the ‘cure.’ Thomson, who had studied the backwoods treatments of non-medically educated practitioners, preferred to use natural remedies derived from plants. His theory held that disease was caused by cold and could be cured by heat. Like the other medical men of his day, he believed purging was one of the ways to rid the body of disease and used copious amounts of lobelia (sometimes called ‘puke weed’) and cayenne to induce vomiting while warming the body. This was followed with steam baths. The treatment was met with no small amount of objection from the medically trained doctors of the time, although patients tended to prefer it over conventional treatment. Sure, neither method actually cured patients, but at least Thompson didn’t bleed anyone to death.

Jones was convinced that Thompson’s theories were sound. As an added benefit, he wouldn’t need to attend lengthy and expensive medical school. Thompson didn’t worry his practitioners with a need for anatomy or surgical knowledge. Jones set up practice in Vermont as was a well- respected ‘doctor’ to his community. He married and warned his new wife that he may not remain a country doctor for long. He still had a lingering call to God that he could not ignore. When he wasn’t seeing patients, he studied the Bible and gradually began to reject many of the teachings he’d been taught as a child. As he began preaching, he saw fewer and fewer medical patients, until much to the distain of his wife, he let the practice go and became an itinerant preacher. “When I searched the New Testament through, to my great astonishment, I could not find the denomination of Baptist mentioned in the whole of it. Christ called his disciples brethren and friends. In the time of the apostles, the disciples were first called CHRISTIANS at Antioch. After this search, I denied the name of a Baptist, and so I have continued to do unto this day.”

Preaching in New Hampshire, Vermont and Massachusetts, Jones and others spread their ideas of a primitive Christianity. New Hampshire was agonizing over the dilemma of long-established theocracy – was there room for these new religious movements in a society that had legal rights determined by one’s denomination? The state passed the Toleration Act in 1819, removing parish taxes and freeing people to practice their own faith. This opened the door for movements like Jones’ Christian Connection.

In 1840, after the death of his wife, Jones was living in Exeter on Maple Street – still not a settled minister because his faith required no such role – working as an itinerant preacher. He died there in 1841 and was buried in the now neglected Winter Street Cemetery alongside the town’s early citizens. His grave marker was still standing in 1938, but in recent years disappeared. Marilyn Easton, working for the Exeter Historical Society, managed to locate it in 1998. It had fallen and was badly cracked. Theology students often looked in vain for the stone hoping to find the final resting place of this restless man. We found it again in October and carefully excavated the stone. This time, the GPS coordinates were logged, but the stone is in such poor condition that it was felt best to simply leave it flat. The inscription reads, “This stone stands the mournful guardian of the day til Gabrial’s mighty army shall raise it to the Resurrection of the Dead.” Abner Jones is still waiting for that day to arrive.

Photos: A volunteer from the Exeter Historical Society excavates the grave marker of Elder Abner Jones. Jones, who died in 1841, was an important early church reformer in New England. He is buried in the Winter Street Cemetery in Exeter. Second photo: Current condition of Elder Abner Jones’ grave marker is poor. When excavated on October 10th, 2015, it was felt best to leave it flat. It’s location has now been logged with GPS coordinates to better find it in the future.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

The Problem of Tramps

by Barbara Rimkunas

This "Historically Speaking" column was published by the Exeter News-Letter on Friday, November 6, 2015.

“Tuesday night was the first of the winter in which no tramps sought shelter at Exeter’s Police Station,” the Exeter News-Letter noted in January of 1897. Wandering vagrants had always been a problem in towns along the railroad line, but the number of such people increased in the 1890s. Some towns erected small ‘tramp houses’ to accommodate – and incarcerate – people overnight. A bed and perhaps a meal would be exchanged for a small odd-job, such as cutting firewood, and then the tramps would be escorted out of town in the morning.

There is a romantic view of life lived in the rough. Bart Kennedy wrote of his tramping days at the turn of the century in A Man Adrift. “It may be that you feel the sense of freedom that comes from a total lack of responsibility. No one is dependent upon you. No one is waiting for you. If people have contempt for you, at least they leave you alone. And this is something.” Most men – and tramps were generally single men – took to the wandering life after an economic downturn. The Panic of 1893, what we would today call a recession, threw men out of work in many industrial cities. Factory workers found themselves without jobs and with no social support system. In New England, textile workers were often the ones left without jobs. Mills, including the Exeter Manufacturing Company, thought nothing of shutting down for weeks or months to conserve funds, leaving employees with no means of support. “To be penniless and on tramp is a curious experience,” Kennedy observed, “It may have been that at one time in your life you would have thought it impossible for you to beg. You would have shuddered at the bare idea. How shameful! You would have thought death would be preferable. If a man had said that you would come to this you would have struck him in the face.” But a life of begging for food and often receiving none caused many to turn to petty crime – pilfering eggs from the hen house, stealing apples from the orchard. Local officials considered tramps to be a public nuisance. Even the dictionary definition of tramp reflected this: “a foot traveler, often in a bad sense, a begging or thieving vagabond.”

Public opinion of tramps was split between those who believed they were down on their luck versus those who thought the men refused to work due to laziness. This old argument of the ‘worthy poor’ in contrast to the ‘unworthy poor’ had been floating around for centuries. Was it acceptable to provide aid or would that catapult them into a lifetime of dependency? The Progressives of the late 1890s believed that most tramps were honest men simply on hard times. Ossian Guthrie, observed in the Chicago Tribune of February 28, 1896: “After the war people looked forward to an era of crime, but the soldiers scattered over the country and settled down to the work they dropped when called to arms. With the return of prosperity in 1878, after a panic lasting five years, the tramp army melted. Where did they go? To work, as soon as there was work to be done. As the problem has solved itself in the past, so it will solve itself now. As business gradually improves, as factories start up and mines resume work with the old-time number of men, the tramp army will dwindle away till not more than 5 per cent, the really criminal portion is left.”

It was that criminal portion that concerned local officials. To keep the tramps from becoming a frightening threat, local police stations began lodging the men overnight. But while the practice had existed in earlier times – occasionally taking in one or two people and tossing them into the drunk tank with the locals, the numbers began rising in the 1890s. The News-Letter further commented, “Frequently 10 or more have been received on a single night and in one instance 18. The record for October was 136, for November 168, for December 170 and for January thus far 104. In the foregoing is included one woman. Measures which will abate the tramp nuisance are much to be desired.” In 1896, there were a total of 1007 ‘lodgers’ taken into the Exeter police station. The number continued to rise, topping out at 1366 in 1899. Then, as predicted by Ossian Guthrie, the job market began to open. The Police Commissioners were able to report in 1902, “the number of those unfortunates, called tramps, who have applied at the Police Station for lodgings has been considerably smaller than in past years.” 1902 saw only 340 requests for shelter – a number still quite high, but far lower than during the panic.

The number of tramps plateaued for several decades, not swelling again until 1934, when the Great Depression brought 1132 men into the police station. With no other means to manage the problem, the police continued to be the only source of shelter for homeless wanderers. After the new Safety Complex was built on Court Street in 1979, the practice was eliminated. By that time, there were more local organizations offering assistance. Today when people arrive at the police station in dire straits they are directed to Cross Roads House or the St. Vincent de Paul Society, both of which are better able to assist those in need.

Photo: Most tramps were considered a nuisance, but this man, who called himself “King David” was a local character. Travelling through town in the 1880s, he would sell photos of himself, talk religion and stayed wherever the townsfolk would put him up – most likely the Exeter Police Station.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

The Exeter Gas Light Company

by Barbara Rimkunas

This "Historically Speaking" column was published in the Exeter News-Letter on Friday, October 23, 2015.

“While gas has illuminated almost every village in the country, Exeter has sat in darkness, or in the shadow of whale oil, and those who have been far enough from home to see its light, have bewailed the deprivation of not having it here,” noted the Exeter News-Letter in October of 1861. The effort to sign up customers for the new gas service was difficult, falling as it did right at the onset of the Civil War. Yet gas had already arrived in most towns and by all measures it was a far superior product than those of the past.

The Exeter Gas Light Company incorporated on December 23, 1861, having completed construction of its gas plant on Green Street only a few weeks earlier. “Ours is to be coal gas, such as is produced from what is generally known as hard coal. There is no doubt but this must be classed with the luxuries of life. It may require considerable exertion to get the best class of customers, during war times, when taxes must be high. But gas light is far in advance of other lights generally in use.” Producing the product called ‘town gas’ from coal was a difficult and grimy process. Tons of coal was needed to feed the furnace, causing temperatures inside the plant to often reach 130 degrees. The by-product, coal tar, was leached into the ground, creating toxic waste problems that were left to the future.

Gas also had a reputation for being explosive. Overcoming this anxiety was problematic for the gas company. Every new technology has to convince consumers that it is somehow better than what was offered in the past. In Exeter, as in many towns, the way to prove that gas lighting was necessary was to get it installed. The gas company offered to illuminate the dark streets of Exeter as well as the Exeter Town Hall. John Gilman was spending the winter in Philadelphia when Exeter first lit up with gas light. His sister wrote to him about the Christmas fair held at Town Hall, “the hall was lighted for the first time with gas, which lent an attraction. This is a new thing for old Exeter, say you, and a great thing if it brings not too heavy a tax bill for us in the end. It is being introduced into various private dwellings, into most of the churches, and a few of the principal streets are being illuminated.” The brilliancy of the lighting quickly overcame most qualms held by the public. Gas had the added advantage of being versatile enough to be adapted for cooking and heating. Once the gas lines were snaked through town, it seemed like gas was the fuel of the future.

Until electricity arrived to run the streetcars, that is. Electricity seemed to have no downsides – it was clean, had no open flame and seemed safer. In 1898, the town began to debate which type of lighting was safer and more efficient. Although there were no explosive accidents to homeowners, an accident at the gas plant in late 1897 set people on edge. “An explosion of gas Tuesday morning caused less than $200 damages to the plant of the Exeter Gas Light Company,” reported the News-Letter. Albert Dewhirst, an employee, arrived early in the morning to take a meter reading. His lantern caught a small gas leak and the ensuing explosion threw him back into the street, shattering windows, lifting the roof and crumbling portions of the interior of the building. Although the damage was small, and Dewhirst was rumpled but unhurt, it did little to encourage the further use of gas. Electricity won out as the town lighting source. Gas continued to be used by many people only as fuel for stoves and furnaces.

The gas company upgraded to a cleaner form of gas production in 1927 and the old plant was converted to the new water process. At that time, an immense steel ball was erected across Water Street to contain the gas. A few years later, in 1931, the old coal gas machinery was unused and, “this came to the notice of Mr. Taylor, investigator and buyer for Henry Ford, who decided that the old gas plant would make a much–desired addition to the Ford enterprise at Dearborn, Michigan. He purchased the discarded apparatus, had it carefully taken down, marked, and shipped on freight cars to Dearborn, where it is now being re-erected for the manufacture of coal gas.” There it joined a few other Exeter edifices, the John Giddings house and the Lamson Pottery works, as part of the Henry Ford Institute.

With the advent of natural gas use in the 1950s, the gas plant was used less and less – primarily for peak shaving. Gas was shipped into town, the old plant on Green Street ceased to be used in the early 1970s and was taken down in 1975. The gas ball, once a landmark in town on the river, was removed in 1979 to make way for the construction of the Squamscott View Apartments, which opened in 1981. Unitil, the current owner of the old gas works site, has worked to landscape the site and is still working to abate the toxic residue of the manufactured gas era.

Photos: Exeter Gas Light Company gasworks on Green Street. This facility was used to produce coal gas for town use from 1861 until 1927 when the plant converted to a new process.   The gas storage ball, an immense reinforced steel structure, stood on the shore of the Squamscott River just opposite the gas works plant from 1927 to 1979. Although well known to Exeter residents, finding a photo proved to be exceedingly difficult for the Exeter Historical Society.

Friday, October 9, 2015

“Send Everything You’ve Got:” The Robinson Female Seminary Fire

by Barbara Rimkunas

This "Historically Speaking" column was published in the Exeter News-Letter on Friday, October 9, 2015.

“Smelled smoke strongly ½ hour before the alarm blew about 9 o’clock,” Betty Kreger wrote in her diary the night of October 5, 1961. Kreger, a widowed piano teacher, began to get whiffs of the disaster from her house on Ash Street. “Got up and rushed outside – staid outside till 10 or so.” The flames were visible from her home, but Betty, like countless other Exeter residents, raced to the fire scene and stood transfixed behind the police line to watch the towering Robinson Female Seminary burn to the ground.

For almost one hundred years, Exeter had been unique in its school structure. The town was happily surprised in 1864 to receive a bequest from the will of William Robinson to fund a school for girls. Robinson, who was born in Exeter in 1793, attended Phillips Exeter Academy and went on make his fortune in Georgia. His sisters, he felt, were never given the educational opportunities he had. The town built the school and the Robinson fund sustained the corps of teachers. Generations of young women in Exeter benefitted from Robinson’s gift. The school building was erected and dedicated in 1869 – a towering Second Empire style edifice with a globe proudly standing on the very top of its tower.

As early as 1928, there was talk of reunifying the town schools, but the movement never gained traction. After World War II, increasing student enrollment and a crumbling building made the move to coeducation more of a necessity. The final class graduated from the Robinson Female Seminary in 1955. Olive Tardiff discussed the closing of the Seminary in On Ever, Robinson, a small publication created by the RFS alumnae in 1988. “The High School was to be enlarged to accommodate grades seven through twelve for boys and girls, and the Talbot gymnasium to be added to the building. A new elementary school was to be built on Seminary property, with rooms in the Seminary building to be used for the superintendent’s office, a cafeteria for elementary pupils, and art and music classes. The names of Robinson and Tuck were to be abolished, and the combined school named Exeter High School.”

The school board struggled with the problem of what to do with the old building. Over time, the building began to look shoddy. During the summer of 1961 most of the contents were moved out and the Boy Scouts were notified that they could no longer use the facility for meetings. Plans were made to board up the building to prevent vandalism. “By closing it,” the Exeter News-Letter noted, “school officials expect to save $3,500 in fuel, light and maintenance costs annually.” But what to do with it? An article published in July posed the question, “Is Exeter building doomed to ‘White Elephant’ Status?” The functional restrooms in the basement led to the suggestion that perhaps the long wished-for town pool could be built on the property and the basement converted into locker rooms. Or, on a far more practical level given the Cold War times of the 1960s, perhaps the building could be torn down and the basement renovated to be a fallout shelter for St. Michael’s parochial school and Lincoln Street School. While dithering over a decision, the lower floors were boarded up. Vandals quickly began focusing on the windows in the upper floors. The last photo of the old school was published in the News-Letter on September 28th – just one week before the fire. In it, the sad school, its tower removed and lower floors boarded, is having the windows on the mansard roof boarded. Al Cote, who is seen hammering the plywood didn’t even get his bill submitted to the school board before the fire destroyed his work. When he went before the board with his bill the day after the fire, he was asked whether he could prove that the work had been completed. Ben Swiezynski’s photo served as his proof.

Several people reported smelling smoke as early as 6pm on the night of October 5th. The police investigated, but could find no fire. “At 8, fire Chief Toland drove through the property,” reported the News-Letter, but, being to windward of the probably smoke, failed to detect its presence.” It was at 9 o’clock – half an hour after Betty Kreger noticed a smoky smell – that Officer Richard Cole spotted a small blaze. The members of Engine 1 Company were holding their monthly meeting at the fire house and had just broken up to go home when the call came in. As soon as they arrived they knew this was no ordinary fire. “Fire out of control upon arrival,” reports the call book. “Removing a board from the basement window revealed a fire of severe dimensions already underway and the call went to the fire station ‘Send everything you’ve got’” the News-Letter quoted. “Over 8000 feet of 2 ½” hose used. Building a total loss. Hampton and Stratham fire departments called in to help,” the call book continues. The fire raged for hours. The floors, oiled annually, were highly combustible and sent flames 100 feet into the air. It was estimated that nearly 2000 onlookers- many of them Robinson Seminary grads – arrived to watch the beloved school burn. By 1:45 am, the fire was under control. The ruins would smolder and occasionally flame for the next week.

As sorry as most of the Seminary girls were, there was also some feeling of release. The old school was not ageing well and many felt it had been badly treated by the town. Elvira Benfield Collishaw, class of 1918, summed it up best in her 1980 paper, “The Building of the Seminary:” “It no longer stood alone, deserted, desecrated, defiled. It belonged to memory.”

First Baptist Church of Exeter

by Barbara Rimkunas

This "Historically Speaking" column was published in the Exeter News-Letter on Friday, July 27, 2007.

The First Baptist Church of Exeter organized in 1800 when the republic was still new. At that time, the state of New Hampshire still required residents to pay a church tax – and the newly formed Baptist Church was not one of the “accepted” denominations to receive these funds. The five men and five women who founded the church in Exeter had to scrape by for some years before they were able to build their first church building. A small squarish structure, built on Spring Street, was enough for the small congregation to get a foothold.

Baptists in America can trace their history back to Roger Williams. A separatist from England, Williams believed that the civil government should not interfere with a person’s “soul-liberty”. He was the first to use the phrase “wall of separation” in relation to civil and religious matters. The Baptist church in New Hampshire was one of the organizations that pushed for disestablishment of religion in the state, resulting in the Toleration Act of 1819. The act allowed churches to incorporate and the First Baptist Church quickly did. The Toleration Act made it far more agreeable for people to join a church that was more in line with one’s personal beliefs, and the Baptists attracted more people than in earlier times.

The congregation continued to grow and in 1833 a new church was erected on Water Street where the Folsom Tavern stands today. Within 40 years, they’d outgrown the new church and an ambitious new building project created the current building on Front Street with its distinctive eight pointed star window.

Perhaps the role of women helped to increase numbers in the congregation. From its very beginnings, women were an integral part of the church. Of the ten founders, five were women – and they were not simply the wives of the male founders. There was only one married couple included in the founding members. Missionary work – so important to Baptists – was usually organized by the women of the congregation, and the women’s organizations that have formed over the years have been the lifeblood of the church. They established the “Ladies Society” in 1845, and the “Ladies Social Circle” in 1880, which joined with the Women’s Missionary Society in 1946 to form the “Ladies Circle”.

Baptist Missionaries
In 1955, the American Baptist Church USA, the national organization with which the First Baptist Church of Exeter is affiliated, merged with the Baptist Women’s American Foreign Mission Society. On a national level, the numbers of women in leadership positions within the church began to drop. Women were allowed to go on mission work only if they were married. This hadn’t been the case in earlier decades. Women had been allowed ordination in the organization since the 1880’s and by 1898 there were 9 licensed and 17 ordained women serving in Free Will Baptist churches.

To off-set some of the restrictions, the First Baptist Church of Exeter amended its own by-laws to create circle ministries to “stimulate a wider women’s interest in missions.” These circles, organized and composed of women, focused on supporting specific missionary work – such as foreign missions in India, China, Alaska, Vietnam or within the country, or organizational charities like the White Cross and Love Gift programs. It was no coincidence that they named their circles - Ann Judson circle, Lula Shongo Circle, Helen Yost Circle, Marjorie Moreau Circle, Joan Donaldson Circle - for women missionaries.

On the weekend of October 17, 2015, the church - now called “The Red Brick Church” - will celebrate 215 years in Exeter.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

That Time the Klan Turned Up at Exeter’s Race Unity Day

by Barbara Rimkunas

This "Historically Speaking" column was published in the Exeter News-Letter on Friday, September 25, 2015.

You wouldn’t hold a pie eating contest to raise money for diabetes research, would you? Of course not. So in hindsight, it seems a bit ridiculous to try to drum up membership in your segregationist group outside a public gathering dedicated to race unity – but that was exactly what happened in Exeter in June of 1990.

June 11, 1991 See caption below.
Members of the Baha’i community in Exeter had been holding Race Unity Day annually for five years. Baha’i is a faith that holds racial equality and unity as one of its central teachings. The event was always peaceful and lightly attended. Jonathan Ring, the organizer of the event, recently told me that actually 1990 was the best attended Race Unity Day event held in Exeter – most likely because of the Klan presence. But let’s not give them credit. The Klan, after all, is a hateful group no matter how much they try to claim otherwise.

People hadn’t thought much about the Ku Klux Klan in Exeter. True, the Ioka Theater had famously opened its doors in 1915 with a showing of “Birth of a Nation” – a film based on the book “The Clansmen” – with costumed Klansmen riding around town on horseback. During that decade, the Klan saw a resurgence in membership and Klan rallies were held on Hampton Beach. In the following years of economic depression and wartime deprivation, the Klan seemed to retreat from the minds of New Englanders, relegated to the shadowy world of the segregated South. The civil rights movement of the 1960s was a reminder that it had never really disappeared.

But the arrival in town of Tom Herman, a KKK recruiter originally from Maine, was a startling revelation to most Exeter residents. He’d been living in town for a number of years, working as a radio technician with the Rockingham County Sheriff’s office and occasionally working as a part time police officer in Newfields. In the summer of 1989, people began finding flyers on their cars from the KKK. The phone number linked to an answering machine which intoned, in Herman’s voice, “White patriots, wake up. The media wants you to think that we are evil. The truth is they are terrified of us because we dare to stand up for decency.” Yes, the recording used the word ‘decency’ shortly after this bit: “Whites are a civilization. Blacks have yet to develop their own civilization. The best thing that we can do for them is to return them to the land of their ancestors. That way our civilization can remain pure and continue to grow.” That makes sense, let’s all return to the land of our ancestors. I’m sure Lithuania would love to have me, although I’d miss my husband who would have to somehow split himself between Scotland, Denmark and England.

How do you sweep a hate group from your midst? How do you ensure the constitutional right to free speech when that speech is hateful? This was the problem facing town officials and the population. New Hampshire was still dithering about whether to join the rest of the nation in making Martin Luther King Jr Day a state holiday in 1990. In spite of its unofficial status, events were still held and, true to their mission, Klansmen in robes and pointy hats turned up outside an Exeter MLK event. This type of activity – even though it was peaceful on the part of the Klan – didn’t sit well. Local ministers published a letter decrying the Klan’s stance. The Exeter High School branch of Amnesty International did the same. A new group formed, called the Seacoast Coalition for Justice and Unity, and it joined together with the Baha’i community to organize the June Race Unity Day.

On hearing of the event, the Klan asked if they could set up a booth to hand out educational materials. To the surprise of no one, the organizers of the event denied the request. The Klan came anyway, although after some legal wrangling, they had to move to the sidewalk. The organizers of the event ignored them, but people outside on Front Street honked horns, shouted obscenities and flashed disrespectful hand gestures. Really, what would it take to get these clowns out of town?

August 28, 1990 See caption below.
What if the Klan staged a rally and no one showed up? That’s the final chapter in this story. Herman applied for a permit to hold his own a rally on Swasey Parkway in August, but the parkway trustees turned him down. He held a ‘walk’ anyway with his usual sidekicks. The downtown merchants decided to festoon the town with yellow – yellow ribbons, yellow balloons, yellow everything to signify unity. While Herman mounted the Swasey parkway stage shouting about his constitutional right to be there, town officials and the police annoyingly refused to violate any of his constitutional rights. There were only “four juveniles and media personnel” in attendance, so they decided there was no reason to worry about crowd control. The Klansmen left after 45 minutes of not antagonizing anyone. They moved to a spot in front of the town office on Front Street, where they managed to attract a few onlookers until Exeter businessman John Ulery, dressed in a clown costume, drew their attention away by yelling, “I have the best costume! I have the best costume!” Herman and the Klan quietly left town the following summer.

Exeter hasn’t always led the way in race relations. It’s still a town where racism expresses itself in both casual lazy conversation and even more alarmingly in occasional drive-by outbursts. We’re not a very diverse community. For this reason alone, we need to be reminded that racism exists and should not be tolerated.

Images: 08-28-1990: “Exeter Police Lt. Joseph Bernstien, left, Sgt. Russell Charleston, Board of Selectmen Chairman Paul Binette and Town Manager George Olson discuss Saturday’s appearance of five Ku Klux Klan members on the stage at Swasey Parkway (staff photos/Matt Palmer)

06-11-1991: “youngsters attending Sunday’s Race Unity day festivities pay little attention to the Klansmen marching in the background.” (staff photo/Timothy Donovan)

Saturday, September 12, 2015

President Ford’s Exeter Visit, 1975

by Barbara Rimkunas

This "Historically Speaking" column was published in the Exeter News-Letter on Friday, September 11, 2015

Somewhere in the United States there must be a place that isn’t concerned with politics. New Hampshire is not that place. This is where you move if you LOVE being part of the insanity that is American politics but you’re not willing to move to D.C. In 1974, the New Hampshire Senate race took center stage at a time when the political scene had left most Americans disillusioned and cynical. Richard Nixon had resigned the presidency in August leaving Gerald Ford – an appointed Vice-President – to finish the term. All manner of subterfuge and skullduggery had tarnished the presidential campaign and Ford sought to move on from the “long national nightmare” by pardoning the former president.

When November arrived, New Hampshire’s open Senate seat was contested by Republican Louis Wyman, a seasoned four-term congressman; Democrat John Durkin, a newcomer to political office, having served only as State Assistant Attorney General and insurance commissioner; and Carmen Chimento, a 3rd party candidate running for the American Independent Party. When the votes were tallied after Election Day, Wyman had won the election by a slim 355 votes. As was to be expected, Durkin requested a recount, which resulted in his winning the election by four votes. Governor Meldrin Thompson issued a provisional certificate of election for Durkin. Not wanting the election to slip away, Wyman then requested a second recount, which again gave him the election – this time by two votes. The Governor retracted his certificate of election for Durkin and, after the sitting Senator Cotton resigned the seat early on December 31st, appointed Wyman to the Senate to serve out the remaining week of his term. But once that week was over in early January of 1975, it became obvious that the election had never really been decided.

Who actually won the election in November 1974? Our optical scanning method of voting today would make the recount tiresome, but accurate. Back in 1974, many municipalities used mechanical lever voting machines that were confusing to use and difficult to re-tabulate. The whole mess was tossed to the U.S. Senate, but they also could not decide on a winner and declared the seat vacant. With the August vacation looming, it was suggested that the two candidates come up with their own solution. Wyman suggested a run-off election in September, and Durkin agreed. A brief second campaign began in anticipation of the September 16th ballot.

Into the fray came the new President. Wyman was thought to be the stronger candidate – he had more experience and New Hampshire generally voted Republican. In the first week of September, it was announced that Gerald Ford would be making a one day visit to the state to support Louis Wyman. Exeter was chosen as one of the stops where the president would speak. With only a week to prepare, Exeter got busy. The town hall flagpole was painted, bunting was hung throughout the downtown and town officials were occupied with the insistent demands of the secret service, because the day after the visit was announced Manson family member Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme pulled a gun on the president in Sacramento. Taking no chances, secret service agents visited every shop on Water Street. The shops could remain opened on the day of the President’s visit, but no upstairs windows could be opened. All personnel had to be cleared. Even the pewter tankard that would be given to the president as a gift had to be checked and x-rayed before the big event.

On Thursday, September 11th, the town was abuzz with excitement. Although we have a steady stream of presidential candidates visiting during election years, this was the first time a sitting president had made a visit since Harry Truman arrived in 1952. He arrived a bit before 7pm accompanied by the Governor and candidate Louis Wyman. The speech at the bandstand was brief, but well received by the townsfolk who attended. Regardless of political leaning, the crowd seemed pleased to be chosen for a presidential visit. Of the thousands who attended the speech, most remember the secret service more than the president’s speech. Most of the memories gleaned from a recent Facebook post were about the intense security:

“I remember his motorcade traveling past West Side Drive and Ford waving to all. The secret service guys were jogging alongside and ‘politely’ moving anyone who got too close.”

“I was standing along the road in front of what is now Serendipity. A SS agent grabbed a guy behind us because it looked like he was going for a gun in his back pocket. It was his huge ‘Goody’ comb.” 

“Just before Ford arrived downtown a bird flew through an upstairs window of the building on Water Street across from Town hall. My father was called in to replace the glass as the Secret Service would not allow any open windows on the street.”

“I was in Bob Shaw’s lawyer office watching through the big picture window, then went down to the street and tried to shake his hand as the motorcade drove off and got pushed down by a secret service man!”

The town, as a whole, was pleased with Ford’s visit, even if it didn’t help Louis Wyman. He lost the run-off election in Exeter by 90 votes, and statewide he lost by 27,000. Jay Childs remembered, “Ford got a better reaction than Wyman as I recall.” We don’t know what the president’s thoughts were on his New Hampshire visit. A week later he was again in California when Sara Jane Moore fired shots at him in San Francisco. If nothing else, at least no one in New Hampshire tried to kill him.

Images: Two young people hold a sign to welcome the President, and President Ford addresses the crowd from the Swasey Pavilion – or the Bandstand – on September 11, 1975.

Many thanks to the Facebook group “You Know You’re From Exeter, NH.” Those quoted include, David Butler, Michael Perry, Paul Titus and Jay Childs.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

When Did Playgrounds Become a Thing?

by Barbara Rimkunas

This "Historically Speaking" column was published in the Exeter News-Letter on Friday, August 28, 2015.

This summer’s improvement to the Main Street School playground prompts us to wonder how long playgrounds have been around. Children seem to have a playground RADAR system that can detect a swing set from a mile away. They can sense that these are places for them, and they are right about that. Playgrounds are designed and maintained for the use of children. Few communities would begrudge the youngsters this space even though in previous generations, playgrounds didn’t exist. 

The idea that children needed activity and imaginative play began to evolve in the middle of the nineteenth century with the teachings of Frederick Froebel. Froebel, who founded the kindergarten movement, theorized that children are not lumps of unformed, unschooled mini-adults waiting for better self-control and education. Rather, children learned through active engagement with the environment. A great deal of education, it seemed, was going on before the little ones ever set foot in a school room. Children absorb massive amounts of information about the environment, gravity, physics and symmetry by hanging upside down from a tree singing “The Muffin Man” for hours. Perhaps this kind of active play should be encouraged and finding safe spaces for it was a bit of a challenge in a world that was becoming more urbanized.

The first community in the United States to purchase land for a public playground was Brookline, Massachusetts, in 1872. Boston installed a sand garden in 1887 and the playground movement took off. Exeter joined the playground movement in the summer of 1917. The town set up a fundraising campaign to build a supervised playground at Tuck High School on Linden Street. The budget for the project was set at $150. Donations quickly rolled in and the playground was built by local businesses and volunteers. Robinson Female Seminary graduate Marion Louise Tyler was hired as the playground supervisor. Her report in October, rated the experiment a success. “They enjoyed the swings very much, and also the see-saws and slide.” She kept the children busy, “some of the games they liked to play were croquet, volley ball, and quoits. The boys liked field hockey. The youngest children had a fine time in the sand pile.” The only downside to the new playground was the lack of shade. “If a place could be arranged where the children could go in bathing, it would be a fine thing, especially during the hot days in the summer.”

In the years that followed, the town became preoccupied amid coal shortages, war news and influenza fears. Funding for public play didn’t reappear until 1922, when the physical education movement in schools began to grow. As Charles H. Smith noted in his letter to the Exeter News-Letter in that year, “A country having 30% of its male citizens rejected as unfit for military service in its defense during the World War evidently needs physical education.”

Smith made a plea to modernize. “I have heard but one objection thus far, and that particular objector feels that because the children of past generations got along without playgrounds the children of this day will do very well without such ‘newfangled ideas.’” Remember this is 1922 he’s talking about. “Twenty-five years ago there were only four automobiles in this country. Today there are 10,000,000. Who among us would exchange the comfortable automobile for the ancient stage coach; the modern electric lamp for the flickering candle; the electric locomotive for the old wood-burning engine; the electric car for the horse-drawn conveyance or the electric motion picture for the old magic lantern? We are living in a new environment of man’s own creating. It has been my contention that physical education should be a part of the school programme in a larger way than at present, and that the playground is a necessary complement of the public school.”

Apparently the Exeter Playground Committee agreed with Smith. Funds were raised and playground equipment – the old favorite slides, swings, see-saws and sandboxes – were installed in the Tuck High School play area: “for the younger children, a capacious sand-pit, where they can grub and dig to their hearts’ content; for the larger youngster, maple bedway slides, plain strong swings, see-saw boards with handles, a giant stride, traveling ring outfits, climbing poles and steel ladders.” The following year, playground equipment was installed in school yards and public parks.

Today, parents and children can still visit Exeter’s playgrounds. A quick circuit this week found children and parents busily playing at Winter Street (often called “Purple Dinosaur” playground), Park Street and Planet Playground at the Rec Park. Children were happily climbing, swinging and sliding on equipment similar to the type installed back in 1917. Although children back then would have been puzzled by playground toys shaped like spaceships or dinosaurs, they would have happily known this was their space.

Photo: Playgrounds were an outgrowth of the physical education movement of the early 20th century when there was widespread concern that children, such as this group of pals on River Street in Exeter, were becoming ‘soft’ due to the easy living of a modern life without any difficult chores.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Our new Exeter History Minute is Out of this World!

September 3, 2015 will mark the 50th anniversary of the infamous "incident at Exeter". In this Exeter History Minute, Barbara explores some of the facts - and the mystery - behind this strange occurrence. 



This History Minute is generously sponsored by Buxton Oil.

To find out more about Exeter's annual UFO Festival, check out their website. To learn more about Exeter history -- or to support the Exeter Historical Society -- visit our website. #ExeterHistoryMinute

Saturday, August 15, 2015

An Excursion Trip to See Prisoners of War

by Barbara Rimkunas

This "Historically Speaking" column was published in the Exeter News-Letter on Friday, August 14, 2015.

Courtesy of the Portsmouth Public Library.
“The opportunity to see the Spanish prisoners on Seavey’s island will not last much longer, and all those who have not done so, should be sure and make the trip.” Wait, what? This little notice published on August 19, 1898, in the Exeter Gazette immediately piques one’s curiosity. Why were there Spanish prisoners in Portsmouth harbor and why on earth would they be treated as a tourist attraction?

That summer, in 1898, the United States was fighting the Spanish American war – a three and a half month engagement that John Hay, serving as ambassador in London, would famously describe as, “a splendid little war.” Ostensibly fought to help Cuba gain independence from Spain, the United States had entered the fray after the battleship USS Maine had exploded in Havana harbor the previous February. The cause of the explosion has never been definitively proved, but the loss of 266 US sailors was enough to prompt President McKinley to press for a declaration of war.

The war began in late April and on July 3rd the Spanish navy was essentially destroyed during the battle of Santiago de Cuba. The defeat left nearly two thousand Spanish sailors captives of the United States and a decision was made to transport and imprison them on Seavey’s Island. Why so far? Most likely it was to remove them entirely from the field of action and to house them someplace with a healthier environment – away from the yellow fever and malaria of Cuba.

The big naval prison -- known as the ‘castle’ by most of us -- wasn’t built yet in 1898. In order to house the prisoners barracks had to be erected quickly on the island. Eight large sleeping quarters, six cook houses, three mess halls, two wash houses (one of which was reserved for officers) and one toilet facility were hammered together by an army of carpenters in two weeks.

The first of two cruisers, the St. Louis, arrived in Portsmouth harbor on July 10th with 746 prisoners on board. The Exeter News-Letter reported, “the prisoners on the lower decks of the ship, many of whom thrust their heads out of the ports to look in astonishment at the animated boatloads of ‘Americanos’ who swarmed around the St. Louis,” were, “pale and plainly wanting the stamina that good food gives men, these prisoners were a strange-looking lot of seamen to the eyes of New Englanders, accustomed to associate brawn and tan with men of the sea.” The accounts of the prisoners took on an almost anthropological tone, as if these strange foreigners were from another planet instead of Spain. “There were no smiles on the faces of the young officers, some of whom bore the unmistakable stamp of gentle blood. All were bearded, with pointed mustaches and small vandykes. All had the almost effeminate bearing of the gentler mold of men in the Latin races.” Oh, dear. Is it any wonder that they would attract curious visitors eager to quell the mid-summer slump as a looky loo?

Once on the island, there was no interaction between the locals and the prisoners except for a few reporters. The irony of sending the Spaniards to Maine, after the US became involved in the war because of a ship called the USS Maine was lost on no one. “One Spanish youth asked, by means of signs and some bad French, what country he was looking at. He was told it was New Hampshire. This conveyed nothing to his mind. He was then told that it was Maine, which was the fact. He smiled a comprehensive Latin smile. He had heard the word before.” The Spanish Admiral, Cervera, was on board the St. Louis, although he would continue on to be housed at the Naval Academy at Annapolis until August. His stately demeanor impressed all those who saw him. “He leaned on the rail about amidships,” commented the News-Letter, “The old man’s gaze rested on the water for a moment, and then extended to the Maine shore. He stroked his grizzled gray beard as he leaned on the rail and looked toward the shores of the state that to his nation bears a fateful name.”

“Miss Mary L. Leavitt and Miss Fannie Mitchell visited Seavey’s island, at Portsmouth Wednesday, having passes to go there, and saw the Spanish prisoners,” reported the Exeter Gazette in early August, “Portsmouth businessmen are congratulating themselves that they are getting a good part of the cash. Portsmouth is lucky with its big ‘side show’ this season.” A souvenir photo book was produced documenting the arrival of these strange foreigners. “The Kittery, Portsmouth and York electric railway is making money hand over fist over the presence of the Spanish prisoners at Kittery, its earnings having gone up to nearly $1000 per day. The cars and boats of our lines which pass there are not allowed to come to a standstill near, but they do run mighty slow as they go along there, and give the passengers all the show there is to get a glimpse at the prisoners.”

The war, which was very far away, swept into the public imagination. “Exeter has in its midst a man fully entitled to rank as one of the ‘Rough Riders.’ He is Fred H. Gray, who runs the steam road roller. He is not a dude, though undoubtedly one of the high rollers,” chirped the Gazette. In fact, there were only three men who served in the war from Exeter: Albert Dow, George Smith and Joseph Grouard, who, the Exeter News-Letter couldn’t resist mentioning, “has taken very prominent part in operations against Santiago, in daring work closely vying with Roosevelt’s ‘Rough Riders.’”

Two Exeter businessmen, Rufus Elwell and John Fellows, managed to make a visit to the St. Louis and after Admiral Cervera made a small purchase from a Portsmouth merchant, quickly bought the Spanish coins he used as payment. Described by the News-Letter as “valuable souvenirs of the war with Spain in the shape of 25 peseta gold pieces from the personal funds of Admiral Cervera himself” they were eager to show them off to anyone who might ask.

The prisoners remained at Seavey’s island until September 12, when they returned to Spain on the Steamer City of Rome. In total, 1562 prisoners served time in Portsmouth harbor, 31 died of injuries or illness contracted while in Cuba. These men were buried on the island, but were repatriated with great honor in April of 1916. Their departure coincided with the end of the summer tourist season, and voyeurs turned out to watch the big steamer depart. “As she passed down the harbor on her way to the sea, the spectators on small craft and on shore renewed their cheer, and the steam vessels blew their whistles for several minutes.” It was the end of a seeming small war, one that brought the United States into the international theater. What they couldn’t be aware of yet was that this ‘splendid little war’ would lure the nation into a quagmire in the Philippines that would last years.

Image: Courtesy of the Portsmouth Public Library. Prisoners from the Spanish American war were held at Seavey’s Island in Portsmouth harbor from July to September 1898. Seen here washing dishes, the prisoners became a tourist attraction to local visitors.

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Where will the Workers Live?

by Barbara Rimkunas

This "Historically Speaking" column was published in the Exeter News-Letter on Friday, July 31, 2015.

What defines a neighborhood? Sometimes we know our neighbors well. We may have children who go to school together or we may work near one another. There may be only a passing familiarity – the tall man with the little dog, the basketball boys dribbling on their way to the playground each afternoon, the woman who always backs her car into the driveway. We get to know each other for a variety of reasons. When asked, my daughter once defined her neighborhood as “all the houses you can trick or treat” on Halloween. In modern times, neighborhoods, although still defined by income levels, have less to do with local industry than they once did. People of an earlier age tended to live close to their employment. In tracing the history of a neighborhood it’s best to look at the growth of the town from an economic viewpoint.

Most New England towns began as farming communities with small central commercial areas. Exeter is no exception to this rule – the businesses and tradesmen clustered near the river. Goods could be shipped in and out of town easily. Merchants lived near their businesses in the center of town and everyone else lived farther out. This all changed with the arrival of the Industrial Revolution in the early nineteenth century. Towns such as Exeter and Newmarket, which both had early cotton mills, found that housing was needed for the workforce.

In some New England towns, a boarding house system was created. Lowell and Lawrence, Massachusetts, hired teenage farm girls to work in their mills, counting on them to have a solid work ethic, honed on years of chores. The operative’s lives were carefully controlled to ensure that their morals weren’t being compromised. Hours were long, freedom was limited. In smaller communities, such as Exeter and Newmarket, the system didn’t work well. There were no formal boarding houses with strict rules. The towns were simply too small to support that level of company owned and controlled housing. Young women who arrived in town to work boarded with local families and many soon left factory work to marry or return home. The Exeter Manufacturing Company soon turned to a different source of labor – immigrant families.

People arrived in New Hampshire from Ireland and Quebec in the 1850s. The mill wasn’t terribly interested in the type of housing people found as long as they could arrive at work on time. To keep the workers on schedule, the mill kept a bell schedule that reminded people when to get up and when to arrive at work. Like the bell system many of us lived by in school, there was a warning bell and a final bell. In 1854, the first bell of the day rang out at 4:30 in summer and 5:00 in winter. A second bell rang an hour later and a third bell ten minutes before work commenced for the day. Obviously, workers had to live close enough to the mill to hear the bell and the schedule seems to have given them ten minutes to get to work.

“In adopting the above Time Table, punctuality will be expected and required of all persons employed by the Company” read the notice. This time table was, “arranged to make the working time throughout the year average 11 hours per day,” it further informed. Workers were allowed a 45 minute lunch break. Most went home. This system remained essentially the same for decades. Workers walked to work and lived near the mill or factory. In this way, distinct employment-based neighborhoods could be seen in town. In Exeter, cotton workers lived by the river in tenement buildings on Pleasant, Franklin and South Streets. A few families lived on Jady Hill, High Street or the Prospect and Highland Street areas. But aside from very few out-layers, by 1911 when the shoe factories had popped up by the railroad, most textile workers lived in downtown river neighborhoods.

Up by the tracks, near Gale Brothers and Bates shoe factories, there were more factory neighborhoods. The 1911 town directory lists more people working at Gale Brothers than at any other place of employment. 326 people listed Gale Brothers as their employer that year. Exeter Manufacturing Company – the cotton mill – had 147 operatives identified in the directory. Bates Shoe had a mere 37 workers, but like the Gale Brothers employees, they lived in the west end of town.

The shoe workers boarded locally for the first few years of employment, but quickly began to purchase their own homes in the newly created industrial part of town. In 1890, Frank Swallow and Henry Dunn laid out Cottage, Washington, McKinley and Hobart streets. Carroll, Sanborn, Myrtle and Charter streets developed with tidy workers’ homes shortly thereafter. The Granite Monthly commented, in 1894, “Within a stone’s throw of the station cluster all the industries of the town – the pottery, the shoe shop, the machine ships, the rubber step factory – they are all here, and from them the town is moving westward.”

These little working class neighborhoods have a charm all their own. The relationships were tight; ethnic groups melded together as Irish, German, Polish and French families intermarried. It’s enough to make us ponder what holds our neighborhoods together today? We certainly don’t have to work within 10 walking minutes of our jobs. Newer neighborhoods still have a shiny exciting pioneer feel to them that binds the residents together. They get the thrill of watching the trees grow and the lawns fill in. Older neighborhoods have their own charm and moving into one feels more like gaining an inheritance. Uncovering the lives of the former residents tells a long story.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Watch our new Exeter History Minute -- Thank you, Mr. Swasey!

If you live in or near Exeter, you’ve heard the name Swasey. There’s Swasey Parkway, Swasey Pavilion – better known as “The Bandstand” – and Swasey Park Pavilion. In this episode of the Exeter History Minute -- click here to watch -- Barbara explains the story behind all the Swasey swag. This history minute is generously sponsored by Service Credit Union.

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

Saturday, July 11, 2015

The Freedom Train

by Barbara Rimkunas

This "Historically Speaking" column was published in the Exeter News-Letter on Friday, July 3, 2015.

Many of us remember the Freedom Train that toured the nation in 1975 as part of the Nation’s bicentennial celebrations. Filled with popular culture memorabilia, it was a bit like a condensed version of the Smithsonian Institute. When we stumbled out of the final car 20 minutes after entering the train - and three hours after waiting in line - there was a sense that no matter how battered the nation was from the Vietnam War and Watergate, we were still AWESOME.

What most of us didn’t know was that this was the second incarnation of the Freedom Train. Touring the nation from 1947 – 1949, the first Freedom Train was conceived in post-World War II America as a way to encourage civic engagement. At first glance, this would seem hardly necessary, after all, we’d just pulled together to fight for freedom and democracy – and won. The post-war world in America was one of great economic growth – higher taxes – but economic growth nonetheless. The United States wasn’t just another country anymore, and most Americans weren’t quite sure what our role would be in a world now split into two Cold War camps. Had we lost sight of our origins during the topsy-turvy political turmoil of the Great Depression and world war?

In early 1946, Justice Department employee William Coblenz visited the National Archives in Washington, D.C. during his lunch breaks. There he saw American’s founding documents alongside Nazi war propaganda in a special exhibit. He wondered whether the average American citizen realized the importance of our freedoms when compared to what he called “the fantastic splurge of lunatic fringe literature” that was currently coming out of Soviet communism. He proposed a moving exhibit of the Bill of Rights with comparisons to some of the materials that were currently slipping in to the United States from Soviet block countries.

The American Heritage Foundation was created to spearhead the project, functioning as a non-partisan organization focused on civic education. Rather than comparing America’s founding documents to the propaganda and twisted ‘rights’ of fascist or communist regimes, the train would be a traveling exposition of our nation’s progress towards liberty and freedom. In a move that would horrify archivists today, the original copies of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution – including the Bill of Rights – would travel across the country on a 413-day tour ultimately visiting 322 cities. The exhibit also included 131 other documents including the Mayflower Compact, Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, the United Nations Charter and the Iwo Jima flag. Pulled by a powerful ALCO PA diesel engine emblazoned with “The Spirit of 1776” on its side, the train had six cars – three of which housed the collections. Like the Freedom Train of 1975, it took only a short time to view the exhibits – usually about half an hour.

The Freedom Train set off from Philadelphia in September of 1947, reaching New Hampshire within a month. Having already made stops in Nashua and Manchester, the kids from Exeter visited the train when it stopped on October 23rd in Dover. At a time when field trips out of town were uncommon, students from Exeter were bussed to make the visit. “Three hundred tickets will be sold to high school, Seminary and School Street School pupils to see the Freedom Train next Thursday afternoon in Dover. The pupils will go through the train from 2 to 2.30 and will go to Dover by bus leaving at 1.15,” the Exeter News-Letter reported. “The teachers are pleased that their pupils will be able to see the original documents and, therefore, understand these issues more readily.” Fifth and sixth grade classes from School Street School also made the pilgrimage to Dover, although they had less to say about it: “We all enjoyed our visit to the Freedom Train in Dover last Thursday very much,” noted the student reporters, Ann Sanborn, Richard Balervicz, Martha Pennell and Janet Harriman.

St. Michael’s parochial school on Main Street also sent students to see the Freedom Train. Young Robert Klemarzyk, aged 10, had to write a report about the visit for his teacher. “There were thousands of children who came with there teachers and sisters. There were two bands that furnished music, the Dover School Band was dressed in green and white, and the Rochester band wore marroon and White uniforms. It was a wonderful sight and I shall always rember the Freedom Train.” He included a list of as many of the documents as he could remember, his teacher penciling in, “A letter from Columbus describing the new land discovered,” at the very end.

The Freedom Train left New England in November travelling to southern states for the winter. In the segregated south it encountered some difficulties. The American Heritage Foundation insisted that viewing the documents had to be an integrated event and it didn’t miss anyone’s attention that black and white Americans were not receiving the same rights so heavily touted in the founding documents. A few cities slipped through and segregated viewing times or at least the lines to enter. Birmingham, Alabama had their visit cancelled after refusing to agree to the Foundation’s terms.

After seeing the documents, participants were encouraged to purchase all manner of souvenirs and memorabilia. They were also asked to take the “Freedom Pledge” and sign the “Freedom Scroll,” which included “I will pay my taxes understandingly (if not cheerfully),” “I will support our system of free public education by doing everything I can to improve the schools in my own community” and “I will work for peace but will dutifully accept my responsibilities in time of war and will respect the Flag.”

It was an uncertain new world we were entering in 1947. The Freedom Train was there to encourage civic involvement. “Freedom is EVERYBODY’S Job” the train intoned, “Ask yourself, ‘Am I truly a citizen – or just a fortunate tenant of this great nation?’” The final stop was in Washington, D.C. in January of 1949 – just in time for Harry Truman’s Inauguration.

Images: The 1947-49 Freedom Train (from a postcard); Badge souvenir from a visit to the Freedom Train – 1947

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Exeter's First Bicycle Race

by Barbara Rimkunas

This "Historically Speaking" column was published in the Exeter News-Letter on Friday, June 19, 2015.

The end of June has, in recent years, brought the Exeter Classic criterium to town. We begin to feel the presence of competitive bicyclists in the weeks just preceding the race, with teams frequently visiting the town to acquaint themselves with the course. On race day, bales of hay appear around the base of utility poles and road signs to protect the riders in case they take a tumble (or maybe they’re protecting the poles – some of those bicyclists move pretty fast). The downtown streets are closed in the late afternoon and for several hours we’re caught up in the enthusiasm of hyper-fit speeding cyclists streaking through our usually tranquil town.

June is such a pleasant time of year – especially for watching a bike race – that it might be surprising to learn that the first bike race in town was held on February 20th, 1869. Remember February? It was that snowstorm that lingered for 28 days. Back in 1869, the snow was not a factor because the race was held inside the Exeter Town Hall and the bicycles were called ‘velocipedes.’

These early contraptions were not for the faint-of-heart. The pedals were on the front wheel, the braking system was adapted from a wagon brake and the wheels were wooden with iron rims. Incompatible with a rider wearing skirts, the velocipede was a man’s toy. It’s interesting that the first mention of a velocipede in the Exeter News-Letter was just a month before the first race. In January, the News-Letter noted, “velocipedes are disturbing the equilibrium of ‘walkists’ and Manchester is ‘going in’ for the new method of locomotion. John Smith of this town should build one. He can do it if he tries.” The following week it was announced that velocipedes were being made at the Exeter Machine Works.

Early velocipedes were banged together by blacksmiths and carriage makers. Exeter had both of these specialties in town. John Smith, named in the earlier notice, was listed as a ‘machinist’ in the directory and would have been readily able to build a velocipede. Another early adopter was J. Albert Clark who, with William Burlingame, founded the Exeter Machine Works. Clark lived, at the time, next door to the Shute family and many years later Henry Shute – who’d been a Dennis the Menace type neighbor – wrote about ‘Old J.Albert’s’ attempts to master the velocipede. “Plupy and Old J. Albert” was written as though Shute was perpetually eight years old – spelling errors included. “so every day after old J. Albert had did his wirk at the office he has went down to take a lesson and I have went down to wach him and Charly Laribee and Wiliam Burlingaim and Charly Gerrish and doctor Prey and others. It was grate fun. Old J. Albert was the wirst. I never saw a feller fall so meny times and so meny different ways or get so meny splinters into him as old J. Albert did, or tare his britches so bad.”

Mastering the machine took time and a great deal of help. The popular book “The Velocipede: its History and Practical Hints How to Use It” published in 1869 and authored by “an Experienced Velocipedist,” explained, “The assistant pushes the velocipede with the rider upon it down the incline, retaining the velocipede in his hand and steadies the machine so as to preserve the equilibrium.” This matches Shute’s memory that early velocipedes required the help of ‘pushers’ to get them going. “sometimes the feller whitch was learning old J. Albert to ride gave him a auful hard push and sometimes he got sum other feller to help him and then when old J. Albert went down he sometimes tirned 2 summersets hanging onto the velossipede and never let go.”

Watching the daring men attempting to master the device became something of a spectator sport. The News-Letter announced, “Go and see the velocipedes at the Town hall. There will be some ‘lofty tumbling’ if an opportunity is offered for all the carriage makers and stable keepers to take a ride” on February 12. The following week, John Smith announced a riding school to be followed by a race with a silver cup for the prize. “The consequence of this school has been the giving of numerous orders to Mr. Wm Burlingame for these wheelbarrow-like, donkeyish, hermaphroditical, centaurical carriages.”

The grand race, held on a Saturday night in the Town Hall, was a, “strong quarter of a mile, to accomplish which the circuit of the hall was made nine times.” The News-Letter reported that the competitors consisted, “mainly of Academy Students, the dental profession having two representatives.” The dentists were Drs. Gerrish and Pray, both of Exeter. Dr. Gerrish, who ultimately placed third, remained a devoted cyclist for the rest of his life. J. Albert Clark didn’t place at all. Perhaps he was, as Shute said, “the wirst.”

Although the velocipede was a new and exciting vehicle, it had its share of critics. William Cutts, sounding very much like a modern hipster, derided the new contraption telling the News-Letter, “he rode a velocipede in this town forty-six years ago. It was of the kind that was propelled by pushing with the feet on the ground. He rode it down Towle’s Hill many times, but several ugly tumbles taught him to confine his excursions to level ground.”

Photo: Dentist Charles Gerrish, here seen leading the Fourth of July parade in Exeter in the 1890s was an early adopter of that new-fangled invention – the velocipede. He is, in this photo, riding a bicycle.