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.