Saturday, January 31, 2015

Mary Taylor Gilman Gordon – Noted Teacher to the Deaf

by Barbara Rimkunas

This "Historically Speaking" column was published in the Exeter News-Letter on Friday, January 30, 2015.

Mary Taylor Gilman Gordon was not born in Exeter, but she was born to Exeter parents and moved to Exeter at a young age. Her career as teacher of the deaf at the institution that would become Gallaudet University would span 40 years. The daughter of Stephen Gordon and his second wife, Elizabeth Gilman, Mary was born in Berwick, Maine, on September 23rd, 1832. By the time her sister Ellen was born in 1837, the family had moved back to New Hampshire. Her father, Stephen, is listed in the 1839 Portsmouth directory as a ‘professor of music’. His death in 1842, left Elizabeth with two small daughters aged 9 and 4. She moved back to her hometown of Exeter and scraped by, somehow providing her daughters with a solid education in music. Both girls would eventually become music teachers. Mary is listed as ‘teacher of instrumental music’ in the catalog of the Exeter Female Academy in 1854. She travelled to Washington, D.C. in 1860, to teach at the fledgling Columbia Institution for the Deaf, Dumb and Blind, leaving Ellen and her mother behind in Exeter.

What drew her there is a mystery, but the school did have some thin ties to New Hampshire. On the board of directors of the school was Chester, NH, native, Benjamin French – the half-brother of Exeter’s favorite judge, Henry Flagg French. Perhaps Judge French recommended Mary for the position. We do know that she was a frequent guest at Benjamin French’s home in the capital, where he worked in various government positions including congressional clerk and commissioner of public buildings.

Mary began her work at the school teaching blind children music and literature. Not only did she excel teaching blind students, she picked up manual sign language. The 1900 Annual Report of the Columbia Institution for the Deaf and Dumb reported, “She performed these duties successfully for five years, when our blind department was discontinued. Miss Gordon then became a teacher of the deaf and taught classes under the manual method with marked success for thirteen years until 1878.”

Mary had entered the field at a time when education for the deaf fractured into all-out civil war. There were two very reasonable philosophies battling it out for the best of all possible outcomes. On one side were the manualist teachers – led by Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet in the United States. These educators had discovered that the most effective way to teach the deaf was through the use of sign language, which by 1860, had grown into its own language. Early American educators viewed sign language as artistic, beautiful and natural. Its use, it was believed, brought the deaf closer to God and allowed them to also learn written English. Deaf children picked up sign very quickly and were able to communicate easily and fluently with their teachers and one another.

But it was felt that sign language limited the deaf in a hearing world. Hearing parents found signing difficult to learn and gradually saw their deaf children linguistically drifting away. What was needed, they believed, was to teach the deaf to communicate in the hearing world. This philosophy, championed by Alexander Graham Bell and others, believed deaf children should be taught to lip-read, speak and function in spoken English to avoid the isolation that was perceived in signing-only education. The two camps had intractable differences, with each believing the other should be banned from the education of the deaf.

The Columbia Institution for the Deaf and Dumb, which by this time had evolved into both grammar school and college level, supported the manual education system until yielding to the pressure of both parents and the international consensus in the 1870s. Oral educational methods entered both Columbia Institution and Gallaudet College in the later years of that decade. Mary Gordon altered her teaching in 1878. “She then pursued a course of training in the oral method,” continues the Annual Report, “and for twenty-two years has been a successful teacher of speech.”

Gordon became so proficient in teaching speech articulation that, in 1891, she moved into the teacher training (or Normal School) program to instruct new teachers. Whether she worried over the development, which is sometimes referred to as the ‘dark time of oral instruction,’ we do not know. At the time of the controversy no one thought to ask the Deaf community which system they preferred, and when it came to a head in the 20th century, the Deaf overwhelmingly preferred to sign – their own language. Mary, of course, was fluent in both.

After her mother’s death in 1882, Mary brought her younger sister Ellen – herself a music teacher – to work at the school. She served as matron, managing the student’s boarding life, for 18 years. Both women retired in 1900, Mary ultimately having taught at the school for 40 years. It was teaching that drove her. “I never put the key in the lock of my school room door without a sensation of pleasure,” she once said. Mary visited Exeter often during her tenure in Washington. In one photo, she is seen happily with four friends – all of them seeming to be giggling over an inside joke just as neighbor Albert Buzell took the picture. A long-time member of Phillips Church, at the time of her death in 1911, she was remembered in Exeter as an extraordinary woman. She died in Washington, D.C., but was laid to rest in the Exeter Cemetery with her mother.

Photo: In this photo, taken in the early 1890s in Exeter by Albert Buzell, Mary Taylor Gilman Gordon (seated third from left with tilted head) and her friends, Ellen Wentworth, Sarah Chandler Perry, Eliza Bell (standing) and an unknown woman, seem amused with some unknown joke. Gordon was visiting Exeter during a brief vacation from her job teaching deaf students in Washington, D.C.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

The Pine Tree Shilling Hoard

by Barbara Rimkunas

This "Historically Speaking" column was published in the Exeter News-Letter on Friday, January 16, 2015.

Recently, a time capsule was discovered in the cornerstone of the Massachusetts Statehouse. The contents, placed there by notables including Paul Revere and Samuel Adams, dated back to 1795 when the building was constructed. According to the Boston Globe, the box contained, “five tightly folded newspapers, a medal depicting George Washington, a silver plaque, two dozen coins, including one dating to 1655, and the seal of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.” The coin, struck with the date ‘1652’ was called a ‘Pine Tree Shilling’ and was one of the earliest coins minted in America.

Pine tree shillings were used at a time when colonists were not legally allowed to mint their own coins. Money was in short supply but the local economy was booming. Massachusetts Bay Colony decided that if England wasn’t inclined to send adequate coin their way they’d simply make their own. So what if it was technically illegal? England was going through a rough patch in the 1650s. King Charles I had been beheaded in 1649 and for the next eleven years the nation was ruled as a republic, and the chaos of that period left the colonies somewhat on their own. A coin was designed without the face of a monarch, but with one of the most valuable resources of the Massachusetts Bay Colony – a pine tree. They could have gone with the other valuable asset – a cod fish – but anyone willing to sail to the Grand Banks could catch fish. Pine trees, and lumber in general, grew in the colonies in such abundance that the largely deforested Britain lusted after them, reserving the tallest and straightest for the navy. Putting the pine tree on their illegal coinage was basically showing off.

The coins were used – all with the date 1652 – for the next thirty years. It was a time period that coincided with the time when Exeter was part of Massachusetts. We rarely talk about these dark days when New Hampshire and Massachusetts overlapped. It was an uncomfortable period for all involved. Massachusetts ignored English laws at roughly the same rate New Hampshire ignored Massachusetts laws. But in one area they agreed – the pine tree shilling was the favored currency.

It’s no wonder that rumors of the coin in Exeter tend to surface. We even have a business building on Court Street called “Pine Tree Shilling.” Older residents may remember it as the Marshall Transportation bus depot, in 1986 it was spruced up and given its new name. Was a hoard of pine tree shillings found on Court Street? The Massachusetts Statehouse time capsule has reignited the mystery.

For once, an old Exeter story turns out to be true. There was a coin hoard of pine tree shillings found in Exeter, although not on Court Street. An entry in the July, 1877 edition of the American Journal of Numismatics noted, “sixteen pine-tree shillings bearing the date 1652 were found in Exeter, N.H. October last. They were discovered when unloading sand, and were as bright as they were when coined. They were evidently in a box that had decayed. The sand was then sifted, and fourteen more were afterwards found.”

The Exeter News-Letter gave further details on the great find. “Some men in digging a cellar at the grocery store of C.H. Emerson, on Middle Street, were the first to make the discovery. The earth, as it was excavated had to undergo several cartings and the money must have been pretty well scattered when the first piece was found, as others were found in several places more or less distant. The remains of what might have been a box were found in a very decayed, dilapidated condition, giving color to the supposition that the money had not been buried in a loose condition. The pieces, some thirty in all, are for the most part bright, and bear the same date, 1652.”

So, where was the spot? Middle Street no longer exists in Exeter. At one time, the stretch of Main Street from Cass Street to Epping Road was called ‘Middle Street.’ The grocery store owned by Charles Emerson is today the Exeter Flower Shop, which, according Kevin Blair the current owner, still has a partial dirt basement. “Maybe I should go dig around down there,” he observed when the coin hoard was mentioned. Probably not, though. The News-Letter in 1876 when the coins were found commented, “that pile of earth was pretty well dug over when the news of its richness had gone forth, and one of the men who had carried away two loads of it to spread on his garden probably gave it a thorough stirring up, which will help to enrich his crops if not his pockets.”

Pine tree shillings are very valuable on the market today – some in good condition are worth many thousands of dollars. Alas, none of Exeter’s pine tree shillings remained in town. The News-Letter noted, ruining all our dreams, that “the coins found a ready market from twenty-five cents to $2.50.” They are long gone, along with our troubled memories of when Exeter was part of Massachusetts. 

Caption: The Massachusetts Bay Colony coined pine tree shillings from roughly 1652 – 1680 all with the same date. They were used throughout Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Maine.