Saturday, April 25, 2015

Exeter Canning Company

by Barbara Rimkunas

This "Historically Speaking" column was published in the Exeter News-Letter on Friday, April 24, 2015.

Photo courtesy of Peter A. Smith
At the opening of the twentieth century, marketing of canned goods took off. Much of the credit for this goes to improvements in the safety of canned foods. In 1915, Exeter became the home to this industry with the creation of the Exeter Canning Company – a wholesale food packing factory located on a triangle of land behind Salem Street. Today, if you check Google Earth, there is no trace of this company, not even the outline of its buildings.

Preserving food to last between growing seasons has always been a challenge. Salting, smoking, pickling and preserving were the only options people had until the early 1800s when rudimentary canning was developed to help ship food to Napoleon’s army. Heavy metal cans with crudely soldered lids were packed tight with meats. If the can didn’t swell (a sure sign of decomposition) then the food was deemed safe to eat. These early canned goods had the added benefit of lead soldering, so if the food wasn’t outright rotten, the seal provided a low level of lead poisoning. Needless to say, outside of the military canned foods didn’t catch on. Home canning in lidded glass jars flourished to some degree, but spoilage continued to be a problem.

Beef hastily supplied for use during the Spanish American War of 1898 was so poorly packed that it came to be known as ‘embalmed beef’ by the army. With illnesses on the rise, the scandal of adulterated canned goods dominated the news and lead to the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act in 1906. Combined with the growing awareness of the germ theory, food preservation took a great leap forward as sanitary factory conditions began to be seen as marketable.

James H. Ingersoll, according to the Exeter News-Letter, a “pioneer in the canned goods industry,” arrived in town in 1915, eager to build a sanitary canning factory. Perhaps to bolster the new business, the Exeter News-Letter ran a short article extolling the virtues of the tin can. “The tin can is the emblem of civilization. Its absence defines the savage; its use sets apart from barbarians the modern, forehanded, sanitary man. It is civilization’s defense against the leanness of lean years and against the attacks of carnivorous germs. It has been improved in the last 10 years; the top and bottom are no longer soldered on, they are crimped on, so that no corrosion can result from acid contents. Cans are now sealed in a vacuum, so that no bacterial change can be set up within. And machinery for making cans and the machinery for filling and sealing them have been perfected until the process in each case is now a continuous process, and the process wholly mechanical, in which the workmen share with their hands only to pull levers and adjust apparatus.” So clean, so sanitary.

Exeter had a number of advantages for the new business, including close proximity to the Boston & Maine railroad and access to local farmers. At this time, the town and surrounding area was still quite rural, although Ingersoll may have underestimated the output of local farmers. Rather than producing large volumes of one crop, most local farmers mixed their agricultural output. In this manner, if one crop failed there were others to fill in the loss. The largest local crop was hay – easy to grow, but not much good for canning. Still, Ingersoll was optimistic. He shipped wholesale in big number 10 cans to markets in Boston, Providence, Springfield and other New England cities.

Ingersoll focused on only a few products: corn, string beans, apples and baked beans. Of these, all could be obtained locally. He offered premiums to local farmers, including seed corn for the next season. Farmers were generally pleased to have such a ready market for their goods. Ingersoll’s advertisement in November of 1915 pledged, “we shall take no apples or string beans of anyone except from those who plant corn for us, giving our patrons the chance to dispose of their other canning products before taking from others who do not plant corn.” It was a pretty good deal for the farmers. Ingersoll awarded prizes to his best producers. W. Leslie Dining of Stratham won $25.00 in 1917 for the best acre.

The factory ran at full volume in the summer and fall when produce was abundant – sometimes almost too abundant – and winter and spring were busy packing baked beans. The seasonal nature of the business sometimes made it difficult to find workers. In October of 1918, when men were away fighting in World War I and influenza was felling many workers, Ingersoll desperately advertised, “WANTED: 30 to 50 Women – good wages! Steady work!” Priscilla Williams Johnson, a student in the Normal School division of the Robinson Female Seminary, went to work at the factory during the flu outbreak when the schools were closes. She later remembered to Nancy Merrill that the pay was good. She didn’t, however, stay with factory work. Johnson went on to become a long-time teacher in Exeter.

Ingersoll’s factory flourished for seventeen years. In 1927, it was abruptly announced that a sheriff’s auction would be held to disperse the holdings of the company in March. James Ingersoll died in November at the age of 76, so he didn’t linger into retirement. His obituary was complimentary, “president of J.H. Ingersoll & Company, Exeter, which until reverses did a business of considerable proportions.” Considerable indeed, his business met the needs of the time and helped advance the sanitary standards we all take a bit for granted today.

Photo: Canned goods became popular in the early part of the 20th century – as evidenced in this photo c. 1903 in an Exeter grocery store. (Photo courtesy of Peter A. Smith.)

Sunday, April 12, 2015

The Death of President Abraham Lincoln – Exeter Reacts

by Barbara Rimkunas

This "Historically Speaking" column was published in the Exeter News-Letter on Friday, April 10, 2015.

No United States president had been murdered before. Two presidents had died in office, William Henry Harrison and Zachary Taylor, but in each case there had first come word of illness and people knew that even minor illness could result in death. Abraham Lincoln’s assassination was startling because of its suddenness. Even the long years of war with weekly announcements of battlefield deaths did little to prepare people for the violent actions of John Wilkes Booth.

Probably the first Exeter citizen to hear the news was Gilman Marston. Marston was a well-respected lawyer in Exeter at the outbreak of the war. Dabbling in politics, he’d served two terms as a congressman when the war broke out. Quickly signing on with the New Hampshire 2nd regiment, he’d risen to the rank of brigadier general. Wounded frequently, in 1865 he returned to politics and had just taken the congressional oath for a third time. At age 53, he was back in Washington preparing to ease out of the army and take up government work again. His diaries, which reside in the archives of the Exeter Historical Society, are notable not only for their brevity but for his nearly indecipherable handwriting. On the fateful evening of April 14th, Marston writes: “About 10:30 pm while standing in front of the National, a young man passing by (said) the president was shot in theatre. Called up R and went to the house where the President had been carried – there heard of the assault on Seward – went to his house – returned to the President.”

How long he lingered outside the Petersen house is unknown, but at some point he returned to his rooms at the National Hotel. He learned of the President’s death the next morning, jotting in his diary, “Heard at breakfast that the President died at 7:22 this morning. Vice President Johnson took a oath prescribed for a President.”

Word reached Exeter quickly. Hannah Brown, a 62 year old seamstress living on River Street, was shattered when she heard the news. Her diary entry reflects the suddenness of the news. “This day sad and awful news came over the wires to us that last evening an assassin by the name of Booth went in to the theatre at Washington and shot our President Abraham Lincoln. What a shock it gave us all what horrible thing it is to think of!”

By the time the weekly Exeter News-Letter was published on Monday, April 17th, there was no one in town who hadn’t heard the news. The paper is a mish-mash of jubilant news of the surrender of Richmond followed by Lincoln’s triumphant visit to the rebel city and the deep sorrow at his subsequent death. The account also reminds us that Booth was not a lone assassin and the plot had included planned attacks on the Vice President, who was unharmed, and Secretary of State William Seward, who would barely survive a vicious knife attack by Lewis Powell. “Had the President only been murdered,” wrote the News-Letter, “we might have supposed it the work of some insane or intoxicated wrench, but the murderous assault on Mr. Seward, and the preparations of escape, tell us that deed is the result of a conspiracy against the chief men of the country.”

Harold Blake, a 13 year old from Kensington, was working as a Western Union messenger boy in Washington, DC when the President was killed. Fifty years later, his memory of the night appears confused. He writes that he and his father were to attend Ford’s Theatre that evening, but late streetcars made them miss the beginning of the show and they attended a performance of “Moll Pitcher” at Grover’s Theatre instead. He remembered nothing of the turmoil of that night, believing that the play he saw must have ended before the assassination occurred. But he wasn’t at Grover’s on April 14th. Tad Lincoln was there, watching a performance of “Aladdin! or His Wonderful Lamp” when news reached the audience that the President had been shot. Blake must have confused the night and the play with another time. He did, however, recall how he and his father heard of the President’s death. “It was not until next morning when Orderly Eaton and I, riding to the city, saw bunting being removed from private and public buildings, and being replaced with crepe and the flags half-masted. The appalling story of the tragedy of the night before was being told in voices subdued and broken. Few dry eyes were there that day.”

Far away in Paris, 22 year old Edward Tuck had just been appointed as a consular pupil at the U.S. Consulate. His days were spent buried in clerical work, but he kept abreast of the news of the war as best he could. Several years earlier, an attempt to lay a trans-Atlantic telegraph cable had failed, so in April of 1865 it still took 11 days for news to arrive from the States. He would write to his father, on April 28th, “The horrible news first reached Paris on Tuesday afternoon. It was brought to the Consulate from the Bourse (the Paris stock exchange), but I disbelieved it as the Bourse dispatches have nearly always proved false. In the evening private dispatches from England confirmed it. The agitation was immense. Americans wrung their hands and even cried, in some cases, like children.” The Tuck family was well acquainted with the Lincolns, so his grief must have been acute. His words to his father reflect the nation’s attempt to make sense of a senseless act. “The death of no man in the world could have produced so melancholy an effect. His martyrdom casts the last and greatest dishonor on the southern cause…In the great grief which every American feels, as for a near relative, it is comforting to think his death has purchased for himself a place by the side of Washington, and for his country and his country’s cause a sympathy that only result in good.”

Photo: Gilman Marston, Brigadier General and congressman, was most likely the first Exeter citizen to hear of the death of President Lincoln. Upon hearing the news he rushed to the scene before the President’s condition was announced to be fatal. Confirmation came the next morning.