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.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Memorial Day Speech – Exeter, NH – 2015

We think we live our lives alone.

On April 5, 1945, a soldier was killed in battle in the Ruhr Valley in Germany. An American soldier. Many others were killed that day, from many countries.

This American soldier 2nd Lieutenant Albert Sumner Wetherell III – called Sumner by everyone back home - was from Exeter, New Hampshire. He was one of 19 men from Exeter to die during World War II. We know nothing of the circumstances of his death – whether it was a bullet or an explosion or whether he was crushed under a tank. The War Department only reveals “killed in action” perhaps to temper the blow.

His father, also named Albert Sumner Wetherell, living on Front Street, was not a newcomer to tragedy. He’d lost his wife to childbirth in 1925, and a year later the child, just a year old, died of scarlet fever. All this had happened when young Sumner was just a boy. Sumner and his sisters, Jane and Elizabeth had felt the losses deeply. Maybe this was why he didn’t rush to enlist as soon Pearl Harbor was attacked in December of 1941.

He didn’t come from a military family. His grandfather, the first Albert Sumner Wetherell, had been too young to serve during the Civil War and his father too old for World War I. Sumner’s grandfather became a druggist, back in the days when compounding medicines required no formal schooling. Born in Maine, he’d studied the trade at a drugstore in Gloucester, Massachusetts. Within three years, he moved to Exeter and set up shop on Water Street. In 1896 he completely renovated his stogy-looking old drug store proudly placing the tools of his trade – a mortar and pestle – on the rooftop. It’s still there, although a toy store now lives in the old building. The mortar and pestle looks small from the ground, but it’s actually four feet tall – the height of a third grader. Next time you look up at it, think about that – the tools of one’s livelihood the size of a third grader. The size of a Brownie or Cub Scout.

He may have wanted his son, Albert Sumner Wetherell Jr. to become a pharmacist – he certainly prepared him well. Albert Junior went to Governor Dummer Academy and Phillips Exeter. He would have been well prepped for the new scientific work of the pharmacist, based less on folk remedy and trial and error and more on chemistry. But it was not to be, the most educated of the Albert Sumner Wetherells was lured away by the sputtering, noisy, exciting promise of the new century – the automobile. After his father’s death, Albert Junior opened a garage and car dealership on Franklin Street – if not the first than among the first such establishments in town. His son, Sumner the reluctant soldier, would also be pulled away from the books and into the world of machines.

The wrench and the torque rod fit into Sumner’s hands like they’d grown there. He didn’t need a high school diploma to fix cars. Each completed job brought a crescendo of sound as a machine, well-greased, leaped into action transporting its owners on journeys both short and long. It was very satisfying work.

He joined the fire department becoming a full member of the hook and ladder company in 1940. In 1941, the department recorded 119 calls. Sumner Wetherell and the hook and ladder weren’t called for all of them, but they were ready when needed and most likely Sumner was handy when repairs were needed on the truck.

He was also elected as assistant scoutmaster to Boy Scout Troop 193 and within a year was acting scoutmaster – leading boys into the outdoors teaching them the skills required for camping and survival. His troop was given a blue ribbon for camping proficiency at the Stratham Camporee in the fall of 1940 and assisted in the successful search for a missing scout that weekend.

By the middle of 1942 it became harder to avoid the war. Men from the town were leaving – either drafted or enlisted. In July, Sumner Wetherell joined them. He was 25 – a few years older than most recruits, but with only 3 years of high school and no diploma, he enlisted as a private, listing his civilian occupation as “semi-skilled driver, bus, taxi, truck, tractor.” This was probably a check off box on the form.

Basic training was a Camp Wheeler in Georgia. In July – a tough climate for a northern boy. It was at Camp Wheeler that his leadership skills, honed with the fire service and scouting, were recognized. As soon as basic was completed, he was shipped off to Camp Hood in Texas for Officers Candidate School, graduating as a 2nd lieutenant.

That winter, he was given brief leave and returned to Exeter for what would be the last time. A photo taken during this visit is in the collections of the Exeter Historical Society. He stands next to his smiling sister Elizabeth, who is herself in uniform of the WAVES. In spite of the smile, it is a stiff photo – a young man about to face battle – uncertain of what the future holds.

Not unlike the statue behind me.

Our statue was sculpted in 1922 after the first ‘war to end all wars’ by Daniel Chester French. Like Sumner Wetherell, French was an Exeter native. He dedicated two of his statues in 1922 – this one and the seated Abraham Lincoln in Washington, D.C. in the Lincoln Memorial.

French had been a boy during the Civil War. He had seen the toll war takes on families and towns and he made a very conscious decision to sculpt this soldier without his uniform hat. He didn’t want to romanticize war by making the figure too eager. Instead there is a feeling of hesitancy – not fear exactly – but grave uncertainty. You see it here, you also see it in the face of Sumner Wetherell in the photo taken just before he shipped out.

Then he left. “Don’t worry Dad, Betty, Jane. I’ll be back.”

Albert Wetherell, his father the auto dealer, waited. 1945 came and the war was almost over. April – almost over and the Allies were making the final push into Nazi Germany. Every day brought more news of territory gained. Hearts were hopeful. They would be coming home soon. The waiting would be over.

On a Saturday night, April 21st, Albert received news that his son, Sumner, was missing in action – purgatory for a parent.

He spent two more days hoping against hope that his son would be found – that some miracle had happened and maybe the platoon he was leading would come upon him, injured but alive in the chaos.

But they didn’t. On Monday, word arrived from the War Department: 2nd Lt. Albert Sumner Wetherell III, killed in action, age 28. He would never marry. Never father a son who might be the next Albert Sumner Wetherell. Never meet the nieces and nephews who would come along. His name was inscribed on the family gravestone in the Exeter Cemetery (you will pass right by it if you follow the parade to the end – look on the right towards the back of the cemetery).

His name is below that of his mother and infant brother. The family’s grief was shared by the town, as shared the grief of the other 18 families who lost their sons. A shared loss. Grief not weathered alone.

Far, far away in the American War Cemetery in Margraten, Netherlands, Sumner Wetherell was laid to rest, along with over 10,000 other Americans who died in the war. There is a gloominess that can come over us when we think about our townsman buried in a distant land. Who remembers Albert Sumner Wetherell? We lost his mechanical skills, his leadership of men and boys, his understanding of the burden of his generation. We are the ‘Mother Town’ in the statue, asking so much and losing much more. We can pledge ourselves every year to not forget the men and women who die in war, but it’s hard when we have to leave them so far away.

There is another mother statue similar to ours that stands watch over the fallen soldiers at the Margraten Cemetery. Separated by thousands of miles their sisterhood binds them together. And Albert Sumner Wetherell is not forgotten. In March of this year, the historical society received an email from John Essers of Margarten. In English, which was hard for him, he wrote,“Many years ago I have adopted the grave of a soldier named Albert Sumner Wetherell. Six times in a year I bring flowers to his grave and so do I remember him and for what he has done for us in World War II. Every time, when I stand on his grave, I think also what for man he has been and if he has still family in the U.S.A.”

“What for man he has been”

He was a leader, Mr. Essers. He was our leader. He does still have family in the U.S.A. – family here today.

As part of a larger project called “The Faces of Margraten” Mr. Essers requested information and a photo of the man who’s grave he tends with such loving care. We sent him the photo of Sumner and his sister – that last photo taken in his hometown. In the beginning of May it was displayed along with thousands of others in the cemetery. “In this way,” the organization explains, “Dutch citizens will give a face to their U.S. liberators as a unique tribute to their sacrifices.”

We think we live our lives alone.

But we don’t. We can’t. We share.

We live in shared space and we share our history with other places and other people. Let’s recommit ourselves to grasp for peace, to no longer have a reason to build memorials to young lives lost, and whether we’re old enough to remember war, or young enough to be the same size as a rooftop mortar and pestle – we hold the memories of those already lost dear.

Barbara Rimkunas Curator, Exeter Historical Society Memorial Day, Exeter, 2015

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Exeter History Minute - Exeter goes to the Beach

If you live -- or have ever lived -- in New England, you know that it gets hot and humid here in the summer. In the 21st century, most of us suffer through the discomfort by moving from one air-conditioned space to another, but how did Exeter residents handle high temperatures 100 years ago? In this episode of the Exeter History Minute -- click here to watch -- Barbara examines the hot weather coping strategies of our predecessors. Spoiler alert: There are bathing suits, but it's not quite the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit edition.

This history minute is generously sponsored by Phillips Exeter Academy. To learn more about Exeter history -- or to support the Exeter Historical Society -- visit our website.

Saturday, June 6, 2015

Police Regulations in Exeter in Former Days

by Barbara Rimkunas

This "Historically Speaking" column was published in the Exeter News-Letter on Friday, June 5, 2015.

“Move along, move along. Nothing to see here.” This time honored command of local law enforcement echoes the directive your mother probably also offered up – “mind your own business.”

If anything is clear from the Police Regulations of the Town of Exeter of 1875, it is that streets are for traffic, sidewalks are for business and loafers are the enemy. Only two of the 15 regulations seem to be direct safety ordinances: awnings in front of shops needed to be a minimum of seven feet high (just in case the 6’ 4” Abraham Lincoln returned, no doubt), and smoking a cigar or pipe near a livery stable was forbidden, lest it start a fire. Everything else seems to involve bad behavior.

“No boxes, barrels, or any other article (seats for loafers), will be allowed to remain on any sidewalk on the Sabbath, within the limits of the village of Exeter.” Loafers were a problem. Our old Webster’s Dictionary at the Historical Society defines a loafer as, “a lazy lounger: hence one who has the bad habits typical of street loafers,” but doesn’t helpfully define what those bad habits might be. The police regulations seem to indicate that the problems included, “shouting, screaming and whistling, or making any other noise or disturbance in the street or on the commons, particularly in the evening or night time.” Whistling was also a particular problem during meetings at the Town Hall – “No person shall be allowed at any meeting at the Town Hall to whistle or make any other disturbance that is an annoyance to the audience, speakers, or performers.”

It appears that loafers might also get bored enough to get up a ball game, which, of course, was forbidden in the streets. “No person shall be allowed to play at ball, pitch quoits (a kind of ring-toss game), or make any disturbances whatever in any of the streets, lanes or alleys of this town.” It was also forbidden to idly slide along the streets for fun in icy weather, either by foot or on a sled. Laughing at someone who has just inadvertently taken a tumble, however, is not mentioned, unless you’re being disorderly about it.

If you didn’t have specific business in town, you weren’t welcome. “It shall be deemed rude and disorderly conduct and a violation of the Police Laws for three or more persons to be collected after sunset about any of the lamp posts in front of the Post Office, Town Hall, depots or corners of any of the streets in town, door or passageway and there remain after notice by a police officer to disperse.” Apparently two people standing under a lamp post was okay, three was just asking for trouble. You never know, they might start pitching quoits. Four people might break into harmony and start a barbershop quartet, and nobody wants that to happen.

But maybe we’re being a bit too flippant about this. It wasn’t just corners and lamp posts that were problematic, curbs and doorsteps were dangerous places as well. “Nor shall anyone be suffered to sit upon the steps or curbstones by the sidewalks; nor shall any one be suffered to push, or insult, or abuse, by words or otherwise, any person passing on the sidewalks or in the streets of this town.” Really? Were people so rude back then that they had to be told not to be jerks? Good thing we can FaceBook shame the miscreants today. It was also not okay to block the sidewalk. “If two or more persons shall stand on the sidewalks in a situation to interfere with those who wish to pass thereon, or shall pass on the sidewalks in such a manner as unnecessarily to come in contact with persons with whom they meet, they and each shall be punished.” Actually, this one seems acceptable, although it might be even more helpful to add not blocking doorways while having unnecessary conversations. I’m glad you’re back from the Cape, now get out of the way, I need to get into the Post Office. And as a side note, don’t touch me, I’m from New England.

Indecent exposure could also get one into trouble, particularly near the river. “No person shall, within the view of any dwelling house, or of any public road, street, or wharf, in the day time without necessity, bathe or swim, or expose his person indecently in dressing or undressing for the purpose of swimming, or bathing, or otherwise.” This was clearly aimed at boys, and perhaps a few men, who wanted to skinny dip on hot days. Keep it under cover guys, nobody wants to see that. River swimming was a male pastime, most likely because they could slip out of their clothes much quicker than the girls, who had multiple layers of skirts, petticoats, pantaloons and corsets to shed.

“Saloons, Restaurants, Billiard Halls, and Bar Rooms are Requested to close the Same at Eleven O’Clock Each Evening, and when Closed on Saturday Evenings, not to open them again till Monday Morning.” Business was business, but there was no call for late-night lingering. It might lead to more loafing or quoits or nude swimming. Never mentioned in the regulations were any prohibition on public drunkenness, which in an age when most Americans drank nearly two gallons of spirits a year, must have been a problem.

More important, apparently, was not driving on the sidewalk with any, “wheel carriage, sled or wheelbarrow,” certainly no alcohol involved there. Try to behave everyone. We all have to live together.

Photo: Some suspicious-looking people loitering on Water Street c. 1890. Under the 1875 police regulations, such behavior might be considered a criminal offense.