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.