Monday, February 29, 2016

Leap Day and Leap Year

by Barbara Rimkunas

This "Historically Speaking" column was published by the Exeter News-Letter on Friday, February 26, 2016.

At Exeter’s Leap Year party in 1892, held at the Town Hall, “the brilliantly lighted hall was beautiful with elaborate decorations of flags, streamers and palms. At 8 o’clock Edney’s orchestra of Haverhill, 12 pieces, began a delightful concert of six numbers. Dancing immediately began, and continued until one, when an order of 20 numbers had been completed. In the intermission ices and light refreshments were served by caterer Hervey. The attendance was very large.” The Exeter News-Letter touted it as, “emphatically the social event of the year.” Leap Year parties were held again in 1896 and 1904, although scaled-down considerably.

February 29th – Leap Day – is terribly underrated. Calendars usually tick along in a logical way and then suddenly every four years we throw an extra day into the mix to keep us on the correct orbital date. Salaried workers who clock in on the 29th are working an extra day for free – a bit of enjoyable revenge for all the hourly employees out there who get cheated working the night shift when daylight saving time changes to standard time. But then, Leap Years are always crazy anyway, falling as they do during presidential elections and the Olympic Games. Leap Day itself is rarely celebrated, although by all rights it should be. If you search for Leap Day events on the internet a whole host of crafty art projects – usually involving frogs – turn up. Leap Day is unusually popular with public libraries and nature organizations. One can also find various elementary schools holding special celebrations, although New Hampshire’s quirky winter break schedule often makes Leap Day a vacation day.

Exeter’s most famous Leap Day occurred in 1860, when Abraham Lincoln stepped off the train at the depot on Front Street for a six day visit to New Hampshire. Lincoln’s son, Robert, was attending Phillips Exeter Academy to prepare for his Harvard entrance exams. Abraham Lincoln, who was not considered a potential candidate for the presidential election, came east to make a speech in New York. His speech at the Cooper Union Institute on February 27th, in which he addressed the problem of slavery and its potential spread to the western territories, was widely reprinted. Arriving in Exeter on the 29th, Lincoln met up with Robert and travelled throughout the state to Concord, Manchester and Dover before addressing Exeter’s citizens on March 3rd at the Town Hall. He stretched his time with Robert until March 5th, after which he continued to make speeches throughout New England. This eastern trip introduced him to the voting public propelling him to the nomination at the Republican convention in May. And he first placed his big foot on Exeter soil on Leap Day. For that reason alone we deserve a party.

And yet, Leap Day goes by each year without fanfare. A 2012 episode of Tina Fey’s TV sitcom, “30 Rock” created a world in which Leap Day was celebrated with the arrival of ‘Leap Day William’ a jovial character who tosses candy to children and penalizes anyone not wearing the official Leap Day colors of yellow and blue. Of course, no such fun actually exists in our world. The only Leap Day tradition to be found is a somewhat suspect practice of women proposing marriage to men – if he refuses, he must pay a penalty. Possibly an old Irish custom, in the United States it sounds a bit like Sadie Hawkins Day, which is celebrated on November 15th.

A Leap Day birthday can be both distinctive and troublesome. Statistically, the chances of being born on February 29th are about one in 1,461 (give or take the missing three leap days every 400 years). Checking Exeter’s birth records since 1887, when they were first recorded in the annual town report, there have only been 24 babies born on Leap Day. 1956, the height of the baby boom, holds the record with five births, although it was much more common for the date to have no births at all. Since 1960, there have been only four Leap babies; Cordelia Cayten is one of them. Now an adult living out-of-state, she had this to say about her birthday, “I remember that there was a news article written about me and a few other seacoast area leap year babies back when we were born, and one of the mothers said something like ‘I never believed in leap year babies but now that I have one I guess I do!’ And I thought, how on earth can you ‘not believe in’ people being born on a day that exists on our calendar?” Still, her birthday does give her immediate acceptance into the Honor Society of Leap Day Babies. Members refer to their age with a leap designation, such as “4 at 16” or “6 at 24” to indicate the number of leap and chronological birthdays. Problems such as when to celebrate one’s birthday on a non-leap year are discussed on their website. Most choose to go with February 28th. Called ‘strict Februarists’ they hold that leap births can only be in February. Can you get a free meal on your birthday in a non-leap year?

It only happens every four years, so make the most of February 29th. At Exeter’s 1896 party, held at Unity Hall on Elm Street, the News-Letter reported, “the hall was very prettily trimmed with yellow and white bunting.” Perhaps at least part of the 30 Rock color scheme can be considered ‘traditional.’ We all need a bit more yellow in our lives at this time of the year. Maybe try doing something a bit out of the ordinary on Leap Day. It’s no ordinary day, after all, even Cordelia admits to that. “All said though, I'd rather have my birthday be this weird unappreciated day than some lame normal day.”

Image: The famous Matthew Brady photo of Lincoln taken on the day he delivered his Cooper Union speech. This is what he looked like when he arrived two days later on Leap Day in Exeter.

Saturday, February 20, 2016

Announcing the 10th Annual Nancy Carnegie Merrill History Award Contest

Nancy Carnegie Merrill
This year, the historical society is holding our annual essay contest and piloting a video contest, based on our popular and educational Exeter History Minutes. The topic for this year’s contest is “technology in Exeter's history” and students should choose a topic that relates to technological innovations that have been introduced in the Exeter area. Examine one form of technology that Exeter has experienced and answer the following questions: what was this form of technology; how did it change the lives of Exeter residents; was the change welcomed, or were they unsure of it? Students should not attempt to write the essay or create the video without receiving the requirements from their school’s faculty members or the staff of the Exeter Historical Society. (These can also be found at and

The deadline for both essay and video submission is Saturday, March 26, by noon. (The deadline for essay submission has been extended by a week.)

A panel of judges will choose the entries from each division (Middle School and High School) that best meet the criteria of outstanding achievement in format, historical accuracy, originality and style. The winners of the essay contest will each receive a $100 prize and the winning papers will be read by the authors at our annual Youth Night awards ceremony on Thursday, April 21 at 7pm. The prize for the video contest is to have the video entries posted and promoted through the historical society's social media channels; the winning videos also will be shown at the Youth Night awards ceremony. (Please note that there is no monetary prize for the video contest.) While the essay contest is limited to one entrant per essay, the video may have multiple entrants per video submission.

It is our hope that the Nancy Carnegie Merrill Award will foster an appreciation for our community and an interest in its past. The essay and video contests and Youth Night are generously sponsored by Service Credit Union.

For additional information, please contact Laura Martin, Program Manager. Materials can be downloaded here: 2016 Nancy Carnegie Merrill History Award Flyer and Materials (essay) and 2016 Nancy Carnegie Merrill History Award Flyer and Materials (video). The rubric that the judges will be using to evaluate the essay entries can be found here.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Give Yourself the Night Off, while Helping the Exeter Historical Society

Join us at Margaritas Mexican Restaurant, 93 Portsmouth Avenue, Exeter, NH, all day on Tuesday, February 16. Margaritas will host a Noche Mexicana Fundraiser and donate 20% of pre-taxed food and beverage sales from participating families, friends and supporters to the Exeter Historical Society. Guests can choose items from any of their menus, takeout orders included.

We encourage everyone -- young and not-so-young -- to join us as we raise funds to support the historical society. We'd appreciate you sharing this invitation with friends, family and community members.

Please make sure to let the host or server know that you are there to support the fundraiser, so 20% of your pre-tax food and beverage purchases will be donated to the Exeter Historical Society. Call Ahead Seating (603) 772-2274.

If you have questions about this event, please contact the historical society at or at 603-778-2335.