by Barbara Rimkunas
This "Historically Speaking" column was published by the Exeter News-Letter on Friday, March 25, 2016.
Henry Ford was not from New England. Born and raised in Michigan by parents of immigrant stock, he early rejected his father’s hopes that he would take over the family farm. Drawn to the intoxicating world of machines and technology, Ford made his fortune manufacturing automobiles. His groundbreaking use of the moving assembly line allowed cars to be manufactured for the mass market. But even though he was credited with the creation of the modern industrial lifestyle, in his later years he was overcome with sentimentality for the pastoral life he had earlier renounced. He began collecting Americana in an effort to recreate a typical pre-industrial village as a kind of study center. His creation, Greenfield Village, became part of the larger Henry Ford Museum. Dedicated on October 21, 1929 – a week before the big stock market crash that marks the beginning of the Great Depression – the museum was dedicated to the work of Thomas Edison. A bit like Walt Disney’s fabricated “Main Street U.S.A.” Greenfield Village creates a dreamscape of American life on the cusp of modernity. The heroes of Ford’s imagined village are the sturdy independent thinkers – the farmers who accepted innovation, the craftsmen who perfected their ironwork and pottery and glassmaking. Unlike Disney, Ford wanted authenticity and sent agents throughout the country, mainly New England, to purchase examples for his village. Ford was quoted in a promotional article published in the Exeter News-Letter, “The farther one can look back, the farther he can look ahead.”
“An antique village, built around an old New England town common, will contain houses and shops of various periods since colonial days,” continued the article. “Handicraft trades will be perpetuated in them.” What better example of an ‘antique village’ could there be than Exeter, New Hampshire? Ford’s agents arrived as early as 1927 to rummage around for possible exhibits. The Lamson Pottery, which could trace its origins in Exeter back to 1771, sold much of its equipment to the museum. The Exeter Machine Works provided an old steam engine and the Exeter Gas Works sold them an old coal gas machine to demonstrate how the gas for old fashioned gaslights was manufactured.
The largest purchase Ford made in Exeter was locally called the old Batchelder house. Standing at the top of a hill on outer Water Street at the corner of Salem Street, the house didn’t look like much to most Exeter residents. Even the Exeter News-Letter editor John Templeton seemed a bit perplexed, noting: “The Batchelder house on Secretary Hill has been purchased by Henry Ford. It will be carefully taken down and the material shipped to Dearborn, Mich., for rebuilding in the Ford museum village. Exeter has much older houses and others of greater interest, but in this one there is much fine woodwork.” What most Exeter residents missed was that this particular house had more historic value than they assumed. Just the fact that it was located on ‘Secretary Hill’ should have been a clue about its importance. That particular hill is named for Joseph Pearson who served as New Hampshire’s Secretary of State from 1786 – 1804. The house came to him upon his marriage to Dorothy Giddings in 1795. Dorothy’s father, John Giddings built the house sometime in the 1750s and ran a small mercantile business from his wharf below on the Squamscott River. His account book, which reveals transactions primarily through barter, is in the collections of the Exeter Historical Society. Most of his goods were shipped through the West Indies, indirectly bringing textiles from Great Britain and, good lord, an amazing amount of sugar and rum. Had the teetotaling Henry Ford known how much rum came through the warehouse of John Giddings, he may have thought twice about the building as an example of stoic New England.
Nevertheless, in August of 1929 the entire house was carefully disassembled, numbered and shipped to Dearborn. There it was reassembled, although it wasn’t quite finished at the time of the museum’s big dedication in October. Various Exeter citizens have travelled out to the Ford Museum to visit the house and have reported back that it’s in good shape. You’ll find it in Greenfield Village’s “Parlors and Porches” district.
The empty place on Secretary Hill didn’t stay empty very long. Another nostalgic industrialist, Ambrose Swasey, was intent on creating a pastoral New England village. But Swasey was actually from Exeter and he was tired of the old dump on the west side of the Squamscott River. In 1929 he donated the funds to create the Exeter Shore Parkway, later renamed Swasey Parkway in his honor. To make room for this treasure, numerous buildings had to be torn down or moved. The elegant Furnald House was relocated to the top of Secretary Hill on the site of the old Giddings house. Today it looks like it has stood there forever.
Photo: The John Giddings house being carefully disassembled in August of 1929. The building was reassembled in Henry Ford’s Greenfield Village Museum in Dearborn, Michigan.