Tuesday, May 24, 2016

The Steam Gristmill

by Barbara Rimkunas

This "Historically Speaking" column was published by the Exeter News-Letter on Friday, May 20, 2016.

 At one time, Exeter could boast ten gristmills. This type of mill, which produced flour, was so vitally important to the English who settled here that it was the first mill erected at the falls in the center of town. Historian Charles Bell explains, “The first mill in the town was for grinding grain, and was built by Thomas Wilson at the foot of the main falls on the easterly side of the island now reached by String bridge, near where a similar mill stands to this day (1888 – when Bell was writing his History of Exeter, New Hampshire). The mill site and the island, on which Wilson also erected his house, were granted to him by the town, probably in the very first season of their occupation, and before any formal records that we know of were kept.”

A gristmill was important to Englishmen. Their basic diet was bread, ale, cabbage, peas and a bit of meat. The native population made cornmeal cakes, grinding the corn into meal using a mortar and pestle. But the new settlers found this method to be cumbersome. Olive Tardiff, in her book Exeter Squamscott: River of Many Uses, explains the rush to build a gristmill: “Grinding by hand was much too time-consuming for the hewers of logs and builders of homes. A gristmill could free busy hands for more important work.”

Wilson, and later his heirs, functioned as the town’s only gristmill until 1670, when enterprising John Gilman decided to get in on the action and set up his mill on the opposite side of the falls. The townsmen must have felt that Gilman’s mill was superior to the old Wilson mill because they voted to, “give all the right the town have in the stream and island to Captain John Gilman, where the said Gilman’s corn-mill now stands, with privilege for a bridge to go on to the island; and the abovesaid John Gilman doth oblige himself to grind the inhabitants’ corn when wanted, for two quarts in every bushel.” Millers worked for shares. Cornmeal and flour were very marketable, so this was a good deal for Gilman. Travelers through Exeter, including George Washington, mention 10 gristmills along the Exeter River before 1800.

Most likely, the early Exeter gristmills were primarily grinding corn, although it can be difficult to tell from the records. Englishmen used the word ‘corn’ to mean any type of grain, but maize or Indian corn was locally the most successful crop. Within a few years of settlement, they would branch out to grow rye, wheat and barley. Barley was needed for the production of ale and beer. Rye flour was used with cornmeal to create the most common bread, usually called ‘rye ‘n’ injun,’ which was eaten all across New England. If we traveled back in time to the 18th century we’d discover the bread to be darker, heavier and chewier than any we’re used to today. On the whole, it was quite healthy.

The Phineas Merrill map of 1802 – our earliest accurate map of the town – shows four gristmills clustered around the falls in the center of town. Their location at the falls indicates that all are using water power. Even the gristmill mentioned by Charles Bell in 1888 is on the river. But sometime before Bell wrote his history, Exeter had its first steam powered gristmill.

First appearing on the 1874 map on Arbor Street, the steam gristmill doesn’t list an owner. Placed by the B&M depot, the business was well-placed for modern transportation of both raw material and finished product. But somehow, it didn’t prosper. In 1889, the Exeter News-Letter remarked that, “the project is discussed of organizing a company with almost $1200 of capital for the purchase and operation of a long disused steam grist mill. Well managed, the business would pay good return.” Within three months they could announce, “The entire plant was purchased by Francis Hilliard Esq. of Kensington. He has associated himself with Mr. C.S. Button, senior member of Button Brothers who will run the mill.” The Button Brothers bakery was a thriving business on Union Street. It was no wonder one of the brothers would be interested in milling flour. Improvements were made and the mill reported a year later that, “business is steadily increasing, a new roller mill now being introduced will greatly cheapen the cost of production and enable the firm to do wholesale business to better advantage.” Christian Button would remain the mill manager until it was sold to William Jenkins in 1897.

Primarily a wholesale dealer, Jenkins expanded to become a dealer in hay, grain, straw and feed. A business directory from 1907 declared that, “it requires 150 carloads of grain annually to meet the requirements of their trade. Special features are made of White Witch and White Lily flours. These brands have come to be recognized in this vicinity as the leaders in the flour trade.” White Lily flour is still popular today in the southern parts of the United States, although it cannot be found (or is difficult to find) in New England. W.M. Jenkins closed up for good in 1924. The buildings were later used by the Rockingham Farmers Exchange and later the Merrimack Farmers Exchange, which existed as a farmer’s collective until an embezzlement scandal in 1982 closed it down. The Merrimack Farmers Exchange was later purchased by Blue Seal. By that time, it was no longer functioning as a gristmill. Exeter’s founding mechanical industry was no longer needed.

Images: C.S. Button’s steam gristmill – taken from the 1896 Birdseye Map of Exeter (an illustration) and Jenkin’s steam gristmill – from a 1907 Business Guide to Exeter (a photo, admittedly quite fuzzy and dotty). It should be noted that these are the same gristmill on Arbor Street. Only the owners changed.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Our May 2016 Exeter History Minute

In the early 1900s, most nurses were educated at hospital-based schools and Exeter’s nurses were no exception. From 1906 to 1935, Exeter Hospital ran a successful training school for nurses – not only were the young women prepared for a career in nursing, but they were housed and paid during their training. In this episode of the Exeter History Minute -- click here to watch -- Barbara delves into the history of this local program that launched early 20th century women into careers while providing nursing staff for hospitals nation-wide. This history minute is generously sponsored by Exeter Hospital, www.corephysicians.org.

We have dedicated this Exeter History Minute to Pauline Fifield Kenick, a 1933 graduate of the Exeter Hospital Training School for Nurses. In 2006, Mrs. Kenick provided the majority of the photos for the history wall at Exeter Hospital, and donated her uniform – and other items – to the Exeter Historical Society. She died May 2, 2016, at the age of 106. 

In 2005, the NH Commission on the Status of Women conceived of the Women’s Heritage Trail to give visible recognition to the significant participation and contributions of women in the life and culture of the state since its founding. The Exeter Hospital Training School is featured on the trail. Visit their website to learn more: www.NHWomensHeritageTrail.org.

To help us continue to produce Exeter History Minutes, go to http://bit.ly/DonateEHS to make a gift of any size. To learn more about Exeter history, visit our website, www.exeterhistory.org. #ExeterHistoryMinute


Saturday, May 7, 2016

The Sidewalks

by Barbara Rimkunas

This "Historically Speaking" column was published by the Exeter News-Letter on Friday, May 6, 2016.

Of course, people used to walk a great deal more than we do today. Walking was how one got around town and did the marketing. But the walking wasn’t always that great. “The mud is ankle deep,” lamented B. Judkins Perkins in March of 1860, politely not mentioning that the roadway was a mix of mud and manure. Perkins lived a mile outside the center of town, he wouldn’t expect there to be any kind of sidewalk out in the sticks. Exeter’s business district was slightly better for foot traffic. Providing a safe and clean walkway for customers was considered necessary for the merchants of the town.

The first sidewalks were probably constructed of wood. Individual shop keepers constructed boardwalks to prevent people from tracking in too much crud from the street and, as they were raised higher than street level, to serve as a barrier for road traffic. You might think that a horse would know enough not to crash into a shop window, but you’d be wrong. Horses and oxen often went out of control. Wagons had only the most rudimentary brakes and sleighs had none. Keeping road traffic away from pedestrians and buildings was very important.

The downside of wood, of course, was that it needed to be repaired and replaced often. In some parts of town this wasn’t much of a problem – Court Street retained its plank walkways through the end of the nineteenth century. Planking was also used as seasonal walkways at the Robinson Female Seminary and Phillips Exeter Academy. If you’ve ever tried to shovel snow from a gravel driveway you’ll understand why it was easier to clear a planked sidewalk.

Sometime in the early nineteenth century the boardwalks in the downtown of Exeter began to disappear. Walkways were set apart from the street by the installation of curbstones. This was enough to stop an errant wagon. Granite hitching posts were added to create a psychological barrier most animals needed to keep them off the sidewalk. The path itself was then filled with ‘cinders,’ the crunchy residue left after burning coal. Once stomped down by enough pedestrians, it made a hard surface. Holes and divots could easily be filled with more cinders.

The next sidewalk idea was concrete. As the current sidewalks are excavated there has been some surprise as layers of old concrete are found. There is some written evidence that downtown businesses were installing concrete sidewalks as early as the 1860s. Concrete is not a new technology, although it has been greatly improved since the Romans used in in 70 AD to build the Colosseum. Nineteenth century concrete was prone to cracking and buckling as our wild temperature variations shift the ground beneath the sidewalks. By the late 1860s, our sidewalks were a mess of old concrete, cracked brick, packed cinder and old planking. In 1870, the local businesses and churches decided to pool their resources and have the whole job done by one firm – W.K. Stratton and Company. Each business paid a fee of 65 cents per yard. The town paid for sidewalks in front of public property – total cost for the project (both public and private) came to $1475.96. The whole thing was viewed favorably. Not only did the walking improve, but it spruced up the town. “We notice with pleasure the laying of a fine curbstone on Front Street from the Methodist Church to Water Street in front of the Town hall. The sidewalk is being widened in places and narrowed in other, thus giving it a desirable uniformity,” crowed the Exeter News-Letter.

These sidewalks lasted nearly twenty years before they inevitably cracked and were patched piecemeal with cement or brick. The next wave of sidewalk improvement happened in the 1920s. By this time, the rise of the automobile made the public far more aware of the need for smooth surfaces. The town approved the installation of granolithic concrete sidewalks – similar to old concrete, but with more stone imbedded for durability. Nancy Merrill tells us, in her History of Exeter, NH 1888-1988, that in 1925, “the Chamber of Commerce convinced the merchants along Water Street to purchase sidewalk flags. Sockets were drilled in the sidewalk along Water Street by the flag company. The new granolithic sidewalk on the northern side of water Street between the Merrill Block and the Janvrin Block was finished in mid- August. The chamber suggested ‘one more band concert’ to celebrate and to have all the new flags flying. It was a beautiful day for the celebration, and the square was thronged with those who enjoyed the ‘spectacle of great beauty;’ the band concert from 8:00pm to 9:00pm was followed by dancing in the square from 9:00pm until 10:00pm.” Exeter is possibly the only town that ever threw a party for new sidewalks.

Of course, those beautiful sidewalks also cracked, but they took longer to crack than earlier ones. Post World War II austerity patched the walks with asphalt – a quick fix, if imperfect. Our new sidewalks won’t last forever, but newer mixes of concrete and the inclusion of expansion joints should prolong their lifespan considerably. In the meantime, the improvements are pure joy to the walker. It’s practically a party just to navigate the downtown without tripping over loose pavement. Perhaps we should throw a second great sidewalk party and call it an Exeter tradition.

Image: The piecemeal condition of Exeter’s sidewalks before the installation of granolithic concrete in 1925 is evident in this photo of Haley’s Meat Market on Water Street.