Thursday, June 30, 2016

The Spirit of ’76 – Forty Years On

by Barbara Rimkunas

This "Historically Speaking" column was published by the Exeter News-Letter on July 1, 2016.

It seemed like the United States Bicentennial couldn’t have come at a worse time. The nation was in an economic recession caused, in part, by the oil crisis of 1973. The divisive Vietnam War was grinding to a slow, humiliating end that did nothing to bind up the social fractures it had caused. President Nixon’s landslide election win in 1972 had given way to his downfall and resignation in 1974. The years leading up to the Bicentennial seemed to be at odds with the original optimism of our nation’s independence.

The original idea for the Bicentennial observance had been to repeat the celebrations of one hundred years prior. A commission was created in 1966 to plan a world’s fair to be called “Expo 76”. The Centennial Exposition in 1876, held in Philadelphia, had been a great success after all. But as the decade began to erode into the 1970s, and confidence in government began to lag, the focus began to shift. Rather than hold one enormous national event, the Bicentennial might be better observed by hundreds of local observations. It was the age of television, after all, and the nation’s birthday party could be shared in ways unimaginable back in 1876.

Exeter established its Bicentennial Commission in September of 1972. As in most of the towns and cities of America, the celebrations were planned to commemorate not just the signing of the Declaration of Independence on July 4th, but the entire revolutionary period. The national kick-off was held on April 1st, 1975, when the American Freedom Train began its journey around the country. It passed through Exeter (although it didn’t stop) on April 16th on its way to Portland, Maine, where I waited three hours in line to get on board to view the exhibits. My brother broke the rules and leaned in to touch Judy Garland’s blue checkered dress from The Wizard of Oz.

In Exeter, the Reverend Charles Calcagni lit three lanterns in the tower of the Congregational Church on April 18th to commemorate the signals given to Paul Revere before his famous ride. In June, the town received its official bicentennial flag and certificate designating Exeter as a bicentennial community – a participant in the broader celebration of events. The town commission planned multiple events and reenactments, with the big party to be held in June of 1976.

Nancy Merrill’s History of Exeter, New Hampshire, picks up the story: “On January 5, 1976, Mr. Calcagni, surrounded by the selectmen on the town hall steps, read a copy of the first state constitution of any of the thirteen colonies, which was adopted in Exeter two hundred years previously.” Exeter took seriously its place as the revolutionary state capital. In photos of the event, the selectmen look somewhat awkward in their colonial costumes, but they also look quite serious. So what if the economy was in the duldrums and faith in the federal government was at an all-time low – somewhere back in time ordinary people had set the bar high and this crazy experiment was still working.

June 12th brought the largest parade ever held in Exeter – kicked off by the Exeter Brass Band. The Exeter News-Letter reported, “Parade chairman Robert Strout started marchers at 1 p.m. for the procession that contained over 50 units including floats, bands, antique cars and fire apparatus.” Crowds were reported as “several thousand spectators.”

The parade was followed the next day with the arrival of Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops Orchestra, who played a concert on the field at Phillips Exeter Academy. Fiedler, who arrived on an antique fire truck, was 81 years old. “Fiedler Dazzles Exonians,” declared the News-Letter headline. Over 9,000 people attended the concert.

For two weeks events continued in town. There was a kangaroo court (with a holding ‘cell’ erected in the town square), carriage tours, traditional crafts and trades – including horse shoeing and sheep shearing, tree planting and the dedication of the official Exeter Bicentennial Seal. Old Home Night was held on Saturday, June 26th on Swasey Parkway. The evening began with a “Revolutionary Barbecue” featuring Independence hot dogs, Declaration of hamburgers, Bunker Hill corn on the cob, Philadelphia potato salad, Constitutional cole slaw and Liberty brownies. Too bad there wasn’t any Samuel Adams beer back then. The Exeter Brass Band played a concert with a community sing-along followed by fireworks.

On July 4th itself, the town did nothing. Not that there wasn’t anything to do – other towns were holding their own celebrations and there was entertainment all around. On July 16th there was a reenactment of the arrival of the Declaration of Independence by pony rider, John Law, followed by an official reading of the document by Phillips Exeter Academy principal, Stephen Kurtz.

The town continued to focus on its revolutionary past for several years. The old Powder House, long neglected, was spruced up by students from Exeter High School. An oral history project spearheaded by Flavia Page, Harry Thayer III and Matthew Thomas produced Reflections of a Few Older Exeter Citizens, a booklet that has since become invaluable to local historians.

On June 24th, 1977, the town buried a Bicentennial time capsule in Gale Park. It contains bicentennial articles, programs from local groups, a savings bond, a fire department alarm card – all manner of Exeter ephemera. The stone marking its location can still be viewed in the park. When the capsule is opened in 2076 the future residents of Exeter should get a clear picture of how a community was able – in the worst of times – to pull together to celebrate a national event in a very local way.

Images: Reverend Charles Calcagni, Chairman of the Bicentennial Committee, flanked by Selectmen Arthur Plouffe and Sherman Chester stand on the steps of the Exeter Town Hall on January 5th, 1976 for a bicentennial reading of the New Hampshire Constitution, and Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops orchestra perform at Phillips Exeter Academy to appreciative crowds on June 13, 1976. Exeter music teacher John Bethel performed as a featured soloist.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

When the Band Comes to Town

by Barbara Rimkunas

This "Historically Speaking" column was published by the Exeter News-Letter on June 17, 2016.

Mid-summer Mondays in Exeter find many townies comfortably settled into lawn chairs, maybe with ice cream, listening to the Exeter Brass Band. Our band was organized in 1847, but even though we’ve loved our band for over a century, it wasn’t always the only show in town. In the late nineteenth century, there were other more famous bands that gave Exeter a thrill.

The first of the great bands was led by Patrick Gilmore, an Irish immigrant who is often credited as the “Father of the American Concert Band.” He arrived in Boston in 1849, at the age of 20 and quickly became a bandleader. During the Civil War he wrote, When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again under the pen name Louis Lambert. He led the Boston Brigade Band and the Salem Brass Band and established a Fourth of July concert on Boston Common that would rival the Pops at the Esplanade. According to the Boston College Burns Library, “Gilmore organized the National Peace Jubilee in 1869 to benefit the war widows and orphans of the Civil War, and to celebrate the peace of war’s end. A coliseum was specially built in Boston for the Jubilee, with seating for 30,000 audience members, 10,000 chorus members, and a 1,000 piece orchestra. Highlights from the festival included a performance of Verdi’s Il Trovatore, which included 100 Boston firemen striking anvils, a battery of cannon, chimes, church bells, a huge bass drum 8 feet in diameter, and a gigantic organ specially built for the occasion.”

Gilmore’s band came to town and played a matinee concert on January 27, 1888, at the Exeter Opera House. Nearly 300 people, mostly townspeople, attended the show. Gilmore introduced his players as the “Twenty-second Regiment Band of New York” but the music they played was not traditional marching band fare. “No music of the kind, at all approaching it for excellence, was ever before heard here,” commented the Exeter News-Letter. The selections were arrangements of classical pieces. Rossini’s Overture to Semiramide opened the program, with its beautiful French horn quartette. Harder to adapt, but with apparent success, was Rubinstein’s Valse Caprice, written for piano but, “its performance by Gilmore’s Band has widened the scope of its popularity by taking it out of the classic chamber, and playing it for the great majority,” as the program for the event explained. I was unable to find any recording of a stage band performing this piece, so we’ll have to take the word of the News-Letter that it was a success. “All were rendered with rare dash and with a perfection of harmony and time that completely entranced all hearers.” Gilmore saved his marches for the encores – of which there were many. On this occasion, it was not mentioned whether Gilmore played Hail! Columbia! - a brisk patriotic tune that he repeatedly campaigned to have declared the national anthem.

Gilmore’s popularity inspired other bandleaders, including John Philip Sousa, who would leave his long career with the U.S. Marine Corp band in 1892 to pursue touring with his own band. A musical prodigy, he’d been apprenticed with the U.S. Marine band at the tender age of 14. Gilmore didn’t live long enough to see Sousa’s band in concert, he died the same year the new band began a concert tour. In 1893, Sousa’s band was engaged to play at the World Columbian Exposition in Chicago. It was there that he played a piece he’d written for an unfinished stage show – the Liberty Bell March, now best known as the opening music to Monty Python. His band toured throughout the country and played in Exeter at least twice, in 1892 and 1894. Like Gilmore, he performed classical pieces adapted to the stage. His 1894 program included a finale of banjo music, hardly classical but very American. He also embraced his marches and included them in his main program as well as the encores. If he played the Liberty Bell March in Exeter we can assume it did not contain the raspberry and whoopee effects used in the Python series. His later work, The Stars and Stripes Forever, is far more popular today.

In 1896, Sousa related a tale from one of his Exeter concerts to the Concord Monitor. “When we reached the hall I found two juvenile residents of Exeter, who, by distributing handbills, had earned the privilege of hearing the concert from behind the scenes. The youngsters had some sort of quarrel, and when I came across them were making threatening demonstrations at the one another. I separated them, sat them down in two chairs and gave them a lecture on the sinfulness of fighting until it was time to go on the stage. From where I stood I could see the boys, each in his chair, out in the wings we began with one of Liszt’s Hungarian rhapsodies. First came a lively, rather martial allegro movement, and as the music proceeded the little fellows got out of their chairs, and sliding toward one another, took up the quarrel where they had left off. A collision was imminent, when the music ceased and a soothing andante movement followed. The boys resumed their chairs and listened quietly during this passage, even exchanging looks which I interpreted as conciliatory and repentant. Another allegro movement followed and the stage hands had to interfere to keep the youngsters from punching one another.” The pattern of behavior continued – fighting during the brisk numbers and calmly sitting when the music quieted. “The last I saw of them was the spectacle of their ejectment from the stage door, one of them stanching a profuse nasal hemorrhage, while the other nursed a badly blacked eye. It was the most forcible demonstration of the influence of music upon the human passions which I remember having seen.”

Exeter Brass Band concerts begin on Monday, June 27 this year. Try not to let passions go unchecked.

Image: an advertisement for a John Philip Sousa concert in Exeter at the Exeter Opera House in 1892.

Saturday, June 4, 2016

Brown & Warren – the Perfect Partnership

by Barbara Rimkunas

This "Historically Speaking" column was published by the Exeter News-Letter on June 3, 2016.

Often when people visit the Exeter Historical Society, the interior woodwork becomes as much a conversation topic as the history of the town. The striking quarter sawn oak, has aged to a dignified dark honey color. The oak is so hard that it is impossible to even push a thumb tack into it. In 2015, when the floors in several of the rooms were refinished, the workmen took time out to take photographs of the walls. Yes, they wanted pictures of woodwork. This woodwork is art.

The building was originally the Exeter Public Library. Built in 1894, it also served as the Civil War monument, which is why the names of Exeter’s Civil War servicemen are carved on tablets by the front door. Although designed by the Boston firm of Rotch & Tilden, the contract for the interior woodwork went to a long established Exeter firm called Brown & Warren.

Brown & Warren was a building, carpentry and contracting firm established in 1858 by two 27-year-olds named John H. Brown and Charles E. Warren. If ever there was a perfect partnership, it was Brown and Warren. Both men had spent time learning the trade in local carpentry firms, Brown working with his brothers Isiah and Sebastian Brown, and Warren in a competing firm of Alfred Connor. In 1855, Charles Warren married John Brown’s sister Frances and the two men, now related by marriage, decided to form their own business. The firm’s high quality work quickly took off. “The firm of Brown & Warren quickly assumed leadership in this section,” wrote the Exeter News-Letter in 1896, at the time of Brown’s death. “It has filled many large contracts in Exeter and orders from abroad frequently came to it. In Newburyport, Mass., for instance, it built the Five Cents Savings Bank block and the parochial school building; in Dover numerous dwellings; in Newfields, the Universalist church, in Randolph, Mass., another church, and at the state almshouse, Tewksbury, Mass., has done considerable work. In the development of Exeter it has taken very prominent part. Scores of dwellings, which include many of the costliest residences in town, can be set to its credit, and not a few has it built to its own account. It built the Episcopal and Unitarian churches, and did all carpenters’ work on the Baptist church, the Academy gymnasium, the town hall, the public library, the new court house, the original shoe factory and others of Exeter finest business and public structures.”

Of the buildings mentioned, only a few still exist. Christ Church Episcopal, once located on Elliot Street, was razed in 1965. A visit to the chapel, preserved in the new church building on Pine Street, can provide a feel for the work of Brown & Warren. The Unitarian Society, of which both Brown and Warren were members, was taken down in 1944 when wartime coal shortages convinced the congregation that the large building was not cost effective. The parishioners moved into their assembly hall, called Unity Hall and converted it into the new sanctuary. Unity Hall was also built by Brown & Warren. In its original form, it had had the same open frame construction with a hint of gothic. Today, the only remains of Brown & Warren’s design in the First Unitarian Universalist Society are the pews. The elegant timbers of the original ceiling are covered with drop acoustic tiles. 

The Rockingham County Courthouse featured interior woodwork by Brown & Warren, but it was torn down in 1969. The wood in the Exeter town hall was, at some point, painted – covering any of the features of the original that might still exist. Even some of the wood at the Exeter Historical Society succumbed to the painting fad of the post-war period. The dark tones of the wainscoting were deemed ‘stuffy’ in an era that longed for bright colors and clean optics. In our main meeting hall, if you look closely, the wainscoting has been painted and faux woodgrain applied during the 1988 renovations. To get the best view of the quality of work the firm was famous for, a visit to the First Baptist Church on Front Street is necessary. Stop by sometime when the sanctuary is open to really look at a Brown & Warren building. At one time the firm had over 20 skilled carpenters on staff.

The two men were alike in more than just their vocation. They belonged to the same town organizations: the Friendship Council, The Knights of the Royal Arcanum; both were active Republicans and both were part of the Exeter Fire Department – even serving as the chief engineer. Brown was fire chief in the 1870s, when the department took a technological leap forward with the purchase of the Eagle Steamer engine. Warren was so beloved as chief that hose company #2 was named the “Charles E. Warren Hose Company” in his honor – while he was still in it. Together they bought a duplex on Pine Street, renovated the interior and lived side by side to raise their families.

The partnership continued until 1894, when John Brown became ill with Bright’s disease. His death two years later at the age of 66 was a loss to his partner. Charles Warren continued to be active in town affairs, adding an interest in the sewer system to his resume. Warren’s obituary, in 1903, is so similar to his partner’s that it is easy to confuse them. Even the funerals were the same – held at their joint residence on Pine Street in mid-afternoon, Unitarian minister Reverend Edward Green presided at both. Perhaps the art of great carpentry is that same seamlessness that came naturally to the two men. Slight variations of grain form the brushstrokes that they set into the walls, doorways and arches of their buildings.

Photos: Detail of woodwork in the research library of the Exeter Historical Society, formerly the Exeter Public Library.

Exterior of Christ Church Episcopal c. 1890, Elliot Street – also built in 1867 by Brown & Warren. Razed in 1965.

Interior of the First Unitarian Society of Exeter c. 1890, corner of Elm and Maple Streets – built in 1867 by the firm of Brown & Warren of Exeter. Razed in 1944.