Thursday, March 30, 2017

The Overseers of the Poor

by Barbara Rimkunas

This "Historically Speaking" column appeared in the Exeter News-Letter on Friday, March 31, 2017.

“We’re gonna wind up in the poorhouse!” shouts every Dad ever while he turns down the thermostat. Images of the poorhouse haunted generations of people, but what exactly was it? How did communities take care of indigent members in previous centuries?

Early in Exeter’s history, the population was controlled by law. People had to be approved at town meeting to become residents. A 1671 law read, “It is ordered that no man shall receive any person or persons into towne without the consent of the select men, or security for to free the towne from any charge that may ensue thereby.” An earlier law passed in 1664 made citizens financially responsible for their servants. “It was ordered and agreed at the same towne meeting that when a person so ever shall hire any servant for more or less tyme & if it happen that he that is hired shall be lamed or any ways unserviceable made, in works during that tyme he shall be kept by the charge of him that hires him, if he be not able to keep himself that sees the town may be free from such charges.” This type of tight control worked as long as the community remained small. Exeter, however, began to grow when the lumber industry took hold and it became impossible to control the population.

A system developed that provided funds for those willing to take in the poor. It was an imperfect system, rife with abuse, but it did provide a minimum of care. Strangers were still driven from town through a system called ‘warning out.’ In 1779, the county authorized Joseph Swasey, the constable of Exeter, to warn out Robert Peters, Scippio Dole and his wife and Hanna Florence. All were ordered to return to their previous residences. The Doles and Florence had been in town illegally for only three or four months, but Peters argued that he had resided in Exeter for nearly a year. Nevertheless, he was ordered out.

In 1784, the Exeter Chronicle reminded citizens that pauperism and indolence would not be tolerated. The Overseers of the Poor, positions that were only occasionally filled at town meeting, published a notice that “sundry poor people, inhabitants of said town, spend their time idly, and neglect to provide for themselves and families, by any lawful means and neglect the care and education of their children, etc. whereby the charge and expence of supporting the poor with poor in this town, will be greatly increased, desiring that the law made to invest the overseers of the poor with power to bind out, and set them to work may be put into execution.” In short, if you are able and not working, the Overseers of the Poor could make you an indentured servant and apprentice out your children.

New Hampshire state law, as passed by the General Court in February, 1781, authorized towns, at county expense, to build houses of correction or workhouses for the poor. It read, in part, that these were “accommodations for the correction of rogues, vagabonds, common beggers, lewd, idle and disorderly persons.” Aged, disabled or ill people were still cared for in the old way of boarding out.

Charles Bell, in his History of Exeter, New Hampshire, tells us that, “In 1817 the town passed a vote that the selectmen and overseers be authorized to purchase a farm or house for the use of the town where they might place the poor, and that they hire for that purpose a sum not exceeding four thousand dollars. A purchase was accordingly made of a house and land near Beech Hill.” The poorhouse in Exeter existed from 1817 to 1869, although it was never called the ‘poorhouse.’ On the 1845 Merrill map of town, it’s called the “Almshouse” and on the map of 1857 it was described as the “Town Farm.” People were housed there if they were in need of direct aid or if they were in need of social correction in the form of discipline. Inmates were expected to work on the farm. People suffering from overt mental illness were sent to the state asylum in Concord.

In 1869, Exeter no longer needed its poorhouse when Rockingham County opened the County Farm in Brentwood. Its goal, like the town poorhouse, was to be as self-sufficient as possible. Annual reports provide glowing examples of thrifty poor people working hard to get back on their feet. The reality was less optimistic. Inmates of the County Farm were a mix of impoverished, disabled, elderly and many were there long-term. An influx of people would arrive every winter and then leave again when the weather turned warm. Town overseers of the poor often had difficulty committing their charges to the poorhouse –as many families simply refused to go. Moving to the County Farm would break up families and interrupt children’s education. Moreover, there were moral judgements made about people that were distasteful. When the Great Depression hit in the 1930s, Exeter hired a relief agent in the hopes of offering assistance to needy families locally. It might be that a family simply needed heat assistance – a far cheaper alternative to housing at the County Farm. Gradually, the reality of a physical poorhouse became nothing more than a lingering and old saying. “Winding up in the poorhouse” is just something your Dad says.

Image: In 1853, the report of the Overseers of the Poor in Exeter indicated an average of 24 paupers housed at the town poorhouse.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Sam Cote: An Immigrant’s Experience in Exeter

by Barbara Rimkunas

This "Historically Speaking" column appeared in the Exeter News-Letter on Friday, March 17, 2017. 

“We are of the people that were coaxed and induced to leave their farms along the Saint Lawrence to come here to New England to work in the textile mills and at brick making, to labor and sweat at starvation wages and to live in the cheap tenement houses that were owned by the corporation that we worked and slaved for.” Sam Cote’s family left Ile Verte, Quebec in 1888 when he was a young boy of about four years old. They settled first in Amesbury, Massachusetts to work in the textile mills. “I was one of a family of thirteen children, ten boys and three girls and we were all good steady workers.”

Cote’s experience was similar to many French Canadian families in the late nineteenth century. Farmers in Quebec found themselves unable to support their growing families. The industrial cities of New England promised steady wages. It may seem like it was a poor trade, but the promise of America beckoned many hard-off farmers. Often, as in the case of the Cotes, other family members had arrived first and perhaps because they missed their kin, wrote glowing letters home.

Young Sam Cote’s education is a bit of a mystery. He’s often described as someone who had only a third grade education, but he himself wrote, “School days were not as important then as they are today. We were all looking forward to the day that we would be allowed to go to work. Fourteen years of age was the time that we could go to work. The cotton mills was where we all took our apprenticeship in our journey through life.”

By the time he reached adulthood, Cote had moved to Exeter and was working in the shoe factory on Front Street. In 1909, he married Margaret Richard – a fellow shoe worker. Together they purchased a house on Washington Street and raised five children.

There is an added element of Sam Cote’s immigrant story – when he wasn’t lasting shoes and waiting for the slow factory clock to tick the time away, Sam Cote thought of himself as an artist. He sculpted animals out of scraps of wood and canvas. His granddaughter, Margaret, recalled, “as soon as the snow fell, he was outside, building snow figures. Every year he rendered his own version of Venus in front of the house. His interpretation turned out to be a positively buxom nude, thrusting her charms into the street. My mother recalls the year they awoke to find the ‘lady’ in a full set of underwear which she had acquired in the night.”

He sang continuously – sometimes the Irish songs he remembered from his boyhood in Massachusetts – but more often songs he composed himself. A self-taught piano player, he delighted his children and grandchildren with his pieces, although his grandson, Peter, remembers the tunes as being quite similar. “He played a kind of pounding marching tune, like he only knew one and just put different words to it.” The words to his songs came from the poems he wrote. Considering English was his second language and his education was spotty, his inner drive to express himself in verse is remarkable.

His family says there are over 5000 poems handwritten or meticulously typed. Margaret wrote that when he was courting his future wife, also named Margaret, “the first love note she received was sealed with a shoe sole tack from his workbench at the factory.” Sam himself said, “there is no subject that escapes the notice of a true poet.” Nothing escaped the notice of Sam Cote. He wrote verses on politics as an unrepentant liberal. He wrote about skunks, cigarettes, poker, girls, the moon, non-functioning plumbing, elm trees, Geritol, patriotism, local elections, war, bedpans and his love of his bicycle. At every family event he would pull out a poem to the delight of some, and the exasperation of others. Fiercely patriotic, he took on anything that he felt was an insult to the United States. He had no patience for McCarthyism and great contempt for William Loeb, the editor of the Union Leader. His poems made their way to the pages of the Exeter News-Letter, often as letters to the editor.

Recently, a scrapbook of Sam Cote’s poems made its way from the Exeter Public Library to the Exeter Historical Society. In it, Cote pasted his published poems and handwrote others. One of our favorites is “The Lasting Room Clock,” a shoe workers lament on the passing of time. It ends,

“It has hung for years on that wall
For many years to me it seems
Mid the rattle and clank of the lasting machines
it has ticked off the hours so that everyone would know
That it was time to work or it was time to go.
So wake up my friends wake up and make your hay
For the old clock is ticking your lives away.
So take heed to the ticking of the good old clock
Tick tock, tick tock, tick tock, tick tock.”

Sam Cote’s words are now part of our town’s history. An immigrant shoe worker’s poems now help us interpret the tumultuous times he lived through – two world wars, a presidential assassination, labor strikes, the rise of communism, wars in Korea and Vietnam and the sighting of a UFO in Exeter. All of these were addressed by a humble poet.

Image: Margaret and Sam Cote in 1909, the year they were married in Exeter. Sam was a shoe worker by trade, working in the lasting room, but his artistic expressions made him a local legend.