Looking Back at 1916

by Barbara Rimkunas

This "Historically Speaking" column appeared in the Exeter News-Letter on Friday, December 30, 2016.

This year everyone seems glad to be rid of 2016. Too many celebrity deaths, the long grind that was the election, Exeter’s drought, civil unrest and frightening world events seem to have taken a toll on most everyone.

One hundred years ago, in 1916, celebrity deaths weren’t in the news much, but local deaths were. In March, the Exeter News-Letter reported the death of Freeman Wallace, “a highly respected Negro citizen.” Educated in Exeter schools, he was a Union Veteran having served in the Navy during the Civil War. Although he was, according to the News-Letter, “a genial worthy man, highly esteemed by fellow veterans,” his post-war life in Exeter was limited by his race. “Since discharge from the navy he had been a laborer in Exeter, his task of recent years having been to keep the streets and sidewalks free of paper.” Wallace’s family had been residents of Exeter for generations – his mother a descendant of Caesar Paul, who had been enslaved to Major John Gilman during the French and Indian War (and later freed). Black citizens of Exeter found employment difficult to come by. Wallace was 82 at the time of his death.

Dr. Abner Merrill, another Exeter native, died at the age of 90 in December of 1916. Educated at Phillips Exeter Academy and Harvard, Merrill trained to be a physician and after attending Harvard Medical School, studied with Exeter physician Dr. William Perry. Once finished his studies, he decided medicine was not to his liking and instead went into the family business with his brother Henry. Their hat manufactory and wool exchange brought enough wealth to allow Merrill to become a town philanthropist. He created the Merrill Institute, which brought educational speakers to town for over 70 years.

1916 was the first year New Hampshire held a presidential primary election, although it was quite different from the primary race of today. The men – it was only men who voted in 1916 – met in March to elect delegates. The News-Letter reported the “vote was light.” A partisan paper, the News-Letter endorsed the candidacy of George Hughes, a Republican, for the presidency. But even in a largely Republican town, the voters (men) were worried over the war in Europe and incumbent Woodrow Wilson promised to keep the United States out of the battle. Going to press just a few days after the election, the vote was too close to call. Wilson won the election in Exeter, in New Hampshire and in the nation. After having run a campaign with the promise, “He Kept Us Out of War,” Wilson would declare war just one month after his second inauguration.

The Democrats and Republicans weren’t the only political parties in 1916. They were challenged by the Progressive and Prohibition parties. The Republicans and Progressives held concurrent conventions in Chicago, both of which were covered by Exeter journalist Myra Richards. Richards had served as Rockingham County deputy register of probate after her husband’s illness prevented him from serving as register of probate. After his death, she was appointed to serve as a special correspondent in Washington for several New England newspapers. For over 10 years she was the only woman in the Senate press pool.

The weather in 1916 wasn’t particularly harsh. The winter was similar to our usual winters and summer had the usual storms and heat. New England can have some crazy extremes, as the March 2nd edition of the News-Letter was able to announce that, “Fred Colcord last week completed the harvesting of his ice crop,” in the same week that crocuses were reported to be in bloom on Elliot Street.

Exeter began the year with two theaters – the Exeter Opera House and the Ioka. By March, it was clear that the Ioka was in trouble. Edward Mayer, the man who built the theater, had left town followed by a trail of debt. The investors held the business together. Silent films played at the Ioka throughout the year, and the Opera House clung to life for a few more years. Most films were light-hearted comedies, although in October the Opera House brought a frightening film called “The Battle Cry of Peace” to town. The film, lost to history today except for a few scenes, depicted a United States unprepared for war – complete with scenes of terrified citizens escaping New York City. Dystopian nightmares, it seems, are not unique to modern times.

The greatest threat most people saw in the modern age was still the scourge of alcohol. Ralph Meras of Exeter ran for governor on the prohibition platform. He was soundly defeated even in Exeter, where the townsmen voted to stay dry. Not all modern things were to be feared. It was in 1916 that the Exeter Fire Department got its first motorized truck.

One shining light in 1916 was the donation, erection and dedication of the Swasey Pavilion – our beloved bandstand. Work on the structure was noted throughout the summer. One hundred years later, we can still appreciate this elegant centerpiece to our town.

Image: This advertisement for "The Battle Cry of Peace" ran in the Exeter News-Letter on October 20, 1916. The silent film was a warning to the United States to prepare for war.


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