Sometimes it’s easy for New Englanders to overlook the history that surrounds them. Two- and three-hundred-year-old homes abound, along with centuries-old trees and stone walls, famous battle grounds and Colonial cemeteries. But even the most jaded locals might find their interest piqued at Exeter’s American Independence Museum and its annual American Independence Festival, which takes place in Exeter each July.
“The museum is a place where we’re trying to connect America’s revolutionary past with the present,” says Funi Burdick, executive director of the American Independence Museum (AIM). “We’re trying to look at events and ideas that our founding fathers had and see how they resonate today.”
The AIM tries to make history come alive for present-day citizens by exhibiting 18th-century artifacts and documents, including letters written by General George Washington, two original drafts of the U.S. Constitution and a Dunlap broadside of the Declaration of Independence, in two historically significant settings: the Ladd-Gilman house and Folsom Tavern.
The Ladd-Gilman house (c. 1721), built by Capt. Nathaniel Ladd and later home to the influential Gilman family of Exeter, provides a close-up view of a wealthy, 18th-century family’s life. Nicholas Gilman Sr., the first treasurer of New Hampshire, and his wife, Ann Taylor, raised their family here. But the house fulfilled political needs as well as domestic: It served as the state treasury during the American Revolution, when Exeter became the state capital, and became the governor’s mansion when Nicholas’s son, John Taylor Gilman, was governor of New Hampshire from 1794-1805 and from 1813-1816.
Folsom Tavern (c. 1775) is a building that once served as a gathering place for revolutionary officers and has, over the years, handily survived three relocations. But one of its proudest moments occurred on November 4, 1789, when George Washington stopped by for breakfast. Washington “decided to go on a New England presidential tour,” says Burdick, “and he fortunately decided at the last minute to stop at Exeter.” Unfortunately, no one knows what he had for breakfast. “No,” says Burdick, “I don’t think we do.”
While Washington’s visit was certainly a highlight in Folsom Tavern’s past, the Ladd-Gilman house walls could tell a few stories, too. In 1985, an electrician named Dick Brewster was hired to install a new electrical system in the house. Burdick says, while Brewster was working in the attic of the Ladd-Gilman house going through the floors to run wires, he discovered several papers under the floor boards. One of them was an original, folded Dunlap broadside of the Declaration of Independence.
“We don’t know why it was there,” Burdick says. “It could be that it was [thought of as] essentially an advertisement to get the colonists to join the militia and move forward with this idea of independence, so we don’t necessarily believe that it was ‘hiding’ there. It was inadvertently placed there, and Dick Brewster had the presence of mind to look through the papers” and handle them delicately. The AIM is unable to regularly display its original copy of the Declaration of Independence because of security concerns and the document’s fragile condition, but Burdick says, “We do of course want people to see this document because it’s the basis of the ideas of 18th-century colonists that led to the development of our nation.” The original document and the museum’s drafts of the U.S. Constitution will be on display at the Ladd-Gilman house during the American Independence Festival in July.
Ah yes, July, when, across the country, Americans celebrate our country’s independence on the 4th. But in Exeter, the fireworks fly two weeks later. Why? Burdick says that after the Declaration of Independence had been written and revised, copies were printed by a man named Dunlap, who did all the printing for Congress. “He set it to type on a large broadside, which is a large sheet of paper, basically. They made about 100 copies and they sent it off to various members of the military and to important townspeople so that they could read it and get the word out that the colonists were declaring independence.” Although the document was printed on July 4 and early morning of July 5, Burdick says, it was distributed via horseback, so it took a varying number of days to reach different towns. The news didn’t reach Exeter until July 16. Thus, Exeter, and the American Independence Museum, celebrate Independence Day around the third week of July.
This year’s 15th annual American Independence Festival (formerly called the Revolutionary War Festival) will fall on Saturday, July 22, and will run from 10 a.m. to dusk. Most activities will occur on AIM grounds, at the Ladd-Gilman house, the Folsom Tavern or on Swasey Parkway, a riverfront park that is a short walk from the museum. Burdick estimates about 5,000 people attend the festival each year, and she hopes to capture the imagination of many, including children, through reenactments, role playing and other activities.
A junior militia and George Washington will kick off the day with a procession through town, accompanied by a fife and drum corps. “Although New Hampshire soldiers never fought on New Hampshire soil,” Burdick says, “they certainly had a huge militia and many New Hampshire members were members of Washington’s continental army, so each year we bring reenactors onto museum grounds and onto the Parkway to demonstrate military maneuvers.”
John Taylor Gilman will also be portrayed, says Burdick. “He’s going to come down along with the procession and greet the public,” Burdick says. “Then he’ll stand on a stage on the museum grounds, and will read the Declaration of Independence, reenacting [July 17, 1776], when he read that document to the people of Exeter.” Burdick notes that actors portraying the British will also be present and will voice their disapproval. “At the time,” she says, “the signing of the Declaration of Independence was an act of treason, punishable by hanging, so we’ll have a bit of theatre.”
Burdick says there will also be “things that are less political and more about 18th-century heritage,” such as a New Hampshire artisans village, complete with a blacksmith, spinners and a Windsor chair maker — people, Burdick says, who continue today the folk traditions that were important to Colonial America. “They’re going to be on our grounds doing demonstrations,” she says, along with “18th-century characters who will talk about boycotting tea, and various acts of protest that our revolutionary colonists participated in.”
For the adventuresome, the festival will also include helicopter rides —offered, Burdick explains, to provide festivalgoers a bird’s-eye view of the Squamscott River, which runs alongside Swasey Parkway. “We really wanted people to understand that Exeter was a thriving 18th-century seaport,” she says. “People forget that the Squamscott River is like a finger river that eventually connects to the Atlantic Ocean,” which allowed 18th-century Exeter citizens to establish river-based milling and shipping industries.
For children, the festival will feature activities including a barnyard exhibit, pony rides, children’s games and a junior militia program that will take place behind Folsom Tavern, where kids can learn drills from militia members. The festival will conclude with a concert, followed by fireworks on Swasey Parkway. NH
For a complete schedule of American Independence Festival events, visit www.independencemuseum.org.
While you’re in Exeter
American Independence Festival
Saturday, July 22
10 a.m.-5 p.m.
Rain or Shine
Ladd-Gilman House, Folsom Tavern, Museum grounds, Swasey Parkway
Event includes: Colonial troop activities and maneuvers by the Lexington Minute Men; traditional New Hampshire artisans village with craftspeople demonstrating trades from granite-splitting to weaving; visits aboard the Captain Edward Adams, an 18th-century gundalow on the Squamscott River; helicopter rides; barnyard exhibit and pony rides; children’s activity area; historic role-players; and a procession through downtown Exeter with General George Washington. For a complete schedule of activities, visit www.independencemuseum.org
While attending the festival explore historic Exeter and new boutiques and restaurants that line Water Street.
BANDSTAND: Given to the town by Ambrose Swasey (yes, the same fellow who donated Swasey Parkway) in 1916. The Exeter Brass Band, established in 1847 and self-proclaimed oldest continuous brass band in America, plays there on select Monday nights in the summer.
IOKA THEATER: Just beyond the bandstand downtown is the Ioka movie theatre, built in 1915 by Edward Mayer, an Exeter judge and nephew of Louis B. Mayer, who later became a prominent Hollywood figure. The Ioka retains much of its original charm, complete with balcony and soda fountain, and now also hosts live acts and guests at the downstairs Club Ioka, a 1920s-style Art Deco nightclub.
The Chocolatier: More than 50 varieties of handmade chocolates — white, dark and milk are available. The sight and smell of all that chocolate is reason enough to go inside and surely too much for even the strongest-willed to resist.
Gilman Garrison house: Across the street from The Chocolatier, it was specially constructed as a fortified house, in the hopes of withstanding an Indian attack.
The Inn by the Bandstand: A bed and breakfast built in 1809. Guest rooms are furnished with antiques and the place is decked out to the max at Christmas time.
Exeter Historical Society: The society houses historical artifacts and photos, and provides exhibits of Exeter’s history.
Phillips Exeter Academy: Within easy walking distance of American Independence Festival activities you’ll find the PEA Library, designed by architect Louis Kahn, catty-cornered from the historical society on Front Street.
Gale Park: Across from St. Michael Church is a World War I memorial by sculptor Daniel Chester French, an Exeter native who is best known for his sculpture of a seated Abraham Lincoln at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington.
And as you enjoy the views along Swasey Parkway during the festival, consider that the Parkway, now home to joggers and walkers of all ages, moms with strollers, summer concerts, and of course, the annual Independence Festival, has a surprising past: it used to be the town dump. Amazing what a little vision can do.