Exeter’s unconventional Independence Day celebration

EXETER – Many New Hampshire towns and cities throw big celebrations for Independence Day, and people in the town of Exeter could be forgiven if they thought theirs was the biggest and the best.

But don’t expect anything to happen there on July 4.

In fact, it’s pretty quiet. No firecrackers, no parade, just another summer day in a charming little New England town.

But two weeks later the town will come alive with Revolutionary fervor, and more than 3,000 people will fill the streets. That’s because Exeter celebrates America’s independence on a Saturday as close as possible to July 16. That’s the date in 1776 that Exeter, then the capital of New Hampshire, received its copy of the Declaration of Independence.

Traveling was difficult during colonial times, and New Hampshire’s copy wasn’t delivered until nearly two weeks after John Hancock, then serving as the president of Congress, ordered they be sent to the various colonies – now “states” of the new union.

July 4 “is just another day,” said Barbara Rimkunas, curator of the Exeter Historical Society.

The town has always celebrated July 4 around July 16, she said, and admits it’s “a little weird – sort of a cranky New England” tradition. There’s even a YouTube video on it called “The Glorious 16th.”

On July 16, 1776, John Taylor Gilman, an Exeter native and the 23-year-old son of New Hampshire’s treasurer, committed what was an act of treason: He stood on the steps of the Exeter Town House and read aloud a document that asserted the colonists’ belief in universal rights and enumerated the many ways the British government had violated those rights.

Among the people who heard it read was Matthew Thornton, who would later sign the official copy in Philadelphia.

On July 14, 2018, festival-goers will gather on Water Street at 11 a.m. to watch a man arrive on horseback. As some cheer and others heckle, the Gilman descendant will read aloud the Declaration on the grounds of the American Independence Museum in the Ladd-Gilman House.

“It’s a big day for us,” said Victoria Su, the museum’s public program manager.

The American Independence Museum has an original copy of the Declaration of Independence, called the Dunlap Broadsheet because it was printed by John Dunlap in Philadelphia on the afternoon of July 4, 1776. Only about 200 copies were printed, and only 25 are still known to exist, including the one in the museum.

The original is on display only once each year during the festival, and a high-resolution copy can be seen there at all other times the museum is open.

On July 14 visitors can roam the museum’s grounds to watch colonial living in action, play colonial games or stroll down to Swasey Parkway, across Water Street, where British and patriot militia encampments will be stationed.

Redhook Brewery will offer its version of an 18th century brew, called Independence Ale, in Folsom Tavern, where George Washington once ate breakfast next door to the Ladd-Gilman House,

Visitors to the American Independence Museum can also compare two draft copies of the United States Constitution and view more than 3,000 objects related to colonial life and the American Revolution.

Later, there will be a battle portrayal on Swasey Parkway and more than 15 costumed interpreters will be in an Artisans’ Village sponsored by the New Hampshire State Council on the Arts. At dusk there will be fireworks on the Parkway.

The Ladd-Gilman House is owned by the Sons of Cincinnati, made up of direct descendants of Revolutionary officers and created after the war to celebrate the struggle for freedom and to help war widows. It has more than 3,000 objects from the colonial years, as well as one of two surviving copies of the original Purple Heart; the other is in the Purple Heart Museum in New York.