Historically Speaking: Kimmins Brook was once a source of beauty – Seacoastonline.com

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  • August 3, 2019
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�Years ago,� wrote Walter Pennell in 1949, �a beautiful stream flowed through a pleasant valley among ferns, tall pines and oaks and fell babbling over the rocks into a salt river. Indian children fished along its banks where the wild flowers bloomed and tall cattails stood.�

The brook Pennell describes ran through Exeter from Lincoln Street to Tan Lane and then to the aptly named Spring Street before turning north and flowing into the Squamscott. There are only two ways to view Kimmins Brook today. It exists as a mushy area parallel to the road that links Main Street School to Lincoln Street School. Water still collects and flows through the woody gully, but it hardly rates as a �beautiful stream.�

Although teeming with wildlife, it�s not the kind of place you�d want to explore without hip boots and DEET. Nonetheless, it has become a valuable location for school kids to study Exeter�s aquifer. From there, the water seeps underground and is routed under Jeremiah Smith Hall at Phillips Exeter Academy through a series of pipes and culverts until it empties into the river on Swasey Parkway by the boathouse. Watching the water spilling into the Squamscott today it can be hard to imagine that this little brook once spawned an industry and, for a while, was the source of the primary beauty spot in town. Kimmins Brook was responsible for the naming of two streets in town, Tan Lane and Spring Street.

Kimmins Brook was named after Englishman John Kimmins who arrived in town about 1664. He was granted land �layd out according to grant 60 rod in length� as most new arrivals were, but he was not granted full rights for some 14 years. The town clerk recorded on April 1, 1678, that �John Kimmin at the same meeting is accepted an inhabitant and free commoner.� Before that time, he must have existed in a murkier classification � perhaps he was a servant or was indentured to someone higher born. If so, the paper trail does not tell us. He was granted an additional 50 acres of land in 1681. During this time, he seems to have kept pretty much to himself, except for the time in 1674 when he appeared before the Essex Court to complain about his neighbor, Charles Runlett. Runlett was accused of �taking away his fence and giving him evil language thereby putting him to great trouble in seed time.� Kimmin won that argument and Rundlett was �admonished� and had to pay costs. But Charles Runlett wasn�t one to just let things go. In 1676, he was back in court suing Kimmin for six days pay he�d never received two years earlier. After winning that one, he returned to court a few months later demanding that Kimmin pay him for two gallons of molasses �borrowed of his wife about a year and a half ago.� Kimmin paid up, and probably hoped his neighbor would move on.

During this time, the small brook that ran through his property became �Kimmins Brook,� although there are variations on the spelling (Kimming�s Brook, Kimmon�s Brook, Kimin Brook). The land was left to John Kimmin�s son, Moses, who was a housewright. Moses sold most of his father�s holdings. In the mid-1740s, much of the land was sold to Joseph Swasey. His descendant, Benjamin Swasey, wrote, in the Swasey genealogy, �It is supposed his object in securing this purchase was mainly to control or make use of Kimmin�s brook, which ran through the land and continued to the Squamscot river. At that period the tides of the river ran up through the brook which was navigable for row boats. Its volume of water, as at the present time (he was writing in 1910) was largely increased by eight or ten living springs through the low ground extending west to the last one above the B.& M. tracks near the Rockingham machine shop.� He had good reason to invest in the brook � the shipbuilding industry was waning in town and all along a roadway that connected Main Street to Front Street leather tanneries were erected taking advantage of the ample water supply. Charles Bell, writing in 1888, mentions, �Another employment which flourished for some time in the town, was that of tanning and currying leather. Academy Street, long ago, received it unsavory alias of �Tan Lane� from being the headquarters of this industry.� The town decided, in the 1930s, to revert to the �unsavory alias� and it is Tan Lane today.

In 1869 the Robinson Female Seminary officially opened its doors to the student body. Along with the school�s high academic expectations, it offered natural study across its expansive grounds on Lincoln Street. Kimmins Brook was dammed to create Seminary Pond. Pennell would comment, �Mothers and nurse maids would bring their children to see the pretty fish swimming in the pool. In winter the pond was a favorite skating place for young folks.� The pond was eventually drained, although the water continues to flow beneath the Lincoln Street School parking lot.

Further along its course to the Squamscott, Ernest Templeton remembered that the brook ran behind a row of houses on Main Street, �where on its rather sluggish course ducks disported and its banks lined with pig sties and goat pens. Then passing on to Water Street it was again dammed to form the duck pond of Mr. and Mrs. Jacob Towle, a great attraction to the youngsters.� Most likely, he counted himself among one of those youngsters.

In 1930, Phillips Exeter Academy was in the midst of a building boom thanks to a $5.8 million gift from philanthropist Edward Harkness. More classroom and dormitory space was needed. Most of the land purchased for the expansion was bisected by the troublesome Kimmins Brook, by this time a smelly sewage trench occasionally piped underground. It�s no wonder the Academy chose to bury the entire thing. �Kimmings Brook, as an open stream, bids fair to disappear when the work of the Academy in installing the huge pipe for its conveyance underground, from the Seminary yard to the river, is completed,� lamented Templeton. The only free-flowing portion, still on Seminary grounds, was enclosed in 1949. Take a walk and look for Kimmins Brook between the elementary schools and down on Swasey Parkway. Not all of Exeter�s history takes place above ground.

Barbara Rimkunas is the curator of the Exeter Historical Society. Support the Exeter Historical Society by becoming a member. Join online at www.exeterhistory.org.

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