Exeter’s American Independence Museum Keeps the Past Alive
The American Independence Museum, nestled among the shops in downtown Exeter, N.H., reopened for its 29th season on May 1, but a lot of people still don’t know it’s there, says Executive Director Emma Bray. “We’re frequently referred to as a hidden gem. And I feel like a lot of what we’re trying to do as a staff is to become a little less hidden.”
Bray joined the museum two years ago after moving back to the area. “It piqued my interest because they’re a small museum with a small staff, but they were doing really exciting things,” she says.
The museum, which is open Tuesday through Saturday from May 1 through November, has about 5,500 visitors a year and hosts several community events, but the Traveling Trunk Program, which was launched two years, is enabling the museum to reach far beyond Greater Exeter. In the program, the museum sends a free trunk of replica items from the Colonial era to schools and libraries across the country, along with a lesson plan. Students can touch, hold and wear its contents for up to a month. “What’s great about the trunk is it can go all across the country,” Bray says. “It’s going to California and Florida and places that don’t have that same Colonial history that we do.” According to Bray, the program has become wildly popular. “In 2019, it’s far exceeded our expectations,” she says. “We’re now booking into 2020.”
To understand how the museum came to be, a brief history lesson is helpful. On the evening of July 4, 1776, an estimated 200 unsigned copies of the Declaration of Independence were printed by John Dunlap in Philadelphia and distributed on horseback throughout the 13 colonies to spread the word of their independence from British rule. Only 26 copies, now known as the Dunlap Broadside for the large, one-sided paper it was printed on are known to still exist, including one at the American Independence Museum.
“It was really the importance of that document that spearheaded the effort to become a museum,” Bray says. The document was discovered in the 1980s in Exeter’s historic Ladd-Gilman House, then privately owned by The Society of the Cincinnati, the oldest patriotic organization in the country. The founders of the society, which was established in 1783, tasked their descendants with preserving the memory of the sacrifices that made American independence a reality.
Built around 1721, the Ladd-Gilman House itself has a rich history, having served as the State Treasury and the governor’s mansion when Exeter was New Hampshire’s capital, and having housed Nicholas Gilman, one of the original signers of U.S. Constitution.
It’s fitting that this beautifully preserved building was opened to the public in 1991 as a museum. With a particular focus on New Hampshire’s role in American independence, the museum boasts a collection of 3,000 objects related to the Colonial era and the Revolutionary War. Among the items on display are two drafts of the United States Constitution, an 18th century purple heart and a collection of old money. “I love some of the Colonial currency we have here,” Bray says. “Back then, each state printed their own money. You’d have to exchange it as you traveled from state to state.” Like today’s money, Bray says, each piece is its own work of art, full of details and symbolism.
On July 16, 1776, the original Dunlap Broadside arrived in Exeter by horseback. To mark the occasion, an annual American Independence Festival is hosted by the museum in downtown Exeter, complete with reenactments of that historic day’s events. The Declaration of Independence is read in the town square by a descendent of Nicholas Gilman, a battle is reenacted between the British and the Patriot militia, and visitors can interact with historical interpreters and witness Colonial life firsthand. Food trucks, a concert and fireworks round out the day’s events. Independence Ale, made exclusively for this event by Redhook Brewery, will be served in the historic Folsom Tavern that shares the museum’s campus.
The tavern was built in 1775 and now provides space for the museum to hold events year-round, including Revolutionary Story Time! for preschoolers and Bray’s personal favorite event, Beer for History. “We bring in local brewers and we do trivia, and it’s just wonderful to see the tavern come to life in the evening in Exeter in the way it was intended,” Bray says. “It was meant to be a community gathering space, and to be able to bring that intention back to the building is wonderful.” Bray says the Beer for History series has gained in popularity over the past couple of years. “The community here is so supportive and so lovely and excited to be in the building,” she says. “I always end up having really great conversations.”
According to Bray, half of the museum’s visitors are students on school field trips, and the rest are members of tour groups and travelers who make the small detour off the highway before continuing to their destinations. “It’s in a great location if you’re going up Interstate 95 to the lakes or the mountains,” Bray says. “Downtown Exeter is beautiful. It’s a great spot to be in, and it’s a wonderful community.”
American Independence Museum