The Folsoms of Exeter
Written by Barbara Rimkunas   

When John Wheelwright arrived in Exeter in 1638 to establish a settlement, it was with the understanding that this would be a religious community.  They soon discovered, however, that piety cannot feed one's family.  If Exeter was going to survive it would need a solid economic base.  Attracted to the village's generous land grants, other Englishmen, who were not as religiously motivated, moved in.  When, in 1643, Wheelwright and his followers left town to move to Wells, Maine, the remaining population struggled to survive.


What the town needed was a few good entrepreneurs to turn things around.  It wasn't as if Exeter didn't have resources - it was densely forested and the waterfalls had the potential to provide all the power needed to mill them into lumber - it was just that no one within the town had the capital and chutzpah to get things started.  Thomas Winslow had a small grist mill on the lower falls, but it was mostly used by the townspeople for their own milling and was not going to create an export economy.

At just about the time that Exeter was being settled, two families left England for America.  The Gilman and Folsom families were united in their desire to shake off the Church of England and find available land.  They were also united through marriage - where you found a Gilman, you also most likely found a Folsom.  Twelve families from Hingham set sail in 1638 for a new settlement, also called Hingham, in Massachusetts Bay Colony.

In Hingham, they got their bearings and, living on the outskirts of town, learned a bit about this new land and its potential.  All around them were trees. Back in England, lumber was scarce.  If they could find some way to exploit this seemingly endless raw material, they would prosper far beyond their wildest dreams in the old country.

But Hingham didn't have an available water source to run a mill.  Edward, one of the Gilman boys, had discovered that a small town in New Hampshire had acres of trees and a river system that could be harnessed for lumbering.  And this town - Exeter - was in desperate need of worthy citizens.  The town's population had dropped since Wheelwright left and the small farming community was failing fast.  Gilman proposed a saw mill on the river, a proposal that was quickly accepted.  With new generous grants of land in Exeter, the Gilman clan began moving into town.

The Folsoms quickly followed with their large brood - six sons and a daughter.  John Folsom became an active participant in Exeter life.  He measured and counted the lumber streaming out of the Gilman mills.  He was appointed to mark the trees that were destined for the British Navy.  He surveyed boundaries and was active in the church.  His children and grandchildren built up the business community in Exeter and through their numbers and longevity built up the population of the town as well.

From this original family, the Folsoms have spread across the country.  The Folsom Family Association, founded in 1909, provides genealogical and historical information about the family.  The family claims at least one state Governor and, of course, Frances Folsom Cleveland, whose 1886 marriage to President Grover Cleveland raised eyebrows due to her youth and his age.

The Folsoms are returning to Exeter this year for their annual family reunion.  As they walk our streets we sincerely hope they feel welcome.  After all, Exeter may not have grown into the town it is without the determination of their ancestors.