Gilman Garrison House History
1709 - 1793: Gilman Family Occupancy: First Settlement
In 1709, the Gilman family built a fortified structure across the river from the family saw mills. The house was built of sawn horizontal hemlock planks that were mortis and tenoned into oak posts on the first floor and dovetailed on the second floor. John Gilman, an early settler of Exeter, owned saw mills on the Squamscot River beginning in the 1650s. His son, another John, built the log structure on the same property of his father's house.
The house was unusually built as a dwelling and as a defense. Abbott Lowell Cummings pointed out the easily recognizable defensive features: abnormally small window openings, firing ports in the second floor overhang, and evidence of a portcullis. The first reference to the house comes in 1719, when the site was issued a tavern license.
In 1732, the house was deeded to Peter Gilman, a politically active shopkeeper. He was appointed to the King’s Council in the early 1770s. His new role called for a modern space. He built the addition to the right of the garrison to create the L-shaped building visible today, doubling the size of the house. The apartments he built were well-paneled and spacious. The new parlor and chamber were used as more public space than the low-slung rooms making up the original garrison. He also clapboarded the original garrison walls and enlarged the windows.
Ebenezer Clifford, a Kensington, New Hampshire, native, purchased the house from Peter Gilman’s daughter’s heirs. Clifford was a well-known early Piscataqua architect, was instrumental in building the Gov. John Langdon House, and was the chief consultant for the Rundlet-May House, both Historic New England houses open to the public in Portsmouth.
Clifford’s daughters, Betsy and Eunice, continued to live in the house after his death. The girls altered the appearance of the c. 1770 ell by adding a doorway on the Water Street elevation. The onetime parlor was made into a millinery shop, where the sisters sold hats. After the death of Betsy Clifford, she ordered her entire estate to be sold at auction. This included not just the residential property, but all of Ebenezer Clifford’s personal belongings including books, drawings, tools, and other effects. They can never be studied as a collection, something New Hampshire architectural historian James Garvin says "began the obscurity that has deepened ever since, until the surprising talents and accomplishment of the man have been reduced to a half-remembered legend."
Mrs. Asenath Harvey Darling purchased the house in 1864 in her own right. In fact, Mrs. Darling was quoted as stating that she wished her property to be "independent of her present or any future husbands." Before her death in 1893, her "present" husband was Manly Darling, a carriage maker. It is possible that the additions to the carriage barn to the back of the property were built during their occupancy. Certainly the iron window inserts with the name "Darling" were introduced before 1893. The two models of the garrison on display in the museum were made by Manly Darling.
Jane Harvey, Asenath’s sister, inherited the house. Jane is a school teacher and was the first to show the interior of the garrison to visitors.
Frances Perry Dudley, a descendant of Peter Gilman, first visited the house sometime during the first decade of the twentieth century, as attested by the guest book owned by the Exeter Historical Society. She worked with her son William to "restore" the house to its early appearance.
Historic New England acquired the Gilman Garrison House at William Dudley's death in 1966. Little was done to change Dudley's interpretation and the house interior is presented as he designed it. The house is an architectural study house, and Historic New England continues to survey the house to learn more about its unique construction. At the new millenium, dendrochronology was performed on the house. Dendrochronology is a scientific process of dating sturctural elements of a house through tree ring patterns. Samples of the white oak corner posts of the Gilman Garrison were tested and confirmed a definitive date of 1709 for the house's construction.