Monday, March 12, 2012

Freeport's proud heritage did not include being the birthplace of Maine.

I’ve always been intrigued by the slogans that local towns use to proclaim their special historical status. For example, North Yarmouth’s motto, “The town where others began,” is a wistful reminder that five other communities eventually broke away from North Yarmouth’s original territory. “Our latchstring is always out,” is Yarmouth’s cheerfully quaint motto, one that surely makes for a dubious zoning policy. But it is Freeport’s claim to be “the birthplace of Maine” that is the most perplexing. Like the ghost ship of Harpswell, that slogan sails on through popular belief propelled only by local pride and wishful thinking.

The origins of this myth are closely linked to the Jameson Tavern that is pictured below. Originally built as the home of Dr. Jonathan H. Hyde, the place became the Codman Tavern in the late 19th century. More recently it has returned to its old name and operates as a restaurant on Main Street, literally in the shadow of the L.L. Bean store. The “birthplace of Maine” caption on this old postcard underscores the tavern’s special place in the mythology of the town.

This building was called the Jameson Tavern when a group of men met there in July 1819 to OPPOSE the idea of Maine becoming a state.

Freeport’s claim to Maine’s birthright rests on two historical facts, each of which contains a kernel of truth, but neither of which offers any support for the local statehood legend. (For those of you who would like to examine these facts more closely, I highly recommend Ronald Banks’ book, Maine Becomes a State as well as the discussion of this issue in Three Centuries of Freeport by Thurston and Cross.)

The Freeport version of the story takes place shortly after Maine became a state on March 15th 1820. To disentangle lingering problems, commissioners from Massachusetts and Maine met eight times between 1820 and 1827. According to local partisans, the final meeting of those commissioners was held at the Jameson Tavern where a stroke of the pen severed the last ties between the two states. Leaving aside the fact that Maine had already been a state for seven years when the commissioners held their final meeting, there is a the serious problem that the joint commission never met in Freeport–not at the Jameson Tavern or anywhere else. Their only meetings were in Boston, Portland, Bangor and Augusta.

The second piece of evidence that is offered for Freeport’s role in Maine statehood rests with a meeting that actually did take place at the Jameson Tavern, just days before the final referendum in July 1819. The men who gathered there were some of the most influential politicians, merchants and civic leaders from coastal Maine including Senator Samuel Fessenden, the land baron Robert Gardiner and Yarmouth’s Edmund Russell who commanded the local militia forces during the War of 1812. These men were conservative Federalists with close economic and cultural ties to Massachusetts, men whose control over the District of Maine had steadily eroded as settlers pushed inland from the coast. These eastern pioneers were more likely to be evangelicals and Jeffersonians in sharp contrast to the Congregational elite. Above all, the district’s feisty new settlers overwhelmingly endorsed the idea of breaking away from what they perceived as bondage to Massachusetts.

The dozens of men who gathered at the Jameson Tavern in July 1819 also held very strong opinions about Maine statehood. Unfortunately for the local legend, they were strongly OPPOSED to Maine’s becoming a state. Many of them came to defend Bowdoin College whose funding and governance would be threatened by the transfer of power to a new Maine legislature. These influential leaders included Stephen Longfellow Jr. who was a Portland lawyer and the father of the famous poet. Joseph McKeen, the son of Bowdoin’s first president, wanted guarantees that the new legislature would continue to subsidize the college to the tune of $3000 per year. Another advocate of the college was the school’s lawyer, Benjamin Orr who had the audacity to put a lien on the assets of William King, the undisputed leader of the statehood movement (and soon to become Maine’s first governor). As a trustee of Bowdoin, Dr. Ammi Mitchell from North Yarmouth showed up to defend not only the college but also the maritime interests of his town.

I believe that Freeport was selected to host the district’s only formal meeting to oppose the 1819 referendum because it was more than a convenient stop between Portland and Brunswick. It was also very friendly territory for these opponents of the separation movement. Sentiment in the town ran deeply in favor of Bowdoin College and very strongly against the movement toward statehood. The town’s support for Bowdoin reached back to the school’s inception in the 1790’s when Reverend Alfred Johnson of the 1st Parish church raised a large amount of money to have the college located in Freeport. It’s not surprising that a number of prominent Freeport men also attended the 1819 meeting including Barstow Sylvester, Josiah W. Mitchell (a lawyer who served as Freeport’s town treasurer) and Dr. John A. Hyde who was the town’s most respected physician.

Freeport’s opposition to statehood was also fueled by fears that independence from Massachusetts would be a costly victory for the town’s shipbuilders, sea captains and merchants. Until a last minute change was made to the Coastal Shipping Law, Maine vessels doing business along the Atlantic coast would have been forced to stop and pay customs in nearly every eastern state that they sailed past. Although this provision was modified before the 1819 vote, it helps to explain why the citizens of Freeport voted AGAINST statehood in every one of the six statehood referendums held between 1792 and 1819.

Given Freeport’s steadfast and unequivocal opposition to Maine’s separation from Massachusetts, it seems rather silly for the town to cling to the myth that it served as the cradle of Maine’s independence. In a few years the state of Maine will celebrate the bicentennial of its statehood. I strongly recommend that Freeport should use that occasion to celebrate its long heritage of innovative and independent thinking rather than perpetuate the false notion that it was somehow the “birthplace of Maine.”

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Billy Lawrence was a short but unforgettable character around Yarmouth’s old shipyards.

by Alan Hall

In a traditional New England town, there was often a fine line between being “eccentric” and being “different.” Today’s focus is on a 19th century Yarmouth peddler whose disability put him squarely on that border between social acceptance and discrimination. While local history tends to favor the captains of industry and ships, there were other minority groups and colorful characters who eked out a living on the margins of society. Often these “eccentrics” were perceived as having a mental disorder, so they received nicknames like Yarmouth’s “Crazy Joe Davis” and “Half-witted Alonzo.” In Pownal there was Dodge the Beggar who kept a wad of “tobacky” under his hat and Simon Magus who occasionally dined on robins. Of course Freeport had an entrepreneurial hermit who peddled souvenirs to the tourists headed for the “Desert of Maine.”

Colorful characters like these rarely show up in history books. I first heard of Billy Lawrence nearly forty years ago when I attended a “magic lantern show” at the Yarmouth town library. In the 1930’s Elmer Ring had stumbled across a cache of glass plate photographs in an abandoned Yarmouth building. In 1974 he organized the slide show so that elderly residents could help identify the images on those old glass slides. When this photograph of Billy Lawrence flashed on the screen, there was chorus of recognition: “I remember him––that’s Billy Lawrence!” Since he was born in 1842 and he remained in Yarmouth until his death in 1908, Billy and his wagon would have been an intriguing and familiar sight for Yarmouth children in the 1890’s.

Billy Lawrence with his snack tray and wagon, ca.1890.
(photo from the collection of Alan Hall)

It is usually difficult to trace the life of a person like Billy Lawrence who was orphaned at an early age, never married, and did not acquire property. Although the historian William Rowe certainly would have known Billy Lawrence, he never refers to him in his history of the town. In Edward Plummer’s Reminiscences of a Yarmouth Schoolboy Billy is at least mentioned as one of the most colorful and likeable characters along the town’s waterfront. Starting with Plummer’s clues about Billy’s later life, I was able to work backwards through census records to trace the households where “William Lawrence” lived from 1860 to 1900.

Edward Plummer wrote that Billy’s father was a very successful Yarmouth merchant, but the census and some genealogical evidence suggest that his parents were Lydia Pratt and Samuel A. Lawrence, a farmer from Pownal. Tragically, Samuel died in 1848, when Billy was only six years old. Plummer also recorded the story that Billy’s stunted growth came from an accident that he suffered when he was very young. Possibly his father’s death and Billy’s traumatic accident are linked, but we can only speculate about that. In 1860 Billy and his older sister Julia were in their late teens and still living with their mother. Julia is recorded as a schoolteacher while no occupation is listed for Billy. Their widowed mother Lydia is described as having some personal and real estate assets, suggesting that she inherited money and other assets along the way.

During the next decade Billy moved into the household of Daniel Mitchell who lived on East Main Street. Billy Lawrence, who may have been the nephew of Mrs. Mitchell, would remain in that house for the rest of his life. Even after Judge Mitchell’s death in 1886, Billy lived with Daniel’s widow Eliza and their daughter Ida Belle. Mitchell was not a wealthy man, but he was deeply respected in town. When his own father died, he abandoned his studies at Bowdoin College and returned home. He studied law and was appointed to be the town’s deputy sheriff and tax collector. He was elected to the board of selectmen and served as an examiner to decide which students were qualified to enter the town’s high school. Eventually he was appointed trial justice for Yarmouth and held many of the legal proceedings in the big kitchen of his East Main Street house where Billy Lawrence also lived.

Billy made his living as a peddler, although he hardly fit the stereotype of a sharp-eyed Yankee trader hustling goods from town to town. Pulling his little wagon behind him, he sold snacks to the shipyard workers, newspapers to passengers at the Grand Trunk railroad depot, and he worked the big crowds at ship launchings and muster days. If you look closely at his wagon, you can see on top of it, a wooden box with leather straps. Like any young vendor selling peanuts or hot dogs in a modern stadium, Billy suspended this box of snacks from his neck to keep his hands free. This was especially important for Billy because he had problems with his unusually short legs. For this reason he was usually seen clutching a long, staff for extra support.

Unfortunately, Billy occasionally needed to use his walking stick to defend himself. I recently received a remarkable old letter from Debbie Landry that described an incident when Billy was taunted by some of the neighborhood boys. It happened when he was in the backyard of the Mitchell house roasting peanuts. To do this he used a small metal drum that he carefully rotated over a charcoal fire. (This contraption was almost certainly made for him across the street at Dennison’s blacksmith shop where Billy was a familiar visitor.) According to the letter, Billy would sit perfectly still and not turn the handle on the roaster if anyone was watching him. Knowing this, the boys took pleasure in teasing him until the peanuts started to smoke and burn. “Then with a grunt of rage, he would seize his bradpointed cane and rush at us…[about] as fast as a five year old could run.”

While some Yarmouth residents viewed Billy Lawrence as a dwarf with a mean temper, other people like Edward Plummer fondly remembered him as “a little man” who was gentle with children. It is possible that both views were correct––at different periods of Billy’s life. Plummer’s memories tend to date from the 1870’s when Billy Lawrence was still a young man and the peak of ship building provided many lucrative opportunities for selling candy and peanuts. In the 1890’s shipbuilding had ceased in Yarmouth, making it more difficult for Billy to earn a living. At the same time, the loss of Judge Mitchell, who was Billy’s landlord and de facto guardian, probably left him more vulnerable. It is therefore not surprising that this enterprising little person experienced not only some warm moments of social acceptance, but also the harsh sting of discrimination. If any of you have additional stories or knowledge about Billy Lawrence, I would love to hear them to correct or complete this portrait of him.

This is a youthful Billy Lawrence, possibly from the early 1870's.
(photo from the collection of Alan Hall)

Alan Hall is teacher and historical researcher who has given many public lectures on a variety of maritime and local history topics. To read previous columns, post comments or view additional images related to Billy Lawrence, visit my blog on the internet. The address is Today’s photograph is from the collection of Alan Hall.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Many local sailors were held in Dartmoor prison during the War of 1812

My focus today is not on a typical old photo from the 19th century. I’ve chosen a foreboding and somewhat creepy image because it points to an important historical theme for the new year. Christina White, the savvy Director of the Freeport Historical Society, recently reminded me that 2012 will usher in the bicentennial of the War of 1812. For those of you can’t imagine why anyone would want to commemorate one of America’s most forgettable wars, pay attention, especially if you live in a seacoast town.

Coastal towns from Portsmouth to Eastport all experienced an economic boom between 1795 and 1805. With shipbuilding on the rise and a growing demand for American agricultural products, the size of the nation’s merchant marine doubled between 1802 and 1810. You can still see this wealth displayed in the elegant Federal style mansions along the main streets of towns like Wiscasset and Kennebunkport. While European countries were embroiled in the bloody Napoleonic wars, American sea captains cheerfully traded with both sides. This rosy situation all changed abruptly when the British imposed an embargo against trade with France and her allies. To enforce that blockade, the Royal Navy needed 140,000 sailors in a hurry. One quick solution was to seize sailors off American ships. This “impressment” of sailors became one of the causes of the War of 1812 and certainly posed a major threat to local sailors.

Dartmoor Prison was a gloomy place high on a windswept hill.

Motivated by these and other grievances, President Madison led the country into war with England in June 1812. Although the United States was very ill prepared, the English forces were completely bogged down in their struggle with Napoleon. This created a window of opportunity for local sailors to become “privateers”. In effect they were state-sponsored pirates who could use their own vessels to seize British merchant ships. These “independent contractors” (as they are now euphemistically called) were motivated by more than patriotism. They were granted the right to auction off the cargoes of their captured prizes at war-inflated prices and split the profits with their crew members.

Given the fact that in the first four months of the war, American privateers captured 219 British merchant vessels, it is not surprising that young men from towns like Freeport and Yarmouth eagerly signed up for voyages on privateers like the Dash. Unfortunately the job was also very dangerous, especially after Napoleon was captured in 1814 and the British navy was able to throw its might against the Americans. So many American sailors were captured that it was no longer feasible to keep them in the rotting old ships that the English used as military prisons. One survivor of these so-called “hulks” was Freeport’s Enos Soule whose vessel was captured by a British frigate. Although Enos survived and later went on to found the Soule Brothers shipyard in South Freeport, his brother Thomas never fully recovered from his time in Dartmoor. The prison claimed another victim when Thomas committed suicide in 1824, very likely from the effects of post traumatic stress.

Old warships ("hulks") became floating prisons.

After a mass escape of prisoners from one of the hulks, the British authorities transferred their American captives to a new high security prison called Dartmoor. Conditions at this place were brutal for the 6500 American sailors and soldiers who were kept there during the War of 1812. Most of them were put to work in stone quarries or they were forced to use the stone to construct additional facilities such as a prison chapel.

The historian William Rowe tells us that at least seven privateers operated out of Yarmouth during the War of 1812, including the schooner Lucy that carried 26 men and one cannon. On January 13, 1814 the Lucy was captured after a nine hour chase by a British warship, the Billerton. Perez Drinkwater, the First Lieutenant on the Lucy, wrote three remarkable letters to family members about his experiences at Dartmoor. After the Billerton returned to her home port of Portsmouth, England, Drinkwater and the other American sailors were temporarily held in one of the prison hulks anchored in the harbor.

He recorded that they spent a week in the old hulk before being forced to march through a snowstorm to Dartmoor prison. Perched on a windswept and rocky moor, the prison was located 1700 feet above sea level where it was exposed to year round blasts of rain or snow. Perez described the starvation rations of black bread and beef tea that they received once a day. He also railed against the cruelty of the guards and the nasty reality of being covered with lice (“creepers”).

In October 1814 he wrote to his wife to tell her that he was concerned about how she was getting along. He told her to seek help from a Yarmouth man named Rotheus who was holding some of Perez’s money. “For I can be no help to you at present, but I hope when I get out of this place to make it up to you.” Just days before his release in April 1815, he described a notorious massacre that occurred when the drunken British commandant of Dartmoor ordered his troops to fire on the American prisoners who were crowded together in the prison yard. Although Perez was unharmed, two members of the Lucy crew were shot, one of them fatally. On a lighter but peculiar note, he told his wife that he was shipping home his filthy bedding. Knowing that it was infested with lice, he advised her not to bring it in the house for a while.

As we move into the bicentennial of the War of 1812, I hope that the stories of local heroes like Enos Soule and Perez Drinkwater will bring the war home and make it worth remembering.

Prisoners like Enos and Thomas Soule were forced to quarry the stones to build St. Michael's church at Dartmoor.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Yarmouth’s Community Music Center had a peg-leg ghost and a bomb shelter when I bought the place.

 My focus today is on a Yarmouth landmark, the sea captain’s mansion built by Sylvanus C. Blanchard in 1856. Now called “317 Main Street,” the historic house has been transformed into a cultural crossroads featuring art exhibits, music lessons and concerts. Over the years, the mansion has also served as a boarding house, a lumber yard, a bomb shelter and my wife’s yarn store called, “Martha Hall.” When we purchased the house in1979, she was looking for a great business location while I was chasing stories of ghosts and fascinated by the rooftop “widow’s walk.” As usual her judgment was considerably more astute than mine.

 Just as we were signing the papers to buy the building, the former owner’s wife blurted out that the place was haunted. Over her husband’s protests, she insisted that we would see strange lights and hear a peg-legged sea captain thumping around at night. Despite the many eerie noises in the old house, I soon learned that neither of the two sea captains who lived there had lost any limbs nor had they expired in the building. If you look closely at today’s photograph, you will see the house as it appeared in the 1880’s. Based on another photo that I have seen, the gentleman in the top hat is almost certainly the owner, Captain Eben York.
 By the time he retired and purchased the house in 1881, Eben York had commanded some of the Blanchard family’s largest ships. The managing partner of that family-owned shipping business was S.C. Blanchard, the captain who built the house in 1856. Like many Yarmouth mariners, Captain Blanchard had ridden the great wave of prosperity that flowed into Yarmouth before the Civil War. Blanchard ships carried goods like cotton and guano to Europe and hides from South America to New England’s shoe factories. It is very likely that the leather trade brought S.C. Blanchard into contact with the wealthy Portland traders, Andrew and Samuel Spring. In 1855 they hired the talented Portland architect Charles A. Alexander to design their adjacent homes on Danforth Street. Highly regarded for his use of the popular new Italianate style, Charles Alexander’s commissions included the Chestnut Street Church that is now the trendy Portland restaurant, “Grace.”

 In 1856 Captain Blanchard followed the example of the Springs and asked Charles Alexander to design a stylish house that is now 317 Main Street. With marble fireplaces, plaster cupids on the ceiling and a two story outhouse, the elegant home also served as Captain Blanchard’s office and made a bold public statement about his wealth, power and social status. Within two years Blanchard was elected to the state legislature where he offered a dubious proposal to send emancipated slaves back to Africa in Blanchard-built ships. During the Civil War Blanchard sold the house and moved to Boston. Returning when shipbuilding revived in the late 1870’s, he ordered up a new mansion (now 261 Main St.). He had barely occupied that place when financial disaster struck. Running from his creditors, he died in 1888 in a hotel in Richmond, Virginia.

 Although I wasn’t terribly surprised when the handicapped ghosts failed to appear in the old house, I confess that I was a true believer in the idea of a widow’s walk. Somewhere along the way I had heard that the towers and cupolas on sea captains’ homes were designed to give their wives a spyglass view of the sea. From this perch a woman would faithfully watch for her husband’s ship to come sailing home. To test this romantic notion, I grabbed my old brass telescope and clambered up the hidden stairway to Captain Blanchard’s cupola. Alas, I quickly discovered that neither the river nor any patch of Casco Bay was ever visible from the house. With nothing but Wescustogo Hill and Bradbury Mountain to show for my effort, I reluctantly accepted the fact that cupolas on Italianate homes are just another stylistic feature like overhanging roofs, arched windows and bold roof brackets.

 I loved living in that house, in part because I kept stumbling across the traces of those who had been there before me. For example there was an Irish maid who lived in one of the rooms near the barn. I discovered her name tucked into S.C. Blanchard’s family in the census of 1860. Behind the barn I dug up an a silver spoon engraved with the initials of Captain Eben York’s wife. On another occasion when we were installing a new door, we discovered the initials “AWC” boldly inscribed in a layer of plaster inside the original wall. Since then I’ve found strong evidence that this was Augustus W. Corliss who did more than any other person to preserve Yarmouth’s early history. And, of course, there was Hazel Hilton and her bomb shelter. It’s a good thing she wasn’t standing in it during a real air raid. Hastily constructed during the Cuban missile crisis, the shelter’s concrete block roof had completely collapsed onto the cellar floor by the time I first saw it in 1979. All in all, these memories have convinced me that the old house really is full of some delightful ghosts, even if they do not thump around in the middle of the night.

 Today’s photograph of the S.C. Blanchard house is from my own collection of Yarmouth photographs. The following picture shows the building when my wife Martha had her yarn shop.

Friday, November 18, 2011

A grandiose scheme by the “Electric Railroad King” led to the creation of South Freeport’s Casco Castle

 My focus today is on a wintry scene in South Freeport around 1905. Although I always find it amazing that a stone castle pokes up over that pretty little village, it was the trolley car that caught my attention. Since the Casco Castle hotel (in the background) was operated only in the summer, I have to wonder why the trolley has stopped. Are there actually some intrepid trolley passengers who want to slip and slide across the 100 yard long suspension bridge to a shuttered resort?

South Freeport’s famous castle was built by a trolley car line.
The photograph raises deeper questions about the cozy connection between interurban “electric railroads” and the creation of leisure destinations in the early1900’s. Around that time many seaside resorts and “trolley parks” like the Casco Castle were constructed to provide an opportunity for city-dwellers to escape into the leafy “borderlands” outside the city. This trend raises a chicken and egg question about which development came first––the trolleys or the hotels––and the answer goes back to the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893. That was where Americans fell in love with the idea of electricity.

By the middle of the 1890’s entrepreneurs such as Amos Gerald (Maine’s “electric railroad king”) realized that electrically powered interurban trolleys could link together regions that were not well served by traditional railroads. They knew that those lines might eventually turn a profit from commuters who would move into the leafy borderlands around cities. However, at the beginning of this venture, entrepreneurs like Gerald faced the opposite problem of trying to lure crowds out of the city and into their trolley cars. Since the companies had already invested in costly dynamos to power their trolleys, they were eager to use the new wonder of electricity to attract riders and open up other streams of revenue. They could do this by building recreational destinations that featured electric light displays. Falmouth’s Underwood Terrace, for example, was one of the first buildings in area to have electric lights. Like the Casco Castle in South Freeport and Cape Elizabeth’s casino, it could also be reached by steamboat and provided food, music and summer revelry.
The route of the interurban “electric railway” that connected Portland and Brunswick began with a track that exited Portland by way of Tukey’s Bridge and then snaked along Falmouth Foreside. By 1897 it had passed through Cumberland and reached Yarmouth. As a kid growing up near the Town Landing Market in Falmouth, I recall that the roadside dirt at my bus stop was littered with small railroad spikes. They were apparently left in the ditches along Rt.88 when the trolley tracks were torn up in the late 1930’s. Being a history geek even then, I saved one of the spikes and it is now on my desk as I write this.
 When Amos Gerald decided to extend the trolley line to Freeport in 1902, his gang of Italian laborers became upset about their pay and the conditions of their employment. Going on strike, they brandished knives and guns to make their point. Eventually the matters were resolved so that construction toward Freeport could resume. That trolley line generally followed the route of old U.S. Route 1 from Yarmouth to Brunswick. However, after crossing the Cousins River near what is now the Freeport CafĂ©, the track suddenly veered east along the South Freeport Road. From that location the trolley wound its way back to a powerhouse and car barn in Freeport. That structure was torn down in 1994 to make way for the present headquarters of the town’s police and fire departments. 
The Italian laborers installing the trolley track in Yarmouth.

 The reason for the trolley’s long detour to South Freeport was surely to guarantee that everyone who used the line would get an up close opportunity to visit Gerald’s Casco Castle. It was an exotic attraction that included not only hotel rooms but also a zoo with wolves and buffalo, a sports area with a baseball field and a dining room that featured lobster dinners. All of this was in addition to the dramatic stone tower and the castellated main building that was actually constructed out of wood. Stepping off the trolley, visitors to the hotel gained access to the landscaped grounds by crossing the long suspension bridge that was dangled over a dammed up tidal inlet. The electric lights that illuminated the stone tower were appreciated not only by visitors, but also by mariners who used it as a lighthouse as they approached Pound of Tea at the entrance to South Freeport’s harbor. As someone who has sailed in and out of the Harraseeket River for over forty years, I can attest to the castle’s usefulness as a landmark––even when it is not lit up like a lighthouse.

Despite its many attractions, neither the Casco Castle nor the trolley line itself prospered in the long run. Automobiles and busses soon drove the interurban electric railways out of business. The main part of the hotel burned down in 1914 and the trolley line from Brunswick and Freeport to Yarmouth stopped running in 1927. Six years later the trolleys from Yarmouth to Portland ceased their operations, bringing to an end a colorful era in our local history. I find it ironic that major cities now trying to cut down on congestion and pollution are scrambling to rebuild the infrastructure of light rail that we once had at our doorsteps in towns like Falmouth and Freeport a century ago.

Today’s photograph of Casco Castle has been provided by the Freeport Historical Society. Their collection includes many more images of the Casco Castle and the trolley line that it was built to serve. Some particularly striking images are panoramic photos taken around 1910 from the very top of the castle tower. The image of the trolley track being installed on Pleasant Street Yarmouth is from my own collection.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Veterans’ Day evokes memories of Yarmouth’s war memorial bandstand that once stood on the village green.

 In honor of Veterans Day, my focus is on a lost treasure that once graced Yarmouth’s village green, approximately where cars now park in front of the town hall. I’m particularly interested in the date of this year’s holiday (11-11-11) because it carries some hefty historical baggage. In the past there were disagreements about whether a day to celebrate all veterans should be focused on November 11th– which marked specifically the end of World War I. From my perspective this year’s date brings us back to the old time view that the WWI armistice took effect precisely at “the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month.” This was the moment when terrifying guns of World War I finally fell silent. It’s also why Veterans Day was originally called Armistice Day, at least until 1954 when the holiday was broadened to include the veterans of World War II and Korea.

This elegant bandstand was Yarmouth’s war memorial from 1922 to 1953.
The last days of WWI were the most difficult for Yarmouth. One Yarmouth vet, Ernest Storer, was wounded only hours before the truce went into effect. More tragically the town was ravaged that fall by the Spanish Influenza epidemic that killed two Yarmouth soldiers at Ft. Devens. Another fourteen citizens died of the flu in the weeks leading up to the armistice. To make matters worse, there were also two demoralizing false reports on October 11th and November 7th that a truce had gone into effect. Church bells finally rang all day on November 11th 1918 when news was received that the war was truly over. The steam whistles on the pulp mill and sardine cannery let loose their screaming blasts and impromptu parades went up and down Main Street. Of the 107 Yarmouth men that served in WWI, there were three who died and four who returned as veterans wounded in combat.

The town moved quickly to honor its war veterans, a gesture that its dwindling survivors of the Civil War had unsuccessfully advocated for over fifty years. The result was an elegantly designed bandstand that was erected in 1922 in front of the high school and central elementary school that were then located on Main Street opposite the Merrill library. Bearing a plaque dedicated to all Yarmouth servicemen from the Revolution through WWI, the bandstand was an exceptionally appropriate way to honor the veterans. In its very structure and use, the bandstand created a kind of living memorial around which town residents could gather on warm summer nights to hear performances by the legendary Yarmouth band. Located right in front of the schools, it also kept the town’s patriotic heritage directly in the sights of its young people. If you look closely at the picture, you will also see the elements of classical Greek design with eight Doric columns, urn-like balusters and a delicate finial on the roof. Homer got it right. The Greeks knew how to honor the valor of their warriors. The classical style of the bandstand made this a superb memorial for Yarmouth’s war veterans.

However, there was more than patriotic sentiment that pushed this project rapidly forward. Civic progressives such as George Hammond in the 1890’s had been trying to create a true town center to bind together the two distinct halves of 19th century Yarmouth. Between the upper and lower villages (“the Corner” and “the Falls”) was a muddy valley commonly known as Brickyard Hollow. By rebranding this area as “Centerville” and filling the valley with pulp mill ash, they created a space for the new library and centralized schools. During WWI that effort had stalled, leaving several dilapidated private buildings to soak up the floods caused by melting snow and Cleaves Brook. Although past efforts to have the town buy that property had been defeated, it was finally acquired and the buildings auctioned off by the town in 1921––very likely with more popular support because of the proposed new war memorial.

If the town had dithered for another year, the bandstand might never have been built. In 1923 the Forest Paper Company abruptly shut down, laying off the majority of the town’s industrial workers. With the passing of shipbuilding, shoe manufacturing and now the pulp mill, the Great Depression came early to Yarmouth and lasted longer. Perhaps these harsh economic realities also explain why the town did not adequately maintain its elegant little bandbox. Rotting and falling apart, the memorial became an eyesore that threatened the safety of the school children. Carl Winslow recalls that it in its final days the bandstand was wrapped in snow fencing to keep kids from climbing into it. The memorial was demolished around 1953 and its brass plaque was relocated to the nearby American Legion’s log cabin where it remains to this day. Personally, I think the town should dust off the plaque and rebuild its little bandstand right by the flagpole on the village green. With its Doric columns and balustrades, the bandstand would harmonize beautifully with the classical style of the town hall and create an elegant focal point for the civic culture of Yarmouth.

Today’s photograph of the bandstand is from the collection of the Yarmouth Historical Society. The picture posted below is from my own collection and it shows how difficult it was to turn Brickyard Hollow into the town's village green. Floods of this sort lasted into the 1980's when the town finally installed huge drains to carry the water past the library and under Bennett Field to drain into the Royal River. Many local residents have memories of emergency book brigades trying to rescue books from the lower level of the library.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Enthusiasm for clipper ships sometimes leaves our local maritime heritage in a fog bank.

 My focus today is on clipper ship mythology, which I think has something in common with being a Boston Red Socks fan. When life’s facts don’t quite square with what we deeply believe should happen, we bury the results in a cloud of wishful thinking. I learned this truth the hard way when I started giving local history lectures thirty years ago. Armed with a freshly minted graduate degree in history, it never dawned on me that people would cling to their cherished view of the past even after I showed them my evidence to the contrary. It’s unfortunate how often there’s simply no evidence whatsoever to back up claims that a house once had an Indian tunnel or that it was a key stop on the underground railroad.

 Although I am now much older and wiser, I still find myself in the delicate position of trying to nudge people toward a more accurate understanding of the past. In Yarmouth for example, where the local sports teams are called the “Clippers,” it is amusingly awkward to point out that clipper ships were never part of the local maritime heritage. In the 19th century, Yarmouth’s shipbuilders were smart enough to foresee that clipper ships would be a bad investment. Realizing that clippers required huge crews and usually carried far less cargo in their slender hulls, the local shipbuilders did the math. They focused on sensible cargo carriers like “downeasters” with good speed and the potential for great profits. Unfortunately, the town’s clipper mythology was taken to a new level this summer when a rather odd-looking sculpture of a “clipper ship” abruptly came ashore on the lawn of Yarmouth High School. Instead of evoking the cloudlike beauty of a clipper ship’s sails, the statue’s rigging seems to have more in common with a Viking ship burial.
The San Joaquin appears in several history books as the Tam O’Shanter.
 I have encountered a different version of this problem in regard to Freeport’s maritime history. For more than a century the citizens of the town have enthusiastically kept alive the heritage of one of their own “downeasters”–the Tam O’Shanter. In fact the Freeport Historical Society recently put together a superb year long celebration of the Tam with an exhibition, lectures, concerts and performances. Often described as a “near clipper,” the Tam was fast, beautiful and highly profitable with a johnboat full of colorful stories and sea captains trailing in her wake. The Tam’s legend has loomed so large over the town’s maritime history that the ship has become the face of that heritage, crowding out nearly all of the others except for the heroic War of 1812 privateer, the Dash.

 Unfortunately, at some point in the last century some of the local residents showed more enthusiasm than accuracy in their recollections of great ship. The name Tam O’Shanter sometimes became the default when people were trying to label unidentified photographs of Freeport ships. For example, I found a picture of the John A. Briggs, the largest vessel ever launched in South Freeport, with the label “Tama Shanta” crossed out on the back of it. I want to thank Ned Allen, the curator of the Freeport Historical Society and also Dave Coffin, the great grandson of the Tam’s last captain, for helping to steer me straight regarding images of the Tam.

 Unfortunately, this wishful thinking about the Tam did not remain on the back of a few old photos. They worked their way into the very bones of the town’s history. An image of the Tam’s sister ship, the San Joaquin suddenly became the Tam O’Shanter when it was published in the town’s classic history, Three Centuries of Freeport. More recently, that same mistake was carried over into the Arcadia publication, Images of America: Freeport. In pointing this out, I’m not trying to be critical of these books that I regularly consult. I’m just emphasizing the perils of wishful thinking in local history.

 In today’s photograph we see the San Joaquin captured in 1876 just before its launch from the Soule shipyard in South Freeport. As the very next ship to be built by E.C. Soule after the launch of the Tam in 1875, it is not surprising that the two vessels were very similar. The major difference involves the position of the steering wheel. On the Tam it was located forward of the little deck house on the ship’s stern. In this photo of the San Joaquin the wheel is located aft of the little deck house.

 In the 1870’s and 1880’s both ships carried California grain and cargoes from Asia around Cape Horn to places like New York and Liverpool. It was on one of these difficult voyages that the San Joaquin rammed into an immense ice berg that was nearly ten miles long. Although the force of the collision toppled the forward mast and smashed the bow, the resourceful Captain Larabee jury rigged some repairs and coaxed the wounded ship back to Portland.

 I will return to stories about legendary Tam O’Shanter in future columns. In the meantime, I recommend that you stop by the Freeport Historical Society if you want to find out more about the town’s maritime history. A treasure trove of documents relating to voyages of the Tam and the San Joaquin have been archived from an extensive collection of Soule shipping papers donated by the late Margaret Soule.