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.