Echoes of Maine

In February of 2016, I took a trip to Aroostook County.  It was a whirlwind tour and I absorbed as much of the County as I could in the 48 hours I spent in that remote part of Maine.  In a card shop somewhere along the way, I picked up a copy of Echoes magazine.  Billing itself as “The Northern Maine Journal of Rural Culture,” it was edited and published quarterly by Kathryn Olmstead.

Olmstead, a transplant from Michigan, is a former associate professor and dean of journalism at the University of Maine at Orono.  She taught a class called “Newspaper Design” that I took my senior year at the stein-raising state university.  I am not sure how Olmstead got from Orono to Caribou, but she began editing and publishing Echoes in 1988.

The magazine is well-designed, thoughtfully composed, and carefully edited.  It’s not flashy, trendy, or slippery shiny like other magazines of Maine.  It features poetry, photography, fiction, and regular columns.  Its purpose, in part, is as follows:

“…the magazine focuses on positive values rooted in the past that have relevance for the present and the future.  Echoes suggests that knowledge of rural experiences can help us live in modern society – that there is permanence in the midst of change and value in remembering our roots.  Echoes is a portrait of home, whether home is a place or a time, a memory of the past or a vision of the future.”

When I returned home from the County, I subscribed to the magazine.

Yesterday, I got a photocopied letter from Kathryn Olmstead, announcing the upcoming issue of Echoes would be its last.  Olmstead wrote:

“Despite the enthusiasm of Echoes readers and our genuine pleasure in giving voice and visibility to writers, artists and photographers since 1988, the realities of the marketplace have finally forced us to cease publication.”

Although I don’t know Olmstead personally, all the visible evidence of her work in the magazine and her articles for the Bangor Daily News suggest she is not impulsive.  Her writing is steady and solid; if that’s any sign of her character, I imagine she’s been considering the “realities of the marketplace” for more than one or two quarterly issues.

Subscribers’ remaining issues will be fulfilled with monthly copies of Maine magazine, published by the Maine Media Collective.  Maine magazine, from my skimming of it, covers the north and easterly corners of the state as regularly as Down East magazine.

You know, endings and conclusions are difficult.  As a writer, I always struggle when I get to the end of a blog post, a newspaper feature, or even a personal letter.  Sometimes, I don’t have enough information or expertise to reach a conclusion.  Other times, I think my conclusions are wrong, based on a lack of information or expertise (see previous sentence).  My feedback loop makes for lousy endings.

Nevertheless, please don’t mistake my silence for a lack of thought, emotion, and opinion.

It’s the first day of summer here in Maine…radishes, ripening blueberries, and rose Campion flowers are in abundance as I contemplate the soon-to-arrive last issue of Echoes.

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When Jell-O Stalked the Earth

The regular suspects made their annual pillage of the ancient rhubarb a few weeks ago, leaving a few stalks for the family.  The thieves are two of Uncle Bob’s “acquaintances” who visit his garden every spring and help themselves to the rhubarb.  He doesn’t even know the name of one of the culprits; she just shows up and helps herself to the best of the rhubarb stalks.

The Baumer family rhubarb hit its popularity nadir in the mid-90’s when the women in the family were tired of the herbaceous perennial.  Nana and O’Pa were both gone and Uncle Bob settled into his role as manager of the family house and gardens.

That’s when the thief first arrived.  Seeing an opportunity, she seized her first armload of stalks.  She’s been here and gone already this spring, leaving the patch half bald.

Fortunately, Uncle Bob prevented the plants from going to seed by cutting off the flower stalk.  I’ve helped myself to some of the second-growth and made a batch of stewed rhubarb.

Maine cooking doyenne Marjorie Standish says in Keep Cooking – The Maine Way  “Call it rhubarb sauce if you wish, but have you ever noticed that a lot of cooks refer to stewed rhubarb?  Probably that is old-fashioned but it is nice, isn’t it?  In Maine, the double boiler method of cooking is used.  After all, it is such a simple way to make it.”

Her recipe is “the very best” if I may use Standish’s own style of writing.  She filled her newspaper columns and cookbooks with strong superlatives.  She wrote “of course butter gives the very best flavor,” and a certain cake was “the tastiest.”

As she suggests, it’s simple to make rhubarb sauce in a double boiler if you’re hanging about the kitchen for an hour.  Just be careful to keep water in the saucepan to prevent it from burning.

This year, I made my stewed rhubarb following Standish’s post-script suggestion to replace half of the sugar with a third of a box of dry strawberry gelatin.  I stirred it in after the sauce was complete and I’d removed it from the heat.

Popular gelatin brand Jell-O was a product of modern refrigeration and clever post-World War II marketing.  Standish would use it liberally in the salad sections of her cookbooks.  Today’s foodies snobbishly wrinkle their noses at the sweet, chemically tainted thickener, but it’s a pleasing addition to stewed rhubarb at a time when local strawberries are not yet available.

There was a time long ago when Jell-O quiveringly stalked the earth.  Now forgotten as a aspic additive like the fins on a vintage car, the thickener is more popular as a booze transport than a shimmering dinner salad.  Rhubarb thieves, food memory holes, and superlatively good cookbooks…I do what I can to keep the past alive.

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Quick Like a Jet

I’ve just spent twenty minutes rummaging around in my “book nest.”  It’s a library in my mind, but the room’s remote location behind closed doors keeps it ever disordered and not worthy of a more dignified reference.  I was searching for my copy of The Decoration of Houses, a book Edith Wharton co-authored with architect Ogden Codman in 1898.

Nowhere to be found.

I’m looking for the book because I’m touring the old structures featured in Historic Churches and Homes of Maine this summer.  With a recent tour of the Rockland Public Library, only three Maine Carnegies remain on my list.  The Maine Carnegie library tour is almost complete.

Rockland’ s is a beautiful Carnegie and the addition completed in 2002 is elegantly unseen when viewing the edifice from Union Street.  There is a natural transition from old to new library, with a well-preserved curved round circulation desk in the center of the original building.  I do not know if this is original to the Carnegie structure; sadly, the librarians working the day I visited were busy and unable to answer my questions about the library.  A bit harried they were, so it seemed.

Some of the original structure’s ceilings show evidence of water damage.  In the 2016 election, voters in the town of Rockland approved a $1.1 million dollar bond ordinance to repair this historic building, including water and moisture problems.

Libraries in Fairfield, Guilford, and Vinalhaven will be added to the house tour spreadsheet.

My regular travel companion, Handy, says visiting old churches and houses is boring.  He won’t be joining me so I’m making plans a la Lady Alone Traveler.

On January 8, 1955, local newspaper writer and lady alone Eloise Jordan wrote a column titled “Back to College.”  She was apparently taking a class and spending time at Bates College.  She says “sometimes there seems to be no way to catapult one’s self from that cut and dried routine.  Then without warning a miracle came to pass and my whole schedule has changed.”

Miraculously catapulted to change like Jordan, I’ll also be channeling her as I go “skimming over the new highway in a new car” and arriving at my destinations “quick like a jet.”

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The Lexington of the Seas

In an earlier blog post, I wrote about an old library book by The Maine Writers Research Club.  The book is now long overdue at the library, but the library staff are lenient with me.  I find if I put a dollar bill or two inside a book when I slip it into the overnight drop, not a peep is said about my delinquency.

I’ll return it today.

The Maine Writers Research Club published an earlier volume (1919) called Maine My State.  The book’s foreword states “this book is intended primarily as a reader for the public schools of Maine.  Further, “it is hoped that this book will teach history as well as reading; and what is of especial interest in this centenary year of the statehood of Maine, a love of the history of Maine.”

It’s a slim volume, full of quaint stories about the Pine Tree state.  The Lisbon Community Library copy first belonged to Mildred Starbird (by the inscription) and if I’m not mistaken, she once lived somewhere along the river in Lisbon and might have been acquainted with Eloise Jordan.  But don’t quote me because I’m working on a dim, early morning recollection.

My favorite story was “The Lexington of the Seas” by John Francis Sprague, a noted Maine historian.  It’s an account of the Battle of Machias, the first naval engagement of the American Revolution.  It’s a complicated story, and Sprague says “exactly what was the final cause for the battle which ensued is somewhat uncertain.”  There were sloops, suspicions, and a “Liberty Pole” involved; some say the British demanded the pole be taken down, making this situation a real megillah.

The captain of the Machias vessel, the Unity, was Jeremiah O’Brien and his lieutenant was Edmund Stevens.  The British ship, the Margaretta, was engaged and twenty of O’Brien’s crew boarded her “armed with pitchforks.”  A “hand-to-hand conflict on her deck resulted in the surrender of the Margaretta to the Americans, and Jeremiah O’Brien hauled down the British ensign flying at her masthead.”

And what of Edmund Stevens?

That is another story for another day, but fortunately for me, my childhood best friend is descended from Stevens and will provide me with the insider’s information.  With that lineage, I don’t know why she hasn’t made her application to the Daughters of the American Revolution yet.

Get on it, Sherry.

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The Vienna Union Hall

I had never heard of the Vienna Union Hall until Peter Miller died.  I don’t remember how I heard the news of Miller’s death either, although it was a regional news story when it happened.

Peter Miller lived on his family’s woodlands in Vienna (pronounced vie-EN-nah).  He was found dead in his cabin on Sunday, December 6, 2009 and an investigation into his death by the state medical examiner determined he died of blunt force trauma following a wood-cutting accident.  His chainsaw was found near a tree a short distance from his cabin.

His obituary noted he had graduated from the University of Maine with a degree in English Literature.  That’s when I met him, in a class taught by Dick Brucher.  We read some plays together, one being The Playboy of the Western World by Irish playwright John Synge.   Miller and I would share another class together and pass each other from time to time in Neville Hall or the Memorial Union.

He had a stunning smile; he was kind, engaging, and intelligent.  Someday I’ll find the note he wrote to me when I graduated from college.  Following graduation, he went his way and I went mine.  Our paths would never cross again.

His obituary also indicated his love of playing blues guitar, the Red Sox, contra-dancing and the Vienna Union Hall.  In lieu of flowers, donations were suggested to this community building.

Since reading of Miller’s death these many years ago, I’ve thought of Vienna and the Union Hall from time to time.  Just west of the Belgrade Lakes, I’ve kept the place on my ever-growing “bucket list” of places in Maine I long to see.  When the local paper advertised the Union Hall’s season-opening concert on May 20, 2017, it was time to visit.

The Katahdin Valley Boys, a 4-man bluegrass band, took the stage promptly at 7:00 p.m. and played two lively sets to a full house of locals and “bluegass riff raff” as mandolin player Dan Simons called them.   Handy and I got there too late to sit in the cushioned, long deacon’s benches and had to sit in the balcony.  It was a toe-tapping good time, although our balcony seats were somewhat precarious.

In 2015, the Union Hall ran a successful campaign to replace their ancient outhouse with a new handicap accessible facility.  The “Our Outhouse Gotta Gogo” campaign raised approximately $11,000 and two plaques posted in the hall commemorated donors who contributed.  I didn’t visit the facility, but a news story regarding the completion noted it was not only well-lit, but also heated.

The locally legendary outhouse and the well-performed bluegrass music gave the remote venue an “old-timey” feel.  The Katahdin Valley Boys even played “Dooley,” a song made popular by the Dillards on the Andy Griffith Show.

I don’t know if Peter Miller liked bluegrass music.  He loved the land he lived on, though, and in his memory, his sisters conserved his 60 acres of family land as part of the Kennebec Land Trust.  I’ll add this to my “bucket list” of places I long to go.

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The Magazine of Maine

In March, while pushing my grocery cart towards the Food City registers, I caught a glimpse of Maine’s number one rusticator smiling at me from the April, 2017 cover of Down East magazine.  A text-box said the issue was “guest-edited by Martha Stewart” and I picked up the $5.99 glossy publication and threw it in my cart.  It was a lovely issue, with an interesting article about backyard chicken guru Lisa Steele, a garden party in Phippsburg, and a piece about Maine’s first commercial clam farm.  Sprinkled throughout the issue were “Martha’s touches.”

“Nearly every story this month has its origins in our conversations with the lifestyle luminary, whose love of Maine is rooted in a carefree college trip from the 1960’s.”

Down East magazine first hit newsstands on July 15, 1954.  Boothbay native Duane Doolittle, after living and working “away,” returned to Maine with his wife Katherine.  In a February 5, 1955 Lewiston Journal Magazine feature, writer Faunce Pendexter interviewed the Doolittles and wrote of them “there were a number of years spent in wishing to get back to Maine other than for summer vacations.  They were occupied in advertising and sales promotion work in New York City and in college teaching at Principia and Syracuse University.”  According to Pendexter’s article, Duane Doolittle, before returning, “operated a summer seasonal business in Maine and had as his constant objective the goal of returning to the state on a permanent basis.”

When the Doolittles finally returned to Maine, they landed in Lincolnville and began publishing a magazine called American Design Forum which they wrote, bound, and mailed out of their home.  This magazine reached a circulation of approximately 1,000.  Noting the popularity of regional magazines like Vermont Life and Arizona Highways, the Doolittles decided a regional publication would have more appeal than their craft venture and in January, 1954, they began work on Down East and planned the first issue for the peak of summer.  Taking advantage of Maine’s increased population, the July, 1954 issue sold out of the 7,500 printed copies at 25 cents each.

Many talented writers and artists from away who summered in Maine added their gifts to Doolittle’s vision in the early years.  Time has diminished their stature, but readers of Pendexter’s 1955 article would have been familiar with writers Hodding Carter and Lew Dietz, as well as artists Carroll Thayer Berry and Warren Spaulding.

Lisbon’s own John Gould was an occasional contributor to Down East and the May, 1964 issue featured a dispatch from Gould about dairy farmer Anna Botma in the magazine’s “North by East” column.  Gould had mistakenly called the Netherland-native a “she” in his own paper, the Enterprise, and the “stalwart young man” had visited Gould to demand a correction.

Magazines come and go; in 1955, Faunce Pendexter began his article musing whether the infant Down East would carry on successfully or be doomed to the fate of other magazines which published a few issues and then were “seen no more.”  After his visit to Camden and his interview with Duane Doolittle, he concluded “There seems at the present every reason to think that Down East will prove valuable in promoting Maine, profitable to its owners, and pleasing to both State-of-Mainers and out-of-state visitors.”

63 years late Down East magazine is still going strong, proving Pendexter prophetically correct.

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A Fine Sort of Man

On April 22, 1928, The Portland Sunday Telegram published a “special despatch” on the construction of Lewiston’s Saint Mary’s Church, located on the corner of Oxford and Cedar Streets.  An architectural rendering of the church was included with a formal photograph of Louis Malo superimposed in the upper right hand corner.  The article said “the building is being erected by Louis Malo of Lewiston, a contractor of long experience, and who has built many fine buildings in Lewiston and other parts of the state.”

Louis Malo & Sons had just completed work on another Saint Mary’s Church (in Augusta) in 1927.

An August 18, 1928 “special dispatch” in the same newspaper wrote an article about Saints Peter and Paul church, noting the plans proposed by the Boston architects O’Connell and Shaw had recently been accepted.  It would be almost seven years before construction on this grand building would begin in earnest, also under the supervision of general contractor Louis Malo.

Louis Malo was born in St. Damase, Province of Quebec, in 1872.  He came to the United States with his family when he was 9 years old and was educated in Lewiston’s parochial schools.  He worked in the mills for a time and then learned the carpentry and masonry trades.  He would build churches (large and small), schools, and civic buildings in Lewiston and beyond.  He built the graceful Saint Denis church in Fort Fairfield, some 250 miles north of Lewiston.

When he died on April 5 1938, his obituary noted his family and his work were his chief interests in life.  The Lewiston Evening Journal obituary characterized Louis Malo as a “fine type of man.”

Many of Louis Malo’s descendants still live in Lewiston; I recently interviewed his great-granddaughter for an upcoming Sun Journal feature on the fabled general contractor.

Last week, I interviewed a third-generation business owner and contractor whose grandfather was also part of the Basilica’s creation.  We talked for almost an hour about how this large structure was built and at one point he said “today, a contract for a building like the Basilica would be a 2000-page document.  Back then, it might have been some blueprints, a piece of paper and a handshake.”

I may never uncover any secret diaries documenting the day-to-day construction activities on the corner of Ash and Bartlett Streets in the early 1930’s.  The wood scaffolding went up; the many artisans and craftsmen came and went.  Reports say 70 or so of them worked for Louis Malo.

As I sip my second cup of coffee, I think about my visit to Fort Fairfield in early 2016.  At that time, I was visiting Carnegie libraries and it didn’t occur to me to visit Saint Denis church.  The Basilica series wasn’t even on the writing calendar then.

The sun’s up now.  It’s the time of day carpenters and stonemasons would walk to the Basilica job site back in 1935.  It’s also, as dear friend and philosopher “At Your Service” reminds me, “Wednesday…the weekday devoted to Saint Joseph, spouse of Mary, the Worker, the Just Man, the Carpenter, the Holy Handy.”

Add Louis Malo to that list and we’re in good company.

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