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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The Slate Quarry

My research and writing about the Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul in Lewiston, Maine over the last three months has covered a few topics about which I’d never given much thought.  Following a story idea and a freak April Fool’s Day snowstorm, I hiked into a granite quarry in North Jay.  The sun was so bright following the surprise weather, I was blinded by the snow and the stones.  There was a magical quality to the place.  I blogged obliquely about that visit to the granite quarry here.

Further research revealed that in addition to the granite, some of the Basilica’s exterior ornamentation was limestone.  And what of limestone?

Limestone is not a Maine geological formation.  Domestically, most of it was found in southern Indiana near towns with names like Needmore, Oolitic, and Eureka.

I met my story deadline about the Basilica’s limestone, but I ordered a used book called Stone Country by Scott R. Sanders and Jeffrey A. Wolin.  It arrived a few days ago and it’s a cross between a long ode to limestone and a coffee table book.  Sanders describes his journey to chronicle a piece of the Indiana stone belt as “hunting for what endures.”  He talks about the ancient and slow-moving nature of stone:

“A time-lapse film of any landscape, with frames shot every thousand years or so, would reveal a swarm of changes.  From one millennial blink to the next, God would see an altered world.  The Psalmist knew what he was talking about when he said the hills skip like lambs.”

Similar to Kurt Swenson’s existential ruminations on granite, Sanders uses reverential language when he speaks of limestone:

“When the fog of human voices grows too thick for my lungs, and the ticking of my own inner clock rattles my soul, and I feel the winds of momentariness whistling through my ribs, I go out to climb a cliff or splash down a stony creek bed or dangle my legs over a quarry’s lip.  Some future day, oceans will wash again over this spot where I sit in my rickety chair, and once again myriads of beasties, many of them indistinguishable from the sea creatures of three hundred million years ago, will spawn and die in the shallows of Indiana.”

If you thought it couldn’t get more dramatic, I’ve recently learned that the Basilica’s slate roof was likely quarried here in Maine.  Monson, to be exact.  I’ve got a few phone calls and e-mails out to the sultans of slate history.  Historical societies in small towns like Monson close for the winter and like tulips and pea shoots, it’s touch and go as to when they’ll be open for business.

As a side note, spring, work, and writing duties are in overdrive and I’ll be dropping down to one post per week on Wednesdays.

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The Met for Maine Folk

The Androscoggin Historical Society, an impressive collection of artifacts and information, is located in the Androscoggin Country Courthouse.  The building complex includes court rooms, a jail, and many county offices such as the Probate Court and Registry.  According to Douglas Hodgkin, the historical society’s president, the Probate Court subscribed to the Lewiston Evening Journal for many years and kept bound copies of the newspapers as part of their record.  These now-dusty volumes, each containing 3 months of physical newspapers, are stored in the basement of the courthouse and are available for viewing by request and appointment.

Last week, I made a request to view the bound copies of “1934.”  It was a crap shoot whether my search through the paper haystack would result in any needles, but it was a fascinating three hours.  These papers are the “real deal” as we cavalierly call everything real and imaginary “these days.”

Placed prominently in the Friday, February 2, 1934 Evening Journal was this advertisement for the live Saturday broadcast from the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City.

Lucky Strike Sponsors

Richard Wagner’s “Die Walküre” started at 1:40 p.m. that Saturday, courtesy of Lucky Strike cigarettes.  Lucky Strike was one of the most popular cigarettes of the 1930’s and they sponsored a variety of radio programs including “The Jack Benny Show.”

The Lucky Strike sponsorship was short-lived; in 1940, Texaco became the sponsor.  The funding arrangement would continue for 63 years until Texaco merged with Chevron.  These radio broadcasts are currently sponsored by Toll Brothers, a luxury home-building corporation.

Maine folk listening to the opera that Saturday could tune in a Philco radio, about as large as a dishwasher, and pick it up on both of NBC’s radio networks.

In a review in the magazine Musical America, archived at the Metropolitan Opera’s website, music critic A. Walter Kramer noted this February, 1934 performance was particularly well done:

“The Saturday matinee of Feb. 3 was unusually worthy performance of “Die Walküre,” one informed with a spirit not too often observed in Wagner hearing these days. Whether it was due to the brilliant return to the company effected by Paul Althouse as Siegmund, or Mr. Bodanzky’s excellent treatment of the score, or both, does not matter. Fact is, was a noteworthy afternoon.”

Somewhere, in some dusty basement of a historical society or library are probably a pile of old magazines, maybe even Musical America.  These old things seem antiquated by our current enlightened standards, but they tell a story.  There is enough archival evidence to prove “Die Walküre” was performed on February 3, 1934 and broadcast live over terrestrial radio networks; it could have been heard on local radio stations in Lewiston, Maine.

The Met was available that Saturday in all its Wagnerian glory for Maine folk.

This year’s Metropolitan Opera’s Saturday matinee broadcasts are coming to a close, with only two performances remaining.  I tuned in for an hour this past Saturday for Wagner’s “Der Fliegende Holländer,” or “The Flying Dutchman.”  Now that it’s May, opera-loving Maine folks are racing around to get gardens in shape.  There’s little time for music now.

Toi toi toi!


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The Limestone Borg

A few weeks ago, I researched granite.  Did you know the Pine Tree State may very well have more of it than the Granite State of New Hampshire.  According to Steve Haynes, founder and director of the Maine Granite Industry Museum on Mount Desert Island, “Maine has a wider variety of colors of granite than the other New England states…and has the most quarries.”

Maine does not have any limestone quarries.

This week’s needle in a haystack was discovering much of the Basilica of Saint Peter and Paul’s exterior ornamentation was made of Indiana limestone.  This stone, lighter and more tan-colored than the granite, is best seen along the window tracery.

The exterior also has various statues affixed to the outer walls and in niches.  But are they limestone?  Or are they cast stone?  While researching these statues, I found some information which raised doubts in my mind as to whether they were carved stone or cast stone.  According to the Cast Stone Institute, “cast stone was first used extensively in London in the year 1900 and gained widespread acceptance in America in 1920.”  The Basilica’s upper church was built between 1934 and 1938.

I’ve got a call in to the Cast Stone Institute.

But that’s not to say limestone was not carved.  It is, even today at places like the Indiana Limestone Symposium.  I’ve got a call in to them, too.

Then, there’s problem of statue identification.  Mary, mother of Jesus?  Or Saint Thérèse of Lisieux?

This is how it goes writing features for the local newspaper.  I spend too much time searching for “facts” or some reasonable facsimile of them.

(Please, no comments from the peanut gallery about facts, lies, and statistics.)

It’s a mystery and a puzzle; a needle in a haystack.  It’s not exciting or glamorous, like whatever is trending on the hive mind this morning.  The intricate details regarding the construction of an old Catholic church in Lewiston, Maine are not important to people of the screen.

I look out my window into the dawn and realize I’m wide awake now.  It’s good to be still learning.  It’s better than The Borg.

Fight the Borg.

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