Southern Maine has a long and varied history of horse racing. The first standardbred horse from Maine to run for a stake was Zuarrow, a chestnut gelding from Waterville. He was entered in a Massachusetts race in 1819, just one year after the first professional American Harness Race. Zuarrow trotted one mile across the Charlestown Bridge in 2 minutes, 57 seconds. Trotting hit its stride in 1835 and steadily grew in popularity in Maine throughout the remaining years of the 19th century, even in Kennebunk.
The secretary of the Maine Board of Agriculture was alarmed to report in 1866 that horse-racing formed the most prominent feature at agricultural fairs. He quoted from a document written by the editor of the “Canadian Farmer,” who stated, “There was a trot each day and purses to the amount of $1,000 were offered by the society out of its funds. The excuse for this is that the people will not come out in sufficient numbers to pay expenses, unless racing is provided for.”Horse racing was embraced in York County with astonishing enthusiasm given the sway that propriety was said to carry here in those days. Gambling on the horses was considered good clean fun and was enjoyed by the staunchest of moral policemen. York County race results appeared on the front page of the Eastern Star in 1877.
Any straight stretch would do for a track. In Kennebunkport, heats were run on North Street and what is now known as Ocean Avenue. Racing on town streets became so prevalent in Maine that a law was passed stipulating that anyone using a regular roadway as a race track could not sue the town in the event of an injury.
Sulky races were featured at every county fair and most municipal celebrations. They were primarily run on the beaches by 1900, but occasional winter heats on the frozen Mousam and Kennebunk Rivers were reported in the Biddeford Weekly Journal.
In 1904, it was reported that Dr. Merrill, Professor Wheeler, Ernest Benson, Freeman Seavey and Mr. Robinson, all of Kennebunkport, regularly raced their horses at Kennebunk Beach. Mr. George Bayes was the starter and Dr. Merrill and Edward Bryant judged the heats.
A new track was prepared by the Kennebunkport Driving Club for late winter racing in 1919. Permission was granted by Kennebunk Lower Village landowners to dam up the outlet at the road and allow the marsh inland of Western Avenue to freeze solid. Two or three sulkies were pulled around the ice track in each heat and kids entertained themselves between races by letting their kites pull them across the slippery track. The ice was so thick that spectators could drive their automobiles all the way to the end of the marsh. The new track, dubbed Lake Speedway, was a roaring success.
The following May, a meeting was held at the Mousam House in Kennebunk to form a combined Kennebunkport & Kennebunk Driving Club. Freeman Seavey was elected secretary and treasurer; Roy Taylor, Ernest Walker, Harry Washburn, Harry Day became assistants; and Earnest Benson was named president and manager of the club.
Benson, whose pristinely cared for racing silks were red and white, was uniquely qualified for the top position. As a Kennebunkport blacksmith, he boarded horses for fellow club members and made special racing shoes for the contestants. The club raced in the winter at Lake Speedway and the rest of the year on Gooch’s Beach. Popularity of the sport quickly grew in the Kennebunks.
In March of 1922, the Biddeford Weekly Journal printed a rumor that the West Kennebunk Grange was thinking of leasing the local deputy sheriff’s training track for a fairground and possibly, a venue for harness racing. Sure enough, on July 22, 1922 the West Kennebunk Grange Trotting Park was established for summer racing on Constable Edwin I. Littlefield’s land. Heats were held every Saturday afternoon.
Fiske, Benson, Maling, Taylor, Smith and Jenney of the Kennebunkport & Kennebunk Driving Club and Matt Bowden, L E Wiggin and others of Biddeford, agreed to trot their 20 or more horses for 40 percent of the gate receipts. The Grange received 60 percent to be invested in maintenance on the track. The trotting park accommodated crowds of 3,500 within the first two years, but maintenance of the park was not adequately performed by the Grange and the track fell into disrepair.
On Nov. 15, 1929, it was reported in the Lewiston Evening Journal that the Kennebunkport & Kennebunk Driving Club had purchased 22 horse sheds at the West Kennebunk Trotting Park as well as the judges stand and ticket office. Edwin I Littlefield, by then a senator, retained ownership of the land. Sheriff Ernest L. Jones was elected manager and treasurer of the Driving Club.
The West Kennebunk Trotting Park was used mostly as a training track after 1930. Local races continued to be run on Lake Speedway and Gooch’s Beach. World War II put an end to the regular races, though occasional heats were run until 1948.
Little remains of the West Kennebunk Trotting Park, which now lies under the turnpike garage. Few people still remember the horse racing years in the Kennebunks. Fortunately, Cecil Benson does and his help with this column was greatly appreciated.
Around the turn of the 20th century, Cape Porpoise residents had a front row seat to watch the official United States Battle Cruiser speed trials from Seavy’s lookout up on Crow Hill.
Each trial consisted of 2 trips over a carefully measured course that ran 41.65 knots at sea from Cape Ann, Massachusetts to Cape Porpoise, Maine. The battleships would circle for a few hours at Cape Ann to give their boilers time to build up a head of steam before screaming across the starting line at top speed.
The stakes were high for the first trial in May of 1893. Philadelphia shipbuilder Edwin S. Cramp had a contract to deliver a cruiser that could maintain an average speed of 20 knots per hour for four consecutive hours. Every quarter knot by which the requirement was exceeded was worth another $50,000 from the Government. Members of the Naval Board of Inspection looked over every bolt and rivet from stem to stern and remained on board for performance assessment. Edwin S. Cramp himself supervised the trial and Capt. R A Sargeant took command of the vessel. A ship’s company of no less than 400 men were required for the trip that cost approximately $30,000.
May 22, 1893 was a beautiful calm day. Thousands of giddy spectators decked in Sunday finery turned up at Cape Ann to witness the start of the race. A reporter for the Boston Daily Globe described a carnival atmosphere that spread all the way up the coast to Cape Porpoise. The trial was a triumph. After just under four hours - with a clock stop in off Cape Porpoise to get the massive vessel turned around – the armored cruiser New York averaged 21 knots per hour earning her shipbuilder a $200,000 premium.
Several trials were conducted each year from 1893 through 1907. The Biddeford Journal posted expected times of arrival and no matter the weather, the folks in Cape porpoise were watching from Crow Hill when the battleships came into view.
The October 2, 1895 trial of the Steamer St Paul for a coveted US Mail Carrier contract seemed doomed from the start. She got under way to build steam at 9:45 am but shipbuilder Cramp didn’t like the way her boilers were running. To make matters worse she had been sitting in brackish water in the Delaware River during a long drought and her bottom was foul. At the last minute Cramp decided to put off her official trial and proceed with a preliminary run.
Not far out of Cape Ann the boilers began to “prime” and the boat’s speed perceptibly decreased. “Priming” meant that the water in the boiler was not made into steam rapidly enough. Bubbles containing a large percentage of water were carried into the cylinders with steam.
Eight miles from the finish line in Cape Porpoise the steamer was further delayed when the captain of a local lumber schooner refused to yield right of way. The schooner was directly in the ship’s path. Captain of the St Paul ordered the whistle blown for her to sheer off but the Cape Porpoise lumberman held steadily on. The big racer barely avoided cutting the schooner in halves.
The official trial was run the following day after brackish water was cleaned out of the boilers but even then she beat her 20 knot per hour minimum by only .50 knots. The St Paul was immediately taken to New York and placed in service on the line. Despite a slow start she proved to be a splendid transatlantic mail carrier.
August 20, 1902 spectators at Cape Porpoise were treated to a full scale war game. The Blue Squadron, commanded by Rear Admiral Higginson was charged with defense of the U.S. coast from Cape Cod to Portland against attack from Admiral Pillsbury’s White Squadron.
Higginson’s fleet consisted of nine battleships, seven torpedo boats and a converted yacht, the Mayflower. The White fleet was ordered to attempt to reach Portland, Rockport, Portsmouth, Salem or Provincetown without getting caught by a superior vessel.
The War Games were an exciting spectacle for the people of Cape Porpoise, who this time came down off Crow Hill to get a closer look.
Blue Squadron Cruisers, Brooklyn and Olympia, the Mayflower and the torpedo boat Shubrick arrived off Cape Porpoise just before 3 pm. The larger vessels remained well off shore, but the torpedo boat ran in and anchored near the cape for about a half an hour. The fleet proceeded eastward after that but not before the torpedo boat Shubrick steamed in and put a marine ashore.
Most of the ships launched on the Kennebunk River before 1840 were built at the Landing. By the time the river locks were constructed in 1849, Clement Littlefield, in company with George Emmons, had already built some of the largest vessels launched on the river.
Mr. Littlefield was making hay in a grass plot on Chase Hill Road, adjoining his home in 1887 ,when correspondent Jules Righter of the Biddeford Journal made his acquaintance. The reporter was hoping to learn about the early days in Littlefield’s shipyard.
“I came here when I was 16-years-old and went to work, learning my trade, at the Landing up there,” the retired shipbuilder said, pointing upriver. “When I was 21 years old I had acquired sufficient proficiency in my trade so that I was made foreman of the yard, where I was at the time. Shortly after that I bought this field down here and had a shipyard of my own. This was a splendid place, you see. We could haul our lumber over to this high ground and then chuck it right down over the bank to the craft we happened to be working on. Out there down by the railroad track, and up here on the bank, where you see that stone, I had a steam mill where we used to cut all of our lumber.”
“How did you get your lumber?” asked the correspondent.
“Our big sticks came in from the country. Many a time have I seen the road blocked with teams loaded with lumber. There used to be a great deal of rivalry between the different teams. Our planking and light timber used to come in from the South — Southern Pine and the like. It came by ship. We would unload the timber right into the water and then duck it so that it wouldn’t be carried away by the tide. You can see some of the dock piles down there to the right of the coal shed now,” Littlefield responded.
The reporter then inquired about the workmen hired by the various yards, asking, “You used to employ more men down here than at the Landing, didn’t you?”
“Oh yes;” was his response. “Up there we only had about 20 men at work on a vessel at a time. Down here we used to employ over 100. Sometimes we built two or three vessels at a time.”
When asked about the consumption of rum by his employees, Littlefield replied, “Up to the time when I came down here rum was a common thing for the men to have in their chests. But after I had been here at this yard for a few years, the temperance movement started and from that time on we didn’t have it.”
The Emmons & Littlefield Yard began operations in the early 1840s. Shipbuilders David and Abner Clark and George Christenson all learned their trade under the tutelage of Clement Littlefield before opening shipyards of their own. The year 1856 was a tough one for area shipbuilders. D&S Ward in Kennebunkport folded on Oct. 21, 1856, and the Emmons & Littlefield Yard was assigned the following day. Landing shipbuilder Nathaniel Lord Thompson, who had contracted the yard to build ships for him since 1854, purchased what was left of the failed business in 1858 and sold part of the property to the Clark brothers.
As master carpenter, Clement Littlefield built ships for N.L. Thompson and for his son-in-law David Clark for many years after selling his business. He also took on construction work around the Kennebunks.
Andrew Walker wrote about one such project in his 1882 diary.
“During the past summer Charles Parsons has had a wharf 119 feet in length by 40 feet in width built at the head or mouth of the Mousam River, but a short distance from his sea-side cottage. The wharf was built by Clement Littlefield in 23 working days. In its erection he drove 75 piles and then planked it on the inside and filled in solid with about 4,000 loads of rock and earth. The beach in this vicinity was formerly called Hart’s Beach. Mr. Parsons has recently renamed it Parsons Beach and the new wharf, Parsons Wharf. Mr. Parsons thinks the wharf may be used as a landing for vessels laden with coal and as a shipping place, to which farmers may haul wood and lumber which they wish to send to other places.”
Clement Littlefield and his wife, Mary Thompson, raised an extended, multi-generational shipbuilding family at their home in Lower Village and occasionally housed employees of the Emmons & Littlefield Shipyard. According to a new sign at the corner of Chase Hill Road and Western Avenue, that home is soon to become “The Shops at the Grand.” No assurances can be offered by the developer that any of the original structure will survive the renovations as the building is in pretty rough shape. Its historical significance should be acknowledged before the circa 1808 house becomes a memory.
Ethical, virtuous, honorable; all are generally accepted synonyms for the word moral, but when self-appointed moral authority mutates into mob mentality, as it did in Kennebunkport on the night of June 28, 1900, definitions get murky.
Barber Effel Sidelinger came to Kennebunkport alone in 1898. The widow Abbie Brown rented him a room in her home — now the Captain Fairfield Inn on Pleasant Street — and the barber shop in the Brown Block, next door to the shop where she and her “spinster” daughter Carrie worked every day.
Sidelinger was not well liked in Kennebunkport. He drank too much and he spoke his mind rather more freely than did most God-fearing Kennebunkporters. When he started walking the single, 30-year-old Carrie Brown home from work, tongues started wagging.
Constable Lemuel Brooks repeatedly warned Sidelinger to “leave town or else,” but he was repeatedly ignored. The most respectable businessmen in town decided something needed to be done as an “example to all immoral people.” A reporter for the Biddeford Weekly Journal was apparently apprised of the plan, because he was on the job in Kennebunkport when the dirty deed went down.
Effel Sidelinger was “caught” lurking around Miss Brown’s home that evening, never mind that it was actually his home, too. He was dragged down into the middle of what is today called Ocean Avenue. Meanwhile, someone was sent to the South Congregational Church to ring the town bell.
As if they knew what was up, at the sound of the bell, nearly a hundred of Sidelinger’s neighbors gathered in front of Ham Littlefield’s house to watch the barber get what was coming to him. There, a fire was being stoked. Balanced over it sat a kettle of tar just then reaching the optimal sticky softness necessary to make feathers stick to human flesh. Sidelinger was stripped of all his clothing except for his shirt.
“One of the men put his hand into the bag of feathers and announced he was ready to put them on as soon as the tar was warm enough,” wrote the Biddeford reporter in an almost exuberant style. “‘I’m ready,’ shouted the man with the tar. ‘Pull off his shirt so we can plaster it all over him.’”
“‘Don’t leave a dry spot on him,’” shouted someone else in the crowd.”
Sidelinger promised to never again give them cause to disapprove of his private life, but the sound of his cries was drowned out by the jeering mob. Someone called for the pole to ride him on. When Sidelinger saw the men start from the fire with the pail of tar he gave a tremendous jump and got away from the two men holding him, but not before the tar man had a chance to lunge at him, applying hot tar to his shirt.
He ran for his life, across the bridge to Lower Village Kennebunk. It wasn’t until he collapsed at Constable Shuffleberg’s door that he became aware of serious injury to his knee. Doctors Prescott and Langdon were called to attend him. They estimated the barber would be unable to walk for at least eight weeks.
Within a few days, Sidelinger had filed suit against five prominent Kennebunkport men for instigating the attempted tar and feathering: the chairman of the Board of Selectmen; a well-known, civic-minded artist; a canoe builder; a grocer; and a blacksmith. Each time the case was to come before an Alfred Judge, some technicality or other delayed the hearing.
Twice, Constable Brooks arrested Sidelinger for public intoxication in an effort to impeach his character before the hearing, but twice he was released when no evidence of intoxication could be found. The barber filed suit for false arrest, but again, there was no room on the docket to hear the case.
Three months after the attempted tar and feathering, Effel Sidelinger and Carrie Brown were arrested and jailed for adultery. Sidelinger’s wife, with whom he had not lived for years, had been found and enticed to testify against the couple. There were no delays in the proceedings and the salacious testimony was the Biddeford Journal reporter’s dream come true.
The four neighbor ladies who testified had been together at a house across the way from the Brown house on the evening of June 19, 1900. They happened to be looking in that direction and reportedly could see Sidelinger and the attractive Miss Brown in a bedchamber together. She moved about, scantily clad, and he undressed near the window just before the light was turned out. In another instance, one of the ladies just happened to be walking very near the Brown house late at night. She heard the accused conversing just before the squeaking of bed springs offended her auditory sensibilities.
One of the neighbor ladies sent her young son up an apple tree to obtain a better view of the upstairs bedchamber. What the boy subsequently witnessed made quite an impression on him because he had no trouble recalling every vivid detail for the court and the Biddeford Journal reporter.
The Jury quickly returned a verdict of guilty against Effel Sidelinger and Carrie Brown. The case against the Kennebunkport businessmen was again delayed. Abbie Brown paid surety for both defendants while they awaited sentencing, and when Carrie Brown and Sidelinger slipped out of town in the middle of the night, they were not pursued. Their departure had been the end game all along.
United States Congress had little choice but to pass a May 15, 1820 bill authorizing construction of a wooden pier on the western side of the mouth of the Kennebunk River. At least two local trading vessels had met their end trying to navigate the dangerous harbor entrance during the two preceding years. According to Shipping News, both were very familiar with its hazards.
A sandbar outside the mouth of the river was only two to three feet deep at low water. Navigation guides instructed sailors to anchor between the Fishing Rocks and the mouth of the river, to await high tide. Larger trading vessels were forced to load and unload part of their cargo outside the sandbar.
The 139 ton brig Merchant, Captain Emery, had been built way upriver by Kennebunk shipbuilder, Nathaniel Gilpatrick. She was launched October 13, 1804 and after a West Indies trading career, was cast away on the Kennebunk Bar upon her return from Havana, Cuba at the beginning of April 1820. All her cargo, sails and rigging were reportedly saved.
The 160 ton Brig Columbia, launched upriver just a week after the Merchant, was owned by Joseph Moody, Richard Gilpatrick and Jeremiah Paul. Like the Merchant, she was engaged in West Indies trade with Cuba and Porto Rico.
It was reported in the Daily Advertiser that on her first voyage in January of 1805, the Columbia was boarded and robbed. “Captain Mason in the brig Columbia, was brought to by a privateer schooner under English colors,” read the headline.
The privateer captain ordered Benjamin Mason to come aboard with some of his crew but most of his men being sick, he was unable to comply. Mason was physically forced aboard the privateer by her captain, leaving the Columbia at the mercy of the privateer crew.
The English flag on the raider was immediately pulled down and replaced by Spanish colors. All the Columbia’s fresh supplies, extra canvas, spun yarn and tools were stolen. After being held for two hours and “much abused,” Capt Mason and his sick crew were released and allowed to sail away in the brig Columbia.
An 1807 foreign trade embargo and the War of 1812 crippled shipping in the District of Kennebunk. Local vessels were stored upriver to keep them out of enemy hands and a fort was built on Kennebunk Point to protect the river.
Local businessmen needed loans to endure the financial challenge and protect their shipping investments. The Kennebunk Bank was built in Arundel. Joseph Moody, principal owner of the brig Columbia, was elected President of the institution. National banking regulations requiring that capital be backed by specie (gold or silver) were relaxed during the war but once peace was restored the regulations were enforced. The Kennebunk Bank was forced to reduce its capital by $20,000 and to rent the upstairs of the bank building – now the Louis T. Grave Memorial Library -to the U. S. Government as a Customs House. The Kennebunk bank was repeatedly embarrassed, not having specie sufficient to cover the money it had printed.
On November 17, 1818, the brig Columbia, owned by bank President, Joseph Moody, returned to Kennebunk 28 days from Ponce, Porto Rico with a cargo of molasses, sugar, lignumvitae, and hides. She also had over $1000 specie aboard, likely in the form of gold and silver coins. Captain Lord anchored her outside the Kennebunk sandbar to await the tide and went ashore. It was reported in the Essex Register that Lord returned with one of the owners, a pilot, and some additional hands to get the vessel into the River.
“In beating into port, to windward of the Fishing Rocks, the wind took her aback, and not having room to wear, she struck on one of the rocks, but immediately floated off – no danger was apprehended, but shortly after a Spanish passenger, who was confined to the cabin by sickness, came running on deck and informed that the vessel was half full of water – the people had just enough time to take to the boats losing all their clothes etc. before she sunk, leaving only the ends of her topgallant masts out of water.”
Captain Lord managed to save one small bag of coins but many newspapers reported that up to $1,000 in specie went down with the brig Columbia. Joseph Moody sold what he could salvage from the wreck the following February and collected $5,000 insurance money but it was not reported if the sunken treasure was ever recovered.
Several times in the past 70 years an old wreck has been briefly uncovered at the eastern end of Gooch’s beach. The Brick Store Museum owns an aerial photograph of it taken after a September 1978 storm. It could be the Merchant or the Columbia but like most shipwrecks of the Kennebunks, its identity cannot be verified without archaeological investigation.
By then, each coastal resort area had its own team. “The Goose Rocks beat the Ocean Bluffs 5 to 3,” wrote the Wave sports reporter that summer. And later, “The Granite State base ball club and the Gooch’s Beach team had a lively match.” When a game was scheduled against the York Beach club, local boys piled onto one of Joe Jeffries’ barges and made their way down the coast to rival turf. Temporary diamonds were laid out on the beaches or in open hay fields.
Teams were made up of year-round residents and summer folk. The Ocean Bluff team had the good fortune to have Penobscot and Passamaquoddy Indian boys camping nearby at Indian Canoe Landing. Writer Albert Reed vacationed at Cape Arundel in August of 1889 and raved about the Indians’ passion for baseball in an article he submitted to the Boston Daily Globe. “The most dangerous habit they are addicted to is baseball. All the young braves are deeply versed in the slang and rules of the game and know all about the league standing, while several of them are practicing for positions on the Boston nine.”
Eighteen-year-old Louis Francis Sockalexis, soon to be one of the first Native Americans to play professional baseball, was a member of the extended family of Penobscot Indians summering at Cape Arundel in 1889. Though he wasn’t mentioned by name in the Globe, that summer he was listed as third baseman on Kennebunkport’s 1902 roster after his brief career as the original Cleveland Indian. Some said he could have been the greatest player of all time if only he hadn’t suffered from alcoholism.
The Kennebunkport Historical Society owns a beautiful photograph of renowned Boston and Kennebunkport artist, Abbott Fuller Graves, posing with his baseball team on the front lawn of his Ocean Avenue home. Graves sponsored and managed a local team of grown men in 1915; men with names still familiar in Kennebunkport, like Towne, Littlefield, Gould, Whitehead, Eldridge and Butland. Curtis and Earnest Coombs of West Kennebunk played right field and catcher, respectively. Their older brother John, meanwhile, was playing professional baseball with the Brooklyn Dodgers.
Henry Parsons donated land on School Street for a permanent ball park and Frank Atkins was hired to keep it trimmed and tidy. Poet and local shopkeeper Silas Perkins took over as the team’s manager in 1916. The Kennebunkporters continued to play until 1918 when World War I made exuberance for a game seem inappropriate.
In 1922, summer resident George Herbert Walker Jr. brought new life to the Kennebunkport baseball scene by organizing a team he called the Blue Stockings. The following summer he hired John W. Coombs as player/manager. Colby Jack Coombs, as he was known to the fans, had taken a coaching job at Williams College after a brilliant career in professional baseball. With summers off, he was free to lend his expertise to the Blue Stockings.
Walker and Coombs were determined to establish a top-notch semi-pro ball club. A new grandstand was erected at Parson’s field and the Yale groundskeeper was engaged for the season. Coombs played right field. Walker caught the ball. He also held the strings so coyly referred to in the Lewiston Daily Sun on March 1, 1923. “It is reported that strings on a large purse have been unknotted to secure a classy outfit of semi-pro ballmen. Summer residents are keen for a first class team and propose a payroll that will rival that of the Augusta millionaires.”
Walker and Coombs assembled the best collegiate talent available in 1923. Jack’s best players at Williams were recruited as were the crème de la crème from Dartmouth and Princeton. Local sports fans were thrilled with the prospect of a winning ball club but none were happier than the young ladies at Cape Arundel, who reportedly scrambled for their dance cards. The team was referred to as the Collegians by the press; and the name stuck.
By 1950, Jack Coombs had retired. With few interruptions, Herbie Walker was still calling the shots for the Kennebunkport Collegians. Kenny Raynor was his manager. Yes the same Kenneth Raynor who would become President of the Cape Arundel Golf Club. George Herbert Walker Jr. told a reporter for the Portland Press Herald that he didn’t expect the 1950 Kennebunkport Collegians to be financially successful. He regarded the maintenance costs as an investment in good fellowship; a common interest for town people and summer visitors. “That’s worth a lot,” he insisted.
The Collegians didn’t play in 1951. Many of their prospective players had been drafted to serve in the Korean War. Kennebunkport baseball fans, proud of a their semi-professional team and the town’s rich baseball history, hoped the boys would be back after a few years but it was not to be. George Herbert Walker Jr., uncle to two United States Presidents, co-founded the New York Mets in 1960.
“The Silent Partner”, by renowned Boston and Kennebunkport artist Abbott Fuller Graves, goes on the auction block next Thursday. From the fate of its involuntary title subject to its theft and subsequent recovery by the Santa Rosa California Sherriff’s Department, the 116 year old painting has an intriguing history.
By the time the heart-wrenching picture was completed in November of 1894, Abbott F. Graves was a household name in New England art circles. Best known for his artistry with flowers, Graves was making a good living for his family selling paintings and conducting his own school of art. His botanical design “The Eden” had appeared in Thomas Strahan & Co’s 1893 line of wallpapers and the painter had just finished illustrating a book, “Wildflower Sonnets” by Emily Shaw Forman, his second. He had illustrated New Castle, Historic and Picturesque by John Albee, in 1884.
Graves displayed a growing interest in painting the human condition; the drama of simple country people engaged in their mundane daily lives. On September 23, 1894 it was reported in the Boston Daily Globe, “Mr. Abbott Graves has taken a studio in Studio Building, which he has fitted up with an eye to the artistic and attractive arrangement which the instincts of an artist suggest. His sojourn at Kennebunkport, ME, the past season resulted in his securing some charming sketches of that picturesque locality.”
The first public exhibition of the painting was announced on Nov 11, 1894 in the Globe: “The Boston Art Club will give its 51st exhibition, from Jan 18 to Feb 16, 1895.”
“Mr. Abbott Graves of the Studio building has just finished a large canvas which he entitles “The Silent Partner.” The picture is an original composition and surprisingly artistic; in fact the best piece of work in this line which the artist has accomplished. It represents the interior of a tenement, an Italian organ grinder sitting upon his instrument, the tambourine girl resting upon the floor with her hands to her face, both bemoaning the fate which has deprived them of their active partner, the dead monkey. The composition is well managed and the color scheme admirable.”
Preeminent Graves biographer, Joyce Butler recalls a story about the monkey in the painting, told to her by Miss Dorothy Buhler, whose father, artist Augustus Buhler, occupied a studio in the same building when “The Silent Partner” was painted.
“Graves “got” the dead monkey from an organ grinder. After completing the painting, Graves paid a “man on the street” to dispose of the animal’s body. It was not “done successfully” and the remains were traced to Graves causing him “some difficulty with the authorities.”
Comic actor, singer and playwright, Francis Wilson, who would later become the first President of Actor’s Equity, was moved by Graves’ new painting. The plight of the organ grinder whose grief is clearly combined with consternation over the loss of a business asset, reminded him of his own lean years as a player in a minstrel show.
“It is rare that an artist nowadays paint a pivotal picture – one that will turn the minds of people, make them reflective and more considerate of the common phases of life,” wrote a reporter for the Boston Post. “Surely Abbott Graves has touched a chord of nature which makes the whole world kin in a work that is destined to make a national reputation for him. Graves is an artist and is known far and wide for his flower paintings, but he sees and studies all sides of life, and in this recent work, entitled “The Silent Partner,” has struck the most pathetic incident that he has ever undertaken.”
“No wonder,” the reporter continued, “that the comedian, Francis Wilson, when he saw it, was impressed with its sad and touching pathos. Several days after having visited Graves he returned and remarked: “Mr. Graves, ever since I saw that picture it has haunted me. Whatever your price, I want it.”
Wilson still owned the painting in 1899 when it was exhibited in Chicago and Boston.
Almost 100 years later the “The Silent Partner” was in the news again but this time with a new name. An Abbott Graves painting identified by the owners as “The Organ Grinder” was stolen July 11, 1997 from a private home in Sebastolpol California. Nothing else was taken by the art thieves.
A report in Maine Antiques Digest valued the stolen painting at over $100,000 and a reward was offered for its safe return. Detective Jose Avilla of the Sonoma County Sherriff’s Department handled the case. In 2001, your “Old News” columnist reported the theft and posted a photograph of the painting on the Abbott Graves page of mykennebunks.com. After an unfruitful investigation the painting was declared a loss and Allstate Insurance Company paid the owners $65,000, the maximum amount allowable under the policy.
Last winter the Santa Rosa, California Sherriff’s department got a phone call from a man who claimed to know the whereabouts of a Graves painting titled “The Organ Grinder”. He anonymously returned the painting to the Allstate Insurance Company, who in turn sent it to Mo Mansur of Insurance Asset Recovery, LLC, in California, in hopes that some value could be realized from the painting. Mr. Mansur shipped the painting to Shannon’s Auction House in Milford CT to be listed on their website for auction sale on April 29, 2010. They assigned it a surprising sales estimate of $10,000 to $15,000.
International Interpol agents in London England, who frequently scan the internet for stolen art, had not received an update about the status of the painting when they came across the auction listing. They contacted the sellers demanding proof that the painting had been legitimately recovered.
Mr. Mansur in California, being aware of the mykennebunks website listing, contacted your columnist with the rest of the story. After the discovery of the previously mentioned newspaper articles, it was concluded that the legitimately recovered painting was actually Abbott Graves’ famous work “The Silent Partner.”
Meanwhile, Kennebunk Historian and author, Joyce Butler, an Abbott Fuller Graves expert, had already contacted the auction house about the erroneous name associated with the painting.
It is our most fervent hope that next Thursday, a museum buyer or private Abbott Graves collector will bring “The Silent Partner” home to New England. We would also appreciate learning about the next chapter in the history of this poignant painting. Please email Sharon Cummins at firstname.lastname@example.org
Kennebunk Beach had its usual array of summer sojourners in August 1914 but the fresh sea breezes were tainted by the scent of trepidation. Even though President Woodrow Wilson had quickly tried to balance declarations of war in Europe with his own declaration that the United States would remain neutral, the specter of war was omnipresent. As a diversion, the manager of the Atlantis Hotel invited aviator Victor Vernon and his family to stay at the hotel for free if he offered tourist rides on his new-fangled, Curtiss Flying Boat, The Betty V.
Before World War I, aviators were fearless pioneers. Some might even call them reckless. Vernon had been a car salesman for the American Automobile Manufacturing Company only a few months earlier. When the company went into receivership, Victor, who had seen a plane land on the water the previous summer, went to Hammondsport, N.Y., took a few flying lessons from a Curtiss test pilot, and purchased the newest model “hydro-aeroplane” money could buy. He had given just a few exhibitions flights on Lake Erie when he disassembled his Flying Boat and had her shipped by railroad to Portland, Maine.
Little more than a decade earlier, the Wright Brothers had made their first 20-minute flight. The Curtiss Flying Boat was touted the world over as “the sportsman’s vehicle of the future,” and “a marvel of engineering.” The mahogany-hulled, hydroplane was as beautiful as she was fast. Equipped with a 90-horsepower motor she could reach speeds of 60 miles per hour on the water and 75 mph in the air. Vernon anticipated making a fortune flying passengers over Kennebunk Beach with the Betty V.
The Atlantis Hotel, advertised as “a hotel of the very best class,” was built in 1903 in the Spanish mission style. Private bathrooms were available for those willing to pay extra; a rare luxury in 1914. Victor Vernon offered rides from Middle Beach where privileged hotel guests could watch him take off and land from the veranda. His best customer was Atwater Kent, who owned a cottage near St Ann’s by the Sea, in Kennebunkport. Kent had made his fortune by inventing an automobile ignition system that could be engaged from inside the car. He loved any cutting-edge thing with a motor and couldn’t get enough of the Betty V. He showed up day after day to fly with Vernon, sometimes with Mrs. Kent and sometimes alone.
“During Mr. Kent’s first ride with me,” Victor Vernon wrote in his memoirs, “a wave top broke over the Betty V when landing and dampened the magneto. The motor stopped and we started drifting toward a rocky section of the beach near our point of operation. I shouted to Mr. Kent what was most undoubtedly the trouble, but he, an electrical expert, already knew and offered to climb up alongside the motor, remove the magneto cover, clean and dry it out and replace — no easy job in a pitching, rolling ‘boat,’ and not good for his flannels, either. He did an expert job just in time as when I cranked the motor and she caught with welcomed roar, we were only a few feet from huge, jagged boulders and rocks stretching out from shore into deep water and being swept by the waves. He was the highest priced, but unpaid mechanic ever voluntarily serving under similar circumstances, I’m sure.”
After several weeks at Kennebunk Beach, Victor received a phone call from the Chairman of the Labor Day Celebration Committee, Bar Harbor, Maine. He was offered $500 to fly there in time to make an exhibition flight on Labor Day. All his expenses were to be covered. With the economic uncertainty of war looming Vernon accepted the offer, even though no such flight over the ocean had ever been attempted. Nationwide newspaper coverage of the flight made Victor Vernon a household name.
“Victor Vernon made an over-water flight of 150 miles yesterday from Kennebunkport to Bar Harbor,” wrote a reporter for the Lowell Sun on Sept. 4, 1914. “The hydro-aeroplane flight made at 2,000 feet took 2 hours – 32 minutes of actual flying time. Three stops were made; the first at Port Clyde for supplies, a second at Rockland and the third at Northeast Harbor, which the aviator mistook for Bar Harbor.”
By 1916, American participation in World War I seemed probable. Vernon was approached by the Signal Corps, which at that time was the aviation branch of the U.S. Army. The U.S. Air Force had not yet been organized. He accepted the position of chief civilian instructor in its new aviation training program. During the war, Victor Vernon tested Flying Boats built by the U.S. Navy to patrol for U-boats and deliver torpedoes.
Chicago’s Sears Tower had two arrivals from Kennebunkport on Memorial Day 1981. Only one was invited. Frank Handlen, your “Old News” illustrator, had sold 14 paintings meant to grace the walls of Sears Corporate Headquarters. Around the time the crate was delivered, Danny Goodwin, Kennebunk High Class of ’74, appeared at the west side of the 110-story building in a handmade spandex Spiderman costume. He intended to scale what was then the tallest building in the world.
As a boy growing up on Fishers Lane in Cape Porpoise, Goodwin writes in his recently published memoir, “SKYSCRAPERMAN,” he loved to climb trees. “So much so the police tried to arrest me for climbing one of the tallest in Portland, Maine. But despite their use of a cherry picker, they weren’t able to catch me.”
Goodwin was 25 years old and about 20 floors up when a Sears security guard angrily held a note up to the window demanding he descend. Spider-Dan, who was climbing up the window washer track, stuck a suction cup over the note and proceeded up the side of the building. Ambulances, hook and ladder trucks and helicopters were dispatched to the scene. At the 35th floor, Dan became aware that a window washing machine was descending the track in his path and that the window next to him had been removed from inside the building. Using suction cups equipped with stirrups, he scooted horizontally away from his would-be captors. Some six and a half hours and 1,450 feet into the climb, Dan duct-taped an American flag near the top of the Sears Tower.
“It was my way of thanking my father for fighting in the Korean War,” he writes.
Meanwhile, his father, Dale Goodwin, was back in Cape Porpoise, completely unaware of Danny’s plans until he was contacted by a reporter for the Chicago Tribune. Though proud of his son’s courage, Dale was grateful he hadn’t known about the stunt ahead of time.
“If I’d known he was going to do this I would have been a nervous wreck,” Dale Goodwin told a reporter for the Biddeford Journal Tribune.
Brenda Buchanan, a correspondent for the York County Coast Star, talked to local folks about the feat.
“That’s Danny for you,” they told her in unison, “always looking for another adventure. Danny Goodwin — daredevil, track star, mountain climber, skier, gymnast and stuntman. Danny Goodwin — bohemian, dancer, dreamer, wanderer, always looking for something to be afraid of, climbing the cliffs over the ocean because there was nothing higher to climb.”
Well, Danny had found something higher.
As soon as he reached the top of Sears Tower he was taken to jail overnight on charges of disorderly conduct, criminal trespass and criminal damage to property.
After celebrity appearances on Johnny Carson and the Today Show, Dan pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct. His fine was only $35, but Fire Commissioner William Blair threatened dire consequences should Goodwin ever attempt to climb another building in his jurisdiction.
That was a challenge Danny couldn’t resist. On Veteran’s Day he scaled Chicago’s John Hancock Center while the gathering crowd below chanted, “Let him climb. Let him climb.”
Enraged, Commissioner Blair ordered his firemen to wash “Spider Dan” Goodwin off the side of the building with a fire hose. The defiant climber clung to the building 300 feet off the ground. Unwilling to be responsible for the death of a beloved comic book hero, the Mayor of Chicago ordered Blair to shut the water off and Spider-Dan finished his ascent. Damages to the building and other expenses reportedly totaled $16,000.
This time, the sentence was a year’s probation.
When asked what possessed him to take such risks, Spider-Dan replied, “I have a new idea, a new concept for fire rescue. I needed a forum to present these ideas to the public.”
In his memoir, Goodwin writes that he was motivated to climb buildings by two life-altering experiences. After witnessing the MGM Grand Hotel fire in Las Vegas, he was haunted by the reality that firefighters had no way to rescue victims trapped on the middle floors of a skyscraper fire.
And then, a few months after the fire, Dan sustained serious injuries in a car crash. During his recovery from the accident he vowed never again to be dissuaded from his dreams.
Spider-Dan climbed the north tower of the World Trade Center in New York on Memorial Day, 1983, nearly falling to his death when the window washer track pulled away from the building. Mayor Edward Koch was not impressed.
“These stunts endanger participants, police officers and onlookers,” he said to the press. “And it cost taxpayers $4,235 just in police department man-hours and equipment.”
Somehow, Dan Goodwin always evaded authorities long enough to finish his intended climbs. Until July 1983, that is. Dan was escorted away from the Bald Head Cliff by officers of the York (Maine) Police Department.
“But three days later, he returned, after notifying local newspapers,” Brenda Buchanan wrote in the Boston Globe. “He told the officers who met him at the bottom of the cliff that he was determined to make another ascent.”
Unlike police forces in Chicago and New York City, York’s finest were able to take Spider-Dan into custody when he was just a couple feet up the cliff.