Category Archives: Wells

Conflicting interests between Wells and Ogunquit in 1883

The bridge to prosperity
The bridge to prosperity

“When a sturdy young man finds his own path to be in conflict with that of his father it is time for him to set up a household of his own,” argued one Maine legislator who was in favor of Ogunquit’s separation from Wells in 1921.

The indignant retort: “A child should not be allowed to leave his mother’s house to avoid paying his share of her bills after she has devoted her life to rearing him.”

Wells and Ogunquit had suffered a strained familial relationship ever since February 1883, when businessmen of Ogunquit Village sought to override a vote of the town of Wells by petitioning the Maine Legislature for a bridge across the tidewaters of the Ogunquit River. Village residents wanted to capitalize on their beautiful sandy beach but the river separated them from it.

A majority of Wells residents lived north of the river and they carried every vote. Tourism at Wells Beach had declined since the Island Ledge House burned in 1877, and then the Atlantic House went up in flames in 1885, taking with it even more tourism dollars. Most of the summer sojourners who visited Wells Beach were travelling north when they arrived and easy access to Ogunquit Beach might divert the few that still came. Taxpayers living farther inland also had no inclination to pay for improvements from which they would not benefit.

The bridge bill was finally passed by the Legislature in 1885. Wells voters then lobbied to have the bridge built upriver that it might be of “common convenience.” The Legislature left the location of the bridge up to the county commissioners, who chose an Ogunquit location. A committee of Wells voters appealed that decision, claiming that the county commissioners were not qualified to make such a choice. By October 1888, the court of last resort had spoken in favor of a location near the mouth of the Ogunquit River. Meanwhile, real estate sales in the village quickened in anticipation.

The following report appeared in the Biddeford Weekly Journal on October 5, 1888: “The proposed bridge shall be let out by contract and be completed by June 1st 1889. W. M. Hatch, B Maxwell, and A K Tripp were chosen a committee to make the plans, specifications etc and put the bridge under contract and to have charge of the whole matter.”

The plan was in place by the first of January 1889. Pilings were set and partly planked by April. In May, what was referred to in the local papers as a “tiny mistake” was discovered when work according to the plan was completed but the bridge was still a few feet short of the beachside land. The bridge opened on time nonetheless and Ogunquit enjoyed its most robust tourist season to date.

From that day forward town meetings in Wells were contentious. Warrant articles for sewers and sidewalks in Ogunquit were voted down. Town Hall burned and the location of the new Town Hall was hotly debated, as was the prudence of renting out commercial space within its walls. According to the official town history, when Ogunquit Village landowners wanted streetlights, Wells voters expressed their opposition with “hollering and foot stomping enough to shake the foundation of Wells Town Hall.”

The article was defeated and Ogunquit voters again went to the state Legislature; this time, with a bill authorizing a charter for the Ogunquit Village Corporation. They got their charter and their streetlights. According to the 1913 charter, 60 percent of taxes paid to the town of Wells by Ogunquit Village residents, was to be returned to the Village Corporation.

Similar issues were faced by towns up and down the coast of Maine when the growth of tourism along the shore necessitated infrastructure improvements from which inlanders did not benefit and for which they could not be persuaded to pay. Old Orchard Beach separated from Saco in 1883, and North Kennebunkport — now known as Arundel — broke off from Kennebunkport in 1915.

A yay vote to amend the charter of the Ogunquit Village Corporation tax formula in 1921 prompted Ogunquit taxpayers to petition the Legislature to allow them to break off from Wells. The measure was postponed indefinitely by the Legislature after it heard the testimony of 50 Wells taxpayers. Another attempt to legally separate into two towns was defeated in 1971.

The Maine Legislature finally approved a 1979 referendum for Ogunquit to secede from Wells. An Ogunquit Village Corporation vote in favor of the referendum passed 480 to 94 in October of 1979. Wells opposed the secession.

Steamer Clodilda ashore at Wells Beach 1870

British Steamer Clotilda

British Steamer Clotilda

Steamer Clotilda went ashore at Wells Beach on December 13, 1870. 

Built in 1863 at the shipyard of J. B. Palmer in Newcastle Upon-Tyne, England, the iron propeller screw steamer was 214 feet long and 28 feet wide. She sailed from Newcastle for the St Lawrence River on October 22 to deliver her cargo of a disassembled 410 ton steam ferry built by the Palmer Iron Shipbuilding Company for the Grand Trunk Railroad. The ferry was to be reassembled in Montreal and used to transport freight cars across the St. Lawrence River. Clotilda also carried 98 tons of soda and 8 tons of glassware.

The steamer ran into rough seas that caused her heavy cargo to move. Her Master, Captain Young, put into Dublin, Ireland where 100 tons of coal was dropped in amongst the cargo to prevent further shifting. Consequential to this considerable delay Clotilda’s destination was changed to Portland, Maine.

Contemporary accounts of the Wells Beach accident were published in the Eastern Argus and the Bangor Daily Whig & Courier. A statement of the “material facts” is also included in a subsequent lawsuit filed against the ship and her cargo by Nathaniel Lord Thompson of Kennebunk. It appears in Volume 1 of Reports of Judgments of Hon. Edward Fox U.S. District Judge for Maine District First Circuit, “The weather at the time was stormy, dark and foggy, and blowing a double reef top-sail breeze with a heavy sea. The beach is of sand, quite flat, affording very poor holding-ground, and is at the head of Wells Bay, exposed to the full force of the winds and waves. The vessel went on at a low run of tides, near high water, and the sea broke heavily over her stern, she being fast in the breakers”. Clotilda’s stern, rose and fell digging her deeper and deeper into the soft sand.

The officers went ashore and found lodgings at the house of Mr. Owen Davis, who lived nearby. Robert Cleaves of Kennebunk approached the captain and offered his services to salvage the cargo. Young proposed to pay 1/4 of the shipped value for the discharge of the cargo on the beach above the spring tides to make the ship lighter and easier to get afloat. Cleaves accepted the proposal and the same evening a written contract was signed. Cleaves paid his men $2.00 per tide and ox teams with drivers were paid $4.00 per tide to unload all the soda, and glass, a portion of the sails and about 3/4 of the ferry parts. As the cargo was removed the lightened steamer moved 500-600 feet up the beach and turned broadside to the water with some of her hull being 13 feet deep in the sand. 150 tons of that sand worked its way into the ship. Having done all he could Cleaves assigned his contract with Young to Captain Nathaniel Lord Thompson of Kennebunk.

Thompson released the ship and her remaining cargo to the underwriters who, in March of 1871, hired the New York Coast Wrecking Company to get Clotilda afloat. An article in the Eastern Argus published July 7, 1871 described their Herculean task. “The wreckers first had to cut her round so that her stern would point off shore. By the aid of two steam pumps, a steam winch of great power, and four anchors weighing 4,000 pounds each, one twenty inch and three sixteen inch cables they turned her and hove her 1,000 feet to where she floated. Five times these heavy anchors were hove home and had to be replanted. As fast as they moved her down the beach they had to fill her with water to keep her from breaking up. On the full spring tide of the second month they expected to get her off, but their anchors failed. It was very difficult to work upon her as she listed so that cleats had to be nailed upon her decks for the men to walk upon”. The steamer finally floated off on June 29, 1871 and was towed to Union Wharf in Portland. Clotilda was not in good condition after sitting on Wells Beach for six months. The Eastern Argus reported, “She is the picture of a wreck: rusted, woodwork off, smoke stack and lower masts standing, dismantled and decks encumbered with the wrecking paraphernalia.”

The steamer was repaired and then sat at Union Wharf under the control of the United States Marshall for almost another year pending Nathaniel Lord Thompson’s lawsuit but was finally cleared from Boston for Liverpool, England in May of 1872.

Kate Furbish and her Drakes Island legacy

With practiced botanical eye she roamed

With practiced botanical eye she roamed

Frequent Drakes Island boarder, Kate Furbish, was no shrinking violet. The single-minded way she pursued her study of native Maine plants, raised eyebrows. Mucking about in the swamp for hours without the benefit of male protection was not considered appropriate behavior for a Victorian lady but she was not to be dissuaded from her solitary endeavor.  After being cajoled to allow an elderly gentleman to accompany her for a day of field work, she vented in her diary. “Tis talk, talk, talk, while I want to see, see, see. I am going to see and think for, and by myself, having proved that a day amounts to more spent alone.” 

Catherine Furbish was born May 19, 1834 in Exeter, NH, to Benjamin Furbish and his wife Mary A. Lane.  When she was still an infant the family moved to Brunswick, ME where she would reside until her passing in 1931.   

Benjamin Furbish, a native of Wells, Maine, shared his love of nature with his only daughter on long walks in the woods studying native Maine plants. He sent her to finishing school and paid an extra dollar to ensure that she be taught Latin. He was determined she should develop to her full intellectual potential, in spite of her sex. Benjamin had inherited an independent spirit and respect for education from his own father, Dr. Joshua Furbish of Wells. 

Dr. Furbish, born lame, was provided with a good education to help him compensate for his limited physical capacity. He became a renaissance man, excelling in Latin and mathematics far beyond his education. In addition to being a successful cobbler, he was a self-taught inventor with remarkable mechanical gifts. He taught the young mariners of Wells to navigate even though his own mobility was challenged. Joshua also taught himself to play the organ and built two organs for the First Unitarian Universalist Parish in Kennebunk.        

Like her paternal grandfather, Kate Furbish never allowed perceived frailties to dictate her fate.  In 1860 she attended a botany lecture series in Boston presented by George L. Goodale, of Saco, who would later accept professorships at Bowdoin College and Harvard. The two became lifelong friends and Kate was inspired to pursue her interest in botany. Goodale was in the process of classifying all of Maine’s known flowering plants when she met him. His collection of specimens was housed at the Portland Museum of Natural History in a building that burned to the ground in 1866, destroying years of his research.  

After the fire, Kate’s work took on a new vigor and purpose. She worked in every county in the State of Maine, collecting thousands of plant specimens and drawing the four stages of their development; the embryo, the bud, the flower or fruit and the seed pod. She would then reproduce their colors with water-based paint. The plants she collected wilted quickly so she often painted them in the field where they grew and had to work late into the night to capture their peculiarities. In spite of her amateur status, Kate Furbish established a reputation by identifying previously undiscovered varieties that were confirmed by professionals at Harvard and Bowdoin College. At least two varieties were subsequently named after her; Pedicularis Furbishiae and Aster Cordifolius L., var. Furbishiae. 

Many of her happiest hours were spent in the marshes of Wells, Maine. Among the flowers she collected there while visiting her cousins at Eatoncroft on Drakes Island were; Slender Blue Flag irises, pure white Myosotis Collina, Arenaria Peploides a member of the Pink family, and Baptisia Tinctoria, a yellow false indigo that her friend at Harvard had never found in Maine. The same plant was later discovered in Alfred and thought to have been introduced there by the Shakers as a medicinal plant. 

Kate donated her life’s work to the Harvard Botanical Museum and Bowdoin College Library in 1908.  In a letter to William DeWitt Hyde at Bowdoin, she wrote, “I have wandered alone for the most part, on the highways and in the hedges, on foot, in hayracks, on country mail-stages, (often in Aroostook Co., with a revolver on the seat) on improvised rafts,… in row-boats, on logs, crawling on hands and knees on the surface of bogs, and backing out, when I dared not walk, in order to procure a coveted treasure. Called ‘crazy,’ a ‘fool,’ and this is the way that my work has been done.  The flowers being my only society and the manuals the only literature for months together. Happy, happy hours!” 

Kate Furbish, the amateur, is to this day respected by professional Botanists for her scientific contributions. Unlike the professionals, she had the luxury to concentrate on her field work without administrative distractions. In the 1800s the word “amateur” had a less diminishing connotation than it does today. Rather than implying someone “less qualified than a professional” an amateur was one who required no financial reward for a devoted pursuit; a self-taught, heart-follower. This was an apt description of Kate.

The King Kleagle of Maine’s Ku Klux Klan was an opportunist

The Evolving Mr. Farnsworth

The Evolving Mr. Farnsworth

Governor Percival Baxter dismissed the validity of the Ku Klux Klan in 1922.  “I do not believe that any level-headed citizens of Maine will allow themselves to be influenced by such an organization,” he told a reporter.  Two years later Baxter’s gubernatorial successor, Ralph O. Brewster, was swept into office by an army of White Knights.  Most of them had been seduced by the flimflammery of F. Eugene Farnsworth.

The first Klansmen organized in the southern states after the Civil War.  Their bigotry was aimed at newly freed African Americans.  When the federal government started prosecuting Klan crime in the 1870s, the organization was suppressed.  The “Second Klan” was formed after World War I in response to growing immigration to the United States.  In addition to feeling threatened by African Americans, the new Klan objected to equal rights for Catholics, Jews and immigrants of all nationalities.

French Canadian Catholics were gaining influence in local Maine politics and were lobbying for state funds to support their parochial schools.  F. Eugene Farnsworth, who claimed to be a native of Columbia Falls, appealed to Protestant ministers all around the state as Maine’s King Kleagle.  He promised to eradicate parochial schools and to fight for the right of “100% Americans” to teach the bible in public schools.  In exchange, he asked that the clergy declare their support for the Klan from the pulpit.  Many of them did.  Their support and Farnsworth’s memorizing oratory gifts led to the initiation of thousands of Klansmen in a matter of months.

There was broad social acceptance of the “Invisible Empire” and their claims of patriotism.  One newspaper advertised an impressive list of activities available to vacationers at the Merriland Camp for girls in Wells; “Tennis, croquet, golf, bathing, volleyball, dancing, canoeing, masquerades, Ku Klux initiations, pool and music.”  Farnsworth addressed appreciative crowds in Kittery, Saco, Hollis and Sanford.  The Klan purchased a very visible headquarters on Forest Avenue in Portland, with new membership proceeds.  At the August 1923 opening ceremony, followers were initiated by the light of a fifty foot burning cross, while ten thousand spectators looked on.

A month after the flamboyant spectacle in Portland, a story broke in the Fitchburg Sentinel that changed everything.  Maine’s King Kleagle was well known in Fitchburg as Salvation Army recruiter and local barber turned travelling hypnotist, Frank Farnsworth.  He had left town in shame in 1901 after his memorized assistant, Tom Bolton, was killed onstage.

Bolton’s job was to pretend to be hypnotized.  He was laid out between two chairs and a huge boulder was placed on his stomach.  A volunteer from the audience, who was actually employed by Farnsworth, then tried to break the rock with a sledgehammer.  During his final performance, the chair under Bolton’s head slipped and his skull was crushed by the rock.  To avoid a manslaughter conviction, Frank Farnsworth was forced to admit that his hypnotism act was a sham and that his assistant had participated in the trick with his full faculties.

After leaving Fitchburg, Frank travelled to South America on an expedition to photograph headhunters.  He then returned to the U.S. and as F. Eugene Farnsworth, performed an illustrated magic lantern show about exotic travel destinations.  His dramatic delivery earned rave reviews in Washington D.C.  It was not a lucrative occupation but it satisfied his lust for an audience.  Farnsworth also had a short career as a movie producer in Connecticut.

National Klan officials took a closer look at Maine’s King Kleagle. Farnsworth’s daylight parades in full Klan regalia and his show biz approach started getting him in trouble with the usually clandestine organization.  Then the Klan discovered he had formed an independent women’s Klan in Maine that allowed Canadian Protestants to join.   American citizenship was not exactly a flexible requirement for the Ku Klux Klan.

Farnsworth’s wife and daughter were stripped of their Klan membership for belonging to the rival group.  As it turned out, they had never been eligible for membership in the first place since both had been born in St Stephen, New Brunswick.  F. Eugene Farnsworth quit the Klan for “health reasons” when it was reported that $4 of every $10 Klan membership fee had found its way into his pocket. He tried unsuccessfully to organize his own copycat Invisible Empire but was eventually run out of Maine.

The Klan supported candidate had enough momentum to carry the 1924 gubernatorial election but the hooded honeymoon was almost over.  Without charismatic leadership, the Klan all but disappeared in Maine by 1930.

Family records held by the Provincial Archives of New Brunswick indicate that Farnsworth’s parents had moved from Columbia Falls to New Brunswick long before his 1868 birth. Like his wife and daughter, Maine’s King Kleagle of the Ku Klux Klan was probably Canadian.

French Espionage in Colonial Wells

White-Flag Ploy Thwarted

White-Flag Ploy Thwarted

Less than 100 families lived in Wells when blacksmith, Louis Allain arrived from France around 1684. The colonists probably received him with some trepidation, given the alliance between his countrymen in Canada and the Indians that had plagued them, off and on, for a decade. Little did they know that Allain would one day use their acquaintance to spy for the Governor of l’Acadie.

 French Protestants or Huguenots fled religious persecution in France during the reign of King Louis XIV, many of them settling in New England. Louis Allain’s indentured apprentice, Anthony Coombs, was a Huguenot. Louis, himself may also have represented himself as such to the people of Wells. He would later prove his loyalty was really to his pocketbook.

At thirty years old, Allain was already a man of means. He purchased ½ of Samuel Storer’s Cape Neddick-built brigantine, Endeavor, in August of 1685. A month later, he purchased a mill on the western bank of the Little River, lots on both sides of the river and the home of William Frost.

Territorial tensions grew between the colonists from France and England and between the Indian tribes allied to both monarchies. Allain decided to move toPort Royal, Nova Scotia, leaving Anthony Coombs behind to protect his Wells property.

In 1687, he obtained permission to build windmills along the river that has since been known as Allain’s River. He raised a family there and his fortunes grew. Within a few years Louis owned a grain mill, a saw mill, a store and several coasting vessels that made regular trading voyages to the English city of Boston. He and his partner shipped lumber and flour from their mills in Port Royal and brought back Boston goods to sell to their Acadian customers. Andre Faneuil, the wealthy Boston Huguenot whose fortune financed the building of Faneuil Hall, traded regularly with the Acadians, even as Governor William Phipps burned Port Royalin 1690. When the legality of their trading arrangement was questioned, Allain and other Acadian businessmen declared their allegiance to the English King. At the same time they were supplying the French Navy with mast timbers.

Indians attacked the villages along the York County coast in 1703. It was a horrible year for Wells. Thirty-nine of her inhabitants were either killed or made prisoner.

The following Spring Colonel Benjamin Church led an expedition through Penobscot, Passamaquoddy and theBay of Fundy, collecting French prisoners and Indian scalps for bounty along the way. Under orders from Massachusetts Governor Dudley, he left Port Royal unscathed. Some people of Massachusetts, including Puritan minister Cotton Mather, suspected that Dudley was trying to preserve illegal trade between Boston and Nova Scotia.

Feeding prisoners of war became expensive for both the French and the English. An agreement was made to exchange prisoners in 1705. Allain and his business partner, who were fluent in English and familiar with Boston, were sent to seal the deal. According to the September 10, 1705 issue of the “Boston News-letter”, Allain arrived in Boston on the 20th of August under a flag of truce, with the signed agreement. He returned to Port Royal at the end of September carrying a few French prisoners back as a show of good faith. A January 1706 report in the same paper indicates that he sailed again for Massachusetts a few months later.

“On Thursday last the 26th day of December there arrived at Nanguncket [Ogunquit] near to Wells in the Province of Maine, A Flag of Truce from Port-Royal with 34 English Prisoners.”

E.E. Bourne writes in his “History of Wells” that Lewis Allen came to Wells under the Flag of Truce and was authorized to trade prisoners. The people of Wells were immediately suspicious of the Frenchman’s motives and searched his pocketbook. In it, they found incriminating instructions for Allain to report, to the French Governor of Acadia, any efforts underway to fortify Wells against the Indians.

“If any enterprise was afoot that he should join L.A. the two first letters of his name, close together. If it was only in agitation, place them at some distance; but if nothing was in motion, then to sign a cross.”

Allain was clasped in irons and sent to Bostonto be dealt with. In a surprising twist that Bourne does not reveal, Governor Dudley released Allain. He made some excuse about owing Louis his life and sent him back to Port Royal to continue his lucrative lumber and flour trade.

Anthony Coombs, whose indenture expired, had long since deserted Allain’s Wells mill on the Little River. Louis hired his “trusty and well-beloved friend Lewis Bane of York,” (who had represented the English in treaty negotiations atPort Royal) to recover his title to the Wells property. Bane eventually bought the property from him in 1720 and Louis boldly appeared at the courthouse in Biddeford to acknowledge the instrument May 9, 1733. When he died inPort Royal several years later Louis Allain was one of the richest men in town.

The Witches of York County

The Plague of Blind Belief

The Plague of Blind Belief

Wells minister, Rev. George Burroughs was hanged as a witch during the Salem delirium of 1692. A century later, Widow Elizabeth Smith of Arundel was accused of witchcraft at the York County Court of Common Pleas and Sessions in Biddeford.

Rev. Burroughs was probably a hothead and a show off who liked to impress his neighbors with feats of amazing strength. According to testimony at his trial he could lift a molasses barrel with one finger.

George might not have been a perfect husband, either. When his second wife died her funeral expenses went unpaid. As the preacher at Danvers, Massachusetts he was embroiled in a turf war within the Salem religious hierarchy and could not get them to pay his salary. John Putnam, the keeper of the coin at the Danvers church, also allowed him to buy two gallons of rum on account. Burroughs skipped town with a new wife, leaving word that his salary would easily cover the bills he had with Putnam. A debt charge was filed against him in Salem.

Burroughs preached in Portland, Maine until the Indians drove his family south to Wells during King Williams War. They were living in Wells on April 30, 1692, when John Putnam’s 12 year old niece, Ann and George’s former maid, Mercy Lewis, accused the minister of witchcraft. The girls testified that he had appeared to them in a vision and admitted to killing his first two wives. Three constables were sent to Wells to deliver the accused to Salem. Burroughs was confident that the preposterous charges would be dropped once he appeared before Judge Jonathan Corwin who owned considerable acreage and mill rights along the Mousam River. Emerson W. Baker, of Salem State College, proposes a connection between Maine land dealings by the likes of Judge Corwin and the escalation of the Salem witch mania, in his article “Maine, Indian Land Speculation, and the Essex County Witchcraft Outbreak of 1692”

Burroughs offered to show the authorities the shortest route back to Salem through the woods to South Berwick. The constables were apparently compelled by some magic spell to follow his advice. Along the way a lightning storm spooked their horses and caused them to rush through the trees at a high-speed trot. The path they traveled- thenceforth known as Witchtrot Road- eventually led them out of the woods and on to Salem, but the constables were convinced that the minister had caused the storm with witchcraft. They testified to that effect at his trial. Judge Corwin and his brother in-law, Judge Hawthorne found Rev. George Burroughs guilty of witchcraft and he was hanged August 19, 1692.

One hundred and four years later witchcraft hysteria visited the good people of Arundel. John Hilton was walking home one evening when Widow Smith appeared on the road six yards ahead of him. The ox goad he was carrying started slipping through his hand by some power that he decided must be witchcraft. He caught up to the old woman and tried to strike her with the stick. Instead of injuring her he somehow received a violent blow to his own lower back.

John was in a state of insanity when he got home. His father in-law, Eaton Cleaves confined the young man and asked Widow Smith to visit him. While she was in his presence John spoke rationally but as soon as she was gone he was again insensible. The widow, in an effort to make peace, shed her own blood as an antidote to the bewitching but John’s condition did not improve.

Things got really ugly when the women of the family got involved. John’s sister Elizabeth Smith, his wife Sarah and nieces Dolly Smith and Molly Hilton tried to do away with the widow by concocting an incantation of their own involving home grown herbs and some of John’s bodily fluids. When that didn’t kill the old woman they told her “she ought to have been long ago in hell with the damned; that they would let loose the man whom she had bewitched to kill her.”

John Hilton did escape confinement. He violently beat Widow Smith with a stick and almost choked her to death. Nearby, his niece egged him on. “Kill her, Uncle John,” she cried. The witchcraft delusion spread throughout their Cleaves Cove neighborhood causing one house to be entirely demolished.

With this bizarre case before him at the Biddeford court, Justice Wells refused to hear any arguments about magic spells. According to a November 17, 1796 article published in “The Eastern Herald and Gazette of Maine,” he told John Hilton’s family that the difficulties and the dissention in their neighborhood arose from their ignorance, not the poor old woman’s witchcraft. The accusers were convicted of assault and battery. Each was required to pay $100 bond that would be returned to them if they kept peace with the Widow Smith until the following August.

What a difference a century makes. In Salem, it had been the Judges and the religious leaders who fueled the fires of hysteria. The wise Biddeford Judge put a quick end to the Arundel witch hunt by making it clear that accusing someone of witchcraft would be expensive.

The baby of the D. A. R. enlisted at Wells

From Wells to Appomattox, the youngest enlistee

From Wells to Appomattox, the youngest enlistee

On February 18, 1865 John Crediford Brown, Jr., a seventh grader, ran away from home to enlist in the 20th Maine Infantry at Wells.  Hard work at his father’s North Berwick brick making enterprise had developed the boy’s physique but his baby face had not yet sprouted whiskers.  The Wells recruiter had a quota to fill.  He took one look at the 155 lbs of muscle the boy carried on his 5’5” frame and didn’t question John’s claim that he was 18, the minimum age at which it was legal to volunteer.  John was sent to Portland and issued a uniform that very day. 

John C. Brown, Sr., was distraught when he learned of his son’s enlistment.  With a North Berwick Town Official in tow and his 13 year old son’s birth record in his pocket, the senior Brown set off for Portland to confront Colonel Ellis Spear with the facts.  Colonel Spear would not void the enlistment outright but he did approve a 3 day furlough for the boy to sort things out with his family. 

Young John Brown had been 10 years old when the war broke.  The stories of adventure he heard from soldiers returning from the front had lit a fire in him.  He was as strong as they were and certainly able to carry a musket.  After his 17 year old brother George went off to fight, John snuck out of town with 12 other, more mature potential recruits.  He returned home to North Berwick for three days after enlisting but he could not be dissuaded from his intent.  Reluctantly, his father acquiesced.    

The child skirmished at Cedar Creek, Gravelly Run, Boydton Plank Road and Malvern Heights but the battle he remembered best was fought at Five Forks, Virginia on April 1, 1865. John was right in the thick of it as a private in the 20th Maine Infantry, in the army of the Potomac, Fifth Corps, 1st division, 1st battalion, commanded by General Sheridan.  “At 3pm we were formed for a charge, my command being in the third line,” wrote General Sheridan in his battle report.  “In this order we advanced three-quarters of a mile and halted.  General Bartlett ordered me to move my command by the left flank some half a mile; halted and fronted.  Were ordered by him to charge the enemy on his flank, which I immediately did; carried the enemy’s works, capturing a large number of prisoners and the battle flag of the Ninth Virginia Regiment.  After doing this the enemy began to press us hard and we were losing men very fast.” 

It was John’s 14th birthday.  His two tent mates were killed that day and he was wounded in two places; once in the jaw and once in the neck.  Neither injury was life threatening but he proudly wore the scar on his neck for the rest of his life.  The Battle of Five Forks is sometimes referred to as the Waterloo of the Confederacy.  The exhausted Army of Northern Virginia was left cut off from supplies and reinforcements.   On the morning of April 9, 1865 the 20th Maine Infantry was positioned along the edge of a field near the seat of Appomattox County.  A shout rang out from the left and a mounted Confederate Officer emerged from the woods waving a white flag. Everyone understood the meaning of the white flag. 

Several hours later Generals Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant met in the parlor of the McLean Home in the village of Appomattox Court House, VA to discuss out the terms of surrender.   John’s heart swelled with pride as he stood watch, less than 100 feet away. 

After the Battle of Five Forks, Brown’s name appeared on a published list of the seriously wounded.  Like the 14 year old that he was John didn’t think to write home.  His father still had not heard from him three weeks later and assumed his son had died from his injuries.  John Brown, Sr. wrote a letter to Colonel Spear requesting that the boy’s body be sent home to Maine.  The colonel replied that the boy would be able to bring his own body home. 

John C. Brown claimed to be the youngest Union volunteer to carry a musket but so did a lot of other veterans.  He was living in Nasonville, RI in 1904 when William Davis of Troy, NY declared himself to the Editor of the Boston Daily Globe, to be the youngest fighting Union soldier.  Brown produced documentation that proved he had been younger than Davis when he enlisted.  It was not the first time he had successfully defended his title.  It’s estimated that 100,000 Union soldiers were actually less than 15 years old when they volunteered to fight in the American Civil War but most of them were musicians. 

After the war John worked for his father until he reached maturity.  He met his first wife Sarah Boss and moved to her native Rhode Island where he spent the rest of his life.  John C. Brown’s 1931 obituary referred to the 80 year old as the baby of the D. A. R.

Meteorological Freak Week 1926

Nature's Onslaught

Nature's Onslaught

Something was amiss with the cosmos during the third week of July 1926. The temperature hovered near 100 all up and down the eastern seaboard and as far west as Ohio. All but convicted murderers were released from the stifling prisons in North Carolina where temperatures reached 107. Hundreds slept out in the open on the Boston Common.

Just before sunrise on July 18th a blinding bluish light filled the cloudless Maine sky from Dexter to Saco. The flash was immediately followed by an explosive sound that awakened the whole City of Portland. Professor Charles Hutchins of the Physics Department at Bowdoin College confirmed to the press that a meteor had exploded over the crook in the Androscoggin River.

Hours earlier a 14 year old boy had witnessed the bursting of a large bright light in his grandfather’s Vermont cornfield. On the morning of July 18th he collected a handful of porous meteor fragments layered with quartz that he found lying on top of the plowed earth. Robert Dunklee, the boy’s father, telephoned authorities at the Harvard College Observatory and promised to send the rocks to Cambridge by express mail.

The scientists, who had just received a call from Professor Hutchins at Bowdoin, were puzzled. Meteors did not typically contain quartz. Furthermore, it was way too early in the season for these incidents to be part of the annual Perseid Meteor Shower. Seven unexpected fireballs had also been documented the previous November and December. One that exploded over Hornell, NY was reported to be the size of a freight car but no fragments of that celestial body were ever recovered.

At 3pm on the afternoon of July 18th the people of Portsmouth and Kittery observed a huge dusky cloud approaching from the northwest. Within five minutes the worst summer storm in their history was upon them. Vivid lightning struck. Torrential rain flooded the streets. Golf ball sized hail swirled into Portsmouth. Some of the hail was actually tiny stones coated in ice. The stones were smooth, polished white quartz like those one might find on a beach. The nearest beach with all white quartz stones was Rye Beach some 8 miles to the south. Hail that fell on Kittery was strange, too; 5 1/2 inch disks of ice indicating 3 separate freezes inside the cloud.

Terrific wind hurled the rocks and the hail in a circular motion breaking hundreds of windows. Thirty minutes later the storm had lifted leaving destruction in its wake. Farmer’s crops were flattened and some of their cows were dead. Storekeeper’s goods were ruined by the water that poured through broken windows. Banks of frozen rocks and golf ball hail had to be shoveled out of dining rooms. There was not enough glass in Portsmouth to repair 1/3 of the broken windows and it hadn’t even rained in Dover, NH.

Meanwhile, the railroad station at Brockton, MA had been destroyed by lightning. 500 seats at Fenway Park were lifted away from their bolts and deposited by a 100 mile an hour gust of wind into the center of the grandstand, twisted and broken. A 90 foot steeple was blown off the Asbury Methodist Church in Springfield, MA.

The damage was still not completely repaired on July 22, when a great brown cloud appeared high over Portsmouth. This time it came from the Southwest in dirty whirlwinds. Though it lasted but 10 minutes the second storm effected a larger area. A Dover, NH house lost its roof. At Gray Lodge in Kittery, Phyllis Gray was giving a bridge party on her front lawn. One of her guests didn’t have time to get up off the lawn pillow upon which she was lounging. She was rolled 100 feet across the grass. Wind swept through York Beach with a force that picked up men, women and children, swirled them in the air and then dropped them banged and bruised on the sand. Several York Beach cottages were blown from their foundations. The bell tower at The Nubble was blown off its base and moved 4 feet to the edge of a deep cliff. Two lifeboats at the Ogunquit lifesaving station were splintered. Three houses were destroyed at Wells Beach.

In Kennebunkport, author Booth Tarkington had put out in his three-ton motor boat, the Zantu seeking relief from the heat. He was accompanied by his secretary Betty Trotter and Captain Harry Thirkell. When they were near an island 6 miles from shore, a fire started on the boat. Tarkington and Thirkell sustained minor burns extinguishing the fire but that was the least of their problems. The ignition wires had burned through and the craft was disabled. Betty and Captain Thirkell began the long row to shore for assistance leaving Tarkington to guard the anchored Zantu. Just as the dingy was reaching shore, storm clouds darkened the sky. The Zantu was buffeted about until her anchor rope parted. Tarkington, headed out alone into the dark open sea, set paper fires in a bucket to make his vessel more visible. His last scrap of paper was burning when Captain John Peabody finally spotted him and towed him back to shore through convulsing waves.

Temperatures in southern Maine dropped from 104 F before the storm to 72 F immediately after. Freak Week on the east coast resulted in 160 deaths and over $1,000,000 in damages. The sudden storms were called cyclones in 1926 newspapers but in retrospect they were more likely tornados.

Cavemen of Tatnic Hills

Nathaniel Boston refused to confess

Nathaniel Boston refused to confess

Mordan’s Cave, near Tatnic Hill in Wells, was reportedly home to at least two white men in the 18th century.

According to Edward Emerson Bourne, who wrote “History of Wells,” an Englishman named Mordan purchased the land and lived in the cave with his family for many years. His wife even bore his children in its dankness. Bourne, a religious man himself, suggests that Mordan may have been a pious man who desired an austere existence in reverence to his Lord.

Joseph Hardy, current resident of Tatnic and author of the deeply researched “Settlement and Abandonment on Tatnic Hill: An Eclectic History of Wells, Maine 1600-1900,” reports that the rock formations are still intact. “They are a complex of large boulders which have been torn from the face of the cliff by the last glacier, resulting in some holes and passages that have the appearance of caves. They definitely could have provided shelter to humans,” Hardy writes, “though it is hard to imagine a family living there for any length of time, especially during the winter. A visitor today will still find the so-called caves intact, though the interior floor has been elevated by several centuries of porcupine dung.”  In researching the deeds, Hardy discovered that a James Mordan did purchase the adjoining lot in 1746, with buildings thereon, but the lot containing the so-called cave had an absentee owner.

James Mordan and his wife, Joan, sold their lot to Elijah Boston in 1771. Just then, the people of Wells started murmuring about unfair taxation by the British. Perhaps the Mordans could see the writing on the wall. Of all the Mordan children that allegedly lived in the cave, not one person by that name or any variant spelling appears in the 1790 United States census.

There were, however, several Mordan families among the 40,000 Loyalists who fled to Canada seeking British protection after the Revolutionary War. During the war a James Mordan was accused of assisting British efforts in New Jersey.

Nathaniel Boston was, according to Bourne, the next inhabitant of Mordan’s Cave toward the end of the 18th century. “This man had been, and continued to be, a vagabond, having no settled business and making other men’s property subsidiary to his support. Pilfering as opportunity presented, afforded his principal means of support; and this he carried on, pretending to be non compos [not of sound mind], till the people could endure it no longer,” wrote the Wells historian.

The cave-dweller does not appear in the 1790 Wells census, but he could have been a relative of one of two Boston families who lived near Tatnic Hill.

Nathaniel stole from his neighbors and then boasted of his knack for escaping punishment by feigning senselessness before the authorities. Eventually, his irate neighbors took it upon themselves to force a confession out of him. E. E. Bourne claims that they built a makeshift ducking stool to accomplish this objective.

“They placed him in the tub secured for the proposed operation; but he was unmoved by their threats. They plunged him into the water, not drawing him out at once, as the custom was when this summary process was used, but holding him under water as long as they could safely do so, and then raising him up for a moment’s recuperation.”
The dunkee refused to yield no matter how many times he was submerged in the freezing water, and the dunkers gave up without exacting a confession. It was Nathaniel’s continuous bragging about his acting skills before the court that finally precipitated his conviction and subsequent imprisonment.

Variations of the ducking stool were used as early as 1066 during the Norman conquest of England. The ducking stool and its land-bound relative, the cucking stool, were instruments of public humiliation. Massachusetts authorities demanded they be installed in every town. At a court held in Wells in July of 1665, it was ordered that “every town shall take care that there be a pair of stocks, a cage and coucking stool erected between this and the next Court.”
During colonial times this form of punishment was usually reserved for gossipy, back-biting women. The humiliation would continue until the accused was silent and peace was restored to her neighborhood.

Whether or not the cave near Tatnic Hill was a year-round home to the Mordans and to the incorrigible Nathaniel Boston or just a temporary abode, as author Joseph Hardy sensibly hypothesizes, it may well have provided shelter for native civilizations that inhabited York County thousands of years ago.

The last commercial schooner to sail out of Wells

Canvas and Rope Days

Canvas and Rope Days

The Alice S. Wentworth, previously known as the Lizzie A. Tolles, was the last commercial coasting schooner to regularly sail out of Wells. The two-masted, gaff-rigged vessel enjoyed some notable associations during her illustrious career.

Schooner Lizzie A Tolles was built in South Norwalk, Conn., in 1863. After carrying bricks, coal and oysters between Connecticut and Long Island, N.Y. for 28 years, she went ashore and her owners decided it was time to sell.

Arthur Stevens of Wells, and his brother Charles, purchased the schooner in 1891 even though she was showing her age. The young Stevens brothers freighted bricks, coal, coke, lumber, salt, granite and ice along the eastern seaboard. Arthur bought out Charles’ share of the old schooner and, in 1904, painstakingly renovated her with the finest lumber from his own Wells saw mill. She was re-launched the following year as the remarkably beautiful Alice S. Wentworth, having been completely rebuilt from stem to eagle-adorned stern.

John Furnace Leavitt, one time curator at Mystic Seaport, crewed on the Alice S. Wentworth as a boy and always admired her. “A deep sheer was the vessel’s outstanding characteristic,” he wrote in his 1970 book “Wake of the Coasters.” “She was painted a dark moss green from waterline to planksheer and had a black bulwark above it.”

When Zebulon Tilton, a Martha’s Vineyard seaman of legendary skill and personality, first saw the 72-foot Alice S. Wentworth in 1906, he too fell in love with her graceful lines. He sold his own boat and signed on with Arthur Stevens as captain of the rebuilt schooner. She was considered the fastest and most agile vessel in her class, but entering Wells Harbor was a challenge, even for her. The inlet was nearly dry at low water and there was a sand bar across the channel. On each trip home the crew went ahead in a yawl boat and buoyed the changeable harbor with stakes before poling the motor less Wentworth into port. She waited in Kittery for a month in 1910 before conditions allowed her to enter Wells Harbor.

Tilton finally purchased his beloved Alice S. Wentworth in 1921 and successfully sailed her out of Martha’s Vineyard for a decade, but in the early 1930s, his bills got ahead of him. He was in danger of losing her. Some Vineyard summer visitors formed a corporation to save the old schooner and Tilton’s livelihood. The corporation, which included Broadway actress Katherine Cornell, nationally syndicated cartoonist Denys Wortman and Hollywood actor, James Cagney, raised more than enough money to purchase the schooner for $701.

Cagney was having contract trouble with Warner Brothers over their unauthorized release of the movie “Ceiling Zero.” He filed suit against the studio and went into hiding for six months on Martha’s Vineyard. The movie star fell in love with the Vineyard and the Alice S. Wentworth, upon which he happily spent many exile hours. The schooner, with her charismatic captain and her star-studded associations, became world-famous.

Captain Tilton’s eyesight failed in 1943 and the corporation sold the Alice S. Wentworth to Captain Parker Hall. After World War II she returned to the Maine coast and was refitted for pleasure, sailing weekly windjammer cruises out of Boothbay and Portland Harbor until 1960.

The Alice S. Wentworth was almost 100 years old and leaking profusely in 1961 when the Lowell Sun reported that “Ann White, a sedate landlubber nearing 40 got so tired of waiting for her ship to come in that she just went out and bought it.” She didn’t know port from starboard, but had always dreamed of going to sea. As a maritime history buff, Ann knew that the Wentworth was reborn at the age of 40, so when the schooner was advertised for sale she took it as a sign. She quit her job and sank her life savings into the Alice S. Wentworth. After a few years she found herself in over her head; figuratively and literally.

Anthony Athanas, owner of Anthony’s Pier 4 Restaurant in Boston, purchased the schooner in 1965 for $13,500 at a U.S. Marshall’s sale and docked her at the restaurant for his patrons to admire. During the decade that followed she sank four times. Each time, at great expense. Anthony hauled her up and filled her hull with bales of Styrofoam to keep her afloat. The beautiful Alice S. Wentworth, the last commercial coasting schooner to sail the New England coast, finally broke apart in a 1974 storm at the impressive age of 111 years old.