Category Archives: Ogunquit

Sparhawk Hall in its heyday

Sparhawk Hall loses a bit of roof

Sparhawk Hall loses a bit of roof

Nehemiah P. Jacobs first opened Sparhawk Hall for business in Ogunquit, on June 20, 1897. It was advertised that summer as “one of the largest and finest modern hotels on this part of the coast.” It boasted “magnificent ocean views; fine boating, bathing and fishing; private grounds, pure water and perfect drainage.”

After just two seasons a chimney fire totally destroyed the elegant hotel. The fire, which started around 2 p.m. on Oct. 2, 1899, was reported in the Biddeford Weekly Journal.

“About forty representatives of the Sanford and Cape Porpoise Railroad and Portsmouth, Kittery and York railroad with citizens of York and Wells had just finished their dinner and were about to take buckboards that awaited them at the door for a drive to York when one of the party glancing upward admiring the beauty of the hotel, discovered fire around the chimney.

“Immediately the guests organized themselves into a fire company and with the greatest difficulty saved the surrounding buildings, with buckets and by putting wet blankets on the roof.”

Work began immediately to reconstruct Sparhawk Hall. It reopened the following season without interruption on June 20, 1900. The new hotel offered the same opulent accommodations regular summer waterers had come to expect. Families typically stayed at Sparhawk Hall for extended vacations. Upon their arrival, each family was assigned a waitress who would serve them throughout their stay. The experiences of one such waitress were detailed in charming letters published by Smith College in their student publication.

Betty, a schoolteacher who had wished to further her education at Smith College, had found herself short of tuition funds in the summer of 1901. She accepted the waitress position in Ogunquit even though she was not accustomed to a lifestyle that exposed her to “such a conglomeration of nationalities and characters that compose the happy family known in Ogunquit as the ‘Sparhawk Help.’” Betty advised the recipient of her letter to “get your smelling salts and your fan ready” before reading about her provocative daily conversations with a surprisingly bright Irish bellboy named Ben who fancied himself a future writer.

Even before the hotel opened for the season, Ben had caught Betty’s eye. She mentioned him in her letters far too often and described the witty, familiar way he had addressed her with far too much detail for the reader not to assume she had developed a certain affection for the young Irishman. Another bellboy at the Sparhawk that season was Jimmie, an amateur prize-fighter. “He is a little cockney Englishman and good as gold when he is out of the ring,” she wrote. The chef, she believed, was a real Frenchman. The awe he inspired among the female employees was rivaled only by that of the headwaiter, a Brown University junior.

“My costume,” wrote Betty, “is a study in black and white. Dress and tie black, apron with bib, turn over collar and bow in hair white. I look very fetching in mine,” she boasted.

The Sparhawk Hall Orchestra was second to none. Top-notch musicians were recruited from the best colleges and concerts were performed at the hotel every night, promptly at 10 p.m. The orchestra continued to be advertised as one of the best in Maine for many years, long after Betty’s employment adventure had come to a satisfactory end.

The elegant hotel was again threatened by fire in 1906 when a gas explosion caused considerable damage on Aug. 11. “An explosion of gas in one of the rooms in the tower of Sparhawk Hall at Ogunquit at 6:30 Saturday evening wrecked the room and blew a hole through the roof of the tower,” wrote a reporter for the Biddeford Weekly Journal.

“The tower immediately caught fire and the damage by the flames and water will amount to more than $1,000. It is thought that one of the guests at the hall had left the gas burning in the room where the explosion took place and when it was turned on again it filled the room,” the reporter continued. “A man named Livermore, from Boston, entered the room and struck a match to light the gas. When the explosion came Mr. Livermore was thrown through the door and badly shaken up, but was not seriously injured.” The damaged tower was rebuilt before the 1907 season opened.

Hotel owner N.P.M. Jacobs was plagued by lawsuits during his proprietorship. He was in and out of court for several years after one of his patrons accused him of expropriating her diamond ring that had been placed in his possession for safekeeping. Jacobs admitted to having the ring but refused to return it claiming it as collateral for a hotel bill he said she owed. In another lawsuit Jacobs was accused of being in possession of silverware, for which he had not paid. All of the lawsuits went on for years, costing everyone involved far more than the original harms in attorney fees. The conclusion reached in each case was that Jacobs the hotelman was overeager to collect but reluctant to pay his bills. He continued to manage the Ogunquit hotel until his death in 1931.

Sparhawk Hall’s initial grandeur had already started to wane under Jacob’s management, but it continued to serve summer visitors to Ogunquit until October of 1968. Russell Ireland and Jules I. Voignier Jr., co-owners of the hotel since 1964, sold all the furnishings of the 80-room grand old hotel at liquidation auction and razed the building to make way for the Sparhawk Resort Motel that stands in its place today.

Ogunquit dodged a chemical threat in 1950

The day white houses turned brown in Ogunquit

The day white houses turned brown in Ogunquit

A heavy odor of rotten eggs hung over the mouth of the Ogunquit River for a week in the autumn of 1950. Nobody could figure out where the smell was coming from but it got so bad that businesses were forced to close. On the morning of October 2, 1950, house painters Leavitt Wyman and Maurice Littlefield arrived at their jobsite to find that the house they had been painting white had turned brown overnight. In fact, more than 20 light colored buildings along the shore, for 1,000 feet, from the bridge to Sea Chambers Motel had changed color overnight.

War was raging in Korea. A rumor started to circulate that the North Koreans had floated barrels of poisonous gas toward the United States, which had ruptured on the rocks off the York County Coast. When five York Beach cottages were affected by the same color change phenomenon the following day, speculation hit a fever pitch.

“It looked as though there had been a fire in each of the buildings” explained Mrs. Althine B. Wyman to a reporter for the Portsmouth Herald, “and the outside had been stained by smoke and rust-colored water.” William Ferguson owned 11 of the affected buildings. The Old Wharf Inn and The Beach House were damaged as were the Methodist Church and the Surf Side Pavilion.

Town Manager Ernest C. Marriner was inundated with calls. “We want to get at the cause of the thing first,” he told the Herald reporter. “First, it must be halted. Then any worry about the house damage spreading past the waterfront area and into other sections of the town can be averted.”

Henry Mullen, a chemist for a Boston paint concern, was summoned to identify the source of the potentially costly brown scourge. Mullen ascertained that the mysterious transformation was caused by a chemical reaction between lead paint on the buildings and Hydrogen Sulfide Gas. Further investigation revealed that the gas was emanating from seaweed decaying in the Ogunquit River and on York Beach. Much to the relief of the residents, Mr. Ferguson in particular, the brown coloration was removed by washing the buildings with a neutralizer like Hydrogen Peroxide. Fire Chief Robert W. Ellis was charged with neutralizing the foul smelling seaweed. Fears of chemical warfare in southern Maine were assuaged.

Hydrogen Sulfide Gas does occur naturally when organic materials rot in stagnant water. The distinctive odor is well known to those living near tidal flats and is usually harmless when it occurs naturally. Fortunately, an overwhelming smell of rotten eggs is evident long before the toxins reach dangerous levels. But in high concentrations Hydrogen Sulfide Gas is as deadly as carbon monoxide or cyanide.

A near-fatal incident in France during the summer of 2009 drew attention to the dangers of this toxin. Vincent Petit was horseback riding on the beach at Saint Michel de Greve when his horse slipped and fell into some smelly slime, suddenly breaking the crust that contained the poisonous gas. The horse died immediately from inhaling the fumes and his 28-year-old rider lost consciousness. Onlookers rushed Vincent to the hospital where he was able to make a full recovery. News of the incident spread worldwide and beaches in the area were closed. France’s national institute for environmental threats, INERIS was called in to address the hazard.

A recipe for making Hydrogen Sulfide Gas out of household products was posted on the internet several years ago. It was used in a bizarre rash of suicides in Japan and more recently, cases of “Detergent Suicide,” as it has come to be known, have been reported in this country.

Lead in paint is now outlawed as a neurotoxin. The chemical reaction that darkens its color in the presence of Hydrogen Sulfide Gas is sometimes used as an inexpensive method for detecting unacceptable lead levels in old buildings. The people of Ogunquit had no idea what they were up against in 1950. Not only was the lead paint that covered so many of their buildings dangerous to their health, the level of Hydrogen Sulfide Gas emanating from the Ogunquit River had to have been dangerously high to change the color of the paint on dozens of buildings.

Newspaper reports covering the 1950 incident in Ogunquit focused on the potential cost of repainting the buildings. Unbeknownst to them, they had also dodged a much deadlier bullet.

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.

The Ogunquit Gold Rush

A stampede to frustration

A stampede to frustration

The vaguest hint of a gold strike turns wise men foolish. Not just in faraway places like the Klondike or California and not just in a simpler time. More than 2,500 amateur prospectors from six states descended on Ogunquit, during the chilly month of March 1960. Armed with kitchen colanders and frying pans they rushed to the mouth of the still icy Josias River upon hearing the news that gravel dredged from Perkins Cove had already yielded some quantity of gold.

The Ellis C. Snodgrass Co. of Portland had been hired to enlarge Perkins Cove. After hauling out thick layers of mud, clamshell and drag dredges hit gravel on the old river bed. The town parking area was in need of resurfacing, so representatives of the Ogunquit Village Corporation instructed Irving Pickering, engineer in charge of the project, to have the gravel dumped in piles on the parking lot. Pickering became intrigued by the texture of the material. This fine alluvial sediment consisted in part of disintegrated rock that had been flowing down the Josias River from Mount Agamenticus for eons. It reminded him of the gravel in which he had once found tiny flecks of gold.

Following a hunch — on St. Patrick’s Day, a Thursday — Irving borrowed the only gold pan in Ogunquit from local rock hound, Frederick E. Kemp Jr. Almost immediately, he sifted out a gold nugget the size of a coffee bean. After panning the rest of the day he collected a half a thimbleful of gold dust. His total take for the day was only $8, but back at his office he jokingly put up a sign over the door that read “Klondike Town Hall.” Fred Kemp got word of the mother lode and quickly retrieved his gold pan from Pickering. He and 200 other eager early birds were at the municipal parking first thing Friday morning.

Police Chief Chris Larsen was alarmed by the crowd and immediately banned all prospecting on town property. Ogunquit Village Corporation Manager, Percival H. Wardwell, reversed the chief’s decision the following evening when Ogunquit business owners pressured him to let the tourists come and spend money in their shops. There was still snow on the ground but the story had been reported by the Associated Press. Ogunquit merchants were not about to miss a rare opportunity to open the season on the first day of spring. “Let them prospect to their hearts’ content,” Wardwell ordered.

Sunday morning, 2,500 prospectors appeared at the parking lot and along the banks of the Josias River. They came for the day from as far away as New York. They brought homemade prospecting tools and wives eager to shop in the village.

In true prospecting tradition, nobody wanted to say just how much gold had been collected. Hoping to maintain the gold fever, some locals insisted they had found “a pretty good amount of the stuff,” but their claims lacked specificity. The following weekend, a couple hundred prospectors were back. There was some talk of trying upriver once the ice melted but nothing ever came of it. It was reported in the Lewiston Daily Sun that “the claims in the parking lot gravel were scarcer than parking spaces on a hot August day.” Disgruntled prospectors complained that the only similarity between Ogunquit and the Klondike was the weather. Most of the money made during the 1960 Ogunquit Gold Rush ended up in the pockets of local merchants who had the good sense to stock up on pie plates and cocoa.

Gold has been found in Maine over the years in the Sandy River, the Swift River, and in the Saint John River, but never in quantities sufficient to make it profitable to mine. That hasn’t stopped myriad businessmen from trying to drum up interest in its promise.

On June 9, 1837, a Maine newspaper announcement read, “A gold mine was lately discovered in Albion, Maine, the gold of which was imported from Mexico, especially for the purpose. The land sold at a very high rate in consequence of this discovery; but is not so valuable now.”

On April 8, 1880, a reporter for the Lewiston Evening Journal cautioned readers against investing in the many exaggerated claims in Bluehill and Acton, Maine. “We wish to remind our readers that it is not yet determined whether any of our Maine mines will yield gold or silver in sufficient quantities to make it profitable,” he wrote. They did not and many investors were embarrassed.

In 1897, a great deal of money was invested on a mysterious process that promised to extract gold from the seawater near Lubec and Cape Porpoise. (see Nov. 2009 Old News, “Cape Porpoise Gold Rush”)

No matter how many times someone claims to have discovered profitable quantities of gold in Maine, there are always plenty of wise men at the ready with their pie plates and garden hoes.

Civil War Chronicle of the Ogunquit built brig “Betsey Ames”

A Confederate Ruse Thwarted

A Confederate Ruse Thwarted

Barak Maxwell was the richest, most influential man in Ogunquit.  Before the American Civil War he was heavily invested in shipbuilding and the rum/molasses trade with Cuba.  In 1855 Maxwell had a 265 ton brig built at his Ogunquit shipyard and named her the “Betsey Ames” in honor of his beloved wife.  Captain Richard C. Bartlett owned a 1/8 share of the Ogunquit brig and furnished her captain’s quarters comfortably enough to entice his wife Hannah to accompany him on many voyages.  

Hannah Bartlett was aboard her husband’s vessel on October 17, 1861, when the commissioned Confederate privateer schooner “Sallie” fired 12 pound canon shot in her direction.  The Betsey Ames was carrying a cargo of machinery, apples, onions, cabbages and corn meal from New York to Cardenas, Cuba in spite of the military threat to all merchant vessels during the Civil War.  She also had several passengers onboard including a young Scotsman and his American bride.  The Scotsman recorded the attack for posterity.  

He wrote, “About 9 am she fired at us, her shot falling short about a quarter of a mile.  Captain Bartlett then ordered all sail to be made, but the breeze shortly after died away, and the now suspicious schooner made upon us and fired another shot which also fell a little short of our vessel.”  The fourth shot passed alarmingly close to the side of the “Betsey Ames”.  Captain Bartlett realized he could not outrun his opponent and ordered the sails taken in. Henry Lebby, the privateer’s captain, boarded the Ogunquit brig around noon with a motley 7 man prize crew to sail her to Charleston.    

They made the South Carolina coast in 6 days but spent another 4 days tacking in circles trying to locate Charleston Harbor.  Finally another crew was sent from Charleston to pilot the prize brig in.  The lady prisoners were detained at a local boarding house and men spent a few hours locked up at the Charleston city jail before being released.  

Brig “Betsey Ames” was condemned and sold to John Frazer & Co, a Charleston commercial enterprise.  She was renamed the “Mary Wright” and Henry Lebby was appointed as her master.  On the following March 2, she successfully ran the Union blockade made for Liverpool England, arriving at Liverpool April 2.  Through some covert arrangement with Bushby & Co. of Liverpool the “Betsey Ames”/”Mary Wright” was registered as the British brig “Lilla” on April 24, 1862.     

Great Britain was officially neutral in the American Civil War but it was well known to the Union that she secretly supplied the Confederacy through the port of Nassau in the Bahamas, without regard to their blockade.  

U. S. gunboat, steamer Quaker City captured the brig “Lilla” off the Bahamas on July 3 1862 and sent her into Boston for investigation.  She was bound for the City of Nassau, loaded with a cargo of saltpeter, copper and 37 packages of medicine.  An Englishman presented himself as her captain but it was later revealed that Henry Lebby of Charleston, SC had acted as her master until the gunboat came into view.  

Convoluted paperwork found onboard the Brig “Lilla” was composed to obscure the fact that Charleston parties actually still owned her.  Representatives of the British Busby & Co. could not or would not show evidence that they had ever paid for the vessel and the “Lilla’s” first mate testified in court that the crew’s wages had been paid in advance by Fraser & Co. of Charleston. 

The First Circuit Court of the United States finally ruled that Bushby & Co. of Liverpool had tried to deceive the court.  The “Lilla” and her cargo were condemned as a legitimate prize of war.  Claim for the vessel, her tackle, apparel, and furniture was filed July 30, 1862 by Barak Maxwell of Ogunquit on behalf of his interest, that of Richard C Bartlett and the Mercantile Mutual Insurance Company.  The brig “Lilla” was sold by the U. S. Marshalls to a Samuel Knight for $9275.  Proceeds were restored to the Ogunquit parties after the deduction of a salvage fee to be paid to the crew of the gunboat “Quaker City.” 

Business at Barak Maxwell’s ship yard had already declined by the beginning of the Civil War.  In 1855, the Betsy Ames was built for about $34/ton.  By 1860 the same size vessel cost more than $65 /ton to build.  Business did not improve after the war and in 1880 Barak Maxwell dismantled his steam saw mill and sold it to James Buffum.  Tourism became the principal industry in Ogunquit as it did in many of the shipbuilding towns on the Maine coast.

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.

The Gypsies will get you if you don’t behave!

Gypsies were easy target

Gypsies were easy target

Gypsies who visited coastal York County every summer starting in the 1880s repeatedly stole blue-eyed children and money from the locals. Or did they?

In 1887, Kennebunkport’s summer newspaper “The Wave,” reported as fact “A band of Gypsies that passed through here last week had with them a little blue-eyed child that did not in the least resemble his dusty companions. Suspicion was aroused that he might have been stolen and such proves to have been the case. It was the son of James Welch of Nashua, N.H. Pursuit is now being made for the rascals and the little child will undoubtedly be rescued.”

After the band of Gypsies was followed up the coast by police for a more than a week, a Bath Times reporter wrote that the frantic Gypsy mother of the blue-eyed child finally presented her son’s authentic birth certificate to Justice Henry Ragot of Brunswick and the judge declared her innocent of kidnapping. The Gypsies performed in Brunswick that day with their dancing bear and offered Justice Ragot all the money they collected in gratitude for his fairness. The judge refused their gift.

In 1902, Harry Clark of Beverly, Mass., scolded his four-year-old son for standing dangerously close to the kicking feet of his horse. When the father looked for him again he was gone. Immediately, Gypsies were accused of stealing the child €¦ any Gypsies. Many seaside vacationers reported seeing the captive child in Ogunquit and Kennebunk. After fruitlessly searching every Gypsy encampment in Maine and New Hampshire, the press suggested, without a shred of evidence, that it was probably the Indians who had carried little Wilbur Clark away.

To keep them close to home, children were warned, “the Gypsies will get you and turn you into a beggar,” but no such case was ever proved. The King of the Stanley Gypsies was asked about this in the 1930s. He said, “Don’t you think we have enough of our own children to feed? Why would we want yours?”

Gypsies traveled from Maine seaside resort to resort staying at each until they were chased away. They usually camped on the outskirts of town near fresh water brooks in elaborately painted wagons and tents. Their pet monkeys and bears entertained vacationers at the fairgrounds and along the beach roads. Gypsy women knocked on doors to tell fortunes for money and the men bred and traded some of the finest horses available. Gypsies occasionally used their bad reputation to their own benefit. Attractive fair-skinned young Gypsy girls would trick tourists out of their money by claiming to have been kidnapped and in need of money to get home to their pure, white families. Some Gypsies did cheat and steal to survive, but often they admitted to crimes they had not committed, just to be left alone.

Two Gypsy women appeared at Mrs. Waterhouse’s Kennebunk Landing door in the spring of 1931 and offered to tell her fortune. The lady of the house refused to let them in. She later discovered that $20 was missing from her pocketbook and called the police.

Deputies Roland D. Parsons of Kennebunk, Orrison Davis of Biddeford, Irving S. Boothby of Saco, and George L. Simard of Biddeford located the fortune-tellers at a farm the Gypsies owned at Oak Ridge. The two women denied stealing any money but when the police threatened to take the whole band to court, the Gypsies gave them $20.

Tracing the origin of a non-literate culture like the Gypsies’ presents obvious challenges. By analyzing words common to the many Gypsy dialects, linguists have traced this unique race of people to India. An Indian origin for the Romani people, as they call themselves, is also supported by recent DNA studies. Early Gypsies led semi-nomadic lives because they were not allowed to own land. Their role in the Indian caste system was to travel from town to town entertaining the upper classes. After being driven out of India around the year 1000 they were widely scattered.

Some tribes eventually established themselves in the southern Balkan countries before 1300. There, they were enslaved. Many Romani bands came to the United States in the late 1800s from Serbia when their nomadic existence was outlawed. Others immigrated after escaping Nazi Germany where half a million Gypsies were put to death during World War II.

When enforcement of zoning ordinances made a nomadic existence impractical in the United States, Gypsies gravitated toward large cities where they could more easily get lost in the crowd. Today, the descendants of the Gypsies who camped along the Maine coast are finding each other on the Internet and learning about their hidden heritage through DNA testing.

The Lincoln penny designed by Ogunquit artist

A numismatist’s delight.

A numismatist’s delight.

The obstacles sculptor and medalist, Victor David Brenner, had to overcome to see his design for the Lincoln penny — finally minted in 1909 — were minor compared to challenges he faced in his native Lithuania before emigrating to America.

Near the end of his career, Clara Whiteside, wife of well known artist Frank Reed Whiteside, interviewed Victor Brenner at his Ogunquit studio overlooking Perkins Cove.

He had been born Viktoras Barnauskas in Shavli, Lithuania, in 1871. At the age of 13 he began an apprenticeship in his father’s metal shop and quickly displayed a precocious gift for engraving. At the tender age of 16 he went into business for himself.

Victor arrived in New York in 1890 with no knowledge of the English language, but his superior engraving skills quickly earned him a comfortable living. After eight years, he felt creatively unsatisfied by the work. “I gave in to the discontent that was troubling me — threw up my work and sailed for Paris,” he told Clara. There he studied with accomplished medalist, Louis Oscar Roty, and entered Academie Julian. Upon his return to New York, his artistic talents were recognized by well-placed numismatists who encouraged his concentration on commemorative medals.

Brenner’s proposed design for the Panama Canal service medal was selected by President Theodore Roosevelt, whose flattering likeness was to be depicted thereon. While the President posed for the artist, the two men developed a comfortable rapport, so much so that Victor felt within the bounds of propriety to suggest that the Indian head on the United States penny be replaced by his sculpture of President Abraham Lincoln.

Roosevelt was persuaded, much to the chagrin of the Chief Engraver at the U.S. Mint, Charles E. Barber, who tried every unctuous trick in the book to discredit Brenner and the quality of his work. Nonetheless, a Victor David Brenner design for the new coin was finally approved by the President and the Secretary of the Treasury, with one minor change. The name “Brenner” that appeared on the reverse of the coin was reduced to VDB. By the time the first coins were released to the public on Aug. 2, 1909, the administration had changed.

The new Secretary of the Treasury, Franklin MacVeagh, saw the finished coin and believed, as did some vocal members of the public, that the foreign-born artist had given too much prominence to his own initials on the back of the coin. A decision was made to stop the minting. The vindictive Chief Engraver Barber advised Secretary Macveagh that it would be technically impractical to reduce the size of the initials on the die and convinced him that the most prudent course of action would be to remove Brenner’s initials altogether.

The public rushed the Treasury Department for the limited first minting and by Aug. 9, 1909, the supply of Lincoln pennies bearing the artist’s initials had been exhausted. The price of the coins went from 3 for a nickel to 25 cents apiece. Recently, one such penny, of the rarer San Francisco minting, was valued at more than $6,000.

Victor David Brenner’s initials were re-introduced on the front of the Lincoln penny in 1918 just after Charles E. Barber retired from the U.S. Mint. During the same year what could arguably be described as Brenner’s masterwork — the Mary Schenley Memorial Fountain, also known as A Song to Nature — was unveiled at the entrance to Schenley Park in Pittsburgh, Pa. The magnificent 30-foot public sculpture in bronze and granite portrays a reclining Pan being serenaded by a graceful female companion. Carla Whiteside’s enlightening article was widely published in 1920, but it did not reveal the circumstances that led to Brenner’s departure from the motherland. Numismatic expert, David W. Lange, uncovered the particulars in his 2005 book, “The Complete Guide to Lincoln Cents.”

Victoras Barnauskas’ work so exceeded that of his rival engravers in Lithuania that they resented the number of commissions the teenager took from them. He was accused of counterfeiting. The police, frustrated in trying to obtain evidence of the crime that had never occurred, came into his shop and asked him to duplicate an official seal. Unaware that it was illegal to do so, young Viktor made a perfect copy and was thrown into jail. With the help of some friends he managed to escape and fled to the United States.

When Victor Brenner died in 1924, at just 53 years old, his name was well known. The controversy over the temporary removal of his initials from the Lincoln penny brought him more notoriety than if he had been allowed to sign his whole name to the design.

Marginal Way: an Ogunquit gift

The Marginal Way; A triumph of location

The Marginal Way; A triumph of location

The Marginal Way, a gentle footpath that follows the breathtakingly beautiful coast for a mile and a quarter between Perkins Cove and Ogunquit Village, is treasured by residents and visitors alike. It is open to the public thanks in great measure to F. Raymond Brewser’s foresight and tenacity.

Brewster, an architect, grew up in York on Chase’s Pond Road, near the woolen mill of Josiah Chase Sr. He moved to Ogunquit as a young man and devoted himself to civic improvements of his adopted village, serving as postmaster and overseer of the Ogunquit Village Corporation. He also designed and built the Ogunquit Grammar School.

Coastal lots were being divided up and sold to summer cottagers at an alarming rate. Brewster made it his business to protect as much shoreline as possible for public use. His childhood neighbor, Josiah Chase Jr., owned a great swath of oceanfront property from Perkins Cove to the mouth of the Ogunquit River. Brewster asked his friend, on behalf of the Ogunquit Village Corporation, to donate the land to the town.

Josiah Chase Jr., born in 1840, was York’s only commissioned officer in the American Civil War. After graduating from Bates College, he studied law in the offices of Judge Sewall Strout and then practiced independently in Portland. A democrat, he served as Deputy Collector of Customs for the District of Portland from 1886 to 1890, during the first administration of President Grover Cleveland. When he returned to his family homestead in York, his neighbor Frederic Raymond Brewster was still a boy. In 1895, Chase helped to establish the York Shore Water Company, an organization he would direct for the rest of his life. He also served two terms in the Maine Legislature but was defeated in his bid for the U. S. Senate.

Josiah Chase had started buying Ogunquit shore land in 1887 and filed subdivision plans with the York County Registry of Deeds during the decade that followed. It was his intention that the Marginal Way be kept as common space for the subdivision, but his friend Mr. Brewster kept after him to preserve public access to the shore. Josiah Chase finally deeded the Marginal Way to the Ogunquit Village Corporation in 1925, just three years before his death.

Brewster petitioned the town in 1942 to erect a bronze tablet at the entrance of Marginal Way to commemorate Josiah Chase’s gift to Ogunquit. Five years later, a plaque was installed but the dedication ceremony was overshadowed by a threat to local tourism. Beach and water pollution surveys, conducted by the State of Maine in 1946, identified serious problems in Ogunquit. The State Health Department closed the beach for five days in July of 1947, due to unhealthy water quality. “There used to be sewer pipes running down Israel Head Road and right out to sea,” said Helen Horn who now serves on the Marginal Way committee and the town’s sewer district.

Overseers of the Ogunquit Village Corporation voted to have a $30,000 “purification system” constructed to address the problem. One of the pumping stations needed to be located on the Marginal Way. Townspeople insisted that not more than $8,000 be spent on its construction. All the bids submitted for building a little house to hide the pumping station exceeded the budget.

Ogunquit overseer Grover S. Perkins designed a disguise for the pumping station and Winfield C. Littlefield was awarded a contract to build the 23-foot lighthouse replica for $6,795. Construction began in May of 1948 and the picturesque lighthouse was completed in time for the opening of the tourist season. State inspectors were so impressed by Ogunquit’s town-wide purification design that they encouraged other coastal communities to imitate the system.

The Marginal Way was extended further into the village in the 1950s. Rights of way were donated to the town, some more willingly than others. The world renowned footpath is now paved and dotted with landscaped benches. Unbeknownst to the tens of thousands of tourist that photograph it each summer, the lighthouse pumping station at the foot of Ontio Hill Road still functions as originally intended.

Henry Strater’s Ogunquit Museum of American Art

Henry Strater's Masterwork

Henry Strater’s Masterwork

As a member of the “lost generation,” landscape and figure painter Henry Strater was frequently interviewed about his relationships with literary icons, Earnest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and James Joyce. He was frustrated that he had achieved more notoriety for his friendships than for his art.

At the dedication of the Ogunquit Museum of American Art in 1953, Strater explained that he had built the museum to showcase his own contemporaries in the visual arts. “The works of writers are reproduced by the thousands,” he told the appreciative crowd, “whereas an artist makes only his original.”

Henry Strater, who was known to his friends as “Mike,” was a bit of a rebel during his years at Princeton. He started a movement to alter the undemocratic system of social clubs at the school and he protested American participation in World War I. Classmate F. Scott Fitzgerald modeled the rebel-pacifist character, Burne Holiday, in “This Side of Paradise,” after Mike. “I taught Scott not to be afraid of the devil or the dark,” the painter once said of his influence over Fitzgerald.

Strater was a writer then, too. During his freshman year he won out against some pretty stiff competition to edit the Daily Princetonian. Robert Taylor of the Boston Globe once asked Strater how he chose between visual and literary arts. He responded, “I had to answer the question, did I want to spend the rest of my life looking at a beautiful typewriter, or did I want to spend the rest of my life looking at a beautiful woman?” He chose beautiful women, repeatedly.

Strater’s draft registration card lists him as a conscientious objector, but in 1917 he volunteered for Red Cross service in France. While on leave near the Swiss border he fell and injured himself, ending up on crutches. After suffering the humiliation of being treated like a war hero by women in the streets of Paris, he signed up for the Belgian Army in an effort to legitimize the perception.

While awaiting transport back to the States after the war, Strater studied art at l’Ecole Julien in Paris. He continued his artistic training at the Hamilton Easter Field School of painting in Ogunquit, during the summer of 1919. Strater spent the next five years honing his skills in exotic places. He and his first wife, Margaret Connor, travelled in Europe where they frequently dined with author James Joyce and met Earnest Hemingway at one of Ezra Pound’s afternoon teas.

Strater and Hemingway became very close. They boxed, fished and philosophized together for years. In 1936 the two men had a falling out over a 900-pound marlin. Mike had landed the giant, but when Hemingway allowed a photographer from Time Magazine to mistakenly assume he had caught the fish, the friendship fell apart.

After Hemingway died in 1961, Henry was flooded with questions about his former friend until he told a reporter for the Boston Globe to spread the word that he was “Hemingwayed out!”

Mike’s passion for competitive tuna fishing near his summer home in Ogunquit was rivaled only by his love for beautiful women. When not busy painting or fishing, he gleefully offered his services as judge of the annual Miss Ogunquit bathing suit pageant. Henry Strater and all three of his wives spent and worked tirelessly for the betterment of Ogunquit area organizations including the library and York Hospital. The Straters were also active supporters of the Ogunquit Art Association.

The more famous his “lost generation” literary friends became, the more fervent was Henry Strater’s wish that visual artists of the same era be similarly recognized. On Sept. 18, 1951, the Ogunquit Museum of American Art was incorporated. Henry Strater purchased the land on Shore Road and hired Charles Worley Jr. to design the museum. Jarvis Shibles of North Berwick was hired to oversee construction, which began in September of 1852. The 3,600 square foot building was completed halfway through the following summer.

On July 8, 1953, the Portsmouth Herald published a description of the new museum. “The low simple lines of the building give an unobtrusive yet modern appearance. The white pine pillars supporting the terrace roof were cut by Henry Strater and Joseph Weare from the old Weare woodlands.”

Mike and his fellow trustees filled the four exhibit rooms with works by Strater and his peers. A large Ogunquit crowd turned out for the dedication ceremonies on Aug. 1, 1953. Henry H. Strater gave the museum to the people of Ogunquit in memory of his parents, Adeline Helme and Charles Godfrey Strater. His realized dream is, to this day, one of Ogunquit’s crown jewels.