Scattered pearls of political and social wisdom

Cracker-barrel Sage by Frank Handlen
Cracker-barrel Sage by Frank Handlen

Fictitious cracker-barrel philosopher Silas Larrabee of Ogunquit, scattered pearls of political and social wisdom far and wide on the pages of The New York Times for the decade that straddled the turn of the 20th century.

The correspondent who gave birth to Mr. Larrabee was Robert W. Welch, the same journalist who broke the Thomas Reed corruption story in 1890 (see last week’s column).

Welch was born in Dover, N.H., in 1851. He graduated from Dartmouth College and accepted a job on the news staff of The New York Times in 1883. After paying his dues by reporting from New York and California, he settled in Ogunquit around 1889.

Initially considered a city slicker and an outsider, it took Welch a few years to gain the trust of some of the locals, especially when his early columns did not portray the most dignified aspects of the community. As time went by he honed his listening skills and the old timers allowed him more and more access to their conversations around the stove at Maxwell’s Store. Welch was struck by the insight of these seemingly uneducated men into political and social issues of the day. He created an Ogunquit character whose voice he used to express his own views in a regular column.

There was no Silas Larrabee living in Ogunquit at the time but there were plenty of Silases, plenty of Larrabees, and plenty of men whose unfettered wisdom Welch drew upon to create an iconic “voice of reason” that was wildly popular wherever The New York Times was read.

In a caricaturized Maine vernacular, Silas examined some very progressive ideas.

In 1901, when most women did not go to college and smart girls were warned to keep their intellect under wraps if they expected to snag a rich husband, Mr. Larrabee offered another point of view through The New York Times correspondent: “Don’t git no sech foolish notion into your heads thet because you are women you ain’t got nothin’ to do but eat and sleep and look pootty. They’s some of you that the Lord has guv ten talents to; some of you ain’t got but five, perhaps, and maybe a few of you has only one. Don’t go and hide away what the Lord has guv ye. Make the most of it. Work up your raw material. It’s wuth somethin’ to have an edicated mother-it’s wuth a good deal more, in my jedgment, than it is to be born with a silver spoon in your mouth. What’s the fust thing that gits into a young one’s head? Interrygation p’ints. Who be they p’inted at? The young one’s mother. There’s where the edicated woman comes in. She don’t have to do no dodgin’. She’s better’n a cyclopedy, for she’s right up to date. Don’t you think a woman that can tell her young ones everything they want to know is a pootty good institution? Is there any usefuller member of the human fam’ly than the well-edicated, broad-minded mother?”

Some of Larrabee’s advice was timeless. The Democrats held a majority in Congress in 1894 but were still fighting amongst themselves as election time approached. Robert Welch wished to appeal to his readers to stop the infighting and focus on the upcoming election. He made the point in his column by having Silas pour a metaphorical bag of beans on the counter at Maxwell’s store. Dividing the beans into Pile No. 1 and slightly smaller Pile No 2, Silas asked a young boy to point out the most attractive pile of beans. The child picked Pile No. 1. Silas then split Pile No. 1 into two piles and asked the boy to choose again. “Thet there one,” answered the boy, this time pointing to Pile No. 2. “See the p’int?” demanded Mr. Larrabee smiling triumphantly.”

After leaving Ogunquit around 1903, Welch became The New York Times London correspondent. While living in England, he befriended the playwright George Bernard Shaw. Never one to shy away from controversy, Welch publicly defended Shaw’s play, “Mrs. Warren’s Profession” when it was banned from libraries as obscene. After retirement the journalist spent summers in Georgetown, Mass., and winters in St. Petersburg, Fla., where he died Nov. 28, 1933.

Mr. Robert W. Welch has long been forgotten as has his alter-ego Mr. Silas Larrabee but the wisdom and depth of straight talking Mainers continues to inspire.

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