Tag Archives: Cape Arundel

Booth Tarkington in Kennebunkport

Rewards of the pen

News of the death of Booth Tarkington in 1946 fell like a blanket of grief over the town of Kennebunkport. For more than 40 years the author had whole-heartedly embedded himself in his beloved summer community in a way that changed the town and the man forever.

Newton Booth Tarkington was born in Indianapolis, Ind. on July 29, 1869. He attended Purdue University and then Princeton University, but didn’t graduate from either institution. He sought work as an illustrator and a writer during the 1890s but it took almost a decade before he could make a living at it. Finally, in 1898, he sold a manuscript entitled The Gentleman from Indiana, which became a bestseller in 1900. Tarkington’s career and financial prospects would never again be in doubt.

The writer first visited Kennebunkport in 1903 as a newlywed. His arrival at The Old Fort Inn was proudly announced in Kennebunkport’s summer newspaper. Recovering from a serious case of typhoid fever, Booth spent that season falling in love with the town where he would summer for the rest of his life. His first marriage ended in divorce, however, and his daughter by that marriage died young.

A new life chapter began in 1912 with his second marriage to Susanah Robinson. Mr. and Mrs. Tarkington frequented the Old Fort Inn or rented cottages from Kennebunkport friends — like artist Abbott Graves — until proceeds from the wildly successful Penrod enabled them to build a beautiful summer home in 1917. No expense was spared. The new cottage on South Maine Street, called “Seawood,” was mentioned by the editor of Kennebunkport’s newspaper. “To the summer visitor the house has seemingly reared itself overnight like Aladdin’s palace.”

Tweedles, a play Tarkington wrote with Harry Leon Wilson, debuted on Broadway in 1923, starring Ruth Gordon. It is a gently satirical examination of two sides of the same snobbery. Though the play is set in a “fictional” Maine coastal resort, the tea room/antique shop where much of the action takes place is surprisingly similar to the real life Bonnie Brig Tea Room — so popular at the time with the Cape Arundel crowd. In the play, young lovers are foiled by strained relations between their families; hers, local and proud of their old New England heritage and his, seasonal residents of considerable means and social stature. The play was clearly poking fun at the all-too-real tensions between native Kennebunkporters and summer people from away, but nobody seemed to mind. In fact, the theme resonated with both.

Rumors circulated in the late 1920s that Tarkington was losing his eyesight. The author did not noticeably slow down in his professional life or his private life at the Port. He continued to create characters who had undoubtedly been inspired by the people he had met there.

Mary’s Neck was published first, in serial form and then as a novel. It is a less than flattering portrayal of superficial, self-important cottagers at a “fictional” resort, located on a rocky promontory on the Maine coast.

Mirthful Haven is a novel about life in another “fictional” Maine resort town. Tensions swell in the old-fashioned village, still imbued with vestiges of the clipper ship and China trade days when it was visited by summer representatives of the outside world with their garish yachts and their exclusive country clubs. Young love is thwarted again by the great divide.

The character of Capt. Embury was supposedly fashioned after Capt. Dudley, a real life China Trade sea captain who lived on Elm Street. The fictional Harry Pelter is suspiciously like Francis Noble, whose refusal to give up his dilapidated shack across the river was at the time tormenting the Kennebunk River Club set, in real life.

Submerging himself in the nautical spirit of his work, Tarkington purchased the tired old Machias lumber schooner Regina in 1929. He blocked her up permanently at William Trotter’s boathouse near the Nonantum and drilled holes below the waterline so she wouldn’t rise and fall with the tide. A retired local sea captain, Blynn Montgomery, was hired as Regina’s master ashore to handle licensing, maintenance issues, and to tell visitors true sea stories in a captain’s hat, giving the vessel an air of authenticity. The Regina became a source of pride in the old seafaring town with her bowsprit extending out over Ocean Avenue. For Tarkington, the schooner and boathouse that he nicknamed “The Floats,” functioned as a work studio and a gentlemen’s clubhouse.

Booth Tarkington also loved motorboats. In June of 1930 a 45-foot cruiser, Zantre, was launched for him from Clemie Clark’s Boatyard near the Grist Mill. Zantre was the third cruiser the author had owned in Kennebunkport. The first was named Zantee and the second, Zantu. All were named in honor of Mrs. Tarkington. Her given name was Susanah and her nieces and nephews affectionately referred to her as Aunt Zan.                                                            Continued below…

Author, playwright and civic-minded neighbor

Year-round residents of Kennebunkport were not put off by the grandeur of Booth Takington’s living conditions. They had grown to love him for his honest unaffected manner. Even his employees regarded him as a friend.

Francis Chick, his Kennebunkport chauffeur, was reported to have said, “We folks around here like the Tarkingtons. They’re so common.” Booth liked the line so much that he used it in one of his stories. Henry Thirkell — who acted as captain on Booth’s motor cruisers — and his son Stanley who later took over the job, were like family. The Tarkingtons not only respectfully employed their neighbors, they quietly helped them solve personal difficulties.

For all his charm and generosity, the author was not the type to gush falsely, nor was he a saint. His public criticism of other writers was harsh. That same inclination to speak his mind sometimes allowed some anti-Semitic and racist feelings to see the light of day in local newspaper interviews. A reporter who visited the Tarkingtons at their Kennebunkport home in 1924 noted “The prettiest little black boy I have ever seen, with curling hair, an entrancing smile, and a white coat always opened the door to the Tarkington’s summer home.” But this was a different time. Bigotry was accepted and Booth had that way about him that invited forgiveness and friendship.

One of Tarkington’s best friends in Kennebunkport was the notoriously cranky historical fiction writer, Kenneth Roberts. The two men shared a sardonic wit. Booth delivered with humor and a twinkle in his eye that made people believe his zings were all in good fun. Roberts wasn’t blessed with that gift. They often met at The Floats in the afternoon for tea and writers’ “shop talk.”

Though Tarkington had been a teetotaller since 1912, he didn’t judge his friends for enjoying a cocktail or two in his company. Kenneth Roberts spent many years documenting his efforts to achieve the perfect cocktail recipe. Journalist Francis Noble was another daily visitor aboard the Regina whose affection for alcohol was no secret. Noble, who was by then ostracized by Cape Arundel’s finest, would row across the river from his shack every afternoon to argue politics with his conservative friend and to imbibe.

The rumors of Tarkington’s eyesight problems had merit. He was almost completely blind by September 1930. An operation at Baltimore restored his sight in one eye, but the author was never again able to read or write for himself. His doctors ordered him to work no more than four hours a day and his secretary, Betty Trotter, took his dictation. By his own account, he napped every day after lunch in the captain’s berth onboard the schooner Regina. Weather permitting, he chased whales in his motor cruiser after lunch. The Tarkingtons always dressed for dinner and entertained their friends with music, cards and an occasional game of charades. After all the guests had retired, Susanah Tarkington read her husband to sleep. The accomplished workaholic resigned himself to his newly restricted schedule but his health issues had taken a toll.

An Indiana youth met Booth Tarkington at Gooch’s Beach in 1931. The boy was stunned by the famous author’s appearance. He later wrote an article for his school paper that was picked up by an Indianapolis Weekly. Booth was described as a stooped, grey, frail-looking man in an ill-fitting bathing suit, chain-smoking enormous custom-made cigarettes with his name printed on each one. The boy’s perception of Penrod’s creator was deflated. The people of Kennebunkport continued to love him as the gifted, neighborly, generous human being they knew him to be.

A young Robert Currier, from Newton, Mass., came to vacation in Kennebunkport with his family in the early 1930s. He met Tarkington who encouraged him to bring his theatrical Garrick Players to Kennebunkport. Tarkington went so far as to trim and tailor parts of his play Tweedles to be performed by the troupe in 1933. Festivals featuring the plays of Tarkington were frequently performed at the Olympian Club and later the Kennebunkport Playhouse on River Road. The author was an enthusiastic patron, hosting cast parties onboard his schooner. Sometimes frustrated with the way his plays were performed on Broadway, Tarkington enjoyed the influence he had on Currier’s productions. He also drew big name performers that might not otherwise have agreed to perform at the Kennebunkport Playhouse.

The Federal Works, a New Deal Agency, commissioned artist Elizabeth Tracy to paint a mural for the Kennebunkport Post Office Wall in 1940. Tarkington and Roberts spearheaded a movement to have it removed. The government-funded mural portrayed scantily-clad bathers at the beach. Not a fan of President Franklin D. Roosevelt or his new deal, Tarkington was very vocal in his opposition. “The painting is an eyesore and the whole town is ashamed of it,” declared the author. “It’s dismal, a combination of Coney Island and Mexican realism.” It took four years, but in 1945 the mural was replaced with a more dignified painting by marine artist Gordan Grant. And the shipbuilding-themed mural that still graces the Post Office wall was funded by Kennebunkport citizen donations, not the U.S. government.

After a long illness, Tarkington died in Indiana at the age of 76. The 1947 Kennebunkport Town Report was dedicated to his memory. “The admiration that Kennebunkport felt for Booth Tarkington is inexpressible. The town is in much the same situation as are his close friends, many of whom are authors. Their affection for him was such that they were unable to write the usual eulogies that appear so frequently when famous men are taken from us. Kennebunkport misses and mourns him, just as all the world misses and mourns him.”

Tarkington left his mark at the Kennebunkport Post Office; he left his mark on South Main Street where his beautiful Seawood has been converted into condominiums; he left his mark on Ocean Avenue where the schooner Regina was disassembled and sunk in 1952, being too deteriorated to save. For some, the sight of The Floats — between Nonantum Resort and the Kennebunk River Club — still evokes afternoons of camaraderie and literary conversation. Most of all, Tarkington made his mark on Kennebunkport hearts and history.

Kennebunkport’s bat, ball and glove history

Baseball - summer's preoccupation
Baseball – summer’s preoccupation
Mr. William B. Walker of Springfield, Mass., played baseball against a Kennebunkport team in 1872, even before the big hotel was built on the bluff. So he reported to the editor of the Wave in 1889. By then, each coastal resort area had its own team. “The Goose Rocks beat the Ocean Bluffs 5 to 3,” wrote the Wave sports reporter that summer. And later, “The Granite State base ball club and the Gooch’s Beach team had a lively match.” When a game was scheduled against the York Beach club, local boys piled onto one of Joe Jeffries’ barges and made their way down the coast to rival turf. Temporary diamonds were laid out on the beaches or in open hay fields.


Teams were made up of year-round residents and summer folk. The Ocean Bluff team had the good fortune to have Penobscot and Passamaquoddy Indian boys camping nearby at Indian Canoe Landing. Writer Albert Reed vacationed at Cape Arundel in August of 1889 and raved about the Indians’ passion for baseball in an article he submitted to the Boston Daily Globe. “The most dangerous habit they are addicted to is baseball. All the young braves are deeply versed in the slang and rules of the game and know all about the league standing, while several of them are practicing for positions on the Boston nine.”

Eighteen-year-old Louis Francis Sockalexis, soon to be one of the first Native Americans to play professional baseball, was a member of the extended family of Penobscot Indians summering at Cape Arundel in 1889. Though he wasn’t mentioned by name in the Globe, that summer he was listed as third baseman on Kennebunkport’s 1902 roster after his brief career as the original Cleveland Indian. Some said he could have been the greatest player of all time if only he hadn’t suffered from alcoholism.

The Kennebunkport Historical Society owns a beautiful photograph of renowned Boston and Kennebunkport artist, Abbott Fuller Graves, posing with his baseball team on the front lawn of his Ocean Avenue home. Graves sponsored and managed a local team of grown men in 1915; men with names still familiar in Kennebunkport, like Towne, Littlefield, Gould, Whitehead, Eldridge and Butland. Curtis and Earnest Coombs of West Kennebunk played right field and catcher, respectively. Their older brother John, meanwhile, was playing professional baseball with the Brooklyn Dodgers.

Henry Parsons donated land on School Street for a permanent ball park and Frank Atkins was hired to keep it trimmed and tidy. Poet and local shopkeeper Silas Perkins took over as the team’s manager in 1916. The Kennebunkporters continued to play until 1918 when World War I made exuberance for a game seem inappropriate.

In 1922, summer resident George Herbert Walker Jr. brought new life to the Kennebunkport baseball scene by organizing a team he called the Blue Stockings. The following summer he hired John W. Coombs as player/manager. Colby Jack Coombs, as he was known to the fans, had taken a coaching job at Williams College after a brilliant career in professional baseball. With summers off, he was free to lend his expertise to the Blue Stockings.

Walker and Coombs were determined to establish a top-notch semi-pro ball club. A new grandstand was erected at Parson’s field and the Yale groundskeeper was engaged for the season. Coombs played right field. Walker caught the ball. He also held the strings so coyly referred to in the Lewiston Daily Sun on March 1, 1923. “It is reported that strings on a large purse have been unknotted to secure a classy outfit of semi-pro ballmen. Summer residents are keen for a first class team and propose a payroll that will rival that of the Augusta millionaires.”

Walker and Coombs assembled the best collegiate talent available in 1923. Jack’s best players at Williams were recruited as were the crème de la crème from Dartmouth and Princeton. Local sports fans were thrilled with the prospect of a winning ball club but none were happier than the young ladies at Cape Arundel, who reportedly scrambled for their dance cards. The team was referred to as the Collegians by the press; and the name stuck.

By 1950, Jack Coombs had retired. With few interruptions, Herbie Walker was still calling the shots for the Kennebunkport Collegians. Kenny Raynor was his manager. Yes the same Kenneth Raynor who would become President of the Cape Arundel Golf Club. George Herbert Walker Jr. told a reporter for the Portland Press Herald that he didn’t expect the 1950 Kennebunkport Collegians to be financially successful. He regarded the maintenance costs as an investment in good fellowship; a common interest for town people and summer visitors. “That’s worth a lot,” he insisted.

The Collegians didn’t play in 1951. Many of their prospective players had been drafted to serve in the Korean War. Kennebunkport baseball fans, proud of a their semi-professional team and the town’s rich baseball history, hoped the boys would be back after a few years but it was not to be. George Herbert Walker Jr., uncle to two United States Presidents, co-founded the New York Mets in 1960.



A Noble Pursuit

The Noble family arrived at Kennebunk Station in the summer of 1878.  They had left Boston three hours earlier eager to begin a summer holiday in the riverfront village that 12-year-old Francis would love for the next 70 years.  Ham Littlefield’s Stage was waiting at the station to carry the family to the Ocean Bluff Hotel that boasted a bowling ally, live music and a comodious double room  for $3.00 a night.

Cape Arundel was not yet the bustling watering place it would become and Francis was drawn to the excitement of the shipyards in the village. The sights, sounds and smells of the full riggers being built and launched by Clark and Thompson, fascinated him.

The Nobles became annual summer visitors to the Port.  They were active members of The Kennebunk River Club and the Casino.  Patriarch, George, who suggested the name St. Ann’s by the Sea, was on the planning committee to build the Episcipal Church.  George Washington Copp Noble, descendant of Christopher Noble of Portsmouth, was a prominent Boston educator with a reputation for preparing boys for a Harvard education.  Noble & Greenough, founded  by George in 1866, catered to the Boston aristocracy.  His wife Laura was the daughter of Francis Lister Hawks, writer, historian and long time Rector of the Episcopal Calvary Church in New York City.

As expected, in 1884, Francis was enrolled at Harvard. He made the acquaintance of William Randolph Hearst, the business manager for the struggling Harvard Lampoon. Hearst was less than serious about academics and was soon expelled from Harvard for having personalized chamber pots delivered to each of his professors but he continued his work with The Lampoon and the Newspaper’s popularity soared under his management.  Francis’ friend had found his calling.  Upon graduation in 1888, Noble received an urgent plea along with many Harvard Lampoon cronies, to join the staff of Hearst’s first Newspaper; The San Francisco Examiner.  He rose to the position of Managing Editor of the paper that was known for exaggeration and sensationalistic headlines. 

Hearst acquired The New York Journal in 1895 and Francis Noble became the Journal’s Sunday Editor.  He witnessed the birth of “Yellow Journalism”; an exciting time for a newspaperman in New York City.  The term Yellow Journalism was coined during a battle for subscriptions with Joseph Pulitzer of the New York World.  Hearst offered journalists and cartoonists, huge salaries to leave Pulitzer and come work for the Journal.  One cartoon, “The Yellow Kid”, was printed for the first time, in color. The color was yellow. The Newspaper was opportunistically aimed at the common man and capitalized on the frustrations of the underdog.  Some even blamed Hearst for instigating the Spanish American War for the sensational headlines and shocking stories it would supply.

Noble followed Hearst again to become the Sunday Editor of The Chicago American and later as the Sunday Editor for Hearst’s New York World.  Moving back to Boston, Noble worked for The Boston Evening Transcript, Boston Herald and Boston Daily Globe.  At the age of 46, Francis retired from the Newspaper business and came to live in Kennebunkport year-round. He did not retire his opinions or his writing skills. 

The following summer Noble became embroiled in an effort to overthrow the sitting Board of Directors at the Kennebunk River Club.  The Carnival had been cancelled at the last moment.  According to the summer paper that year; the long time Board of Directors, who were all summer residents, were disdainful of the “quality” of people that were arriving on the trolley to attend the carnival and they had expressed a reluctance to encourage automobiles to pass through or to park in their village. They were also uncomfortable with the fact that some contestants at the Carnival were allowing their maids to participate in the event.  They did not wish to row in a boat next to their neighbor’s maid. 

Fans of the Carnival were outraged.  A meeting was called at the club and a vote passed to remove and replace the sitting Board of Directors.  The Carnival took place with the support and enthusiasm of many. 

World War I contributed to a new more somber attitude of civic responsibility in the Port.  The Burrage House was turned over to the Red Cross as headquarters.  Women would assemble every day to prepare bandages and collect blankets for the soldiers.  Fundraisers were conducted nearly every weekend during the summer for the benefit of the War effort.  One very successful event was a play, written by Francis Noble and performed by the Kennebunkport Kiddies”.  There were rave reviews and a second performance was commanded.  The scenery alone, all hand painted by Francis and his good friend Louis D. Norton was reportedly worth the admission.  Later the same summer Noble himself ventured on stage.  The reviews, though polite were not as exuberant. 

Readers of the summer newspaper Turn O’ the Tide, were treated to a change of pace for the summer of 1923.  The paper’s first issue announced that they were expanding to cover from Portland to Portsmouth.  The editor, Francis Noble also made some other controversial changes to the content and style of the weekly society report.  His connections in the business gave him access to some of the most creative pens of the day.  Poetry by Dorothy Parker, cartoons by Hearst cartoonist Frederick Opper and sketches by Louis Norton and Abbott Graves graced the pages. 

Noble’s love of baseball was apparent in his play by play reporting of the games of The Blue Stocking’s; the team of Ivy League collegiate players brought together by George Herbert Walker.  He described and reviewed new works of art produced by Southern Maine’s finest with the passion of an artist.  He wrote carefully researched articles about the history of Kennebunkport making the point that the true 300th anniversary of the town had already past in 1923.  His editorials were well written but expressed opinions that were not always popular with the social set. “Not everyone benefits from church,” he said. He objected to being told what he could and could not drink.  Flappers, he said, “are young and lovely and older less lovely people such as myself, should not feel threatened by their exuberance.”   Another article that caused quite a stir was called “Poor Little Rich Kids”.   Noble started the movement to ban Billboards in Maine that spread all over the eastern seaboard.

By the end of the summer he grew weary of ruffled feathers and complaints from a few society leaders.  The final issue of the season was full of letters to the editor from appreciative readers hoping that he would stay on as editor of the paper in spite of the remarks from some regarding his caustic wit.  Booth Tarkington said, “it is the most entertaining paper of its kind I have ever seen”, Abbott Graves wrote “in all ways it has been the best summer paper we have ever had”, Commodore of the Kennebunk River Club Louis Norton wrote, “such a sparkling little paper deserves success”.  In the same issue Noble wrote a farewell editorial to his readers.  I paraphrase: We did our best, though our best was flawed, to chronicle the things you did, whether or not you did them well.  We gave you the thrill of seeing your name in print so you could send copies to all your friends.  Apparently, he could not be persuaded to return and the following year the paper was back to its original format; nothing controversial, nothing opinionated, just a report of social comings and goings at the cottages and the Hotels.

In 1927 Noble wrote a 50 page “Handy Illustrated Guidebook” called “Half Hour Detours in the 4 Kennebunks”.  He occasionally wrote articles for Boston newspapers. His daily visits to Booth Tarkington’s Floats were meaningful to both men and continued until the mid 1940s.  They argued about politics, literature and social issues of the day. Good-natured sarcasm existed in their relationship and was referred to again and again throughout the years by Tarkington, Betty Trotter and newspaper reporters. 

Francis Lister Hawks Noble died in 1948 at 82.  He was a wit and a philosopher who never shied away from sharing his opinions no matter how politically incorrect.

Atwater Kent removed Cape Arundel historical clues

Cape Arundel is spared a seaborne assault in 1814.
Cape Arundel is spared a seaborne assault in 1814.

Atwater Kent’s neighbors had some unsavory things to say about him when he desecrated the Jeremiah Smith cemetery and flattened a War of 1812 fortification to expand his Cape Arundel lawn. A discovery made in the process may one day shed light on the relationship between early Cape Porpoise settlers and the Indians they displaced.

British Navy vessels were coming ever closer to the mouth of the Kennebunk River during 1814. Citizens of Kennebunkport, or Arundel as it was then called, had amassed considerable shipping wealth before the war. The Kennebunk Bank of Arundel had been incorporated with an advertised capital of $100,000.

Privateer efforts from the Kennebunk District were being repeatedly foiled by the British. When the HMS Bulwark attacked Biddeford Pool on June 16, 1814, the town of Arundel assumed a defensive stance to protect their assets and an eathwork fort was hurriedly dug at Kennebunk Point.

On June 18, the Bulwark appeared outside Kennebunk Harbor. The fort and a battery at Butler’s Rocks were manned by local volunteers until five companies of the Limington militia relieved them. Ships were moved up the river and many of the inhabitants sent their fancy furniture and other valuable effects out of town. The Kennebunk Bank had the specie removed to an undisclosed inland location. Arundel’s show of force apparently deterred the HMS Bulwark because she sailed on later that day without having fired a shot.

Wealthy Philadelphian, Atwater Kent, bought the Nesmith house next to St. Ann’s by-the-Sea, in 1910. In 1919, he purchased an adjacent lot upon which sat the old Kennebunk Point fort. Mounds of earth with apertures left open for the canons remained in relatively good condition thanks to the sea grass that had grown up around them. A shallow cemetery adjacent to the fort was the resting place for the Jeremiah Smith family. Amid some controversy in Kennebunkport, Atwater Kent leveled the fort and had the Smith family moved to the Landing Cemetery and the Arundel Cemetery to make way for a sweeping lawn to the ocean. His neighbors nicknamed the wealthy cottager “the grave robber.”

In early October 1919, workmen at the Point tackled a mound of earth between the cemetery and the fort. They uncovered a few bones of what was calculated to be a seven-foot man and two skulls of white men that had clearly met their end at the hands of Indians.

In a letter to her daughter, Eleanor Rogers, who summered at what is now the Franciscan Monastery, wrote of an encounter she had with Atwater Kent shortly after the discovery: “He had in his pocket a white obsidiary arrowhead, one of the best I ever saw, which was under a skull as they lifted it, and the skull had a hole into which the arrow had just fitted, at the base of the brain.”

Mrs. Rogers calls the arrowhead “white obsidiary.” Even assuming she meant “obsidian,” this is puzzling since the naturally occurring volcanic glass is not found in New England.

The Biddeford Weekly Journal reported the remarkable discovery on Oct. 10, 1919. The story in the newspaper made no mention of the exotic lithic. The reporter considered the discovery of special interest to students of the earliest history of Maine. He wrote, “Workmen came across, at a depth of about six feet a perfect skull of a white man imbedded in which was an Indian arrow, the weapon sticking out from the top of the skull just as apparently it had been left when the victim was buried after being slain by a redskin with bow and arrow. Equally remarkable and interesting was another find in almost the same spot, which was that of a skull showing plainly that the man had been scalped by Indians. The very tip of the victim’s head had in this case been cut off as clean and smooth as the most skillful scalper could do the job.”

The Kennebunkport Historical Society has a human skull in the vault that in the catalog is described as a skull found by Atwater Kent at Kennebunk Point. It is further explained that at one time an arrowhead accompanied the skull but it was lost before the society took possession of it. The damage to the skull looks more like the clean cut described as having been caused by a tomahawk.

In his 1837 “History of Kennebunkport,” Charles Bradbury wrote about a local incident in October of 1723. Old white-haired Mr. Joseph Bailey was scalped by an Indian at the site of the Garrison House in Cape Porpoise. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to learn how old the skull at the Historical Society is?  More Info

The wreck of the Wandby near Walker’s Point

A costly misreckoning
A costly misreckoning

Thirty-six years after the British steam freighter Wandby piled up on the rocks near Walker’s Point, William D. Gilbertson, the assistant engineer on watch in the steamer’s engine room on March 9, 1921, wrote letters to the editor of the Kennebunk Star providing a firsthand account of the calamity.

Captain David Simpson mistook the whistling buoy off Cape Porpoise for the buoy on Cashes Ledge southeast of the Portland Lightship. “I got the order ‘full ahead,'” wrote Gilbertson. “The captain left the bridge for a well earned rest and as he passed the engine room he informed the chief engineer that we should be in Portland at about 1 p.m. as he had just picked up a buoy and from its markings. We found from the chart we were 40 miles due east of Portland. Just at that moment the lookout reported ‘breakers ahead’ and the captain rushed back to the bridge and rang the telegraph to me, ‘full astern.’ Sensing something was wrong, I swung the engines full astern without shutting down the steam at all, (bad practice) but I felt justified as I knew this must be an emergency. There was a terrific grinding and bumping going on and still the engines pounding over at full astern. At approximately 10:30 the captain rang stop and finish with engines.”

William Goodwin, winter caretaker of the George H. Walker estate, was the only Kennebunkport eyewitness to the shipwreck. He told the editor of the 1921 Ogunquit and Kennebunkport Bulletin that the noise of the enormous hull grinding on the rocks that foggy morning was strongly suggestive of a boiler factory falling down two flights of stairs. It was heard as far away as Cape Porpoise and soon nearly everyone living within a two-mile radius made their way to the scene of the accident. At Turbat’s Creek, artist Louis Norton grabbed his pastel box and headed toward the sound knowing that something worth capturing had just occurred. Coast Guard cutter Ossippee was summoned, but because of the dense fog she could not locate the steamer. School was cancelled in Kennebunkport so the kids could watch efforts to pull the 3991 ton freighter off the rocks.

By 3 p.m. the fog had lifted and the crew of the Wandby could see the crowd gathered not 20 yards away. “They assisted us to rig up a ship to shore emergency exit in case the ship broke her back,” wrote the engineer. “This was accomplished by putting a bosun’s chair on a wire from the forecastle head and moored to a large boulder on the shore.” A boatswain’s chair is a seat consisting of a board and a rope; commonly used while working aloft or over the side of a ship. As the tide receded the damage to the steamer was revealed. The hull had been pierced by the rocks to a depth of three feet and a crack extended 30 or 40 feet toward the bow. At the next high tide the engine room filled with water and efforts to float the Wandby off were abandoned. Captain Simpson conferred with agents for Lloyd’s, the underwriter and it was decided to land the crew.

William Gilbertson and Captain Simpson stayed with the Eldridge family in Kennebunkport Village. Their hosts filled every minute of their stay with entertainment. They went to Cape Porpoise dances, dug for clams, took day trips to Portland, etc. Four cases of real Scotch whiskey were brought off the Wandby and sold to eager Kennebunkport consumers for five dollars a bottle. Close friendships developed to the extent that tears were shed when the crew was sent back to England three weeks later.

Author Kenneth Roberts read Gilbertson’s letter in the Star and with his typical directness, wrote to him for clarification on a few points, such as, “How the Wandby, in coming straight in on the rocks, had contrived to miss both the Nubble and Boon Island Lights?” and “What happened to the Captain of the Wandby for losing his vessel?” Gilbertson replied that the fog had been dense for several days and no land had been spotted since the freighter left Algiers. Captain Simpson, as a result of the accident, was demoted to 1st mate on another vessel owned by Wandby owners, Ropner & Company, but within two years he was reinstated as master.

Frank A. Howard purchased the wreck of the Wandby from Lloyds and had most of her broken up during the six months that followed the accident, but salvagers eventually abandoned the site. In 1937, Superior Court Judge Arthur Chapman awarded what scrap was left of the freighter to Everett Greenleaf, Charles Robinson, Richard Nadeau and Harry Shackford. A large boiler rising 20 feet off the ocean floor and pieces of the Wandby’s hull remain at the site to this day and are occasionally visited by shipwreck scuba divers.


In 1957, William D. Gilbertson, who had been 3rd Engineer onboard the Wandby when she wrecked off Walker’s Point in 1921, wrote a letter to the Editor of the Star to share his recollection of the wreck. See newspaper clip below.  Author, Kenneth Roberts then wrote Gilbertson a letter with some specific questions about the incident. Gilbertson subsequent reply can also be seen below.

english Engineer english Engineer2

George Williams and his Kennebunk River Shanty boat

The Episodic Uncle George
The Episodic Uncle George

A little shanty boat shows up in old photographs of the Kennebunk River like an 1890’s version of “Where’s Waldo.” Portuguese born George Williams (likely not his birth name) lived in the homemade houseboat year-round. During the summer months his rectangular shack, sitting atop an old flat-bottomed scow, was tied to four sunken posts near the mouth of Gooch’s Creek. Riverine habitation was but one of the surprising aspects of this man’s life.

A correspondent for the Boston Globe wrote his story in 1900, during its final chapter. The reporter was impressed by the old sailor’s dramatic delivery and Yankee-like humor. He lowered his voice to pull his audience into the suspense and then released them suddenly with a laugh.

Portugal’s civil war was raging when George, an orphan, turned 17. The usurping government had set up headquarters in his homeland, the Azore Island of Terceira, and his impressment into the army seemed inevitable. The boy’s spirit could not tolerate domination. He abhorred the prospect of military service. One moonless night he swam out to a whaler anchored in the harbor and offered his services to her captain. George got out of going to war, but his contempt for authority got him into trouble on ship after ship with captain after captain. Consequences included time served in an English prison for breaking one captain’s nose. Though unable to read or write, the sailor had a highly adaptable intellect. He quickly became competent when a new skill was required and outsmarted his superiors in Greek, Italian, Portuguese and English.

The United States had always been George’s ultimate destination, but it took him 15 years to get here. While visiting the zone in Boston, where sailors went to spend their money, he met the captain of the Kennebunk schooner “Empire” and joined her crew. After barely surviving the great 1851 gale at sea, he learned shipbuilding trades and settled on the banks of the Kennebunk River for 10 years. The American Civil War made George once again yearn for the sea. He acquired a fishing boat and purchased Basket Island in Portland Harbor, upon which he built a wharf and a little hut. Apparently, the location of his new home was not widely advertised because it does not appear on the 1871 map of the Portland Harbor islands and George avoided 1870 census takers. He lived on Basket Island for 27 years, fishing, lobstering and catching porgies, from which he extracted lamp oil. One cow and a tiny patch of pastureland provided balance in his diet.

Three wives and at least four children shared his life, but their chapter got cut from the version of the story “Uncle George” told the Globe reporter. Records confirm their existence, and in the early 1890s, a Bangor, Maine reporter wrote about the Fishermaid of Basket Island. George’s wife Eliza had not left the island in 17 years even though the city of Portland was almost in sight. Pretty 16-year-old Clara, George and Eliza’s youngest, had never been to the mainland. Her only contact with the outside world was correspondence with a half-sister whom, she was told, lived out west. Ida did live west of Basket Island — in Kennebunkport.

In addition to fishing, George ran the “water boat” between Portland and Kennebunk, meeting passing vessels to fill their onboard tanks with fresh water. Water-boaters frequently made quiet money by transporting liquor to the dry Maine coast. Canadian vessels lying outside custom’s line of sight supplied them with contraband for summer resort vacationers. George admitted to having made covert deliveries to the Kennebunk River. He told the Globe reporter, “More anxiety was felt along the waterfront at Kennebunkport when Uncle George and his fragile cargo happened to be overdue than when trans-Atlantic liners were 21 hours late into New York.”

In the early 1890s Basket Island was identified as a perfect location for a summer resort and the estate of Portland hotelier, John W. Lane, offered George an irresistible sum. He sold the island and moved alone to his houseboat on the Kennebunk River. In its three tiny rooms he sustained himself for nearly a decade by fishing and doing occasional odd jobs. George’s summer location near the big hotels ensured him a front row seat to all the river festivities. Before first snowfall every winter the house was untied and pulled to Government Wharf. George, already in his ninth decade, rowed his dory to Dock Square for provisions. When ice made the river impassable, he trudged through the snow on foot until 1900 when he moved his house closer to the village for the last three winters of his life.

Sea serpents sighted off the coast

Sea Serpents off Maine Coast
Sea Serpents off Maine Coast


John Josselyn’s natural history accounts of his 17th century voyages to the new world have informed historians and scientists alike, but some of his observations give pause.

Josselyn would have us believe that sea serpents inhabited the coast and that New England natives had come to respect their powers. A Massachusetts diarist referred to similar knowledge in 1641, but added that the Indians sometimes exaggerated to the Englishmen in sport.

“It pleaseth them to make ye white man stare,” he wrote.

Sea serpents have been reported on our shores ever since. During the Revolutionary War, Capt. Little of the U.S. Navy spotted one in Penobscot Bay and a 100-foot specimen allegedly visited Portsmouth Harbor in 1796. According to hundreds of witnesses, the waters off Cape Ann were virtually teeming with sea serpents in 1817 and sightings in Maine were plentiful during the years that followed. On the rare occasion that one of these slithering devils was captured it always magically transformed itself before scientists could authenticate. Isaac Wildes of Cape Porpoise killed one in 1822, but by the time he got it to shore it had morphed into a 370-pound seal.

The editor of the Eastern Argus swore to the veracity of one Mr. Gooch of Kennebunk when the latter described an alarming encounter a few miles off Kennebunk’s shore on July 21, 1830. Wells and Portsmouth fishermen had already reported being pestered by a sea serpent that week but none of them had had the courage to get as close to the beast as did Mr. Gooch. The two other men in his fishing smack rushed below when the monster approached, but Mr. Gooch remained on deck and returned the serpent’s stare.

“He came within six feet of the boat,” reported the fisherman. “He raised his head about four feet from the water and looked directly into the boat. He was about 60 feet long,” continued Mr. Gooch. “His head was about the size of a 10 gallon keg, having long flaps, or ears, hanging down, and his eyes about the size of those of an ox, bright and projecting from his head”.

It must have been a distant cousin of Gooch’s monster that encircled the fishing boat of Clement Perkins and Thomas Cleaves of Kennebunkport at the mouth of the Kennebunk River in 1850. In a letter to the editor of the New Hampshire Sentinel, Perkins and Cleaves wrote, “The portion of his body out of the water we judge to be 80 feet, his form that of a large bamboo, the distance between the joints two feet, his motion undulating, velocity that of a common walk of man, his head resembling the bill of a duck.”

Nine years later Mr. Gooch’s neighbor, Capt. Boothby of Lower Village, reported seeing a sea serpent frolicking with a school of whales off Boon Island Ledge.

In the 1870s there was a sea serpent population explosion. Curiously, the species had mutated a preference for summer resorts. Hotels in Fortunes Rocks, Wells Beach and Saco sent out press releases all but promising that sea serpents were summering in plain view of their breezy, wraparound piazzas. In 1880, a correspondent from Kennebunkport’s Ocean Bluff Hotel reported that Mr. Hiram Gooch, Skipper of the tourist yacht, Clara Bell, had pointed out a sea serpent to his delighted passengers. They couldn’t quite see his head and his tail was underwater, but the commotion the creature made convinced them they had seen a genuine York County sea serpent. The Boston Daily Globe report tactfully suggested that any doubters should “come to this gem of seaside places to see and be convinced.”

By 1900 every seaside hotel in New England employed a sea serpent. They swam to and fro along the beaches, each one bigger and more rambunctious that the last. Newspaper readers finally became a little suspicious when one of the serpents apparently had adapted to a lakeside resort habitat. A letter to the editor of the New York Times referred to the resort sea serpent as Leviathan the Counterfeiter. The jig was up. Sightings declined. Magical creatures from the deep fell out of favor, at least fore a while.

The hope of seeing a genuine sea serpent attracted hundreds of tourists to York County’s coast again in 1967. Biddeford Pool lobstermen had hauled mysterious remains ashore that looked just as a sea serpent skeleton should look. The monster was embalmed and proudly displayed until a Biddeford High School science teacher remarked that it bore a striking resemblance to skeletons belonging to the shark family.


Kennebunk River Club

Kennebunk River Club  by Frank Handlen
Kennebunk River Club by Frank Handlen

Many of the iconic buildings of Cape Arundel were constructed between 1887 and the three years that followed. At the opening ceremonies of the Kennebunk River Club on Aug. 2, 1890, the crowd was reminded that they had much to celebrate.

Not only had the new boathouse been built in just five short months, but St Ann’s Episcopal Church and the Arundel Casino buildings were also nearing completion.

Real estate speculators from Massachusetts and Kennebunkport had purchased more than 700 acres of coastal land from Cape Porpoise to Lord’s Point. They opened the Ocean Bluff Hotel in 1873 with the intention of subdividing the land around it into closely packed cottage lots to be sold to wealthy businessmen. The hotel soon enjoyed healthy patronage but Kennebunkport’s infrastructure was not conducive to the ambitious cottage development the Boston & Kennebunkport Seashore Company had anticipated.

Trains went only as far as Kennebunk Depot and the roads were not of a quality suitable to city folk. Boating was advertised as a recreational enticement but the river was not actually safe for inexperienced boaters.

The War Department was eventually persuaded to improve the channel and in 1876, according to C. E. Blunt’s Report to the War Department “it was made a navigable width from the mouth of the river to the village.”

Proprietors of the Ocean Bluff Hotel immediately seized the opportunity by sponsoring water sports on the river. In August of 1878 the Eastern Star reported that three prizes had been awarded to winners of the tub race. The following summer a Star reporter expressed hopes that the regatta recently conducted on the Kennebunk River by the Ocean Bluff Hotel would become an annual event. Still, by 1880, the number of cottages could be counted on one hand.

A train station was opened at Lower Village in 1883 and Government Wharf was improved the same year. During the first half of the 1880s a few more hotels were opened and another handful of cottages built but mostly as investments.

A development explosion that occurred during 1887 was reported in The Wave that August. The cornerstone for St. Ann’s Episcopal Church had been laid and Arundel Hall, a spacious new building for entertainments was constructed at the junction of Old King’s Highway and Arlington Street.

Sarah P. Bancroft, winter resident at Boston’s Copley-Plaza Hotel and Grand Dame of Cape Arundel since 1879, was deeply invested in both projects.

Arundel Hall would, in 1890, be expanded to include tennis courts and a dance hall. Thenceforth, it would be referred to as The Arundel Casino. Miss Bancroft would act as its treasurer for 42 years. Parts of the casino were moved to Ocean Avenue in 1929 and today stand opposite the boathouse of the Kennebunk River Club.

Philadelphia historian, John Bach McMaster “erected a most unique cottage” in 1887 and Philadelphia artist, Prosper Senat was building an art studio. A dozen beautiful new structures would adorn the landscape by season’s end.

The regatta that began in 1879 evolved into an annual river carnival. Canoeing, rowing, and sailing on the Kennebunk River were very popular among summer visitors. Some of the new cottagers were fixtures on the river. In 1887, a reporter for The Wave wrote that John Bach McMaster, scholarly author and professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania, appeared almost boyish paddling his beloved canoe. Artist Prosper Senat, an enthusiastic sailor, had patented a design for a centerboard that could be raised and lowered depending on the depth of the water. He could often be seen testing design improvements on the river. These two creative men along with their friend Henry E. Woods, who would later edit the New England Historical and Genealogical Register and serve for many years as Massachusetts Commissioner of Public Records, hired local fisherman James Shuffleburg to alter his Ocean Avenue wharf to accommodate their private boats. Other cottagers envied the convenience of having boats ready for use at a moment’s notice and a 10-member organization was formed called The Lobster Boat and Canoe Club. By Aug. 4, 1888, club membership had grown to 28.

More commodious club facilities were clearly justified. The organization changed their name to The Kennebunk River Club and hired Lowell, Massachusetts Architect, Frederick W. Stickney to design a new boathouse at Shuffleburg’s wharf. Construction commenced in March of 1890 and the club opened the following August.

Cape Arundel had transformed itself into a thriving cottage colony in just a few years. Cottagers continued the tradition of creating their own fun in 1895 when Prosper Senat designed a golf course in Twombly Pastures. With assistance and support from his friend, Henry E. Woods, and excellent golfer, Miss Sarah P. Bancroft, The Cape Arundel Golf Club was born.

What a story the The Billows can tell

The Billows at Cape Arundel
The Billows at Cape Arundel

If walls could talk, the Cape Arundel cottage called The Billows could tell some fascinating stories.

Robert Curtis Ogden was a crusader for the education of emancipated slaves after the Civil War. He was the first of three generations to summer there who tirelessly championed the work of the Hampton Institute in Virginia. His grandson, Robert Ogden Purves, sold the cottage to future President of the United States, George Herbert Walker Bush in 1973.

Hoping to capitalize on the growing tourist industry in Kennebunkport, Burleigh S. Thompson, a Boston purveyor of coffee, tea and cigars, acquired land at the extremity of the Cape Arundel cottage colony and hired Architect, Henry Paston Clark to design two elegant cottages.

The Point-o-View cottage or Fort Bradford, as it was originally known was completed in 1892 at the corner of Ocean and Summit Avenues and The Billows, nearby in 1894. Robert Curtis Ogden purchased The Billows 10 years later.

He was a brilliant businessman whose humble philanthropy and gift for bringing people together was never wasted. His career with the clothing firm of Devlin & Co. began in Philadelphia when he was 15 years old. By the time he was 19, the firm had sent him to New York to head up operations there. Ogden was moved by a lecture he attended before he was old enough to vote, about the moral obligation successful businessmen had to lend their expertise to causes benefitting those less fortunate than themselves.

The speaker was Samuel Armstrong, the son of a missionary in Hawaii. The two young men became lifelong friends. Both served in the Civil War and both fought at Gettysburg though in different regiments. Armstrong, a white man, applied for a position as commander of a black regiment. After the war, Ogden returned to the employ of Devlin & Co. until 1879 when he joined John Wanamaker’s firm to run his New York City department store. Samuel Armstrong found his life’s work, helping the families of soldiers he had come to love during the war, by establishing the Hampton Institute.

Robert Ogden accepted his friend’s invitation to sit on the school’s Board of Trustees in 1873 and served as its President from 1894 until his death in 1913.

Together the men accomplished much at Hampton. They had complementary strengths. Ogden’s calm, measured demeanor and his business brilliance counterbalanced Armstrong’s nervous energy and contagious passion for the cause. The businessman became something of a publicist for the Hampton Institute and for the Tuskegee Institute run by another good friend, Booker T. Washington.

As president of the Kennebunk River Club, the owner of The Billows invited the Hampton Singers to perform spirituals for his Kennebunkport friends. Through his business dealings and his Cape Arundel neighborhood, Ogden had access to other wealthy businessmen, whom he convinced to help the schools meet their financial objectives.

Each Spring Mr. Ogden, at his own expense, chartered a train of Pullman cars and hosted well-healed guests on opulent expeditions to attend the Southern Education Conference.

Robert Ogden’s daughter, Helen, married Alexander Purves, a financial genius in his own right. Purves admired Ogden’s convictions and on his own, abandoned a very lucrative career in banking to assume the financially thankless position of Treasurer at the Hampton Institute. He moved his family to the campus. Under his direction the institute’s financial circumstances improved dramatically from an operating deficit to a healthy profit. Had he lived longer, Alexander Purves’s contributions to the cause might have eclipsed those of his father in-law. He established the Southern Improvement Company, a program to offer homes, farm land and tools to black families at favorable terms thereby facilitating their independence.

After six years at Hampton Institute, Alexander Purves contracted typhoid fever and died leaving Robert Ogden’s daughter a single mother of two.

Mrs. Alexander Purves shared her husband’s selfless inclinations. She returned to live and work at the Hampton Institute for many years and she summered at The Billows for the rest of her life.

One of her two children, Robert Ogden Purves, who was just 10 years old when his father died and 23 when his grandfather Ogden died, continued the family tradition by serving the school in many capacities throughout his lifetime.

The Billows became summer home to the Bush family in 1973. The accomplishments of this remarkable family are well known in Kennebunkport and around the world. The 41st President of the United States of America sold The Billows in 1981 and the family has summered across the way at Walker’s Point ever since.