Tag Archives: Politics

York Maine Tea Party of 1774

Tea tax de jour - Avoidance de facto
Tea tax de jour – Avoidance de facto

American Sons of Liberty and the Committees of Correspondence were secret societies whose function was to muster public resistance to British taxation on the American Colonies. They burned houses and ships, caused bodily injury to those with whom they disagreed and generally incited mob rule in the name of their cause. The theatrical Boston Tea Party, at which members masqueraded as Mohawk Indians to destroy half a million pounds of tea, earned them popular support. The Tea Party in York Maine was orchestrated in the face of mounting pressure, to publically demonstrate the town’s patriotism.

East India Company, being close to bankruptcy and possessing a tremendous tea inventory, approached the British Parliament for help. In the Tea Act of 1773, the East India Company was granted an exemption from the tea tax that colonial American merchants were required to pay. They were also granted the right to bypass those colonial merchants and sell exclusively through Company sanctioned agents, thereby securing a monopoly on colonial tea trade. Some of the wealthiest American merchants, who also happened to be members of secret societies opposing taxation without representation, made a pact to boycott English tea. The general public, meanwhile, was enjoying the lowest tea prices they had seen in a long time.

A few months after the 1773 Boston Tea Party, Sons of Liberty member John Adams expressed concern in a letter to his wife about lukewarm support for the movement in York Maine. “There is, in this town and county,” he wrote, “a laodiceanism that I have not found in any other place. I find more persons here who call the destruction of the tea mischief and wickedness than anywhere else.”

He blamed Judge Jonathan Sayward, a wealthy York merchant and coastwise trader, who, at a dinner party in York Harbor in June of 1774, had good-naturedly warned Adams not to pursue a reactionary course without understanding the consequences. The two men were seated together at the table and Adams could see the subtle, effectual sway the eloquent Sayward had over his fellow diners from York.

As the months of 1774 passed, so too did the congenial acceptance of open Loyalist rhetoric. The media had taken sides. Masterful coverage ultimately convinced even the people of York that the plight of the wealthy American merchant was also their own. As Benjamin Franklin so astutely pointed out at the time, “the press not only can strike while the iron is hot, but it can heat it by continually striking.” No longer was it socially acceptable to sit amongst your peers and disagree with the “patriotic” point of view.

The first Continental Congress assembled from September 5, 1774 – October 26, 1774 in an attempt to restore harmony between the colonies and the mother country. Sons of Liberty, John Adams and his cousin Samuel Adams, who had been a key player in the Boston Tea Party, were in attendance. The result was an official compact to boycott all British goods effective Dec 1, 1774. But a de facto embargo was already being enforced by the less and less secret societies.

On September 15, 1774 one of Jonathan Sayward’s many vessels, the Cynthia, sailed from Newfoundland into York Harbor with the Judges nephew, James Donnell at the helm. The sloop was anchored off Keating’s Wharf for several days before it was discovered that her cargo included 150 pounds of English tea. As an approved agent of the East India Company, Sayward had not broken any laws or even any official embargos but the local Sons of Liberty regarded his bold defiance as a challenge to their de facto decree.

At an impromptu Town Meeting conducted on September 23, 1774, a committee was organized to seize Sayward’s tea. Sloop Cynthia was boarded and despite the protests of Captain Donnell, the offending commodity was forcibly confiscated. Judge Sayward’s commercial competitor in York, Captain Edward Grow, offered the use of his storehouse on the riverfront below Sewall’s bridge, for safe keeping of the tea “until further discovery could be made.”

The New-Hampshire Gazette covered events unfolding in York. “A Number of Pickwacket Indians came into the town and broke open the store and carried it [the tea] off; which has not been heard of since.”

The identity of the “Pickwacket” braves who carried away Sayward’s tea was never revealed. Press coverage of the event ended there. For all the public knew the tea was never seen again. But Jonathan Sayward recorded a different ending to the story in his diary. Once the dramatic event had delivered its desired message about York’s patriotism, the tea was quietly returned. It seems the frugal Mainers, though wishing to publicly declare their support of the embargo, were not about to destroy perfectly drinkable tea. Heroes and villains are fashioned after the fact, depending on who wins the war.

French Espionage in Colonial Wells

White-Flag Ploy Thwarted
White-Flag Ploy Thwarted

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

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

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

Territorial tensions soon began to grow between the English and French colonists as well as between the Indian tribes allied to both monarchies. Allain could see the writing on the wall. He decided to move to Port Royal, Nova Scotia, leaving Anthony Coombs behind to protect his Wells properties.

In 1687, Louis obtained permission to build windmills along the Nova Scotia river that is now known as Allain’s River. He raised a family there and his fortunes grew. Within the first few years in Nova Scotia Louis had acquired a grain mill, a saw mill, a store and several coasting vessels that made regular trading voyages to the English city of Boston Massachusetts. He and his partner shipped lumber and flour from their mills in Port Royal and brought back Boston goods to sell to their Acadian customers. Andre Faneuil, the wealthy Boston Huguenot whose fortune financed the building of Faneuil Hall, traded regularly with the Acadians, even as Governor William Phipps burned Port Royal in 1690.

When the legality of their trading arrangement was questioned, Allain and other Acadian businessmen declared their allegiance to the English King. At the same time they were supplying the French Navy with mast timbers.

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

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

Feeding prisoners of war became expensive for both the French and the English. An deal was struck to exchange prisoners in 1705. Allain and his business partner, who were fluent in English and familiar with Boston, were sent to seal the deal.

According to the September 10, 1705 issue of the Boston News-letter, When Allain arrived in Boston on the 20th of August under a flag of truce, he had in his possession the signed prisoner exchange agreement. When he returned to Port Royal at the end of September he was carrying a few French prisoners back as an English show of good faith.

A January 1706 report in the Boston News-letter indicates that Allain sailed again for Massachusetts a few months later.

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

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

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

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

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

A royal disappointment in 1860

Windsor Emissary
Windsor Emissary

Queen Victoria had little inclination to appease her Canadian subjects who, throughout the 1850s, clamored for a royal visit. She was even less inclined to acknowledge the hoodlums that populated “those United States.” But her husband, Prince Albert, believed a royal visit would be politically prudent.

Meanwhile, Victoria’s teenage son Albert, the heir apparent, embraced the frivolity of youth. He exasperated his mother by indulging affections for wine, women and cigars, not necessarily in that order. The Queen once wrote to her eldest daughter, “I never can, or shall, look at him without a shudder.”

By early 1860, Victoria wanted the boy out of her sight. She killed two birds with one stone by sending her 18-year-old son across the pond for an extended diplomatic tour of North America.

After spending two months in Canada, the Prince of Wales danced with the ladies of Detroit, Chicago, St Louis, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, Washington, Richmond, Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York and Boston. The average-looking teenager didn’t exactly live up to the American fantasy. Harpers Weekly magazine published an illustration captioned, “The Prince; Ideal & Real.” Albert’s imagined regal visage, slaying a dragon, felling a giant and winning a jousting tournament, appeared on one side of the page. On the other side, the rumpled boy was realistically depicted being carried across a tiny stream on the back of a servant, falling ineptly on the dance floor and sleeping through a public appearance. A reporter for Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper wrote that “dressed like a Prince” was a phrase that would never again be used in America to signify anything very significant.

The British Royal Squadron sailed into Portland Harbor on Oct. 16, 1860, to carry the future King Edward VII back to England. Exactly 85 years earlier on Oct. 16, 1775, a British fleet had entered the same harbor and destroyed the city. This coincidence was not lost on local reporters.

Trains were added to the schedule to accommodate the thousands who travelled to Portland to see Albert off. Merchants capitalized on the royal fever, selling hand-held British and American flags. “Two Princes in our City,” one opportunistic Portlander advertised, “The Prince of Wales and the Prince of Peddlers.”

Officials of the Eastern Railway fitted out a special three-car train for the final leg of Albert’s American tour. Its interior walls were draped in red and gold silk. The car ceilings were covered in rich blue silk, pleated and powdered with silver stars. Outside, a platform extended off the back of the train from which His Royal Highness could present himself to the eager citizens gathered at every station along the route to Portland.

The train left Boston shortly after 10 a.m. on Oct. 20, 1860. The prince was accompanied by his entourage, as well as, the governors of Massachusetts and New Hampshire, the president of Harvard, the mayor of Boston, Sen. Charles Sumner and a few railroad officials.

In Kennebunk, children were let out of school for the royal visit. Everyone in town showed up at the station expecting a day-long celebration. When the royal train finally pulled into West Kennebunk depot it barely stopped. The prince waved briefly from the platform then hurried back into the car. The people of Kennebunk, who had decorated the station with buntings and dressed in their finest ensembles, were bitterly disappointed.

Back in the car, the defiant teenager plopped down on a velvet sofa. According to a report in Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, Albert turned to the governor of Massachusetts, “will you take a little wine, or is the Maine Law in force here?” he asked. “I’m out of my own jurisdiction,” the governor replied, “and I’ll take the consequences.” The strict Maine liquor law had also been set aside in Portland the night before at a champagne reception for the officers of the royal squadron.

Albert’s train arrived in Portland at half past one. He toured the crowded streets in an open horse-drawn carriage on his way to the docks, where a barge was waiting to take him out to the screw battleship Hero. Two large steamers, the Lewiston and the Forest City, sold tickets for a voyage to accompany the royal squadron out of the harbor at 4 p.m. The little prince stood on the poop deck waving his hat at the cheering crowds while a 21-gun salute was fired, casting a haze of gun smoke across the harbor. A few minutes later he was gone.

Presidential visits to Biddeford Pool

A tragic Capsizing
A tragic Capsizing

The people of Biddeford began preparing for a Presidential visit as soon as William Howard Taft was inaugurated on March 4, 1909. The first lady’s sister, Eleanor More, had a summer cottage at Biddeford Pool. Her husband, the noted evolutionist, Dr. Louis T More, told the local press to expect an August visit by the first family.

Unfortunately, Nellie Taft suffered a stroke soon after moving into the Whitehouse and the family’s vacation plans were curtailed. Mrs. More stood in for her convalescing sister at all official events and accompanied her to Beverly Massachusetts for the summer. By the end of July Eleanor felt confident enough about her sister’s condition to slip away to her cottage at Biddeford Pool for a few days. To facilitate the trip, the Presidential yacht, “Sylph”, was placed at her disposal.

The impressive 123 foot vessel was anchored near the mouth of the Saco River on the evening of July, 30, 1909. As an entrepreneurial venture, Captain Earnest Vinton of Saco offered a moonlight excursion to closely view the Presidential yacht from his motor launch, the “Item”. Twenty-nine tickets were sold. Captain Vinton had to borrow extra life preservers from the Captain of the “Nimrod” to comply with federal safety regulations that he carry one for each passenger aboard.

It was reported in the Boston Daily Globe that the overcrowded little launch set out from Island Wharf at twilight. After rounding Wood Island she approached the illuminated “Sylph” and passengers gathered on her port side to get a closer look. The little party boat heeled dramatically with the shifting weight. Following an instinct to compensate, the passengers all “jockeyed about” causing the “Item” to suddenly “turn turtle” near Sharps Rocks, spilling her human cargo into the inky water.

Commander of the Presidential Yacht, Lieutenant Roger Williams, heard some of the women cry for help as they struggled to stay afloat in their heavy layers of clothing. He immediately ordered the “Sylph’s” tender, with a five man crew, to the scene of the accident and trained his searchlight on the overturned party boat.

The launch “Nimrod” was the second boat to reach the scene. She carried all the rescued passengers to Saco and Biddeford; all but Mrs. Eugene A. Cutts who had sustained internal injuries when she became entangled in the gearing of the power boat. Mrs. Cutts was taken to the McBride cottage where she died the following day. As the capsized “Item” was towed to Basket Island and beached, the body of a 19 year old Biddeford girl, Miss Katie Lynch, who had probably been trapped inside the cabin, washed ashore on the island. Her companion, Miss Margaret Harvey, 25, was later reported missing but her body would not be recovered until two weeks later.

The accident was investigated by the County Coroner’s office. Benjamin Jackson of Biddeford Pool, who had built the “Item” in 1903, testified that she was designed to carry an engine weighing over 2 tons. A few months before the accident, Vinton had replaced her original engine with one that weighed only 10% as much. While examining the “Item’s” seaworthiness one juryman stepped down from the wharf into the boat and as he did she heeled over very suddenly. “We find from the evidence and from inspection that the said boat “Item”, owing to its form, is unstable, easily capsized and entirely unsafe for the carrying of passengers,” reported Coroner Walter Dennett. Captain Vinton had fulfilled the only existing safety requirement of carrying a life preserver for each passenger so no charges were filed but the loss of three lives rocked the towns of Saco and Biddeford.

At the time of the tragic accident, President Taft was in Florida witnessing Wilbur Wright’s record breaking 10 mile flight, during which the homemade plane reached amazing speeds in excess of 42 miles per hour. Mr. Taft was a big fan of new-fangled modes of transportation. He was finally persuaded to spend one night in Biddeford Pool in 1910. He arrived on an even larger official yacht, the 275 foot “Mayflower”. After enjoying a motorcar ride through the Pool he gave an informal speech at the Abenaki Country Club. The President spent the night at his sister in-law’s cottage and sailed away on the “Mayflower” at 10 o’clock the next morning.

Taft quietly returned to the Pool to visit his family once again just before Woodrow Wilson won the Presidency away from him in 1912. Even in Biddeford, William Howard Taft came in a distant third, after Wilson and Taft’s predecessor, President Theodore Roosevelt.

Kennebunk Customs subject to partisan politics

Suitable Premises
Suitable Premises

Appointments to positions in the District of Kennebunk Customs House were unabashedly political throughout its 113 year existence.

The First Congress of the United States under President George Washington authorized the collection of duties on imported goods in 1789 in response to an urgent need for federal revenue. Customs districts were established during the same session. The ports of Arundel and Wells were annexed to the district of Biddeford and Pepperelborough. During the decade that followed, the volume of international trade on the Kennebunk River grew to such an extent as to justify a port of entry there.

The District of Kennebunk was approved by Federalist President John Adams in 1799, but the official appointment of Jonas Clark as Collector of Customs was delayed by the election of Thomas Jefferson and his Democratic-Republican administration. President Jefferson wrote to his Secretary of the Treasury, Albert Gallatan, in August of 1801. “Is Jonas Clark, proposed as collector of Kennebunk, a Republican? His having been nominated by our predecessor excites a presumption against it;” wrote the third President of the United States, “and if he is not, we must be inflexible against appointing Federalists till there be a due portion of Republicans introduced into office.” Gallatan believed that Clark might well be a Federalist, but that his unmatched qualifications made him nonetheless worthy of the position. Jefferson eventually signed the appointment, but the partisan wrangling did not end there.

Federalists believed the shipping embargoes instituted during Jefferson’s second term were unconstitutional. Deputy Collector of Customs, Seth Burnham, seized the brig Stranger in 1808, when he suspected that her owner intended to disobey the embargo. Most vessels loaded cargo at the wharves in the port where their departure for southern U. S. harbors could be monitored. The brig Stranger was being loaded in Cape Porpoise Harbor from where she could easily put to sea. Owner Thomas Perkins II protested the seizure in a letter to the editor of the Newburyport Herald claiming that his rights had been violated only because he was known to be a Federalist. “If a man lived near the high road in the woods,” he wrote, “he ought to be cast into prison because he was in a convenient situation to murder the passing traveler.”

The Customs House was located in Kennebunk Village until 1815. After the War of 1812, the second floor of the Kennebunk Bank building in Arundel (Kennebunkport) was leased because it was nearer the wharves. The bank had been incorporated in 1813 and a beautiful brick building constructed in spite of the depressed local economy. The government lease helped to keep the bank afloat for a while, but its charter was revoked in 1831 and the federal government purchased the building for less than half what it had cost to build.

West Indies trade had already declined. From 1800-1810 duties collected on rum-laden vessels amounted to $500,000. During the year 1836, only $6,997 was collected but the Customs House appointments were as hotly contested as ever.

When John Cousens was appointed Collector of Customs in 1853 he nominated his brother Enoch as his deputy. Many Kennebunk businessmen signed a petition opposing his confirmation and sent it to the Secretary of the Navy. On July 8, 1853, Kennebunk diarist Andrew Walker wrote “Enoch Cousens was confirmed notwithstanding all the efforts that have been made by his opponents to prevent his confirmation.” There were only a handful of entries in the impost book during the Cousens collectorship. The officials occupied themselves by successfully lobbying for a lighthouse installation on the pier at the mouth of the Kennebunk River. Both brothers were recalled during the next political shift in the White House.

The prudence of maintaining a Kennebunk district was debated nationally in 1872 but politics influenced the district’s survival. Kennebunk Customs collected just 15 cents between the years 1890 and 1894. The Kennebunkport Library Association took over the second floor of the once impressive customs building in 1898. Collector George Cousens tried to resign in 1902 for lack of work but the government refused to accept his resignation and re-appointed him in 1906.

Kennebunk Customs District was finally discontinued in 1913. The library association expanded into its first floor quarters and requested that the government transfer ownership of the building to the town of Kennebunkport as a library. The federal government refused. Abbott Graves purchased and renovated the property in 1920. He deeded it to the association in 1921, on condition it be named for his deceased son, Louis T. Graves.

More than $22,000 missing from Wells treasury

Prodigal Absconder
Prodigal Absconder

Wells treasurer Alfred A. Whiting was defeated in his bid for re-election at the March 1923 town meeting, but he wasn’t present to hear the vote. Nobody had seen him for days. Joseph Littlefield, the new treasurer, soon realized that something was amiss. Payments owed to town employees were not up to date and state and county officials had never received tax money that had been deducted from the treasury.

Alfred was a popular man. He and his wife Mary had moved to town in 1916 and purchased the year-round Elmwood Hotel. Nobody wanted to believe he had run off with the town’s money. His clerk told a reporter for the Boston Daily Globe that the boss was on a business trip, but in truth, even Mary didn’t know where he was. Nevertheless, she defended his honor in the Biddeford Journal by promising that any irregularities discovered would be made right.

Reluctantly, Wells selectmen voted to conduct a full investigation and a shortfall of $22,079.98 was revealed. For two months the people of Wells spoke of little else. Their sympathies were with Mary Whiting and her two small children, but they could not abide double taxation to offset the loss. A special town meeting was finally called for the purpose of deciding what action could be taken against the accused and whether or not his property could legally be seized.

After the meeting was called to order on the evening of July 5, 1923, there was a confused moment of silence before local attorney Roy Hanscom entered the hall, followed by his client Alfred Whiting. A collective gasp rose from the assembly as the lawyer took the floor. “My client is prepared to make a statement and you will all see that he has done you no harm,” he announced. Then Whiting himself addressed the crowd. “I’ve had promises that if I came back I would not be prosecuted and I have come with a certified check for $22,079.98.” The crowd cheered the prodigal absconder. In their great relief, the taxpayers voted nearly unanimously to declare the town satisfied.

The following morning Whiting granted an interview to a reporter for the Portsmouth Herald. “I wanted my friends and my enemies to know that I was trying to be on the level,” he said. “That’s why I came back and paid every cent of the shortage of my accounts. Where did I get the money? That’s my business. The account is now closed. Everybody is satisfied. I am going to settle down again and give all my attention to my hotel. No more politics for me.”

Wells town clerk Edmond Garland, one of the few who had voted against absolving the ex-treasurer, told the same reporter that only about $6,000 of the amount returned was Alfred’s own money. The remainder had come from the same bonding company that had quietly returned another shortage of $3,500 in 1921 during Whiting’s second term. “Mixing the town’s money with the receipts in the cash register in his hotel, the Elmwood, was given as the cause of the latest shortage,” said Mr. Garland with contempt.

A week later, much to most everyone’s surprise, Alfred was arrested and arraigned for embezzlement of public funds. As he waited in Kennebunk’s municipal court room for his bondsmen to arrive he told a reporter, “You could have knocked me down with a feather when Sheriff Haven Roberts drove into my yard and said he had a warrant for my arrest. I do not understand this action after the vote of the town not to prosecute me if I returned the money. I was in Mexico, out of reach of the law and need not have returned to Wells, but did so of my own free will and paid the full amount of my indebtedness. I suppose that time will tell who are my persecutors.”

It was Alfred’s belief that a formal complaint by the town clerk was the catalyst for his arrest, but the county prosecutor insisted, in a Biddeford Journal interview, that the action was based entirely on newspaper reports and that he was not constrained by any agreement entered into by the town of Wells. “Embezzlement is still embezzlement even if the money is returned,” he insisted.

Alfred was slapped on the wrist by the law, but karma and a multitude of creditors caught up with him after all. Within four years he had lost the hotel to foreclosure and moved his family out of town.

When Wells wanted nothing to do with Maine

Wells opposed separation  Frank Handlen

Wells wanted nothing to do with separation from Massachusetts. Dependant upon commercial relationships with maritime interests in Boston, coastal communities stood to lose money if Maine became a state.

The Coasting Law allowed vessels carrying cargo worth more than $400 to travel between contiguous states without the incursion of port charges. As subjects of Massachusetts, Maine coasters freely traded as far south as Rhode Island. As subjects of a separate State of Maine, the free zone would extend only as far as New Hampshire. Representatives of Wells insisted the Coasting Law was their primary reason for opposing statehood. That was, until the Coasting Law was modified on March 2, 1819. The whole Atlantic coast was opened to free trade and Wells was as adamantly opposed as ever. It became clear that the debate was a contest for political party dominance.

Separation meant a Democratic-Republican government. The population was growing more rapidly in the District of Maine than it was in Federalist controlled Massachusetts proper. Newcomers leaned predominately toward the Democratic-Republican Party but most coastal York County merchants and mariners were Federalists.

The first movement toward statehood was recorded shortly after the Revolutionary War when The Falmouth Gazette, was established for the purpose of advocating separation. At first, little attention was paid to the notion and proponents could convince but a tiny proportion of eligible voters to even show up at the polls.

It was again proposed in 1792 and in 1797 to an equally tepid response. A separation proposal in 1807 was also defeated but by a much smaller margin.

War with the British was declared by Democratic-Republican President James Madison on June 18, 1812 to fierce opposition by the Federalist Party.

New England Federalists even considered secession at the Hartford Convention in 1814. This contemplation, though fleeting, would forever label them as disloyal and spell the beginning of the end for their party.

Many Mainers felt Massachusetts had not provided them adequate protection during the War of 1812. After it ended there was more support for statehood than ever. The Massachusetts Legislature agreed to allow citizens of Maine to write their own constitution if they could achieve a majority vote of 5 to 4.

A Convention was planned in Brunswick Maine. On the question of the expediency of separation, in Wells, the yeas were 47 and the nays 374. Most towns southwest of the Saco River cast similar votes.

During the first count at the Brunswick Convention some of the York County ballots disappeared. When the omission was discovered the ballots reappeared, as if by magic, on the vote counter’s desk. It was clear to all the delegates that the motion had not passed by the required margin, but by some creative calculation understood only by those fast talking men who performed it a 5 to 4 majority was declared.

Delegates were embarrassed to admit their confusion and before they knew what was happening a State Constitution was drawn up and the whole package was sent off to Massachusetts for confirmation.

Members of the Massachusetts Legislature were baffled by what they called “Brunswick Arithmetic.”. They found the 5 to 4 margin to be unwarrantable, but the measure had passed by a slim majority.

Massachusetts lawmakers began to contemplate the wisdom of cutting all those fervent Maine Democratic-Republicans loose before they diluted their own Federalist majority. They loosened the margin requirement to 1,500 votes in 1819 and Congress modified the Coasting Law in March of the same year.

The Democratic-Republicans, with the 1816 Constitution in hand, were all but assured control of a new State of Maine. The Federalist editor of The Kennebunk Visitor commenced a war of words with the Democrat editor of The Eastern Argus.

“The town of Wells at a meeting on the 15th of May”, wrote E. E. Bourne in his History of Wells, “indignant at the probable successful result of the indefatigable labors of these uneasy spirits, adopted the following vote: That George W. Wallingford, Joseph Dane, Nahum Morrill, Joseph Gilman and Elijah Curtis be a committee to petition the Legislature of New Hampshire, that Wells may be annexed to that State, should the District of Maine be formed into a new State, and Massachusetts will not consent that the town of Wells may still be attached to her.”

Wells was unsuccessful in her desperate attempt to remain subject to a Federalist controlled state. March 15, 1820, after a delay in Congress while the Missouri Compromise was debated, Maine became the 23rd state in the Union and Wells became her unwilling subject.

The president comes to town

President Monroe in Kennebunk  Frank Handlen
President Monroe in Kennebunk Frank Handlen

The White House was under reconstruction and not ready for occupancy when James Monroe became President of the United Sates on March 4, 1817.

The British had stormed Washington three years earlier and set fire to the symbolic hearth of the United States government. James Monroe spent his first summer in office touring New England, birthplace of the Federalist Party and home to many who had opposed the recent War with England. He was the first American leader to visit Maine and all the people of York County greeted him with patriotic reverence, even the Federalists.

James Monroe crossed the Piscataqua River in a ferryboat early on the morning of July 15, 1817.

Large crowds assembled at the Kittery shore to cheer his arrival. He was escorted to York by General Leighton’s brigade where he listened with great interest to a brief summary of the region’s history and had breakfast with David Sewall, judge of the District Court of Maine.

Representatives of Wells and Arundel, which then encompassed the towns now known as Arundel, Kennebunkport, Kennebunk, Wells and Ogunquit, formed a committee to plan a proper celebration for the dignitary’s visit. Joseph Dane, Henry Clark, George W. Wallingford, Simon Nowell, Horace Porter, John U. Parsons, Joseph Storer, Samuel Curtis, Jr., and George Wheelright had agreed that a ceremony should take place in the part of Wells known as Kennebunk Village.

Capt. Elisha Chadbourne’s cavalry, the field staff and platoon officers of the Fourth Regiment escorted the President Monroe through Wells to Kennebunk Village.

Daniel Remich, Kennebunk historian wrote, “His proximity to the village was made known by the discharge of cannon and the ringing of the bell.”

Refreshments were served at the hotel followed by Mr. George W. Wallingford’s welcome speech.

“We congratulate you, sir,” he said, in part, on behalf of the welcoming committee, “upon the present peaceful state of our country.”

Monroe replied that he had initially intended to quietly assess the condition of defense fortifications in Maine but was very moved by the reception.

“It was my wish, in the first instance, while on this tour, to have devoted my attention exclusively, to the public and national objects which I had in view. But finding this arrangement did not comport with the feelings of my fellow citizens, I relinquished it,” he said to the people of York County. “Nothing but union is wanting to make us a great people.”

In “The Tour of James Monroe, President of the United States,” Samuel Putnam Waldo wrote, “here the President was also met by the Committee of Arrangements from the towns of Alfred and Sanford.”

Perceived as pragmatic and non-partisan, the straight-forward new president was popular for his association with peace following the war of 1812.

The people of York County, dressed in their Sunday finest, lined Kennebunk’s Main Street hoping for a glimpse of the handsome leader. Out of respect for their efforts and their admiration the Monroe instructed his assistant to drive his carriage to a spot just past the Meeting House. He proceeded across the Mousam River Bridge on foot, passing under an evergreen arch adorned with local garden roses and tipping his hat to the cheering crowd.

The president made his way to the Storer Mansion for an elegant luncheon prepared by Mrs. Storer, Kennebunk’s most tasteful hostess. After lunch he returned to Main Street on foot and acknowledged all the flags and placards that had been hung there in his honor. A group of lovely young ladies all dressed in white were stationed at his final approach to the carriage. They waved their handkerchiefs as the president drove out of site on his way to Biddeford, Saco and Portland. President Monroe’s 16-week tour of New England was the first of two such good will excursions he would take during his presidency. It fostered a sense of unity among his constituents and the beginning of his first term as president became widely known as “The Era of Good Feelings.”

The few citizens who still dared to admit to being Federalists after the War of 1812, scoffed at the president’s assertion that he had intended it to be an inspection tour of naval armaments, disdainfully labeling the pageantry “man-worship.”

Upon his return to Washington that autumn, President James Monroe moved his family into the White House. The Era of Good Feelings would not last, but neither would the Federalist Party. Considered traitorous and unpatriotic, it faded away.

Cuban bombs tested at Wells Beach

Cuban at Wells Beach by Frank Handlen
Cubans testing bombs by Frank Handlen

Citizens of Wells and Ogunquit were alarmed on the morning of Jan. 6, 1897, by the sound of explosions coming from the direction of the beach. Postmaster Harley Moulton told a reporter for the Biddeford Journal that he had noticed several dark, mustached foreigners with suspicious packages disembarking from the early Portsmouth (N.H.) train. The men took the road to the beach and two hours later the thunderous peals could be heard all over Wells. Brave townspeople investigated after the noises had ceased and discovered a hole, five rods long and 12 feet deep on the beach.

Reports by the Associated Press two days later shed light on the mystery. Agents of the Cuban Junta that had been assigned to acquire arms for use in Cuba’s war for independence from Spain were stationed in New York City. Mr. Robinson, a Manhattan chemist who had formulated a new kind of explosive, agreed to help the Cubans test a secret weapon involving a giant kite. A Lynn, Mass. electrician was also hired to teach the Junta how to detonate explosives remotely using a battery.

A few preliminary tests were conducted near Portsmouth on Jan. 1, but Señor Palmer, the lead Junta agent, was not satisfied with the results. Plans were made for the men to resume experimentation at Newburyport, Mass., on Jan. 5. At 3 o’clock Wednesday morning they loaded their carriages and headed toward Rockport. Along the way they noticed another carriage tailing them. Convinced they were being followed by Spanish spies, Señor Palmer ordered the drivers to turn back. When he was sure they had lost the spies, the experimenters proceeded to Portsmouth, where they boarded the Boston & Maine train to Wells. Their carriages were again loaded and the men were driven to a stretch of marshy coast near Ogunquit, called Black Creek.

The Lynn electrician, who claimed to have been paid handsomely for his expertise, described the events that followed to a reporter for the Boston Globe.

“Fourteen mines were laid, each charged with 14 pounds of dynamite, prepared with a fulminate cap, and situated 500 feet apart. These were connected with an ordinary igniting battery, such as is used for blasting, and the mines were exploded. A huge hole was torn along the beach. The party remained at Ogunquit Wednesday night. The next morning an experiment was tried with the kite. Two glass bombs filled with a substance similar to nitroglycerin were attached to its tail and to these were run the wires of an electric battery, the wires also being used as the lines by which the kite was raised. About 500 yards of the wire was run out and the kite was by that time, about 50 feet above the level of the sea. The switch of the battery was turned and a tremendous explosion took place. A great column of water was thrown high in the air, and a large wave was sent sweeping to the beach. A number of ducks, which had been flying near at the time of the explosion, were killed, some of them being torn into small pieces, and several fish were killed and washed up on the beach. The Cubans were highly pleased with the result and received lessons in discharging explosives by battery. Thursday night, they reached North Berwick in time to get the night train for Boston.”

These surprising events at Wells were historically significant to the Spanish American War. In 1897, Don Tomás Estrada Palma, whose name was often anglicized to Palmer, was stationed at the Junta headquarters at 120 Front St. in New York City. He was indeed responsible for acquiring weapons for the war with Spain. He was also there to gain support for his cause by convincing Americans that Cuba had a chance of prevailing against their militarily superior opponent. Palma was closely allied with the American press and often fed them propaganda to print. It was probably no accident that the story of the “secret experiments” was leaked to the AP and that participants shared detailed descriptions of the “secret weapons” so readily.

The following year, the mysterious explosion of the battleship U.S.S. Maine in Havana Harbor prompted the U.S. to declare war on Spain. Historians argue that the American media’s sensationalized coverage of the incident changed the course of history. Don Tomás Estrada Palma, who favored the U.S. annexation of Cuba, was elected the first President of the Cuban Republic in 1902.

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.