Many wonderful books have been written about the history of Kennebunk. As enlightening as they are, the historical research does not always agree from one book to another. Modern researchers trying to reconcile the differences are fortunate to have several document repositories nearby. Old newspapers often reveal long-hidden historical details, but there’s nothing like personal accounts in old diaries to animate and illuminate the facts.
Diaries were kept by many local citizens over the years. Several diaries written by members of the Walker family have survived and are available on microfilm for public use at the Kennebunk Free Library.
Our best known diarist, Andrew Walker Jr., spent the majority of his adult life as the proprietor of a furniture store in the Village of Kennebunk. When he began writing his diaries on January 1, 1851 he was also the Kennebunk Town Clerk and the Town Treasurer. In the spring of 1862 the town requested that Andrew keep a military history of each Kennebunk soldier who served in the Civil War. If ever there was a man with his finger on the pulse of Kennebunk, it was Andrew Walker Jr.
Being a record keeper by profession and by nature, he recorded events and biographical sketches with remarkable precision, including keywords in the margin of each entry that he later transcribed into an index for each of the 11 volumes. The index has since been cross-referenced and printed in a separate volume.
Andrew seemed to have an inkling of the potential value of his efforts to future historians when he claimed to be “Noting down many events in this vicinity that now seem of importance but will presently dwarf into mere littleness, other events now insignificant in our eyes, but one day will assume an air of important magnitude.” That inclination to leave nothing out no matter how insignificant it may have seemed at the time, is what makes his diaries so very useful. He also admitted to a small measure of vanity in the endeavor when he wrote, “As a woman likes to view herself in a glass, so a man likes to see himself in his diary.” Andrew Walker Jr. made his last entry on Aug. 13, 1897, two years before his death.
Andrew ‘s first cousin Tobias had started keeping a very different kind of diary in 1828. Neither meticulous nor indexed, Tobias’ journal is a record of the day-to-day happenings on his Alewife sheep and potato farm. His entries covered mostly farm business — who he traded with, who had given him a raw deal, how much he sold the butter for, and family business like who went to the meeting house, who went to the beach to “wash,” and who was feeling poorly. As the years went by more and more responsibility for the farm gradually fell to Tobias’ eldest son, Edwin.
His second son, William, who didn’t stand to inherit the family farm, married the daughter of Samuel Cleaves, a farmer from just across the Kennebunk River in North Kennebunkport. The young couple moved into a house on Curtis Road next door to Samuel Cleaves. William made the first entry in his diary on his wedding day, Dec. 15, 1846. The next day was spent setting up the furniture in their new home. William mentioned that he found the work pleasant. A few days later, Tobias surprised his son with a gift of a slaughtered pig.
The couple frequently had visitors in the early years who just stopped by to pass some jovial evening hours. Neighbors were always present to help with time-sensitive farm jobs. Shortly after William and Mary’s first child was born there was a heat wave that lasted for many days. The heat and mosquitoes were so troublesome that none of them couldn’t sleep. The whole family relocated to the barn one night and on a pile of hay and enjoyed the first good night’s sleep in a week.
Tobias Walker died in 1865. His son Edwin took over the Alewife farm. Like his brother William and their father Tobias, Edwin kept a daily diary until he died in 1891.
These farm families worked hard but they did not lead miserable lives of nothing but toil, especially when the children were young. There were family trips to the circus in Biddeford, afternoons of fishing and berry picking, clambakes, sailing excursions and sea bathing at Two Acres, Hart’s Beach and the Goose Rock Beach. Sometimes on a very hot day the whole neighborhood would caravan to the beach in 8 or 10 carriages.
The farmer diarists occasionally made note of important historical events like the tragic shipwreck of the local barque Isadore, in 1842, and the accidental death of Jesse Webster when the cannon he was loading for the Kennebunk Centennial Celebration exploded. This is not the primary value of these journals.
They are unselfconscious accounts of the way 19th century life was in the Kennebunks; What it was like to have to go to the mills to grind your corn or to lose half of your family’s food supply in a cold snap, or to weather the loss of one loved one after another. They offer historical context, which is so hard to absorb from a history book.
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…
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.
Every once in awhile, a historian comes along whose wonder at the mysteries of the past is so contagious that it creates new history buffs, young and old. Edward Rowe Snow was one such New England time traveler. From 1936-1981 he was also known as The Flying Santa.
Snow was a high school history teacher in Winthrop, MA when one of his students, Bill Wincapaw, Jr., introduced him to the original Flying Santa, his father Captain William Wincapaw. When Capt. Wincapaw was called away for business and unable to complete his Flying Santa duties, Bill Jr. recommended his history teacher as a substitute Santa.
A Friendship, Maine native, Bill Wincapaw had started the program unceremoniously in 1929 as a way to thank the lighthouse keepers whose tireless efforts kept him safe. He was flying seaplanes in Penobscot Bay, transporting people to and from the islands in all kinds of conditions. Local lighthouse keepers knew him well and kept an eye out for his plane, relaying word of his whereabouts during heavy weather.
The events of that first Christmas flight in 1929 were recounted in an article written by Brian Tague, photographer and historian for the Flying Santa Organization.
“So it began on December 25, 1929, he loaded his plane with a dozen packages containing newspapers, magazines, coffee, candy and other items. They were small luxuries and common staples that could make living on an isolated island a little more bearable. Some of these same items continue to be a part of the tradition today. He flew to lights around the Rockland area and dropped these modest gifts to the lighthouse families. Never realizing just how well his gesture of Christmas goodwill would be received, he flew home to spend the rest of the day with his family.”
That first Christmas delivery spread such joy that Capt Wincapaw decided to make it an annual event. His delivery team was expanded to include Bill Wincapaw, Jr. and the flight plan was expanded to include lighthouses all along the northeast coast. Bill Sr. donned the fur-trimmed Santa suit only after grateful recipients of his annual gifts nicknamed him The Flying Santa. In 1933 Wincapaw moved his family to Winthrop, MA. where he met Snow, his Flying Santa successor.
Edward Rowe Snow performed substitute Santa duties starting in 1936. Already a published author, he kept his eyes peeled for story ideas while he was up in the air. During his 1940 Christmas flight over Massachusetts Bay, Snow spotted the hulk of the British Frigate Somerset wrecked off Cape Cod in 1778. It had been temporarily exposed by a rough winter storm a few days before Christmas.
Wartime security restrictions almost canceled the 1941 present drop but with some alteration to the flight plan and a conspicuous red Christmas banner affixed to the side of their hired plane, Snow and his wife were given the go-ahead for their Christmas flight at the 11th hour. All available Flying Santas, including Snow, served in World War II so Christmas flights were cancelled for a few years but were back in full swing by 1945.
Sadly, Captain Bill Wincapaw, the original Flying Santa, suffered a heart attack while flying his plane over Rockland Harbor in July 1947. He and his passenger were killed. That Christmas, Edward Rowe Snow carried on The Flying Santa legacy, dropping a memorial wreath for his old friend over Rockland Harbor.
Snow expanded the program to include U.S. Coastguard Stations and lighthouses all along the eastern seaboard. He continued the Christmas flights, often accompanied by his wife and daughter, until 1981 when his health failed. Mr. Snow’s Santa suit was presented to Ed McCabe of Hull Massachusetts and thanks to support from the Hull Lifesaving Museum and later the Friends of Flying Santa, the tradition continues.
Aside from his dedicated service as The Flying Santa, Edward Rowe Snow left a legacy of more than 40 books on the history of coastal New England. His interests ranged from pirate’s treasure to unidentified shipwrecks to women at sea. As a daily columnist for the Quincy, Massachusetts newspaper, The Patriot Ledger and writer for various other publications throughout his adult life, he kept a rapt readership informed of his historical adventures.
In 1945, he found a treasure chest buried at Cape Cod’s Nauset Beach after decoding a message he found pinpricked on the pages of an ancient book. Also in 1945, Snow claimed to have identified a treasure-laden pirate ship 45 miles off Provincetown, MA.
1952 found the historian on the Canadian island of Isle Haut. By following an ancient chart he had located the buried treasure of pirate Edward Lowe. The Isle Haut lighthouse keeper watched his every move as he dug up a mysterious skeleton and a cache of Spanish Doubloons. Snow was then delivered directly to a Canadian Customs Agent who impounded his treasure.
Edward Rowe Snow came to Kennebunk in 1960 to investigate the shipwreck of the sloop Industry that was briefly uncovered that spring on Kennebunk Beach.
A year later he wrote in his column that he believed he had found the long lost airplane of French pilot, Charles Nungesser in Casco Bay. Nungesser disappeared in 1927 on an attempted transatlantic flight from Paris to New York.
Though he has been gone now for some 30 years, Edward Rowe Snow is still as fondly remembered for his inspiring books and his thrilling real life history adventures as he is for his longtime role as The Flying Santa.
The term Yellow Journalism was coined to describe a sensationalistic style of reporting that was typically unfettered by facts. It was popularized by the likes of Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst at their competing New York newspapers in the 1890s. The provocative style was already entertaining Biddeford Daily Times readers in 1872.
Marcus Watson revived the daily paper in 1872. It had been introduced in 1868 but had lasted only 14 days. Watson acquired the right to use the name and hired two talented young writers, Phillip McIntyre and Francis Goodwin, to be his co-editors. In 1906, Phillip McIntyre, who was by then a seasoned newspaperman in Portland, recalled the early days at the Biddeford Daily Times.
“Francis Goodwin and I did not exactly paint Biddeford red during our connection with the Times, both of us being young men of abstemious habits, but we did give the paper a saffron hue. In fact we were undoubtedly the pioneers of “yellow journalism” in this state long before that term of reproach was coined.”
McIntyre fondly recalled one piece of juicy news that was of his own making. While he lived at the Biddeford House during the summer of 1872, the big front door of the Main Street hotel was always securely locked at 10 pm. McIntyre often arrived home long after lock-up time. Normally, he would rap on the lamppost in front of the hotel to summon Amos Brackett, the beat cop who carried the key to the hotel. But in this instance Brackett seemed to have either fallen asleep or deserted his post.
Finally, out of patience, the newspaperman picked up a loose brick from the sidewalk and smashed the window just over the bunk where the hotel night watchman slept. The brick dropped on the poor man’s head causing him to bolt up yelling “Burglars!” The whole house was aroused and someone rushed out the front door to find Officer Brackett. McIntyre quietly passed amid the commotion and went to bed. “The next evening the Times contained a thrilling account of an attempted burglary at the Biddeford House,” reminisced the journalist, “foiled by the bravery and presence of mind of Patsy, the wakeful and intrepid watchman.”
Watson sold the Biddeford Times in 1876 to Andrew J. Small, who ran a most dignified paper until his death in 1885. His sisters Josephine and Addie Small took over and continued in his responsible journalistic style. The Smalls also started the weekly edition of the Times and a summer paper, Old Orchard Sea Shell, in the mid-1880s.
Wishing to retire after working hard all their lives, the Small sisters sold all three papers to Francis L. Finch in 1894 for $10,000. Finch had only just graduated from Thornton Academy in 1892. When he came of age he inherited $70,000 from a guardian but being immature the boy ran through the money at once. He spent it on a fancy Saco estate, servants, horses, a grand European tour, and investments in business ventures he didn’t have the wherewithal to maintain. The Small sisters were forced to repossess the newspapers within a few months.
The final publisher of the Biddeford Daily Times bought the distressed paper at a bargain price in 1895. William A. Roberts had for many years been a life insurance man and then the proprietor of the Biddeford House that had by then been renamed the Thacher Hotel. He did not take possession of the newspaper until January 1896 because he was deeply embroiled in a court case that year over the death of his 26 year old stenographer. She had died in his company after an illegal operation in Boston.
This wasn’t the first time Roberts had been to court and it was far from the last. He was also sued for the damages caused by his passenger paddleboat in the Saco River. He had built it to run paying customers out to Biddeford Pool but he soon had several law suits on his hands when the unstable vessel ran into about every boat it passed. Roberts was also the edge-dwelling local politician who eventually settled in a campaign finance embezzlement case in 1899.
His proprietorship at the Biddeford Daily Times however was well received. One reviewer raved that Roberts had “converted the paper into one of the warmest little sheets that ever “sassed the mighty” in the State of Maine.” Another journalist wrote, “As Editor and Publisher, he pens editorials that curl the hair. He isn’t bashful and never a man walked the earth who could make him cast down his eye or check his speech.”
Roberts did seem to love to stir up trouble, especially against his political opponents but sometimes it was just to entertain his readers and probably himself. He later recalled that on one particularly slow news day he bought a skeleton from a local doctor and had one of his reporters “dig it up” to furnish the paper with a local sensation for the day. After a few years Roberts lost interest in the daily news business and allowed the paper to expire in 1897.
Throughout the 25 or so years the newspaper was in existence it was also known as The Biddeford Times and The Evening Times. Though relatively short-lived, The Times played a significant role in the history of Maine journalism, especially during the Yellow years of 1872 and 1896.
When asked what historical fiction author Kenneth Roberts was like, locals who remember him might diplomatically divert the conversation by expounding on Booth Tarkington’s charm.
In a review of Roberts’ 1949 autobiography, “I Wanted to Write,” a critic for the New York Times called the author truculent, irascible, cantankerous, arrogant, sardonic, blunt, prickly, blustering, and “a man perpetually at war with life and the world.” Roberts may have been a complicated person but his idiosyncrasies compelled him to challenge accepted historical research and dig deep for details that infused his novels with vivid authenticity.
Roberts graduated from Cornell University in 1908. As editor-in-chief of the school paper, he had earned a reputation for pushing the controversy envelope. He went on to write for the Boston Post, Life, and Puck before becoming a staff correspondent for the Saturday Evening Post. One of his early stories for the Post, “Good Will and Almond Shells,” won him popular acclaim when it was made into the movie “The Shell Game” in 1918. During World War I, the writer served his country as captain of an intelligence unit in Siberia charged with enforcing censorship among the troops. The assignment went against his nature and contributed to his distain for revisionist history. After an honorable discharge in 1919, Roberts wrote about political conditions in Europe in the aftermath of war. His controversial opinions angered some but also garnered him a loyal following.
In a 1919 Saturday Evening Post article titled “Speaking of Fairy Tales,” Kenneth Roberts wrote how his childhood love for fairy tales and myths had evolved into a passion for history. Mundane details that created atmosphere in his beloved fairy tales were even more transporting when he found them in an 1824 daybook that had belonged to his Kennebunk ancestor, Eliab Stevens.
Learning how much Eliab paid for Moroccan shoes and how much good New England rum he could have purchased for the same amount was just the beginning. The Kennebunk-born author’s hunger for details in regional history helped him to form an accurate big-picture vision of how things were that eventually served as the backdrop for a series of five historical novels called The Arundel Chronicles.
Roberts approached all his interests with the same intensity. He spent most of his adult life documenting his efforts to achieve the perfect cocktail recipe and he was rarely interviewed or photographed without the comfort of a canine companion.
Human friendships were selective but enduring for Kenneth Roberts. Confidant and literary mentor, Booth Tarkington, shared his cynicism and sarcastic humor but was, unlike his friend, endowed with the gift of instinctive discretion. In 1921, The Sunday Oregon reported, “Stablehurst is what Kenneth Roberts, the author of Europe’s Morning After, called his beach home when he made over a stable into a residence at Kennebunk Beach, Maine. But it is said his literary neighbors, Booth Tarkington and Hugh Kahley, thought the name lacked elegance and they christened it “Stall Hall.”
A 1940 issue of the local summer paper, High Tide, featured a preview of the final installment of the Chronicles of Arundel, Oliver Wiswell. Rocky Pastures, Roberts’ Kennebunkport estate adjoining Booth Tarkington’s Seawood, had recently been built and the author was intent on protecting the expensive adornments to his landscape.
“Last Sunday was an average day,” wrote the editor of High Tide, “Mr. Roberts was sitting, guarding his better ducks (he has two classes) in his better duck pond; ran to get a shot gun when a hawk appeared over the pond. (Between hawks, mink, and owls, it’s a race with death). When he returned to the pond the hawk had taken warning, but a mink was placidly swimming about with its head above water. Mr. Roberts fired… belatedly discovered that the mink was a friendly woodchuck; that he had also shot one of his blue-blood Formosa Teal ducks for which he had paid a handsome sum; regretfully ate the duck for supper.”
By 1945, Roberts had shot 63 Great Horned Owls and had lost 18 of his precious ducks to predators.
During the last decade of the novelist’s life, he became singularly interested in the art of finding underground water with a forked dowsing stick. He was convinced that his friend, Henry Gross of Biddeford had a mystical divining gift. Together the two men traveled around the world locating water and documenting their successes in three books on the subject. The more scientists refuted the validity of dowsing the more he defended it. Kenneth Roberts was a man who was willing to fight for his convictions regardless of their popularity.
Humorist and author of more than 60 books, John Kendrick Bangs loved only one town in the world: Ogunquit, Maine.
“It’s the finest little fishing village you could find,” he told a reporter for the Syracuse Herald in 1916. “My nearest neighbors are in Lisbon. Lisbon is in Portugal. My eyes are failing a little and that may explain why I never see them. At any rate the Portuguese make splendid neighbors, so quiet I never hear them at all.”
Bangs’s novels including A Houseboat on the Styx (1896) and its sequel The Pursuit of the House-Boat (1897) inspired the term “Bangsian Fantasy” which describes literary plots set in the afterlife often featuring historical and mythological characters. With homage to ancient Greek Mythology, Bangs explored the fantastical notion that everyone congregates at the River Styx after death. Shakespeare, Sir Walter Raleigh, and Francis Bacon rub elbows with George Washington, Confucius and Noah. The dialog that sprouted from this context and Bangs’ fertile sense of humor put the series on the Bestseller List.
J. K. Bangs was born in Yonkers, N.Y., May 27, 1862. His father Francis N. Bangs was President of the New York City Bar. It was understood that Johnny would become a lawyer when he entered Columbia University in 1879 but by the time he graduated in 1883 he had already written humorous articles for Life and Puck Magazine. Dutifully studying Law in his father’s office the year after graduation he was drawn away into the world of publishing and served as Associate Editor of Life from 1884-1888. A stellar if sometimes controversial career with Harper’s in various editorial capacities followed from 1888-1901, finally ending abruptly over his journalistic support of Roosevelt’s Cuban policies during the Spanish American War. When asked, by a Harper’s associate in the 1890s, why he hadn’t become a lawyer, Bangs responded, prophetically, “It seemed to me that a man has enough battles of his own to wage without rushing after the battles of other people.”
The popularity of the author’s literary endeavors prompted his nomination as the 1894 Democratic Mayoral Candidate in Yonkers, N.Y. Though he lost the race by 207 votes, the success of his hilarious account of the experience, Three Weeks in Politics, proved redeeming.
The family moved to Ogunquit in 1907. While on the Maine Lecture Circuit in support of the Republican Presidential nominee, William Howard Taft, Bangs was referred to as a “Foreigner.”
Taking umbrage, he insisted in the Sept. 4, 1908 issue of the Boston Daily that he had “been a resident of the Pine Tree State for two years past.”
“Mr. Bangs has already spoken in half a dozen places” the reporter continued. “At first Maine folks do not enthuse over the novelist and story writer. His New York City ways, fine clothes and tan mocha gloves handicap him with the Maine farmer at the start but after he gets going and cracks a few of his jokes, my, what a change!”
Bangs was ultimately embraced by the Ogunquit cultural community. He published 10,000 poems and entertained literary, artistic and political celebrities from around the world in his Maine home during the remaining 15 years of his life. The author died of intestinal cancer on Jan. 21, 1922. His wife and three sons, bolstered by Bangs’s enduring sense of humor were by his side in the Atlantic City, N.J., Hospital when he told his final joke.
Two of John Kendrick Bangs’s sons also considered Ogunquit their home.
Francis Hyde Bangs began working on his father’s biography, “John Kendrick Bangs: Humorist of the Nineties,” in 1926.
It was finally published by Knopf to positive reviews in 1941. As co-owner of York Press Company with his brother Howard from 1933-1935, he edited the Old York Transcript and frequently contributed editorial content for both the Wells-Ogunquit Compass and the Old York Transcript as “John Fust.”
Howard, who was said to have inherited his father’s wit, had been a newspaperman in Boston and New York but happily settled in Ogunquit as owner, Publisher and Editor of the Wells-Ogunquit Compass and the Old York Transcript until his death in 1941.
The Bangs Family Papers, proudly protected by the Yale University Library, include copies of those southern Maine newspapers, many photos of early-20th century Ogunquit and an unpublished work, Forty or Fifty Years Ago in Ogunquit By Francis Hyde Bangs.