Dedication in the Face of Fire

As fire swept across Mount Desert Island in October of 1947 six women in Northeast Harbor determinedly kept their post at the telephone office. The lights went out; their friends and family fled, but the operators remained, sounding the evacuation alarm and then calling every telephone in town to calmly urge the citizens of Northeast Harbor to leave their village in the face of the menacing forest fires. A fishing boat was moored outside the telephone office in case the operators needed to flee for their lives, but even after successfully overseeing the evacuation, the operators remained, never leaving their posts for four days. The only women left in Northeast Harbor, they provided a crucial communications link between fire fighters, police and relief workers.  

  Here is a photo of two of the women, Helen Gillette (left) and Philena Davis (right):

Helen and Philema

 The photo had been taken twenty-seven years before when Helen and Philena were young, single “telephone girls.” Helen’s maiden name was Smallidge. She married Charles Gillette in 1926, and the couple never had children. Philena, named for her paternal grandmother, was a Manchester before marrying Walter Davis in 1930. I don’t think they had any children either. Walter was twelve years older than Philena, and I believe he had a child from a prior marriage. Walter had died just a few months before the Great Fire. Since both Helen and Philena were childless, this might partially explain why they were working as operators in an era when married women more often stayed at home.

Thankfully the fire never reached the village of Northeast Harbor, yet the operators’ dedication to keeping their posts throughout the disaster was true heroism.

More to come about the telephone girls of 1920 in later blog entries!




Posted in Bar Harbor | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Otter Creek in a World at War


Naval station personnel, 1919. Photo courtesy of the National Archives.

The story of Bar Harbor in the Roaring Twenties really begins with the Armistice in November of 1918. The first news that the World War had ended came to this country by way of the Otter Creek Naval Station just outside of Bar Harbor.

Otter Creek had been established by MDI summer resident Alessandro Fabbri whose interest in the latest technology involving radio transmissions propelled him into an important role as war in Europe began to involve the United States. Fabbri built a station on Otter Point, an isolated spot unhindered by other radio transmissions, and then offered it to the government under the condition that he be named the commanding officer. The United States Navy had enough trust in Fabbri to grant his request and gave him a lieutenancy.  36.

The naval station is long gone, but today a monument pays tribute to Fabbri at the intersection of Otter Cliff and Park Loop Roads. It reads “In memory of Allesandro Fabbri Lieutenant USNRF. A resident and lover of MDI who commanded the U.S. Naval Radio Station upon its site from its establishment on August 28, 1917 until December 12, 1919. At the end of the world war he was awarded the navy cross. His citation stated that under his direction “the station became the most important and the most efficient station in the world.”

These days visitors from around the globe picnic near the monument or hike along the Ocean Path behind it. They are on vacation, and their thoughts are usually far from the past when the United States and Europe were experiencing their first “world war.”  They live in an age when transatlantic communication means they can enjoy the scenery of Mt. Desert as they send a quick text to a friend in England or have an easy video chat with a family member in Italy.

But nearly a hundred years ago, with the western world in turmoil, the act of communicating important, history-changing information between the United States to Europe in real time rested on the shoulders of Fabbri and a small naval force on a remote point of land in the North Atlantic on an island called Mount Desert. It was at this very spot that the United States received notice of the unconditional surrender by the Germans and learned the war was finally over.


(For stories about the naval station, the end of World War I and more, see Bar Harbor in Roaring Twenties by Luann Yetter.)

Posted in Bar Harbor | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Beatrix’s Garden

When I was in Bar Harbor recently, I stopped by Garland Farm, now owned by the Beatrix Farrand Society. In my new book, Bar Harbor in the Roaring Twenties, I write about how the famous landscape artist donated her time to the town to help them beautify their village. (Dump Wharf and the coal plant may not be the most attractive of the village’s waterfront features, she suggested. A patterned screen or a well-placed tree might help obscure some of these unattractive sites…)

1.Paula Moody, Open Days Coordinator for Garland Farm, gave me a tour of the facility, and it was fun to see Farrand’s living quarters as well as her gardens.

5.Much of the hardscaping — sculptures, benches, fencing — comes from Reef Point, the Farrand family cottage which graced the Shore Path until it was torn down in the 1950s. Other artifacts, long gone, have been reproduced based on old photos.

9.Many plants too are original to the Farrand collection, making their way from Reef Point to other island gardens like Asticou and Thuya and now to Garland Farm, Farrand’s home during retirement until her death in 1959.

Paula told me that Farrand lived at Garland Farm with her assistant. They each had their own garden, designed by Farrand to suit their tastes. Farrand liked the cool colors


while her assistant liked the warm colors.


On the walls of her modest final home are displayed plans for many of the island gardens she designed including ones for the Rockefellers in Seal Harbor, the Millikens in Northeast Harbor and the Byrnes in Bar Harbor. Guy’s Cliff, the James Byrne cottage, was on what is now the campus of the College of the Atlantic. (The cottage is long gone; however, the outlines of Farrand’s terraced garden can still be seen.)

It’s a shame that the cottage and gardens at Reef Point were not preserved, but it’s wonderful to see so many avid gardeners and historians embracing Garland Farm where Farrand spent her later, quieter years. And nice to see that her legacy lives on in beautifully landscaped areas all over the island. No doubt she would pleased to see that Dump Wharf and the coal plant are long gone from Bar Harbor’s waterfront!


Posted in Bar Harbor | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

A Book and a Question

cover 2

Here’s my new book! And before I go back to posting entries on Maine towns and history, I’m going to answer a couple of questions I’ve gotten from people as I’ve been working on this book over the past couple of years:

When you sit down to write, do the words just come to you? Is it like the book writes itself?

I wish. It’s interesting to me that people who don’t write often have this notion, and I can’t imagine where it comes from. Certainly the process never works this way for me. When I was working on my Bar Harbor book, the process went something like this:

Find a possible story. Do as much research as I can on the people and places associated with the story. When I’ve found out all I can, I tell myself that the next day I will take all my notes and start writing. The next day I start writing. And about halfway through the first sentence, I have more questions. And I go back to researching.

At some point, I tell myself “That’s it! You aren’t going to find any more about this, and even if you do, the six hours of research it will take to find out that her middle name was Jean is not worth the trouble!” And then I make myself write. And the words come out really slowly. Sometimes one at a time. Or sometimes in something more like lists of events rather than paragraphs. The rough draft sounds choppy. And really boring.

But slowly something starts to emerge that seems kind of interesting. and in the rewrite process I try to bring that out.

Do you make a lot of money on these books? 

No. I’ll be lucky if I cover my expenses for all those nights at the Central House and dinners at Testa’s, blueberry ale from the Atlantic Brewing Company and gourmet olive oil and balsamic vinegar from Fiore.

And here’s the unasked question, the question they feel it’s not polite to ask. The one that seems to imply I must be crazy:

Then why do you write?                                                                        

Well, it’s not exactly because I’m inspired to write them. And it’s not for the money. But there’s a sort of satisfaction from feeling like I found someone’s story and told it for a new audience. And when someone says they’ve read my book, that’s just about the best thing I’ll ever hear…

Other writers out there — why do you write?

Posted in Bar Harbor | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

A Massacre Halfway Around the World

Last summer when I began researching historical figures for UMF’s 150th Anniversary display, the Alumni House folks gave me a tour of their facility to show me their collection of artifacts.  In the basement were some huge old frames stacked against some dusty boxes of files.  “I can’t remember what these are,” my guide said as she pulled out one of the heavy wooden frames to reveal a portrait of a serious young woman dressed in prim 19th century garb, pin curled hair framing her forehead.


The photo was labeled  “Miss Mary S. Morrill, Graduated at Farmington State School” and underneath that was written “Missionary. Died in China 1900.”

The notation startled me, and I was eager to find out more.  So far I’ve discovered that Mary and fellow Mainer Annie Gould were serving as missionaries in the North China plain in 1900 when the Boxer Rebellion erupted. I found a picture online of Annie, also looking very serious, her hair pulled back severely from her face:


Mary had graduated from the Farmington State Normal School in 1884 and had taught for several years in southern Maine before becoming a missionary in 1889. That same year Normal School principal George Purington wrote that Mary was “anticipating much happiness in her chosen work. She is to be gone ten years.”  But only a year later the Chinese Empress Dowager authorized war on foreign powers, and the Boxers unleashed their violence on Christian Missionaries from the West. Mary and Annie were forced from their compound and into the city where they were jeered by mobs, subjected to a mock trial and then savagely beheaded.

Such a sad but fascinating story!  What motivated Mary and Annie to become missionaries and live in such a foreign culture half way around the world? What was life like for these two single women at the turn of the century?

Mary’s portrait still haunts me. I want to learn more…

Posted in Franklin County | Tagged , , | 5 Comments

Grand Commander Purington


This is George Purington, long-time principal of the Farmington State Normal School. Here he is dressed in his Knights Templar uniform.   This photo was probably taken in the very early 1900s when men seemed to be in love with wearing uniforms. The Knights Templar are better known as the Masons, and at one time Purington was Grand Commander of the state of Maine. And that wasn’t his only civic involvement. Purington came to Farmington to take charge of the Normal School in 1883 at the age of 35, and he quickly became on integral part of the community. He joined the Grange, became chief of the fire department, served as Sunday school superintendent at Old South Church, led the choir and the community choral group, and presided over the public library. And that was just in Farmington. Statewide, along with his Mason duties, he founded and presided over the Maine Civic League and was an overseer of his alma mater, Bowdoin College.  The Mantor Library on the UMF campus has a collection of Purington’s old notebooks full of handwritten notes (on display now) on a variety of subjects, indicating that Purington not only served as administrator but taught classes at FSNS at the same time. And I’m personally indebted to him for writing the first history of FSNS, a resource that has been invaluable to me in my research lately.

The man packed a lot of activity into a relatively short life. He died suddenly at the age of 61 while still serving as principal at FSNS. I’m not sure the cause of death, but perhaps it was a sudden heart attack. In his book The Last One Hundred Years, Richard Mallett (another local historian to whom I am indebted) writes that Purington’s death “shocked the Farmington community,” that emblems of mourning hung from the public library; the flag at Meeting House Park flew at half-mast, and Old South was over flowing at his funeral as students, faculty and community members all flocked to pay their respects to such a dedicated man.

Posted in Franklin County | Tagged , | Leave a comment

A Civil War Veteran Comes Home


This distinguished looking guy with the full mustache is Roliston Woodbury.  A great name, isn’t it?  If I were to write a novel set at a teacher’s college in New England just after the Civil War, I would invent a character, a war hero who returns to school at the age of 26, and I would name him Roliston Woodbury. And this wouldn’t be a stretch of the imagination.  Woodbury survived the Battles of Cedar Mountain, Second Bull Run, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville and Gettysburg before returning to Maine and attending Farmington Normal School. He graduated in 1867 and immediately became a faculty member and assistant to the principal.  About ten years later Woodbury got the opportunity to run a school himself. He left to become principal of Farmington’s sister school, the Eastern Maine Normal School at Castine.

Unfortunately, Woodbury was only at Castine for about ten years before he died at the young age of forty-eight.  Those who knew him said that despite his successes in education, the war always haunted him. “The death he had faced so often followed on his steps, and in his later years, walked by his side, and he knew it,” observed a colleague in a memorial speech about Woodbury. “Yet it was his choice to stand at his post to the last…”

Posted in Franklin County | Tagged , , | 6 Comments