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.

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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…”

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The Stanleys and the Normal School

ImageAbove are the Stanley twins, Freelan and Francis. I can’t tell you which is which. They were identical, and even their close associates had trouble telling them apart. These photos (courtesy of the Stanley Museum) were taken in about 1875, a few years after Freelan graduated from the Farmington State Normal School.  Here they are in their mid-twenties, still a couple decades away from inventing the Stanley Steamer, an early automobile that gained popularity and fame around the turn of the century. Before the years of Ford and mass production, the Stanley Twins were producing around 200 cars a year, and that was more than any other U.S. maker.

As part of our 150th Anniversary  celebration at the University of Maine at Farmington I’m making displays each month at Mantor Library.  I chose to start with the Stanley twins in September. Since then I’ve featured several more Normal School graduates, teachers and administrators.  Through the years some wonderfully dedicated people have been part of the University of Maine at Farmington and its predecessor, the Farmington State Normal School. Look for more profiles here in the future.

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More Archives, More Inspiration on MDI

I got to spend a couple more days on Mount Desert Island doing research this last week, and I discovered a beautiful library in Northeast Harbor.  The building is only about ten years old; it’s bright and open and airy, and since I came upon it on a blue-sky summer day, I was happy to be in a space that made me feel like I was still in touch with the outdoors.  There’s a Maine room full of great volumes, many that are rare and some that are unpublished and unique to the library. Anyone who likes to incorporate a little history into their vacation will find it a great spot to linger between hikes up the mountains of Acadia and beach combing along the island coves.  And speaking of those enchanting coves, here’s a shot I took at Seal Harbor just before I stopped at the library:


But I didn’t just stroll along the beach and browse the old book collection, I really did try to do some research. And the Northeast Harbor Library suited my purposes there too.  They have their own archive of historical documents and artifacts, and a very helpful archivist.  Here’s Hannah Stevens with the collection in the background:

ImageConfronted with rooms full of history, it’s easy to get over-whelmed by the possibilities.  My first challenge is to tease out the material that is specific to the 1920s, since my book will revolve around that decade, and then to save it, label it, and note it in ways that might prove useful later.  All the reminiscences, artifacts, documents and conversations…I must admit, sometimes I wonder how I’ll ever pull them together into a book.  My head starts to spin, but then I tell myself not to panic. I browse each relic that comes my way; I try to soak it in and trust that when I’m ready to write the book, the stories will emerge.

So I put my writer’s anxieties aside and enjoyed the process.   And back in Bar Harbor that evening, I relaxed with blueberry ale and a fresh seafood diablo.  Research trips have their perks!

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Researching the Day Away

On a recent rainy day I left my B&B in Bar Harbor, drove by Eagle Lake, along the edge of Acadia National Park, past the lovely Somes Sound and stopped by the Mount Desert Island Historical Society thinking I’d spend a few minutes looking at their exhibit on the automobile.  I saw some great photos from the early 1900s, learned that the island was first open to motor vehicles in 1915 and that the “autocamping” craze soon followed.

I also got talking with historical society staff member Deb DeForest.  When I told her I’m working on book about MDI in the 1920s she said, “then you’ll want to look at our data base.”  A few keyword searches, a few oral histories, diaries and memoirs later, and the afternoon had somehow disappeared.

Here’s a photo I snapped of Deb:


The historical society is tucked away in the woods on Route 3 between Somesville and Northeast Harbor, and Deb told me she has worked there for two years.  “It’s a fascinating place,” she said.  An art historian by training, Deb said she loves her work.  “Plus look at where we are!” she added.  Immersed in the other-worldliness of island life and the captivating story of island history, I knew just what she meant.

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Farmington Gets a College

Farmington Normal School in the early days, before it was called the University of Maine at Farmington

Farmington Normal School in the early days, before it was called the University of Maine at Farmington

I teach at the University of Maine at Farmington, and this upcoming year we will be celebrating our 150th Anniversary.  The celebration will be year-long and include all kinds of events and exhibits which has prompted all kinds of meetings and brainstorming sessions. I was in one recently where a pretty basic question up.  Why was our town selected for this state school in the first place?  I was a little embarrassed that I couldn’t answer the question. After all, I’m on the committee because I wrote a book called Remembering Franklin County, and here is my college, very prominently located in this county I’m supposed to know so much about.

So on this very warm Saturday afternoon I’m pouring over a couple wonderful old books on local history:  Richard Mallett’s University of Maine at Farmington and George C. Purington’s History of the State Normal School.  Here’s what I found:

When the legislature started getting serious about creating a normal school (training student teachers on pedgogical standards or norms, hence the name), they asked the Committee on Education to produce a report.  The committee presented a bill that called for two schools, one in the eastern part of the state and one in the western part. By way of making the project affordable, they required that buildings must be furnished by institutions already established there.

Trustees and administrators at the Farmington Academy felt they had just the place.  The institution had always struggled financially (a fact that figures into my story in Remembering Franklin County about Paul Revere trying to collect on payment for a school bell), and the trustees no doubt thought that turning over the building to the state would be a good idea.

Academy Principal Ambrose Kelsey also liked the idea of Farmington Academy becoming the Normal School.  In fact, maybe the short answer to the question “Why did they locate the school in Farmington?” is that Ambrose Kelsey wanted it here.

Ambrose Kelsey 2

Ambrose Kelsey

Kelsey, a native of New York, was already familiar with the normal school concept. He had been a professor in the Albany State Normal School and was committed to the normal school goal of training teachers to be professional educators. He had a personal interest in Farmington as well, having married a local girl, Ellen Goodenow, who grew up near the Academy in what is now the Pierce House.  A state report from 1866 credits Kelsey saying “he devoted a year’s time in laboring for the establishment of the school and superintending the building operations without compensation.”

Farmington Academy was in competition with Gorham Seminary and Paris and Litchfield Academies for the Normal School.  Their proposals were studied and studied again, their merits were debated at length, but eventually the state commission chose Farmington, and the governor made the choice official in October of 1863.  Thanks to the efforts of Kelsey and others, higher education had come to stay.

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The Russians Come to Southwest Harbor


The Cimbria

In researching both Portland and now Mt. Desert Island, I’m often struck by how these seaports have always been so well-connected with international affairs.  Take, for instance, the story of the Cimbria, the Russian ship that made its home in Southwest Harbor for six  months in 1878 at the height of the Russo-Turkish War.

What was it doing there?  That’s what the folks of Southwest Harbor wanted to know when the steamer with a crew of 700 men first arrived.  That’s also what the reporters from the New York Times, Boston Globe and other national newspapers wanted to know as they rushed to the little village on Mt. Desert Island “like a flock of locusts upon a field of grain,” according to one wry local report.  And that’s what the British Naval Attache from Washington was sent to find out, arriving in Bar Harbor pretending to be just another early tourist intent on fishing off the landing pier but actually spying on the Russian officers who would arrive daily for refreshment at the Bar Harbor Club.

While residents of Southwest Harbor initially feared the foreigners, they quickly adjusted to their new visitors once they learned that the Russian ship was merely laying low in their remote part of the world and had no ill intent towards them. They had a fight to pick, not with the Americans, but with the English. As war raged between Russia and Turkey, intervention from England on behalf of Turkey looked likely.  That meant tensions between Russia and England were building, and Russia intended to send some “commerce destroyers,” or privateers, into the North Atlantic to intimidate England.

The Cimbria, it seems, was just marking time while a Philadelphia shipbuilder fitted out three American steamers and built a fourth for the purpose of antagonizing British merchant vessels.  The 700 naval personnel on board the Cimbria had evidently arrived in the U.S. to serve as crews for the Russian ships once they had been refitted in Philadelphia. Meanwhile, they waited for six months in the remote village of Southwest Harbor, Maine.

The folks of Southwest Harbor soon began to enjoy their new neighbors on the Cimbria, especially since they were constantly in need of supplies and became good customers of local merchants.  The crew came ashore every afternoon; they were well-behaved men, mostly Finnish rather than Russian, well-disciplined and friendly according to local reports.  But they had one habit the modest, retiring Downeasters found a bit perplexing: they would bathe in the brooks near the village, fully nude.

For their part, the crew seemed to enjoy Southwest Harbor except for one drawback:  no vodka.  Maine’s early prohibition laws confounded them, and a national newspaper reported that “the Draconian code of the State of Maine takes precious good care that they go back to the ship as sober as when they come to land.”

The officers from the ship seemed to have more freedom than the crew and moved more freely about the whole region.  They not only frequented the Bar Harbor Club but also dined at the homes of many local families.  These families in turn were invited for dinners on board ship, where local women were captivated by the fine linens.

Mt. Desert Island had at least one Russian resident, a man who lived near Otter Creek and worked as a gardener for many of the summer residents.  One would think he would be eager to meet his fellow Russians, to hear his native language and tales from home.  But instead of seeking out his countrymen, he disappeared from the island and remained out of touch until the Cimbria was gone.  Residents never knew why but speculated that he had been afraid of being captured and pressed into service by the Russians.

The Cimbria remained a fixture in the harbor throughout the summer months and into the fall. Finally, when the other ships were ready in Philadelphia, the Cimbria and its crew left its temporary Maine home for what proved to be an uneventful trip back across the Atlantic.

Tensions between Turkey and Russia lessened, and the Russian ships never needed to antagonize British merchant ships as they had planned.  No doubt the Finnish crew and the Russian officers eventually went back to their own villages and told tales of the strange Yankees who were scandalized by their bathing habits and never touched liquor.

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