Featured

This Old House: Secrets in the Attic

The Means home. 1896. L to R. William Jr., Elsie, Otis, William and Nellie, Harriet. Descendants of William and Nellie Means lived in this home for 120 years.

I grew up in the house on the corner of Broadway and Gardner Avenue, built by Nathan and Ruth Gardner in 1869. My great-grandmother Nellie Getchell Means bought the house in 1887, not long after her marriage to William Means. The home was inherited by my maternal grandmother, Harriet Means Johnson in 1937. My mother and father bought it from Harriet’s estate in 1948 and moved in just before I was born in September of 1952.

This visit to my childhood home, I was cleaning and organizing the sprawling home and barn, filled with 90% junk, 10% priceless family heirlooms, my history. Dad was gone, a stroke victim. Mom could no longer come upstairs, her mobility limited by osteoarthritis. It was my task now, or all would be lost.

The attic was stuffed with cartons and boxes amid glorious, old wide boards and beams, another universe. The outgrown clothes of all my five children rested in a corner under the eves waiting for my grandchildren. Beside the old wooden stairs, I found the petticoats I dearly loved as a five-year old, the insulated skipants and jacket I last wore in the 60s, my mother’s square dancing outfits. How will I ever sort this stuff? I kept the baby clothes and blankets for little ones and my skipants, then packed the rest to donate to a non-profit. By one of the chimneys, I opened one of the old shipping chests of my great-grandparents and gazed at their wedding clothes, well preserved. I moved to another chest, dug deep under school work by me and my two brothers, and found a trove of old letters dated 1908. I carried them downstairs to my bedroom, lined them up according to their date. Each night, I read the letters written by my grandmother Harriet who died before I was born. For as long I could remember, I longed to talk to her, imagined she had written something that told me what she thought about, her struggles, hopes and dreams. It was as though I knew the letters were there, waiting to be found. Through her words, I got to know Harriet and realized that she was a lot like a younger version of me. She fell in love, took risks, defied her parents. Born into a prestigious family, she eloped in 1908 with Ezekiel Johnson from Kennebec, the wrong side of the river, and traveled to Oregon by train without telling her parents.

In 2015, I transcribed Harriet’s letters to share with my family. And, I began to write about the grandmother I never knew, weaving my mother’s stories with the letters written in 1908. To read these eight posts in sequence, begin with “Harriet” and end with “Home at Last.”

Harriet

The Train Can Take Us Anywhere

Papa’s Letter

Papa To The Rescue

Sightseeing and Homesick

Nellie’s Sister Dora Pleads: Please Write To Your Daughter

Christmas Eve 1908

Home at Last: Tough Times Ahead

 

 

 

 

Dad Received West Point Assignment as Flight Instructor. 1942.

He sent a telegram to my mother, Louise Johnson, announcing his new assignment. They would soon marry and reside at West Point. Dad had undergone basic flight training at Goodfellow Field in San Angelo, Texas, at Parks Air College and was preparing to take his place in the newly expanded US Army Air Corp as a flying second lieutenant.

telegram

dad-newspaper

West Point, Stewart Field, Newburgh, NY. Tent city. Planes, planes, planes. Power glides  for instrument landing and legal hedge hopping. A Beechcraft factory churns out planes for World War II.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

By June of 1944, West Point had trained hundred of pilots, including the son of Dwight D Eisenhower, supreme commander of Allied Forces in Europe and the sons of other Army Generals.

newspaper-1944

Searching for Grammy Rier’s Parents and Siblings

My paternal grandmother, Elizabeth Keegan Rier was born in Trescott, Maine, September 15th, 1892. I never knew the names of her father and mother except to know that her maiden name was Keegan. Grammy told me that her mother died when she was about four years old and she had no memory of her. I could not imagine what it would be like to lose your mother as a little girl, wondered how her father had raised her. I never knew the name of all of Grammy’s siblings. She talked about two sisters, Mary who lived in Leominster, Massachusetts, and Theresa, who lived in Boston.

According to the 1910 census, one Keegan family lived in Trescott. James Keegan is the head of household, has four daughters and one son who live with him, but has no wife. Two daughters match the names of Grammy’s sisters, Theresa (spelled Tresa in the census) and Mary. The son is named James E which may be James Eugene, my father’s name.

Where is Grammy? She would have been 17 or 18 years of age at the time. Grammy told me that she had only completed school through the third grade as she criticized her own penmanship writing letters. Truthfully, her writing was meticulous but I sensed that Grammy was self conscious about her lack of education. My Uncle Barney said that Grammy went to work in the Lubec sardine industry as a young girl to help support the family. I searched the 1910 Lubec census and found Lizzie Keegan (her nickname) age 17. She is listed as a domestic servant in the household of Henry and Ella Godfrey at 18 Summer Street Lubec. There are two boarders and another domestic servant in this home. In 1910, Grammy was working for a family and lived in Lubec. She probably worked in the sardine industry too, work she enjoyed into her 80s.

I note that the eldest daughter of James Keegan, Winnefred, age 23, is listed in both the Trescott and Lubec census. Winnefred was a domestic servant in another Lubec household, the Trecartin family.

I don’t know why Grammy never talked about her brother and sisters, except Theresa and Mary. Perhaps they moved away and she was disconnected from them or they died before I was born and didn’t hear their stories.  My father is likely named for her one brother. Her sister Katherine is listed as the same age as Grammy but I doubt they were twins or I would have heard about it, perhaps they were only a year apart, and Grammy turned 18 in September of 1910 after the census.

I searched for the burial site of James Keegan and found his grave at the Chapel Hill Cemetery in Trescott. He was born in 1847 and died in 1927 at the age of 80. He is the son of James Keegan, my great great grandfather who first came to Trescott from Ireland.

From his gravestone, I learned the name of his wife, my great grandmother, Margaret Murray Keegan, date of death 1897. Their eldest daughter, Winnefred died in 1918 at the age of 31, was buried with her parents. It was the year of the great flu pandemic that killed millions of people worldwide.

Now I must document my Keegan ancestors using vital records. I found Grammy Rier’s birth certificate although she was not yet named. This verifies that she is indeed the 5th child of James and Maggie Keegan, born September 15th, 1892 in Trescott, Maine. James Keegan’s occupation was farmer. I’ll bet he had a fine Irish root cellar in his home.

record-image_9398-4d9j-55

I found the death certificate for Maggie (Margaret) Keegan. She died May 21, 1896 at age 38. Cause of death: Pneumonia/Bronchitis. Place of birth: St John, New Brunswick. Gravestones and websites are not always correct.

record-image_9398-4d9j-d2

Grammy Rier lived with us in Machias at the home of my maternal great grandparents every winter when I was growing up. She taught me how to knit mittens when I was barely 10 years old. I can still smell her bread, hot from the oven. Her bedroom was at the end of the hall, close to mine. As I drifted off to sleep, Grammy whispered the rosary, kneeling beside her bed. “If you don’t finish the rosary and drift off to sleep, the angels will finish for you,” she told me.

Grammy died in April 21st of 1985 in Lubec at the home of her son Barney and his wife Rebecca, just months from her 94th birthday. I still miss her.

I celebrate her life.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

 

 

My Great Grandfather William Means Sold Overland Automobiles in 1911

Today, I decided to (gently, very gently) peruse old newspapers kept in the attic of my great grandparents’ home: two copies of the Machias Valley News Observer published in 1936 and 1937. I failed to locate an article that explained why these were kept for 80 years, at least this time. Then I moved to a copy of the Machias Republican, April 22, 1911. I’m still not sure why this newspaper was kept over 100 years.

But, I made a discovery.

My great grandfather William Means sold Overland cars in Machias, Maine in 1911. He was the agent for Washington and Hancock Counties. My mother told me that William bought and sold real estate. I know he did because I spent hours in the Washington County Deeds office locating properties in and around Machias that he bought and sold. I know William held auctions for I have his ledger describing the items he sold. But, I did not know that he sold automobiles in 1911.

There was another hint of William’s interest in automobiles in the attic of his home: a copy of Motor magazine published in April 1904. There are many interesting articles and advertisements for Cadillac, The Electric Vehicle Co that sold two models of electric cars (!), portable auto houses (the forerunner of the garage), and an article entitled “Fair Woman as a Motorist.”

 

motor-mag-cadillacmotor-mag-elecric-carsmotor-mag-auto-housesmotor-mag-woman

My Paternal Grandfather Frank Rier and the Rier Brothers from Germany

Grandfather Frank was born in Lubec, Maine, in May of 1890. He died before I was born on December 21, 1945 at the age of 55, his date of death recorded in a family bible. Mom told me he had a stroke and was disabled for some period of time before that. According to the census, Frank was a mechanic. We know that he had a garage in Lubec beside his home, that he fixed and detailed cars. The photo, circa 1919, shows my grandparents Frank and Elizabeth (Keegan) Rier. Grammy is holding their son Paul, standing beside Marion and my father, James “Gene” Rier.

The Rier family did not keep much for records, not beyond my father and his eight brothers and sisters. There were only stories. I need to spend some time this summer in the cemeteries of Lubec. There, I must search for the first Rier in Lubec, who according to legend, arrived not long after the Revolutionary War. According to that legend, there were two Rier brothers who crossed the Atlantic from County Hess Germany to fight for the British. They “jumped ship,” defected to the American cause. One brother went to Canada, the other to Lubec, Maine, USA.

Now there are a couple of problems with this story. Yes, the Rier brothers may have defected – or been captured and put into service for the American rebellion. But, if so, both brothers would have remained in the US.

In my lifetime, another scenario emerged. The Rier brothers fought for the British and after the war took ship from New York City to Shelburne, Nova Scotia with other loyalists and British soldiers who did not wish to return to Europe. African slaves who served the British also were sent there by ship and granted their freedom. All met harsh conditions, white and black, overcrowding, starvation and disease. Eventually, one brother set out for Lubec, or perhaps it was his descendants that did so. After the first ship of loyalists arrived in 1783, the conditions in Shelburne rapidly deteriorated with a population that swelled to 32,000. There were race riots in 1784 and the economy collapsed by the late 1780s. A lack of agricultural land, a collapse of the whale fishery and poor inland trade routes led four fifths of the population to leave. Thus, one Rier brother may have sought safety and better conditions to establish his home. It would not have be too difficult for a former soldier who fought for the British to find his way to Lubec, a hop, skip and jump from nearby Canada. After all, Benedict Arnold took shelter across the bay on Campobello Island.

Residents of the Maritimes and the coast of Downeast Maine did not live by borders of countries, Canadian or American. Smuggling of goods and people was a way of life. American goods could be smuggled into Canada, British goods in the opposite direction, at great profit, for it seems neither the British nor the US customs could control Maritime residents and bend them to their laws. These people were bound to the sea and the land to eke out a living any way they could without dependence on country borders or their laws.

According to my cousin Frank, the original Rier homestead on this side of the Atlantic was in Shelburne, Nova Scotia. Had the first Rier in Lubec already left Canada? Was there one surviving family or two?

Well, for now, it is a mystery.

There could be practical reasons for maintaining the two family story. One day in the 1970s, my father got a call at his car dealership. The caller introduced himself as Robert Rier, a professor at Howard University in Washington DC. He had done extensive genealogical research, said he was a descendent of the Canadian branch of the Rier family, and was related to Dad.

This man paused and said, “I’m black.”

Dad replied, “Well, I’m white.” They had a long conversation and Dad stayed in touch with Robert and his family over the years. Dad was not surprised to find relatives of a different color. The family story was that the Riers held the genes of many races, Caucasian, African, Native American. Who knew? Robert had traced the Rier family back to Germany which matched our own stories, the name had been changed as many did in the Revolutionary War. His ancestor had married a black woman. Nearby Birchtown was the largest free settlement of  ethnic Africans in North America in the eighteenth century. Eventually, Robert’s family had immigrated from Canada to the Dutch Caribbean island of Curacao, Rier descendants now scattered over North America, the Netherlands and a tropical island. Cool.

We don’t know whether the family of Robert Rier is our direct line of ancestors. As my brother David said, our own family must be traced back from Lubec to Germany. There is research to be done. I shall begin in Lubec cemeteries, documenting gravestones. In my memory, the first Rier there was Ingraham, a name of decided German origin. Dad used to point at his grave site as we drove by. Surely I can find it. Hopefully, I can still read the engravings on his stone. I’m guessing that the first Rier came to Lubec in the late 1780s to escape the conditions in Shelburne.

It is likely that Robert Rier’s ancestor and mine were brothers who came to America among 30,000 Hessian soldiers hired by the British in the Revolutionary War. One branch stayed in Canada, one came to Lubec. We know Paul Rier’s family lives in New Brunswick (who are white) and strangely own a car dealership as did my Dad, their names and facial features are similar to my family from Lubec, although there are no records to show that we are related.

Robert’s genealogical research is our first lead back to Germany – so valuable – and lends color and diversity to our family.

Photos. The family home of Frank and Elizabeth Rier in Lubec.

Photos of my grandparents, Frank and Elizabeth, and their family taken outside their Lubec home with Grammy’s sister Mary, and Dad’s younger sisters Patricia and Evelyn.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

One last story that Mom told me about Frank. Toward the end of his life, he was disabled by a stroke. Grammy had a special chair to keep him comfortable during the day. Before Frank went to bed each night, he said, “Put out the clock and wind the cat.” It is possible that only people from Lubec (or carry genes from there) understand this type of humor, twisting sentences around for fun. It gives me a peek into grandfather Frank’s personality.

Happy 74th Anniversary Mom and Dad

My mother and father, Louise Adele Johnson and James “Gene” Rier, married on February 15th, 1943 at the Saint Patrick’s Catholic Church in Portland, Maine. Their special day was chosen because it was the day that my grandmother Harriet wed Ezekiel Johnson (and eloped) in 1908, and it was birthday of my great grandmother, Nellie Getchell Means, born February 15th, 1857.

Mom lived and worked in Portland at the time. Dad, now Lieutenant Rier, traveled there from Newburgh, NY where he was an engineer and pilot instructor at West Point, Stewart Field Air Force Base. There was a snow storm. Their families from Downeast Maine, Lubec and Machias, had a time making it to the wedding although Dad’s brother, Babe, and Mom’s mother Harriet, did. It was a long rough drive. Dad’s brother Paul, also stationed at West Point as PFC, was his best man. Mom’s maid of honor was her friend, Margaret Hadley.

After the wedding, Mom and Dad had a short honeymoon Downeast before they drove to Newburgh NY and settled into military housing for the servicemen and their wives.

Mom became a World War II bride in a marriage that lasted their lifetimes.

One of my favorite photos of that day is Mom with a wide smile. She looks so happy. There are photos of Mom with her mother Harriet, the wedding party, and the happy couple back at Stewart Field, West Point in Newburgh, NY.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The news articles…

wedding-news

Friends: The Riers and the Sabeans

Circa. Early 1950s. Left: James “Gene” Rier with his wife Louise. Right: Stan Sabean and wife Pauline. It looks they are in a fancy restaurant, celebrating a special occasion. Dad looks rather pleased, like he just told a funny story. And, I know for sure that Stan was full of stories, jokes and a few pranks. It looks like a fun evening.

Mom Keeps Men at Stewart Field Air Force Base on High Alert. 1944.

mom-planemom-news

The newspaper did not report that Dad took Mom up in the plane that day. But I know he did at least once. Dad said he knew she was a keeper when he turned the plane upside down and she laughed. Mom was always cool as a cucumber in the face of unexpected events.

Interestingly, Dad planned to take Mom up in the plane for a rollover for some time. I present the evidence. He wrote on the back of his picture.

“A snap of me. Do you think I’m getting fat? 177 lbs. I did go 152 lbs. I guess the instrument formation day and night and cross country do me good. The planes will do over 200 and sometime if I ever get the chance I’ll really show you how a stomach can roll.”

Mom never lost the trait of staying calm during an adventure. One day in the 1997, my brother David set out to fly Mom to Hanover, NH to visit me at Dartmouth Medical School. Shortly after takeoff, the engine failed. Mom didn’t bat an eyelash. After safely landing, David asked if it scared her. She told him, “Oh no. I wasn’t worried at all. Losing the engine is part of pilot training. You brought the plane back down smooth, just like Dad would.” Mom must have learned a lot about flight training at Stewart Field.

I know for sure if I had been in the plane that day the engine quit, I’d be doing some heavy breathing and stifling a scream.