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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

 

 

 

 

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“Voices of Ancestors” One Year Anniversary of the Blog

Stories about my ancestors and family from Downeast Maine gained over 13,000 views from over 6000 visitors in over 40 countries. Here are the most popular posts with over 200 views in case you missed them!

Mom Hanging Out with Friends.

Visiting the Gravesites of My Great and Great Great Grandfathers. James Keegan Sr. and Jr. families.

The Mystery Locket Necklace.

One of Dad’s Projects in the Late 50s and Early 60s.

This Old House: Secrets in the Attic.

My Dad James Eugene Rier.

The Union Republic. Machias Maine. November 12, 1931.

A Strange Burial.

After 23 Years in Business Dad’s Car Dealership Burned to the Ground.

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A Strange Burial.

This is not about a relative of mine but it is a fascinating story and gives one a glimpse into life in Downeast Maine in the 1870s. Captain Tristram Thirlow Corbett from Cutler had taken a load of local goods to the West Indies on the Lena Thurlow. There he loaded rum, sugar, and other products to unload at points along the New England coast. But, Captain Corbett’s wife died in 1873 at Aransas, Cuba.

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Published in the Machias Valley News Observer. November 15, 2017. Compiled and edited by Valdine C Atwood. Published in a little booklet entitled “A Brief History of Cutler and Some Interesting Incidents” written in 1976 by the late Jasper Cates and Arlene Dennison.

A Story About Stephen Otis Johnson

given to me by Phil Watts, a history buff and close family friend from Roque Bluffs, Maine. My maternal grandfather, Ezekiel “Zeke” Johnson, grew up in nearby Kennebec and was a descendant of Stephen Otis Johnson. I don’t know the origin of the story or its authenticity, but it may contain hints that aid research on this branch of the family. Stephen Otis Johnson was born in England, the first Johnson ancestor who came to this country and fought in the Revolutionary War.

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This post is dedicated to the memory of Philip S. Watts, a second father to me.

“I can tell you one thing about the Johnson family,” Phil said. “They were all PRECISE.”

He told me that a woman in the Johnson family (I’ve forgotten her name now) kept the records of births and deaths in the town of Roque Bluffs for many years.

He continued, “After the records were turned over to the town office, she was called upon many a time when there was a question about documents and she made corrections.”

I laughed. “Well, that explains my mother’s penchant for precision. She could see a crooked curtain or hem instantly. And, she always edited my writing.”

I don’t consider myself precise. But, I can’t stand the sight of a crooked curtain, picture or hem. I could edit my writing forever. I admit, I have a few family members who will remain unnamed to protect their identity, who are most definitely precise.

Philip Watts’ Revolutionary ancestor was Samuel Watts who jumped aboard the Margaretta with my ancestor Joseph Getchell Jr. in the first naval battle of the American Revolution. Samuel’s sister, Hannah Watts Weston, was a heroine of that battle.

I wonder if our ancestors knew that hundreds of years later, their descendants knew each other, grew up around each other, and talked about history, our proud history.

 

 

I Found A Photo I Had Not Seen Before

of my mother, Louise Johnson Rier, and my grandmother, Elizabeth Keegan Rier. It was taken at Stewart Field in Newburgh, NY about 1944 when my father, James “Gene” Rier, was stationed there. I have many photos of Mom from that time, and photos of Grammy Rier over her lifetime but none at this age, about 52 years old, dressed up in a fur coat and hat. Quite a treasure!

The Hannah Weston Chapter of the DAR

in Machias, Maine assembled packages to send to our Active Duty Servicemen and Servicewomen. Members donated items that will brighten the holidays for many who will not be able to be home with their families as they serve their country.

Members of the Daughters of the American Revolution come from a variety of backgrounds and interests, but all share a common bond of having an ancestor who helped contribute to securing the independence of the United States of America. Daughters are passionate about community service, preserving history, educating children, as well as honoring and supporting those who serve our nation.

The Hannah Weston Chapter of the DAR is also gathering Christmas and Valentine treats from members for the residents of the Machias Veterans Home.

Thank you to all the men and women who are currently serving our country and to all veterans who served in the past. We are grateful!

 

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Many, many thanks to Holly, chair of the DAR Project Patriots Committee, for assembling and mailing these packages. Your hard work is much appreciated!

Related posts:

Hannah Weston Chapter DAR. Burnham Tavern Open Every Saturday During Summer. Machias Valley News Observer, Wednesday, June 3, 1936.

I am a proud member of the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR). 

 

The First Naval Battle of the American Revolution.

A newspaper article in the Boston Post dated June 12, 1934 recounts the battle of the Margaretta.

Today, up at Machias, Me., they will tell you this is the 159th anniversary of the first naval battle of the Revolution. 

Let it not be forgotten!

There was in port at Machias an armed British schooner, the Margaretta, convoying two sloops loaded with lumber. (This is the Yankee version of the story.)

Inspired by the news from Lexington, the Maine folks determined to capture the King’s schooner.

The British captain fired several shots over the town, then took his vessel down stream some distance and anchored under a high bank. 

Thirty five Machias volunteers seized and armed one of the lumber sloops and sailed down to attack the Margaretta. 

Shots were exchanged, and the Machias men, armed with scythes and pitchforks, boarded the British schooner.

Twenty men were killed, including Captain Moore of the Margaretta, and the schooner’s crew surrendered.

Two armed British vessels were then sent down from Halifax to arrest the Machias fighters, but the Maine men captured both of them, sailed them down to Boston Harbor and up the Charles River to Watertown and turned them over to the Massachusetts Bay colonists. 

Now I’m not sure about the accuracy of all the facts in this newspaper article. I know that many men in Machias had guns, not just scythes and pitchforks. Their women aided the war effort. After all, 17 year old Hannah Watts Weston traveled through the woods for 17 miles with powder, lead, even pewter spoons, to be melted down for ammunition.

For generations, everyone who grew up in Machias, knew this story, retold countless times with great pride. The men of Machias fought the British in the rebellion for independence of the American colonies and to prevent the British from taking their primary resources: timber for ships and their hard-earned money, taxation without representation. Once British demands were made, the townsmen of Machias, not only refused to comply by providing timber or paying their taxes, they erected a “liberty pole” in the town square. And then, they set out to seize British ships that entered their harbor.

A group of townsmen had met to decide on their plan of action. Once agreed upon at the Rubicon, the brook they all jumped across to seal their pact, these men collectively captured the British ship “Margaretta” and hid her upriver. My ancestor, Joseph Getchell Jr. was among the first men who jumped on board the Margaretta in the assault. The captured British ship captain died. His blood remains in the Burnham Tavern where they took him after their assault. It remains there today in the Tavern which is under the care of the Hannah Weston Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution, as a reminder to future generations never to yield to tyranny. It was the first naval battle of the American Revolution.

An engraved stone marks the spot where the the men of Machias jumped across the Rubicon.

The Foster Rubicon

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Wear this spot, in June 1775, the men of Machias confronted by a peremptory demand backed by armed force

That they should furnish necessary supplies to their country’s enemies, met in open air council

To choose between ignoble peace and all but hopeless war

The question was momentous and the debate long

After some hours of fruitless discussion

Benjamin Foster a man of action rather than words

Leaped across this brook and called all those to follow him

Who would, whatever the risk, stand by their countrymen

And their country’s cause

Almost to a man the assembly followed 

And, without further formality

The settlement was comitted to the Revolution.

Erected by the Hannah Weston Chapter DAR 1917

The Historic Burnham Tavern in Machias, Maine. Read more about the Tavern and Revolutionary War history here.

Burnham2a

From the Maine Historical Society

Lura Beam, in A Maine Hamlet (1957), wrote about the effect of the heroic Margaretta story on people who lived in Marshfield/Machias in about 1900.

“This long-ago conquering of the enemy had somehow stiffened the life of every individual in the hamlet,” she wrote. “The blaze still held over, burning in adult pride and endowing children with haughty self-confidence. … The single Battle was in everybody’s bones: the Liberty Pole, the oppressor’s hand, the leap over the brook, the bullets and scythes, the night sail up the river…[all] were part of the local calcium.”

George Drisko, in his Narrative of the Town of Machias, written and compiled in 1904, writes in more explicit historical terms how we should think about the place of the Margaretta incident in history: “Taking all the circumstances of the occasion into view, especially the remote position of Machias from any place where assistance could be obtained, the capture of the Margaretta must be considered as one of the most bold, energetic and extraordinary occurrences of the times.

 

Square Dancing and Gatherings in the 60s.

Downeast Maine. Pictured above L to R. Vivian and Vernell Leighton, Lorna and Carroll Gay, and my Mom, Louise Johnson Rier.

Who else remembers when our parents went to Square Dances? When I was in Grammar School, I went along with them and learned to allemande left and other steps called out that I know longer remember. But I vividly recall that a good time was had by all!

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The same group except Dad is sitting between Mom and Lorna Gay.

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A buffet dinner after or before the dance. I believe that is Millard Whitney in the grey sweater beside his wife Dot?

Version 3

A gathering at my parents home. I recognize Burt and Marion Bagley on the couch. Could that be Dot May Whitney in the blue dress?

Related post:

Mom and Friends. Rotary Anns Bowling Team Trophy. 1959.