Home at Last: Tough Times Ahead

Summer of 1910. Home at last. Roque Bluffs, Maine. The family cottage Edgemere in the background. Left to Right: ??, Nellie Means, Zeke Johnson, Emma Perry (later wife of William Means Jr. “Billy”), Harriet Means Johnson, William Means Sr with grandson Warren, Ethel Means?, Billy Means with nephew. 

Harriet, Zeke, and their baby boy Warren, returned to Machias within weeks after Harriet’s last letter. It was a longer journey going back than coming out. Harriet was exhausted. She would never be strong again. Her little family made their lives in Machias but never established the hoped for business. They lived in a series of homes her father acquired as real estate acquisitions, moving often during the coming years. Harriet taught piano for inspiration and income. Zeke tinkered. He was a thinker, an inventor whose dreams remained elusive, just over the horizon. He harvested blueberries, saw the need for a faster way to remove leaves, and labored at designing and building a hand-powered winnowing machine for two years. Triumphant at last, his machine worked in the field splendidly. He had no money for a patent but began to construct more machines for sale only to find the following year that his design was stolen and patented by one of the local blueberry businesses. Eventually Zeke resigned himself to his fate and earned a meager living as a barber. They had no other children over the next nine years. Harriet had “women’s problems,” pain that came and went with her monthly cycle. Her heart defect further limited her activities. In late 1916, a new surgical procedure was available and she had an ovary removed that was covered in “cysts.” The doctor told her she would be unable to get pregnant ever again lacking an ovary. Considering their financial struggle, this was not unwelcome news. But, no one knew that the surgery would restore fertility, and that the one ovary left would happily kick into gear. Harriet soon discovered that she was pregnant and another son, named Robert Means Johnson in memory of his great grandfather Captain Robert Means Jr., was born in April 1918. The doctor advised her to nurse the baby to avoid another pregnancy, yet a year later Harriet was pregnant again. January 19th, 1920 she gave birth to a daughter, Louise Adele, their last child. Despite their limited resources, and little help from Zeke who remained aloof to their financial needs, Harriet had learned to get by. She took life as it came. She was happy.

Harriet’s brother William, known about town as Billy, finished high school the year she returned from the West Coast. After a long courtship, he married Emma Perry in 1918, the daughter of the shipping magnate George Perry and heiress to his home and fortune. It was a fine match for the Means family. Billy set about making a business that would keep Emma in the style to which she was accustomed. He opened the Phoenix Opera House in downtown Machias where live shows entertained crowds and ran silent movies in the early 20s. The second-floor hall had a seating capacity of 430, with 150 seats in the balcony. It was a profitable business. Commercial establishments occupied the ground floor, a barber shop and Western Union. The telephone company was located on the top floor. Billy and Emma lived in her father’s grand house on Court Street and had one daughter, Priscilla born in 1922.

Elsie completed grammar school the year her elder sister Harriet got married and went to Oregon. In 1912, she graduated from the Washington State Normal School in Machias and found employment as a teacher. Six years later, she married Carroll Gardner from Eastport, a marriage disputed by her father for Carroll came from a family of blacksmiths and had the unsavory reputation of a womanizer. They had one child, Charlie, born in 1919. Soon after his birth, Elsie went to live with her parents and stayed there to raise her child.

The prosperity enjoyed by the William Means family at the end of the 19th century, when lumber and shipping commerce was at its height, when oranges and exotic goods could be bought at the East India Tea Company in Machias, waned. As the years went by, the new century was not kind. The ports of Machias and near-by Bangor gave way those in the south that did not freeze in winter, Portland and Boston, or Saint John, Canada. As hard as William worked to ensure the security of his family, especially his grown daughters, the years had brought more burdens than blessings. His eldest son Otis had moved to Lynn, MA to support his family working as a clerk for General Electric Co. Later, he and his family lived in Newton, MA where he was employed as salesman and watchman.

By 1923, William and Nellie Means had their daughter Elsie and her son to support in their home on Broadway in Machias. Harriet and her three children lived close by in a duplex apartment on Court Street and depended on them too. Billy had married well but William worried how his son was making all that money. There were rumors that the Phoenix Opera House was a speak easy. Thanks to the temperance movement, the State of Maine had been dry for decades which led to a burgeoning business in the backwoods of Down East Maine. Well-hidden stills dotted the deep woods and hundreds of miles of shoreline ensured delivery of product to shoreline communities or Boston and New York. Billy was spending time in the woods and moved in hidden business circles. Times were changing.

And, there was William’s niece Grace to watch after…


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