The back of the postcard reads: “Louise and Robert on a sleigh ride with Chris the man who cares for Billy’s trotting horses. This is Wm’s horse.” ~ Albert J.
The children on a sleigh ride in Machias, Maine, are my Mom and her brother, Louise and Robert Johnson. Billy is their uncle, Billy Means and Wm is William Means, the children’s grandfather. The horse drawn sleigh is on the wooden bridge across the Machias River with the Getchell Grist Mill and the roofline of the Phoenix Opera House in the background.
Among the family photos stored in the attic of my great grandparents home, there are two of a parade in Machias, my hometown.
The firetruck has 1926 Machias Fire Department on the side. I cannot read the side of the horse drawn cart. I am imagining what it was like to fight a fire with horses and no fire hydrants, hand pumping water from a source. Fighting fires was important as many Maine towns and cities were devastated in fast-moving fires in the early 1900s.
No one could forget the Great Fire of 1911 in Bangor.
“Unquestionably the worst disaster to strike the Queen City, the Great Fire of 1911 reshaped the city’s landscape, burning 55 acres, destroying 267 buildings, damaging 100 more and causing $3,188,081.90 in losses and damage. The conflagration left 75 families homeless, most of whom had lived from Harlow Street to Center Street to lower French Street. It destroyed more than 100 businesses during a nine-hour span.”
My grandmother Harriet’s cousin Grace lived in NYC far from Downeast Maine, never married and had no children of her own. It is obvious that she adored Harriet’s children, Warren born in Oregon, Robert and my mother Louise born in Machias, Maine. In 1923, Warren was fifteen years old, Robert was five and Louise was almost four. Charles is two, the son of Harriet’s sister Elsie who lived with her parents William and Nellie Means at 24 Broadway after a failed marriage.
That year, Grace was struggling financially but she was sending gifts for the children. She had a story and some fine advice for little Robert.
It reminds me how important “old-fashioned” letters are in a family. And it is a reminder that I need to write letters to my six grandchildren more often. And talk on Skype to the four grands that live in other States and visit once every summer. Time is fleeting…
I don’t have a photograph of Uncle Bob as a child. But he was a handsome man. Robert Means Johnson, at graduation from Machias High School in 1936.
From NYC, Grace Means sent portraits of the ancestors to my great-grandfather William Means, Christmas 1924. She also sent the collection to my grandmother Harriet and my mother, Louise Adele Johnson. On the back of Otis Means’ portrait, Grace wrote to William:
From Grace to Harriet. She packed in family history all along the margins. Grace wanted to make sure no one forgot the Means family and where they originated!
Grace entrusted the portrait collection to my mother and passed on a serious responsibility to the four-year-old.
…”Of Scottish (Clan Menzies) of English-Puritan lineage, his personality and bearing ring true….to the Gaelic origin of the name, Mein or bearing “of majestic expression.” See Red and White Book of the Menzies, Library of Congress, Washington DC. 2nd Edition. One look at his face confirms his origin…’
“Make it your duty and your pleasure, dear little girl to preserve your inheritance and pass onto others when you are as old as your grown up cousin of whom you may think all through the years as having much love for you her namesake…”
Letter from Grace Means. July 1924.
William has been diagnosed with angina pectoris and barely avoided a trip to the hospital in Portland. In response to his letter, Grace dishes out advice on health, diet, and reduction of stress, especially that caused by William’s worries about his daughters, Harriet (my grandmother) and Elsie.
“We can’t see far ahead but I believe I’m safe in predicting that Hattie’s days will soon brighten! The children will soon be a help – and Elsie will have her boy to comfort her. Don’t let family cares disturb the hours that should be rest and recouperation for you.”
Grace reports that her health problems are receding due to a rigorous health regime. She eats no meat, just fish, no potato, no white bread, no cereal, no sugar … “I was starch poisoned… I’ll get to normal on a very comfortable toboggan – It is a necessary treatment! ”
She is busy and working with a photographer to reproduce the ancestors portraits for William and his family. She will send them soon. Grace has no way of knowing at the time that 92 years later (or perhaps she does), this collection would be in the possession of William’s great-granddaughter who is busy preserving them in 2016.
The Means family have been proud Protestants and Masons for generations. Grace expounds on the political scene. The governor of Maine isn’t acting like a true Republican.“I tho’t we had a Republican governor! What a waste of genius for a bright man to be with such a bunch!”
Grace writes that Maine US Representative Pattangall is taking NY by storm. He lost a bid for the Maine governorship in 1924 to Republican Owen Brewster who was supported by the KKK. Pattangall’s speeches at the Democratic convention that year proposed inserting an anti-Klan plank into the party platform, despite the presence of an estimated 300 Klansmen in the hall. The attempt was met with vehement hissing and booing of Klansmen along with fist fights, chair tossing, and destruction of convention decorations. The plank was voted down, and with it the potential presidential candidacy of Catholic Al Smith. In 1924, Pattangall was a Democrat and a son of Pembroke in Washington County, known for his support of education and galvanizing the Republican party against the KKK. Perhaps at Grace’s urging, he will defect to the Republican party in 1926.
Grace is incensed at the politicians of the time, the Catholics and Christopher Columbus’ bogus claim at discovering America.
Grace Means was the niece of my great grandfather William Gordon Means, the daughter of his elder sister Francis. But Grace was raised as his younger sister since her mother died “of a long illness” at the age of 27, not long after Grace was born. Grace finished school in Machias, lived in South Boston, then moved to New York City to work in the publishing establishments setting illustrations and photographs on the lithographic offset press. She never married and had no children. She became a long-term NYC resident, living in the precarious region between Manhattan and Harlem at 519 West 121st Street, but her family was that of William and Nellie in Downeast Maine. Grace regularly wrote letters to William, sent books for his library and grandchildren, photographs and descriptions of the ancestors as she remembered them.
In 1923, Grace wrote to wish William a happy 68th birthday. The family had fallen on harder times but she still sent him books.
“Yesterday I got off to you a box of books by parcel post insured. During the campaign RV Jollitt, (secy to WHH) who is a friend of Dr. Will Howe, Indiana University (and one of the authors), had several sets of these school readers sent him by Dr. Howe. After they were published by Scribners – the State declined to appropriate so they were not used. RVJ gave me a set I’ve just taken out of storage…so I’m sending a book for each grandchild. I leave it to you to perform a miracle because I’m one short of covering your 7…”
“The book containing the Canadian Captive is for you to keep with other family data to be handed on to coming generations! Thus we keep the fires burning…”
Grace had difficulty finding work and sold some furniture “to keep life supported.” She has been interviewed by Major General Harbord, Brigadier General John J Pershing’s understudy and now President of Radio Corporation of America. In the meantime, she was counting every dollar.
…“I had to use the Christmas check in spite of myself but it will go back as soon as I get busy – for I don’t want to add to your burdens. Our family has its troubles but we are strong and courageous, loyal to each other and have staunch old blood in our veins and we must show it by calmly meeting these trials as a part of the human heritage. It’s a long road that has no turns. Brighter days are ahead – We can’t always see the light but it shines somewhere and we’ll get a peep at it if we are patient and strong.”
Two letters remain that Grace wrote to William Means. The letter below was mailed January 28, 1923. I hope it is legible here. Grace was frugal and used old paper folded in fourths, writing on each side and sometimes in the margins. And, the last pages were on tissue paper with writing on both sides.