Portraits of the Ancestors

Francis Adele Means.

Often in the last years of her life, Mom asked me to retrieve precious items from upstairs that she could no longer reach, the stairs an obstacle for advanced osteoarthritis.

“There is a big, white plastic bag by the nightstand in my bedroom. The contents are valuable. I want to see it.”

I retrieved said plastic bag. Mom delicately pulled the contents onto her lap, one by one.

“These photos can never be lost. They contain your history.”

I helped her sort through the portraits and read the meticulous writing on the back.  I had never seen them before, never  knew that the Means family were descendents of an ancient Scottish clan, the Menzies from county Argyll. The portraits were a gift from my grandmother Harriet’s cousin Grace to family members, Christmas of 1924. She sent these portraits to my great-grandfather William, my grandmother Harriet, and my mother Louise Johnson Rier. Most survived at the ancestors’ home where I grew up.

Mom passed me the portrait of Grace’s mother, Francis Adele. Grace and Mom both shared her middle name. “Look what she wrote to me on the back of her mother’s photo,” Mom said. “I was only four years old.”

“To Louise Adele Johnson from grown up cousin Grace.”

“She was so fond of her little brother, Louise’s granddaddy that Louise must always love her and keep her picture renewed when it may fade after years. So her memory will be held sacred and coming generations may know and reverence her dear face.”


The same portrait was sent to my great-grandfather William.



This House Has a Soul

Appalachian Ink ~ Home of Anna Wess (and Granny)

Some folks will tell you that nothing lasts forever. They’ll remind you, without knowing for certain themselves, that everything that is will soon enough be what was. That dead men tell no tales, and ashes to ashes, and all those other warnings of ends. Those folks cannot see beyond the darkness of their finite assumptions.


I endeavor to know and see that everything lasts forever. Everything. Me, you, those fabled ashes, all fallen down as they may be. And as for the dead not telling more tales? Oh, yes they do. You just have to know how to listen properly, and see with the right eyes.

And beyond such bold notions of everlasting everything, I am here to tell you one more tale too wild to be true, but is: some houses have souls.

Hearts, too. As broken as yours, and thrice as big, capable of entrapping memories…

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The Wedding Clothes of my Great-Grandparents, William and Nellie Means

2016. The wedding attire of my great-grandparents William and Nellie Means are displayed at the Gates House, Machiasport, Maine in an impressive collection of antique wedding clothes.


William and Nellie were married July 1, 1880. They had 4 children: Otis, Harriet, William, Elsie. Harriet is my grandmother.

William and Nellie celebrated their 25th wedding anniversary July 1st, 1905 reported in the Bangor Daily News on July 5th. “The celebration of the twenty-fifth anniversary of the wedding of Mr. and Mrs. W. G. Means, held at their elegant home on Broadway, Saturday evening, July 1st was an exceedingly enjoyable occasion for all. The house was tastily decorated throughout with roses, ferns, wreaths and Madeira vines hung in arches and along the banisters and alcoves, interwoven with pinks and flowers of varied tint and hue.

Two hundred invitations were responded to and by as many friends, who appeared and heartily greeted the happy couple in a decidedly informal way. The bride and groom of twenty five years ago, received in their wedding suits, which had been meticulously preserved. The silk poplin, pearl colored dress, and white gloves of the bride and conventional black suit of the groom caused much merriment by reason of the antiquated style of the garments.”



When I was growing up, I loved to explore the attic and open the trunk that held William and Nellie’s wedding clothes. Later in my mother’s life, she would ask me to bring them to her for she could no longer get upstairs, little less the attic.

I laid the precious clothes across her lap. “Why is there a safety pin in the back of Nellie’s dress?” I asked.

Mom smiled, her eyes danced. “Bob and I wore these clothes for an 8th grade play. I had to use a safety pin to keep the dress on. It was the last time the dress was worn.”

Bob is my mother’s brother, born a year before she was. They started school together (Mom was four years old) and both graduated from Machias High School in 1936. Mom was 16 years old.


Health advice, Politics, Prohibition and the KKK

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.

“… are they building another Ireland? They claim this is a Catholic country since Christopher Columbus discovered it – and I’m told the K.C. oath puts loyalty to Church before country! Christopher discovered San Domingo or San Salvador – but he never heard of the mainland and if he had – he was an Italian Jew – born in Genoa – sailing for the Catholic dynasty Isabella – Seif Ericsson and numerous French fishermen probably discovered our mainland long before Columbus. And, anyway they can’t call it a Catholic country – for Englishmen, Protestant and not a Catholic in the crowd, established the first surviving government and tho French Catholics fought 80 years they did not win it anyway from them.”


Grace Adele Means



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.
























































The Means and Getchell Families

Circa 1910. On the porch of the William Means home at the corner of Broadway and Gardner Avenue, Machias, Maine.

The family of my great-grand parents William and Nellie Means on the porch at 24 Broadway in Machias. L to R. Ethel Means (sitting, wife of their eldest son Otis) and children. Standing: William Means Sr. my great grandfather. Sitting: Nellie Means, my great-grandmother. Next to her, Nellie’s mother, Martha Jane Holmes Getchell (I have blankets, quilts and her embroidery in my home today), my great-great-grandmother. Far right, Nellie’s sisters Dora Getchell Dennison and Thirza Getchell Flynn. Thirza was a hat maker and owned a millinery shop in Machias. I do not know the identity of the woman in the front, it will take more research, but she sure looks like someone I would love to have known.

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…