Vernon Tarbox Adams, 1899-1968

One of the reason I first became interested in my family history was because of my mother’s maiden name – Adams – and the fact that my grandparents lived in Massachusetts. Family lore was that we were not directly descended from Presidents John and John Quincy Adams, but that we were part of that Adams family. As I researched the Adams name, I found that the presidential lines were from Henry Adams of Braintree, MA, but who arrived in Boston about 1632 or 1633.

I realized that my grandparents were both born in Calais, Washington County, Maine, directly across from New Brunswick, Canada. However, that didn’t deter me at all since I knew that many early Maine settlers hailed from Massachusetts and Maine was a district of Massachusetts from 1647 until statehood in 1820.

What did deter me, though, was discovering all the New Brunswick family roots that my Adams family had and learning about the Loyalists of the American Revolution. It turns out that my Adams family was descended from Edward Adams of Milford, CT about 1640 and, more recently, from Loyalist John Adams and his wife, Sarah Coley, of Fairfield County, CT. In the fall of 1783, they joined other Loyalist families on ships sailing from New York to Canada.

I don’t think my grandfather was aware of any Loyalist ties – I didn’t start working on the family history until about a decade after he died – and my grandmother was unaware of family history beyond his grandparents.

Vernon Tarbox Adams, my grandfather, was born on 3 May 1899 in Calais, ME to Charles Adams and his wife, Annie Maude Stuart.

Vernon was an only child and seemed to have had a typical upbringing for a young boy living in Calais. Much of Calais life revolved around the sea.

His grandfather and great grandfather were boat builders and fishermen. His father walked a different path, working in the local shoe factory. Mother Annie was ahead of her time, as she had her own store where fine ladies’ goods were sold. I have a photo of her in her store, which I love, not only because Annie is in the photo, but because of the sign posted in the store: “Please do not ask for credit.” Annie is the lady behind the counter, dressed in the dark clothes. Vernon likely was put to work helping out stocking the shelves when he was old enough.

Vernon attended Calais Academy, later renamed Calais High School, and that is likely where he met my grandmother, Hazel Ethel Coleman, who would have been two years behind him, being born in 1901. She lived down the road a bit in the area known as Red Beach. Her father, Hartwell Coleman, was a master mariner so the families may also have known each other through their jobs on the ocean.

By September 1918, Vernon was working for the Boston Western Union in Massachusetts. However, his World War I draft registration card gives his permanent address as the family home at 29 Calais Avenue, Calais, ME.

My grandmother told me a tidbit about my grandfather that was very interesting and I decided to try to verify the information. She said that he went to Harvard University, but didn’t graduate. I promptly wrote off to Harvard, probably about 1979 or 1980 when I first started working on the family history. I received a very nice reply back from the Harvard registrar’s office, stating that no one by the name of Vernon Tarbox Adams had ever been enrolled there. Hmmm. My grandmother was a sharp lady and other family information that she shared with me had pretty much been proven. So where did this story come from about Harvard?

On October 7, 1918, Vernon enlisted in the U.S. Navy.  One month later, the war ended with Germany’s surrender.

I found a listing for Maine Military Men on Ancestry. Vernon served at the Naval Training Unit at. . . .  (yes) Harvard University in Cambridge, MA until 11 Nov 1918 and remained on inactive duty at Harvard until 7 Dec 1918. Hazel was right all along – Vernon did “go” to Harvard, but he didn’t graduate!

Vernon and Hazel married back in Calais on 19 July 1920. I never heard my grandmother call my grandfather by his given name. He was always “Ducky,” but I never asked her where the nickname came from.

My grandfather had a long career with Western Union and the family moved up and down the East Coast. My Aunt Barbara was born in Malden, MA, my mother Doris was born in Calais and my Aunt Carole was born in Portland, ME. Aunt Barbara and my mother both graduated from high school in New Jersey in the 1940’s. After that, Vernon was transferred back to Massachusetts, where he and Hazel lived out their lives.

Vernon retired from the Western Union as a district manager in 1964. I was too young to attend the retirement party, but my brother, my two cousins and I all received a souvenir – a shiny new Kennedy half dollar, which I was told was given to my grandfather by Ted Kennedy.

Vernon and Hazel enjoyed retirement times for several years, taking several cruises to get out of the New England winters. In October 1968, my mother received a phone call from her mother. She said Vernon had had a stroke in September and was now hospitalized because he was declining more and more. Doctors didn’t know why. Fifty years to the day from his naval discharge, on 7 Dec 1968, Vernon died at Faulkner Hospital in Boston.

My grandmother felt something was very wrong with the initial diagnosis of stroke and requested an autopsy. When the results came back, there was a new diagnosis – Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease, a degenerative neurological disorder that is incurable and fatal. It was so rare at the time (only three diagnosed cases in the 20th century)  that U.S. Navy doctors came to interview Hazel about Vernon’s symptoms and and decline from the onset until his death only three months later. Today, CJD is more commonly known as Mad Cow Disease.

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