Bertha Ella Stuart was born on Christmas Day in Charlotte, but grew up one village over in Meddybemps, Washington County, Maine.
She lived a long life, passing away on 19 June 1987 at the age of 95 years. I had the pleasure of meeting Bertha when she was a spry 89 1/2 years old during the summer of 1981.
Bertha was a very petite lady – I am only 5’4′ and I towered over her – but was an active gardener and she loved showing Dave and me around her garden in Chatham, Massachusetts.
Bertha also loved family history and her mind was as sharp as a tack even at 89 years old. She shared all kinds of stories and bits of information about the Stuart family. She and Grandfather were first cousins. Bertha and I were first cousins, twice removed.
Here is the family farmhouse where Bertha lived. Her father Harry passed away in 1907, when only he was not quite 53 years old, leaving widow Nancy and seven children.
There was one story that Bertha didn’t share. Maybe she was too modest or perhaps she didn’t think it was important. I only recently learned more about Ella because Susan, one of her grandchildren, found my blog post about the Stuart family. Susan told me that not only was Bertha the valedictorian of her class at Calais Academy (Class of 1910), Susan had a copy of the speech that Bertha gave to the graduating class and audience.
I’d like to share it with you. I asked Susan if she minded and she said no – that “Grammie” would have loved it – so here it is.
A Country Village in Maine
It becomes more and more common every year for those unfortunates who are compelled to spend most of their days in our large cities, to express their appreciation of the beauties of nature, and the attractiveness of the life led by the people of our rural communities. And nowhere in our great country had nature been more generous with her endowments than in our own State of Maine. Throughout its area, divided as it is by beautiful rivers and dotted with lakes and mountains, are hundreds of small rural villages. To describe one is to picture them all, for they are laid out by the same architect, and are peopled by the same hones, rugged, healthy race.
As we look down from the crest of the highest hill in a certain vicinity, a country village with all its loveliness and beauty stretches out in full view before us. At the right lies the placid blue lake dotted with numerous island, among the trees of which gaily painted cottages appear like clustered blossoms peeping through the foliage. Swift, clattering motor boats dodge in and out among the island like so many timid deer frightened from their usual haunts. Far off to the other side of the village, the rolling hills, covered with their forests of pine and fir trees, slope to meet each other, thus forming one continuous chain around the horizon. On one or two of these hills, a cleared spot with its mite of a farmhouse, extensive fields, and green garden lot is dimly visible in the farther distance.
In the foreground, we follow the course of the single road, which with its irregular windings and twistings, extends through the very heart of the town. As we glance along this road, we notice some of the most important buildings. First of all, there is to be seen a weather beaten structure with deep roomy windows and pleasant veranda, almost hidden behind a thick screen of apple trees which fill the front yard. It is the old boarding house. Opposite this, on the right hand side of the road sits a low, old fashioned farmhouse with its broad, brick chimney made famous by a hidden treasure found within it not many years ago. Hard by, a small narrow river separating these two places from the rest of the village rushes across the road with a raging current, and tears along until having spent its fury, it flows quietly on till it reaches its place of utility. “Over the river,” as it is locally called, we find the principal part of our town. The first building we examine fills us with a feeling of regret and shame. Here stands the little village church which has served the inhabitants for so many generations yet sadly going to ruin. The underpinnings, through which a swift stream flows, are loosened and tumbling. The brown doors peering out from the white front are slanted and sunken like two pitiable eyes beseeching aid. The small, slender steeple which holds the clangy bell, is in its last states of decay. From this sad sight we pass on to a much more attractive building, the town hall. This spacious structure, like most such buildings, serves as a dance hall, and school house, and since the church has become unsafe, as a place for religious worship.
Close by stands our post-office, which is the center of local gossip, and the meeting place of the inhabitants who are wont to gather every day to wait for the distribution of the mail. For his office, the postmaster has set aside the dining room of this farm house, and while he sorts the letters and papers, he listens to the discussion of the latest news by the waiting crowd, or if conversation lags, he entertains them with some anecdotes of his early life, many of which are thrilling and startling. He is especially fond of repeating an incident which took place when he was eighteen years old, and was working as a river driver. In this occupation he had won great reputation for strength and agility, and one day when a jam was formed in the middle of the river, and quick action was necessary in order to break it, he, with several others of the crew plunged into the deep water and swam to the seat of the trouble. He was always the first in such contests, and when he saw that the others were passing him and he was the last to arrive at the jam, he did not understand the reason for his unusual position until he discovered that he had sum the entire distance with a man weighing not an ounce less than two hundred pounds upon his back.
I must not forget to mention the dearest and quaintest little spot in the whole village – the old mill. Beyond the glassy millpond, behind a clump of ancient willows, stands the old mill, sharing the same fate as the little white church – – slowly tumbling to ruin. The clumsy wheel which was once so busy, is now silent and the timbers of the old wooden building have fallen to decay. At the left of the mill is the turf-clad dam, overlooking the gleaming millpond. From any point of view, this quiet sleeping village with its farmhouses, beautiful lake, and surrounding woods, fields and orchards makes a picture of unusual loveliness.
It naturally follows, that in a small village like this, with its mixture of both attractive and repellent views, we find inhabitants of the same character. In this simple, secluded spot, there is a specimen of every kind of human nature. As in every other country village, there is the town gossip “who knows which one owes the fish-man, who owes the meat-man, and who cannot get trusted by either of them.” This peculiar character never misses a wedding, funeral, or assembly of any sort, and never fails to taken particular notice of the apparel of each person present. She takes the utmost pains to keep herself informed in regard to the ancestry, life and business of each inhabitant, besides that of all the summer visitors who stay at various farmhouses and cottages.
The next notable character is the town great politician and statesman, commonly know as “Uncle Bill.” He is tall, but exceedingly lank with stooped shoulders, and long legs and arms. This man with his good common sense and excellent judgment naturally becomes the chief advisor of the people. He has served as Justice of the Peace for many years, and was the town’s representative at Augusta in 1909. At home, he has always been a hard working man, but still a man of means. If you wish to get a clearer idea of the personal appearance and good nature of this man, just watch him start off every night at five o’clock for the cow pasture in his rickety cart hauled by a mule-tailed horse. Here you see him as he likes best to look, wearing an old straw hat through the crown of which spears of gray hair can be seen; blue overalls fastened in place with nails and matches; and a pair of boots so heavy and clumsy, one would think it would take a giant to lift them.
There are two other important characters that must not escape our notice: the famous guides. These two sunburned and weather beaten men, with their expert knowledge of the lake, woods and mountains, are the best known guides in Maine. They know the situation of every treacherous rock and reef in the lake; the different kinds of fish and the favorite retreat of each. As hunters they cannot be equaled. They have the stealthy step and keen scent of an Indian. In the winter and spring they give up hunting and acting as guides, and devote their time to trapping. It is certain that they must be blest with some supernatural good luck, for they will set a trap in a spot from which some other trapper has just removed his in disgust and disappointment, and yet catch a mink worth eight dollars, or a half a dozen muskrats worth a dollar a piece.
As a whole, the inhabitants of this village are honest and industrious citizens. They, indeed, lead the simple life in earnest. With farm work in the summer and woods work in the winter, they have no time for anything save the serious concerns of life. Many of the young people have gone to other parts of the country where they are filling important positions in the various walks of life, and their early training in village ideas, forms the foundations of their success. It is pleasant to meet such rugged and unaffected manhood and womanhood as is produced in our little rural villages.
I would love to know if the town gossip heard through the grapevine (or attended the commencement ceremony) that “she” (as Bertha noted) was mentioned in the valedictory speech and I was able to determine that “Mr. Harriman” was the Meddybemps state representative to Augusta in 1909. The only male adult Harriman in the 1910 census of Meddybemps was 67 year old farmer William G. Harriman, so I would guess he is one of the subjects of Bertha’s talk.
I visited Meddybemps, Charlotte and Calais, Maine the same summer I met Bertha. She painted a wonderful, vibrant picture of her daily village life in 1910 that didn’t seem terribly out of place 71 years later.