Friday, March 28, 2014

THE FLOOD OF 1936...

It happens every year in New England.
We all get a little edgy up here in the spring when the winter snowmelt raises the water levels in our streams and rivers; if we’ve had a particularly cold and snowy season, we get positively squirrely—the combination of snowmelt and ice jams means one thing to us.

One way to ease the situation is to send Coast Guard icebreakers up the rivers to break up winter ice in the main channels. As of today, the Thunder Bay and the Tackle have already started working their way up the Kennebec River from Bath on the coast all the way up to the City of Gardiner, and the open access reduces the chance of flooding.

It’s a sure sign of spring up here, and we’re all delighted!

Memorable flood years for the Kennebec include 1826, 1870, 1896 and 1987, when the river rose 34 ft. above normal. I remember floating around in an old canoe in the parking lot of the local grocery store (which is around the corner from this street) during that flood.
There was a tiny liquor store in the same area; all the windows in the store broke, and set free hundreds of bottles of hooch—a rowboat full of guys armed with fishing nets had a wonderful time dipping for fifths of whiskey that bobbed in the floodwaters, although I remember more drinking than dipping. The ones they didn’t net went out with the tide and the floodwaters!

The photograph was taken in Gardiner, Maine on March 14, 1936 (photo courtesy of Gardiner Public Library). Some of the old timers used to tell stories about how everybody rushed downtown to help the merchants move their stock from the basements and first floors up to the higher levels whenever flood warnings were issued.

The Kennebec River flows just behind this row of storefronts, the Johnson Opera House sign is hanging off a building on the opposite side of the street. Most of the buildings in this photo are still standing; the old multi-windowed shoe factory in the background, though, is long gone.

Friday, March 21, 2014


“Look out!” squawked Mrs. Mallard, all of a dither.  “You’ll get run over!”

It was the first book I ever owned; I’m pretty certain that every child in my family received a copy of Robert McCloskey’s Make Way for Ducklings, first published in 1941. After all, we’re Boston born and/or bred...we’ve got tattered and torn copies in hardcover, softcover; we’ve got them in bookcases, attics and bedrooms.
It’s right up there with the family Bible.
No kidding.

Make Way for Ducklings is the story of a pair of ducks (Mr. and Mrs. Mallard, of course – who needs anything more sophisticated than that?) who search the Boston area for a proper place to raise a family. After an overnight rest in the Public Garden, where they encounter a one of the city’s famous swan boats (they think it’s a big bird) and have a close call with a kid on a bicycle, they set up housekeeping on an island in the Charles River.
After their ducklings are born, Mr. Mallard takes off to explore the area, leaving Mrs. at home with the children (don’t get me started on that!); they agree to meet up again in the Public Garden in one week. While the Mister has a grand time investigating other parts of the river, Mrs. Mallard is left to teach their children all they need to know about being ducks: how to swim, dive for food, walk in a line, etc.
One week later, Mrs. Mallard leads her ducklings off the island and across the highway (what is now Storrow Drive -- a major artery in/out of the city proper) on her way to the Public Garden to meet Mr. Mallard. A local policeman stops traffic for her; pedestrians admire her family as she struts down the sidewalks. There’s a squad car at Beacon Street; four policemen halt the traffic to ensure safe crossing there, and, finally, Mrs. Mallard and the ducklings are reunited with Mr. Mallard in the lagoon in the Boston Public Garden.
They live, of course, happily ever after.

In 1987, a bronze statue of Mrs. Mallard and her eight ducklings was installed in a walkway made of old Boston cobblestone. In 1989, my nephew visited; here he is, atop Mrs. Mallard, with Jack, Kack, Lack, Mack, Nack, Ouak, Pack and Quack trailing along behind!

Saturday, March 8, 2014


I’m halfway through my second novel, a work of historical fiction that covers two generations of a group of families that lived in rural Maine between 1820 and, roughly, 1920.
One of the hardest parts of writing historical fiction is shifting perspectives, moving back to an earlier time and looking at things the way people did back then—you can’t write convincingly about the early 1900s when you’re busy with a 2014 mindset.
          It just doesn’t work.

So I comb flea markets for things that will help me make that trip back in time; one of the greatest sources for me is books—not old, dry history books about dates and battles and land acquisitions, etc.; they’re pretty useless to me.
I look instead for books written during the time period, books my characters might read themselves. I take them home and read them, cover to cover: agricultural census books, town reports and old school textbooks; novels, newspapers; books about farm buildings, breeding and veterinary practices; cookbooks.
This one, Household Discoveries, is a gem. It was published in 1908 in New York by the Success Company, publishers of “Success Magazine,” and has more than five hundred pages of household tips, suggestions, recipes and common sense.
Here’s how to use brick dust and/or kerosene to scour knives; clean black goods (mourning clothes) with alcohol and water; how to get dirt (“matter which is out of place”) from clothes, barrels, harness and tools; how to fasten a bag for waste thread to your sewing table.

You can decorate your home—all rooms. There’s a section on lighting (only one electric lamp in the bunch); beds and mattresses and pillows; how to set up the furniture in your parlor.
Have a problem with rats? Ahh! Simply mix a dough of phosphorous paste (lard, phosphorus and alcohol) with corn meal, oatmeal of flour and sugar, add a few drops of aniseed. Place pieces of this dough in rat runways.
It’s got sections devoted to soap, washing, ironing, sewing; paints and varnishes, garden pests, metal work, cleaning of tools and harness; weights and measures, preservation of fruits and vegetables; a couple of chapters on manners, health and hygiene.
And so much more.

It sends me back to the early 1900s, all right; oftentimes, I confess, I’m glad I’m not staying. Consider this piece of advice in the chapter about hairdressing: Professional hairdressers do not advocate shampooing the hair oftener than once a month...
Honestly, it says that, right on page 484.

It’s enough to keep me here in 2014.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

MATH QUIZ...1817

It’s one of my favorite books: The Scholar’s Arithmetic; or, Federal Accountant, by Daniel Adams, M.B., published in 1817.
          It’s hardcover, leather-bound. The corners are rounded, battered, there’s scratching in the cover leathers and stains on most of the pages, but, still, it’s one of my favorites.
So...arithmetic in 1817.
How tough can that be? I thought, thumbing through the chapters.
It starts out easy enough: simple addition, subtraction, multiplication and division...the first forty-odd pages I can handle with ease, but in Section II, things get tricky.
Single Rule of Three, Double Rule of Three.
Huh? I haven’t a clue.
How about something called Reduction Descending? “Multiply the highest denomination by that number which it takes of the next less to make one of that greater; so continue to do till you have brought it as low as your question requires.”
Do what? I thought; it has something to do with reducing pounds, shillings, pence, etc. into farthings.
Or changing moidores into shillings and then dollars.

And there are pages of tables:
          Table for Reducing New-England Currency to Federal Money
          Table for Reducing New-York Currency to Federal Money
          Table for Reducing the Currencies of the Several United States to Federal Money, which has columns for New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut and Virginia to New-York and North Carolina currency.
          From shillings, pence and farthings to dollars, cents and mills.

 Here’s a little quiz for you to try:

1. How many steps of 2 feet 5 inches each, will it require a man to take, travelling from Leominster to Boston, it being 43 miles?

2. A wall is 36 feet high, and a ditch before it is 27 feet wide; what is the length of a ladder, that will reach to the top of the wall from the opposite side of the ditch?

3. A man died leaving 3 sons, to whom he bequeathed his estate in the following manner, viz. to the eldest he gave 184 dollars, to the second 155 dollars, and to the third 96 dollars; but when his debts were paid, there were but 184 dollars left; What is each one’s proportion of his estate?

4. If the height of a room painted by 12ft. 4in. and the compass 84ft. 11in. How many square yards does it contain?

5. What must I give for 3Cwt. 2qrs. 13lb. of cheese at 7 cts. per lb.?

And, for you logic lovers, a question under the section called Pleasing and Diverting Questions:
A countryman having a Fox, a Goose, and a peck of corn, in his journey, came to a river, where it so happened that he could carry but one over at a time. Now as no two were to be left together that might destroy each other; so he was at his wits end how to dispose of them; for, says he, tho’ the corn can’t eat the goose, nor the goose eat the fox; yet the fox can eat the goose, and the goose eat the corn. The question is, how he must carry them over that they may not devour each other?

Definitely “diverting,” but I’m not so sure about the “pleasing” part.

Send your answers by posting a comment – I’ll let you know how you fare!

And, by the way, good luck.