Sunday, March 29, 2015

Anomalous birds & pinging pigeons in Portland

I found this odd little pair of articles in the Lewiston Evening Journal way back in a September 1926 issue.

I'm always curious about mentions of anomalous bird sightings, and sightings of albino animals in Maine. The pigeon article was a bonus, if only for the tongue-in-cheek joke about the potential need for Portlanders to develop their (hitherto unknown) blowpipe skills.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

A UK haunted house for Stephen King?

I was poking around in the newspaper archives, and found this tantalizing little article in New Hampshire's Nashua Telegraph, back in late 1977.

According to the article, King had been on the lookout for a haunted house to rent in England. Also according to the article, he found a suitably spooky property in Fleet, a town in Hampshire, England. He planned to move house to the overseas location until he completed the novel that this setting was to inspire.

Who knows if this bit of haunted property ever gave King the inspiration to set ink to paper? Early in 1977, before placing the ad, King released one of his great haunted house (and haunted human) books, The Shining. It wasn't until 1998 that he released his next book that centered on a haunted property, the hair-raising Bag of Bones. However, it isn't England that serves as the setting for Bag of Bones -- it is squarely set in King's fictitious (but oh so real) town of Derry, and migrates up to the lumber and lake country of Maine (perhaps near his post-UK residence in the Kezar Lake country near Center Lovell, Maine).

Is there a tale locked in a trunk somewhere that shows the fruit borne of this overseas destination? Or is his short story "Crouch End" the only noticeable outcome of his UK rambles? The word is that instead of writing a haunted house opus, he found himself instead writing Cujo, and fortuitously meeting future collaborator Peter Straub to boot.

Cemetery Dance's website cites the move as the inspiration for a fragment published in their 2009 book of King's material Uncollected, Unpublished: "The attempted novel was the result of both the King family’s abortive move to England and a discussion between King and his editor of the time, Bill Thompson. The discussion revolved around the writing of a novel using the detective character, Lord Peter Wimsey, created by Dorothy L Sayers."

Not much of a subject for a haunted house setting, but perhaps we can blame King's publicist for the misdirection, or perhaps (like some of us) he simply prefers a haunted setting, no matter what he's trying to write.


Center Lovell has most recently been in the news because of the owner of a bed and breakfast who is running a contest to find the next owners of her Center Lovell Inn -- write your essay and enter, if you like! More info here: or read about it in the CNN article here:

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Aroostook's gold-digging chickens?

In the recent resurgence of poultry raising in Maine towns and cities like Portland, one might often hear folks talk about the "gold mine" of eggs that comes from their feathered charges, or the "gold" of their yolks. But never have I encountered a tale in which the goldmine was literal.

Imagine my surprise when I ran across a story in a New Brunswick newspaper, the St. John Daily Sun. On July 27, 1899, the headline on page 7 read: "CARY'S HEN MINE. How a Wanderer Found a Maine Klondike. Mysterious Hermit Who Buys Poultry and the Use He Makes of It. Puzzled and Surprised the Folks from Perth to Aroostook Junction."

The headline is enough to make one curious about this character. The setting is remote. Simeon Cary reportedly hailed from Pickering Point, north of Perth (New Brunswick), making his way over the border into Maine once or twice a week to collect supplies in his dugout canoe from provisioners in Fort Fairfield.

Little or no notice was taken of him until one day when he turned his steps into a jewelry store there, and casually tossed an envelope onto the top of one of the jeweler's showcases, requesting assistance regarding its contents. "Pure gold," the jeweler was forced to admit in surprise after administering tests for proof. "Where did you get it?" Simeon glibly told the jeweler that a friend in the Klondike had mailed it to him.

But it was the curious folks of Perth, New Brunswick, who eventually wiggled the truth out of the situation. They knew nothing about the gold, but they had noticed Simeon was buying chickens. Lots of chickens. More and more chickens, in fact. What had started as two or three at a time turned into a dozen chickens at a time. The sex of the chickens didn't matter. Whether they laid eggs or not didn't matter. He paid well for vigorous, lively poultry.

After the locals realized he wasn't using the chickens to produce eggs or cutlets for sale, they started wondering -- what exactly was Simeon doing with all those chickens? And then, as the article says, "folks grew curious and made his business their business when he was not around." They stayed curious for about six months.

Then one day, three Perthites found their curiosity getting the better of them (it took a while, perhaps we can blame it on cabin fever), and they finally took the trouble to sneak up the road which led to Simeon's homestead. Two feet of snow lay about the land, covering the ground under the trees, but not so in Simeon's yard.

A clear dirt lot extended about his cabin, chickens scratching away at it busily. Simeon, lounging in the doorway, surprised the men by raising the gun and pegging one of his flock quite casually. This was immediately followed by a quick operation on the spot, in which the poor pullet's crop was removed from his breast and taken forthwith into the cabin, out of side of the baffled watchmen.

Enough was enough. The three men rushed the door. Simeon was "contrary and a trifle saucy." However, the emergence of the fact that one of the three men was in fact the owner of the land and cabin in which they stood had a surprisingly convincing effect on the man, and thus Simeon was convinced to spill the beans.

It had started with a natural love of hens. In his solitude, his first rooster and handful of hens kept him company with their continual busy doings and conversational cluckings. Their eggs were delicious. But on the day he realized it had been a full 46 years since he had eaten a drumstick, one unlucky hen became dinner.

In preparation for the meal, "he sat on a log picking the whiskers out of the end that goes over the fence last," and while doing so, ruminated on what the hens lived on besides "faith and gravel stones." He fed them no grain. What on earth kept them going?

Thought led to action, and he used his knife to extract the hapless fowl's crop from its plucked body. Therein he found small rocks, grit, grass, and "a large number of shining particles that were soft under the point of a knife," that looked suspiciously like nothing but gold.

It turned out that eventually Simeon determined that especially robust chickens could be surgically opened, cleaned out, carefully reassembled with silk thread, and reinstalled in the farmyard with a fortifying dose of stimulant to help them overcome the shock to their system. This was much preferable to executing them continually (and likely also preferable to being forced to eat chicken for the thousandth time).

Simeon found that young, strong chickens could be operated on every ten days, while older ones that moved more slowly could stand to be opened up every two weeks.

The article does not mention whether anyone in Perth or Fort Fairfield was inspired to try the same. The article gives as its provenance a letter originally published in the Lewiston Journal, though I have yet to find the original publication (if such exists) in my searches of old newspaper files.

The American Merganser
However, I did find the following on page 64 in the October 1898 issue of the National Magazine, which may explain where the author received his or her inspiration for this piece of purported journalism:
"The Klondike Mergansie which you now see," said Macfugle, calmly; "is a Canadian bird and is not so big a goose as he looks. He is of great value to the Klondike miners, flying up and down the narrow creeks and swallowing gold nuggets until he can hold no more. He then alights at his master's feet and the rugged miner gathers his crop. That's what they call gold croppings, see?"

The quote comes from a confabulation of tall tales in zoo form, titled "Seeing the Elephant," by Winthrop Packard. Perhaps the author of the "Fort Fairfield letter" read this write-up first, and wondered how to transpose it to his native ground? I mean, honestly -- who is going to send a correspondent up to the St. John Valley in Aroostook county to check on such a diversion?

In fact, despite Macfugle's fictitious assertion about the nature of gold croppings, the actual definition, according to a dictionary published in New York around 1902, is this:

"Gulch-mining. Mining in gulches, a method akin to that of placermining, consisting in ascertaining the existence of the gold-croppings which are washed down by heavy rains into the ravines or gulches."
This entry is found on pg. 217 of A New Dictionary of Americanisms: Being a Glossary of Words Supposed to Be Peculiar to the United States and the Dominion of Canada, by Sylva Clapin, NY, Louis Weiss & Co. Publishers (undated edition). I do recommend fans of odd turns of phrase find the book online for perusal, because it is itself a treasure trove of marvelous oddities.

So here we leave you until our next discovery, perhaps wondering a little -- but that is good. One must wonder before one can find.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Blog update: new look?

Please bear with me as I wrangle what I want out of the Blogger templates on their upgraded designs (and wish me luck!)


Wednesday, March 04, 2015

Pulp Fiction on Monument Square

Last month, Abraham Schechter of the Portland Public Library's Portland Room pointed this photo out to me. The other night I finally had a chance to do some digging and find out what it was.
Pictured here is Russell Mack, proprietor of Russell's Cigars, a variety shop run at 15 Monument Square. [Those Portlanders among you will know the building as the current location of a few businesses including Others! Fair Trade Coffee House.] Both Abraham and I were enthralled by the array of old pulp books and magazines shown on Mr. Mack's shelves.

In digging for the article that this photo used to be attached to, I had good luck. In fact, the story is more than just a "Hey, look at this local business owner working with his customary stock." No, instead the story was "Here is Russell Mack dutifully packing up books and magazines that Portland city officials are banning due to their salacious content!" Those pulp paperbacks he's holding are by Erskine Caldwell, the famous author who owned a bookstore in Portland in the late 1920s, in Longfellow Square at 668 Congress Street (see below).

The Portland Press Herald article, published in the August 21, 1948 issue on page 14, details the ban on Caldwell's novels that occurred in Portland... it was in effect for a mere 5 hours on August 20th, before the "misunderstanding" was corrected.

After receipt of the complainant's letter, a city inspector was sent out on the town to see what was what. He returned bearing 6 so-called "art magazines" and 3 of Caldwell's books. The ban was intended to target the magazines only, but in a miscommunication, the Caldwell books got lumped into the mix. The entire brouhaha was started by a letter to City Hall from a Portland citizen who was concerned about the "salacious magazines" and literature being made available to local students in the bookshops of the area. Perhaps some of the other visible titles below Mr. Mack's bent knee are those in question? With titles like "Confessions of a Good Time Girl," "Party Wife," "Pleasure After Hours," "Excess Wife," and "Confessions of a Shakedown Dame," it is hard to imagine these publications wouldn't raise an eyebrow or two. On the other hand, they probably weren't talking about the nearby magazine with the banner headline, "FOOT DOCTOR TO THE STARS!"

Misinformed, the Portland Police Department's detective squad was sent out to warn booksellers off the banned titles, including the 3 Caldwell books, only to have to rescind the ban as it pertained to the Caldwell titles 5 hours later. The City government announced belatedly that it had "no opinion" when it came to differentiating between the varying degrees of worth in adult literature, even though earlier in the day it had officially typified Caldwell's books as "distasteful literature." The "art magazines," however, remained under ban due to their manifest tendency "to corrupt the morals of youth."

Five local booksellers were interviewed as to their opinions on the ban. Most agreed it was "a silly thing to do," as one female bookseller (unnamed) neatly summed it up. Booksellers are notorious as being the bastions of freedom of literary expression, and it seems this has been a trend for a long time.

For those of you wondering about where Erskine Caldwell's Longfellow Bookshop was, here is a comparative shot of 668 Congress St. in 1925 (before Caldwell opened his shop) compared with how it looks today. True to form, this location is right across the street from my own used bookshop, the Green Hand Bookshop, at 661 Congress Street. Longfellow Square cannot help but attract booksellers, no matter what century it is.