KHS September program presents story of trains

Photo of the Maine Central Railroad Station, in Augusta, courtesy of The Kennebec Historical Society, Augusta, Maine.

Born in Bethel in 1835, Thomas Holt was active as an architect in Central and Western Maine from 1859 to 1870. In 1865 he designed the Portland and Kennebec Railroad Station in Augusta, which burned while under construction in the city’s Great Fire that year. Between 1871 and 1876, Holt served as Chief Engineer of the Maine Central Railroad, designing railroad buildings and bridges as well as conducting surveys for new rail lines. In 1876, he moved to California, where he pursued careers in architecture, railroading, mining, and lumbering. He died in 1889 from pneumonia contracted in a blizzard in Nevada.

The KHS September speaker, a native of Portland, Maine, Earle G. Shettleworth, Jr., attended Deering High School, in Portland, Colby College, in Waterville, and Boston University and was the recipient of honorary doctorates from Bowdoin College, in Brunswick, and the Maine College of Art. At the age of 13, Shettleworth became interested in historic preservation through the destruction of Portland’s Union Station in 1961. In 1971 he was appointed by Governor Kenneth Curtis to serve on the first board of the Maine Historic Preservation Commission, for which he became architectural historian in 1973 and director in 1976. He retired from that position in 2015. Shettleworth has lectured and written extensively on Maine history and architecture and served as State Historian since 2004.

The Kennebec Historical Society September Presentation is free to the public (donations gladly accepted). The presentation will take place on Wednesday, September 18, 2019, at 6:30 p.m., at the Hope Baptist Church, located at 726 Western Avenue, in Manchester. The program will be preceded at 4:30 p.m., by a potluck supper and at 6 p.m., by the society’s annual meeting and election of officers and directors. For details about the potluck supper, please contact Anne Cough, either by email at acough60@aol.com or by phone at 582-2823.

Jack’s: Where everybody knows your name

Jack, right, and Ann Sylvester at their home in 2019. (Photo by Eric Austin)

by Eric W. Austin

Growing up near China Village in the latter half of the last century, there was one place everyone visited at least once a week. Officially named China General Store, Incorporated, most of us knew it simply as “Jack’s.” It was the center of life in China Village for more than 50 years.

This is the story of Jack’s General Store, and the man who ran it.

Jack Sylvester was born to a family from Eustis, Maine, on Friday, October 13, 1938. From this inauspicious beginning, young Jack would grow up to have a profound influence on another community far to the south of the place of his birth.

Jack’s father and grandfather operated a livestock business in Eustis, providing horses to businesses all over the state of Maine, especially those involved in the logging and farming industries, which at the time still relied on horsepower to get the job done.

By the early 1940s, however, the horse business in Eustis was flagging, and the Sylvester family moved south to Albion when Jack was only six. Jack’s maternal grandparents had a residence in Albion, and the Sylvesters hoped the busier metro-area of Waterville and Augusta would keep the horse business going for a few more years.

In Albion, Jack Sylvester attended Besse High School, which was located in the brick building that now houses the Albion Town Office. Jack vividly remembers the day in 1957 when, during his senior year, the school burned down.

“I was on the fire department at that time, and I can tell you exactly where I was,” he says. “I was cleaning out the horses of manure.” The Sylvesters’ livestock farm was located not far from the school. He continues: “I heard the fire alarm go off, and I turned ‘round to look and that old black smoke was just roaring.”

Teenage Jack dropped his shovel and rushed to the scene of the fire. He wasn’t happy. “You’d think I’d feel good that the school burned down — you don’t have to go to school no more,” he says, flashing a characteristic Jack-grin. “But I felt terrible ‘cause the school was burning down. I set there with a hose, puttin’ water on it, and cryin’ like crazy!”

The cause of the fire was never discovered. The superintendent at the time, who will go unnamed, was the only one in the building, in his office on the upper floor. The superintendent wanted Albion to join the local School Administrative District (SAD), and there was talk around town that he had started the fire in an effort to force a decision on the matter. Nothing was ever proven, however, but after the fire, Jack tells me, “He moved out of town right off quick.”

After high school, Jack worked as a grease monkey for Yeaton’s Garage for a couple of years, and then got hired by Lee Brothers’ Construction, work that sent him all over the state of Maine. That’s where he met Roy Dow.

At this point, we need to pause for a bit of backstory. The tale of how Jack Sylvester came to own China General Store is the story of another fire, this time in China.

Main Street in China Village used to be quite a bit more commercial than it is now. The Masonic Lodge was on the north side of Main Street, opposite where it is now; and next to that, heading east, was the post office; a small house that is no longer there; then a bean factory (”Most every small town around had a bean factory,” says Alene Smiley, Jack’s older sister); a printing shop; a mechanics garage operated by Roy Coombs, who got his start fixing wagon wheels, and then transitioned to transmissions; and finally the old China General store, owned by the Bailey family, but later sold to the Fenlasons. The Village’s one-room schoolhouse was also located here, directly across the street from where the China library is currently.

Then on Sunday, August 20, 1961, the old China General Store caught fire and burned down. The blaze also claimed the garage and the bean factory next door, both owned by Roy Coombs. Flames from the fire leapt more than 100 feet into the air and could be seen up to 10 miles away. In a single night, nearly the entire commercial district in China Village was destroyed. Coombs, who was also serving as fire chief at the time, suspected arson as “three or four fires of suspicious nature have occurred in the town within recent months,” according to an article published the next day in the Morning Sentinel.

Photo of the aftermath of the fire at the old China General Store in 1961. (submitted by Susan Natalie Dow White)

Since the current owners, the Fenlasons, weren’t interested in rebuilding, Roy Dow and his father-in-law, Tommy James, who both worked in construction, decided to take on the job of building a new one themselves. They enlisted the help of Ben Avery, of Windsor, and chose as the location for the new establishment a spot on the eastern end of Main Street. It would turn out to be a propitious choice of location when the 202 throughway was built a decade later.

“I’d always loved the store business,” says Jack. “So, one day I was down there [at the new store], visiting Roy. He was sittin’ in front of the cash register in an old recliner. He said, ‘What’re you doin’? Why don’t you come work for me? I need a meat cutter.’ I said, ‘For God’s sake, Roy, I’m a truck driver; I ain’t a meat cutter!’ He said, ‘I’ll teach you.’”

And Roy did, and much else besides. Jack learned how to cut meat, how to manage a store, and how to select the best cuts of beef for the store freezer. He also got to know the store’s customers, and there was one customer in particular he was interested in. Her name was Ann Gaunce.

Ann’s family lived just down the road from the store, and she frequently passed by on her way to the post office. “Oh, she was beautiful!” Jack says, his eyes a little glassy at the memory. “Ann was walking by one day, and I was filling a car full of gas. I hollered at her and I said, ‘How ya doin’? Why don’t you come over here,’ I says, ‘I wanna talk to ya.’ So, she came over and I talked to her for a while. I got a date for that night.”

They went to see the movie “Scudda Hoo! Scudda Hay!”, a flick from 1948, at the old Haines Theater, which used to exist on Main Street, in Waterville, across from where Maine-ly Brews is now. Jack and Ann’s was a romance destined to last a lifetime.

“I don’t call her Ann anymore,” Jack tells me, a twinkle in his eye. “It’s Saint Ann now. She’s put up with me for 54 years!”

Jack worked at the general store for Roy Dow until 1974. “He came in one day,” Jack recalls, “and says, ‘Wanna buy this place?’ I said, ‘I’d like to.’”

And he did. Together with his wife, Ann, and his son Chris, who became his right-hand man in later years, they took over management of China General Store, Incorporated. Jack Sylvester was 36 years old.

I ask Jack if owning a business in a small town like China had been a struggle. “No, sir,” he says. “I had a business that was wicked good. The last year I owned that business, I did over a million dollars.”

And Jack didn’t just manage one of the most successful businesses in China, he also served as selectman from 1965-67, belonged to the Masons since the age of 21, and joined the Volunteer Fire Department, first in Albion and then in China, where he served as fire chief for a number of years in the 1970s and ‘80s.

“Jack was always really good about his employees volunteering for the fire department and the rescue,” says Ron Morrell, who pastors the China Baptist Church and has lived across the street from Jack’s store since the early 1980s. “You’d go in sometimes and Ann might be the only one in the store, because all the guys were gone on a fire call. It left him short-handed sometimes.”

Jack Sylvester, right, and son Chris, during Halloween one year. (Contributed photo)

Jack’s favorite time of the year was Halloween, when he dressed up in a variety of creative costumes and hosted upwards of 350 neighborhood kids at his store, who came for the free chocolate milk and the bag of chips that he gave out every year.

That wasn’t the only interaction Jack had with the kids of China Village. He would, on occasion, catch a child shoplifting from his store. Pastor Ron relates one such incident that he witnessed firsthand. “One day, I came across the street for an afternoon cup of coffee,” he tells me. “Jack had some kid in the back, talking to him. I could tell something serious was going on.”

Totally coincidentally, a few minutes later a Kennebec County sheriff’s deputy also came into the store. Without missing a beat, Jack exclaimed, “See, here he is!”

Apparently, Jack had faked a call to the sheriff in an attempt to scare the kid straight. The sudden appearance of the deputy was a complete surprise to everyone, excepting, perhaps, the poor kid being interrogated.

“The sheriff’s deputy caught on real quick as to what was going on,” Pastor Ron recalls. “They had not worked this out ahead of time. The cop was really good about it, and they scared the kid good. And more than one kid, when they were an adult, came back and thanked Jack for what he’d done to set them straight, and for not getting the authorities involved. He could put the fear of God into them though,” Pastor Ron finishes with a hearty chuckle.

In April 2002, at the age of 64, Jack Sylvester finally hung up his apron and sold the general store. The new owners kept the store open for a few more years, but eventually closed it.

“It was never the same after Jack left,” Pastor Ron remembers. “People came because of Jack.”

KHS to hear about Explosion in Halifax

On December 7, 1917, two war ships collided in the harbor at Halifax, Nova Scotia. Following the collision and subsequent fire, a massive explosion occurred, killing about 2,000 people and wounding countless more. At the time, it was the largest man-made explosion in history. With the city devastated, help was needed. Boston is still remembered for responding quickly and sending up a train with supplies and people the following day. They are still celebrating this day with a Christmas tree that is sent from Halifax to Boston each year.

However, Maine also played a role in the relief effort. Mainers joined the Boston relief train and we sent up supplies and a National Guard troop of our own. This talk will discuss the overall history of the event and the relief effort, but will also aim to focus more on Maine’s role in the relief effort.

The speaker, Sam Howes, is an archivist at the Maine State Archives, where he has been for three years developing exhibits and preserving the state’s historical records. He earned his Bachelor of Arts in History with a mix of American Labor, Canadian History, and Medieval Studies at Acadia University in Nova Scotia. While living in Nova Scotia, he became very interested in the relationship between the Maritime Provinces and the New England States. That interest is what led him to research the Halifax Explosion and the response from New England, and Maine in particular.

The Kennebec Historical Society December Presentation is free to the public (donations gladly accepted) and will take place on Wednesday, December 13, 2017, at 6:30 p.m., at the Maine State Library, located at 230 State Street, in Augusta. ​

Historic presence of alewives in China Lake’s Outlet Stream reconfirmed

Original letters written by Stacy Blish and others, of Vassalborough, in 1799, submitted to the Massachusetts legislature. The decision of the governing body sealed the fate of the stream for more than 200 years, as numerous mills and factories were located along the banks of Mile Stream and little attention paid to its ecological health or fisheries. Photo of the letters from the State Archives, in Boston.

Submitted by Landis Hudson, executive director Maine Rivers.

Documents recently found in Massachusetts Archives have shed light on the early history of China Lake’s Outlet Stream, reconfirming the historic presence of native alewives. Petitions and letters, signed and dated from 1798 and 1799, state that alewives were known to make their way up the stream to China Lake, but the presence of sawmills and grist mills prevented the migratory fish from completing their journey to spawning areas. The letters and petitions were written requesting that the Outlet Stream be exempted from fish passage laws to allow water-powered industries to flourish.

As was typical for the colonial period, smaller waterways like Outlet Stream were harnessed for power first because their flows were easier to control. Later, as the technology advanced, dams were built on larger rivers, like the former Edwards Dam on the Kennebec River, first built in 1837.

Letters and petitions from residents along the Outlet Stream were submitted in response to fish passage laws enacted in Massachusetts requiring dam owners to provide fish passage, due to local concerns about the declining populations of migratory fish, notably salmon, shad and alewives. In 1797, just one year before the residents along Outlet Stream sent in their letters and petitions, a law was passed requiring fish passage in Cumberland and Lincoln Counties. Maine was then a part of Massachusetts; records from this period can be found in Massachusetts State Archives, in Boston.

One letter written by Stacy Blish in January 1799 states:

“Stacy Blish, of Vassalborough, in the County of Lincoln, of lawfull age testify and say that I have lived near a Stream called Mile brook which empties itself into Sebasticook river for eighteen years last past that before any mills were built on said Stream Alewives used to pass up said Stream into a pond out of which it flows but no Salmon or Shad ever frequented it and for fifteen years last past since mills have been erected on it no alewives have been known to pass up into the pond.”

Another petition signed by 40 individuals noted, “the carrying on and Improvements of those Mills Are the principle if not the only means upon which a large number of respectable and industrious citizens depend on for acquiring property… That formerly the fish called Alewives (only) used to pass up said stream but for more than ten years None have been seen to pass up said stream…”

The letters and petitions were successful and resulted in the passage of a law titled, “An Act Exempting Mile Stream in the Towns of Vassalborough, Winslow and Harlem from the Operations of All Laws Regulating the Salmon Shad and Alewife Fisheries in Said Towns.” This act sealed the fate of the stream for more than 200 years, as numerous mills and factories were located along its banks and little attention paid to its ecological health or fisheries.

KHS presents Forts Along the Kennebec

From 1676 and into the 18th century, much of Maine, including the Kennebec River region, was abandoned by the English due to a series of colonial Indian wars.

In 1713, the Treaty of Utrecht afforded a sufficient promise of peace for settlers to return to the frontier of Maine. The lands along the Kennebec were owned by various groups of proprietors who wished to sell these lands to settlers. To secure the frontier and more importantly make the settlers feel secure, a series of four forts were built along the Kennebec between 1720 and 1754. This talk will discuss the history and archaeology of these forts.

Leon (Lee) Cranmer, the speaker, is an historical archaeologist who retired in August 2010 from the staff of the Maine Historic Preservation Commission. He has a BS from Stockton University, and a BA in anthropology and MA in history/historical archaeology from the University of Maine. Lee has worked in archaeology in Maine for almost 30 years and has conducted archaeology for the state of Maine for well over 20 years. Prior to that he spent two seasons in England doing archaeology. He has written one book and numerous articles on Maine historical archaeology and is currently working on another book on Fort Halifax, a French and Indian War period fort in Winslow. He has excavated hundreds of Maine sites for which he has written or co-authored site reports. Prior to his archaeology career, Lee spent seven years in the Navy and is a Vietnam veteran. He lives in Somerville with his wife, Liz.

The Kennebec Historical Society February presentation is free to the public (donations gladly accepted) and will take place on Wednesday, February 15, at 6:30 p.m., at the Maine State Library, 230 State Street, in Augusta.