In 1936, at an end-of-the-school-year picnic at Gardner Lake in Washington County, 12 young children from Lubec drowned in a boating accident. In her book “Remember the Children,” Vicki Reynolds Schad does that and so much more.
After much research and interviews with many Lubec families who were impacted by the tragedy, Vicki published this book in 2006. When she learned that my mom, who grew up in Lubec, was in elementary school in the 1930s, Vicki generously shipped a copy of the book to me.
I have to say her presentation of stories about each child is thoughtful and respectful. She tells us about each of them in stories from their family and friends, many of whom had not talked about the tragedy — ever. She even obtained old photos of the children, looking so vibrant in their early lives.
As each child approaches that boat for the last ride of their lives, you will pause, wishing you could change their fate. And you will make sure you teach your children and grandchildren to swim.
From the first to the very last sentence, this book captured me like no other, maybe because of my connection to Lubec, where my great-grandfather was the keeper of the West Quoddy Head Lighthouse for 32 years, but also because Vicki has presented the story in a profound way — a sad story for sure, but also one that will touch your heart and remind you to make the most out of each and every day.
“The village of Lubec — easternmost tip of American soil and site of every morning’s sunrise — is forever home to anyone who has been a child there,” writes Vicki in the book’s first sentence. Yes, that is the Lubec I have known and loved my entire life. As a kid, I loved going to Lubec to visit my cousins, the Searles family, and my grandmother Edith Searles, who once packed sardines there.
“Mothers in all the rural neighborhoods stay at home with their children,” reports Vicki, “unless the fish whistle blows. Every sardine factory in town has its own horn, signaling the workers when the fishing boats are coming in full. Whenever the whistle blows, the mothers great dressed for work — in comfortable shoes, an old housedress, an oilcloth apron, and a hairnet.” (Yes, I’ve seen photos of Nana in that hairnet).
Throughout the book, Vicki captured Lubec as I have never seen it. These are hard-working people. Consider Maggie Small, whose husband was disabled. “For the last ten years, much of the responsibility for providing for their large family has fallen on Mumma. During the worst of it, Maggie’s day was impossibly long. She walked downtown to the Columbian Sardine Factory first thing in the morning and packed sardines till suppertime. Then she came home, did a load of wash, ate supper, and walked several miles to Lawrence’s factory in North Lubec, packing fish there till midnight.”
My mom and uncles lived in and went to school in South Lubec, escaping the tragedy which happened to children attending schools in West and North Lubec. But Maggie’s daughter Doris drowned that day.
You will shed a tear as you read the stories about these wonderful children. As Vicki tells the story of how each one approached the boat, on the last cruise of the day at Gardner Lake, with some jumping out, fearful of the stiff wind and high waves, while others jumped in, even though their parents had told them not to go out on the boat, you may find it hard to continue reading, knowing that in just moments, as the wind caught the boat, and the owner/driver tried to turn it around and head back to the beach, the boat would begin flooding, and the kids would rush to one side, and the boat would dip into the water, dumping all the children out into the very cold water. Most could not swim. Twelve of the 15 children drowned.
Near the end is a photo of young Wyman Ramsdell, the teenage boy who dove into the lake, swam all the way out to the boat, dragged Miriam Kelley up from the depths by the hair, got her to shore, and helped rid her lungs of water, saving her life. Young Miriam is standing there next to Wyman in the photo. Profound.
This paragraph, about the funeral, really got to me. “Just before the service is to begin, the people closest to the caskets witness a remarkable scene. Two small white butterflies, possibly drawn by the flowers, appear above one of the caskets. In a fluttering and mysterious dance they brush against it, then move to the next, and the next. Not until the butterflies have touched every casket do they fly off across the meadow and out of sight. Those who see it are strangely comforted, as if by small heavenly messengers, and they will never forget it.”
I am very grateful to Vicki Reynolds Schad for grabbing those memories, telling this story, and helping us remember those children.