More reasons to be a proud Mainer

Maine may be a small state, but we have an amazing history of contributions to our country and world. Nancy Griffin’s new book, “How Maine Changed the World,” presents an intriguing history of 50 Mainers who did just that.

From Fly Rod Crosby to Samantha Smith, and Leon Leonwood Bean to Joshua Chamberlain, you will recognize some of these great Mainers and their accomplishments. But many of the 50 were unknown to me.

I loved the story of the doughnut hole. Capt. Hanson Crockett Gregory was only 16 when he invented the hole in the doughnut. This may seem insignificant until you read that at the time, doughy fried doughnuts were so dense and filling they slowed people at work. After six men fell overboard after eating doughnuts and were so lethargic that they sank and drowned, Gregory began calling doughnuts greasy sinkers. Then he got the idea to cut out the centers to make them lighter and less filling. The town of Rockport honors Gregory with a plaque at the site of his birth.

Truly amazing is the story of the Washburn brothers, who grew up in poverty but attained remarkable achievements. Four were elected to Congress. Two were considered as Republican candidates for president and vice president. Two were elected governor. Two were ambassadors and one founded a railroad. One owned a bank. And another established flour mills that ended up as the giant General Mills. But I’ll bet you’ve never heard of them.

While many of these great achievers lived long ago, I was pleased to see the story of the bridge in a backpack in the book. The bridge in a backpack was invented and designed at the University of Maine at Orono’s Advanced Structures and Composites Center. It reduces construction time, lowers costs and doubles the lifespan of bridges and is now sold worldwide. After a tour of the center last year I wrote a column in this newspaper about the amazing work there, and the great leadership of founding director Professor Habib Dagher, who has won national awards for his leadership.

While many of the achievements by these great Mainers were technical, from the breech-loading rifle to the tabor drop-axle wagon, there are others like the Maine coon cat and whoopie pie that I found amusing.

Griffin also recognizes some of our famous authors and poets, including Stephen King and Edna St. Vincent Millay. I was in a creative writing class with King at the University of Maine. In my book talks I mentioned this and report that we both became writers — and together we’ve sold more than 300 million books.

I didn’t realize the many tragedies that occurred in the building of the Panama Canal. More than 25,000 workers were killed during the nearly two decades it took to construct the canal, most between 1880 and 1893 when two French companies were trying to build the canal. It wasn’t until the United States took over the project and President Teddy Roosevelt sent Maine engineer John Frank Stevens to Panama that things got better for workers.

Stevens first tackled sanitation problems to control the mosquitoes that carry deadly diseases. Then he built warehouses, machine shops, and community housing for workers, as well as schools, hospitals, churches, and hotels. And he rebuilt the Panama Railway, making it into an efficient system that could operate around the clock to remove soil.

Elijah Lovejoy, a native Mainer who attended the school that became Colby College, was a national hero described as the “first American martyr to the freedom of the press and the freedom of the slave.” He edited a number of newspapers in the St. Louis area, where his home was burglarized and his presses burnt because of his advocacy for freeing the slaves. After writing yet another strongly worded editorial condemning slavery, a mob attacked his press in Alton, Illinois, torched his building, and as Lovejoy tried to put out the fire, a member of the mob shot and killed him. He was 35 years old.

I’m sure you’ve never heard of Helen Augusta Blanchard, who secured many patents for engineering changes to sewing machines that revolutionized the sewing industry, all without benefit of any training. And did you know that Dr. H. Richard Hornberger of Bremen spent 12 years writing his humorous, semiautobiographical novel “MASH,” which led to the movie and TV show?

And then there was Margaret Knight, who has been called the most famous 19th-century woman inventor and a female Edison.

These are just a few of the many wonderful stories in Griffin’s book. We can only thank her for all the work that must have gone into researching and writing this one. It goes without saying that as you read the book you will be very proud to be a Mainer.

George Smith can be reached at 34 Blake Hill Road, Mount Vernon 04352, or [email protected]. Read more of Smith’s writings at www.georgesmithmaine.com.