“Fireside Chats”

In the late 1980s, some journalists in Belfast decided it would be interesting — and instructive — to get some of the old folks in Waldo County to tell their stories. The subsequent column, “Fireside Chats,” written by Jeff Shula and illustrated with Peggy McKenna’s photographs, ran in the Republican Journal and Waldo Independent newspapers, and proved popular. Thirty years later, those stories now collected in the book “Fireside Chats” seem more important than ever.

Some of the narratives are just funny. Milo Blood, of Morrill, tells about the day he wrestled a deer hand-to-hoof and killed it with a jackknife. But most of them are sometimes heartwarming, sometimes uncomfortable reminders of how different life was even within living memory.

“We don’t realize how the world has changed” since the Depression, the well-read Vivian Dow, born in Monroe in 1916, told the reporters. When her father fell ill, she quit college to support the family on $7 a week working in the local pants factory. Ross Hannan, born in 1902, grew up in Palermo and wanted to go to high school in Liberty but had no vehicle to get there. His education ended involuntarily at eighth grade, and instead he learned to dowse. Thurzie Poland, of Morrill, remembered her two siblings who died of a fever that struck the town one winter; her neighbors, with nowhere to bury the dead, stored bodies in snowbanks until spring. Norris Mitchell, of Unity, in the 1920s scraped together some of his living by hunting foxes and selling the pelts. In 1985, Amelia Murray, of Belfast, still had no running water in her house.

The photos made by Peggy McKenna, to whose memory the book is dedicated, reveal as much about the people as do their stories. The 18 elders who gave up a morning or afternoon to answer Shula and McKenna’s questions have all passed on now, of course, but they left important evidence of what came before the outlandish comforts most of us take for granted now.

“Fireside Chats” is an enduring, well-made testament to those lives. It’s available at Left Bank Books in Belfast. (Let me know if you need me to put you in touch with ways to get a copy.)


A book of similar startling authenticity on the same rough backwoods Maine life is “The Oatmeal Stories” by Robert R. Stevens, who grew up in Surry.

“Water Village: The Story of Waterville, Maine”

“Water Village,” according to its author, retired Colby Dean of the College Earl Smith, is the first comprehensive history of Waterville published since 1902, the year of the city’s centennial. So this  expansion into the 20th and 21st centuries is definitely in order.

The book neatly hits all the main historical points, starting with the earliest contact of Europeans with the native people along the Kennebec River. By the mid-1600s there was a trading post at Teconnet Falls, and in 1771 the settlement called Kingfield Plantation, mostly on the east side of the river, was incorporated as a Massachusetts town and renamed Winslow. Thirty years later most of the 1,250 inhabitants lived on the west side of the river, and river crossings being what they were in those days, the west side separated and became Waterville.

It was all up and down hill from there. “Water Village” outlines the city’s part in America’s wars, politics and energetic industrialization, with its first trains running in 1849, the coming of the mills, and the installation through the late 19th and early 20th centuries of all kinds of hydro-powered projects along Messalonskee Stream, including the original Central Maine Power operation. Plenty of attention is given to Colby College’s various roles in Waterville’s history, drawing on Smith’s expertise as the author of “Mayflower Hill: A History of Colby College.”  Black and white photos of Waterville from the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries illustrate the text throughout, and nuggets of a sentence or more set off in gray boxes focus on notable events and figures, such as Al Corey, a major force in area music programs.

Smith portrays his native city with obvious enthusiasm and a sort of objective generality that tends to skate over discussion of underlying frictions. Divisive events such as anti-Vietnam War demonstrations on the Colby campus seem offered on the assumption that we all agree history has vindicated the protesters. Former Waterville mayor and Maine Gov. Paul LePage, by the same token, is euphemistically characterized as sporting a “‘give ‘em hell’ style,” omitting to mention this style included threats of violence against journalists and public statements such as his morally bankrupt pronouncement that dark skin on humans is analogous to uniforms on enemy troops.

But despite such missing details, this book makes a good general overview of Waterville’s history, suitable for just about any local school or community library.

Earl Smith is the author of the novels “Head of Falls,”  “The Dam Committee” and “More Dam Trouble,” all available from North Country Press and from local book stores and online book sellers.

Off Radar takes note of poetry and books with Maine connections the first and third Thursdays of each month. Contact Dana Wilde at [email protected]

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