MAINE TALES. “Getaway Maine Travel.” Bridgewater, Maine. Circa 1903.
Why in the world would one travel away when you live right next door to God’s Country?
Many decades ago I was corrected in my misunderstanding of where I lived by our old potato-farmer-neighbor Doss Morse, who was born in the Township of Bridgewater in 1899. Many families on this side of the ‘line’ – that is, the nearby Canadian border – came to settle in the State of Maine from the Province of New Brunswick. So with familial connections strong, Canada and the Province have always been held in high regard by folks in Aroostook County.
One day Doss was telling me a story and he referred to the ‘over home’ Province as “God’s Country.” I interrupted, “Wait. I thought we lived in ‘God’s Country’?” “Aw no,” he replied. And then he elaborated with a raised eyebrow and a mischievous grin giving away that he knew full well what he was about to say was risky and sacrilegious in our little corner of Maine’s Bible Belt to convey to any other ears than my own. “No, this is the Devil’s Country!” I was living witness that old-timers, as well as three-year-olds could, assuming the right audience, be naughty and in this case, barbed.
Not only was the Province ‘God’s Country,’ but it could also serve as a ready backwoods refuge when needed. A refuge was exactly what Doss required when he was shy of turning nineteen and somehow quickly eloped into the Province with one eighteen-year-old Etta Sharp. It seems family sentiment here in Bridgewater, in this particular case, could have been a bit more sympathetic and positive towards the hallowed concept of matrimony. But after all, could any young man possibly measure up to the mighty expectations of a protective, future-father-in-law like Franklin Sharp?
Frank Sharp at that time owned 600 acres of wooded wildlands in the undeveloped western portion of the Township, opposite the civilized side of Bridgewater settlement near the Canadian border. As farmers had been doing for generations, the Sharps were clearing the trees off of land to grow potatoes. Anyways in the end, it’s a fact that hard-working Maine farmers need each other and being busy there’s no time leftover to hold grudges. So, post-elopement that dab of family friction had healed over long ago. In time, Doss and Etta came to own and work a goodly portion of that Sharp land. Etta would live and love on that farm until she passed in the 1984, after a good marriage of 66 years. Doss lived on another eight years, leaving the farm not long after to live with the family of his nearby carpenter son, Cub Morse.
The truth remains, a very young Doss had one time taken a long trip which made any future forays into the Province muted by comparison. After living through thirty Maine winters, Bridgewater-born Harley Morse (1871-1937), Doss’ father, decided he’d had enough. In 1903, during the middle of one particularly brutal Maine Winter, Harley announced one day that the family would be moving lickety-split to Carnation, Washington, east of Seattle, where his brother owned a slaughterhouse.
Within two weeks of that thunderbolt announcement, the entire Morse family – ten children by that time – loaded kit-and-caboodle onto the ‘Bangor and Aroostook’ train at the station three miles away in Bridgewater village. After heading south, they headed west, a long ways west. This mid-winter cross-country train excursion included some episodes. One time, a boorish train conductor seems to have become affected by the beauty of one of Doss’ older sisters. The words he spoke to the sister were evidently lame brained. When those words reached the ears of Doss’ father, he did what any half-civilized Maine frontiersman would do under the circumstances, and that was to punch the lights out of the offending conductor.
As a participation award for this fracas, Harley was arrested and that development put a decided crimp into the family’s westward journey. Before long, however, justice ran its course and all the Morses were able to complete their train trip to Carnation. There, they deftly applied their Maine work ethic and carried on a productive interlude. However, anytime a Mainer is living away, the baleful memories of bitter Winters and Black Flies fade, and that primal desire to return home sprouts and grows. Eventually, desire shifts gears over into determination. And so, after a five year breather, the Morse family did an about-face and returned back home to our Bridgewater paradise.
The return to the Maine Potato country allowed Doss to kindle his fondness for the fair Etta Sharp, six months his junior. The wild world beyond the State of Maine did as it was wont to do. The winds of war picked up, and in anticipation of big troubles and the Great War ahead, President Wilson coaxed Congress into passing the Income Tax Act in 1913.
A year or two later, Etta’s older brother Eli Sharp, then a strong young man of twenty, came to possess the opinion that to stay on the right side of this new income tax law he had better have a sit-down with them govmint tax fellers and learn for hisself what this Income Tax was all was about. The nearest federal tax official was stationed on the border in the Shiretown of Houlton, about twenty-five miles south. Eli knew it would be a long day to head down to Houlton and get back in time to do evening chores. So early in the morning he hitched up a team of horses to his wagon and left after chores, taking teenager Doss Morse with him to see the sights.
The two made good time and arrived at the office where Mr. Taxman worked. To determine what he owed, in a curt manner Mr. Taxman breezily asked Eli, “How much did you make last year?” Well, that question, coming from a dapper government wage-earner, might at first glance seem like a very simple question. However, to an energetic young farmer with a diversity of enterprises, such as potatoes, pulpwood, oats, hay, horses, hogs, chickens and cows, to name a few, that really is nothing short of a complex question. Like the farmers of his day, Eli worked all the time except on Sundays and every penny he earned went back into his farm. So, it was an entirely reasonable question for Eli to reply, “Just what do you mean, ‘how much did I make’?”
Mr. Taxman considered himself to be a busy and an important man. And he lacked patience. After several unsuccessful go-arounds with an increasingly ruffled Eli, Mr. Taxman judged he was getting nowhere and fast. Finally, the exasperated Mr. Taxman abandoned his initial approach and he made his pivot quickly. “Tell me how many acres of potatoes you grew last year, and how many horses and cows and hogs you own.” Now, these were questions Eli knew how to answer and that he did. Then immediately and on the fly Mr. Taxman in a cocksure tone stated that Eli owed such-and-such an amount in Income Tax.
With finality at hand, Eli pulled from his pocket a small wad of dollar bills and handed over the indicated amount to Mr. Taxman. For his part, Mr. Taxman was relieved that this showdown had come to an end. Eli and Doss exited the building, climbed back up onto the wagon and headed back to the State Road back to Bridgewater. Ever frugal Mainers, they had brought their dinner with them and they commenced to eat as they rode once they got out away from the officialdom of Customs and back into friendly farm country. They arrived home before dark, in time to do chores.
Etta Sharp had not ventured down on that taxman trip with her brother Eli and Doss. In fact, it would be yet another two years, after she had turned sixteen, before she laid eyes on Houlton for the first time in her life.
Eventually, surreptitiously eloping with Doss Morse into God’s Country, what greater travels could a young Bridgewater woman like Etta Sharp possibly conceive?