Monday, August 12, 2013

Old Home Week

The old photograph is badly faded, the forms ghostlike. They are gathered in the dooryard of the family homestead on Sumner Hill in the foothills of the western mountains of Maine, seven of the eight surviving siblings seated in the shadow of the farmhouse.

At first glance, they are a dour lot. The men with nary a smile, bow-tied with vests and jackets; the women with long dark dresses, even on this warm summer afternoon. A little girl wearing white with a bow in her hair is seated still in her grandfather’s lap as she gazes at the camera. A gentleman holds the reins of a horse drawn carriage at the edge of the gathering. And beyond him, on the horizon, one can make out the form of a distant mountain.

Behind the assembled siblings stand their cousins, children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren, the men on one side, the women on the other. On July 4, 1902, they have come together from near and far for a Heald family reunion. It was a celebration loosely held in conjunction with Old Home Week, the actual date having been set a month later by the then Governor of Maine, John Fremont Hill.

Old Home Week was conceived of by Governor Frank W. Robbins of New Hampshire in 1899, when former residents of the state were invited back to visit their hometowns. Maine adopted the practice a year later. Marked by parades, processions, picnics, bonfires, fireworks and all manner of festivities, it was intended to promote tourism, historic preservation, and economic development.

The later half of 19th century in New England had been witness to a westward emigration on a massive scale and many rural communities were in decline. The population of Sumner fell from a high of 1269 in 1840 to 802 in 1900.  In a rapidly changing America, Old Home Week was meant to call home the wayward and solidify a sense of rootedness in place and community.

The Heald family was a case in point. Of the eight surviving offspring of Hiram and Sophronia Heald, six left Maine in search of opportunity elsewhere. My great-great grandfather, Lysander Heald, settled in South Weymouth, Massachusetts, where he was a leather cutter for the booming shoe business. Hiram moved to Sandwich, Massachusetts, where he was a principal owner of the Norway Tack Co. and was engaged in cranberry raising. Abel emigrated to Sheridan, Wyoming, where he operated several cattle ranches; he was followed by his sister Emogene sometime later. Althea moved to Cawker City, Kansas, with her husband. The youngest, Oscar, raised fruit in Pasadena, California. Only two siblings remained at home, Marcella and Stephen.

On that July 4th, all but Oscar returned to the old homestead. And up the road, on the summit of the hill opening out to views of the White Mountains to the west, was the family cemetery, where two brothers, James and Frank, having died in the Civil War, were buried. Here too, the sibling’s parents and grandparents were laid to rest.

A reporter for the Lewiston Sun Times wrote about the festivities: A traveler passing along the road over Sumner Hill any time within the past week, would have seen a group of tents just a little on the north side of the summit, and a few rods above the residence of James H. Heald...

It was near this spot that Benjamin Heald, one of the pioneer settlers of Sumner located, at the age of twenty years; made a clearing in the midst of the forest, and established a home which has never been owned outside the name and is now occupied by his descendents of the third and fourth generation...

From Benjamin, the farm passed first to his son Hiram Heald, whose children from both near and distant states have during the past week been sheltered by the parental roof, while his grandchildren and great-grandchildren have been enjoying a happy gypsy life with the little group of snow-white tents for their temporary home....

The exercises were mostly informal. Dinner was served in the shade of the maples on the green, after which an hour was spent in brief speech making, story telling and reminiscences...An interesting letter of regret was read from Oscar F. Heald, the brother who was unable to be present...

A fine display of fireworks on the evening of the fourth, to which the public was invited, marked the close of a red-letter day in the Heald family.

No comments: