Skip to main content

Gray Has a Round Dozen of Octogenarians

Gray Has a Round Dozen of Octogenarians

Who tell the Lewiston Journal of the Good Old Times

(Written for Lewiston Journal)

Major John Anderson for fifty-three years town moderator - distinguished service in military and civic officers - Mrs. Frances Merrill, Gray's oldest resident, was a singer of note and belonged to a musical family - she recalls old-time singing schools. Roscoe Hall, at 83, a hustling business man.

And once again the writer "jined drives" with his old friend and philosopher, John W. Stevens, to do the town of Gray, "There are more old people here," said he, "and I may add of a higher quality than in any other town in this State. Come on and I will show them to you!"

And then John hitched up the old nag and the start was made.

"Why not call on Major John D. Anderson first?" was the query. And echo answered why!

John D. is one of the characters of the town but he stoutly protests against being called old, and even threatened to kill the pair of us if we alluded to him except as being young and gay. Exactly, that is John D. He was found poring over a batch of letters congratulating him on having reached the age of ___!

And what a record is his! We shall not attempt to tell all the incidents in his young life. The task would be wearisome and involve many difficulties which we do not care to face. Enough to say that in the opening days of the Civil War, he enlisted in the First Wisconsin Battery where he served fifteen months and then came back to Maine and reenlisted in the 32d Maine regiment where he continued his controversy with the rebels at Cold Harbor, Tazewell, North Anna, and a score of other arguments of a similar nature winding up at the big mine explosion in front of Petersburg.

In that scrap he had his arm completely stove to pieces and why he ever stopped flying thru the air is still an unsolved mystery. He was also struck by a minnie ball at the same time as the other fellows proposed to take no chances on his getting away.

At the battle of Tazewell, Major Anderson was congratulated and complimented by the division commander, Gen. Geo. W. Morgan, for rescuing two cannon after being surrounded by the enemy. A valiant deed was that!

After nearly four years of a more or less strenuous and exciting experience in Dixie John D. was mustered out as being the worse for wear. Then he came back to Gray and commenced a civil experience fully as varied and vivid as away down on the Swanee river. He has been the department commander of the Grand Army of the Republic in 1890; in 1903 he commanded the Union Veteran's Union and in 1913 led the serried hosts of the Loyal Legion. He held the United States pension agent at Augusta for several years commencing in 1896 and the four years previous to this he was the treasurer of the Togus home.

He is now the only man in Maine who has held all these high positions. For 53 consecutive years he has been the town moderator of Gray and last spring was presented with a beautiful silver loving cup in celebration of that anniversary. This cup bears the following inscription: 

"Presented to Major John D. Anderson 
By the town of Gray, 
In appreciation of his service 
As Moderator 
For 53 Years
March 4th, 1918. 

There! Who can show another record like that? There are lots of other things that could be said about John D. but we do not care to do him all up at once. Other days are coming and we are both young!

A near neighbor of Major Anderson is Mrs. Elizabeth Libby who has passed her 80th mile post and is still vigorous in mind and body. A fine type of the old time character is she. Her husband died some fifteen years ago; previous to which time the couple had lived on Dutton hill, some two miles out of the village. This lady has long been a leader in the Universalist church of Gray and a moving spirit in all good movements for the betterment of the town. She has two children, Mrs. Mabel Small and Herbert Libby, both of Gray, and like the parents noted for their estimable qualities.

And then we drew up at the door of Charles Pennell and found that worthy citizen busily engaged in doing some chores and odd jobs around the buildings. Both he and Mrs. Pennell have passed their 80th year but no one would suspect their age. They hold the respect of the entire community for their sterling virtues and industry. Mr. Pennell has long been one of the leading farmers of the town and still keeps up his active interest in the cultivation of the soil.

When asked to pose for the Journal camera he protested that his style of beauty should be camouflaged and attempted to cover his face but in this he only partially succeeded. It is difficult to get away from that camera when once it starts to do business. The name of Pennell has long been famous in Gray and we better have a half picture of the present representative of the family than none. Our readers can congratulate themselves that the writer was there for active business! Mr. Pennell can remember many of the old timers, among whom was Dr. A. W. Anderson who was an active practitioner 90 years ago and who died in 1876 at an advanced age.

Another famous family name in Gray is that of Hancock. The late James T. Hancock was for many years the leading merchant of the town and dying left a name that will long be honored for business ability and probity of character. The widow of Mr. Hancock still resides in the old family home and is a woman of marked ability and strength of character. She still takes a keen interest in all public affairs and is frequently consulted on matters that involve the prosperity of the town. A lady of the old school is Mrs. Hancock and a woman of marked ability.

Close by the Hancock home is the residence of Mrs. Frances H. Merrill and the oldest living citizen of the town at this, time having passed her 87th birthday. She is a charming woman to meet as she is a lady of rare intelligence and refinement. She still wears the curls of her youth and these give her an appearance that belies her actual age.

Mrs. Merrill is from an old time musical family and has been a noted singer in her day. Her husband was John T. Merrill who for many years taught singing schools all over this part of Maine. Perhaps no musician in Maine is better remembered among the old timers than he, as nearly all the musicians in Cumberland county have at one time or another sat under his instruction.

It was a distinguished family from which Mrs. Merrill sprung. Her grandfather, Abraham Young, was the private secretary and trusted friend of Gen. Washington during the Revolution. Her brother, Charles G. Young was a famous musician during the Civil War and at the battle of Bull Run cared for the wounded soldiers. Among others he befriended W. W. Thomas, of Portland, and dying during that struggle his body was sent home by Major Thomas of Portland in gratitude for the kindness to his son who later became the minister to Sweden.

Mrs. Merrill has long been one of the most beloved women in Gray while her fame as a singer is known all over the county. At one time she was the salaried solo singer in one of the leading Portland churches and her voice was a matter of public pride. In a little talk with the Journal she said:

"I am now almost 88 years old and I think the oldest person in town. My husband was both contractor,  business man, and musician. In the latter art he became widely known all over this section. I have been a member of the Congregational church in this town since I was eighteen years old and am the only living member of the church at that time. All are now dead but myself.

"O, Yes! The old singing schools were very charming. When we were young my husband taught in all the surrounding towns and I frequently went with him. In those days nearly every school district had its singing classes where the young folks got together and received their musical instruction. It is much different now as singing is largely taught in the schools as a part of the regular curriculum, while the finishing touches are put on by private teachers. The dear old singing schools are now nearly a thing of the past."

Blood will tell and genius is inherited in music as well as eloquence and art. The daughter of Mrs. Merrill, Mrs. Emma M. Cushing, is also a fine singer and leader in Gray society. She is a woman of rare ability and charming personal appearance but she is young, and the writer is now talking about the old folks. 

A sterling business man in Gray is Roscoe G. Hall, the village druggist. This gentleman is now 83 years old but no more hustling business man can be found in this village. In the long ago, he was for a time in Auburn where he learned the jewelry business. A brother of his, Daniel Hall was the postmaster of Auburn at the time and will be remembered by all our older people, as he was both postmaster and jeweler. With his brother Mr. Hall learned his trade and then went into business for himself.

Later he came to Gray and established himself in the grocery business which he conducted for many years. He then entered the drug business with Theopolis Stimpson whcre he has been for more than 45 years. Mr. Stimpson later sold out to him and went West where he became very wealthy.

If Mr. Hall is old in years he is young in spirit. There is no more active man in Gray, as he is a hustler from the start of day. There is something in the very atmosphere of Gray that develops business ability and no town in Maine has produced more of this class, or men who have become famous in other fields.

A sterling old veteran of 85 years is John Warren Frank, brother of Lawyer Frank of Portland, now deceased. The story of this gentleman has once been told in these columns and need not be repeated at this time. His experience in walking across the Isthmus of Panama on his way to California, in 1850, was a vivid tale of one of the Argonauts. In the same house with Mr. Frank lives Daniel Elliot who can only boast of 74 years. The two old cronies love to talk about the days of Auld Lang Syne and thus they while away the hours.

A fine type of the old time lady is Mrs. Elizabeth Harmon,daughter of Joshua and Methula Royal. This lady was born in 1831 and has lived in this town for 45 years. When she was 27 years old she was married to William Harmon and the one daughter is Ina A. wife of Elmer Osgood, with whom she now lives. She is a staunch member of the Free Will Baptist church and very devoted to her faith. The venerable lady bears her age gracefully and is moving down the river of life conscious of well spent years.

One of the big business men of Gray is Melvin Goff, who at 76 years of age is still conducting an extensive lumbering enterprise. He is at the head of the oldest shook industry in the country with the factory at Dry Mills some three miles away. This factory has for many years manufactured shooks for the West India molasses trade.

Mr. Goff tells the Journal that formerly 100 men were employed, but sugar is now put up in bags and the business is reduced in consequence. Mr. Goff is of a rugged type of physical energy and belongs to one of the old families of Cumberland county. His grandfather, William Goff, fought in the battle of Bunker Hill and later was killed at the battle of Monmouth. It is a historic family and since the old days the members have been engaged in lumbering interests.

Mrs. Hannah Dyer Jewett is another old timer in Gray. She was the daughter of Asa and Sarah H. Dyer of Limington and was born 84 years ago in that town. She married Noah Jewett of Cornish and has two children living at this time. These are Miss Nora who lives with her mother and Ralph Jewett of North Yarmouth. She still remains a well preserved woman with all her faculties intact.

And what shall be said of the Skillings family. In this home there are three old people and each one is a distinct character. For example, B. F. Skillings has long been known as the village blacksmith and is the oldest one in this section of Maine. At 80 years of age he is still in the harness and can shoe a horse as well as when he learned his trade in the town of Wilton more than 60 years ago.

He tells the Journal that when he came to Gray, the village was much smaller than it is now and that many of his old time patrons and friends are now sleeping in the old church yard. He is an honored member of the Salome Lodge of Odd Fellows and a Methodist in faith altho not a member here. He has also been a brick maker and dealt in phosphate as well as making tools. In short, Mr. Skillings is an all rounder and during his long life has never used liquor or tobacco in any form.

He built the first silo in Maine nearly 40 years ago, first going to Massachusetts to learn the art. This silo was built of brick in the ground and cemented like a cellar. He still believes that is the best way to build them. It required eleven men and horses seven days to fill it the first time, but the last time he filled it in one day with the same number of men by the use of a gasoline engine.

The first time he used an engine of one horsepower and says that this difference well illustrated the modern method of doing work. The silo question is a great curiosity and people come for miles to see the invention. When first constructed one of the leading farmers of Gray said that it would leave a nice lot of manure in the spring, but facts have proved differently. As an all around genius Skillings is hard to beat.

Mr. Skillings lost his wife some eleven years ago and since then his sister, Harriet Skillings has been an inmate of his home. This lady is now 87 years of age and still alert and active. His son, Harlan Skillings is with the John H. Chase Hardware company in Lewiston and is well known in this city Another member of the family is Miss Abbie Libby, a close relative, and already past the allotted age.

There are many other old people in this town but time and space will not allow more than a mere mention at this time. Mr. Stevens says that we must keep these for another story later on. John himself is no spring chicken but is much younger than those already named. He has long occupied a prominent position in this town and as merchant, postmaster and all around philosopher is a unique character. He always keeps a good horse and is always ready to hitch up at the word of command from the Journal.

One of the most prominent businessmen in the town is Matthew O. Morrill and a strong character he is. This gentleman is mightily interested in saving the water powers of Maine for their rightful owners, but like most of us is fearful that the people cannot be awakened to the importance of this subject. He realizes how our wild lands were taken and is largely of the opinion that our water powers will go in the same way. Then the people will lament their short sight as they now lament the short sight of the fathers. Would that there were more men like Matthew Morrill!

By this time John was getting a bit footsore and held to the opinion that we had seen about all the old residents that one story could absorb. "We must save the rest of 'em for some other time," said he as he limped over to a group of old Civil War soldiers standing in front of his store.

There were Sylvanus Cobb, C. E. Nason, E. Y. Andrews, M. C. Morrill, John W. Frank and last but not least John Anderson who had come down town to see how the Journal story was coming on. Pointing over to the soldiers monument the old war worn and battle scarred veteran said:

"Do you know that Gray was the first town in the United States to hold a Memorial day meeting for the Civil War veterans? Fact. We have a fine monument now but that only came a few years ago. Our Post is getting to be few in numbers as A. H. Doughty and T. F. Grover will tell you. Nothing to what it used to be. And the major ambled off as though he was a bit stiff in the joints altho as a matter of fact he is one of the most active men in town.

And then Mr. Stevens became reminiscent and said:

"This is certainly a historic town. Its settlement began as early as 1750 and a few years later a fort was built as a protection against the Indians. Then came more settlers and Thomas Twitchell, John Jenks, William Stevens, Daniel Cummings, Daniel Hunt, Jonas Stevens, and a man named Libby, who was the third settler in the town. In 1768 Jethro Starbird received a grant of land under a contract of agreement to build a house at least eighteen feet square and clear six acres of land. In those days all sorts of inducements were given to new settlers as the Massachusetts proprietors were anxious to start new settlements on their land. These are the stories that have come down to us."

In the early days of Gray the Indians made one attack on the settlement and destroyed the meeting house and several dwellings. Beyond this no great damage was done altho the people were compelled to leave for a time. On returning they built a block house capable of holding all the settlers in case of need but the savages troubled them no more.

The first name given to Gray was New Boston and not until 1778 was the township incorporated and named for Thomas Gray, one of the first proprietors. By the opening of the revolution the place had become well populated and furnished many men for that struggle, some of whom are still sleeping in the old village cemetery.

Its first lawyer was Simon Greenleaf who became one of the brightest lights in American jurisprudence. Its citizenship since that time has always been of a high order and never better than it is today.

On the whole Gray is one of those typical New England villages that are fast passing away. Virtue, industry, progress and prosperity have always been its characteristics and that these may be continued into an indefinite future is the sincere wish of the writer.

Full Article with images available at Google News: Lewiston Evening Journal, Mar 22, 1919