When Alaska Gov. and Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin visits Bangor today, she’ll be campaigning a scant 50 miles from where her maternal ancestors lived for more than four decades in the 19th century.
James Gower, a land agent who sold many pieces of land in the Piscataquis County town of Abbot, was Palin’s great-great-great-great-grandfather, according to U.S. Census records.
Although Palin could not be reached for comment on her heritage this week, her mother, Sarah “Sally” Heath of Wasilla, Alaska, was fascinated to hear she had ancestors from Maine — and that the home of one of them was still standing.
“It’s so interesting,” Heath said by phone Wednesday evening after a brief account of the Gowers’ move across the country. “I never paid attention to it; I never asked my parents when I was a kid.”
She said the only tidbit she knew from centuries ago was that “the family had a spoon that came over on the Mayflower.”
A genealogy search by the Bangor Daily News of the major party candidates indicated Palin has the only ancestral ties to Maine.
In Abbot, Kaye Roberts Sakahara owns one of the properties that was originally sold by Palin’s ancestor, James Gower.
“The Roberts land on Leeman Road that my brother and I now own was first sold by James Gower, as was other land in the area,” Sakahara said recently.
Gower was doing business in town at least as early as 1822, when he bought a sawmill and built a gristmill to go with it, according to “A Centeseptquinary History of Abbot, Maine 1827-2002,” compiled by Abbot residents Wayne Bennett, Donna Runnels, Sakahara, Alice Hescock Weymouth and others. He received the warrant for the first town meeting in Abbot in 1827.
James Gower and wife Susannah also had lived in Industry and Farmington before moving to Abbot, a short hop compared to the moves some of their 12 children would make to Iowa, Michigan, South Carolina and Wisconsin.
Among James’ children who lived in Abbot as adults were sons Robert, Davis and Cornelius, Palin’s great-great-great-grandfather.
In 1850, Cornelius and wife Abigail were farmers in Abbot, raising children Clara, Abba and C. Albert, according to federal census records. Their property was valued at $2,000.
Two years later, Palin’s great-great-grandfather was born in Abbot, Arthur Collins Gower, but by 1860 Cornelius had moved his family to Winslow and another farm.
In the 1870 census, Cornelius by then had given up farming to become a lumberman in Ann Arbor, Mich. Seventeen-year-old Arthur was listed as “at college.”
A decade later, Arthur was a druggist still living with his family, though he did take a bride, the German-born Mary Schmolz, before the end of 1880, according to a Web site by Robert Battle on RootsWeb.
With the 1890 census mostly destroyed by fire, it’s 1900 before we find the Gowers in the census again.
Arthur and Mary lived in Wisconsin at that time, raising Ralph, 18; (James) Carl, 17, Palin’s great-grandfather; Ruth, 13; and Arthur, 4, in the town of Lafayette. Two other children had died, they told the census taker, and Arthur was now a farmer.
James Carl Gower, born in 1882, and wife Cora (Strong) were the parents of Palin’s grandmother Helen Gower, born in 1910 in Wisconsin.
In the 1930 census, Helen was listed with husband C.J. Sheeran on South Garfield Street, Pocatello City, Idaho.
Sheeran, who had been born in Washington state to parents from Minnesota and Wisconsin, was then a salesman for an electric company. His roots went back to Vermont.
Battle’s Web site lists the Sheerans as the parents of Palin’s mother, Sarah “Sally” Sheeran, who married Charles R. Heath.
Palin herself was born in Idaho, but a June 1964 clipping from the Tri City Herald in Washington state cited by Battle dates the Heath family’s move to Alaska as later that year: “In Alaska — Mrs. C.J. Sheeran of Richland has gone to Skagway to lend her help to her daughter and family, Mr. and Mrs. Charles Heath, while they get settled in their new home.”
So Gov. Palin’s Gower line made it from Maine to Alaska in little more than a century, but who’s left in the Pine Tree State?
No doubt Palin still has lots of cousins here, though many of Maine’s Gowers come from a Down East line that originated in Tennessee rather than James Gower’s father, Robert, who emigrated from England.
And Cornelius’ relatives who remained in Abbot when he left apparently didn’t stay, either.
His father, James Gower, died in Farmington in 1855 and is buried there. His mother, Susannah, was living with Davis and his family in 1860 in a big farm on Davidson Road, an extension of Back Road in Abbot.
The 1860 census asked for many specifics about family members, including whether the person was blind or deaf or a pauper. Susannah was listed as “insane,” though probably, at 79, what she actually had was age-related dementia. She died a few years later.
Just up the unpaved road from the farm, on the left, is the small Blanchard Cemetery, where Susannah Gower is buried. Her stone faces the back of the small graveyard and is etched with the simple inscription:
Wife of James Gower,
June 10, 1864
Below the inscription are engraved these words:
Thou art my hope, O Lord
Thou art my trust from my youth
Two years after her death, Davis Gower sold his farm and moved his family to Winslow.
But the farm where Susannah lived with her son’s family is well-known as the house of “Miss Davidson,” longtime teacher and principal Faith Davidson at Abbot Elementary School.
The house at 12 Davidson Road has been owned for 11 years by Donna and Charles Runnels, who have it up for sale. Donna Runnels, a member of the Daughters of Union Veterans who grew up in Wisconsin, wrote a history of the property for the 2002 Abbot history.
Runnels has absorbed every bit of history she could find on the New England-style farmhouse.
“I’m pretty sure the house is older than 1856,” she said, the year that Davis and Susan Gower bought it from Davis’ sister and husband, Mary and Thomas Croswell, for $2,000.
“I think the cemetery was part of the farm,” Runnels said, “because the land went all in that direction, to the north.
“That cemetery began as a family cemetery,” she said. “The oldest stone I could find was October 18, 1829, Sarah Blanchard, wife of Josiah. She was 33. The next oldest stone was 1832, Horace Gower, the son of Robert and Rosamond Gower.”
The original part of the house in Abbot, Runnels explained, is the portion that is closest to Davidson Road.
“We’re quite sure there was a center chimney with two rooms to the front and two rooms to the back, and upstairs two bedrooms had fireplaces,” she said.
“It was a typical big house, little house, ell-barn type of thing,” Runnels said. “I would bet that the farm across the road was built by the same builder. His staircase is identical to ours.” That farm belonged to James and Mary Brown for many years.
The Runnelses now live in a newer home in another town, a fact that makes Donna Runnels really appreciate that the farm in Abbot was “such a well-built house.”
The barn on the back of the building is a replacement for the one that burned in 1963, Runnels said. That barn was full of hay, she has been told, and it was the efforts of the Guilford Fire Department that kept the entire house from being destroyed, too.
The journey of Gov. Palin’s Gower ancestors in Maine and across the country is interesting to Runnels.
Hearing of the famous connection to the house she lived in, “I’m very surprised,” she said. “It makes it very interesting to me because I did all the research in that house. It’s interesting to me, too, that part of the family ended up in Wisconsin,” where Runnels is from.
But the connections are strictly historical, Runnels will have you know: “I’m still not voting for her.”
For more on Sarah Palin’s Maine relatives, read Family Ties on Monday, Oct. 20, in the Bangor Daily News. Robert Battle’s Web site on Palin’s maternal ancestry is at http://freepages.genealogy.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~battle/palin.htm.
Governor Palin’s Maine ancestry
Robert Gower of Norwich, England
James and Susannah Gower of Farmington and Abbot
Cornelius and Abigail Gower
of Abbot, Winslow and Michigan
Arthur C. and Mary Gower of Wisconsin
[James] Carl and Cora (Strong) Gower
C.J. and Helen (Gower) Sheeran
of Idaho and Washington state
Charles and Sarah “Sally” (Sheeran) Heath
of Idaho and Alaska