In his book “Over to Home and From Away,” an anthology of Maine humor writing published by the Guy Gannett Publishing Co. in 1980, former Portland newsman Jim Brunelle includes several pieces by popular 19th century humorist Edgar Wilson “Bill” Nye, who was born in the Piscataquis County town of Shirley Mills.
Nye, who died in 1896 at the age of 45, moved from Maine to Wyoming with his family at age two. As a young man he studied law, but upon discovering that his clients found “they would be hanged just as well without a lawyer,” he went into the newspaper business, later achieving international fame as a writer and lecturer who often crossed paths with Mark Twain.
Among samples of Nye’s writing included in Brunelle’s book is a tongue-in-cheek essay about visiting his old hometown late in life.
For some inexplicable reason, the piece came to mind as I read in the weekend newspaper about the public relations bind that wealthy environmentalist Roxanne Quimby had gotten herself into as the result of an online interview with Forbes magazine. The woman who hopes to give 70,000 acres of her vast Maine forestland holdings to the federal government for a national park in the Katahdin area seemed to alienate the hometowns of the very people she needs support from to make her park dream become reality.
In the interview, Quimby described Maine as “a welfare state” that has a large population of obese people, as well as a drug problem and a forestry products industry loaded with major landowners who are “in complete denial” concerning a business model she suggested hasn’t worked in years. (She also spoke of “committed, passionate people and communities and families that care about each other. And that’s still intact up there. It’s pretty amazing.”)
Not surprisingly, Quimby’s criticism drew swifter reaction than did her praise. The Forbes article portrayed her as “someone who holds the people of this area in total disregard,” said national park opponent Gene Conlogue, Millinocket’s town manager. Quimby’s business success is indisputable, “but the political acumen of disparaging the people she is trying to persuade to accept her park plan is questionable,” said Keith Van Scotter, co-owner of Lincoln Paper and Tissue LLC. Others expressed more earthy sentiments.
The Brunelle book takes its title from an old Maine saying: “In Maine there are four directions — upriver, downstate, over to home and from away.” The over-to-home gut reaction to Quimby’s comments had about it a certain pride-of-place flavor concerning the same general area of rural Maine addressed in the Nye piece, which had a similar subtext.
Nye had waited 30 years for the public to visit his Shirley Mills birthplace, but there hadn’t been much of a rush, so he decided to go himself. “A man ought not to criticize his birthplace,” he suggested. Still, if he were to do it over he could not say whether he might select that particular spot or not. “Sometimes I think I would not. And yet, what memories cluster about that old house. It was the place where I first met my parents.”
The humble home had given him a great sendoff: “Here on the banks of the raging Piscataquis, where winter lingers in the lap of spring till it occasions a good deal of talk, there began a career which has been the wonder and admiration of every vigilance committee west of the turbulent Missouri,” Nye wrote.
“All the old neighbors said that Shirley was a very quiet place up to the time I was born there, and when I took my parents by the hand and gently led them away in the spring of ’53, saying, ‘Parents, this is no place for us,’ it again became quiet.
“It is the only birthplace I have, however, and I hope that all the readers of this sketch will feel perfectly free to go there any time and visit it … Extravagant cordiality and overflowing hospitality have always kept my birthplace back.”
Poking fun at himself, Nye recalled meeting a native of his hometown while in London on a lecture tour. The Shirley Mills man told Nye the town had recently erected a sign at the site of the old Nye homestead.
“Really? What does it say?” inquired the flattered author, presuming that townsfolk had finally recognized their native son for the genius he was.
“It says, ‘Eight miles to Greenville,’” his friend replied.
BDN columnist Kent Ward lives in Limestone. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.