It was nearly 15 years ago when writer Donna Gold interviewed 10 elderly residents of Stockton Springs, the small coastal town where she has lived since 1990.
“I was looking for a good cross-section of people who would have good stories going way back,” she said.
Her vision was to create a personal oral history of each of the 10 elders, capturing their reflections on the past and the changes they had seen in their lives. Backed by a $9,000 grant from the Stephen and Tabitha King Foundation, she intended to have them printed in small individual volumes and donate them to the town historical society.
“But as time went by, I realized the collective story was larger than the sum of its parts,” Gold, 64, said during a recent interview in her sunny living room, which overlooks the winding Penobscot River just downstream from the Penobscot Narrows Bridge. “I wanted to somehow capture the fullness of the community.”
The result is “We Never Knew Any Different: Stockton Springs Stories of the Past Century,” an artfully edited compilation of personal memories, anecdotes and historical information that bring the quiet river town to vibrant life. Illustrated with period black-and-white photos, the 167-page volume marks an era that is still almost within our collective experience and yet already nearly invisible.
Here we learn that the salt river routinely froze so solid in winter, you could safely drive a team of horses out on its icy surface. Coal-fired tug boats towed schooners loaded with goods from around the world upriver all the way to Bangor. On the present-day site of sleepy Stockton Harbor Marina once stood a vast and ill-fated complex of loading docks and warehouses where everything from potatoes to granite was shipped to faraway ports.
But these are the iconic, visual memories of almost any industrious river town. The richer vein of history is more human in these pages, and it is what makes the book’s appeal both intimate and universal.
Gold‘s characters tell their own stories, and their voices ring through clearly. In 1912, Jack McLaughlin’s grandfather started a bus line that ran from Bangor to Belfast and, later, to Rockland. In 1951, Greyhound bought the business, and Jack, then 23, went to work as a driver. “I used to run the airline, route 9 from Bangor to Calais,” he recounts in Gold’s interview. The Airline, now a fast, well-paved and heavily traveled route from the Canadian border to the commercial centers of Bangor and Brewer, was tortuous and mostly dirt at the time.
“God, that was terrible,” McLaughlin exclaims with apparent relish, going on to describe a particularly steep hill in the town of Wesley.
“You’d get halfway up, or almost to the top, and you’d tell the people to get out, walk up the hill, and you’d have to back down the whole length of that hill, get a run for it, and be going like hell, and they’d wave to you going up the hill, and you’d get on top of the hill and wait for them. Right out in the middle of nowhere, no street lights, no nothing. But everyone would laugh about it, have a good time.” The reader can almost see McLaughlin, who died in 2016 at the age of 87, wiping away tears of laughter as he tells his story.
Sarah Varney’s mother died when Sarah was just a child. “Dad never talked about it,” she says in her interview. Her baby brother was born sickly and was sent to live with an aunt in New Brunswick. Sarah and her father lived in boarding houses for a while, until he built a house and opened his own car repair business. “He had a lonely life,” she recalls. “His friends used to try to get him acquainted, over the years, but he wasn’t interested.” Varney, who died in June of this year at the age of 99, remembers sitting alone on the porch of a boarding house and watching the massive dock complex burn to the waterline.
Many of the elders in the book describe young lives of privation and hard work. As children, they lugged water from springs and wells, stacked piles of firewood, tended livestock, cut hay, raked blueberries, shucked clams and shoveled through drifts of snow. All hands were needed to make ends meet.
Children also shared playtime activities such as swimming in the chilly river, beachcombing, skating and sledding. McLaughlin recalls a particularly long, hair-raising sled run from the top of Church Street right through the middle of town all the way to the end of School Street. “And boy, you were going! They’d have somebody with a lantern standing in the square, in case there was a car coming.”
Gold, a longtime journalist and a native of Yonkers, is no stranger to interviewing people. In addition to her freelance work for Maine-based papers and magazines, she currently edits COA Magazine at College of the Atlantic. But since 2000, she has also worn the title of “ personal historian,” helping individuals, families, groups and communities to document and preserve precious stories and memories.
Gold has worked with libraries in East Blue Hill and Camden to produce oral histories of town elders, documents that have found a place in the towns’ historical archives and genealogical records. Her impulse to perform the same service for her home town of Stockton Springs, however, ran into complications.
“I think it’s because I know this town. I’m inside of it,” she said. The people she interviewed had known each other all their lives. They told the same stories from compellingly different perspectives. Many of the buildings that surrounded their younger lives are still standing — old schools, stores, churches and farms. They remembered when the hilltop home where she lives with her husband, Bill Carpenter, was The Switzer Inn, a popular destination for Bangor city dwellers looking for a rustic dining experience.
It became apparent that she was holding the story of a community and a way of life, rather than a group of unconnected memoirs.
Gold, whose Jewish ancestors lived in eastern Europe, Russia and Ukraine, also understands the importance of documenting a disappearing way of life, and the urgency of recording personal memories before they’re gone forever.
“My family are all immigrants, and I don’t know anything about them,” she said. “I don’t know what their lives were like and now I want to know, so much.”
Gold encourages others to preserve a bit of history if someone close to them is aging or a community is changing. A simple recording device can capture hours of conversation and storytelling, she observed, and even if it’s unclear how to make use of it, it’s better to seize the opportunity than let it be lost forever.
“These Stockton Springs stories inform my life,” she said, “and I hope they will inform the lives of others who live here.”
“We Never Knew Any Different” costs $15, with all proceeds benefiting the Stockton Springs Historical Society. It is now on sale at the Stockton Springs Community Library and will soon be available at local booksellers.