Absolutely nobody wanted to stand down wind of Kenduskeag’s Frederick A.H. Stackpole on Friday, Jan. 24, 1879 — or on Saturday, Sunday, and probably Monday, too.
After the Civil War ended in 1865, Union veterans formed the Grand Army of the Republic, the equivalent of today’s Veterans of Foreign Wars. Local chapters sprang up in Maine; Bangor veterans formed B.H. Beale Post No. 12, named for local veteran Burritt Beale.
In late January 1879, the Beale Post hosted the Grand Camp Fire, a GAR convention (called an “encampment”) held at Norumbega Hall in downtown Bangor. Fred Stackpole planned to attend, as did “large delegations from most of the posts” in Maine,” the Bangor Daily Commercial reported on Wednesday, Jan. 22.
“The ‘old boys in blue’ have commenced to gather in our city,” and “the Bangor House will be the headquarters” for many veterans, the Commercial reported.
Scheduled activities included various meetings and a Thursday hoopla best described as “a hot time in the old town tonight.” Fred Stackpole planned to attend that event, where he would earn a long-forgotten moment in local lore.
Forgotten that is until Paul Zebiak, owner of Maritime International at 93 Central St. in Bangor, came into possession of a certain medal. His research proved that Fred Stackpole won the medal at the 1879 GAR Camp Fire.
Born in Levant to Elijah and Nancy Stackpole on Feb. 14, 1843, Fred was 18 when he enlisted in Co. A, 6th Maine Infantry Regiment on Oct. 15, 1861. He likely saw combat during the 1862 Peninsula Campaign and fought at later battles. Fred’s combat luck ran out in spring 1863 or 1864; he was medically discharged from the 6th Maine because, according to a military record, he “lost [his] left leg below [the] knee.”
Fred returned to his home, which fell within the boundaries of Kenduskeag after that town split from Levant in 1852. He later married and became the Kenduskeag postmaster.
Fred probably arrived in Bangor by late afternoon on Jan. 22. Veterans poured into the Queen City that Wednesday; “the evening trains brought large delegations from Waterville, Lewiston and other places on the line of the Maine Central [Railroad,” the Commercial reported on Friday, Jan. 24. “About thirty members of the Piscataquis Battalion” also arrived that day.
On Thursday, Jan. 23, everybody headed to Norumbega Hall, where GAR members would celebrate. “At an early hour the galleries commenced to fill with spectators and by eight o’clock every seat and all available standing room was occupied,” the Commercial’s Johnny-on-the-spot reporter noticed.
“The side tables were filled early with our [Bangor] citizens who had purchased tickets to the collation,” he wrote.
According to the Jan. 24, 1879 Daily Whig & Courier, Norumbega Hall “presented a very inviting appearance being finely decked with flags.”
Organizers had reserved “the three centre tables … for the G.A.R.s and visitors,” the Commercial’s reporter observed, likely after circulating through the hall. He commented that “the tables bending under their heavy load of bountiful refreshments were very inviting.”
The Whig & Courier’s reporter noted that “two tents were pitched upon the stage and being surrounded by a woods’ scene, they looked very natural. The tables were arranged lengthwise in the hall” and were “loaded with good substantial food.”
“A few minutes past eight the procession arrived and the seats around the tables were all filled,” the Commercial reported.
Approximately 500 GAR members — every one a Union veteran by the organization’s membership defi-nition — packed the three tables. After hearing the opening remarks and a prayer by Beale Post chaplain Rev. E.W. Preble, the aging veterans got down to business.
“The work of lessening the tables of their burden commenced and a lively scene followed,” the Commercial reported.
“At the sound of the bugle all hands turned their attention to the contents of the tables,” the Whig & Courier noted. The food was served “by a score of young (and probably pretty) ladies under the direction of Mrs. E.E. Small, who had full charge of the hall,” the paper pointed out.
Among the veterans were “a lot of men who looked as though they were capable of making a vigorous attack upon the beans, and from the way the contents of the various dishes disappeared, we should say that their [men’s] looks did not belie them any,” the Whig & Courier reported.
“For a time all [diners] were exceedingly quiet, while the beans rapidly diminished,” the paper focused on the meal’s most popular dish.
Among the GAR members attacking the beans was Fred Stackpole. His moment had come; he was in his gastronomic glory.
“Gradually” the diners “pushed their plates aside and gave up the contest, one man (not our Fred) being so far gone after his noble exertion that it was found necessary to administer a liberal dose of beef tea, in order to revive him,” the Whig & Courier’s reporter commented.
Officials then offered seven toasts, ranging from “Our Departed Comrades” and “The Army” and “The Navy” to the “City of Saint John,” delivered by that New Brunswick city’s mayor. Bangor resident “E.C. Brett, Esq.” toasted “The Ladies.” As glasses clinked and the libations flowed, the Commercial reporter sat through each accompanying speech; “they were as a rule too long and some of them pretty dull,” he groused.
Each toast included an accompanying song. “Marching Through Georgia” ran through the hall after the “Grand Army” toast, and the women receiving undivided attention during the toast to “The Ladies” heard veterans sing “The Girl I Left Behind Me.”
The 500 or so GAR members then organized “the Bummers’ Convention,” named for the uniformed looters who accompanied William Tecumseh Sherman as he marched through Georgia. “Dick Gatley, of Portland,” was elected “Chief Bummer,” the Commercial reported.
Fred Stackpole now claimed his 15 minutes of fame. He had consumed copious amounts of beans; now he listened as “obituary notices of comrades present were read,” as were letters ostensibly written by “Gen. Geo. B. McClellan, Ulysses S. Grant, Noah and numerous potentates.”
Fred watched as “the awarding of awards of merit created a great deal of sport,” the Commercial reporter noted. Veteran Paul R. Seavey of Bangor presented three such awards:
• Chief Bummer Gatley “received the music-box — a live pig possessed of imminent squeeling [sic] ability,” the reporter commented.
• “Cunningham, of Togus, received a bouquet,” actually “a cabbage, on the charge of being the handsomest man” present, the Commercial reporter wrote.
• And Fred Stackpole “received the medal as champion bean eater,” commented the Commercial reporter, who missed the evening’s most historic moment.
Gatley got a pig — and probably ate it. Cunningham got a cabbage — and probably ate it.
Fred Stackpole received a steel-alloy medal measuring 10 inches in diameter and a half-inch in thickness and weighing 95.04 pounds. Engraved on the front was the Maine state seal, with “Bangor” and “Maine” engraved above and below it. Engraved in approximately 60-point type inside the medal’s top curve were three words that accurately described Fred as the “Grand Army Glutton.”
He had eaten more beans than at least 499 other guys. Now he possessed a large medal that could probably stop a cannonball at 50 yards.
And unlike Gatley’s pig and Cunningham’s cabbage, the medal survived. Paul Zebiak can prove it exists. He can also prove Fred Stackpole’s historicity as a wounded veteran.
Almost 30 years ago “I noticed it (the medal) hanging on a wall” at JMS Coin in Brewer, owned by John Simpson, Zebiak recalled. “I pestered him until he finally sold it to me.
“I was interested in the motif,” Zebiak said. “The format is bizarre.”
“I believe the veterans [at the GAR dinner] were all vying for the bean-eating medal,” he said. “I can picture this being hung around the guy’s neck, 6 pounds in weight.”
His comrades cheered and applauded as Fred Stackpole was adorned with the medal, which has a ring on top for tying a cord. By next morning, though, everybody stopped cheering and cleared the room Fred’s beans hit bottom.
Beans can cause flatulence. Almost everything on the entire GAR dinner could cause flatulence. As the champion bean-eater — and Civil War veterans certainly knew how to eat beans, it being a primary wartime food staple — Fred Stackpole probably suffered from flatulence on Friday, Jan. 24, and Saturday, Jan. 25, and so on and so forth.
So the medal, which is also engraved “Camp Fire Jan. 23, 1879,” outlived Fred and everybody else who chowed down that long ago night.
But the Legend of the Grand Army Glutton lived on until Fred’s death in Kenduskeag on May 21, 1900. He lies buried in the Kenduskeag Village Cemetery.
His Grand Army Glutton medal can be seen at Maritime International in Bangor.