In 1868, William Thomas, an itinerant Baptist minister, and his family traveled East from Nebraska in a covered wagon, guided part way by a Sioux warrior. The guide was paid for his services with a fox skin. This event of 140 years ago was reported by Charles Wilson in the Farmington (Maine) Chronicle newspaper of April 7, 1936. I find this information of particular interest because the minister was one of my great-grandfathers.
My exchange of greetings at Christmas reinforces links with family and friends and provides news with a reminder of the seasons meaning. Those Sally and I send messages to live miles away and the news sent and received, while eventful and appreciated, is not entirely unexpected, but sometimes the news is unexpected and thought provoking.
My second cousin, Martin Craine, and his wife of Scarborough, Maine, sent a Christmas message, enclosing a photocopy of a three-column story that was published shortly after the March 28, 1936, death of my paternal grandfather. The essay also referenced William Thomas, my great-grandfather, providing a glimpse of life on the Great Plains a century and a half ago.
As a youngster, I would visit my grandparents in Kingfield, Maine - population less than 1,000 - located east of the Rangley Lakes and south of the Sugarloaf Ski Area, every summer and sometimes in the winter. One winter, we found our eskimo dog, Chinook, there. In the 1930s, Kingfield was a town two blocks long or so that included a hotel, movie theater, barber shop, gas station that sold Dixie Cup ice cream with photos of cowboys and Native Americans under the lids, an IGA store, a watering trough that bubbled spring water for the horses (and the kids, too) and a telephone switchboard in my cousin's living room. The local folks sometimes apprised newcomers of the Stanley Steamer automobile, which was invented in Kingfield in 1897. In 1906, a land speed record of 127.6 mph was set by a Stanley. The Stanley Museum was established in 1981 and located in a former school my father had attended.
Grandfather John Thomas died when I was 6 years old. He was deaf and didn't easily communicate with others. I had a sense, though, that he loved me in his reserved Victorian manner. He carved wooden toys for me. In his younger days when he was able to hear, he was reported to have been notably sociable and a storyteller. That is how the newspaper columnist learned about my great-grandfather and the covered wagon days, preaching and proselytizing his way to the West.
When my grandfather was born in Omaha in 1859, it was reported there were but 40 families living on the bank of the Missouri River in the heart of the Sioux nation. The population of metropolitan Omaha today is more than 830,000.
Some people thrive on change, look at it as an adventure, a challenge to do something important, different, or maybe escape from something unpleasant. My grandfather lived in Omaha until he was 9. The reporter said, "He loved to recall the wagons rolling West with men bound for the gold fields of California and others marching up the Oregon Trail through Forts Kearney and Laramie; the great floods in the Missouri when the cattle had to be swum across and wagons and families rafted over; and the fascination to the child's eyes of painted, feathered Indians looking to trade and beg food.
"Mr. Thomas told this writer how the ceiling of the sod and plank houses was installed. A cotton sheet was stretched from wall to wall under the ceiling. When you saw the sheet sagging, you knew that a rattlesnake had made his way under the eaves to take a nap."
These frontier experiences, colorful and stimulating as they were to kids, probably influenced the parents to move East to provide a formal education for the children.
The holiday greetings and news of my great-grandfather and grandfather made my Christmas special this year. It also refreshed childhood memories of pulp logs tumbling south on the Androscoggin River toward the paper mills of Auburn and Lewiston, fishing for landlocked salmon, and good times with family in Maine.