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Cap'n Will's 6,000 Pieces of Inheritance

By John Gould / March 6, 1992



SOMETHING made me think the other day of Cap'n Will Harding, and I guess it was the hoewood table. Cap'n Will was the last of the fabulous Harding family that kept an estate at Harding's Station on the Maine Central Railroad. Having your own railroad station was appropriate because the Hardings frequently had folks come from Boston and New York and Philadelphia by steamcar - the Harding stables could put 25 such guests on horseback for canters along the scenic New Meadows River.

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The Harding fortune had originated early by what we can politely call commerce and seafaring. In the Harding kitchen was an oil painting of a pink-cheeked gentleman in velvet, brocade, and lace. His expression suggested satisfaction with himself. When visitors inquired about this portrait, Cap'n Will would say, "Yes, an ancestor. The one who signed the Declaration."

This was true. Then, after this had sunk in, Cap'n Will would add, "A pirate, you know." This, also, was true.

Cap'n Will himself had retired from active affairs shortly after the war, and just before the Florida land bust. He said he was the only member of his real estate firm that didn't jump out a window, and I guess that, too, was true. He was a gentle sort, and Mrs. Harding, Lillian, was a gracious lady. Back in the 1930s we visited them often in the great Harding mansion, and one time Will gave us the hoewood table.

There had been a maiden aunt in the Harding family, and although Cap'n Will didn't remember her - perhaps he never saw her - she lingered in memory vividly. She was certainly of a buccaneer tendency for a woman in her time, and had left Maine early in her life to become clerk at a Wells Fargo Express office in San Francisco.

In 1852, when Commodore Perry had opened Japan to Western trade, Aunt Helen had gone to Yokohama as a Wells Fargo agent, and for years had a finger upon just about every cargo headed for California. Cap'n Will Harding never told me if Aunt Helen returned to America, but she became a wealthy woman by her astute trading.

Every now and then, as she handled goods as a broker and an agent, she would see a chance to do a little something for herself on the side. She could often work some small crate onto a vessel so it didn't cost much to get it to San Francisco, and in San Francisco she had acquaintances to do her favors. It so happened that she was able to buy 2,000 hoewood tables at little or nothing, and in due time these were transferred in California to a vessel bound for Maine, and one day 2,000 hoewood tables from Ja pan were stored in the barn chamber at the Harding place in East Brunswick, Maine. Aunt Helen went her way, and Will Harding came into possession.

These tables, you understand, were not set up. Each came in six pieces - the handsomely hand-carved top about 3 feet square, the little shelf halfway down, and four legs. The legs were sort of akimbo, gracefully curved, and all was so morticed that no leg would fit unless it was the exact one shaped for that exact place. That is, Cap'n Will inherited from his distant Aunt Helen 6,000 pieces of hoewood tables of which none was marked or identified. There was only one way for Cap'n Will to find out which l eg fitted where on which top, and this occupied him whenever there came a rainy day and he had nothing else to do.

Oh - there was one other thing! When the correct four legs had been found, and they fitted into the correct places, the table couldn't be taken apart without breaking the wood. There was an Oriental cunning to this, so that sometimes Cap'n Will would spend his rainy days for a year or so and find nothing that fitted anything.

One afternoon we went to the Harding mansion to make a dooryard call, and Cap'n Will had just come down from the barn chamber with a table that wouldn't come apart.

"First one I've figured out since 1923," he said. We sat on the porch for cookies and shrub and Lillian Harding chatted away. Cap'n Will was strangely silent. Scarcely spoke at all. Then he said, "I think, altogether, this is five I've figured out."

He made us a present of No. 5. It is beautiful and we treasure it. It won't come apart. No way. But first, it had to be put together. Cap'n Will said, "Aunt Helen gave me su'thin' to do in my old age."