How Baby Joe's Bath Made the Town Come Clean

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In my little down-Maine coastal growing-up town (the date would be 1918), the water supply was hardly up to serenity. The times had not advanced so there was much we could do about it. A few homes still relied on dug and driven wells, and our home had its well in the dooryard, although it was no longer used and we had the town water piped in. However, there were times that the bathtub faucet delivered a rich, chocolate-brown fluid that was a bit too brisk for tidy ablutions. Mother would give us an ablution reprieve until things settled. Our official health officer had said the water wasn't suitable for bathing, but hadn't mentioned drinking.

Mechanically, the community system derived from some good springs that fed into a very fine trout pool extensively poached in spite of untruthful signs that said NO FISHING. This piscatorial bounty in turn fed to a settling pool and a filtering place, and then into a pump. Each evening just before supper time Bill Worden, the water superintendent, would turn on the great electric pump and and go out with his rod to catch breakfast. The pump would send water into the standpipe a mile or so away on the top of a hill.

By times the water was all right, but by other times it would smell like antique fall foliage and many another additive too numerous to mention. The time was to come when health laws were in force and the town was better served. And in 1920 the State of Maine celebrated its century of statehood, and our little town came up with a program that included a speech by the governor, fireworks, a parade, sports and contests, a merchants' picnic, pageants, a dance, and everything else from kin-see to kain't-see and into the night. It was also the moment of public-water reform, and this is how that came about:

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The centennial parade was well over a mile long, and our main street was hardly, so the parade route was doubled back to let everybody be seen. A reviewing stand had been raised in the Corner, which was what we called our village center, where the governor and suite could look at the floats and where the band would play that night.

All the homes and stores were decorated up and down the route, and when the hourly trolley car came along on the tracks to join the marchers and floats it was covered with bunting and full of schoolchildren who threw confetti and lollipops from the windows. Except for the launch of the Downeaster John A. Briggs in 1880-something, this was our town's biggest day.

And Ike Skillin, who was gifted beyond all reason with every talent, took it upon himself to design, make, and operate the best float in the parade - a Rube Goldberg or da Vinci masterpiece which bore in foot-high letters a sign saying, FREEPORT WATER COMPANY.

Below that, smaller letters said, "Our Water Comes From A Dammed Brook." I was there, and every detail of Ike's production is perfectly clear in my memory many years later.

On the truck platform, with the cab fully decorated, was a bathtub, where "Baby Joe" Matthews, a town personality that everybody knew as such, was sitting in water to his middle with a long-handled scrub brush in hand. Baby Joe was exactly the right citizen to play this role.

The bathtub was piped to itself so the water in the tub passed through a farmyard hand-lever pump and back into the tub, a perpetual motion kept going by Roy Marston and Perley Ringrose, who worked the pump handle with furious zeal. The water that was thus visible to the cheering throng was brown and muddy, and over Baby Joe's broad smile was another sign that read: "One bath in our water and you'll never take another."

The louder the spectators cheered, the more furiously did the men pump and the more jauntily did Baby Joe brush his back. Like coffee from the urn, the water went round and round, and at the wheel of his pickup truck Ike could well hear that his float had complete public approval.

And it was then that the owners of our water system paid attention. They had not listened to other appeals to do better. In public-utility arrogance they kept their ears to the cash register and their eyes to the distant hills. There was then no law compelling them to obey a health officer's silly demands, no way to prevail on them to improve quality. But all at once Ike Skillin made his float, and Baby Joe appeared in a bathtub. There was a message, and this one could not be ignored.

AFTER the parade, Baby Joe put his clothes back on, and Ike took his wrench and dismantled the float. The fireworks were touched off, and the captains and the kings departed. The reviewing stand came down, and our beloved State of Maine was in Year 1 of its second century.

And the Freeport Water Co. had a crew ready to tackle a new sediment field designed to improve town water by maybe a bushel of old hardwood leaves per barrel. I can attest that while fishing in our old filtering pool did not cease entirely, the size of the trout went down to about 10 inches. Superintendent Worden had to catch a few more to make a panful, and up on the hill where we lived we could almost measure the water improvement by the time it took the superintendent's pump to make the standpipe run over.

If the standpipe kept overflowing till we were finished with supper, it meant Bill was needing a few more casts to make up his number. This, in turn, meant it was all right to take a bath.

The standpipe is now gone and runneth not over. If the old settling pool now has a sign that says NO FISHING, I believe it is probably truthful.

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