When immigration from Europe began in the early 1900s, there were those in our little Maine community who resented the intrusion. After all, these people were not Americans, a word I use timidly. They were poor, different, couldn't even speak English, went to a different church, and had customs that clashed. But my grandfather Thomas, the Civil War soldier, the third generation of old settler seed stock, was not offended and became an instant friend with one Hungarian in particular, George Yenco.
Grandfather Thomas lived alone in the family homestead, and was a substantial and influential citizen with money in the bank. Every Tuesday morning he harnessed Tantrabogus, and in his buggy went to the village where he sold two crates of hen's eggs at The Farmer's Union, got his money, bought his groceries, and then deposited the difference in the bank.
After the immigrants came, Grandfather would then drive old Tanty up Sam Hill to see how the newcomers were making out in the cheap rentals there. As a farmer, he was entranced by the neat gardens they had in their small fenced backyards. They all knew how to make things grow. He tried to talk with them, but there was a language problem. He did show one Hungarian how to nip suckers to prune tomato plants. This was George Yenco.
Somehow, he and George communicated, and the friendship started that has still continued with the grandchildren of both George and old Tom. George and Annie did not know each other before they came to America. They were introduced by the Hungarian priest in our town.
Then one evening, George walked two miles to the farm to get Grampie's advice on buying a farm. He and Annie were earning good money in the mill, and they wanted a place to keep a cow and bring up a family. Grampie said he'd look around. He located a place on the next road and he and George went to look at it the next day. It was exactly what George should have.
It was a little more than 100 acres, with good level meadowland (unusual in rocky Maine), ample pasturage, a drilled well, fruit trees and berry bushes, a barn big enough for animals, and storage for 100 tons of loose hay. The dwelling was ample for a family and would be what Washington Irving called "A Yankee Farmer's Shingle Palace."
The place could be had for $2,000. This was in 1917. Grampie told George, somehow, to go to the bank and borrow the money. So George went to see "Featherstitch Coolidge," the banker. He was one of these foolish Yankees who felt superior to the immigrants. Mr. Coolidge told George the bank didn't do business with people like him, and what was the world coming to, and to get out and stay out.
George came again to seek my grandfather's advice. Grampie had known Featherstitch Coolidge from boyhood, said he was a draft dodger as well as a skinflint. Tanty pulled Grampie and George to the village where he was tied to the hitching post in front of the bank.
Grampie never told me about this, but years later George did. He said Grampie walked into the bank, grabbed Coolidge by his lapels, shoved him against the wall, and said a number of things that I won't repeat here. He then told the banker to make out a mortgage note for George in the amount of $2,000, and he would sign it. Then they unhitched Tanty and rode off.
The farm was easily worth more than $2,000, and as an investment there was no way the bank could lose. Coolidge knew that as well as Grampie. George and Annie soon paid for their farm, lived on it the rest of their lives, and brought up three children who became my playmates. The Yenco farm became a showplace and George a prosperous farmer.
When his family was grown, George decided at last to become a United States citizen. George's daughter made the arrangements, George was instructed by the clerk of courts, and then he came to see me. George had never lost his foreign accent and I could understand him only with difficulty, but he explained he wanted me to coach him so he could pass the examination in court and become a citizen.
Every afternoon for a month, George walked over to Grampie's farm, now ours, and we'd sit on two chopping blocks in the woodshed and I would drill George on questions he might be asked in court. I soon told George that he was ready to take the exam. It was a big day. One by one, Justice Plummer examined the applicants, and one by one they were given their little flag, their diploma, and a handshake. Now came George's turn.
Justice Plummer smiled at George, and said, "Mr. Yenco, let me ask you: What are the three branches of the US government?" This was no problem. I knew George was ready. We had gone over this dozens of times, but for some reason George drew a blank. He stood silent, dropped his head, and then in a sudden surge of recollection he lifted his chin from his chest and in his faltering accent, gave his answer. He said, "The president, the vice president, and the labor union."
The judge looked at George, shook his head, and said, "I think, Mr. Yenco, you may be more correct than you realize." He gave George his diploma and a little flag to wave, shook George's hand, and everyone went home.