When the First Hot Lunch Came to a Maine School

ADDRESSED to ``postal patron'' the notice came that school would open on September 4th, and that hot lunches would be served starting that same day. This gastronomic comcomitant to inculcated culture is good news, and I must rehash my favorite hot-lunch story. The hot lunch came long after I was inculcated; the only way we got hot lunches was to leave the dinner bucket too close to a steam radiator in the cloakroom. Of the interesting townships in Maine, none is more so than Sandy River Plantation, the source of Sandy River. This lovely stream wanders 65 miles through placid serenity before it joins the Kennebec and starts for the Atlantic Ocean. The 23,000 acres of Sandy River Plantation accommodate some 50 inhabitants qualified to vote in town affairs, so there is no crowding. Sandy River is a wilderness township. So its forests are held by land-holding corporations that deal in lumber, and most of the recreational spots belong to seasonal folks from away. Most of Sandy River's taxes are paid by nonresidents.

Which means that those who live in Sandy River meet every March to elect town officers and appropriate town funds, and they can be reasonably generous without feeling a personal pinch. About 30 years ago, some five Fergusons were listed as town officials, showing somewhat that Sandy River is a cozy family affair. One of the Fergusons, known all over Franklin County as Fergy, took a great interest in the school, and prevailed upon the voters to embrace every new gimmick and improvement that came along. Read that as school, because Sandy River had one school. At the time in context, there were seven scholars. Once finished with the Sandy River one-room school, a pupil went on to high school in a neighboring town - perhaps to a private academy - and Sandy River paid the tuition.

But that one Sandy River school didn't lack for advantages. If the teacher expressed a desire, Fergy provided. Let Fergy read about something new in the way of public education, and Sandy River had it. And one day he read that the coming thing was the hot lunch. Poor, starving children would be nourished physically as they gained in academic stature. Fergy thought, Great Idea!

So an addition was put on the schoolhouse (Fergy also operated a sawmill), making a kitchen and dining hall. A hotel-model gas range was set up, along with a dishwashing machine, a potato peeler, a bread mixer, and other things of similar purpose. Since Sandy River Plantation never had its own post office, the announcement of the first hot lunch was made by word of mouth. This was long before any other town in Maine had hot lunches, and well before consolidated schools were invented. Fergie went over to the school on the first day to make sure things went well.

We should consider the state of affairs in the Plantation of Sandy River at that time. The cottage people had gone by Labor Day, and folks were getting ready for ``the open season,'' which comes when ``the law goes off'' and a man can take a deer. Most Sandy River men worked in the woods, and guided for fishing and hunting. Everybody knew everybody - well. Step off any porch and you're in the woods. These are hot-biscuit people. No place to eat out. Men, women, children - they could get a full meal on a table. They could feed ``sports'' off an open fire at lakeside, or in a snowstorm halfway up the mountain in deer season. Let us just say that the ``hot lunch program'' was not designed specifically by the educational innovators for Sandy River Plantation.

It was a memorable day. The first hot lunch in Maine was a rouser. That morning each pupil came with his/her pack basket ready - a ``kennebecker'' in woods parlance. Jimmie Boggs, whose daddy had been practicing for ``open season,'' had a haunch of venison recycled into ``lamb'' to tribute to the game warden. Lillie Mugick brought the stuff for a layer cake with pink frosting. The teacher had pork chops and was going to make French fries and boil a turnip. Little Alfie Brooks was ready to make a beef stew. About 10:30, the teacher recessed everything so they could get ready for hot lunch.

The superintendent of schools in the neighboring town of Rangeley was curious, and came in about 3:30 to see how things had gone. He found the teacher asleep at her desk in a post-prandial nap, and Fergie was doing the same on the settee for visitors. The youngsters were still in the kitchen, doing dishes and putting leftovers away. Lillie was asking if she should grind things for some red flannel hash.

There is no moral whatever to this, except that today the Sandy River children are bussed to a central school which has hot lunches.

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