The Maine way we rang in the Fourth

Quite the proper native Bostonian, at the age of 10 I removed to Maine, which was my father's birthplace. I settled in Freeport, a coastal village that had gone to sea, and Dad and I never regretted the transmogrification that restored him and enriched me. At once, kerplunk, I was in a most different context, where nobody ever heard of the Adamses and the Cabots. Instead of any Paul Reveres, Freeport has a tinker who spoke in rhymed couplets, and a retired pirate named Root-tee-toot Henshaw who went about wearing a tall silk hat in which he kept a swarm of honeybees.

This move, to accommodate my father's business, came in June, and I thus transferred from a high-class Massachusetts school to an impoverished Freeport school in the Universalist Church, which was next to the huge dairy barn of Mr. Edgar Conant. A fire, the year before, had cost Freeport the "land school," and I thus became acquainted with the Maine educational system.

Mr. Conant cleaned out his cow-barn accumulations of a long Maine winter, and right under my classroom window this was a rich introduction to my studies. Mr. Conant had about 100 acres of hay land that he enriched every spring with lavish hand. You have no idea what it was like to hold a spell-down in Miss Dunham's fourth grade during Mr. Conant's netoyage next door. By fall, Freeport had built a new schoolhouse, so I had just that one week of liberal education with the Universalists and Mr. Conant.

Then the Fourth of July arrived, and my exposure to rectitude and piety came to include the Congregationalists and the Baptists, two persuasions of opposite dogma that completed, at that time, the available choices in Freeport. The Baptists, I was told, did not allow their bell to be clanged all night on July 3/4, whereas the Congregationalists didn't mind. The Fourth of July, I learned, isn't exactly the same thing in conservative Boston and in an uncouth and all-out Maine village where you can rejoice without doing it in secret.

The only restriction in Freeport about celebrating the Glorious Night Before the Fourth was the notice in the post office that anybody planning to set a house afire must give 20 minutes' advance warning to the fire chief, who was either Roy Marston or Earl Buck. Earl was the man who kept a retired trotting mare named Evelyn W, and Earl would sit on a stool by her stall every evening and read her a chapter from "Black Beauty." You can see how comfortable it was to become a Freeporter. Failing to report a fire before it started meant a heavy fine not to exceed $1. There was always the risk of fire with skyrockets and red flares, so this was a prudent provision.

The Baptists and the "Congos" had the same style bells. The Baptists' was pitched a note higher, but both were capable of decent holiday bongs when "rolled over" by competent, patriotic boys. In matters of faith, the bells were rung and tolled by long ropes from the spire to the ground floor, and the sextons pulled in dignity and reverence.

But on the Night Before the Fourth, the boys would remove the bell ropes and would start the great bells to rocking back and forth on their belfry axles. When the bell, thus activated, began to "roll over," going around and around instead of back and forth, the boys would keep it rolling until daylight.

That is, the Congo bell, but not the Baptist. The Baptists were possessive, and bells cost money, so Mr. Frobisher, the Baptist janitor, would pull the bell rope up out of reach, remove the belfry ladder, lock the doors, and sit in solitary silence there in the dark to make sure no Baptist bongs punctuated the celebration. And just the year before, I was told, the older boys had contrived a stratagem and got the bell rope on the outside of the steeple so they could ring the bell from the lawn, and by devious duplicity they got Mr. Frobisher locked in the spire, and they rang the Baptist bell all night.

Otherwise, the Congregational Church was always open so the boys could get in, the rope and ladder were in place, and when I participated for the first time in the jubilant enthusiasm of independence, the Rev. Mr. Caruthers, minister, climbed up the long ladder about midnight bringing a pail of hot chocolate, paper cups, and molasses cookies. Several Fourths later, the Rev. James William Law Graham, successor to Mr. Caruthers, joined us one year to roll the bell over.

IT WAS also a custom in Freeport to put the town road grader, or George Bartol's steam hay-press, up on the roof of either the Grove Street School or Boomer Dunphy's blacksmith shop, something a score of boys could do in a few minutes, but which required a crew of men, a gantry, and a pair of horses to undo in daylight.

There was also a quaint custom in those days to wrap a stick of waxed dynamite in wet oakum, with a fuse hanging down, and detonate the thing atop Tory Hill at midnight. This explains why the Day family, who lived at the foot of Tory Hill, always spent the Glorious Fourth with friends in Vermont.

Then there'd be a baseball game, and next we'd pick the green peas for dinner, which in Maine comes at noon- in'. Last of all we'd sit in calm, relaxed satisfaction, and the little ones would have sparklers, and "Mind, now, you don't touch the hot wire and get burned! We don't want nobody to get hurt on the Fourth of July, do we?"

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