On a snowy December afternoon, six Monroe residents sat down upstairs at the Town Hall with about twenty children from Rachel Norgang’s class at Monroe Elementary School to discuss the history of our Town in light of the upcoming Monroe Bicentennial celebrations.
The residents sat on two benches facing the children who sat across from them. They answered each question as best they could, mostly to the delight of the children. Marylou Neally and Neva Moody are sisters who have lived in Monroe most of their lives. Neva “married the farmer next door” (Dale Moody, sitting next to her).
Marylou began by explaining that the Town Hall we sat in was built by Civil War veterans who used their “mustering out” money to give their town a new municipal building after the former building burned down. The group also pointed out that the Town Hall also used to serve as the High School until 1958.
What was school like?
“Most were one room schools, with one teacher and children in grades one through eight all together,” Walter Clements pointed out. “There were eight schools like that all over town, and after eighth grade you came to Town Hall for High School.” Walter has lived in Monroe for all of his 80+ years, and married Connie Clements, who was born in Massachusetts before her family moved to Monroe. “But Maine used to be part of Massachusetts, right?” She said. “So I don’t think I’m really ‘from away’ because of that.”
Mike Whitcomb, who has lived in Monroe for “40 some-odd years,” said that even though the children would play basketball on the second floor, there wasn’t enough room for the lunch break, so all the students would walk a block up to the elementary school in the village to eat lunch.
How many children were in each grade?
“One year, in second grade, I was the only person in my class!” Marylou said.
Neva said, “My class was big – there were 12 of us.”
Connie said there were six children in her class, then Mike added that there were only 25 to 30 kids in the entire high school.
Was there a sheriff in Monroe? And where was the jail?
“There was a sheriff or something like that,” Marylou remembered. “But he didn’t do much more than help out at the annual State Fair at the Monroe Fairgrounds. The rest of the time it was just little stuff. And if someone had to go to jail they were sent to Belfast.”
Was there a doctor in town? Or a hospital?
“No doctor that we can remember,” Mike said. “If we had to see a doctor we went to Brooks. But my grandmother – Georgiella Burke – was a midwife in town.”
Marylou added: “I’ve been told way back one of the Neallys was a doctor in Monroe, and he tended to people as well as to doing veterinary work for the farmers.”
How did you make money?
Most of the group said that their families were farmers – some grew vegetables, but many of their families milked cows.
“Father raised potatoes,“ Marylou said. “We grew peas and took them to the cannery in Brooks. We grew sweet corn for the cannery too. Me and my brothers and sisters would all be out picking corn. A horse would pull a low cart with burlap sacks on it, and we would pick ears and throw them into the bags.”
Where did you get the sacks?
“They were feed bags,” Marylou answered. “The grain we fed the cows would come in those bags, and often that’s what we would use to make our clothes out of the fabric of the bags. We’d also make curtains and other things from the sack cloth.”
How did you get to snow when it snowed?
Connie remembered that if the snow was deep enough her father would hitch up the horses to a sled and she would ride that to school.
What was the Town Pound and where was it?
Neva explained, “if someone’s cows got out and somebody found them, they’d take them to the Town Pound until the owner picked them up. There could be horses in there, and sheep – anything that got loose.”
Whitcomb pointed out that he thought the youngest married couple in town would become the Pound Keeper and would be responsible for collecting and storing the feed for the animals, and then taking care of them until they were returned.
What were the holidays like?
“Well we didn’t get much for Christmas, not like it is now!” Marylou said, and Neva agreed. Neva also pointed out, “we didn’t do Halloween, but we did give May Baskets on the first of May.” Apparently children around Monroe would create baskets full of treats, then would take them to their friends’ houses, place the basket on the porch, knock and shout “May Basket!” then RUN AWAY.
“Up on Bear Hill,” Mike added, “there was a horse trader would travel all over the state buying and selling horses in the summer. And in the winter he would take some horses down to Thistle Pond and cut ice.”
How did you keep the ice? How long would it last?
“You’d pack it in sawdust,” explained Dale. “Most people would go down to Swan Lake to cut their ice. Then you’d pile it in your ice house with lots of sawdust, and it would keep all summer long. We didn’t have refrigerators, we had ice boxes in our house, and every day or so we’d put a block of ice in it to keep our food cool. That ice would last right through the summer.”
Marylou added: “Dairy farmers used the ice to chill their milk; we put it in our ice box; and we’d use it to make ice cream.”
What were the mills like?
“There were some grist mills around,” Mike said.
“And there was a mill that made baskets for a while.” Marylou added. “But the mills didn’t last long during our time.”
“I think Reggie’s mill was the last one in town.” Dale said.
How did you build your houses?
“One board at a time!” said Dale.
“Sometimes we tore down another building to make a new one. A lot of barns around here have pieces from other barns.” Said Walter.
What did you do for fun?
Everyone in the group listed basketball, baseball, and softball as part of their childhood.
“We’d make up our own games, too.” Marylou said. “I remember there was one game – it might have been called Haley Baylee Over – when you’d throw a ball over the roof of a house and a team on the other side would have to catch it. Then they’d throw it back to you.”
“We’d jump rope.” Neva added.
“Everyone had marbles,” Mike said.
Marylou the recalled an activity of her own: “I’d play with my friends in the hearse they kept in a barn behind the church. It was horse-drawn, it had glass windows, and it was lined all in black velvet! I think that hearse was donated to Sturbridge Village if you’d like to see it now.”
“4H was a very big activity in Monroe back then,” Neva said. “We had lots of meetings in different people’s houses.”
“I used to be the janitor at one of the schools,” Walter said. “I’d go there and clean up after I was done with my school work. In the winters I’d go late at night and start a fire the night before school started so it would be warm when the teach arrived. I got paid fifty cents a day!”
What happened if you misbehaved at school?
“They put me in a wastebasket once,” Marylou admitted. “Usually they’d put you in a closet. Mostly you behaved.”
“Some of them whacked your hand with a ruler,” Dale added, and Mike picked up on that. “One of my teachers had a long wooden ruler that he called ‘The Golden Rule’ and at the beginning of the year he told us if we misbehaved we’d get to meet ‘The Golden Rule.’ I don’t remember that he had to use it, though…”
Where did you get your seeds?
Dale said that his family would go to Dover-Foxcroft to pick up seed potatoes early in the spring. Or, sometimes they would go all the way up to Aroostook County for seed potatoes. “That was a long trip!”
“Most of your vegetable seeds were selected and saved each year,” Mike said. “Then you’d regrow the same varieties each year. Sometimes you could swap with other families if you wanted different things.”
Was there art and music?
“You had to go somewhere else to hear music. Sometimes Belfast.” Marylou said.
“We all learned penmanship in school,” Walter said.
Did you have pens and markers?
“No markers back then,” Walter said. “Mostly we wrote with pencils. We also had crayons. But you could also use a pen if you had an inkwell.”
How did you get your water?
“From a well…” they all said at once.
“I remember in the winter, “ Marylou added, “we drove the cows down to to a stream to drink, and if there was ice on it you’d have to chop a hole through before they could drink.”
Where did you take showers?
“In a tub in the middle of the kitchen floor!” Marylou said.
Walter added, “and sometimes they wouldn’t change the water before it was your turn…”
How did you cut your hair?
Most of them thought that someone in their family would cut hair. “Mine was cut by my father,” Walter said.
Marylou added, “There was a fellow over in Jackson who would sit you on his anvil in the blacksmith’s shop and cut your hair for you.”
Did you have a telephone?
Yes, they all agreed, they had telephones, but they were all linked to their neighbors’ phones, normally all the houses on one road would be linked together. If someone in another house was using the phone, you would have to hang up and wait your turn. “Or you could stay on and listen!” Marylou admitted, then said. “If you had a fire, you would pick up the phone and just crank and crank and crank, and all the townspeople knew what that meant. It worked pretty well.”
Did Monroe have a fire department back then?
“Not until 1945,” Walter explained. “Before that either Belfast or Brooks would have to come help put out a fire. Then in 1945 someone gave the town $1000 to help Monroe buy a fire truck, which ended up costing $5500.”
Connie added, “and that fire truck is now back in Monroe! We had it in the parade this year.”