Spring 1973

NOAH BROOKS

Noah Brooks portrait
Portrait of Noah Brooks painted in 1881 by his grandniece Marian Lois Wright. The Museum acquired this portrait in 1972 through the generosity of five gentlemen from Castine: Anthony L. Michel, Hamilton B. Mitchell, Edward A. Rogers, Francis W. Hatch and Frederick B. Dodge.

Marian L. McMaster was born July 21, 1861, at Eureka IL to Margaret Barker (Upham) and Dr. Zalon James McMaster who died in the Civil War. Marian’s last name was later changed to Wright, her stepfather's name. She began her interest in art at Pennedepie, near Honfleur in Normandy (her mother having gone abroad with her children in 1874) under William Hennessy, an Irish-American artist, and returned to this country in 1880. Marian signed her paintings for a few years "Marian Louise," but otherwise as “M. L. Wright.” She married at Cambridge, MA, April 6, 1887, Prof. Isaac Adolphe Cohn, of Harvard University. They had a son Albert Cohn, b. Feb. 10, 1888. She died in Feb.19, 1888.

Noah Brooks was born in Castine, October 24, 1830, youngest of the eight children of Barker and Margaret Perkins Brooks. Margaret had been born and brought up in Castine, which, in her girlhood, was a prosperous village — though it had been a wilderness when her parents, Joseph and Phebe Ware Perkins came in the 1760s. Joseph built a large home on what is now upper Main Street — he was a wealthy man for the time and Margaret had sisters and brothers, nieces and nephews who lived and prospered in the town. Margaret was twenty-four when the British occupied Castine in the winter of 1814-15 and she probably married a year or so later — the first mention of Barker Brooks found in Castine records is in 1817. Barker was the son of Noah and Hannah Brooks of Scituate, Massachusetts. Captain Brooks came to Camden, Maine in 1806 and established a shipyard which was active until 1819 when he went to South Boston “and became a prominent shipbuilder there.”(1) Barker, then nearly thirty, had, no doubt, learned shipbuilding while helping his father and had probably already established his own business at Castine.

Margaret and Barker died in 1838 when young Noah was only seven, Margaret in January and Barker less than two months later. The older children (Marianne and Phoebe — then nineteen and twenty-one) kept the family together in the white frame house on the common and it seems from Noah’s own accounts that his childhood was a happy one. His tales, though told in a fictional form, were based on his own experiences. In “Ran Away to Home”(2) an episode which took place in and between Fairport (Castine) and Doesport, eighteen miles away and without too much difficulty recognized as Bucksport, he might have been describing himself — “I wish I had a picture of the boy as he looked at that time, for it would be curious to my readers to see how a boy of eleven was dressed in those far off days, for all this happened in 1842. He wore low shoes and long stockings. His small trousers came to just below the knee, where a white cambric ruffle, fastened on the inner edge with bastings of thread, made a delicate finish to the legs. His jacket was a roundabout, coming down to a point behind, and embellished in front with a double row of brass buttons, known as ‘bell buttons’ shaped exactly like balls of brass. His collar, confined at the neck by a broad black ribbon, was of cambric muslin, very wide and bordered by a full ruffle. On his head the little man wore a low crowned white beaver hat, from beneath which flowed the flaxen ringlets of a lad who was esteemed . . . ‘one of the prettiest boys of Fairport.’”

The same story depicts the stage-coach trip to “Doesport” along the enchanting Penobscot River — “eighteen miles of hilly and stony road in five hours.”

In other stories(3) he described Water Street and Oakum Bay as they were in 1840 — “active and bustling” — the shore “between Jarvis’s and Perkins's wharves, sweeping inward with a flattened curve a scant eighth of a mile, was and is known as Oakum Bay.” There were the sailor boarding-houses, where the coasting and fishing schooners of the port were beached for. . . repairs, and there was the wide-doored boat-house where three or four old women sat in the sun spinning into yam the oakum picked from ropes and cables . . . fragments of rigging . . . ignobly passed into their last estate of plebian oakum to calk . . . the seams of the humble craft of the port.

Water Street here skirts the inner edge of the little bay . . . and on the “ragged bank were dotted the weather-beaten shelters of the oakum-pickers and fisher folk. There was a long-timbered box-like structure in which were steamed to flexibility the planks used in patching vessels’ hulls . . .” “Under the bank were cooper-shops, blacksmith-shops, and the like.”

At one end of Water Street was the freight and passenger wharf — here, when the boat arrived “the greater part of the population of (Castine) went down. This pleasant custom, which has not altogether fallen into disuse crowded the old and weather-beaten wharf with gentle bustle and afforded the people an occasion for social interchange rather more agreeable than the distribution of the daily mail at the village post office.”

His own and his friends’ activities about 1840 were the basis of The Fairport Nine(4) which begins — “In Fairport every boy slept with some other boy on the night before the Fourth of July. If any boy did sleep in his own bed, it was because he had a playmate with him. But, for the most part, the boys of that period thought it poor fun to sleep at home on that eventful night. They all preferred to sleep in barns, hay-mows, or some other out-of-the-way and unusual place . . . For there was a great deal to be done on the night before the Fourth. In the first place, there was a bonfire to be built on the common. There was a large, bare spot in the middle of the common where the grass refused to grow from one year's end to another, because the bonfire was built there on the night before the Fourth. And to feed that fire, it was necessary to gather much fuel from various and distant places. Spare barrels, store-boxes, and occasionally a loose board from off some careless person's fence, were to be brought in. The boys did not take gates off their hinges to kindle the fire, as tradition said that their older brothers did, when they were boys . . . No boy fed the bonfire with anything more valuable than the few loose things that could be picked up without alarming the neighbors. The neighbors were easily alarmed, anyhow. . . .”

At midnight, as near as they could guess, it was necessary that the meeting-house bell should be rung. At least, every Fairport boy thought it was necessary; and it was rung. There was a bell on the school-house at the right of the common, only, as nobody but the nearest neighbors objected to the ringing of this bell, the boys did not much enjoy ringing it. They took a pull at it, once in a while, for fear that the folks around would not know that the glorious Fourth had arrived. The folks usually found it out before day- break. The town bell was on the Unitarian meeting-house, below the school-house, and facing the street which skirted the bottom of the common. To ring this bell was not only necessary, but it was also a great feat. The Selectmen had forbidden that the bell should be rung by anybody but the town sexton, except in case of fire.”

The bell was, of course, rung and new activities followed, a ball game in Fort George being the first. This fort “a huge, high earthwork” inclosed “about three acres of ground . . . as smooth and level as a ballground should be . . . while the slopes of the fort furnished seating-places for spectators, as well as a screen for the catcher. It is not likely that the British commander . . .when he built this fort, in 1779 . . . ever thought what a service he was doing for the boys of Fairport . . . But it is true that no base-ball field in this or any other country can be compared with that which the British army left for generations of boys at Fairport.”

One of the members of The Fairport Nine was Sam Black, the only negro boy in “Fairport,” the “best of all the boys in town,” a good student, and, although there was a great gulf at that time between the fishermen's sons and those of the wealthier residents, a valued companion. Perhaps this friendship gave impetus to Brooks’ later interest in politics and the position of the political parties on slavery.

When he was seventeen Noah Brooks left Castine for Boston (Chelsea) where he worked and studied — soon turning to newspaper work. Before he was twenty-one his essays and sketches were being published and he was on the staff of a Boston paper.

During the years that Noah was growing up in Castine the American west was opening — thousands of poor men bought land from the government or simply settled and claimed the land as their own. Western New York State, Indiana, southern Illinois and Ohio were settled first. After 1825 when the Erie Canal was completed and steam boats on the Lakes connected with the western end of the canal emigrants went to southern Wisconsin and to northern Illinois. Among the latter was Joseph Thomas Little, one of the first settlers of Dixon, Lee County, Illinois, and a cousin of Noah, son of Otis Little and Dorothy Perkins Little of Castine. When Noah was nine Joseph returned to marry Eleanor Cobb, a former neighbor, and took her back to Illinois. Probably about the same time Noah's brother, Joseph Barker Brooks and his sister, Marianne Brooks Upham, with her family, also moved to Dixon. It is not surprising that, before many years, Noah followed them.

In 1856 he returned to the east coast and married Caroline Augusta Fellows of Salem, Massachusetts and with her went back to Dixon. In the same summer he met Abraham Lincoln, then forty-seven, at a political rally in the next county. Noah Brooks wrote — (5) “During the presidential campaign of 1856 I lived in Northern Illinois. As one who dabbled a little in politics and a good deal in journalism, it was necessary for me to follow up some of the more important mass meetings of the Republicans. (John C. Fremont was running for president on the Republican ticket.) At one of these great assemblies in Ogle County, to which the country people came on horseback, in farm wagons, or afoot, from far and near, there were several speakers . . . among them being a Springfield lawyer who had won some reputation as a shrewd, close reasoner and a capital speaker on the stump. This was Abraham Lincoln . . . In those days not so famous in our part of the state as the two speakers whom I have named (Dr. Eagan of Chicago and ‘Joe’ Knox of Bureau County). Possible he was not so popular among the masses of the people; but his ready wit, his unfailing good humor, and the candor which gave him his character for honesty, won for him the admiration and respect of all who heard him. I remember once meeting a choleric old Democrat striding away from an open-air meeting where Lincoln was speaking, striking the earth with his cane as he stumped along and exclaiming, ‘He’s a dangerous man, sir! a damned dangerous man! He makes you believe what he says, in spite of yourself!’”

At this meeting “Lincoln led off, the raciest speakers being reserved for the later part of the political entertainment . . . after he had spoken, and while some of the others were on the platform, he and I fell into a chat about political prospects. We crawled under the pendulous branches of a tree, and Lincoln, lying flat on the ground, with his chin in his hands, talked on, rather gloomily as to the present, but absolutely confident as to the future. I was dismayed to find that he did not believe it possible that Fremont could be elected . . . but . . . he said . . . ‘we shall, sooner or later, elect our president. I feel confident of that.’”

During the following year or so Noah Brooks and Abraham Lincoln met at political rallies or, sometimes, in Dixon where Lincoln “had occasional business errands.” They “formed an acquaintance which grew into something like intimacy” though, except for a few early companions Lincoln did not have intimate friends.

In March, 1857, Noah Brooks took up a claim in extreme western Kansas but soon returned to Dixon. Experiences of this trip, including buffalo hunts, form the background of The Boy Settlers.

Still lured by the west however, in 1859, with several friends, he traveled overland, by ox team and by foot, to California. This journey, typical of thousands during the gold rush, is described in The Boy Emigrants but no mention is made of Caroline who perhaps traveled overland or perhaps went by boat, crossing the isthmus of Panama and meeting her husband in California. In any case Noah and Caroline Brooks reached California and settled in Marysville, near Sacramento. Here Noah with Benjamin P. Avery (later U.S. Minister to China) established a daily newspaper. Noah also contributed to the Overland Monthly edited by Bret Harte.

In 1862 Caroline and their infant child died, Noah sold out his part in the Daily Appeal and went to Washington as correspondent for the Sacramento Union. Lincoln remembered his old acquaintance and, Noah wrote —(6) “Hearing from a friend that I was in the city, he immediately sent word that he would like to see me, ‘for old times sake;’ and nothing could have been more gratifying than the cordiality and bonhomie of his greeting when I called at the White House. “Do you suppose I ever forget an old acquaintance? I reckon not,’ he said when we met.”

Brooks became a friend of the Lincoln family and a welcome visitor at the White House. He not only reported war and political events for the California paper-reports signed “Castine” and which gained him a reputation in the west — he also reported in person and by letter to Lincoln, giving candid information and impressions otherwise unobtainable.

In 1865 John Nickolay, Lincoln's private secretary was planning to go abroad and the post was offered to Noah Brooks — however before the change was made Lincoln was assassinated. Brooks was then appointed Naval Officer of San Francisco by President Johnson but, in a year and a half, was removed because of politics and turned again to newspaper work.

Photo of headstoneHe was managing editor of a San Francisco paper until 1874 when he moved to New York — being, first, one of the editors of the Tribune — then editorial writer for the Times. He was a member of the Lotus Club and a founder of the Authors Club. He was editor of the Newark Daily Advertiser from 1884 until he retired in 1894 — that winter traveling to Egypt, Turkey and the Holy Land and in the same year establishing his permanent home in Castine.

Here, on “Main street, embowered with horse-chestnuts, maples, and elms” he bought a house “the Ark.” It was only a short walk from his childhood home and near the gambrel-roofed home his grand-father had built in the l780s.

His work, his many friends and the beauty of his surroundings must have given him much pleasure. One can guess how much the town meant to him from his description of it —(7) “the quiet town, half hidden in masses of foliage and bright with old-fashioned flower-gardens, stretches to the water’s edge, where a few weatherbeaten craft lie sleeping at the wharves. And, around all, the beautiful bay of the Penobscot, gemmed with innumerable islands, sweeps like an enchanted sea.”

His health failing he went to California in hopes that the milder climate would help — and in Pasadena, August 16, 1903, he died. Noah Brooks lies in the Castine “burying-ground” next to his wife, in the family plot near Barker and Margaret Brooks.

FOOTNOTES

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  1. Sailing Days on the Penobscot, Wasson and Colcord, 1932.
  2. St. Nicholas magazine, May 1888.
  3. Tales of the Maine Coast, “Pansy Pegg” and “The Phantom Sailor,” 1894.
  4. St. Nicholas, May-October 1880.
  5. Scribner’s Monthly, February 1878.
  6. Washington in Lincoln's Time, 1896, reprinted in 1962 with editorial comments and a brief biography of the author by Herbert Mitgang. Among the biographical sketches consulted that by Mitgang and that in the St. Nicholas magazine for June1876, have been especially helpful.
  7. “An Old Town with a History,” Century Magazine, September 1882.

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