July 7 – 13, 2017Vol. 19, No. 5

Memories: More Local Characters of Days Gone By

by Rod Johnson

After three summer seasons and 36 stories from The Luckiest Boy, I thought perhaps the fodder of story material was running thin. Just when the barrel seemed about empty, one of the old timers that were still hanging on around Belgrade Lakes in the middle of the last century comes to mind. I've mentioned many of them in the Guides stories and you've seen pictures of many of them as well. This season I decided to tell you about at least three of the characters that stand out in my memories as being characters never to be forgotten.

Cass French:

Cass, often referred to as Cassie or Cass the Baitman lived on School Street in Belgrade Lakes with his wife Grace up through the 1960s. They had one daughter, Louise, who I believe moved to California when she became an adult.

Cass and Grace lived a quiet, minimalist life in the small wooden house right beside the two-room school house located on School St. in Belgrade Lakes. We saw them daily as we all went to that school up through the 5th grade before being moved down to Belgrade Depot for 6th grade thru high school.

Gracie, as she was mostly called, always had a nice wave as the kids paraded past her house. Their house still exists today as does the school house, though the school house was phased out and became the first Belgrade Regional Health Center back in the 1970s.

I remember Cassie as a short man with a great smile, perhaps one or two teeth left in front, a craggy face that made kids feel safe and not scared, like might be so with some older men. He was missing part of a finger and we kids always secretly talked about how and why that was the case. Oh, and always the tobacco juice creeping out of one corner of his mouth.

Cass, like his cohort Clyde Dalton, usually smoked a corn cob pipe with George Washington pipe tobacco. They both claimed that George Washington was the best "'cause you kin smuck (their word) it or chew it."

Cassie never sported a beard, but always had at least 3 days of growth on his face and some tuffs of gray or whitish hair peeking out around all sides of his felt crusher hat.

Cass's primary employment during the summer season was pickin' and sellin' fishing bait. This included night crawlers, frogs, crawfish and hellgrammites (the larva stage of the Dobson fly). Fishing was still quite popular in the 50s and 60s, so the demand for bait was considerable. Cass picked much of the bait he sold but he also bought from other pickers, many of whom were the kids in the village that had acquired the skills to catch the critters. Cass was always friendly to all of us, even when we went to his house at odd hours to sell him our catches. Sometimes it was a big sale like two dozen crawfish at 5¢ each or 100 crawlers at 1¢ apiece.

Older kids could even catch a dozen hellgrammites, though catching them was difficult and required some equipment. They are found under rocks in a stream and require putting a screen down steam and turning rocks upstream so the hellgies wash into the screen.

Most any time if we were bored or needed money for a soda, we could easily catch crawfish at night down at the old spillway. Using a flashlight while wading around, we would slowly turn over rocks with hopes to expose some of the critters. Catching them had its tricks but it didn't take long to get a dozen or more.

Another way to make easy money was catching night crawlers on smooth grass that had been mowed, so we all hit the original Belgrade golf course. After the hotel burned in 1956 the fairways were no longer mowed and picking there was over. My Uncle Al Johnson often went to the Augusta golf course and in three or four hours would pick a thousand crawlers.

Cass could be found each morning hanging out beside his old truck right across from Day's Store. Before Cass got his '52 Chevy pickup, he always drove a Ford Model A coupe. People and guides came wandering down from the Belgrade, Lakeshore and Locust House hotels to get their bait for the morning fish. By noon Cass went home and rested up to pick more bait later in the day and at night.

Grace outlived Cass by a few years and eventually went to live with her daughter. Uncle Al took over the bait business, truck included, and later my cousin Cary took it over from his dad. As the summers went by, less and less fishing and more artificial bait rendered the bait business no longer profitable.

Cass was a WWI combatant and was buried in the Veteran's Cemetery, Augusta, Maine. There's a picture of him selling bait on p.&bnsp;79 of my earlier book Luckiest Boy Season II, complete with crusher hat and corn cob pipe! Hats off to Cassie French the Baitman.

Rod Johnson was born and raised in the Belgrade Lakes in the 1950s and '60s.