Summertime in the Belgrades
July 20 – 26
The Washburn Family in Livermore, Maine
by Martha F. Barkley
Hoping some of you attended the special weekend at the Norlands Museum in Livermore, Maine recently. I understand many Belgrade elementary students have had field trips to the Washburn Family farmstead, community church, gothic library and one room schoolhouse. It is a standing testament to The Remarkable Americans as told by historian Kerck Kelsey.
He has written other better histories since, in my opinion. Each biography about a different Washburn brother improves: Israel Washburn, Jr.: Maine's Little-Known Giant of the Civil War and Prairie Lightning: The Rise and Fall of Drew Washburn. David McCullough's The Greater Journey riveted my attention on Elihu Washburne and his ambassadorship to Paris during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1871.
Actually, there were seven remarkable brothers and three remarkable sisters raised on that Livermore farm with plenty of hard work, defeat and surmounting of great difficulties. As Billie Gammon summarizes in her fine 23-page booklet: "Two Governors of two different states, Four Congressmen from four different states, One General in the Army, One Captain in the Navy, One Secretary of State, One United States Senator, and Two Foreign Ministers." Wow, definitely remarkable Americans.
The three sisters married well. Caroline married a doctor, Mary waited for her future husband to return from the Goldrush of 1849 and married in 1858 (long wait), and the third sister Martha studied at Waterville Liberal Institute and taught school before marriage.
On one of our extended visits in Paris, France, I dialed the American Embassy daily from our Left Bank hotel to try to make an appointment. Since 9/11 security at American Embassies has been stepped up. Finally on the fifth day I received a return call: "How far away are you?" said the American on the line. I answered we could hop a taxi and be there in minutes. The previous day I had walked by the embassy as I explored the Place de la Concorde and museums nearby. Security guards were all over!
Frank and I arrived quickly to more security guards and much fuss (removing camera and passports) before being greeted. Our guide took us into the beautiful hall of portraits where every ambassador had his distinguished spot. "Where is Elihu Washburne?" was all I could ask. Oh, his portrait is in the Ambassador's office, a place of honor! The pamphlet she gave me had a most extensive biography of Washburne's unusual accomplishments while serving in Paris. He was the only ambassador to remain in the war-torn city to help, while all other nations pulled out.
Elihu's family had to flee to Brussels because conditions were so very risky in Paris. An appointment of privilege turned into one of great challenges for this Washburne, who added the final "e" to his name because history told him his ancestors had spelled it that way. Everyday his diary reveals the plight of individuals helped by our American ambassador who stayed to make a difference when he could have fled like all the other ambassadors.
At this point, you may be wondering about the parents. How could so many accomplished brothers and sisters come from one family in a small, rural town in Maine? It is really quite the story and it is told in all of these books. Each accomplished brother and sister had such hardworking parents.
Read all of these books, but I must admit my favorite is the chapter in David McCullough's The Greater Journey. Michael Hill discovered the many letters and daily diary of Elihu when he visited the very stunning gothic library at Livermore, part of The Norlands Museum. [See his Elihu Washburne: The Diary and Letters of America's Minister to France During the Siege and Commune of Paris.] David McCullough accompanied his fine researcher and they sat on a hot hot summer day in the shade of a tree and discovered these marvelous, detailed accounts of a very dangerous Paris. Elihu repeatedly reached out to help victims of war.
Just as Elihu reached out as a young man and helped his very hardworking father on the Livermore farm. His dad was so very kind and ethical, that many neighbors were given needed goods without payment at the Washburn General Store, run by Israel, Sr. (1784-1876). Elihu and his brothers and sisters had learned from their parents that there are worse things than going out of business.
"The bankrupt storekeeper turned to farming and there followed a period of extreme poverty. It was necessary for the older boys to earn their own living, and this they did working as farm hands, store clerks, and teachers. It fell to the lot of thirteen year old Elihu to work out a debt of $25.00 which his father owed to Isaac Lovewell, a neighboring farmer..."
Trying times brought a family together. The mother Patty (given name Martha) Benjamin Washburn influenced her children likewise: "She is the only mother in the U.S. to have four sons elected to Congress. Among her brood were also a banker, an inventor and three daughters." All three daughters grew to be fine women who married well and became devoted mothers with accomplished children. They met their mother's high expectations.
The political affiliations and friendships with Lincoln, Grant (Washburn neighbor when elected president) and others must be mentioned. Also the very well known Gold Medal Flour developed by brother Caldwallader in Wisconsin and Minnesota "was the largest single owner of mill property in the world. His estate was valued at nearly three million dollars, much of which he left to charity." Israel, his dad, would have been very proud of his son Caldwallader.
Who has heard of these fine women and men from one family in our state? There must be something in the water and soil here that nurtures such character with strong, loving parents who worked and sacrificed for the betterment of others. The extraordinary family support and unity brought about great things for our country.
Read at least one of these mentioned books or a chapter from David McCullough's masterpiece or Billie Gammon's very complete pamphlet entitled "The Washburn Family of Norlands," sold at the museum gift shop. Go visit!
I have enjoyed Livermore every single time, learning something new about the remarkable Washburn family…the great gothic library structure was copied by one brother who worked in Hallowell and loved the design of a church in that nearby town…Can you find it? I did…