July 26 – August 1, 2019Vol. 21, No. 8

A Secret Gift

by Martha F. Barkley

Take a beautiful coastal drive from the author Ted Gup's small cabin in the woods near Bucksport to visit his mother near Kennebunk for Virginia's surprise 80th...What would mother give him this trip? Something from the attic, of course! Even the author's son Matt could not imagine what would come from this surprise birthday party at Grandma's.

As in most families, we know each other's needs and interests. Virginia knew her author son loved family history, so she insisted he take the old, dusty suitcase on the floor. It contained some "old papers." More junk to help Grandma in her downsizing to smaller and smaller living spaces. Continued clean-up from her own mother's death just three years ago. Moving is always monumental and death of a loved one requires too much sorting and too much "junk."

Not even opening the suitcase, Ted Gup and his son Matt packed it the next day in their car before returning to Bucksport. "It was too big to be a briefcase, too small to be of much use as luggage." On the outside his mother had written a label "Memoires: Minna's Baby Book, Wedding Book, Family Misc." Can you imagine having your great grandmother's treasures still in tact? Matt was a lucky great grandchild and his dad the author had the beginnings of family history worth writing in a book.

Canton, Ohio was where the family tale began in 1933, during the Great Depression. This caught my eye, because my grandmother and cousins lived in Canton and we visited them often with such wonderful family get togethers. Not in 1933, but in 1948...still, the railroad town of Canton, where hoboes knocked on my grandmother's door looking for work, years after this 1933 story. My grandmother often fed these transients her delicious cooking and I fondly remember her generosity.

So, too, the amazing front page story in the Sunday, December 17, 1933 Canton Repository headlined, "Man Who Felt Depression's Sting to Help 75 Unfortunate Families...Anonymous Giver, Known Only as 'B. Virdot,' Posts $750 to Spread Christmas Cheer."

The ad within the paper was very brief and simple. Thank goodness journalists noticed and expanded the news on the front page. How often do we see good news written up? "In writing, please familiarize me with your true circumstances and financial aid will be promptly sent."

True to the ad's claim, families all over Canton began receiving $5 or $10 before Christmas. The town reveled with happiness in knowing that someone in their community was so very generous to the needy. The individual stories of how the money was spent is documented in this fine family history.

The distant relative of author Ted Gup is really not so distant. "They had learned during the Great Depression that they were all in this together — rich and poor, black and white, Jew and Gentile — and that only by acting in concert could they prevail. B. Virdot had sent them five dollars. They repaid his faith in them ten thousand fold."

"But even today, B. Virdot's gift enjoys a half-life in Canton. At Christmas 2008, following my discovery of the suitcase, the Repository ran an editorial citing Sam Stone (a.k.a. Mr. B. Virdot) and his generosity."

"...There is no better role model than Samuel J. Stone." Receivers of the Christmas money wrote letters of gratitude to their anonymous benefactor. That is how author Ted Gup could tell the rest of the story in A Secret Gift.

Small beginnings with only five dollars shows how families could turn around their poverty, thanks to these many Christmas gifts by Ted Gup's relative. Not until this book was published in 2010 did Canton, Ohio residents find out about our Maine-related hero incognito, the best kind, after all!

Both Meyers Lake Amusement Park and the Palace Theater are mentioned several times in this history of Great Depression in Canton, Ohio. Young folks were determined to have fun on weekends even though money was short. A world's record was hailed in 1933 for dancers in the Moonlight Ballroom: 3,450 hours — some 144 days.

It was so very straining on the dancers and the watchers (who paid to observe, even in the middle of the night!), that it was discontinued for health reasons. The desperation for fun and winning money was blatant with 77 couples entering June 7, and the three couples hanging on desperately to the torturous end. Mayor James Seccombe of Canton handed out the much-sought-for prize money to Bob "Popeye" Everhard and partner etc. "It was the last marathon dance held in the Moonlight Ballroom."

Even in 1948, I could see the Ferris wheel over Meyers Lake when I visited Aunt Bessie and my two great grandparents who lived near the lake. My cousins in Canton also took my sister and me to see a Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis comedy movie at the old Palace Theater, still in operation. We laughed so hard together at those two comedians...

"Stone himself was not a wealthy man...He also had experienced the loss of business and had benefited from the help of others in getting back on his feet...Five dollars was so little and yet so much."

Sandie Kaiser, who died last Saturday in Beaufort, SC, gave me this book last summer in Belgrade Village. Jim Kaiser ran the Selah pontoon rides on Great Pond and baked at 5 a.m. for Day's Store. Publish this book review, dedicated to Sandie's love of reading and her Book Group at Belgrade Public Library that she started with [former librarian] Marcia Haigh's guidance...so many memories...

For more information, visit the author's website.