One Thing Leads to Another

Mary E Belcher 1900

In my research, one story often leads to another. I used the 1900 US Federal census to help me determine that Octave LeBel’s property was the burial place for baby Joseph Henri Deschenes. Several entries below the LeBel family was Mary Belcher’s household. The census-taker, 19-year-old Bowdoin student Clement F. Robinson, didn’t mince words. He listed Mary as a whorehouse keeper, her 3 boarders as whores, and James Adams as the head man. Here is Mary’s story.

Whore house keeper 1900 In 1881, 29-year-old Mary E. Belcher bought, a piece of land on the Brunswick side of the New Meadows River from Sarah Dunning of Bath. Mary’s purchase was made in her own name, even though the practice of that time was for land to belong to the husband. Her husband was blacksmith Charles F. Belcher. They had 2 daughters, 8-year-old Ellen and 2-year-old Emma.

Greenleaf to Belcher

Six years later, Mary and Charles had a son, Charles J. That same year Mary purchased more property, this time from Bath resident Charles Greenleaf. Then in 1890 Mary bought 5 acres from her husband. The property, like the others, was between King’s Turnpike (Bath Rd.), the railroad track, and the New Meadows River. Town directories gave no clue as to what Mary was doing with all that land. If the 1890 census hadn’t been destroyed, perhaps her occupation would have been listed. And perhaps a woman named Etta Day would be part of the Belcher household.

In the spring of 1891, two undercover detectives arrested both Etta Day and Mary Belcher. Since prohibition had already begun in Maine, the men could have apprehended the Etta and Mary immediately upon being served alcohol. However, the American Sentinel reported that the dedicated detectives made their arrests only after both had received the “full hospitality of the house.” Etta paid a fine and was sent back to the Belcher home. Mary was sentenced to 10 months at hard labor. As she was led through the crowd to board the train to prison, Mary most “emphatically expressed” her opinion of the detectives and the judge. Her incarceration left husband Charles to care for their 4-year-old son. Unable to make ends meet, her husband received town aid. The family’s finances bounced back after Mary returned and she bought another nearby piece of land in 1897.

Mary's Place Between Kings Turnpike, the Railroad, and the New Meadows River. Photo by Barbara A. Desmarais, May 2015.

Mary’s Place Between Kings Turnpike, the Railroad, and the New Meadows River. Photo by Barbara A. Desmarais, May 2015.

In May of 1900 the Brunswick Telegraph reported: The disorderly house known as the Red Ribbon, situated near Cooks Corner is no more. There are others. Let the good work go on.

Was the Red Ribbon Mary’s house? If so, it wasn’t closed for good yet. In September 1902 the Brunswick Telegraph’s front page reported:

The Yellow House Closed And The Owner will Leave

The notorious road house run by Mrs. Mary Belcher is at last closed. As a result of Mr. Bisbee’s work, Mary Belcher paid a fine and costs aggregoling $600 with the agreement that she should no longer reside in Cumberland County. The responsibility now rests on Sagadahoc…

Another article directly beneath the first continued:       Mary Belcher, the proprietoress and conductress of a road house on the road between Brunswick and Bath, known to fame as “The Farm,” paid an eloquent tribute to the efficiency of Deputy Sheriff Bisbee in the Superior Court this morning after she had been sentenced…The judge then told her…if she were ever brought before him again that he would sentence her to one year in prison. He then called Deputy Bisbee and asked him to keep a close watch on the house in the future. The deputy stated that he would when Mary interrupted with, “He’s kept his eye on me pretty well as it is”… wood-alcohol Mary moved to Bath with her son Charles J. She ran a boarding house and he became a bookkeeper. Sadly, in 1905, young Charles died of wood alcohol poisoning, possibly from bootleg or homemade liquor. When Mary died in 1926, she left and estate valued at $16,266. It included a cottage and land in Westport, a house and lot at 140 Water St. in Bath, diamond and opal jewelry, savings accounts, bonds, life insurance, and Central Maine Power. Co. stock. Her heirs included daughters Emma and Ellen, Emma’s daughters Ida Mae and Camilla, and Ellen’s children Edward, George and Chester. Screen Shot 2015-05-01 at 9.30.35 PM In the Catholic tradition, she also bequeathed $500 to the pastor of Saint Mary’s Roman Catholic Church of Bath for masses to be sung for the repose of her soul. She is buried in the city where she was probably born, and where her descendants still reside, Lewiston, Maine – in Androscoggin County. Next Blog: A Flora Bouquet Sources:

Prohibition and Wood Alcohol:

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Meadowbrook Baby

Meadowbrook Phase II Plan from

Meadowbrook Phase II Plan from

In the 1950s the Meadowbrook Corporation bought large swaths of land between upper Maine St. and Harpswell Rd. Properties included farms owned by families named Coffin, Allen, Raymond, and LeBel, as well as the former farm of Randall Doyle Jr. whose father was buried in Skolfield-Doyle Cemetery at nearby Middle Bay (See Anna’s Boys). The corporation subdivided the land into single-family house lots, naming the development  Meadowbrook Village. In the backyard of one Meadowbrook home is the tombstone of Joseph Henri Deschenes (also spelled Dechene, Deschene, Deschine, and Deshain).

Photo by Barbara A. Desmarais, 2014

Photo by Barbara A. Desmarais, 2014

Joseph Henri’s story begins with his birth on July 5, 1895. The second child of Joseph and Leopoldine (Dumont) Deschenes, his story ended on Sept 15th, a little more than two months later, when he died of “weak”[ness], and was buried in the rural farming tradition on an embankment overlooking a gully. If Joseph Henri had been a member of a family such as the Skolfields of our previous two blogs, we would find books written about the family that would help fill in the blanks of a too brief life.

153 Park Row, Barbara A. Desmarais, April 2015

153 Park Row, Barbara A. Desmarais, April 2015

We might even find the grand homes they left behind such as this Skolfield home on Park Row, a monument to one of Brunswick’s important founding families.

Image from

Image from

But Joseph Henri’s parents were French Canadian immigrants, married in St. Alexandre, Kamourska, Quebec, Canada, in 1893. His father, Joseph Sr., was the eldest son of farmer Celestin and Adela (Berube) Deschenes. He was employed as a voyageur/vagus out of Hull on the Ottowa/Quebec border, which may mean he was engaged in transporting products such as fur across land or via river. Leopoldine, was the eldest daughter of farmer Pascal and Victoire (Belanger) Dumont, of St. Eleuthere, Quebec, along the Maine border. One of hundreds of French Canadians who moved to Maine between 1860 and 1900 to escape a depressed agricultural economy, Leopoldine was already a resident of Brunswick, Maine, when she travelled back to Quebec for her wedding. She may have boarded a Maine Central train north at the train depot on Maine St. then, upon arriving in Quebec, headed to her parents’ farm by horse and wagon.

“Meadow” Brook near Joseph Henri’s grave,
Barbara A. Desmarais, April 2015

Joseph Henri’s birth and death entries recorded by the Town of Brunswick tell us the couple settled in Brunswick where his father was a laborer. Perhaps he was a farm laborer on what I believe was the Octave LeBel farm. Why else would the child of Catholics, who usually buried their dead in St John’s Cemetery, be buried on a farm his family didn’t own? Joseph Henri’s death record stated he was the second child of the couple, though I was unable to find either a birth or death record for a previous sibling. It may be that the child was born elsewhere. Infant mortality was high in the late 1800s; it may be that the first child died soon after birth and neither event was recorded. Joseph Henri’s 1895 death is the last conclusive mention of his father, Joseph Sr. Traditionally, French Canadian Catholics selected Joseph for a males’ first name and Marie for each girl, in honor of the biblical Mary and Joseph. Most children used a middle name in everyday life. In this particular case, Joseph was used as the given name of several Brunswick men named Deschenes listed in vital records, U.S. Federal census listings, town directories, and on tombstones in St. John’s Cemetery. None were Joseph Henri’s father. Perhaps Joseph Sr. died shortly after his son. Voyageurs, in fact, had a high mortality rate from hernias they developed during heavy lifting of furs and other items, and from the rigors of paddling canoes from port to port to deliver their product. As a laborer, Joseph Sr. would have continued to tax his body. Additionally, in late 1800 Brunswick, diseases such as dyptheria and cholera killed many, adults and children alike. Or, perhaps Joseph Sr. abandoned his wife and returned to Canada. We may never know why he seemingly dropped from view. For a while Leopoldine (Dumont) Deschenes, too, disappeared from the public record — unless she was the Leopoldine Dumont who gave birth to Joseph Dominique Dumont in Brunswick on April 4th, 1899. Joseph Dominique’s father was listed as unknown. Since the baby’s surname was the same as his mother’s maiden name, it may be that Joseph Deschenes Sr. was not the father. It’s also possible that Leopoldine was a Dumont family name and there were multiple Leopoldines in the family.

 Image from

Image from

Leopoldine (Dumont) Deschenes reappeared in 1903 when she married Joseph Gagnon. It was the second marriage for each of them. Joseph’s first wife was Emelie Brillant, daughter of Zepherin and Amelie (Dumont) Brillant. Perhaps Leopoldine and Emelie were cousins, a common enough path to marriage partners.

20 Oak St., Barbara A. Desmarais, April 2015

20 Oak St., Barbara A. Desmarais, April 2015

In 1910 Leopoldine and Joseph Dumont lived at 20 Oak St., in one of several single and multi-family homes built just south of Mill St. to as residences for cotton-mill workers.  Leopoldine was one such worker; Joseph was employed by the railroad. The census taker noted that Leopoldine was the mother of 4 children, all of whom had died by 1910. So far, we can identify only 2 children: Joseph Henri Deschenes, and possibly Joseph Dominique Dumont. Leopoldine’s brief obituary appeared in the Brunswick Record in 1916:     Mrs. Leopoldine Dumont Gagnon, wife of Joseph Gagnon, died at St. Mary’s Hospital in Lewiston, Aug. 29th. The funeral was held from St. John’s Church of this town Thursday, Aug. 31st. Rev. Fr. A. Label S.M. officiated.

Image from

Image from

By 1920, Joseph Gagnon had relocated two doors down to an apartment at 16 Oak St. (in 2015 a vacant lot). There he roomed with the Doyon family of 6, and still worked for the railroad. Finding no future mention of Joseph Gagnon, I was unable to determine his date of death but think it likely to have been before the 1930 census in which he is absent. The French Canadian families in this story didn’t leave much of themselves behind, which is not that unusual for those who owned no property, didn’t cause trouble, and who may have been unimportant to those who recorded Brunswick history. If not for Joseph Henri Deschenes’s tombstone erected on a former farm off Maine St., we might know nothing of the lives of his father Joseph Deschenes, Sr., possible half-brother Joseph Dominique Dumont, their two siblings, their step-father Joseph Gagnon, and his mother who united them all — Leopoldine (Dumont) Deschenes Gagnon.

Next Blog: One Thing Leads to Another  


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Then Suddenly She Called Out, “Here It Is!”

Finding Skolfield-Doyle Cemetery

Skolfield-Doyle Cemetery 2014 by Barbara A. Desmarais

Skolfield-Doyle Cemetery 2014 by Barbara A. Desmarais

My last post, Anna’s Boys, told the story of half-brothers John Doyle (1814-1839) and Hiram Skolfield (1822-1951), members of the seafaring and shipbuilding Skolfield family. The two men died a century and half before I came upon them, and if it weren’t for Skolfield descendants, their graves would be completely obliterated by now. In 2000, while surveying Brunswick’s burying places for the town’s impending Recreation and Open Space Plan, A Naval Air Station Brunswick Public Works official escorted Town Planner Theo Holtwijk and me to Getchell and Skolfield-Doyle Cemeteries. Both became virtually inaccessible to the public by the base expansion in the 1950s. We debarked from a Navy truck into a recently cleared patch of woods. Before me was a nearly 4-foot-long slate tombstone resting face up on the ground. When I turned around, I was startled to find myself at the edge of a drop-off overlooking the gully below. That same gully has helped me find the site several times in the intervening years.

We weren’t the first to search for Skolfield-Doyle Cemetery after it was marooned from its town. Eleanor (Skolfield) Means (1905-2004) made her own journey which she described to cousin Esther (Skolfield) Schmidt (1888-1990) in a letter dated July 19, 1970.  Excerpts are below:                                            

This is an account of the trip taken last Tuesday to the old…Skolfield cemeter[y] on the land which is now the property of the Naval Air Station…Mrs. Hummer accompanied us…and an excellent guide she was. Lt. Cdr. Villemere, immaculate in his white uniform, cap and ribbons, led the way in a Navy truck…Continuing on, we passed the Navy’s Golf Course, at the end of which we were asked to leave our car and join the Commander in his truck. Then, turning left, we bounced over a rough road to a field bordered by oaks, evergreens and a very tall, partly broken, white birch at the end of the field. That is the landmark if anyone ever wants to find the place again. Mrs. Hummer was amazed at the change in the landscape – no houses anywhere to be seen – but led us half way down along the left edge of the field while I looked in vain for that clump of maples and birches you described. Not a maple in sight.

Skolfield-Doyle Cemetery 2014 by Barbara A. Desmarais

Skolfield-Doyle Cemetery 2014 by Barbara A. Desmarais

Then suddenly she called out, “Here it is”, and started uncovering a wet slate slab under the trees, which she had almost slipped upon. We pushed away the layers of oak leaves and I took down the details which were well preserved, and when the Commander lifted the stone with a shovel there was a footstone similar in shape under it. (As if someone had finally decided to honor the two men together when Hiram died). It was an enormous stone.

Photo by Eleanor Means, May 1978, courtesy of Pejepscot Historical Society, Brunswick, Maine

Photo by Eleanor Means, May 1978, courtesy of Pejepscot Historical Society, Brunswick, Maine

But although we prodded, dug, sounded and shoveled through that heavy layer of leaves and woodland soil, no other stones could be found. Just the rusted iron posts – all that was left of the fence – marking an area of approximately 20 x 25 ft. But it was on the bank of a gully. Dead branches of firs and oaks kept hampering us, and actually we could hardly stand up because of the thicket overhead. Mrs. Hummer recalls that there were some footstones there when she was a child, but none remain now. When we finall[y] emerged we were covered with twigs, scratches and mosquito bites and the Commander’s suit was no longer immaculate…

Photo by Eleanor Means, May 1978, courtesy of Pejepscot Historical Society, Brunswick, Maine

Photo by Eleanor Means, May 1978, courtesy of Pejepscot Historical Society, Brunswick, Maine

Over the course of the next 7 years, the Skolfield family prevailed upon the Navy to install signage and clear a path to cemetery. Seabees volunteered to clear out trees and brush, as well as paint the rusting iron posts that had supported a low wooden fence enclosing the site. The sailors strung rope from one post to the next and determined that the fence had been laid out in the shape of a boat, quite appropriate for the seafaring Skolfields.

Skolfield Cemetery Outline courtesy of Pejepscot Historical Society, Brunswick, Maine

Skolfield Cemetery Outline, courtesy of Pejepscot Historical Society, Brunswick, Maine

Finally the large slate tombstone was raised from the ground and set in place once again. On October 27, 1977, thirteen Skolfield descendants and local Naval officials gathered to rededicate the “Early Skolfield Cemetery.” In gratitude, family members from around the country contributed to the Navy Relief Fund.

Three other family members were buried in the cemetery on Thomas Skolfield’s 1742 homestead, but their tombstones are gone. A neighbor removed at least one to use as a flagstone in his yard. Once again John Doyle and Hiram Skolfield’s grave marker is flat on the ground beneath the litter of fallen leaves, awaiting the next person who seeks the Skolfields.

Next Blog: Meadowbrook Baby Sources:

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Anna’s Boys

Skolfield Doyle header and footer 2014

In the woods at the edge of a gully just off Middle Bay Road, two grave markers rest on the ground. The slate headstone and its matching footer have weathered 150 years of rain, snow, and falling trees, making the names and dates inscribed thereon difficult to read. Fortunately, others have transcribed them for us. The tombstone reads:

        John Doyle                                                 Hiram Skolfield
DIED                                                              DIED
Apr. 7, 1839                                                    Oct. 3, 1851
Ae 25 yrs. 2 mos.                                            Ae 29 yrs. 4 mos.

Who were these two young men who died before the Civil War, some 12 years apart? Why are their names on one tombstone? We know they aren’t father and son because they were born only 8 years apart, John in 1814 and Hiram in 1832. If not father and son, then, were they cousins?

Doyle Skolfield Tombstone

The epitaph at the bottom of the tombstone gives us a clue as to their relationship:

Parent thy sons still live
Thy sons shall rise again but lade
Earth’s fairest flowers
In Heaven more pure to bloom.

John Doyle (Jr) and Hiram Skolfield had a parent in common, Anna (Skolfield) Doyle Skolfield. Half-brothers John and Hiram share a story told in the numbers describing relationships, ages, and dates.

In 1807 Anna Skolfield married John Doyle. After only 6 years of marriage, John died at age 29. In that year of 1813, 28-year-old Anna had a toddler at home named Randall, and was pregnant with John (Jr).

Clement Skolfield declared lost at sea May 9, 1825

Clement Skolfield declared lost at sea May 9, 1825

Five years later, she married her cousin, Clement Skolfield of Harpswell. He was 19 years old, Anna was 32. They had 2 children, Sarah and Hiram. Sadly, Anna’s second marriage mirrored her first: Clement died at sea in 1825 at age 28, after only 7 years of marriage. Both of her husbands died before they reached 30. Anna never celebrated the milestone 10-year wedding anniversary.

Anna never remarried. She raised her children, Randall and John Doyle, and Sarah and Hiram Skolfield, on the Middle Bay farm that had belonged to her father. John, as we know from his tombstone, died at age 25. His half-brother, Hiram, a shoemaker, died 12 years later at age 29. They were both buried in the family burying ground on the Middle Bay farm.

Anna’s remaining children, Randall Doyle and Sarah Skolfield, each married. Randall, a farmer and mariner, bought the Middle Bay homestead from his mother in 1839, the same year his brother, John, died.

Randall Doyle to George Woodward 1872

When Randall eventually sold the farm and moved to Diamond Island at Portland, he didn’t abandon his brothers. The deed excluded the graveyard from the sale and also provided the family future access to the site. Randall broke the seeming curse of early death for, unlike his father, stepfather, brother, and half-brother, Randall Doyle lived well past his twenties, to age 68. And Anna lived to the ripe old age of 81.

Next Blog: Then suddenly she called out, ‘Here it is'”: Finding Skolfield-Doyle Cemetery

Skolfield and Doyle Genealogy Notes:

  • Anna (Skolfield) Doyle Skolfield (1786-1867) was the daughter of Stephen and Margaret (Knowles) Skolfield. Her first husband, John Doyle (1784-1813), was the son of Jotham and Huldah (Randall) Doyle. They had three children, Randall (1810-1878), Margaret (unknown), and John (1814-1839).
  • Clement Skolfield (1797-1825), was the son of William and (unknown) Skolfield. He and Anna had two children, Sarah (Skolfield) Robbins (1819-after 1850) and Hiram (1822-1951).
  • Thomas and Mary (Orr) Skolfield: Both Anna and Clement were the grandchildren of the first Skolfields to settle in the Brunswick/Harpswell area, Thomas (1707-1796) and Mary (Orr) Skolfield (1714-1771).


  • Various including City Directories, Family Trees, United States Federal and State Censuses, Vital Records (Birth, Death, and Marriage)
  • Cemeteries of Brunswick, Maine
  • Cumberland County Registry of Deeds. 25 Pearl St., Portland, Maine (also see
  • Letters to Esther Skolfield Schmidt from Eleanor Means, Pejepscot Historical Society Collections. Pejepscot Museum and Research Center, Pejepscot Historical Society, 159 Park Row, Brunswick, Maine
  • History of Brunswick, Topsham, and Harpswell, Maine. Wheeler, George Augustus Wheeler, MD. And Henry Warren Wheeler, Alfred Mudge & Son, Printers, Boston, Mass., 1878
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Jotham Varney, Father

Varney MonumentWhat kind of man was Jotham Varney, the father of Viola (Varney) Phipps and Laura (Varney) Strout, two independent 19th century women described in a previous blog, The Unvarnished Truth About the Varney Sisters)? You be the judge.

Jotham Varney (1803-1879) was the son of Estes (1768-1828) And Elizabeth (Sargent) Varney (1770-1845). He grew up in the western part of Brunswick, near Durham, in a rural community among his siblings, cousins, aunts, and uncles. Some of his relatives and neighbors were Quakers (Society of Friends) who would have modeled the Quaker tradition of equality for women.

In 1828, Jotham left his parents’ home for his own west Brunswick farm on River Rd. He soon married Mary Jane Robertson (1807-1894). Though their first child, John (1831-1833), died in infancy, they had 4 more children, Lincoln (1833-1908), Edwin (1836-1909), Violet (1840-1913), and Laura (1845-1893).

Photo of Jotham Varney's Shoe Peg Sharpener Shoe pegs were used to bond the last and sole of a shoe.  Courtesy of Pejepscot Historical Society

Photo of Jotham Varney’s Shoe Peg Sharpener
Shoe pegs were used to bond the last and sole of a shoe.
Courtesy of Pejepscot Historical Society

Jotham was both a farmer and a cooper. Coopers manufactured tubs, barrels, and pails, from wood and metal. Before the invention of airtight plastic containers and refrigerators, liquids and foodstuffs were shipped and stored in these handmade casks. Jotham seems to have been a master at his craft: his descendants still own a tub and pail he made.

He was interested in learning about the world around him and became a member of the Nucleus Club of Brunswick and Topsham, which was devoted to the ”improvement of the mind and the cultivation of social dispositions and for moral and scientific attainments.” Members included Bowdoin College professors, farmers, attorneys, and businessmen. The club maintained a lending library and held talks on subjects ranging from Literature and Belles Lettres to Electricity and Magnetism.

Left: Jotham Varney, 206-200 Maine St. Right: Isaac Varney, corner Maine and Elm Sts.

Left: Jotham Varney, 206-200 Maine St.
Right: Isaac Varney, corner Maine and Elm Sts.

By the late 1830s, Jotham and his brother Isaac, also a cooper, had purchased side-by-side properties on Maine St. and Jotham had bought more farmland in west Brunswick.

In 1849, Gold Rush Fever arrived here from the West Coast. Jotham and 8 other men formed the Brunswick Company to mine gold in California. In October of that year, at age 46, he left wife Mary in charge of their properties and their four children while he and the rest of the company set sail. Thinking ahead, they brought a load of Maine lumber to sell. Unfortunately, their ship was delayed rounding Cape Horn. When the America finally docked at San Francisco at the end of May in 1850, they found that west coast lumber prices had dropped considerably in the 6 months they had been at sea. Jotham wondered if the trip had been a fool’s errand, though he took comfort in the thought that he certainly wasn’t the only fool to make the journey.

Gold Miners, ca 1849. 1999.After three weeks of digging for gold, Jotham had little to show for his efforts. Expenses continued to mount so he looked for employment elsewhere. Finding none, he rented an empty lot in Sacramento and built a cooperage. He kept expenses down by living and working in the shop. By October, 1850, one year after leaving the port of Bath, Maine, Jotham had two journeymen working for him, making five- and ten-gallon kegs to carry molasses and liquor by pack mule to the mines. But here, too, Jotham felt he had arrived too late to make his fortune. The kegs he was selling for ten dollars would have brought in sixteen dollars apiece the year before.

Wooden Buckets BarrelsIn each letter home, he wrote of his continued good health and of his longing for his wife and daughters. Always he advised his three youngest, Edwin, Viola, and Laura, to continue at school as long as they could and to help their mother. He admonished Edwin to work hard at the farm and not idle with the other boys in town. He wished his eldest son, Lincoln, a painter, had come to California, for he would have been able to do well either at the cooperage or as a sign painter. Jotham sent a gold nugget to each of the children.

When he returned home the following year he continued to buy Brunswick land, eventually owning village properties on Bath, Lincoln, Page, Pine, Pleasant, Maine, School, and Water Streets, as well as rural ones on Old Bath, Old Freeport, and River Roads. The Pine Street property he bought in 1855 would become Varney Cemetery.

As adults each of his children followed his lead and left Maine for a time. Lincoln was in Mobile, Alabama, in 1860. Edwin lived near his Uncle Isaac in Philadelphia a decade later. And both Viola and Laura married Maine men and moved to Massachusetts.

1870 U.S. Federal Census Brunswick, Maine

1870 U.S. Federal Census
Brunswick, Maine

When one of his Maine St. properties was destroyed by fire in 1867, Jotham built a boarding house on the same spot, perhaps inspired by the Boston boarding house owned by daughter Viola. He hired widow Dolly (Dorothy) Strout to manage the boarding house. He kept the business in the family — Dolly was Laura’s mother-in-law.

Jotham Varney Deed ListBy 1870 he owned real estate worth $4000, on par with his physician and merchant neighbors. One quarter of the value was from his 40 acres of improved farmland. Jotham’s real estate dealings spanned 50 years, beginning in 1828 and ending in 1878, one year before his death.

My judgement? Jotham Varney was a loving husband and father, master craftsman, businessman, adventurer, and intellectual who encouraged his children to be kind, industrious, and the best people they could be.

What’s yours?

Next Blog in 2 Weeks: Anna’s Boys


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Humble Pie

It was 9 p.m. on a Saturday night. I had spent the day writing up my research on Jotham Varney, father of the women in my previous blog, The Unvarnished Truth About the Varney Sisters. I felt I was still missing a key piece of information so I went back to Cumberland County’s deed website and refined the parameters of my search.

And just like that, I had my “ah ha!” moment. Unfortunately, this was immediately followed by a stomach-dropping “oh no!” moment.

Screen Shot A Varney DeedsScreen Shot C Varney DeedsAh ha!: In the new search I found Jotham’s father, Estes, and several brothers and cousins. The deeds showed that by the late 1830s Jotham and brother Isaac lived side by side on Maine St. (Later, Varney sister Viola would buy Isaac’s house when he moved to Pennsylvania.) The other Varneys lived in the rural west end of Brunswick, near Durham.

Oh no!: It seemed odd to me that Jotham’s farm was in a different part of town, though it did explain very nicely how Varney Cemetery came to be. I reread the many deeds I had compiled only to discover I had made an error. Jotham Varney bought the land that became Varney Cemetery in 1857, not 1828. His farm was not bordered by Pine and Bath Streets; it was in the west end of Brunswick.

the pear and almond tartSo, I will update the Varney Sisters’ blog, then finish Jotham’s story. But before that, I’ll eat a goodly serving of humble pie.


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The Unvarnished Truth About the Varney Sisters

Varney MonumentViola (Varney) Phipps (1840-1913) and Laura (Varney) Strout (1845-1893) were born at the beginning of the Victorian era, when a middle or upper class woman was expected to stay at home, tending the needs of her husband and children. Viola and Laura, though, chose to live on their own terms.

The daughters of Jotham (1803-1879) and Mary Jane (Robertson) Varney (1807-1894), they had 3 older brothers, John (1831-1833), Lincoln (1833-1908), and Edwin (1836-1909). Their father was a farmer and master cooper who was interested in a wide variety of academic pursuits and probably encouraged his children to develop their own minds, as well.

Viola cropped unmarried Massachusetts, State Census, 1865 for David PhippsThe year the Civil War ended, Viola was 25-years-old and still single. Most women her age were already married and starting families. Viola, though, had moved herself from the family home at 200 Maine St. to the city of Boston. There she purchased a dwelling. But, instead of a small cottage suitable for a woman living alone, she bought a boarding house. Twenty-six men and women rented rooms from her. One of those roomers was David W. Phipps (1837-aft1930), a painter from Plymouth, Maine. On New Year’s Day in 1866, he and Viola married.

At a time when women were encouraged to be meek and mild, Viola seemed to be a leader in her family. When younger sister, Laura, married Horace Strout of Durham (1845-aft1910), the newlyweds followed Viola to Boston. Not long after, Jotham Varney, the women’s father, followed Viola’s lead and built his own boarding house at 206 Maine St.

In 1870 Boston, the Viola Phipps’ household seemed to thrive. David was still a painter; Viola was still “keeping house.” Of course, she wasn’t “keeping house” for just the two of them. A grandniece wrote, “Vi let out apartments in Boston and got good money.” Indeed she did. Census records listed the value of David’s real estate as $600. Viola’s personal estate (everything other than real estate) was more than triple that, at $2000. Clearly, Viola was an astute businesswoman.

206 Maine, 200 Maine, Corner Maine & Elm

206 Maine, 200 Maine, Corner Maine & Elm

Another family member wrote, “Violet [sic] couldn’t stand Boston…” and David “…hated Brunswick so they parted.” Either separated or divorced, Viola returned to Brunswick in 1879, the year her father died, and bought the property on the corner of Maine and Elm Sts. next to her parents.

Laura once again followed her sister. By 1880 Laura and her 10-year-old son, Leon, had left Massachusetts and returned to the Varney family home in Brunswick, next door to Viola. The Strouts divorced two years later with Leon remaining in his mother’s custody. Horace had already moved on — 10 years later he lived in New York with his second wife (from Maine), their 11-year-old son, and 7-year-old daughter. After Laura’s divorce, the two sisters shared a once-in-a-lifetime European tour, paid for by Viola. After their return, Laura moved to Waltham, Mass., where her son was an up-and-coming photographer. She supported herself by working in a shoe shop and died in Waltham at the relatively young age of 48, from carcinoma. She had divorced a husband when that wasn’t the done thing, then supported herself and her son in a manner than allowed him to achieve acclaim in his chosen field of photography.

For nearly 50 years Viola astutely managed properties that she purchased or inherited, either selling or renting them as she saw fit. She outlived her parents and all her siblings. When she died in 1913 at age 73, her will distributed her considerable assets as she directed. She left her only nephew, Leon, the use of 200 Maine St. She also endowed the Mary J. Varney Fund, in honor of her mother, to support the Pejepscot Historical Society.

Varney Cemetery Scenic 2013Today her most visible legacy is Varney Cemetery on Pine St., the family’s privately owned cemetery. Viola’s last act was to leave the cemetery in the trust of the lot holders for use by the people of Brunswick.

Though we think of the Victorian era as a time when women had little power over their own lives, Viola and Laura worked, married and divorced, traveled, and conducted business. They led the way into the modern era.

And that is the unvarnished truth about the Varney sisters.


  • David Phipps married a second time, to another Maine woman, in 1890 and lived in Seattle, Washington, until at least 1930.
  • Leon B. Strout was a noted landscape photographer whose are in the George J. Mitchell Department of Special Collections & Archives at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine. After WWI he completed assignments in France for the U.S. government.


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