What 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).
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.
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.
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.
In 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.
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.
By 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.
Next Blog in 2 Weeks: Anna’s Boys
- Ancestry.com: Agricultural Census of Brunswick, Maine; U. S. City Directories for Brunswick, Maine; United States Federal Census Records, Brunswick, Cumberland, Maine; Varney Genealogies and Family Trees
- Brattleboro History http://brattleborohistory.com/merchant-manufacture/the-old-shoe-peg-factory.html
- Colonial Williamsburg http://www.history.org/almanack/life/trades/tradecoo.cfm
- Cumberland County Registry of Deeds. 25 Pearl St., Portland, Maine (also see https://me.uslandrecords.com/ME/Cumberland/D/Default.aspx)
- Mystic Seaport http://www.mysticseaport.org/locations/village/cooperage/
- Constitution, rules and orders, by-laws and library regulations of the Nucleus Club, instituted April 7, 1820. Nucleus Club (Brunswick, Me.). Griffin’s Press, 1830. Books.Google.com
- Pejepscot Historical Society Photograph Collection. Pejepscot Museum and Research Center, Pejepscot Historical Society, 159 Park Row, Brunswick, Maine
- Diary and 8 letters, 1849-1851. Jotham Varney. Xerox of typed copies. From the collections at North Baker Research Library, California Historical Society, San Francisco, California. Call number MS 2218.
- History of Brunswick, Topsham, and Harpswell, Maine. Wheeler, George Augustus Wheeler, MD. And Henry Warren Wheeler, Alfred Mudge & Son, Printers, Boston, Mass., 1878