The Hallowell House

Second article in the series celebrating Hallowell’s 250th Anniversary, as published in the Capital Weekly on January 13, 2012

by Frank O’Hara
November 10, 2011

Hallowell has changed a lot over the years. Once we quarried granite, cut ice, and sewed shoes. Now we sing, play the guitar, and bake large cookies — or at least that’s the impression I get walking down Water Street.

But one thing hasn’t changed. Hallowell always was, is now, and always will be, a political town. Residents Joseph Bodwell and John Hubbard were governors of Maine. George Evans served in the United States Senate. Hiram Belcher and John Otis served in the United States Congress.

Haven’t heard of these guys? Well, that’s a subject for another column. Meanwhile, I want to get into some dirt.

Where there is politics, there are deals. Just drop in the Liberal Cup some evening at five o’clock. There’s Dick Trahey in the corner schmoozing up some clients. There’s Severin Beliveau and Kevin Mattson buying and selling buildings. There’s Bill Bridgeo and Cornell Knight and Michael Starn and Bob Devlin discussing the finer points of municipal management.

In the old days, the Liberal Cup didn’t exist. How did Hallowell survive? Where were the deals done?

The answer is out the back door from the Liberal Cup, up the street towards the railroad tracks. That’s where the old Hallowell House stood, now the home of the Public Utilities Commission and Efficiency Maine. There, at the bar and in the hotel rooms, political business got done.

William R. Pattangall reported on one such meeting in the Hallowell House on February 6, 1904, in his book the “Meddybemps Letters.” This was a series of letters from a fictitious legislator named Stephan A. Douglas Smith satirizing the politics of the day. The letters were originally published in the Machias Union newspaper.

Now Mr. Pattangall had many fine attributes — lawyer, mayor of Waterville, attorney general of Maine, chief justice of the Maine Supreme Court. But he had one fatal flaw. He was a Democrat at a time when Republicans ran the state. For that reason he never succeeded, though he often tried, to win election as governor or congressman.

But Pattangall had the last laugh. His satires on the Republicans at the turn of the last century live on, even as the politicians he wrote about are now forgotten.

So back to the Hallowell House. Mr. Smith is in the hotel, on a trip to sell some plows to a gentleman from Boston. There’s a lot of noise in the room next door. He goes over to tell them to quiet down. It turns out to be a meeting of the Republican State Committee.

The topic was how to win the next election. “Let Johnny Miller out of jail,” one man offered helpfully. Several other candidates were suggested. Then Mr. Carr cut to the quick. “How can we win? Same old way. Buy it.”

“But it’s getting high,” objected another. “Those French families in Northern Aroostook get more numerous every year and with a good potato crop it would cost us a barrel of money to get the votes.”

Butler made a suggestion. “Let each one of us put up ten percent of the amount we made out of politics last year and start a campaign fund with it. That’s what the early Christians contributed to the support of the church.”

“The Republican party is no church,” Simpson objected.

Several more money making schemes were discussed and rejected. Finally Simpson put forward a simple strategy. “If this question of winning resolves itself into a campaign fund raising scheme, I can give it to you, nominate Isaiah Stetson for President of the Senate, he will pay any price.”

Carter objected, “Who would preside over the Senate if he was President? When he was Speaker, he had Cotton to run the business, but there isn’t anyone to preside over the Senate like Cotton.”

Goodwin answers contemptuously, “Anyone can preside over the Senate.” With that it was mealtime, and business was adjourned to head to the dining room.

Now I ask you, couldn’t an attentive listener hear this same conversation take place in the Liberal Cup today? Only you, dear reader, must fill in the names of the talkers, because I, unlike William R. Pattangall, am not professionally qualified to defend myself in court against a libel suit!