Cranberry Island:
Remembered Histories

by Donald Wellman

My mother, Frances Louise (Bunker) Wellman was a favorite grand niece of Elzada Swensen.  Among the five children born to Charles F. Bunker and Mary Ahearn, Frances was the only one who maintained close life-long relationships with her island relatives.  Her sister Tina, according to family lore, was born in the Bar Harbor hospital after a sledge drive across the ice in the year that the Great Harbor of Mount Desert froze, 1923.  Frances also shared with her children memories of her own mother rocking on the porch of the Bunker Homestead, singing Irish lullabies to baby Tina.  In what follows I do not claim total accuracy.  If others will verify or correct parts of this, I'd be appreciative.

click to enlarge

Family of Charles F. Bunker
around 1940.


Frances Bunker stands to the left of her mother Mary and in front of her father and older brother Charlie. Tina is to Mary's right and Michael peers out between Tina and Mary. Later a fifth child John would be born.

The Bunker Homestead stands in the middle of the island, more or less in front of the school house and town offices.  For many years it was the residence of Carl Nelson.  The house was built by John Gilman Bunker, either for his first wife, Mary Abigail Spurling, or his second wife, Amanda Malvina Walls.  John Gilman Bunker, according to the Sawtelle records, was a third generation Bunker, being a grandson of Joseph in the first generation of Bunkers on Cranberry.  John Gilman Bunker had eleven children, one of whom was my mother's great aunt Elzada.  One of Elzada's older brothers, John Melville Bunker, worked for the Life Saving Service, sometimes at Islesford.  He was known locally as Long John.  Charles Austin Bunker, who would have been my mother's grandfather and Leander Bunker, brothers of Elzada and Long John, both drowned fishing in 1896.  As a result of this history and a house fire where his mother resided, the young Charles F. Bunker, my mother's father and my grandfather, was raised on Cranberry by his Aunt Elzada, more or less as a brother to her daughter, Lulu.  Charles F. Bunker was the heir apparent to John Gilman Bunker, but he never expressed an interest in this heritage, referring always to Cranberry as a cold and desolate rock.  To my knowledge, after the winter of 1927, Charles F. Bunker visited the island only once, in the summer of 1965.

As a result of this disinterest on the part of Charles F. Bunker and also on the part of his eldest son, also named Charles, Lulu Alley came to administer the estate which once included much of the middle third of the island in pasture, house lots and woodlots.  Fred Steele and Lulu's first husband Benjamin Gott were both builders.  Gott built the majority of the houses in the Lane on the pattern of Harold Wedge's which is the first house on the southeast corner of the Lane and the Main Road.  The pattern varies in the lay out of halls and kitchens, the size and location of porches, Lulu's house (now the Samson house) having a full skirt wrapping it on two sides.  The Goldberg house (formerly Norman Wedge's) and the one immediately below it (Peter Richardson's) also conform to this pattern.  If you visit Arlington, Mass. you will see hundreds of houses of similar design also built by Benjamin Gott in his latter years.  In Peter's house, which long stood empty, there were biscuit and cookies tins, boxes and jars filled with toffees in twisted wrappers and sour balls in flower vases, lamps, and twine and lace, mauve and purple liqueur bottles.  I admit to trespassing here and in his boathouse in The Pool.  Others did too.

Most of the houses in the Lane were occupied by the families of Elzada's sisters or nieces.  Harold, Norman, and Leslie Wedge were sons of Lilian and Frank Wedge, Lilian being the daughter of Elzada's sister Bertha and Fred Bracey.  Through these connections, a Bunker girl like my mother was kin to most of the people on Cranberry.  Too often family histories have neglected the importance of female lines of descent.  On the other hand, in the 18th and 19th century, males often honored their friendships with other males by the custom of including the family name of an esteemed male colleague in the name of a son, as in the case of John Gilman Bunker or John Melville Bunker.  I have often wondered who Gilman and Melville were.

Descendants of John Gilman Bunker
Genealogy and Notes, compiled by W. O. Sawtelle
John G. 3 - Joseph 2 - Joseph 1
b. Dec. 15 1819 d. 1902
m. 1 - Mary Abigail Spurling - b. 10/29/1820
             m. 2/5/1843 - by Wm. P. Preble
       1. Edwin Hadlock, b. 7/24/1843
       2. George Spurling, b. 2/24/1845
       3. Ellen Augusta
       4. Mary Abigail
       5. Adeline

m. 2 - Amanda Malvina Walls, b. 1844, d. 1910
             m. 12/21/1869 by A. C. Fernald
       1. John Melville (Long John)
       2. Charles Austin, b. 9/13/1868, d. 1896
          (drowned fishing) m. Flora Hopkins,
          separated, he took the baby Charles F.
               Charles F.5 b. 1895
               m. Mary Ahearn,1917
                  1. Charles 6  b. 1917
                  2. Michael 6 b. 1920
                  3. Christina 6 b. 1923
                  4. Frances 6 b. 1921
                  5. John 6 b. 1938
       3. Leander R. (Andrew)
                d. (fishing with Charles A.) 1896
                m.
                   dau. Hazel - m. Carl Hardy
                   Carl Jr., Hillard
       4. Bertha E. m. Fred Bracey
                dau Lilian - m. Frank Wedge
       5. Elzada C. b. 1877, d. 1951
                m. 1 Fred Steele
                     1. Lulu
                     2. Willy
                m. 2 Chris Swenson b. 1870, d. 1957
       6. Francis (Frank)
                   Rebecca, Margorie

Even though I was very young, I have clear and distinct memories of visits with Elzada from as early as 1948.  I remember warm and frothy cow's milk which at first caused me to have a queasy stomach.  Elzada kept the last milking cow on the island, although Carl Hardy (married to one of Elzada's sisters) kept a bull for several years thereafter.  There were also working horses on the island and a horse-drawn hearse could be seen on the Main Road on occasion (in later years, long standing derelict in the yard of the Schmidt home on the Lane).  I was scolded for refusing to eat the less than freshly-made deserts and puddings that came from the well-house.  The bread Elzada made with chicken fat, on the other hand, was wonderful.  Seeing her twist the neck of a flapping, screaming hen was cause for respect and a vow to be on my best behavior.

Of historical interest is the fact that Elzada had frequent contact with her mother's Penobscot relatives.  On more than one occasion, she took me to visit relatives of Amanda Malvina Walls some of whom still reside in Otter Creek.  Clyde Walls (relation uncertain) was a well-known native American story teller, traveling from settlement to settlement in Maine, New Brunswick and probably Nova Scotia, with news and stories concerning relatives in the different communities, effectively unifying the people and keeping them mindful of their heritage.  When the Wellmans visited the island in those years, we traveled by train from Nashua (my father's hometown) to Boston then to Bangor, where Lewis Alley would meet us in his Cadillac.  Lewis always took particular pride in the quality of his cars.  In this period (1948-51), Elzada often chose me to accompany her on excursions off island.  She had property in Northeast Harbor, in a densely settled neighborhood of shanty-style housing which for long stood in the open field on your right going up Sea Street.


Chris and Elzada Swenson, Haying

Elzada also had relatives living in the woods in Town Hill in the cellars of what were half-built houses, dwellings that resembled the house under the hill in some fairy tale of the Grimm Brothers.  Her home on Cranberry had a full kitchen in the cellar because she and Fred Steele also spent several years finishing the upper stories of their home, the house at the northeast corner of the Lane and the Main Road.  Lulu remembered the house being unfinished like that when she was small.  Once some of Elzada's relatives camped in tents like tepees, made of what I thought were sheets, on the grassy knoll opposite the Carter House, facing the pool.  I have to believe that they had encamped for clam digging much like early native American ancestors must have done.  Lulu's adopted daughter, Madeline Ryan, originally a Stanley, spent her first years in the house that once stood on Fish Point before that house burned down and her family perished or dispersed.  I have tasted the fruit of a special apple tree that grows near the ancient cellar hole there with roots deep in the shell heaps.

In my imagination, I am 8 or 9, standing beside Chris Swenson, looking from his yard, over Fish Point and the Baker Island Bar, following the sail boat races.  He had been a Captain for the Shaw family and still kept their boathouse at Spurling Cove, one of three large sheds whose remains, including a rusted tractor, can be seen on the beach below the May Tom clearing.  He had an open launch and we'd sometimes follow the races from it or we would work our way onto Great Head through property owned by his employers.  Chris had sailed all his life, circumnavigating the globe from his home in Norway soon after the American Civil War.  After several such voyages he found his employment with the Shaw family of Philadelphia and made his way to Cranberry where he met Elzada.  He was especially proud of a pair of German binoculars he had purchased in Berlin when he was a boy.  There was a ritual of patient pleading and calm instruction before he would let me look through them.  In his will Chris Swenson left a fund for the repair and painting the picket fence at the Bunker Burying Ground.  I believe the principal was expended to install the galvanized chain-link fence at the entrance end, in terms of perceptible beauty, a loss of character, though supposedly easily maintained.  Chris, with his magnificent white mustaches, taught me the pathways through the Cranberry island woods.

In the period after Elzada's death, my mother came to own the house just south of the Ladies Aid Society building.  For the next 35 years, this house provided refuge for her and her children (Donald, Mary, Margaret, William) from a sometimes too turbulent world.  Frances (Bunker) Wellman was a quiet person, a large woman, of deep feelings.  In the first days of our living in this house there was no plumbing.  Heat was supplied by an oil-fired end burner in one of the fire boxes of an enormous black iron stove.  Les Rice would be called in to get the stove lighted each year when we arrived.  We'd haul tubs of water from the Swenson house up the slow rise to our place.  Some of this water went into another chamber on the stove which supplied us with hot water for baths.  Other neighbors were justifiably worried about water levels in the hand-dug wells of the period.  Sometimes we had permission to use Addie Stanley's well which was closer.  She was often to be seen in her old age, fishing for harbor pollock to feed her many cats.  Later when the firehouse was built, we'd get our water from the artesian well there.

Fetching water meant negotiating the social hierarchies of the island.  For instance, we never once presumed to ask Edith Drury for access to her well.  Among other issues, there was a running dispute as to her privilege of having a right of way that cut through our front yard; also we were terrified by the fierceness with which she protected her blueberries from being trampled by the feet of neighbor children.  Still, we shared a swing with her nephews that hung from an enormous gnarled spruce that once stood on the property line, more or less in front of the barn attached then to the Wellman house.  Miss Drury had a connection with the Sea Coast Mission; the Wellmans being the only Catholics that we knew on Cranberry at the time, she loomed in our imaginations as the archetypal Yankee spinster, a being whom we had best be wary of although she would unexpectedly offer us vegetables from her garden.  In other words, the situation made us feel defiant with respect to Christian charity, but we were also sometimes ashamed because of our comparative poverty.  That barn, with its huge old timbers, had once served as an ice house for the Hadlocks in Preble cove.  Down there you can still see the earthen walls of the containment pond where the ice house once stood.  If you approach Sammy's cabin through the woods, the path partly leads over these earthworks.

These were times not only of hardship but also of spiritual wonder.  I learned to botanize the heath when I was 11 and 12, mindful of stories about oxen that had disappeared in sink holes there.  Carl Nelson would talk of his youth in Minnesota when I visited his studio.  He had lived in our house with his student Mary Rath before he took up residence in the Bunker Homestead.  As a result of this connection, our house for many years smelling of linseed oil and oil paint, I always felt a special connection to Carl and his mannerisms.  At this time and for most of his adult life, my father was a soldier and in many ways a stranger to his children.  The Wellmans generally came to the island in the summer or when he was on an assignment that my mother was unwilling or unable to share.  Later, when there were marital difficulties, the house became a true sanctuary.  The family returned from Germany in 1963 and by 1964 William and Mary, along with Frances, began to live on the island as permanent year-round residents.  I had already embarked upon life as a young adult, with my own family and career.  William went to Vietnam.  Soon thereafter, Margaret would begin her married life in a cabin that she and Robert Bundy built in the woodlot adjacent to the pasture at the Bunker Homestead.  Not intending to pursue that family history here, I will set down additional memories and reflections related to experiences from 1952 up through 1957-58, the only year that I attended the Cranberry Island Grammar School, under the tutelage of Mrs. Muir who inspired my botanizing passion and who taught Willy to read.

Althea Savage cut my hair in the period when that family lived in what is now the Liebow house at the end of the Lane.  The Savage house had a flush toilet, but I also know that it did not discharge through a modern septic field; instead there was a rusted pipe draining into the mudflats.  Lulu Alley also had a fully furnished modern bath in her house, but children were not allowed to use it.  Lewis had varnished all the bright work in their house (now the Samson house) to the highest possible shine, especially the hallway and staircase, and I was never allowed beyond the kitchen.

George and Althea's son, Clayton and Paul Petersen were agemates.  The house at the foot of the Lane where the Savages lived had once been part of the Coast Guard Life Saving operations in the Cranberry area.  I had been told by Lulu, I suppose, that the Savages came to the island as one of several families recruited by Elzada to work on the farms during the Depression years.  Lewis Alley and his brother Amaziah, as well as Wesley Bracy and Clarence Beal, also came to the island at the same period and under similar circumstances, from down east near Jonesport, it was said.  The Depression era was a critical period in the survival of the island community, much as today's decline in island population represents a similar crisis.  These new families became vital to the survival of the community.  Offering another life-line, the New Deal era facilitated work on the roads and rural electrification during the same years.  It is also in this period that homesteading on Baker's Island ceased.  Chris Swenson took us over there for a picnic on the Dancing Rocks.  I recall the strange sensation of looking in the windows of houses that seemed to be waiting still for families to return from their day in the fields or on the sea, families that would never return.

In general, while Lulu Alley would speak fondly of her mother, she would not speak of our family's native American heritage.  I feel certain that this topic lowered our family prestige in some way to her mind.  I remember vignettes though that she shared with me from her childhood, such as three little girls playing dolls in the attic of the house that Sonja now owns in the Lane with an eye to a storm brewing out in the Western Way and sweeping over a Cranberry that was mostly pastureland with few of the trees that form the current forests.  These girls were Ruth and Ethel Stanley.  Ethel went on to marry Oscar Wedge, Sonja's grandfather, creating an interesting genealogical loop.  Ruth married Amaziah and was also grandmother to Paul Peterson, and of course Lulu's second husband was Lewis Alley.

From the age of 10-14, during the summers, I'd get up every morning at 4.  Lewis's gray dodge pickup would be idling out front and we'd set out in his boat the Wild Duck for a day of lobstering, sometimes mixed with trawling for haddock.  I was happy to struggle through the first hours half-asleep still or to help Lewis repair his traps on other days.  It is fair to say that Lewis did this work primarily to be out and about and occupied.  He spoke in a heavy but lilting down east dialect of Queen Anne's English.  Sometimes I'd hardly recognize a word.  He'd sing out directions about catching a running line or going overboard and I'd learn to understand by watching and doing.  There were also nights of prowling the coves, the ghostly milk gray shafts of the search lights penetrating the dark water, probing for sardines.  To close off a cove meant serious money.  It paid for the expenses (like maintaining the boat) of the iffy business of lobstering.  One great pleasure that still makes me swallow with a certain catch in the back of my throat is the taste of a warm coke or bottle of orange pop, consumed after hours at sea, when you feel bone tired and the scummy damp of fishing adheres to everything, especially the red hot exhaust manifold (rising through the cabin) where you warm your chapped red hands, the gloves now sodden and caked with drying bait.

When I reached the age of 14, I grew into the importantly responsible position of deck hand on the mail boat.  Once in winter, I was so responsible as to step off the stern of the precursor to the Island Queen, right into the drink at Islesford dock, feet first, weighted down by an iron crate of empty milk bottles.  I looked up at the propeller churning away above me, set the crate of bottles down, gingerly, as though I had best not break one, and then swam to the surface where I was hauled onto the float by Wilfred, my winter coat having absorbed several times my body weight in freezing water.  On summer afternoons, I was sometimes set to applying copper paint to the bottom of the Normandy-beach vintage landing barge then used to ferry cars onto the island.  Clarence Beal, partner with Wilfred then, always took particular glee in telling of the day he was watching my arm go slower and slower until I was fully asleep.  I always maintained that I was only finding a more comfortable angle for the work and Clarence in turn maintained that I had mastered the art of sleeping and painting simultaneously, in so far as he was able to judge from the red copper splatters all over my arms and face and clothing.  For some reason, Clarence enjoyed repeating this story every time that he saw me in the 20 years following the incident.

At that time, I also pumped gas, steamed lobsters and greased the ways used for hauling boats up onto the bank with friolator grease.  As a footnote to the relations between generations, in these same years, David Bunker would have been 6 or 8, as well as Chuck Liebow and my brother William.  Clarence's wife Barbara won a cooking contest and they traveled out to Minneapolis to appear on television shortly thereafter.  Harry Alley and Hilliard Hardy, each on different occasions, landed huge blue fin tuna at the wharf which was then a real fish wharf.  In those days Clyde Sanborn, when he worked in the kitchen in the Port Hole restaurant also on the Beal and Bunker dock, made the lightest raised donuts known to humankind and you could get dried cod from Edgar or Vincent White or others who had fish houses then on the stretch of beach which is now a congested parking area.

Writing a living history such as this one attempts to be, I am aware that there will be readers with different memories than mine and readers whose memories go back further than mine.  If you are one of these, I'd appreciate your thoughts on the subjects raised here or on similar subjects of special importance to you.



Mother and author, circa 1976


Copyright © Donald Wellman, 10 Sept. 2003


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