Friday, July 11, 2014

Mississippi to Maine: Day 8 (Roxmont)

Sometimes family history and reality don't match up quite exactly as they ought to.
Or at least as you've been told as part of your family lore.
And the shift of almost truth and truth, today, was the equivalent of a 100 year time warp.
Today we went to the "ancestral home" of Roxmont in Rockport, ME. It was built by my ancestor, F.O.H. and was the summer cottage on Penobscot Bay. It is a grand old thing,  and in it's hey-day is said to have had an underground bowling alley. Comparatively, as a summer home by the wealthy shipbuilding industrialists and Bostonians' standards, it was considered a modest house, and the H's "new money", even if only by a generation. There is, in family lore, for example, the incident where the H's were invited to a dinner party at one of the larger homes and the host is reported to have called my forebearer "a pleasant conversationalist". We never quite knew if that meant we passed the test, or still were considered poor goobers.

And, it is true, it was new money. My H ancestors were merchant shipbuilders in Bangor, ME and had land and lumber in West Virginia. That took several hundred years of hard work to get to that point of success. The boats they built were not glamorous boats, but rather sturdy, solid, well-crafted ships that could cross oceans and return to home port safely. Family lore again states that these ship captains regarded well, good F.O.H. and brought him back small gifts from their voyages, in particular, beer steins. A sizable collection is now dispersed amongst the clan of H. I grew up with part of that collection.

And here the lines of fact and family slip and slide, for in my mind, this salt-of-the-earth F.O.H. is the one who built Roxmont and that the house stood in the family for several generations before being lost to a series of unfortunate money events, namely the Panic of 1907, where the stock market lost half it's value, and a failed investment venture into Mexican silver mining (1910 saw the Mexican Revolution). A quick dabble into history shows these two events to be easily plausible reasons where a family could lose a fortune and then another fortune quickly thereafter, which would make the sale of the family "summer" home a blatant necessity. (Please note, I do not know the date of the failed silver mine investment, but look into history and one can plainly see that American investors in Mexican silver was big business for a number of years at the turn of the last century, and after much success, to not even be considered a huge risk.)

What I did not know until today was that Roxmont was built in 1903, and that, Dear Ones, as our gracious tour guide at Down East, JB, accurately surmised, is a family tragedy. With this undeniable truth of when this home was built, familial time shifted, for it also meant that the F.O.H. in reference on the blueprint and shipbuilding legend FOH were not the same. One was the father and one the son. FOH1 had died and was buried in Bangor in 1868. So this home was lived in by my family for only a very short period of time and built, without a doubt by FOH2.

Which catches us up to how most family history is told: by word of mouth.

My dad's (JFH2) father (JFH1) passed away when my dad (JFH2) was 16 years old. Most young boys of 16 are not prone to closely pay attention to family history. Grandfather VOH (JFH1's dad and son of FOH2) lived well into his 80s. My dad spent time with him and heard stories as an older, young man. VOH was roughly 11 years old when his family lost their fortune and left Roxmont behind. I have walked the halls and looked through the windows of Roxmont, now the headquarters of Down East Magazine. I have had my hand glide down the steep banister and caress the simple glass door knobs. We wandered the grounds and smelled the sea air and the wild roses. Fondly, I watched my children leap about the wide expanse of lawn, strewn with flower laden grass. I can understand, with my middle son aged nine, how the loss of such a place at such an age would have a profound effect on a person.

He later moved, for a time, to a modest house 5 miles away. JFH1 was born in this house.
As I walked around both homes, my mind wondered if VOH never got over losing Roxmont and wanted to be close to her, and build her memory to legendary proportions. By the time my father was a child and boy, West Virginia was, once again, home for VOH and his wife. No one remembers the H family in Maine, even though, they had been settlers there since before the Revolutionary War. They are a forgotten part of Maine's familial history.

Obviously, I have some serious research to do on that side of my history. To put all the confusing pieces and parts of my family tree together in a way that correctly assembles family history and actual fact. In the dark stillness of the evening, I think of all those many people who lived before me and as my ancestors, helped to create me. In many ways, we seem a tossed about people, blown by wind and sea, looking for a safe harbor. We settle, we prosper, we fail, we leave and we start again. Here and there are fragments of my family past: a building named "H"; a road named "Roxmont". Maine, West Virginia, Mississippi and so many, many other places: scattered.

Today, I walked on sacred ground, but not because it could claim a rightful place as an ancestral home. Roxmont is not that. My forefather dreamed it and created it and brought it to existence. It still stands a place of beauty. A useful place, home to a magazine that cares for the entire state, and a worthy caretaker. But Roxmont, for me and my ancestors, represents longing, that deepest longing to have a place, to belong, to matter. As, I walked quietly along the expanse of her beauty, listening to my children play, and peering through the now overgrown woods to catch glimpses of the Bay, I reached behind my ear and pulled out a few strands of hair and gently let them fall to the ground.
Fall and remain at Roxmont.
Ever yours,
Erica Robinson
Our Down East host, JB, had found the original blueprints of Roxmont,
and let us look at the many detailed pages.