Calais Fair Flying Machine and Trotters

Over a century ago in 1912 St. Croix Valley communities were anxiously anticipating the annual end of summer Calais and St. Stephen Fairs. The St. Stephen Fair was already an established event, the Calais Fair at the new fairgrounds on Calais Avenue was only in its second year and the organizers had worked hard to make it an event to remember.

The promoters had somehow managed, probably at great expense, to lure the famous daredevil and aviator George Mestach to Calais to put on an aerial display and demonstrate that indeed the marvelous “flying machine” really could defy the laws of gravity. As far as we know Mestach’s flight was to be the first in the St. Croix Valley and the fair drew thousands to witness what was then still considered a death defying act- leaving the ground untethered in a self-propelled machine of wood, flimsy fabric and thin wire propelled by an internal combustion engine of questionable reliability. Meshach is seen in the photo above just over the outfield of what is now the high school baseball field. Lafayette Street is in the background.

Just how dangerous early aviation could be was proven time and again at similar fairs throughout the country. About a week later Meshach nearly lost his life at a fair in Cicero Illinois. While in Calais he impressed the stunned crowd with feats of flying skill although in those early days of flight simply landing and taking off without serious injury or death was sufficient to amaze the spectators. In addition to Mestach, both the St. Stephen and Calais Fairs offered a wide variety of other entertainment-pole diving, boxing matches, firemen’s sports, daily baseball games, exotic dancers, foot races, snake charmers, fortune tellers, ox pulls, exhibitions of award winning critters, farm produce and baked goods, there was no end of fun at the fair and the event was attended by thousands every day.

Regardless of your choice of entertainment the main event for many was the races. People flocked to the fair from far and wide to chance some of their summer earnings on the horses, specifically the trotters. A good trotter was nearly worth its weight in gold back in the early 1900’s. Prize money at an event like the Calais Fair was often two to three thousand dollars- $75,000 in today’s money. It should come as no surprise that “stock farms” which bred and raised trotters were an industry in the St. Croix Valley. The largest was Todd’s at Todd’s Point in St. Stephen but the one owned by J.M. Johnson, a Calais man had a national reputation.

J.M. Johnson (John Moore) can be seen above in a caricature done for the Lewiston Sun in the early 1900’s as part of a series on interesting Maine characters.

In the late 40s this home on Hinckley Hill, formerly the Ben Gardiner house, became the hospital annex at which most of the children in the area were born. john johnson later owned the home.

J.M, as he was called locally, lived in the beautiful Young house at the crest of Hinckley Hill which in later days became the hospital annex where many of Calais’ finest were brought into the world after World War Two. John was born in 1856 in Norwalk Connecticut and probably moved to Calais in the 1890’s. In the 1900 census widowed and with two daughters, ages 21 and 15, we find him living in the Young house. In 1901 he married Nettie Boca Pike a native of Cuba. According to the census his occupation in 1900 was wool merchant.

While Johnson was certainly a wool merchant it appears the Calais Tanning Company, which was located in the building adjacent to the wool factory, was his main business. Both buildings were located at the bottom of Steamboat Street and the Calais Weekly Times of October 25, 1900 describes their operation as follows:

Heretofore lumber has been the important thing in Calais but in recent years we have begun to come in touch with those other great interests-wool and leather. Shoe manufacturing was begun here in 1886 and wool pulling and tanning in 1891. In the latter industry J.M. Johnson and Co. are the representatives. In wool the firm pulls about 150,000 sheep skins a year. They buy their skins, both sheep and calf, in the West, in Maine and in the Provinces and after stripping them they turn them over to the Calais Tanning Company for tanning.

The above account is fine as far as it goes. However, it was claimed, probably truthfully, that Johnson acquired a good many of his hides from the Maritimes Provinces by the most expeditious route possible-across the St. Croix from the conveniently near Canadian shore to the bottom of Steamboat Street and directly into his factory, an operation accomplished of necessity in the hours of darkness. From Davis’ history of the St. Croix:

J. M. Johnson, of Calais, who operated the Calais Tannery Company at the lower wharf was hailed before the Federal District Court in Bangor and accused of smuggling large quantities of wool and sheepskins across the river from St. Stephen in barges.  To everybody’s delight the government failed to sustain its charges. When the treasury agents who made the investigation returned to Calais after the trial they were chased by small boys and pelted with flour and rotten eggs. Mr. Johnson was given an ovation. There are those who say that the former mayor was a smuggler, that a great part of his hides and wool were never declared, but everybody is agreed that he paid the best wages on the river, and some accuse the other employers of attempting to bring about his ruin by informing against him. At any rate nobody except treasury agents could be found to testify.

The Calais Times of June 18, 1906 reported his triumphal return on the Bangor train the day after his trial:

He returned to his home here at noon Saturday and was accorded a hearty welcome, the merchants of the town generally assembling at the depot to meet him…There was a desire on the part of the people to congratulate him on the vindication of his good name and business integrity which the people here realized had been assailed by over zealous officials who had paid too much heed to the fairy tales told by an undesirable class in the community who seemed ever ready to turn a dollar in any way they can. The special agents had fallen ready victims to these men who early in the game found that there was money in filling the ears of the specials with wild tales of smuggling.”

We know, of course, that these “wild tales of smuggling” were for the most part true and far from being exaggerations were simply a way of life on the border, both for individuals and on an industrial scale such as alleged in the Johnson case. The reward offered by the revenue collectors for tips on smuggling could never compensate for a snitch’s social ostracism by the community.

This was especially true if the alleged smuggler was a popular fellow like J.M Johnson. In 1904 he was elected mayor of the City although he had lost an election for alderman in 1902. His 1902 campaign had been hampered, it appears, by a miscalculation on the type of bribe acceptable in Ward 6. The 1902 campaign is described by Everett Hitchings, a relative of the winner John Young:

Around 1902 an unusual election campaign for the office of Alderman, Ward 6, was waged between John N. Young, Democrat, and John M. Johnson, Republican,  a “hail· fellow well  met”  type  who  liked  a  bit  of  carousing.   As the campaign was reaching its end, Johnson passed out bottles of liquor to the voters, as was common practice in those days, despite the fact that Maine had a prohibition law.  Now John Young was a  staunch “dry” and allowed no intoxicating liquor on his farm, so he delivered bags of flour (stored in his barn)  to the homes of the same voters who  received  the liquor,  and  defeated  John M. Johnson  by  a  few votes. Remember, this was before women were allowed to vote, but their influence on their husbands was strongly in favor of flour, and against the “demon rum.” Enough irate wives twisted their spouse’s arms so that flour conquered   strong drink.   

The foundation of much of J.M. Johnson’s popularity in town was his impeccable judgment when it came to horses. Johnson knew a good horse when he saw one and was not shy about paying top dollar for a good trotter- especially a brood mare. The Calais Stock Farm, which was behind Johnson’s house on Hinckley Hill, was home to some of the finest trotters of the era including Nancy Hanks, the fastest brood mare in the country in 1900.

Nancy Hanks is a name which might pique your memory- it did ours but it took Google to remind us she was Abraham Lincoln’s mother. Johnson bought her $4000, nearly $100,000 in today’s money and added her to his Calais stables. She joined many other fine trotters at the farm but as brood mare she was unequalled. As the head of the Calais Trotting Association Johnson was responsible for organizing the races and other events at the old trotting park which bordered his stock farm on Hinckley Hill. The track was accessed in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s through the driveway that now leads to Arnie Clark’s house on Hinckley Hill. John Mitchell says the track was still there in the 1950s and remembers driving scooters around the oval with his brother Geoff.

 In 1904 J.M. Johnson bought a stock farm in Andover Massachusetts and put his brother in charge of the operation. He gradually began to transfer some of his horses to Andover. Sometime after the unfortunate smuggling case and perhaps because of it he bought the famous Forbes Stock Farm in Canton Massachusetts and moved with his family to Canton. He was last in Calais in 1909 when he returned to celebrate the Calais Centennial, still a much beloved and admired figure in the St. Croix Valley.

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