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John Martin: Expert Observer

"Representing every particular:" John Martin's Reflections, Illustrations, and Commentary

Text by Candace Kanes

Illustrations from Maine Historical Society and Maine State Museum

Events and their dates are the most interesting points the mind dwells on and all history is based on these points. a man or woman boy or girl may look back and sigh for some small relic hereby to enliven their memory perhaps in a distant county when even a person picture would suffice to give them great happiness in the absence of persons or things. "John Martin Journal," 1864

John Martin, a Bangor accountant and shopkeeper, especially wanted several things from life: to be respected and respectable and for his children and heirs to learn about -- and learn from -- his times and experiences.

To achieve the latter part of that goal, Martin (1823-1904) began in 1864, to compile a series of reminiscences and observations about his parents, his childhood, his, work, the places he lived, his political views, his passions -- all intended for his wife, Clara Cary Martin, and their children.

Martin wrote, "I have been very minute in representing every particular for her (Clara) & my children so that whereever this Book may be an idea can be given at once of localities and distances although the outlines are entirely from memory and not made by any given scale of feet."

Martin achieved respectability in that he apparently was viewed as honest, hardworking, and a good citizen. Economic success was more elusive, a disappointment for Martin and, perhaps, one of the lessons he intended for his children.

Martin left behind a 650-page Journal and the three scrapbooks that contain his commentary on the past as well as newspaper clippings and other printed material.

He refers to notes and sketches that helped inform his surviving volumes. The Journal that he began writing in 1864, and the scrapbooks he wrote between 1864 and 1889 afford a remarkable record of Bangor, Hampden, Ellsworth, and nearby areas from the 1820s until the 1890s.

He called the Journal his "history" and while he provided some later updates, it largely refers to past events he recalled while writing it. The scrapbooks contain more contemporary content, including discussions of politics, the Civil War and its aftermath, and changes in society and fashion. The fifth volume is an account of one of his particular passions: dancing, and especially of the Dancing Fraternity of Bangor.

Compiling scrapbooks of newspaper and magazine illustrations and clippings and other printed materials was a popular activity starting in the mid nineteenth century. Ellen Gruber Garvey wrote in her book Writing with Scissors that scrapbook creators were presenting their own versions of events by choosing which articles to clip and how to present them.

Martin went a step further, adding his own commentary -- often at length -- to the clippings. Some are presented as part of larger stories he told or as a way to provide additional detail. In one instance, he pasted into the scrapbook a story about a list of resolutions by a political party, then wrote, "Being that this is my own Book I take the libberty to pass a resolve on my own account." Martin rarely left it to the reader to guess what his views were, probably because he saw the Journal and Scrapbooks as lessons for his children.

Not only did he describe things minutely – his house, various buildings, interiors of businesses and schools, gardens, neighborhoods, his inventions, fashions, his children, his interest in dance, and his friends, including those who went to California during the Gold Rush – he illustrated many of his surroundings in amazingly detailed folk art-style sketches, many enhanced by watercolors.

The illustrations and his meticulous descriptions of them provide an unparalleled record of architecture, businesses, gardens, schools, churches, and various events -- all offered by a non-elite man who has been largely ignored by history.

Martin's father, John Martin Sr., a native of Cromwell, England, who worked as a tailor in Ellsworth, died when his only child was 11 months old.

Because John Martin did not know much about his father, he wanted to insure that his children had considerable information about him and his life, including the struggles he faced and the changes in society -- some of which he liked and some of which he abhorred.

Martin's mother, Anna Stratton, lost her parents when she was young. Dr. Moses Adams of Ellsworth and his wife, Mary, took her in and educated her along with their children. Anna Stratton was an excellent student and progressed well beyond the basics. But that family security did not last, either.

Adams was charged with brutally murdering his wife on May 12, 1815. Acquitted for lack of physical evidence, he was nonetheless considered guilty by many. That ended Anna Stratton's support and prospects of a financially secure life.

She became a teacher, a job she held until she met and married John Martin in 1822. Martin Sr. died in 1824, leaving his wife and young son, also named John, with little financial security. The house the couple had bought was taken away.

In May 1826, Anna Martin married Solomon Raynes and began a new chapter in her life and that of her son John Martin, then two years old.

The growing Raynes family and John Martin moved several times to locations in Brewer and Hampden, and finally to Bangor. Martin, like most youths of his era, attended school for sessions that lasted about 12 weeks. Sometimes, students attended more than one session a year, some taught by private instructors, and some in academies or more formal settings.

When Martin was 12, he was apprenticed to Dr. Increase Sanger to learn the apothecary business. He was to attend school three months of the year. While John expressed interest in getting more education, demands of his various jobs made that largely impractical.

While Martin learned something of the apothecary trade, he ended up spending his time in another Sanger interest, the Hampden House, an inn and bar, for which young Martin had many responsibilities.

After several other jobs, including butchering and selling meat with his stepfather, Martin learned bookkeeping and accounting from Rufus Prince, a soap maker and merchant, for whom he worked from 1844 to about 1854. He also worked for a ship chandlery for about seven years, by which time, in his own words, he was "no doubt ... the best bookkeeper in Bangor" and beyond.

In 1850, John Martin married Clara Cary (1836-1902). They had six children, Ada (1851-1923), Annie (1855-1889), John Junior (1858-1929), Elmer (1860-1870), Frank, who died shortly after birth in 1862; and Mabel or Mabelle (1866-1899).

Only two of the couple's six children survived them. Details about their lives and exceptionally detailed descriptions of Annie and Mabelle's deaths and funerals, along with illustrations of their coffins, are part of the first scrapbook.

That brief summary of Martin's experiences does little to reflect the depth and value of his writings and illustrations. He was not exaggerating when he described his works as "detailed" and "particular." He drew illustrations of, and explained and postulated about, architecture, folk art, the greater Bangor area, gardening and farming, transportation, education, politics, dance and music, religion, the Civil War era, Irish in Bangor, family life, medicine and illness, and, the inner workings of various types of businesses.

Martin offers details about store stocks, financing, how money was made and lost, capital, and the experiences of someone without capital of his own, who still managed to provide a good life for his family -- at least for a time. His fortunes fell, especially after the Civil War, and he and his wife took out mortgages or borrowed money a number of times, apparently to make ends meet.

While he offered insights into many businesses, several stand out. The first is his own store, which he opened sometime just before or during the Civil War. In the Journal, Martin included illustrations of his shelves and what they contained, how he tried to keep people from taking products without paying, and how he financed the stock for the store. He also wrote about the three robberies of his store and in Scrapbook no. 2, repeated information about the robberies and, in an almost offhand comment, explained how the robberies led to the demise of the store.

The other especially stunning business description is about the Katahdin Iron Charcoal Co.in the scrapbook he labeled "No. 1," covering 1888-1889, which was in fact the final piece chronologically of his writings in this collection.

He worked for about five years as the accountant at Katahdin Charcoal Iron Co. near Brownville. He created stunning illustrations of the Iron Company and the Silver Lake Hotel, and wrote descriptions of the business, employees, and conditions of iron production. He wrote most of the scrapbook at the time he worked there or shortly thereafter.

Martin's luck was not the best, he frequently noted. He wrote that the "evil one" or the "d – – – l" followed him, disrupting his business career. He made arrangements with employers, or with a financial backer in his own shop-keeping venture, only to be treated unfairly, or to suffer from a failure of the employer.

His discussions, especially in the second scrapbook, of Bangor during and after the Civil War, provide a view not often found of that era. Martin, who was lame, did not serve in the war, but followed the rush of enlistments and departure of regiments.

His descriptions and newspaper clippings about the celebrations in Bangor of the war's end capture the excitement of the Union victory, the actions of Union supporters to make Confederate supporters fly the Stars and Stripes, as well as the return of the troops.

But he also lamented the increased crime in the city that accompanied the war and its aftermath. His own store was robbed three times, adding to his vitriol about houses of ill repute, "Irish Yankees," and rowdy, ill-behaved soldiers.

He closed his own store, probably in 1866, and worked various places -- Wood Bishop & Co. foundry, National Insurance Co., and probably other businesses in the area. He and his wife took out a number of small loans or mortgages on their home in the 1870s and 1880s, an indication of his financial instability.

He had to leave home at least twice for work: once to go to Grand Lake Stream or Houlton and work at F. Shaw Brothers Tannery. His dates of working there are unknown, but at some point he created a stunning annotated painting of the operations and the people, as it appeared on July 4, 1882. The painting is in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

As upset as he was with the "negative" changes in society and especially their effects on his economic prospects, Martin was equally excited about other changes: the first hot-air balloon in Bangor, the first electric street railroad, a horseless carriage, and others. He speculated in the second scrapbook about things he might live to see.

Throughout the volumes, his curiosity about the world, his desire to perfect everything he attempted, and his concern with "society" shine through. His interest in fashion was, in part, an effort to have the most up-to-date, and hence "proper," clothing. He frequently discussed "society" and the "aristocracy," a group he did not always admire, but among whom he sought acceptance – and respect.

He unabashedly pointed out his many superior achievements and suggested through his comments that while he was not wealthy, and while he had met with numerous setbacks and disappointments, he clearly belonged among the "better" members of his community. However, he is largely ignored by historical sources about the Bangor area. His own writings may serve to correct that omission.

In the first scrapbook, perhaps reflecting on his life and experiences, Martin offered a suiting summary to this introduction by describing himself:

General business man, Expert Accountant, Landscape Gardener, Rustic designer, Origin of Martins perfect Waltz & March. I have been sent for to analize some of the most difficult accounts in the state & have done so sucessfully. I have been urged to go into mens gardens tare them all to pieces & set them anew. I can show in my garden to day the handsomest & best rustic chair in Bangor & I waltzed & march as writen red 2 pages back & I can to day put up as many goods as matts Sfastedt 40 years younger than I am)

John Martin
Expert Accountant
1889