Genealogical and Family History
STATE OF MAINE
Compiled under the editorial supervision of George Thomas Little, A. M., Litt. D.
LEWIS HISTORICAL PUBLISHING COMPANY
[Please see Index page for full citation.]
[Transcribed by Coralynn Brown]
[Many families included in these genealogical records had their beginnings in Massachusetts.]
John Curtis (1) was born in 1800 and died in Portland in 1869, aged sixty-nine years. For many years he followed the sea, while his family lived on a farm in Bradford, Maine. From there they moved to Bangor, where he and his son John began preparing gum for the market. In order to be nearer the market they came to Portland, Maine, where Curtis & Son made a fortune in the industry they had started in a humble way. John Curtis was a hardworking man, and had a reputation of being perfectly honest. He died highly respected by all who knew him.
He married Mary B. Bacon.
John B., Charles H. and Mary E.
(II) John Bacon, son of John and Mary Brown (Bacon) Curtis, born in Hampden, Oct. 10, 1827, died in Portland June 13, 1897, aged sevety years. He attended the common schools a short time in his boyhood, and then turned to making a living for himself and assisting his father and other members of the family. He worked for a time on a farm for five dollars a month, later he received sixteen dollars, and at last twenty-four dollars a month. Many years afterward he said that the proudest day of his life was when he gave his mother the first money he received for his labor. He worked in the woods for a time as a swamper; that is, he cleared away the underbrush, and blocked out the roads through the woods. There his attention became fixed upon the practicability of gathering and selling spruce gum as a business. After leaving the woods he talked with his father about the idea. John Curtis was a cautious man, and he doubted if any one would want to buy gum for chrewing or other purposes. The matter was finally decided when Mrs. Curtis said, "Try it." The family moved to Bangor, and there, over an old Franklin stove in the kitchen of the Curtis house, the first lot of gum was made. The first label was printed. The "State of Maine Pure Spruce Gum" it was called, and the firm of Curtis & Son sprang into existence. When a sufficient amount had been made to market, John B. Curtis took it to Portland. For two days he walked the streets and tried to find a buyer among the merchants, but found none. The third day found him still talking spruce gum, but to those who could not be made to see there was money in it. At last he found a man who bought his merchandise, which at first he had hard work to sell, but which soon sold itself. The gum business up to 1848 did not afford employment enough for two, and John B. went on the road as a pedler, and sold Curtis' Spruce Gum, patent medicine, and so on, having for his motto, "Give a man all you can for his money, while making a fair profit yourself." The motto was strictly lived up to, and the business at home and on the road prospered greatly. He was very shrewd and very energetic, and drove the best team ever attached to a pedler's wagon, with the single exception of the pair Colonel James Fisk owned when he was on the road. It was by driving the best team he could get that Mr. Curtis "got around" his opponents, for in those days the wholesale pedler was a great New England institution, and the most active man got the principal part of the patronage. "When the other fellows thought I was in bed," said Mr. Curtis once, when talking of his early days, "I was on the road. By driving nights I got in ahead many times, and had the trade all to myself." He began this work in 1850, and in his travels with his cart covered all New England, and the first year he collected six thousand dollars in money.
The time soon came, hwoever, when, in the opinion of father and son, there was more money to be made in some other direction, that John B. could be of more use in a wider field, and that the West should be included in the territory their business should cover. So John B. Curtis changed from pedler to commercial traveler, and was perhaps the firs5t of the drummers. It may be some one else will be found who was on the road before his time, but it is safe to say that he had a larger circuit than any drummer before - or since. He was one of the first, if not the first commercial traveler to go West as the representative of an Eastern business house. He went all over the West in advance of the railroads, opening up business. In those days journeys were made with some difficulty. For example, he went from Portland to Philadelphia by water, thence by canal to Pittsburg, from Pittsburg to St. Louis by the Ohio river, from St. Louis to St. Paul on the Mississippi, making the entire distance by water. He carried his stock with him, took orders, gave credit for one year, made money and many friends, and had over one thousand of the customers of forty years before, and their successors in the West alone.
In speaking of his early experiments in the West as a commercial traveler, Mr. Curtis once said in after years: "I have passed hundreds of nights camping out on long trips, with only a blanket for a covering and the ground for a bed. We, who drummed the trade in the West then in behalf of Eastern houses, did not mind that, but we did object to the rattlesnakes sometimes. It didn't pay to have them get too familiar. We were happy when we could travel by canal-boat or by steamboat, but the dreadful Western stages were what tried our patience. Time and again, but for the fact that my samples and baggade had to be carried, I should have preferred to walk, and would have beaten the stages under ordinary circumstances. Many times I did walk, but it was beside the stage, with a rail on my shoulder, ready to help pry the stage itself out of the mud." In those early days Chicago had but one railroad and nothing but wooden sidewalks, through the cracks of which when the ground was wet the water was projected upward in streams that copiously sprinkled the passer-by.
While the son sold the manufactured article on the road, the father attended to its preparation at home. Men went into the spruce woods some time for only a day or two, more often for one or two or three weeks, and picked the gum from the trees, and then it was taken to the Bangor factory and cleansed and put in boxes for market. The business prospered, and soon the fifteen-foot-square room was too small, and later the business was removed to Portland. When they first started, a few pouns of gum were enough for present purposes, but in later years the firm bought largely, even recklessly, some of their opponents thought, ten tons at once, and thought nothing of it. One day John B. Curtis gave his check for $35,000 worth of native gum. This was probably the largest transaction in that line ever made.
The time finally came when Curtis & Son occupied all the space in a factory of fifty-one by one hundred and forty0five feet in dimension, and three stories high, and gave employment to two hundred persons, who turned out eighteen hundred boxes of gum in a day.
John Curtis died in 1869, but the firm name still remained Curtis & Son. He had seen the business, at first confined to the members of his own family, grow to great proportions, and felt a just pride in what he had done, and desired the firm name to be retained, which was done. The business of putting up spruce gum not only originated with the firm of Curtis & Son, but the very process of manufacture used by the firm from first to last, and practically all that is in use by gum factories anywhere, John B. Curtis invented. These inventions grew out of the necessity of the case. For some time after they went into the business of putting up gum, Curtis & Son had no machinery at all, but hard work was too slow for the son and he took some time, and used $50 in money, in experimenting on machinery, which his father thought were time and money thrown away. But by the use of the machinery which he invented, a man, instead of forty boxes in the old way, put up one thousand eight hundred boxes by the new process, and the head of the firm, in his astonishment, admitted that his son had solved the problem of making gum.
Mr. Curtis never took out a patent on one of his numerous inventions, much to his regret in later life. Had he turned his attention to the science of invention, there can be no doubt that he would have been very successful. A few processes were kept secret with the firm of Curtis & Son. They were never patented, but always kept from the knowledge of others simply by the honesty of the men who were in the employ of the firm.
On the death of his father John B. Curtis was left with a great manufacturing business and scores of outside enterprises to manage alone. Apparently he had enough to do, but his most extensive operations were to come. In 1872 he went into the dredging business, perhaps the most unlikely thing he might have tried. He took jobs from $50,000 to $500,000 and made the business pay. He gave it his personal attention, and more than once changed apparent diaster into actual victory, by his mechanical ability and quickness of action. It is said that at one time he caused the bids for a piece of work to be reduced from thirty-two cents a yard to thirteen cents. Others thought hey were bidding on "hard" ground, but Mr. Curtis was of the opinion that all he should find there was mud, and he was right, the job proving to be one of the best of a long series, for which he was in the business he was at the head.
He removed the Minot Ledge rocks, when other contractors hesitated to bid on the proposition, and on the souther coast he made the ocean itself do much of the work of a big contract. He worked at both ends of the cut, and was assisted by the tides, which in due time swept the bar entirely away. He never failed to bid and sometimes won by a narrow margin, one job of $500,000 being awarded him by half a cent on a yard. He cleared the James river of obstructions to navigation, consisting in part of buried shells. He had a personal charge of the work, and once a shell exploded practically in the center of a group of men of which Mr. Curtis was one, but did no injury. He ever afterward regarded this as a marvelous escape from instant death. One of his best contracts was taken after he had, as he thought, retired from business, and his bid written on the back of a card without his ever having read the specifications. As it proved, some persons had concocted a scheme to defraud the government. Mr. Curtis did the entire work in a few hours, and broke the scheme so carefully prepared by others.
Following this he went into ship-building. Captain B. J. Willard, who was for many years connected with Mr. Curtis in many enterprises, notably a line of steamers, says that the first investment John B. Curtis made in a ship was in a vessel built by Captain Willard. He took one-sixteenth and his father the same, but later the father withdrew, saying, "John, you had better take it all." He did so, and, as Captain Willard since recalls, commonly took an interest in all the vessels he built. Later on Mr. Curtis engaged in ship-building and opened the Curtis shipyard. He built ten large vessels and then sold out, retaining the ownership of the yard. While a builder of ships his reputation was very high. He insisted on having the best material and the best work and built every ship upon honor. He saw the possibilities of the islands in Casco Bay long before any one else did, and led the way in establishing a line of steamers. He added steamer to steamer, and at last had a good fleet at his command. He made no attempt to secure land on the islands, but while seeing their coming importance, preferred to leave to others an opportunity he had no time to embrace himself. He was quick to take advantage of an opening, however, and the present fine place of amusement at Peak's Island was one of his ideas and was largely carried through by him. He remained the owner of the controlling interest in the ferry between Portland and South Portland, and of his line of steamers until 1896, when he sold out his entire interests. During the many years he controlled the island steamer business he was prompt to accept every challenge given him by those who desired to become competitors, and fought more than one out of the business. He never attempted to injure any one in the same line of business unless that one tried to force him out, and then he met him and fought it out. No rival line made money in the business unless it fought fairly, and was ready to take its chance with him in an honest attempt to get the business of the public. During the later years of his ownership of a line of steamers he took a deep interest in getting up unique schemes to draw crowds to the islands. He was a generous contributor to the building fund of many of the organizations now having homes on the islands, and gave the plan of the regimental headquarters of the different regimental associations his hearty co-operation. To Mr. Curtis more largely than to any other man or even to any other source is due the present importance of the islands of Casco Bay, and his great service to the public in that respect will yet receive special and hearty recognition.
Mr. Curtis went into the Maine mining boom with a hope that something would develop of importance to the state. He thought it likely that Maine might have paying mineral deposits within her borderes, and he was willing to do his part in developing them. He sold no stocks. Whatever he invested was for development purposes with no thought of making money out of others. If he made money that wasy it was because some mine proved a paying investment for its stockholders. But he did something more. He bought land in connection with the boom, and while greatly increasing his holdings of real estate in Maine, in the end he won back by a legitimate advance in values all he lost by the failure of Maine mines. Later he reached the conclusion that by the use of modern methods of mining, and of modern machinery, it would be possible to make mining for silver pay in Maine. He devoted considerable time to an investigation of some of the best of the western mines and concluded that the chance of making money if fully good here as there. Perhaps that conclusion was less a compliment to Maine mines than a reflection on some of the "boomed" mines of the west. And so he went into the business of mining in Maine with the hope of developing an important local industry. So he put time and money into the search for coal at Small Point, and in the town of Perry, on the St. Croix river.
In 1880 Mr. Curtis engaged in farming in the west on a grand scale, a few miles south of Gothenburg in Dawson county, western Nebraska. He bought fourteen thousand acres of ride land to which he later added two thousand more. He first tried sheep raising but failed to make it pay, and converted his sheep ranch into a farm and cattle range, where he raised great herds of white-faced Hereford cattle, the only fit cattle for that section, in his opinion. He usually kept three thousand five hundred cattle and one thousand two hundred and eleven hogs. In connection with his stock raising he cultivated a large area of land. In speaking of his farming he once said: "Last year I harvested 75,000 bushles of corn, 12,000 bushels of wheat, 9,500 bushels of rye, 8,000 bushels of oats and 2,000 bushels of barley."
A man of Mr. Curtis's strong opinions could not be neutral in politics. Before the war he drifted south a little and made many friends. He saw a little of slavery, and openly expressed his disgust with the institution. "But St. Paul approved of sending slaves back to their masters," said a minister, with whom he was talking. "I don't care if he did; I wouldn't," replied the young northern man, and later when a young fellow from the south, a runaway slave, claimed his protection, he was helped on his way. During the war Mr. Curtis was an active Republican, and remained a member of that party during his life, although for a time in 1896 his party loyalty was somewhat questioned. However, he at last supported the McKinley ticket, and talked for it east and west. He had a stonr liking for ex-soldiers, and was a stated contributor to the funds of the local Grand Army of the Republic posts. Although a youth in the days when almost every one used liquor, and many were users to excess, Mr. Curtis all his long life was a strictly temperate man.
In his early life breadwinning took so much of his time that he had little left for schooling or even for reading, but in his later days he was a great reader, and a man of wide and varied information. During the last few months of his life his attention was turned to ancient Egypt, and to the pyramids, and he eagerly read everything he could find bearing on the subject.
In 1878 Mr. Curtis bought of the heirs of Thomas O'Brion the largest and most expensively built dwelling house in Deering, located on what is now known as Steven's Plains avenue, Bradley's Corner district, where he (when at home), his wife and Miss Clara L. Wilcox, a cousin to both Mr. Curtis and his wife, resided. This house in complete inside with the finest furnishings. In the state are few more elegant homes than was his. His home life was very beautiful. The evidence of the refined taste of Mrs. Curtis is to be seen on every hand. In that home he lived an ideal life. To his wife and to his home he was devotion itself. There he passed his best and happiest hours. There he seldom allowed business to enter. To that home, by what must have been a supreme exertion of the will, he returned to die, and having reached it remained in supreme contentment, despite his suffering until it being fully time for him to go, death came to him as a benediction. And the grace and charm of that home he carried wherever he went. Out in the far west he was overtaken by a real western blizzard. He was far from well, and that morning had taken but little breakfast, and all day, from six in the morning until seven at night, he in company with others remained on the train without food. The train made but twelve miles during that whole day. One of the trainmen heard him say about two o'clock, "I'd give five dollars for some coffee and almost any sort of food." The man saw that he was old, he had heard that he was rich, and so he took him at his word, and sold him his own dinner. The five dollars was gladly paid and then Mr. Curtis divided the food and coffee between two ladies. "I though of my mother and my wife," he said. It was evident he regarded the five dollars as well invested. He died a week after his return home. "Mr. Curtis believed," said the preacher in the final tribute to him, "in a religion which is natural, human - a religion for this world. He believed in a religion which builds homes, a religion which turns the mill wheels of cities, a religion which sends the argosy of nations across the lonely seas, a religion which fills the heart with gladness, and all the world with light, a religion which puts dimples of joy on the cheeks of those he loved, and let the future take care of itself." The life of John B. Curtis cannot be spoken; it can only be left. He touched life at many points and entered the spirit of his time. He was loved and honored by his many friends. He was the friend of the outcast, the lonely and the oppressed. He warmed himself by the fireside of human affection, and in his home he burnt the incense of love. On the night before he died, standing in the twilight, within the deepening gloom, knowing that for the last time the sun was sinking in the west and that he would never behold the dawning of another day, he fully realized that night had come; and yet his soul was filled with light, and turning to his wife he said, "If I go tonight it will find me as I have always been." Thus this man, loved and honored by thousands, passed away.
John Bacon Curtis married, in Rockton, Illinois, Aug. 13, 1878, Alice Charlotte Bacon, who was born in Rockton, Illinois.