John Gilley- One of the Forgotten Millions
by Charles W. Elliot
When cold weather put an end to the fishing season, John Gilley, having provided all necessary articles for his house, sailed over to Sullivan, distant about eighteen miles, in his fishing-vessel and brought back to the home on Sutton’s Island Harriet Bickford Wilkinson, the schoolmistress from Sullivan. The grandfather of Harriet Wilkinson came to Sullivan from Portsmouth, New Hampshire, in 1769, and her mother’s family came from York, Maine. The marriage took place on December 25, 1854, when John was thirty-two and Harriet was twenty-five; and both entered with joy upon married life at their own island farm. She was a pretty woman, but delicate, belonging to a family which was thought to have a tendency to consumption. In the summer of 1855 he spent about half his time on this same vessel which had brought home his wife, and made a fair profit on the fishing; and the next year he sometimes went on short trips of shore fishing, but that was the last of his going away from the farm. Whatever fishing he did afterward he did in an open boat not far from home, and he went coasting no more. A son was born to them, but lived only seven months; and soon the wife’s health began to fail. A wife’s sickness, in the vast majority Of families, means first, the loss of her labor in the care and support of the household, and secondly, the necessity of hiring some woman to do the work which the wife cannot do. This necessity of hiring is a heavy burden in a family where little money is earned, although there may be great comfort so far as food, fire, and clothing are concerned. His young wife continuing to grow worse, John Gilley tried all means that were possible to him to restore her health. He consulted the neighboring physicians, bought quantities of medicine in great variety, and tried in every way that love or duty could suggest to avert the threatening blow. It was all in vain. Harriet Gilley lived only two years and a half after her marriage, dying in June, 1857. At this period, his expenses being large, and his earning power reduced, John Gilley was forced to borrow a little money. The farm and the household equipment had absorbed his whole capital.
On April 27, 1857, there came from Sullivan, to take care of Harriet, Mary Jane Wilkinson, her cousin. This cousin was only twenty-one years of age; but her father was dead, and her mother had married again. She had helped her mother till she was almost twenty-one years of age, but now felt free. Until this cousin came, nieces and a sister of John Gilley had helped him to take care of his dying wife. The women relatives must always come to the aid of a family thus distressed. To help in taking care of the farm and in fishing, John Gilley habitually hired a man all through the season, and this season of 1857 the hired man was his wife’s brother. When Harriet Gilley died -there was still the utmost need of a woman on the farm; so Mary Jane Wilkinson stayed during the summer and through the next winter, and before the end of that winter she had promised to marry John Gilley. There were at that time eight houses on Sutton’s Island, and more permanent residents than there are now. Mary Jane Wilkinson was fond of the care of animals and of farm duties in general. She found at the farm only twelve hens, a cow, and a calf, and she set to work at once to increase the quantity of live stock; but in April, 1858, she returned to her mother’s house at West Gouldsboro’, that she might prepare her wardrobe and some articles of household linen. When, later in the season, John Gilley came after Mary Jane Wilkinson at Jones’s Cove, he had to transport to Sutton’s Island, besides Mary Jane’s personal possessions, a pair of young steers, a pig, and a cat. They were married at Northeast Harbor by Squire Kimball, in the old tavern on the west side of the harbor, in July, 1858; and then these two set about improving their condition by unremitting industry and frugality, and an intelligent use of every resource the place afforded. The new wife gave her attention to the poultry and made butter whenever the milk could not be sold as such. The price of butter had greatly improved since John Gilley was a boy on Baker’s Island. It could now be sold at from twenty to twenty-five cents a pound. In summer Squire Kimball, at the tavern, bought their milk. All summer eggs could be sold at the stores on the neighboring islands; but in the fall it was necessary to send them to Boston. During the fishing season the husband frequently went for fish in an open boat with one sail; but he no longer absented himself from home for weeks at a time. His labor on the farm was incessant. On the crest of the island a small field had been cleared by the former occupant of the house. With the help of a yoke of oxen John Gilley proceeded to add to this field on the east and on the west. The piles of stones which he heaped up on the bare ledges remain to this day to testify to his industry. One of them is twenty-four feet long, fifteen feet wide, and five feet high. In after years he was proud of these piles, regarding them as monuments to his patient industry and perseverance in the redemption, or rather creation, of this precious mowing-field.
In these labors three or four years’ passed away, when the Civil War broke out, and soon, linseed-oil becoming scarce, porgy-oil attained an unheard of value. Fortunately for the New England shore people, the porgies arrived in shoals on the coast in every season for rather more than ten years. At various places along the shore from Long Island Sound to the Bay of Fundy, large factories were built for expressing the oil from these fish; but this was an industry which could also be well conducted on a small scale with a few nets, a big kettle, and a screw-press worked by hand. For an enterprising and energetic man here was a new chance of getting profit from the sea. Accordingly, John Gilley, like thousands of other fishermen along the New England coast, set up a small porgy-oil factory, and during the porgy season this was his most profitable form of industry. During the last part of the war porgy-oil sold at a dollar or even a dollar and ten cents a gallon. The chum, or refuse from the press, was a valuable element in manure. All of John Gilley’s porgy-chum went to enrich his precious fields. We may be sure that this well-used opportunity gave him great satisfaction.
The farm, like most farms on the Maine shore, not sufficing for the comfortable support of his family, John Gilley was always looking for another industry by which he could add to his annual income. He found such an industry in the manufacture of smoked herring. This was at that time practised in two ways among the island people. Fresh herring were caught near home, and were immediately corned and smoked; and salted herring brought from the Magdalen Islands were bought by the vessel-load, soaked in fresh water to remove a part of the salt, and then smoked. John Gilley built a large smoke-house on his shore close to a safe and convenient anchorage, and there pursued the herring business in both forms, whenever supplies of herring could be obtained. This is an industry in which women can bear a part. They can pull out the gills and string the wet fish on the sticks by which they are hung up in the smoke-house; and they can pack the dried fish into the boxes in which they are marketed. So the wife and the eldest daughter, as time went on, took a hand in this herring work. The sawed lumber for the boxes was all brought from the sawmill at the head of Somes Sound, eight miles away. The men did that transportation, and nailed the boxes together. It was characteristic of John Gilley that he always took pains to have his things better than anybody else’s. He was careful and particular about all his work, and thoroughly believed in the good results or this painstaking care. He was always confident that his milk, butter, eggs, fowls, porgy-oil, and herring were better than the common, and were worth a higher price; and he could often induce purchasers to think so, too.
Of the second marriage there came three girls, who all grew to maturity, and two of whom were married in due season; but when John Gilley was seventy-four years old he had but two grandchildren, of whom the elder was only eight years old, his fate in this respect being far less fortunate than that of his father.- Late marriage caused him to miss some of the most exquisite of natural human delights. He could not witness the coming of grandchildren to maturity. He had the natural, animal fondness - so to speak — for children, the economic liking for them as helpers, and the real love for them as affectionate comrades and friends. The daughters were disposed to help in the support of the family and the care of the farm. The eldest went through the whole course of the Normal School at Castine, and became a teacher. The youngest was best at household and farm work, having her father’s head for business. The other daughter was married early, but had already gone from her father’s house to Little Cranberry Island as a helper in the family of the principal storekeeper on that island. Since the household needed the assistance of another male, it was their custom to hire a well-grown boy or a man during the better part of the year, the wages for such services being not more than from fifteen to twenty dollars a month in addition to board and lodging.
Although the island lay much nearer to the shores of Mount Desert than Baker’s Island did, the family had hardly more intercourse with the main island than William Gilley’s family on Baker’s Island had had a generation before; They found their pleasures chiefly at home. In the winter evenings they read aloud to one another, thus carrying down to another generation the habit which Hannah Lurvey Gilley had established in her family. The same good habit has been transmitted to the family of one of John Gilley’s married daughters, where it is now in force.
In the early autumn of 1874 a serious disaster befell this industrious and thriving family. One evening Mr. and Mrs. Gilley were walking along the southern shore of the island toward a neighbor’s house, when John suggested that it was time for Mary Jane to get the supper, and for him to attend to the fire in the smoke-house, which was full of herring hung up to smoke, and also contained on the floor a large quantity of packed herring, the fruit of the entire summer’s work on herring. The smoke-house was large, and at one end there stood a carpenter’s bench with a good many tools. It was also used as a place of storage for rigging, anchors, blocks, and other seamen’s gear. Mrs. Gilley went home and made ready the supper. John Gilley arranged the fire as usual in the smoke-house, and went up to the house from the shore. As the family were sitting at supper, a neighbor, who had been calling there and had gone out, rushed back, exclaiming, "Your smoke-house is all afire ! " So indeed it was; and in a few minutes John Gilley’s chief investment and all his summer’s work went up in flames. The whole family ran to the scene, but it was too late to do more than save the fish-house which stood near. John opened the door of the smoke-house and succeeded in rescuing a pair of oiled trousers and his precious compass, which stood on a shelf by the door. Everything else was burned up clean. John said but little at the moment, and looked calmly on at the quick destruction; but when he went to bed that night, he broke down and bewailed his loss with tears and sobs. He had lost not only a sum of money which was large for him, — perhaps five hundred dollars, — but, what was more, he had lost an object of interest and affection, and a means of livelihood which represented years of patient labor. It was as if a mill-owner had lost his mill without insurance, or the owner of a noble vessel had seen her go down within sight of home. This was the only time in all their married life that his wife ever saw him over-come by such emotion. In consequence of this disaster, it was necessary for John Gilley, in order to buy stores enough for the ensuing winter, to, sell part of the live stock off his farm. This fact shows how close may be the margin of livelihood for a family on the New England coast which really owns a good deal of property and is justly held by its neighbors to be well off· If the cash proceeds of a seasons work are lost or destroyed, extraordinary and undesirable means have to be taken to carry over the family to another season. This may happen to a healthy, industrious, frugal household. Much worse, of course, may happen in consequence of sudden disaster in an unthrifty or sickly family. The investments of poor men are apt to be very hazardous. They put their all into farming-tools or live stock; they risk everything they have on an old vessel or on a single crop, and therefore on the weather of a single season; with their small savings they build a barn or a smoke-house, which may be reduced to ashes with all its contents in fifteen minutes. Insurance they can seldom afford. If the investments of the rich were as hazardous as are those of the poor, theirs would be a lot even more worrisome than it is now.