John Gilley- One of the Forgotten Millions

by Charles W. Elliot

Part One
Part Two
Part Three


Part Four

The smoke-house was never rebuilt. At first the money to rebuild was lacking, and later a new prospect opened before the family. After the fire John Gilley went more into cows and less into fat oxen. Hitherto he had always kept a good yoke of oxen and some steers, and he had been accustomed to do their hauling and plowing for all the families on the island. Thereafter he generally had as many as five cows, but often only a single young ox to do the hauling for the island. He always trained his oxen himself-and had pleasure in the company of these patient and serviceable creatures.

In 1880 the Gilleys on Sutton’s Island heard that three "Westerners," or "rusticators," -had bought land at North-East Harbor. One was said to be a bishop, another the president of a college, and the third and earliest buyer a landscape-gardener — whatever that might be. It was even reported that one of these pioneers had landed on the western end of Sutton’s Island and walked the length of the island. The news was intensely interesting to all the inhabitants. They had heard of the fabulous prices of land at Bar Harbor, and their imaginations began to play over their own pastures and wood-lots. John Gilley went steadily on his laborious and thrifty way. He served the town in various capacities, such as selectman and collector of taxes. He was one of the school committee for several years, and later one of the board of health. He was also road surveyor on the island — there being but one road, and that grass-grown. As a town officer John Gilley exhibited the same uprightness and frugality which he showed in all his private dealings. To be chosen to responsible office by his fellow -townsmen, every one of whom knew him personally, was to him a source of rational gratification; and in each of his offices he had occasion to enlarge his knowledge and to undertake new responsibilities.

In 1884 the extreme western point of Sutton’s Island was sold to a "Westerner," a professor in Harvard College, and shortly after a second sale in the same neighborhood was effected; but it was not until 1886 that John Gilley made his first sale of land for summering purposes. In the next year he made another sale, and in 1894 a third. The prices he obtained, though moderate compared with the prices charged at Bar Harbor or North-East Harbor, were forty or fifty times any price which had ever been put on his farm by the acre. Being thus provided with what was for him a considerable amount of ready money, he did what all his like do when they come into possession of ready money — he first gave himself and his family the pleasure of enlarging and improving his house and other buildings, and then lent the balance on small mortgages on village real estate. Suddenly he became a prosperous man, at ease, and a leader in his world. Up to this time he had merely earned a comfortable livelihood by means of diversified industry ; since his second marriage now he had a secured capital in addition to his farm and its buildings. Now, at last, he was highly content, but nevertheless ready as ever for new undertakings. His mind was active, and his eye and hand were steady.

When three cottages had stood for several years on the eastern fore-side of Northeast Harbor,- the nearest point of the shore of Mount Desert to Sutton’s Island,— John Gilley, at the age of seventy-one, undertook to deliver at these houses milk, eggs, and fresh vegetables every day, and chickens and fowls when they were wanted. This undertaking involved his rowing in all weathers nearly two miles from his cove to the landings of these houses, and back again, across bay waters which are protected indeed from the heavy ocean swells, but are still able to produce what the natives call "a big chop." Every morning he arrived with the utmost punctuality, in rain or shine, calm or blow, and alone, unless it blew heavily from the Northwest (a head wind from Sutton’s), or his little grandson — his mate, as he called the boy — wanted to accompany him on a fine, still morning. Soon he extended his trips to the western side of Northaast Harbor, where he found a much larger market for his goods than he had found thirty-five years before, when he first delivered milk at Squire Kimball’s tavern. This business involved what was new work for John Gilley, namely, the raising of fresh vegetables in much larger variety and quantity than he was accustomed to. He entered on this new work with interest and intelligence, but was of course sometimes defeated in his plans by wet weather in spring, a drought in summer, or by the worms and insects which unexpectedly attacked his crops. On the whole he was decidedly successful in this enterprise undertaken at seventy-one. Those who bought of him liked to deal with him, and he found in the business fresh interest and pleasure. Not many men take up a new out-of-door business at seventy, and carry it on successfully by their own brains and muscles. It was one of the sources of his satisfaction that he thus supplied the two daughters who still lived at his house with a profitable outlet for their energies. One of these — the schoolteacher - was an excellent laundress, and the other was devoted to the work of the house and the farm, and was helpful in her father’s new business. John Gilley transported the washes from Northeast Harbor and back again in his rowboat, and under the new conditions of the place washing and ironing proved to be more profitable than school-keeping.

In the fall of 1896 the family which had occupied that summer one of the houses John Gilley was in the habit of supplying with milk, eggs, and vegetables, and which had a young child dependent on the milk, lingered after the other summer households had departed. He consented to continue his daily trips a few days into October that the child’s milk might not be changed, although it was perfectly clear that his labor could not be adequately recompensed. On the last morning but one that he was to come across from the island to the harbor a strong northeast wind was blowing, and some sea was running through the deep passage between Sutton’s Island and Bear Island, which he had to cross on his way to and fro. He took with him in his boat the young man who had been working for him on the farm the few weeks past. They delivered the milk, crossed to the western side of Northeast Harbor, did some errands, there, and started cheerfully for home, as John Gilley had done from that shore hundreds of times before. The boy rowed from a seat near the bow, and the old man sat on the thwart near the stern, facing the bow, and pushing his oars from him. They had no thought of danger; but to ease the rowing they kept to windward under Bear Island, and then pushed across the deep channel, south by west, for the western point of Sutton’s Island. They were more than halfway across when, through some inattention or lack of skill on the part of the young man in the bow, a sea higher or swifter than the rest threw a good deal of water into the boat. John Gilley immediately began to bail, and told the rower to keep her head to the waves. The overweighted boat was less manageable than before, and in a moment another roller turned her completely over. Both men clung to the boat and climbed on to her bottom. She drifted away before the wind and sea toward Southwest Harbor. The oversetting of the boat had seen from both Bear Island and Sutton’s Island; but it was nearly three quarters of an hour before the rescuers could reach the floating boat, and then the young man, though unconscious, was still clinging to the boat’s keel, but the old man, chilled by the cold water and stunned by the waves which beat about his head, had lost his hold and sunk into the sea. In half an hour John Gilley had passed from a hearty and successful old age in this world, full of its legitimate interests and satisfactions, into the voiceless mystery of death. No trace of his body was ever found. It disappeared into the waters on which he had played and worked as boy and man all his long and fortunate life. He left his family well provided for, and full of gratitude and praise for his honorable career and his sterling character.

This is the life of one of the forgotten millions. It contains no material for distinction, fame, or long remembrance; but it does contain the material and present the scene for a normal human development through mingled joy and sorrow, labor and rest, adversity and success, and through the tender loves of childhood, maturity, and age. We cannot but believe that it is just for countless quiet, simple lives like this that God made and upholds this earth.

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