April 07, 2020

Maine teamster a memory maker

Chris Lawlor. If you grew up in Southwest Harbor in the 1950s, you don’t need an introduction. If not, then let me introduce you.

Chris was the last of an era, a member of a breed of men who made their living with a team of horses. He had one of those weather-beaten, tobacco-juice-stained faces so common in Maine among those men who chose to be fishermen, farmers or woodsmen. His clothing was that of a woods worker: plain, green wool pants, plaid shirts and sweaters, and when needed, a red and black plaid woolen jacket.

Chris was a World War I veteran, who worked as a teamster in France. His constant companions, when I was a child, were his pair of golden draft horses, Lady and General, his dog Whiskers, and later, a dark brown, one-eyed horse named Dick. He had three children, Rosemary, Bill and Joe, who were adults and on their own when I was a child.

The barn where he kept the horses was next door to our home, which we rented from his mother, Cad Lawlor, who was close to 100 years old when I knew her.

In the winter, you could see Chris twitching logs over the snow from his woodlot behind our house, usually with a neighbor kid straddling one of the horses. The horses always attracted more kids than flies.

In spring, Chris put his plows and harrows to work preparing gardens for townspeople.

In summer, it was haying. In those days, Southwest Harbor and Tremont still had a lot of open fields. Usually Chris had an army of kids and his hired hands with him when he went out to cut a field.

Sitting like a sulky driver on the mower, Chris would raise and lower the razor-sharp blade as he negotiated around rocks and trees, while grasshoppers and crickets scattered to avoid the consequences. Providing no rain was forecast, the hay would get raked into windrows by a mechanical contraption that looked like a giant rib cage, to dry for a day or so before it was piled into haystacks.

Chris would cluck at the horses, directing them from pile to pile so the helpers could pitch the hay onto the rack. My brothers Terry and Kevin, and I would stamp down the hay to make room for more. Usually at midday, we would knock off and eat the lunches we had brought.

There were always the annoying horseflies circling the horses and us, the smell of fresh-mowed hay, and the shrill whine of the katydids as they scolded us for disturbing their tranquil world.

Chris told us stories about Paul Bunyan, gathered from his winters when he worked as a young man in Maine’s North Woods. He told us of life in a bunkhouse, the smell of wood smoke and wet wool drying, and going on log drives. He talked about Mr. Peavey, who invented the cant dog, a pole with a hook on it to turn logs, only to have the idea stolen by another man who patented it. Mr. Peavey, he said, went one better and improved his original invention by putting a metal spike on the bottom of the pole, and that time he got a patent.

One day while cutting a field (fortunately we kids were not with him), the cutting blade sliced through a hornets’ nest and sent a swarm out to sting Chris and the horses. On his way back to the barn, Chris, covered in welts from the stings, drove Lady and General into the pond that bore his name up behind the barn, then drove them ashore, covering their stings with swamp mud.

Returning another day from mowing and searching the beach at Valley Cove for Indian arrowheads, one of the hayrack’s rubber wheels rolled over a lump in the road, just past Ralph Grindle’s Sunoco station. Chris hauled on the reins and had one of the kids remove the lump. It was a tortoise and Chris’ eyes lit up. It turned out to be an old friend from Chris’ childhood. He pointed to the back of the tortoise shell where the initials CWL had been carved. He recounted how he caught the tortoise in the pond behind the barn when he was just a lad. That tortoise was as old, if not older, than Chris. We took the creature, which was less than a quarter of a mile from its original home, back to the pond, along with Chris’ memories.

There were six children in my house, Terry, David, Kevin, Clarice, Rita and Paul, and each of us has treasured memories of growing up with Chris and his wife, Annie. There were overnight sleeps in the barn next to the horses, overnight stays at their Cape overlooking the harbor, and, when we were younger, there were the visits for the younger children, when Chris would don a Santa Claus mask and peek in the dining room window, checking to see who was naughty or nice, convincing even the nonbelievers that maybe Santa was keeping a list.

Frequently we say we were not aware of the value of a person we knew until it was too late. But with Chris Lawlor, all the children in town knew the treasure we had in that very special man.

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