Plans go awry, and give way to the unplanned. That is how I met Waldo Peirce, and found the village of Frankfort.
We were geared up and eager for a four–hour tree ID walk in Holden when we got the cancellation notice. Too cold, we were told. But we were in motion, and so, following Newton’s law, we continued in motion. We drove on past Fields Pond. The day was now wide open, and so we took a different route back home, along the other side of the Penobscot River.
A bridge with massive ice formations in the water below had me do a 180-degree turn for photos. I walked along the river. Kids were playing in the snow at its edge. A man pumping gas called out, “That’ll cost you!” and gave me a big wave when I took his photo. We were in a town called Frankfort. The market is Anderson’s General Store, and it opens at five am, except Sunday when they sleep in and open at seven. I liked this place at once.
We drove on and at the next curve, and it was a sharp one, a finely designed sign caught my eye. It read “Waldo Peirce Reading Room and Library,” in crisp, elegant letters with a subtle touch of gold leaf. I’d have been intrigued by the name, but the thoughtful design had me yank on my blinker and pull into the tiny parking yard. We entered, and that is where I met Waldo.
Waldo Peirce was an artist, a Maine native, and a contemporary and friend of Ernest Hemingway. He is known for living life with laughter and humor. It was, in fact, because of his fondness for practical jokes that that I first heard about him. A prankster myself, I was delighted to come across the story of his giving his landlady in Paris a turtle, and then, every few days, switching it with a larger turtle. She was amazed with her turtle’s growth, and shared it with friends and neighbors. Then Waldo reversed the pattern, slowly replacing the turtle with smaller and smaller turtles, to the woman’s bewilderment. But that was about all I knew of Waldo, until we chanced upon the Reading Room in Frankfort.
The Reading Room is in a modest structure, but inside, what a wealth of history and elegant architecture, and the spirit of Waldo Peirce. The library was established in honor of Waldo T. Peirce, the artist’s grandfather, but has photographs, drawings, colorful envelopes and a self-portrait by Waldo. A brief look into his history revealed a confusing list of Waldos, Peirces, Treats, and Mellons, and left my head spinning. I’ll leave his genealogy for others, but unless I got lost following names, there is a connection with General Waldo, for whom Waldo County is named.
Colleen was the volunteer welcoming visitors when we entered the Reading Room, taking a respite from the -10 degree temperature along the river’s edge. After saying hellos we found common ground. My husband’s grandmother was a Lane from the next village over, and Colleen nodded yes, yes, she knew the family. It was a short step to discussing other local names, and while I still don’t have all the Treats and Peirces sorted out, I did develop a sense of the boisterous and large-living Waldo. Son of prosperous lumberman, he was encouraged to take up art, and, as he claimed, never worked a day in his life. He shot sharks, ran with bulls, married four times, and had five children who he raised like wild beasts, according to Hemingway:
“Waldo is here with his kids like untrained hyenas and him as domesticated as a cow. Lives only for the children and with the time he puts on them they should have good manners and be well trained but instead they never obey, destroy everything, don’t even answer when spoken to, and he is like an old hen with a litter of ape-hyenas. I doubt if he will go out in the boat while he is here. Can’t leave the children. They have a nurse and a housekeeper too, but he is only really happy when trying to paint with one setting fire to his beard and the other rubbing mashed potato into his canvasses. That represents fatherhood.”
Waldo had a privileged life, and enjoyed it to the hilt. He wintered in warm climates, never had to worry about money, but keep returning to Maine, eventually living in Searsport. Colleen kept saying he was a painter, which seemed odd to me. It made me think of a house painter, until I read Waldo’s quote, “I am not an artist, I am a painter.”
Colleen pointed out a map that showed Frankfort once included Winterport, Prospect, Hampden, and parts of Belfast, Searsport and Stockton Springs. It is now just 7.5 x 4.5 miles. On the map we saw a hill named with Mosquito Mountain, which would make a grand book title. Colleen then brought us up a magnificent curved stairway to a room on the top floor. There were brightly colored envelopes Waldo had sent to his friend Tom, editor of the Fisherman, an Ohio publication. Another room held several portraits, including a self-portrait, and a print of a colorful landscape. Photos are labeled with Treat, Peirce, or Cushing. One photo shows (we think) Waldo relaxed at a desk buried in paints, pots, and books. His photos and his work project exuberance, and all his biographies reinforce the view of a man who simply loved to paint and live, and spent a happily care-free existence.
We continued down the river, passing Mosquito Mountain, where my husband’s great-grandfather, Silas Lane, was a quarryman. The river was gunmetal gray, and the angular shapes of granite dumped at the shore were covered in snow and ice. Alive, Waldo would never have been here this time of year. But he left this earth in 1970, and belongs to everyone now. I got to meet him on a winter day when the outside temperature was -14. Inside, it was warm, and it was Waldo’s world.
The Waldo Peirce Library and Reading Room www.wprr.lib.me.us/
And, Make friends with Waldo: Waldo Peirce on FB