Blaine House history updated by noted historian Earl Shettleworth

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Recent news reports that the salary of Maine’s governor – at $70,000 – continues to be the lowest of any in the country reminds us again of how the state often stands apart from the rest of the nation. The place where our governors reside, the Blaine House, is also a bit distinctive. It’s one of the oldest. Even though its recent inhabitants have had one of the more impoverished salaries the dwelling in which they have resided does have one of the richest histories among such mansions in the United States.

It’s a feature that has recently won the attention of the Images of America series, the leading publisher of local pictoral histories in America. For the first time among the more than seven thousand books in the series, a governor’s residence is the subject of one of its publications.

Just off the press is “The Blaine House,” edited and written by noted Maine historian Earle Shettleworth, Jr. The book is to a great extent an updated version of Draper Hunt’s book by the same name, last issued 20-years ago. Shettelworth’s work then is the first time a book turns a spotlight on how all three of the most recent familiar — LePage, Baldacci, and King — have celebrated their association with their official residence. (A short but well- illustrated children’s book about the home, as seen through the eyes of Gov. LePage’s dog, Baxter, came out three years ago.) The 17 earlier first families who called it home since it was given the State in 1919 is also given a fresh look.

Besides viewing the mansion through the lens of a 21st century perspective, Shettleworth’s book differs from Hunt’s in that it provides annotated political campaign photographs of each man elected governor in the more than nine decades the home has been his official gubernatorial residence. (Maine is among 23 states — the only one in New England  — where no woman has been chosen for the position. )

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Befitting a publication in the “Images” series and with 185 photos and other pictures, Shettleworth’s book has nearly three times as many illustrations as Hunt’s Blaine House book. They consist of a sampling of some 19 Christmas cards from each of the governors who issued them while the Blaine House was their official residence. It’s a feature omitted entirely from Hunt’s.

That so many of our governors’ families have had to surmount more than their share of personal tragedy is something that both books address. The second Blaine House Governor, Frederick Parkhurst, died less than a month into his term in 1921 while Clinton Clauson succumbed after less than a year in 1959.

Also tragic is the litany of many of our first family children. Gov. McKernan’s only child, Peter, died of an undetected coronary defect as a 20-year old Dartmouth sophomore in 1991. Both Curtis children were fatally stricken with cystic fibrosis, 12-year old Susan’s death occurring mid-way through the governor’s 1970 re-election campaign. The Barrows’ lost two of their three sons – one in an auto accident when a freshman at Williams in 1937 during his father’s first year in office. The other fell in combat during World War II.

As poignant as any of the children’s deaths and its aftermath is the saga of 15-year old Owen Brewster. Young Brewster was a high school student in Dexter when he died after a brief and sudden bout with influenza in 1933, four years after he and his family left the Blaine House at the end of his father’s two terms in office. The grief stricken father was so moved by the son’s death that he in effect changed his own name.

From then on, Ralph O. Brewster would for the last 29-years of his life, be publicly known by his son’s name. His fame as a national public figure including 18-years in Congress, which still lay ahead would thus be won under the name “Owen Brewster.” It was during this time, for example, that his 1947 confrontation with Howard Hughes would occur, an episode in 2004 portrayed by actor Alan Alda in “The Aviator.”

Though a photograph of young Owen appears in the Shettleworth and the Hunt books, both skip over any account of his death and its sequel in part perhaps because his death occurred at a time after his father had left the Blaine House.

As with Hunt’s 1994 book, about a fourth of the Shettleworth work is devoted to the life of the home’s namesake, James G. Blaine. Ironically, Blaine himself was never governor. His power was such that he often decreed who would or would not hold down the position, however. Moreover, the home, built in 1833, was his residence from 1862 until his death in 1893 and was given the state by his daughter in 1919.

Shettleworth by no means regrets putting so much of his book’s spotlight on “the Plumed Knight” as Blaine was sometimes known. If anything, Shettleworth, in a recent interview with this columnist, says he would have added more Blaine illustrations to the work if the publishers had given him the opportunity. They would have included more of Thomas Nast’s cartoon satires depicting a figure who loomed as one of the most influential but controversial American leaders during the entire generation after America’s Civil War.

One feature not covered by either the Shettleworth or the Hunt publications is how Maine compares with the rest of the nation in what it affords for a residence to its governors. That’s a possible subject for another Images of America publication and one I’d like to see emerge. Our most populous state, California, for example, gave up its own governor’s mansion when future President Reagan was governor some 40-years ago. Arizona, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island are among the others without one. Vermont provides a mere apartment in a state office building that is so small its governors have never made it their home.

Nearly all other states do, however, provide an executive residence. Indeed, Michigan provides two. including a “Camp David” like summer retreat at Mackinac Island.

Though our governor has the lowest paid salary of any in the country, Shettleworth’s “The Blaine House” is a reminder that emoluments for the position do — as with most other states — include a mansion. Our own has a venerable heritage that has been the home to some of our most triumphant and as well as tragedy stricken families. As we in the next few days approach another gubernatorial inauguration, the book is both timely and inspiring.

Paul H. Mills, is a Farmington attorney well known for his analyses and historical understanding of public affairs in Maine. He can be reached by e-mail: pmills@myfairpoint.net.

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