Today, television gives us the latest “American Idol” and brings us daily sound bites in the ebb and flow of multi-million-dollar political campaigns.
Between the Civil War and World War I, the public heaped adoration on early media heroes and politicians, including two men from Androscoggin County.
The first of these celebrities was John Monroe of Mechanic Falls. His claim to fame? He was the first person to present a public phonograph concert in the United States. It took place in 1894 in Portland, Ore.
It was a time when Thomas Edison’s remarkable feat of sound recording was a wonder. The new machines were expensive and not available to the public, so Monroe capitalized on this attraction. He turned it into a 37-year touring career.
The debut event came about despite the apprehension of the Portland Opera House manager, who eventually agreed to rent the hall to Monroe for $65, according to research by Edith Labbie for her Lewiston Evening Journal Magazine Section columns.
“On the night of the concert, the Opera House was packed,” she wrote. “Monroe took in $400.”
He played 20 records in an hour and 40 minutes, including an original recording of his own humorous skit called “How Columbus Discovered America.”
In later concerts, Monroe added singers, dancers and other performers to the show. He also made hundreds of spoken-word recordings for the Edison Company.
In 1905, Monroe broke both legs in a fall and spent the next years into the 1920s in retirement near the bridge over the Little Androscoggin River in Mechanic Falls. He was a first-rate cook and entertained many townsfolk with his meals and stories.
The other unusual Maine celebrity was Solon Chase of Turner. He was a founder of the American Greenback Party, candidate for president in that party and a powerful voice of political discussion in his day.
He was born a few years after Maine became a state in 1820 and lived to the age of 86. As a young man, he was appointed to West Point Military Academy but was rejected because of a physical condition.
Chase lived a farmer’s life and it was said in a 1929 genealogical publication called “Chase Chronicles” that he came of “old time pioneer stock – vigorous, able, industrious and strong-thinking men.”
This simple Maine man was a speaker of rare ability. He was a master of debate with a skill for logic mixed with rural wit.
Chase was principal advocate for the Greenback Party at a time when the Republican Party was swept from power. The Greenback Movement opposed a return to the use of gold for currency and supported paper money.
Chase became famous for photos of him with a flowing white beard standing next to his prized pair of farm animals known as Them Steers.
In a famous speech, he said, “Them steers, while they grew well, shrank in value as fast as they grew.” He told audiences, “Inflate the currency, and you raise the price of my steers and at the same time pay the public debt.”
In the elections of 1878, the high-water mark of the movement, about a million votes were cast for Greenback candidates.
Dave Sargent is a freelance writer and an Auburn native. You can e-mail him at [email protected]