The proof was in the pail.

Time and again, Joe Holden demonstrated the Earth was flat by filling a bucket with water, balancing it on a post and triumphantly returning hours later to find the water still there. It hadn’t flopped out when the so-called round Earth spun upside down overnight. He must be right.

Holden promised to buy cigars for any scientists that proved otherwise.

A showman and bona fide eccentric, maybe it was all a big joke or a poke at the astronomers he called fakes. Or maybe he got some thrill from being contrary, from making a buck off skeptics who paid to hear his wild ideas.

But, as one folklorist says, if you put it on your tombstone, you probably meant it.

Holden died in 1900. Most all that’s left is a jumble of anecdotes from old newspaper clips and research papers.

He was a lifelong Republican. His mother tried to walk on water.

He wanted to be remembered.

In three weeks, the East Otisfield Free Baptist Church will hold its annual Joe Holden picnic, which might be a little less Joe Holdenish than before. It’s hard to come up with some fun, new way every year, one parishioner said, to celebrate the man who believed the Earth was flat.

‘It stretches out and out’

Joseph W. Holden was born in 1816, the fifth of 11 kids. He called himself “professor,” but there’s no evidence he went beyond a one-room schoolhouse in Otisfield.

He owned saw mills, amassed some wealth. Holden never married; one story has a would-be-bride dying right before their wedding, another has her running off with a New York lawyer.

“I suspect he was regarded as eccentric, but probably a good miller. He came from a good family, that counts for quite a bit,” said Jean Hankins, unofficial town historian.

Holden prowled the State House, a persistent lobbyist for the flat Earth. He lectured in Portland, Boston and even at the Chicago World’s Fair, charging 25 cents a head.

In the book “Those Eccentric Yankees,” Edith Labbie claims Holden cornered a Bates College professor at the 1892 Maine State Fair in Lewiston. Holden got a kick out of believing he’d swayed the man to his thinking. (The professor, of course, might have said anything to get away.)

He told a reporter: “I’ve talked to many a sailor and not one of them has sailed far enough to come to the end of the Earth. It stretches out and out.”

At one of his last lectures, as described in a story collected by Hankins’ late mother-in-law, Nellie, Holden was quite deaf. The Bowdoin College boys were respectful, their professor sympathetic.

At the end of the hour, the teacher took a vote. Everyone in class who did not believe Holden’s theory was to say “aye” – except the teacher whispered the word “not” so the old man wouldn’t hear.

The ayes were unanimous. Holden left happy.

That’s strawberry ice cream, not chocolate

Nellie Hankins called Holden an “uncompromising skinflint and a miser in life.”

He didn’t go out like one.

For a Western Oxford Foothills Discovery Research Project, folklorist Jo Radner obtained a copy of Holden’s will.

He left up to $300 for the finest Italian marble headstone and $3 a year (about $70 in today’s dollars) to the Sunday school picnic, an annual event even before he died.

Holden shares the rich stone in Elmwood Cemetery with 12 relatives; he’s the only one who got an epitaph:

“The old Astronomer discovered that the Earth is flat and stationary and that the sun and moon do move.”

In 1977, William Spurr – Otisfield historian and possibly a distant Holden relation – died and left $500 to the Holden picnic, stipulating that peanuts, popcorn, strawberry ice cream and soft drinks be on the menu.

Spurr “was even more eccentric (than Holden.) Very eccentric,” Jean Hankins said.

He wrote a lengthy Otisfield history that named witches and opium addicts – and never mentioned Holden’s infamous preoccupation with the shape of the Earth.

“Maybe he was too close to it, didn’t like being a laughingstock,” Hankins said.

After years of Holden activities organized by the late Rev. Gertrude DeCoteau, she didn’t mention his name at last year’s picnic despite Holden being the namesake of the event, Hankins said. Newcomers were disappointed.

“The theme of Joe Holden has sort of waned,” said Priscilla Delehanty, choir director and organist. With the recent deaths of the town’s long-time Holden impersonator and DeCoteau, the church is mulling its future.

Maybe the future has less room for a man who traveled the country marveling over a bucket of water.

Nonetheless, Hankins thinks Holden, like the Flat Earth Society that still exists, truly believed.

“Nobody else did. The townspeople did not. But I think they respected his right to be foolish if he wanted to.”

Go and do

What: Annual Joe Holden picnic

Where: East Otisfield Free Baptist Church, Rayville Road, off Route 121

When: Sunday, Aug. 26 (service at 11 a.m., picnic at noon)

Bring: Bag lunch. Per William Spurr’s will, the church will serve strawberry ice cream, peanuts and popcorn.

The event will double as a welcoming ceremony for the new interim minister, the Rev. Dan Carr.


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