For the longest time, Luann Yetter thought that history was “just a lot of wars,” strung together from one conflict to the next.
Then, when moving to Maine, she and her husband Frank Underkuffler bought an old house in New Vineyard and she began to research the history of the edifice, a home to generations of real people. Later, another ancient home in Farmington, this one with a mural of Farmington history, nurtured her curiosity about the times and people that passed through the halls and doorways.
As a writer of a weekly column in a local newspaper Luann found herself weaving bits of Farmington history into contemporary events, the daily comings and goings now becoming a broader tapestry of human effort. In 1994, when Farmington’s bicentennial celebration was under way, Luann began writing a purposefully historical column, researching and chronicling life in an area rooted by generations of families. She felt a knack for it, and the popular weekly column stretched to over 400 articles spanning a decade.
A select number of these writings have been compiled into a slim but engaging volume titled “Remembering Franklin County: Stories from the Sandy River Valley.” It’s a thoroughly entertaining series of vignettes, by no means comprehensive; brief sketches of characters and points of history, starting with the first settlers of the valley in the late 1700s and ending with a ballplayer from Weld managing the Red Sox in the early 1900s (this is New England, everything ends with the Red Sox).
As the articles were originally intended for the newspaper the writing is clear and concise, the stories are brief and need not be read in chronological order. These characteristics also make “Remembering Franklin County” an excellent candidate for use in a Maine history class, or as discussion material for composition and research classes. Yetter offered that she is exploring ways to present these stories and to discuss research and writing in various schools and classes in the area.
Yetter’s writings have a ripe, conversational tone and ease, as if the narrator is relaxing in a rocker, just reminiscing for a bit. Yet, while retaining the immediacy of narrative, she manages to place these events of the Sandy River Valley in the eras they occurred. Drawing from state and national newspapers of the day, Yetter gives the reader the temper of the times, whether that be Columbus Day 1892 or the world of P.T. Barnum, demonstrating that Franklin County was not an isolated outback, but a part of the larger society. The chapters are entertaining as well as informative, some hilarious, some tragic, some clear as day, others still in mystery. Some will raise more questions than answers. Where is Paul Revere’s bell? Who were the counterfeiters of Chesterville?
Much of the humanity of the works comes from Luann Yetter’s guiding interest in a particular set of facts or potential story. It seems she really can’t write the story she wants to write until she can find the “person” of the work. A whole series of facts and research about the first automobiles in Franklin County left unwritten, for example, as she couldn’t find that first driver, or some other human element that would steer the column. On the other hand, the wonderful chapter on the Stevens family in Eustis descended from her discovery of a reminiscence by one of the sons, published in a local newspaper in the late 1800s. She researched outward from there and found a rich story to be told.
It should be noted that a large portion of these columns were researched and written in the years before the internet. This meant that the work of discovery was labor-intensive and in many cases required significant travel to collections as diverse as the Maine State Museum, as well as records archived in university and town libraries throughout the state. But even in these days of the internet, Luann has found that old-fashioned legwork still pays off. A small notice in a local newspaper from the 1890s, an editorial here, a vague recollection in a family history.
Sometimes even the collective memory fades and the historian in Luann is scrambling, trying to find a last member of a generation or a family, someone that has that individual link to the past and can fill in some valuable details and perspective. Just as to “record” is to literally “pass back through the heart,” to “remember” is to reconnect the limbs and sections of past history, to come as close as possible to the structure of that time. To do this, the contemporary historian relies on the work of past chroniclers, and Luann gives much credit to past and current writers whose encyclopedic recollections surpass Google in depth and intuitive links. It’s a bit of human archaeology, some sleuthing, a bit of autopsy, and inevitably some supposition. It is to Luann Yetter’s credit that she never tries to pass off supposition as fact. The articles will often contain qualifiers such as “most likely” or “probably” or “they might have.” It’s an honest observation of what is known, and what is yet to be found.
It is because the past is not always clear that Luann Yetter’s collection is a bit of a mural itself, with some areas well-detailed, and other parts of the canvas more broadly sketched. History, just as memory, can often be selective or otherwise lack focus. To a writer researching past events this can become problematic, with some eras well-recorded, as a particular generation will hold on to memorabilia, engage in writing letters or diaries, save newspaper articles and family photos. The next generation may just as freely dispense with it all as nothing but the past, moving forward with little record of its daily history. To Luann, one of the more frustrating aspects of writing the columns was the sense that more details of a story awaited discovery, but where was the link? Who else may have that other tiny bit of information that sharpens the whole picture?
The noted biographer Stefan Zweig once opined that not only is every human life a unique story, but it is also a story worthy of being written down and passed on. In that spirit, and as a biographer, he strongly encouraged everyone to write down thoughts and life events, save memorabilia, keep photos in order to place themselves in time and history. It is with that same desire to put the “human” back into history that Luann Yetter wrote the articles that became Remembering Franklin County. She is now in the process of establishing a Web site that will allow viewers to participate in building family and community histories. She also hopes to show that history is not a long line of wars, but a rich social and cultural fabric that not only is created by humanity but really defines humanity.
“Remembering Franklin County” is like a stone skipped across the surface of the deep history of this region. Each story has its own ripple and its singular depth, awaiting the curious reader who wishes to find out a little bit more.
Editor’s Note: Devaney Doak & Garrett Booksellers is holding a reading and book signing by local author Luann Yetter on Thursday, May 21 at 7 p.m. Yetter will read from the recently released Franklin County Remembered, which describes war, wealth, industry and oddity to reveal the richness of Franklin County’s past.