written by Paul Mills
The record breaking wildfires that have been ravaging California in recent weeks has brought new attention to parachutists, those that leap from aircraft into the cauldrons of such conflagrations.
It’s an occasion to take a look at a notable Maine pioneer in this realm, Elmer “Doc” Grant.
Grant, who died in 1964 at the age of 63, is best known today for the proclamation outside the former location of his restaurant in Rangeley, “Halfway Between the Equator and the North Pole,” a vivid testimonial to one’s whereabouts in the resort based community.
Though it’s a boast that other 45th parallel Maine communities can also make – Old Town, Bingham, Kingfield among them – it’s in Rangeley where the former home of his restaurant seems to memorialize it with the greatest notoriety.
But there’s more to Grant than the sign outside his former place of business.
Before opening his Rangeley restaurant in 1941, Grant had been well known for dashing adventures in the Farmington area, where he also ran a restaurant on the town’s Main Street. Among them was one of the area’s first stunt parachute dives. The courage and risk taking which such exploits entailed are illustrated in some of his earliest forays.
The first was a dive over Farmington in the late 1920’s just a few years after movie stuntman Leslie Irvin had completed the world’s first premeditated parachute jump from an airplane in 1919. Up above a throng of hundreds of onlookers Grant clutched the rip cord with such anxiety that he pulled it out of its socket. The crowd below, seeing Grant somersaulting in free fall, became hysterical. Some collapsed in tears while many openly prayed aloud for him. Frantically, at the last minute he was able to reach behind and unravel the chute. Just before hitting the ground in a gesture of divine symbolism he caught his heels on the roof of the Fairbanks Union Church. Prayers answered!
Undeterred by this near brush with tragedy, Grant soon resumed his passion for aerial adventure.
It’s Saturday November 7, 1931. The climax of the high school football season features the confrontation of long time rivals Wilton and Farmington at Farmington’s Hippach Field.
It’s also the date of one of the longest parachute jumps up to that time.
On a touchdown by Bucky Buchanan Farmington was out in front 7-0 at halftime. Rumor had it that the Doc would swoop down on the fifty yard line after a mile high jump just as the teams were about to resume play. He would then bring the two sets of adversaries together in mutual elation at his sky diving bravado. With ties to both communities, first as a Wilton Academy alumnus and then now as a prominent Farmington business person, Grant seemed well suited for such a role. And, after all, the Farmington Greyhounds and Wilton Academy Eagles had been at each other’s throats in the first half and here was a white phantom descending from the heavens to confer upon them a peaceful truce.
The celestial gods had a different vision. For at about two thousand feet, Grant was swept off target by winds blowing up from the Sandy River. His accidental destination this time was not a church rooftop but instead the summit of an elm tree at nearby Few Acres. (This is now part of the grounds of a UMF testing facility, recently a medical notification and MBN call center.)
By the time Doc was able to disentangle himself and complete his jump Wilton’s Harold Reynolds had come across with a last minute touchdown to end the game in a 7-7 tie. The time he had leaped out of the plane at a mile up until he was safe on the ground: two hours ten minutes, billed as the longest parachute jump on record up to that time.
Undaunted, a few weeks later found Grant leaping from the skies over the Wilton Winter Carnival, promoted as the first winter time parachute jump in the state.
Nothing it seemed could keep Grant out of either the skies or the limelight, even his own wedding.
This occurred in March of 1932 when Grant and Lelia Field were married in an airplane above Farmington by Rev. Albert Henderson, himself an ecclesiastical icon. (One of the area’s most prominent churches is now named for him.)
The couple’s only child, Charles, died in infancy in 1935. Soon thereafter the couple moved to Rangeley. It was in Charles’ memory that the couple in 1947 founded the annual Doll Carriage Parade, an event that is still a summer time landmark drawing thousands to the town’s Main Street even to this day. The winners in 1949 for the best decorated boys tricycle included Stephen Bean, who himself would go on to be a prominent private airplane pilot and for whom the town’s airport is now named.
In 1957, Grant posted the “Halfway Between the Equator and North Pole” sign. This was in response to an observation by his younger brother, Harold, an air force pilot who mentioned the community’s 45th parallel location to him.
Though marriage to Lelia did temper Doc’s high atmospheric forays his youthful adventurism still flickered in his later years. In the early 60’s he inaugurated the season at Oquossoc’s Bald Mountain Ski area by skiing its most expert trail with a parachute. It was a spectacle that afforded him nationwide media coverage including daily papers in New York, Philadelphia, and Washington.
Grant died in a Farmington nursing home at the age of 63 in 1964. The brother by then was a lieutenant colonel flying missions over Viet Nam.
His widow, Lelia, who died at age 97 in 2003, continued to run the restaurant though it’s been about 20 years now since it’s been open.
The memorable narrative of their lives creates a craving for somehow wishing the Grants could offer us another meal from their dramatic menu of adventures.
Paul 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.