By David Hampshire
My partner Lynne Giuffre has a thing for old books. So, when she saw this battered booklet last fall at the San Juan Island Library used-book sale, she couldn’t pass it up.
Published in 1862 by the Holbrook School Apparatus Company, the 32 yellowed pages in “Sherwood’s Speller and Pronouncer” were designed to help familiarize young students with selected words from “abasing” to “voyageur.”
But what intrigued me more than the book itself were the inscriptions inside the front and back covers. Long ago, maybe during the Lincoln administration, a student named W.F. Jewett of Solon, Maine, had used the blank spaces to practice writing his/her signature and hometown. There was an ornate curl at the top of the “J” in Jewett and the double “t” was topped with a single flourish that made me think of the symbol for pi.
But who was this W.F. Jewett, and what was this little book doing in Friday Harbor? Would I be able, more than 150 years later, to find any trace of Jewett’s existence? Before long I had begun a virtual search that took me to the East Coast and back to a small town on the Umpqua River in central Oregon.
I like to think I know a little about Maine, having worked there on a small weekly newspaper in the 1970s. But Solon? Never heard of it.
My Maine Atlas and Gazetteer set me straight. Solon, present population 1,053, sits on the Kennebec River in western Maine not far, as the crow flies, from the Sugarloaf ski resort. A quick search of the Solon online cemetery records turned up several Jewetts, but none with the initials “W.F.” Could our mystery person have left for greener pastures?
I widened my search by typing “W.F. Jewett” into Google. To my surprise, it gave me several choices, including this one: “W.F. Jewett Middle School (Closed 2004).”
It turns out that W.F. Jewett Middle School served about 200 students in the unincorporated community of Gardiner, Douglas County, Oregon, between 1957 and 2004. The building stood mostly empty for another 15 years until December 2019, when it sold for $475,000.
On the Douglas County Historical Society website, I found “The Gardiner That Was,” a 2011 article by Georgina Durbin. She traced the “real start of Gardiner as a town” to the construction of a sawmill in the mid-1860s, which was acquired in April 1880 by two men, W.F. Jewett and Joseph Knowland. By 1885, Jewett and Knowland had joined forces with four other men in a new company, acquired titles to tracts of timber over a wide area, built a new sawmill and started a brisk shipping business between Gardiner and ports in California.
Durbin said that Jewett “took a very paternalistic interest in the town … It was his idea to have all of the buildings painted white, which caused it to be known as the ‘White City’. He also planted poplar trees along every street. Jewett kept the Company-owned houses spick-and-span, and instituted ‘clean-up’ days to keep the town tidy.”
On another website, I learned that an earlier school in Gardiner, built in 1917, also had been named after W.F. Jewett.
By now we’ve established that this Jewett was a successful businessman and a respected civic leader. But what are the chances that he was the one who signed our 1862 children’s speller in Solon, Maine?
By adding “Gardiner” to my search, I came across this brief item from the Nov. 7, 1914, issue of the American Lumberman. It’s an obituary.
“W. F. JEWETT – Superintendent of the Gardiner Mill Company in Gardiner, Ore., W.F. Jewett died October 28. Mr. Jewett was born in Maine and came to Oregon in 1878, located at Marshfield. Two years later he entered the employ of the Gardiner Mill Company, with which he was connected until his death. He was financially interested in steamers, mills, banks, oil wells and other business enterprises. Besides his widow, he is survived by a son, W.F. Jewett, Jr., and a daughter, Miss Narcissus Jewett.”
Born in Maine? Bring up the violins.
My next step – or thousand steps – took me from my home in Salt Lake City to the Family History Library just west of the Mormon Tabernacle. Other than a DNA test, I know of no better resource for genealogy research.
Before long I had found what I was looking for. It was a news article in the Oct. 29, 1914, edition of the Oregon Daily Journal. “Wealthy Mill Man Dies at Gardiner,” the headline said.
“Roseburg, OR., Oct. 29 – W.F. Jewett, one of the wealthiest and best-known men of northwestern Douglas County, died at his home in Gardiner Tuesday night at the age of 63 years,” the article began. “He was superintendent of the Gardiner Mill Company’s interests at Gardiner and is said to have been worth nearly $2,000,000.”
Two million dollars? In those days that was real money.
For the previous year he had been “practically an invalid from paralysis,” the article continued, then shifted gears. “Mr. Jewett was born in Solon, Maine, and came west in 1878. …”
Wait a minute. Born in Solon, Maine? Sound the trumpets. That’s our guy.
U.S. Census records helped fill in some of the gaps. At the time of the 1860 census, 7-year-old Wilson Flavel (yes, those were his given names) Jewett and his family were living in Sangerville, Maine. According to the 1870 census, 17-year-old Wilson was a farm laborer in Bingham, Maine, just upriver from Solon.
Then came a remarkable transformation. By the time of the 1880 census, our young laborer had said so long to Solon, moved to San Francisco and was calling himself a lumber dealer. That was the same year that, at 27, he acquired an interest in the Gardiner mill.
Other tidbits popped up during my search. A wooden sailing ship named the W.F. Jewett, the largest three-masted schooner on the Pacific Coast when it was launched in 1887, apparently survived long enough into the 20th century to appear in at least one Hollywood film. The W.F. Jewett Investment Company was still doing business in Oregon as recently as 1987. Jewett’s first house in Gardiner was still standing in 2002, still painted white. And an annual junior high poetry recitation funded by a Jewett family endowment will celebrate its 104th anniversary in Douglas County this year.
But how did his old speller end up in the San Juan Island Library?
The library staff doesn’t know. Do you?
David Hampshire divides his time between homes in Salt Lake City and Friday Harbor.