July 3 – 9, 2020Vol. 22, No. 4

Characters of Belgrade From Yesteryear

by Rod Johnson

Workers stand by as logs pass down a conveyor belt in this early 20th-century sawmill. Photo courtesy of United States Department of Agriculture, Forest Service.

Like most towns, Belgrade had its share of "characters" and probably still does. Exactly what that means or meant may vary some, but one key ingredient is that they were people who leave this earth with a lasting epitaph in people's minds. They may have been eccentric with certain issues, funny, seemed odd to others with their mannerisms and were often outspoken. Concerning politics, religion or most anything for that matter, you generally knew where they stood. Their personalities earned them the title of being a CHARACTER. Keep in mind that this is generally a category of endearment, and people in it were spoken of in a positive light. My wife Doris says that characters teach us lessons, put a smile on our faces and reserve a place in our hearts.

In reflecting over the last 60 years or so, I pondered some of the people in our town who were characters when I knew them in the 1950s and 1960s. There were many, but I settled on two old men whom my friend Ralph Pope worked for at age 16. The summer job consisted of being a helper doing miscellaneous home and cottage projects. The men were Clyde Dalton and Rosby French, both Belgrade residents. Ralph often kept me and a few other friends informed how the work days went, and even gave the pair nicknames of "Creepin' Jesus" and the "Dead Man." These names were coined due to their pace of work, not from laziness but rather decrepit condition. I asked Ralph if he could recollect some of the old men's antics. Keep in mind these were men in the latter 70s who had worked hard their entire lives, Rosby as a carpenter and Clyde as a sawmill owner operator and ice harvester.

Here, Ralph has offered his memoirs of the men as he knew them in their dotage — and how he came to admire them.

One of the things I remember was Clyde saying he liked George Washington pipe tobacco because, "You could smoke it or chew it," with "smoke" pronounced more like "smuck." When his pipe went out he would dump the remains in his hand, ashes and all, then dump the mess into his cheek.

Rosby, was a good painter, I think, but a shaky carpenter. The problem was that his education had been spotty, and I believe he missed some math along the way. He told me to study fractions at Bowdoin, because if you knew fractions, you could do anything. Rosby and Clyde were both old when I worked with the two men that summer, and Rosby had some serious orthopedic issues. He had a terrible time getting around, but that never deterred him from getting up on a staging, or even a roof if he needed to. One of my jobs was to give him a boost if needed, to get where he had to be to get the job done. During the summer of working with these two characters I learned a lot. I didn't know it until years after, but what I had witnessed was a lot of courage from both of them, neither one letting adversity take control of their lives.

Thank you, Ralph, for your heart warming memories. My own vague recollections of Old Clyde as he was often called — his son was Clyde Jr. — was at the very end of his log sawing days. I went to Clyde's sawmill with my dad Clifford, probably to get some boards or ice. Old Clyde, with corncob pipe hung between his lips, was sawing logs. We stood and watched him finish up a log as he rode the carriage back and forth, slabbing off a board each pass. Of course, I didn't know what I was watching, but Dad said that riding the carriage was dangerous. Clyde held the log in place with his hip and a cantdog while he and the log passed by the big round 52" whirring blade only inches from him. I later learned that the mill was generally worn out and the "dog" that should hold the log in place had long since been broken off. Clyde rode the carriage until his last board came off the saw in 1957, and the blade never got him. He died of old age a few years later after working with Rosby.

The last remnant of the Dalton saw mill and ice operation was the huge sawdust pile. In the late 1950s and early 1960s Ken Bartlett purchased a large portion of the Dalton property and built the Great Pond Camp Ground, now the Center for all Seasons. The sawdust pile was bulldozed and used to level the area for tent platforms and camper sites. Clyde moved into a small house by the side of Route 27. Clyde Jr. and his wife raised a family in the big house, which still stands today on the north side of the Community Center and is owned by the Town of Belgrade. The small house was sold and moved after Clyde's death to a location about one half mile south and is in use today.

I urge you all to purchase a copy of Town of Belgrade: Past and Present, printed in 1996 and available through the the Belgrade Historical Society. These books belong in every residence, seasonal or year around. Among a wide array of articles concerning Belgrade's history, are two articles written by Clyde Dalton Junior. Both give a good accounting of the Dalton sawmill and the Dalton ice company. The history books can be purchased at the History Room in the Community Center on Wednesdays, if COVID rules allow opening, or by emailing me at rodorjohn@hotmail.com.

Editor's Note: According to the Belgrade Historical Society, this 208 p., 11½" high book has "140 unique and priceless photos of Belgrade's past, all with historical captions." The Belgrade Public Library has a couple of copies.

Rod Johnson was born and raised in the Belgrade Lakes in the 1950s and '60s.

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