William Robinson Pattangall, Pembroke Genius


        Doctor Colin Windhorst, a teacher of Down East History at Washington County Community College, gave a presentation on the life of Pembrokian William Robinson Pattangall, at the meeting of the Pembroke Historical Society on Monday night, October 26th.  I braved the evening cold to join the group and hear what Dr. Windhorst had to say.  

    “I like to remind people that just because we are as far East as you can go in the country, doesn’t mean things don’t happen here.” said Dr. Windhorst. “We have not only people who have accomplished a great many things with their hands here, but some who have accomplished a great many things with their minds. We have a lot of native born genius and talent here.” Dr. Windhorst went on to tell us that “there are very few people who have matched or exceeded the witt, ability and skill of William Robinson Pattangall.”

        William R. Pattangall was born in Pembroke on June 29, 1865, just after the Civil War ended. He was named after his uncle, a captain in the war. William Pattangall’s father, Nathan, came to Pembroke as a school teacher. Nathan raised his family in the house that sits next to the Pembroke Library. William Pattangall inherited the house, and later his schoolteacher sister lived in it for years until she died in 1942.

         William Pattangall graduated in 1884 from a University of Maine with a degree in science. He married his first wife shortly after graduating. Sadly, she died a few years later leaving not only him behind, but their baby daughter.

         Pattangall became a sailor. He sailed out to sea on a Pembroke built vessel, perhaps one of his family’s vessels. The Pattangalls were shipbuilders in Pembroke. Pattangall was in the coasting trade, sailing up and down the coast of North America and even to South America. He didn’t sail for long, but came back to Machiasport in 1891 to take care of his daughter. Pattangall went to work teaching High School in Machiasport, and also married for the second time a woman named Gertrude Mackenzie. The couple had 3 daughters together.

         In the Fall of 1893, he went to the Calais courthouse to take his BAR exam. “After passing, he immediately moved his family to Columbia Falls and set up his law office.” said Dr. Windhorst as he showed us a black and white photograph of William Pattangall and his three daughters on a picnic at Roques Bluff.

          After a year in Columbia Falls, William moved his family to Machias. He served as a member of the Maine House of Representatives in the years 1897-1901 and 1909-1911. He is known for working for Maine schools, doubling the amount of tax money dedicated to schools. Dr. Windhorst told us that “He was a principled Democrat, when everyone in Maine and in office was Republican. This set the stage for the Meddybemps Letters.”

          When William Pattangall became the editor of the local newspaper called the Machias Union, in the years 1903-1905, He wrote a series of satirical letters that appeared in the Editors column signed,

“Yours truly, Stephen A. Douglas Smith.”  This Pseudonym had a lot of meaning behind it. Stephen Douglas was the Democratic opponent of Republican Abraham Lincoln during the presidential election of 1860. Lincoln debated 6 times in Illinois with the man nicknamed “little giant.” Stephen Douglas was a “great speaker, but a real fireball.” Dr. Windhorst chuckled. By signing the letters, Stephen A. Douglas Smith, Pattangall was “reaching into the very heart of American politics.” said Dr. Windhorst.

          The fictional Stephen A. Douglas Smith was a farmer from Meddybemps, Maine. Mr. Smith traveled around the state as a plow salesman, somehow bumping into the prominent political figures of that time as he went. He wrote letters to the Machias Union as he went along the way. These quotable letter were written to address specific political situations of the time. The places Stephen A. Douglas Smith ended up at included:

Augusta, Home (Meddybemps), Rockland, Houlton, Ellsworth, Portland, Calais, Hollowell, and Poland Springs. He also traveled a little out of state, to Boston and Plymouth Massachusetts.

“He was writing about the people He knew. It was almost considered an honor to be skewered by him.” Dr. Windhorst said as he showed us excerpts from the original printing of the Letters. “Pattangall was always finding ways to poke. What He writes about is what’s really going on. There might be a slight exaggeration but he is describing the things as they go.” Occasionally, in the letters, you read of the state elections, but largely of the national elections which included the presidential election of Theodore Roosevelt.

       Dr. Windhorst told us that “what distinguished American politics at the time was the complete distaste for arguments about the fundamental principles. “The country had shed oceans of blood over the fundamental principles of slavery, and politics had become the art of getting in office and keeping yourself in office.”  

With much understated humor, Stephen A. Douglas Smith gets right to the point in his Letters, not shying away from the fundamentals.

            In  one of his letters to the Machias Union on his visit to Ellsworth, Farmer Smith stops by to see U.S. Senator Hale. He writes: “Dear Union,

…I didn’t expect to sell him any plows, so I wasted no time. I opened right up and asked him about politics. “Mr. Hale, what do you think about Roosevelt?”

“Is this an interview?” he asks looking at my card. “Not exactly.” I replied diplomatically. “Any conversation we have may be considered confidential until mail time, after that, I may send it to the Machias Union.”

“I would like what I say to be kept in private and not talked about among the people, and if you agree not to print it in anything but the Machias Union, that’s private enough for practical purposes.” said the Senator…”answering your question, I like Roosevelt very much. I was always fond of children.”

In another letter he writes: “Dear Union, I have just survived the Republican Convention of Hancock County and I hasten to report to you the results of the accident. It was a great convention.”

Dr Windhorst showed us a picture of a cartoon drawing entitled “Patt’s Pen.” The drawing was of a hand hold a pen down on paper. But the pen was not dropping ink blots, but little arrows. A little man, drawn standing on the sheet of paper, had a word bubble over him that said “ouch.”

William Pattangall could be harsh, but he presented facts in such a way, that it humorously revealed the incongruencies of politics and the hypocrisy of the the politicians, particularly Republicans.

He writes in another letter:

“Perhaps no man was slighter equipped for public life-has ever travelled faster or farther along the road to political success than Mr. Burly. In all his public career, he has never attempted to convey a single thought to his constituents.”

      William Pattangall was well loved. “He had a tremendous amount of respect from his peers. They admired his wit. He was a good storyteller.” said Dr. Windhorst.

       Dr. windhorst told of a time when as a lawyer, Pattangall arrived in a town to hear a case. The only hotel was full, and he had to be in court the next morning. He was told he could sleep in the stable. The following morning, he appeared at the front desk of the hotel with a pitchfork and said “Here’s the key.” This story was told all over the state of Maine.

One of his colleagues in the Legislature says of him in a poem: …”despite the fact that he made us wince, and often blush vermillion, we all respect this able man, a man above a million.”

       Pattangall became Maine’s Attorney General from 1911-1913, and was the 17th mayor of Waterville. He also ran for Maine Governor two times. When he ran for for U.S. Congress,Dr. Windhorst said, “he was sort of maneuvered out of the way by state Democratic politics. I never read anywhere that he complained bitterly about it but it was clear what had been done to him.”

         Despite the fact that he was a staunch Democrat, Pattangall eventually became a Republican. “William R. Pattangall disliked the advent of the New Deal politics.” stated Dr. Windhorst.  He said “It’s not that I left the party, but the party left me.”         When As a delegate to the Democratic National Convention in 1924, he argued for the Democratic party to label the Klu Klux Klan as a “repugnant organization,” and he proposed the party insert an anti-Klan plank into the party platform. There were 300 Klansman in the hall and his proposal caused booing, fistfights, chair tossing, and the destruction of convention decorations. William Jennings Bryan told Pattangall that he was “going to start a prairie fire that will sweep through and divide every town in this country.” Pattangall’s side was voted down by three votes. One of those votes was his wife’s.

        In 1926, Pattangall was asked to join the Maine Supreme Court. He served in the Supreme Court until he retired in 1931.                                                                                                                           

        One time, during his service as Justice, a lawyer was arguing for a bill collecting agency. A man had bought a stove and it hadn’t been paid for. All the facts and the law backed up the bill collectors side. He heard the case and found that the bill collector was justified by the case, the facts and the law. He reluctantly told the collector to reclaim the stove. It was November and Pattangall knew the man’s family needed the stove for the Winter. After everyone in the courtroom had left, Pattangall told his clerk to go “tell them to keep a red hot fire in there until April.”  No one would take a red hot stove!

        “He had wit and humanity, and that’s the delight of Pattangall.” Dr. Windhorst stated to us. We all nodded in agreement.

        When William Robinson Pattangall was asked how he gained such knowledge and understanding of politics, he replied, “You can learn a lot at the selectmen’s office in Pembroke.”


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