2018-08-23 / Editorial

Former governor’s is one story out of Laurel Hill

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By Leslie Rounds

Gov. John Fairfield’s oldest son was nothing if not clever. Walter was just 15, but with his own hands, he’d already constructed a small wooden boat, first in the back yard of the family home on Beach Street in Saco, and later working on it as it floated in the Saco River. He had a younger helper in a lot of that construction. It was George Rumery whose father would later become the sexton of the big new cemetery that would be located across the street from the Fairfield home on land that was, in 1842, still one of Gov. John’s hayfields.

Of course his father hadn’t had much time for cutting hay lately. He was busy, serving his second term as governor of the nearly new state of Maine, spending most of his time up in distant Augusta. Walter’s mother was constantly on the move. She was busy caring for her youngest two, infant Lucy and toddler Martha while trying to keep track of her other offspring, five of whom were younger than 10 years old. Walter was regarded as the grown-up of the family, needing little supervision.

No one noticed when Walter and George climbed aboard the tiny boat, sailed it out into the middle of the Saco River and dropped anchor on such a blustery April afternoon. The boys must have seen the squall coming and realized they might be in some danger. The river, full with icy winter runoff, was moving fast and they were anchored in the swiftest part. It was only when the boys tried to pull up the anchor and head for shore that their terrible peril became evident to the many men who were working on the wharves that lined the river banks.

As the inexperienced pair grappled with the anchor rope, their weight and the pull of the rope forced the bow downward, flooding the boat. The two desperately scrambled toward the stern, trying to level the craft off, but now all the weight was there and with the combined forces of wind and water, the boat overturned, spilling the boys into the deep freezing river. Although there were many watching in horror, no one could reach them. The boys quickly disappeared. Walter’s body was recovered the following day. Accounts don’t mention whether 10-year-old George’s body was ever found.

Two years after the tragic accident, Laurel Hill Cemetery would be founded. The Fairfield plot, where governor, later Sen. John Fairfield would be interred in 1847, is just a few steps from the Rumery plot. George has a marker with his name on it that also records that he drowned at age 10 years, 10 months and 21 days. Although many members of the Fairfield family are buried around the obelisk with the governor’s name on it, Walter’s name doesn’t appear on any of the stones. It seems very likely that wherever this intrepid teen was first interred, that he was later moved to the cemetery named after his family’s home.

For more information about this story, and many others, check out (or buy!) “Laurel Hill Cemetery of Saco, Maine” and visit the current exhibition at Saco Museum, “Buried in time: Hidden Stories from Laurel Hill Cemetery.”

Leslie Rounds is executive director of Dyer Library/ Saco Museum on Main Street.

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