SEARSPORT – Families have very interesting dynamics and there is usually one or two, sometimes more, interesting characters within every family. Some gained the reputation by accomplishing good things in life and then there are those that went the other way. Most of us find it very interesting to see just how people moved themselves through life by the choices they make. Some are lucky and other challenged; it all can make for some very interesting reading.
Frederic Hill completed his second and third book on his family, which were both released in 2022. One is “A Flick of Sunshine,” which Fred said, “This is a non-fiction account of the life story of Will Jackson. He was my great uncle and the grandson of William Donnell Crooker who was one of the two brothers who owned the Crooker Shipyard in Bath in 1830-1855. A very successful shipyard, but it did fall on hard times, brotherly disrespect for each other, swindles and other troubles including the panic of 1857. Will at 21, without a shipyard to run, he signed on to a Sewall ship RAINER, built by Arthur Sewall in 1883. It was taking 73,000 cases of kerosene from Philadelphia to Kobe, Japan. After a long voyage down the Atlantic and around the Cape of Good Hope and into the Indian Ocean they passed the volcano of Krakatoa which blew up not long before they sailed through that part of the Indian Ocean. They went around Australia and heading north and after they had landed at Norfolk Island for provisions, a former prison colony off Australia, Captain Morrison said, ‘We are all clear now,’ and 12 hours later they ran aground on a coral reef in the Marshall Islands called Ujae during the night of January 1st or 2nd 1884. The people onboard, which was about 28, captain, first mate Omar Humphrey who wrote a book called “Wreck of the RAINER,” his wife who was the captain’s daughter, Emma Morrison, and the others all piled as much provisions they could into the bow of the ship as it was breaking up on this coral reef. They spent a pretty horrible night because a lot of the islands were inhabited by cannibals so they had no idea what they were facing. In the morning out of the distance they could see a couple of outriggers with native people, pretty naked except for loin clothes and two outriggers coming towards them. They didn’t know what to expect. They did have 12 Springfield rifles onboard and so they were ready for anything. It turned out the native members of this Ujae Atoll were friendly. They obviously had some experience with people trading copra and other ingredients out there because they spoke a few words of English. Captain Morrison offered them some pipes and clothing and they took them back to the atoll. Will Jackson was the youngest person of the crew, 28. He was the lowest paid, but he helped rescue everybody. They were on those island for several months. The ship had broken up completely, but they were able to take a lot of things off it. This included some lumber and they built a schooner. With ten members of the crew and the captain they sailed 300 miles to another atoll, but a larger one by the name of Jaluit where there was a U. S. Consul. He was actually German, named Pfeiffer but he basically didn’t show much sympathy for them. He seized the schooner because they didn’t have any money and he refused to send help back to the island to rescue the other 15 or 18 people. Will Jackson ended up helping the captain get to Jaluit. He was appointed as head of the schooner and he ends up going back to the atoll leaving the captain in Jaluit and when he gets back he finds the head of the tribe there wearing a naval uniforms and he knows what has happened, the U. S Navy had heard about the shipwreck and sent a warship, USS ESSEX to the atoll and had taken off all of the other members of the crew. Will Jackson was stranded there another bunch of months and he eventually gets back to San Francisco but the book is basically about his life and I can’t tell you what the subtitle refers to. The subtitle of it is ‘The Remarkable Shipwrecked, Marooned, Maritime Adventures and Tragic Fate of an American Original’ you will have to read the book to find out what tragic fate refers to. But a few months later he was on another Sewall ship and was washed overboard rounding Cape Horn, he survived. He was hit by lightning. He survived five or six near-death experiences.
“That book, my son and I did was a marvelous experience for both of us,” said Fred. “My mother had given me the letter of Will Jackson, who was her uncle when I was in the Baltimore Sun’s office in Paris. I never got around to doing anything with them until I wrote the book on the Crooker shipyard. After that I began to realize that I should look into Will Jackson’s story. Meanwhile, my son and I had transcribed the letters because they were in pencil and beginning to fade. Alex in 7th or 8th grade published an essay on Will Jackson’s travels. He is still upset to this day that he got a B+ on the paper. He was based in San Francisco when we finally got around to doing the book and I was here in Maine. Between the two of us on the different coasts we were able to do the further research.
“The other book is Beyond the Tides, Classic Tales of Richard Matthews Hallett. Richard Matthews Hallett was one of the most successful prolific short-story writers for the Saturday Evening Post,” continued Fred. “He grew up in Bath, his father was a pharmacist, Anders Hallett and Anders Hallett married a Crooker. My mother was his cousin. He grew up reading about Will Jackson. His father moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts probably when Richard was about 10 or 12. This would have been the turn of the 20th century. Hallett went to Harvard and to Harvard Law School and graduated very high in both. He then became a clerk for Learned Hand one of the most famous jurors never to become a Supreme Justice. After the year as a clerk Richard said he was going to take the job at the New York law firm that he was offered after Harvard Law School. At the last minute, he decided, having read about Will Jackson, to go to Australia and see if he could get to the Marshall Islands. He took a ship owned by Standard Oil from New York to Sydney, Australia in 1910 or 1911. Had all kinds of adventures with a friend of his from Bath, Frank Hyde. They canoed across the country and went through the brush as far as Canberra. He worked in different jobs, from shearing sheep and cutting rock. Down on their luck in Melbourne, he was able to borrow a typewriter and he wrote a series of stories and sold them to the Melbourne Herald for a princely sum. That got them out of hawk, and he then took a job on a steamship ORVIETO going from Sydney to London, still planning to go back to New York to work for the law firm. When he got to London, he wrote a short story based on having worked in the boiler room of the steamship, he titled it, “The Black Squad.” He mailed it off to the Saturday Evening Post which was one of the magazines of the day and forgot about it. He was in England for two or three more months and then decided he better go take that job at the law firm. He went back to the United States and when he got to Cambridge there was a letter from the Saturday Evening Post and the editor George Lorimer offered him $250 for the story. $250 in 1912 is worth $7,500 today. Richard decided not to take the job at the law firm, sent them a telegram and said, I am going become a writer and adventurer. Through the next 40 or 50 years, based mostly in Boothbay Harbor. He travelled throughout the world and wrote 220 short stories including 70 for the Saturday Evening Post, some for Harper’s, Atlantic, Colliers, all the leading magazines back in the day. He wrote five novels and a very good autobiography called “The Rolling World.” Among other things, in the ’30s he was an editorial writer for the Gannett papers for the Portland Press Herald and he campaigned for the creation of a maritime academy in Maine. He had worked during World War I as a maritime officer on ships crossing the Atlantic in the face of German U-boats. He decided that Maine was a perfect place for a maritime academy. He later wrote columns for Downeast Magazine for a long time. Colby College did a lengthy profile of Hallett in 1967 about the year he died.
“He was very critical in my life,” added Fred, “because ironically in 1964 when I was at Boston College Law School after Bowdoin, I went to see him at Christmas in Boothbay Harbor and during a game of chess, I told him, ‘I really don’t like law school at all.’ This was my first year and he said, ‘Well you write good letters why don’t you try journalism.’ Well, after Christmas that year, I went back and thought about it and lined up interviews with about six newspapers including the Boston Globe, Washington Post, Providence Herald, Wilmington had a newspaper, and the Baltimore Sun. About a month later, the Baltimore Sun editor called me up and offered me a job and much to my parent’s chagrin, I said, ‘I am not finishing law school’ and went to work for the Baltimore Sun, I spent 20 years as a reporter and correspondent in Europe, Africa, the Middle East. I arrived in London in 1974 and that was the time of some of the worst troubles in Northern Ireland but it is also the year the Portuguese dictatorship was overthrown which then led to chaos and civil wars in Angola and Mozambique. I spent a lot of time both in Northern Ireland and in Angola, Mozambique. Rhodesia at the time as well as South Africa. I was also covering Western Europe, mostly France. Moved from London to Paris in 1976 and that was the time of a lot of the upheaval in Italy. In 1978 I spent a good deal of time back and forth to Rome covering the conclaves of the Popes because there were two Popes who had died that year. I covered the uprising in Iran in 1979. I came back to the Baltimore Sun for three years and then Senator Mathias offered me a job as his foreign affairs director.”
Fred came to Maine in 2006 saying, “My wife was a very good sport about it. She was from Maryland and Virginia but she liked Maine. We would always come to her family’s cottage in Popham. Soon after I came here, I was on the Board at the Camden Conference, but didn’t want too many non-profit exercises. Some friends convinced me to join Maine’s First Ship, which was the effort going on for about 10 years to build a reconstruction of the first ship built in North America by English settlers, VIRGINIA. The first board had more or less given up because they hadn’t been able to get the ship built in ten years. I think it was about the second or the third board meeting, the first board more or less gave up. Four or five of my colleagues decided that we should try to keep it going and I agreed to help. Thankfully, Rob Stevens who was a very capable shipwright was a part of our group. We started with very little money, but we were able to get contributions of white oak from different people along the coast. We built a small shallop as an example of what could be done to engage students from the local high schools in a project like that and that was successful. I was President for 2½ years but did not stay too much longer. I was interested in other activities. It was during the time I was president, I realized that I should learn something about shipbuilding in Maine so I began to read some of the books. In these books, I learned of the Crooker Shipyard in Bath and Crooker I knew was my great, great grandfather on my mother’s side. One thing led to another I began to realize that the Crooker’s had been a fairly successful shipyard until they basically didn’t get a long too well and they were swindled out of a good sum of money by a commission merchant in Boston. William Crooker continued building ships into the mid-50s, but he ran afoul of a lot of debt and the panic of 1857. “The Ships, Swindlers and Scalded Hogs” is a good story I did a lot of research on the history of Bath shipbuilding and shipbuilding in the United States.”
Fred is now working on a novel about lobster wars and a book on his time in the State Department. If these are anything like his last three books, I just cannot wait to read them.