Maine Farmhouse Journal
The Upholsterer's Trade
When my father, Allen F. Crabtree Jr. retired from his career on the U.S. Postal Service mail trains he moved back to his childhood home in Effingham, New Hampshire. There he dusted off the skills that he had learned from his father and took up the upholsterer's trade. In the little shop attached to our house in South Effingham he set up his sewing machine and workbench, and took in furniture to be repaired and reupholstered. Word of his trade spread by word of mouth, and soon the barn was full of pieces to be worked on. Many of the summer folks would drop off a sofa or upholstered chair as they left at the end of the season, to be picked up again in the spring when they returned from points south.
It was fascinating to watch my father work on a piece of furniture. He would bring it into the shop and set it up on a set of low sawhorses and completely redo it. He would first strip the piece down to the wooden frame, removing the old fabric, padding and fillings, and exposing the springs and webbing. If the wooden frame needed to be reglued, he would do that. Then all of the webbing would be tacked in place and he would replace the old webbing with new jute material as needed. Then he would carefully reattach or replace each of the coil springs. The entire set of springs would be retied, one by one, front to back, side to side, and diagonally two ways, for eight ties in all. Next came the filling to shape the seats and backs (sometimes horsehair), then cotton padding and then the covering fabric. He would then apply the final touches with custom fabric covered buttons, gimp and arm covers. He was also a marvel at weaving cane and rush chair seats and backs.
As far as I know, he never went to a school to learn the upholsterers trade. Instead he served an informal apprenticeship with his father, Allen F. Crabtree Sr., as he worked his trade. Allen Sr. had been in the furniture repair business for a long time, as this entry from the 1884 Bangor Directory shows.
Allen F. Crabtree Sr. was born in Orono, Maine on August 24, 1861. He was the son of John Dyer Crabtree, a carpenter from Bangor, Maine. The two of them were following in the footsteps of their ancestor John Crabtree who emigrated from England to Boston in the early 1600s. John's trade in Boston was as a "joyner" [sic "joiner"] who was a furniture maker and skilled carpenter. (A joiner is a person whose occupation is to construct articles by joining pieces of wood together.) (see Crabtree Family Reunion 1999 for more information on John Crabtree.)
In 1903 Allen Sr. met and married Laurina (Lena) Petersen in Bangor, Maine (see Laurine - Udvandring til Kanada). It was the second marriage for both of them, and they both had children from their earlier marriages. Allen and Lena set out on their own, however, and travelled around New England wherever there was work repairing and reupholstering furniture. They called each other "Papa" and "Mama".
During these years on the road they had four sons, born in the different towns and villages where they lived and Papa worked at his upholsterer's trade. Their oldest son John was born on April 6, 1904 when they lived in Worcester, Mass. Second son Allen Jr. was born on Oct 3, 1906 at Orange, New Hampshire. Charlie was born on Nov 31, 1908 at Canaan Center, New Hampshire (see Uncle Charlie's Tapeworm).
The Crabtree family settled in Cambridge, Mass, at a little house at 200 Bank Street, where Frank was born on Jan 4, 1915. Papa opened an uphostery shop on Putnam Square in Cambridge, but his health was not good. The doctors told him that he had a year to live, and in order to live that year he would have to move away to a less stressful life in the country. In the spring of 1916 the family bought a small farm in Effingham, New Hampshire, and moved there to begin a new life. Papa was 55 years old.
To supplement the meager income from the farm, in 1918 Papa contracted for work at the Rockingham Hotel in Portsmouth, NH. He was their resident upholsterer for nearly two years, rebuilding and reupholstering all the furniture in the hotel. Allen Jr. came to help him at one point, learning the trade.
The Shop in Fryeburg
In the spring of 1924 Papa learned of an opportunity in Fryeburg, Maine. The long-term owner of a harness shop on Portland Street there, Nathaniel Walker, had died the previous November and his son Roy E. Walker was looking for someone to take over his father's shop.
Fryeburg is located on the Maine-New Hampshire state line, near Conway, N.H. In the 1920s Fryeburg was a small farming village of 1,283 with a number of thriving small industries. The regular rail service from the Maine Central Line provided access for Papa to Fryeburg from the farm in Effingham, although it was a long trip. The Walker shop, however, was a good opportunity to work his trade, with the potential for a lot of business from people needing their furniture repaired or reupholstered. As he had done so many times in the past, Papa made an arrangement to room in Fryeburg while he worked there.
The old tin box in the barn (see The Lena Letters - 1949) had a bundle of letters carefully preserved by my father years ago. They were letters that Papa had written from Fryeburg to Mama at the Effingham farm. Here is Papa's first letter from Fryeburg.
Nathaniel Walker's shop sold "harness, robes, blankets, trunks, etc." and had been on Portland Street for years. Walker learned the trade working with Wallace R. Tarbox, and after Tarbox's death took over his store.
For a time Portland Street was dubbed "Leather Lane" because of the number of leather-working establishments on it - a tannery, currier shops, a harness maker, and cobbler shops.
The Walker shop was located on the right side of Portland Street a few doors down from the stone monument at the corner of Main Street (the street going left to right in the image) and Portland Street (on the left side of the image, running vertically).
Papa's first week at the new shop was promising, and he was enthusiastic about his prospects there.
The fire that Papa referred to here was probably one that took place between 1916 and 1924. It was probably not the disasterous fire of August 31, 1906 that destroyed much of downtown Fryeburg. The 1906 fire destroyed the Oxford Hotel, homes and businesses on Main Street, Portland Street and other streets were destroyed, including Nathaniel Walker's home and stable on Portland Street. By the time that Papa arrived in Fryeburg in 1924 many of the homes and businesses had been rebuilt, although many of the elms that shaded the streets of Fryeburg were destroyed.
Papa referred to their farm horse "Ned". Lena and Papa had bought "Ned", a 1,500 pound coal black gelding from Moss Huckins in Center Ossipee soon after they moved to Effingham. Later, in 1921, they bought a second horse for use on the farm from L. E. Moulton, of Moultonville, N.H. In Lena's records were three promissory notes totalling $175.00 payable over a twelve month period. We don't know the name of this second horse, nor whether Ned was still around at the time.
However, the concept of buying another horse in 1924 on time would have been an accepted concept, especially since $200 was a lot of money to the struggling family. It is probably safe to assume that Papa got his way, and Lena gave her permission to buy the new horse.
The Crabtree family photo album has a number of photos of Ned with Papa and a young Allen Jr. about 10 years old. Allen Jr. would have been 18 years old in 1924 when the new horse was bought. This photo shows Allen Jr. as a young man holding a different horse with a large white blaze on his face, and the photo is labeled "Allen and Prince".
The mail service between rural communities was suprisingly prompt and efficient, especially when there was a railline to carry the mail. Letters were routinely delivered in one day, and there were sometimes two deliveries of mail a day even in the rural areas. And all for 2 cents postage!
This letter of March 24 was addressed to Allen Jr., living at home with Lena. Papa's health problems continued, and his cough had become worse.
Papa's son John was now 20 years old and worked in Bridgton. Like his brother Allen Jr., however, he sometimes helped his father at the shop. We have no record that John ever picked up the upholsterer's trade himself, however.
Papa has by this time been at the shop for about five weeks, and has talked Mr. Walker, the owner, into selling him the shop, stock and all. We don't know what deal was struck between the two of them, but Roy Walker was probably happy to find a buyer for his father's old shop and Papa was clearly excited over the prospect of owning it. It still had to have been hard for him, however, to be away from the farm while Mama had to deal with raising the boys on her own.
The busy pace of running his own shop continued, and again John came up from Bridgton to help Papa run things.
Papa's gentleness and caring came through in his letters, even though he was not overly demonstrative. I'd like to think that the poem enclosed in this letter was one that touched his heart and he wanted to share it with his wife, even though he could not be there in person.
On the back of every envelope was a row of seven or eight "x's" - perhaps kisses for mama?
When Papa was home on the farm the family times were warm and loving. My father remembers that Papa had a nice tenor voice, and the boys picked up music from him and Lena. At night during the summer on those rare times when Papa was home and things were all quieted on down he would gather the family out in the yard and they would sing together. Sometimes Calvin Clough and his family down the road would hear them and they'd join in. My father remembered those times fondly as some fine evenings. Later, my father and Papa formed a quartet with two other neighbors that sang for events around the neighborhood.
A channeler we consulted in Manchester, NH, conveyed that Papa was musical and always singing or humming a tune. He was a happy man, with jokes and a dry sense of humour.
Papa's business continued to grow, and he boasted a little that he was "known in all the towns around here". He also seemed to indicate that he has a small shop at the farm in Effingham as well. These cottage industries were common throughout New England as a way that farmers supplemented their farm income, by doing skilled work for their neighbors. It was not uncommon to find a shoemaker or harness maker working part time, particularly in the winter, at the small farms in the area. The old census records often listed tradesmen and women living as part of an extended farm family throughout the region.
"I tell you I am doing some work here". Papa was proud of his accomplishments, and things were looking up for the family.
Papa's illness returned, exacerbated no doubt by the long hours and hard work he had been doing to build his business.
Papa returned home to the farm in mid June 1924 for a much-needed break from his shop work, and also to reunite with his family.
Here the letters in the tin box stop. There are no further messages from him in Fryeburg. We don't know if he returned to the shop but there is no record of a deed for the shop there in his name. We do know that Papa's health continued to decline over the summer and he died on November 4, 1924 in the City Hospital in Boston, Massachusetts. Papa died of auricular (atrial) fibrillation and dilation of his heart, and whether these were the result of the illness that prompted the move from Cambridge to Effingham in 1916 we don't know. Papa was just over 63 years old when he died, but he had a full life and a wonderful family.
I never knew my grandfather - he died long before I was even thought of. It has been wonderful finding these letters of his that have been preserved through the years in the old tin box. They have given me poignant insights into his life and the type of person that he was. The letters have let me know my grandfather a little better, and much of my grandfather's personality was mirrored in my father. His gentle nature, the sacrifices he made for his family, and his honest, hardworking character were there in my father because of the positive influences that his father, Papa, had made upon him. These are good things to be remembered for, and are a wonderful legacy to leave behind.
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Last updated November 22, 2003
Copyright © 2003, Allen Crabtree
Copyright © 2003, Allen Crabtree