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The Lena Letters - 1924

"Papa's New Shop"

December 30, 2002

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.

The 1884 Bangor Directory lists Allen Sr.
working at his furniture trade and living at his father's home

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.)

Papa and his four boys
all dressed in their Sunday best
(l-r) Allen Jr., Charlie, John, Frank

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

Fryeburg Maine, 1911

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.

Letter to:
Mrs. Lena Crabtree
So. Effingham, N.H.

Posted from Fryeburg, Maine on March 6, 1924

Dear Mama

I got here at 6-30 Saturday night
have worked so far this week
I think he [landlord R. E. Walker] is all right

I am going to have some of the things that his father [Nathaniel Walker] left in the store
axle greese 10 cents a can like what we use
sweat pads for horse collar 35 cents
real raw hide whips 65 cents
he also gave me some reins and part of harnesses that will come handy.

I will send some money so you get it on Mondays mail.


Fryeburg Maine
Care R. E. Walker

Fryeburg as it looked in 1920
showing the monument at the corner
of Portland Street and Main
near Papa's shop

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).

Letter to:
Mrs. Lena Crabtree
So. Effingham, N.H.

Posted from Port St. Johnsbury. RPQ, on March 12, 1924

Tuesday night

Dear Mama

I received box and letters. O.K.
I can not seem to get on to the mail service here that connects with the train so you can get it
I mailed you a check Monday morning I hope you got it all right.

I took in $58.00 worth of work yesterday and got 3 orders to get tomorrow
I think business is going to be good here.

tell Allen that the store where we got the cartrages for his gun is burned to the ground
also the big houses on both sides of Charles store burned also.

I am boarding with my boss nice room and board
I am getting fat also am well

I wrote to Ever Downs for my bill that I run there
I got her answer to day $7,56
I will send it to her next week
also I sent 150 to the record co a week ago yesterday

I am glad to hear from home and that you are all well.

we had no rain here but to day is a real march day blowing cold and snowing a regular blizzard

well I must close
by by


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.

Letter to:
Mrs. Lena Crabtree
So. Effingham, N.H.

Posted from Fryeburg, Maine on March ___, 1924

Fryeburg Maine
Wednesday Night

Dear Mama

Yesterday and today I have taken in 80 dollars worth of work in to the shop
58 dollars profit on what I have got in the shop now and more for me to figure on.

I was talking with a man today about a horse 7 years old sound kind and a good driver and walker
he will sell him to me on same terms as we bought Ned
he has bought a truck and wants to sell the pair
he is not a horse jocky
he bought this horse before it was broke and broke it himself but I cannot get him untill the roads are so that he can run his truck

now Mama what do you say will I buy him to put on the farm or not.
What do you say
he says he is all horse.

I wish you would write me what you think.

He did not say just what he asked for the horse but I think some where about 200 dollars
if he is as good a horse as Ned I would give it in a minute.

let me hear from you as soon as you diside

Love to all

tell Allen to write to me


Allen Jr. and Prince

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".


Letter to:
Mrs. Lena Crabtree
So. Effingham, N.H.

Posted from Fryeburg, Maine on March 17, 1924

Monday night

Dear Mama

I wish you would let me know when you get this check
I want to see how long it takes for a letter to reach you

Love to all


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!

Letter to:
Mrs. Lena Crabtree
So. Effingham, N.H.

Posted from Fryeburg, Maine on March 25, 1924

Monday March 24 - 24

Dear Son

Yours received also the bill for $6.00
I am planning to get what little I owe paid up and when I do you will not have to worry over $6.00

The large rocker like littlefields I am getting here 2.00 for.
The back and seat 350

I sent one bunch of cane to you to day also my undersuit
ask mama if she will wash them for me and send them back.

Is Charlie at home
I see by the papers that his school is closed for 3 weeks.

I have got a fearful cold and do nohing but cough most of the night.

Love to all.


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.

Letter to:
Mrs. Lena Crabtree
So. Effingham, N.H.

Posted from Port St. Johnsbury, RPQ on April 9, 1924

Tuesday April 8th

Dear Mama

you probily got my letter Tuesday saying that I would be home Saturday but I can not come untill another week.

John is with me today and goes back tomorrow to Mr Andersons in Lovell for a few days.

I will let you know when I am coming before hand.

Love to all


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.

Letter to:
Mrs. Lena Crabtree
So. Effingham, N.H.

Posted from Fryeburg, Maine on April 14, 1924

Sunday night

Dear Mama

I received your letter OK

I take persision of the shop tomorrow

I have been working all day on a job
I hope and am satisfied that I will do well here
last week I done $55.00 for him [Mr. Walker, shop owner]
I told him it was more pay for me or I should leave so he turned the shop over to me

I have bought the stock and have lots of work to start on tomorrow

Hope soon to be able to send you more money here after.

I am sorry you feel bad what seems to be the trouble with you
are the boys over the chickin pox yet

Love to all


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.

Letter to:
Mrs. Lena Crabtree
So. Effingham, N.H.

Posted from Fryeburg, Maine on April 26, 1924

Dear Mama

I received your letter but am so buisy I hardly find time to eat
will rite later

I have got you a lantern like Miss Harkins big one

sorry you are so bad with your hands

John was here last Monday has gone back to Bridgton to work

do not worry about note
I will send money to pay it with in time

Love to all


The busy pace of running his own shop continued, and again John came up from Bridgton to help Papa run things.

Letter to:
Mrs. Lena Crabtree
So. Effingham, N.H.

Posted from Fryeburg, Maine on May 2, 1924

Letter is missing from envelope, if there ever was one. In the envelope was a poem from the Weekly Rural..... "Leaf by leaf the roses fall" by T. B. Bishop

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.

Letter to:
Mrs. Lena Crabtree
So. Effingham, N.H.

Posted from Fryeburg, Maine on May ___, 1924

Wednesday night

Dear Mama

I received your letter yesterday but this is the first minute Iíve had to write

I am rooming at Mr. Walkers and boarding myself in the shop

I am working hard to get things straitened out

we had quite a stock in the shop when I took it for myself
I am getting a head fast and will soon be where every dollar will be mine
the shop is full of work
I am known in all the towns around here.
Yesterday 2 double teams came at once with furniture to fix one had to wait untill the other on loaded

I am hustling from 6 oclock in the morning untill 6 at night to get that note paid
every body seems to want theirs first

Now about Mrs. Robyís there is only one chair to shelac
the one with arms
on the gimp on back of sofa say nothing unless she does
if she notices it tell her that I am coming home soon and will put it on then

It will be all of 2 weeks before I can come home.

I sent straw & hay balance due them before I got the letter you remailed to me and I wrote them a letter after I got theirs that will shut them up so I owe them nothing

I am glad Allen is doing well for you as soon as I can I will help him

you did not say how many chickens you had
how are they geese coming

will it is 9 oclock and I must go to bed so good night

Love to all


Enclosed find stamp for Frank to write

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.

Letter to:
Mrs. Lena Crabtree
So. Effingham, N.H.

Posted from Fryeburg, Maine on May 12, 1924

May 12, 1924

Dear Mama

enclosed money order for $6,00 for yourself

I am sending L. O. Huckins $30.94 to pay note

I started collecting before 7 oclock this morning and by 7-30 I collect this much

I tell you I am doing some work here
now I will be able to send more to you

will soon send some more

Love to all


1 bag st feed 2.40
1 " corn 2.30
groceries - 1.62

"I tell you I am doing some work here". Papa was proud of his accomplishments, and things were looking up for the family.

Letter to:
Mrs. Lena Crabtree
So. Effingham, N.H.

Posted from Fryeburg, Maine on June 10, 1924


Dear Mama

Yours received

I have been on my back since last Saturday up to yesterday

I have just collected 200 this morning which I am sending
I have collected $1.75 before
I expect to collect more to night which I will send at once.

If Mr. Smith does not want Allen bad enough to do as he told me let him get some body else

I will come home as soon as I can
will write soon


Papa's illness returned, exacerbated no doubt by the long hours and hard work he had been doing to build his business.

Letter to:
Mrs. Lena Crabtree
So. Effingham, N.H.

Posted from Fryeburg, Maine on June 12, 1924

Dear Mama

enclosed find money order

will be home Saturday I will leave here at 3 P.M.
I will get off the train at ossipee
I wish Allen would meet me
he need not go way to the station
I will walk until I meet him
I will come by the way of granit [Granite, NH]

I have writen to Mrs. Mills am going to finish her work all before I come back

Love to all


Allen F. Crabtree Sr.

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.

Allen Crabtree

References used in this Journal Entry

Meredith Altimari, Channeler

Bangor Business Directory, 1884. Bangor, ME.

Barrows, John Stuart. Fryeburg Maine, An Historical Sketch. Pequawket Press, Fryburg. 1938.

Bowles, Ken. TIPS ON RUNNING YOUR UPHOLSTERY BUSINESS, from Upholster Magazine Online

Carr, Jack. An Uphostery Primer, from Upholster Magazine Online

City of Boston, Registry Division. Record of Death, Allen Crabtree, No. 9026. 1924.

Fryeburg Town Web Site

Fryeburg Historical Society

AccessGenealogy Fryeburg History Page

Hubka, Thomas C. Big House, Little House, Back House, Barn - The Connected Farm Buildings of New England. Univ Press of New England. Dartmouth College, NH. 1984.

Maine Register 1920-1921. State Year Book and Legislative Manual #52. Portland Directory Co, Portland. 1921

Obituary. Nathaniel Walker. Fryeburg, ME. November 15, 1923.

The Old Maps of Oxford County, Maine in 1958

Uncle Charlie's Tapeworm and other Effingham Stories, by Allen Crabtree Jr.

UNH Dimond Library Map Center, 1911 map of Fryeburg village

Warren, Mary E., Secretary. Minutes of the Special Fire Meeting, September 24, 1906. Fryeburg Women's Library Club. 1924.

And special thanks to Nancy D. Ray, Director, Fryburg Historical Society and Diane Jones, Fryeburg Curator.

Photo Credits

1911 map of Fryeburg village is from the files of the UNH Dimond Library Map Center

1920 aerial view of Fryeburg Village is from a postcard in the collection of the Fryeburg Historical Society

Excerpt from the 1884 Business Directory, City of Bangor, Maine (compliments of my half-brother Emery Daly)

Photos of Papa and the boys, and of Allen Jr and Prince, are from the Crabtree Family Album

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Last updated November 22, 2003

Copyright © 2003, Allen Crabtree