The Tale of Nelly Butler Comes Full Circle

The Tale of Nelly Butler Comes Full Circle

A bit of Sullivan history comes to life through documents, descendants, and the vivid imagination of an author! While the Nelly Butler hauntings took place over 200 years ago, their connection to present day is still strong. WABI 5 News came down to investigate, with author Michelle Shores, Selectman Reg Bud Means, and Sullivan-Sorrento Historical Society’s Tobey Connor.
Things began with an ending – the death of Eleanor Hooper Butler in childbirth, first wife of George Butler in 1797. They had lived at Butler’s Point, a part of Sullivan that became Franklin later on. Two years later in 1799, her supposed spirit began communicating and eventually manifesting in the cellar of Abner Blaisdell’s home, which was located near what is now Taunton Drive in Sullivan. The spirit’s target appeared to be Abner’s young daughter, Lydia, and was insistent that Lydia and George be married. In prophesying, the specter began to draw crowds, and proved itself to Nelly’s family to be Nelly herself. Documenting this in real time was the Rev. Abraham Cummings, a Harvard-educated pastor tending to the area. He took down over 35 eyewitness accounts of locals, who were divided over whether the spirit was in fact Nelly, or a sinister influence. When he himself saw the spirit, his view on the afterlife was forever changed.
The specter could manifest into the full form of a woman and led crowds on walks to the homes of nonbelievers. George and Lydia did marry in 1800, but she died a year later in childbirth.
Utterly distraught by these events, George took all of her clothes and put them in a rowboat, set them on fire, and pushed it into the outgoing tide. This took the flaming vessel right past the home of Abner Blaisdell, who was horrified at the sight. His feud with George would continue for the rest of their lives, even leading to the dissolution of the First Baptist Church in Sullivan.
Rev. Cummings published his documentation in 1826 with the title A Question on Immortality.
Marcus Librizzi and Dennis Boyd researched and published Cummings’ work anew in 2011.
Michelle Shores’ book The Gathering Room is based upon the true events.
View the segment here:
The Cooper Shop of Sullivan Harbor

The Cooper Shop of Sullivan Harbor

The Cooperage, or Cooper Shop formerly stood on the rocks on the shore in Sullivan Harbor along what is now Harbor View Drive. This was the main road (often referred to in those days as the town or county road) through Sullivan before Route 1 was built and filled in. The shop was built in the early 1850s for Daniel Wilson, who moved his family first from Bradford to Franklin, where the 1850 industry census for the town recorded Wilson as having made 4,680 barrels by hand that year, using over 93,000 staves and 46,000 hoops to do so.

Within a couple of years, Wilson had moved his family to Sullivan and the cooperage was built. They lived next door in the former Capt. William Salter house which had been built in the 1830s and originally was located just up the hill before Salter moved it for the Wilsons (Salter then built a new house for his family in the old location). 

In 1863, Daniel Wilson purchased the parcel of land which held the shop and home. The 1863 deed also conveys “the points of rocks on which it now stands and also the stone wharf built expressly to accommodate said Cooper Shop.” Across the road was the childhood home of Sullivan author Alice Turner Curtis. According to Leila Johnson’s book Sullivan and Sorrento Since 1760, Curtis remembered the Cooper Shop as being most active in the 1870s. “…the “Cooper Shop” is the building toward the “Cove”, where Daniel made barrels in the 1870s, which were loaded onto schooners and sent to various ports.”

Daniel Wilson was born in 1816 in Bradford and married Lorinda there in 1844. They had 9 children:

  1. Stanislaus, b. 1845 in Bradford, m. Georgia Simpson
  2. Alvin T., b. 1847 in Bradford, m. Alice J. Wooster
  3. Harvey, b. 1850 in Franklin, died in childhood
  4. Augustus H., b. 1852 in Sullivan
  5. Arabelle C., b. 1854, m. Capt. Charles Allen in 1898
  6. Andalusia, b. 1856, died in childhood
  7. Charles M., b. 1858
  8. John H., b. 1862
  9. Charlene (Lena), b. 1866 in Sullivan.


Sullivan Harbor before the new Route 1 ran through it, with the Cooper Shop and house in center and remnants of the stone wharf running to the right.

The family all lived together in the same house through Daniel’s death at age 73 in 1889.

His son Alvin kept the cooperage going for a few more years. An excerpt from the Ellsworth American in 1893 reads: “Sullivan – Mr. Alvin Wilson has manufactured and sold over 100 fish barrels this spring.” As the need for handmade barrels declined along with the shipping industry, the Cooper Shop was left silent by 1900. Alvin had moved on to the stone and cement manufacturing business, and in 1898 his sister Belle had married with the old family house becoming the Allen home.

When Belle married Charles Allen, a steamboat captain, she had been running the Sullivan Harbor post office on her own for several years. He was a widower and single father of a 7-year-old daughter, Ruth. Belle raised her as her own, and after Charles’ death in 1919, Ruth continued to live at home while she worked as a teacher at the nearby schoolhouse. Not for long though, as on Sept. 7, 1920, she married Elwood Morton Wilbur, a civil engineer, and off they went to live at the American consulate in Istanbul, Turkey.

Belle remained in her old family home until the last years of her life, and she passed in 1941. Her estate sold the home to Winifred Zulich and Mr. and Mrs. Charles Berwind, early followers of Rudolph Steiner and anthroposophy.

Within a few short years, a new chapter for the home and Sullivan’s history would begin, when…


Sullivan’s first public library found its home in 2 rooms in the second floor of the house in 1948 when the owners donated its use – the first incarnation of Frenchman Bay Library. Rev. Margaret Henrichsen was inspired by this charitable act and got a committee together made up of 14 local women to guide the library forward. By 1952, the library occupied the entire second floor of the home and thrived with community support.

In the winter of 1956, an overheated chimney resulted in the old house burning, but many books were rescued and stored in the basement of the Grammar School. A newly planned Rec Center would become the future and current home of Frenchman Bay Library.

Also in the 1950s, the new state highway which would become US Route 1 was built across the head of the harbor on a small causeway, causing the interior portion to become known as the tidal pool, and the old main road to be called Harbor View Drive.

Years after the Wilson/Allen home burned and the Cooper Shop was dismantled, new property owners used brick and granite from the old foundation to build a patio at the edge of the Mill Brook.

Among the blocks in the foundation, they found a large piece matching the Paul Dudley Sargent monument, inscribed with his name and year of death, 1828. It’s unknown how it became a part of that foundation, though the reason would have been known by Captain William Salter who put it there in 1862.

Today, the Tidal Pool along Harbor View Drive fills and drains as ever, and though the two bustling buildings are long gone, the “points of rocks” on which the Cooper Shop was built are still in place, along with the remnants of the age-old stone wharf that once kept schooners steadily supplied with barrels to move goods to and from ports far away and long ago.

Side view from west of the Cooper Shop and the Wilson/Allen house on Sullivan Harbor, before Route 1 filled in the area.

The Wayward Spindrift

The Wayward Spindrift

When a new boat is built and christened, it is generally a happy time for all involved.

But in the case of the Spindrift, no one could have expected it to truly live up to its name! The boat was built in the Machias River in the winter of 1918 with Sullivan to be her home port under Captain Mitchell of Milbridge. Her inaugural trip in March of 1919 was to be a simple one to Halifax to pick up a load of lumber, with a partial crew of 9. The names we know to be on the crew were Clarence, Howard and Leonard Martin, Alfred and Ott Preble, and E.E. and Jessie Bragdon. Years later, Clarence Martin would give a detailed account of what happened on that fateful maiden voyage.

To start, the ship wasn’t loaded with much ballast as it was thought the trip would be short and sweet. On board there was enough bread and coffee for the four days expected. However, after one full day in the Bay of Fundy, a great gale struck and carried the Spindrift with it. The ship, being lightweight and bobbing like a cork over the water, was at the mercy of the wind, and on the high seas, the planks began to loosen. The crew focused on keeping the ship afloat as the gale blew her further and further off course.

The crew of the Spindrift at the wharf in Sullivan, March 1919

Out of food, some of the boys wanted to try their luck on a lifeboat but were persuaded by the others that the rough seas would swallow them up. After a couple of weeks, there was a lull in the weather, and a Patagonian ship passing by gave them some beef and flour, but it wasn’t enough. The drinking water they had on board went bad and sickened all of the men. 32 days later, when the winds finally eased up, the men found themselves in the Azores – on the other side of the Atlantic!

There, they were given enough victuals and a course for Nassau, with the ship barely making the trip. The crew spent a month there while repairs were done, and then were sent to Jacksonville, Florida, where the Spindrift and its crew were sent by train up the East Coast back to Maine. Amazingly, none of the crew perished in their ordeal, but the experience did turn a few of them off to mariner life for good. As for the Spindrift, it made one more trip – to deliver a load of lumber to Puerto Rico – but sprang a leak on the way back and sank off Norfolk, VA, bringing an end to the short career of the ship built in Machias.

Merriam-Webster gives the definition of a spindrift as “spray blown from waves during a gale”; and true to its name, the Spindrift was indeed blown across the tops of the waves during a gale.

Survivor Captain Clarence Martin of Asheville swore off sailing after his experience aboard the Spindrift. Pictured in 1952.
How Did the Bert Gray Road Get Its Name?

How Did the Bert Gray Road Get Its Name?

Have you ever wondered who how the Bert Gray Road got its name?

Bert Gray’s signature, 1915.

The Bert Gray Road (Route 200) was previously known as the Franklin Road, or the Franklin Woods Road. This route was established many generations ago, and historically only a handful of families lived along it. This included a branch of the Simpson family – specifically Richard Simpson (1791-1858) and his wife Lovisa Wooster Simpson (1799-1888). Both were born in Sullivan and spent their lives on a farm here. They had three children: Albert (1820-1873), Eliza (1823-1896), and David Aaron (1825-1915).  All three spent their lives on the farm, never marrying. Eliza was a schoolteacher. Aaron, the name he preferred, served in the Civil War with Maine Company A, Coast Guard Infantry alongside the Vice President, Hannibal Hamlin!

He returned from the war intact and ran the family farm for many years. He’d outlived his family and as he grew older, found himself in need of help. So around 1900, Aaron Simpson had his friend Albert Stephen Gray move his family in permanently to help run the farm and take care of Mr. Simpson in the twilight of his years. Bert Gray bought the farm and his family continued to care for Mr. Simpson there. This was an ideal arrangement – Mr. Simpson got to live out his days on his family land, and to see it prosper again as the Pleasant Hill Farm.

Pleasant Hill Farm House, c1930.

Bert Gray was born in 1856 in Sedgwick on a farm there. Later, he became a quarryman, and that is what originally brought him to Sullivan, with his wife Eleanor Mary (“Nellie”) and four children in tow: Sarah, Abbie, Joel, and Linwood. Farming life suited Bert much better, and the kids all helped out. Sadly, in 1907, their son Joel died there at the age of 22 from tuberculosis.

A sawmill was in use for many years there, and the present marshy area used to be a much fuller pond before the road was filled in. The Pleasant Hill Farm was located a little over a mile up the Franklin Road and still encompasses a great area of land. The old farmhouse still stands, and a family cemetery is there as well.

Old Mr. Simpson passed away in 1915, and Bert continued to run the farm until his own passing in 1936. The farm was passed down to his son Linwood who lived there with his wife, eventually becoming a successful merchant. The Grays were a musical family, with a pianist, opera singer, and composer among them, and performances were common at the house.

On a still summer’s night, with the sound of tree frogs and nighthawks in the air, one can almost imagine the faint sound of music emanating from the old farm on the hill and down into the surrounding woods.

Do you have any old photos or memories of the Gray farm? We’d love to hear from you!

Linwood and Mary Gray at Pleasant Hill Farm on the Bert Gray Road, 1957.
Down By the Old Mill Stream

Down By the Old Mill Stream

Did you know that one of the most popular songs of the early 20th century was inspired and written right here in Sullivan? “Down by the Old Mill Stream” was originally penned by local barber Frank L. Carleton, who was persuaded to sell the work for $60 to a summer visitor by the name of Tell Taylor, who heard the song while having a shave. Taylor, a music publisher from Ohio, knew a hit when he heard it, and published the song under his own name in 1910, without giving Carleton any credit. It became a staple of barbershop quartets, vaudeville, and eventually mainstream music, and went on to bring in over $80,000 in profits.

Back in Sullivan, Frank Carleton, who’d been writing his own songs and poems since the 1870s, continued working in his barbershop. Locally, everyone knew that the song was his, even as it was covered by the Marx Brothers, Bing Crosby, Benny Goodman, Nat King Cole – even John Denver and the Muppets! Over the years, the issue of authorship was brought up by Carleton’s family, but as no written contract was made when Tell Taylor handed Carleton the $60, there was no way to prove it. In those old days, things were done on a handshake and a smile in the barbershop, but Carleton would have had no idea he was passing up the chance to become a wealthy man. He published other songs in the same vein, such as “My Rosalie of Tennessee” and “When I Tied the Bow of Blue on Bessie’s Hair”.

Frank Logan Carleton, c. 1920.

Sheet music cover art for another of Carleton’s songs, published in 1922.

There is some debate over which stream Carleton referred to in the song. In 1939, after Carleton’s death, Chief Stanwood of Big Chief Camps at Tunk Lake wrote to the paper and declared that Frank had told him it was Morancy Stream. Carleton’s granddaughters later remembered that it was the small stream behind Frank’s house on present-day US Route 1 and Route 200, by the Mill Pond. That was the Mill Brook, though a mill never existed on it, nor could one be supported by the meager water flow. Another issue is that accounts vary as to when Carleton wrote the song. Chief Stanwood asserted that he had written it prior to 1882, as he had heard it himself then. If that is the case, Carleton didn’t live by the Mill Brook at that time. Others maintain that he wrote the song in 1908, which would align with the family’s time in that house, as well as making sense of the lyrics which refer to his bride as now having hair of gray after many years of happy marriage.

In the 1980s, much research was done – a collaboration between Carleton’s granddaughters, local reporter Glen Dalton, and the Sullivan-Sorrento Historical Society. Dalton concluded that Morancy Stream must be the inspiration as it was the only stream capable of supporting a mill, and at least two existed there in the 19th century – notably, Reuben Smith’s textile operation established in 1810. He published his findings in both Yankee Magazine and the Ellsworth American in 1984. In 1989, at the Sullivan Bicentennial Celebration, the historical society had a float featuring a mill on a stream to honor the song’s true history. The float won first place!

Whichever stream the song refers to (and why not both?), it was Frank Carleton’s experience here in Sullivan that served as the true inspiration. The song is sentimental, a love song, and starts with the memory of meeting his love, Martha Connors (“With your eyes of blue, dressed in gingham too”), whom he married in 1886, and finishes with a reflection on a life well lived together. They had two daughters, Rae and Bessie. Rae married Dallas Ashe of Gouldsboro and had a daughter, Anne Pauline, before tragically dying of septicemia at the age of 23. Their daughter became a dancer in New York before marrying a Hollywood songwriter and going on to work as an actress there. Frank and Martha’s daughter Bessie married Fred Neale, and they had three children with descendants still living in the area. Frank is buried at York Hill Cemetery in Sullivan.


You can listen to the 1911 recording of the song here

The old Smith mill on Morancy Stream, built 1810. 

Parade float honoring “Down by the Old Mill Stream” and Frank Carleton at the 1989 Sullivan Bicentennial. The float won first place.

The Singing Bridge: “Built to Break the Worms’ Teeth”

The Singing Bridge: “Built to Break the Worms’ Teeth”

Why was the Singing Bridge built to ‘break the worms’ teeth?'”

It makes sense if you know the story of the first bridge that spanned the Taunton River between Hancock and Sullivan. Built in the 1820s, the Sargent Bridge fell victim to teredos, also known as “shipworms.” Microscopic teeth worked away at the wooden structure until an ice flow took the bridge out completely just a few years after its construction. About 25 years after the Sargent Bridge collapsed, a second bridge was started but never completed. The next bridge that spanned the Taunton River was dedicated on May 1, 1926. According to legend, an oldster familiar with the history of the first wooden bridge took one look at the steel and concrete structure and famously announced, “This one will break the worms’ teeth.”
Read the full newspaper article by Jonas Crane of Winter Harbor. Published in the 1950s or 1960s.