Memories of Sammy Saunders Reveal 1920s Life in Calais

Photo: Sammy Saunders (shown in the upper right corner) attended the Union Street school on "Mud Lane" in the 1920s before serving as postmaster for Calais for many years. The St. Croix Historical Society was able to share some of his memories from a recording during a presentation given on June 6th. 

By Lura Jackson

Among the many characters that have called the St. Croix Valley their home is Sammy Saunders, well-known to some current residents for his time serving as postmaster and for his storytelling ability. Saunders enjoyed sharing his stories, though as Tom Webster remarks, “You could never tell if the stories were true or not.” Though Saunders has since passed away, the St. Croix Historical Society was able to share a collection of his memories recorded on tape around the 1980s. The presentation was given on June 6th to about thirty community members.

Prior to playing the recording, SCHS President Al Churchill advised the listeners that “Sammy grew up in an era when there was no political correctness.” Some of his memories are “salty” and colored with language that we would consider to be racially insensitive today. However, none are overtly offensive and it was clear during the recordings that Saunders’s original listeners enjoyed each of his tales.

Saunders was born in 1915 and would later serve in World War II. In addition to being postmaster for Calais, he served as Commander to the Sherman Brothers Post Number III and Lodgemaster for the local masons, along with a slew of other civic duties. It was no surprise to see that over half of those in attendance at the presentation remembered Saunders from personal experience.

Saunders grew up on Price street, which on the old maps is across from “Rope Walk” street. Many streets were labelled as Rope Walk streets, Churchill explained, because they were streets that were flat. They were used for making ropes for schooners – they had to lay the ropes out and braid them, so a long, flat, surface was required.

To Saunders, the area was known as “Mud Lane”. In the recording, Saunders recalled how his mother and father had moved to the area on upper Union after purchasing a lot that was mostly underwater and adjacent to the “town dump”. He said that his family were Baptist Republicans while the others in the neighborhood were Irish Catholic Democrats, and briefly touched on the difficulties he encountered as a result. Despite his early struggles, he said that he “owes a great debt to Irish Catholics” on account of his appointment to postmaster, which had to be approved by the mostly Irish Catholic city council, the Ed Muskie, the Irish Catholic representative, and John F. Kennedy, the Irish Catholic president.

Saunders spoke on the many characters he encountered during his life growing up on Mud Lane, including “Scoopy”, a well-dressed fellow that showed up one day in an abandoned house. Some suspected Scoopy was a former undertaker, though it was never confirmed. He was, according to Saunders, a bit of a drinker and a handyman, a combination that resulted in one instance where Scoopy put wallpaper on upside down. Saunders spoke about Scoopy’s relations with neighborhood women, including Gertie Howe, who would always be selling tickets to a quilt that no one ever saw. Later, when Saunders bought the Howe house, people said he bought it to see if he could get the mysterious Howe quilt – unfortunately, someone else had already bought the contents and the quilt went on display in a neighborhood shop.

During the 1920s, Prohibition was in full swing, and Mud Lane was no stranger to bootleggers. Saunders said if you weren't a bootlegger you were a consumer in those days, so widespread was the activity. Bootleggers at the time mainly enjoyed “Hand” brand alcohol, which was a tin with a hand printed on it.

Another memory Saunders shared was about a fellow named McGovern who was a cook for the logging camps. One day, a person who had thrown a shoe out on his horse came up to McGovern and asked him to fix it. McGovern was puzzled and pointed out that he was a cook – the fellow apologized and said he was confused due to McGovern's apron being solid black like a blacksmith. Saunders then told how McGovern would toss his old biscuits into the Maguerrewock stream and they would puff up and float down to the overpass. Tourists would stop and take pictures of the biscuits, thinking they were pink pond lilies.

Also played during the presentation was a recording of Saunders and Frank Fenderson sharing their memories of the various establishments that were part of downtown Calais in the 1920s.

The St. Croix Historical Society has digitized both audio files to preserve them. The Saunders recording has been set to slides, some of which were shown during the presentation, and it is now available for viewing on YouTube at www.youtube.com/watch?v=DoTu9W5W5Wo, or by going to www.facebook.com/stcroixhs.