Lincoln County News

May 12, 2004

Whitefield Woman’s Life Spans a Century of Changes

By Lucy L. Martin


When Thelma Newell was nearly seven years old, she looked out a back window of her East River Rd. home in Whitefield and watched the convent at St. Denis Church burn.

At that time - 1922 - it was still called "the convent", because it had been built for that purpose in 1871, only later becoming a girls academy and a public school.

Newell, who recently celebrated her 88th birthday at Cove’s Edge nursing home in Damariscotta, remembers her father, John, was up early that late December day to fix breakfast. "He told me to get up and look." The fire reaching high into the sky didn’t frighten her, she said, "because it was on the other side of the river."

Thelma was the third of four children born to John and Alice Osgood Newell. Her father worked in the woods and on the narrow gauge railroad that used to run through Whitefield on its way to Albion before "the little wiggler" was wrecked in 1933. John Newell also played bass horn in the Jefferson-Whitefield band, and he sang at weddings, funerals and other gatherings with his wife.

Thelma remembers her mother and father as a very handsome couple when they went out to sing. Alice also played the piano, belonged to the Grange and attended St. Denis Church. "She was very good. Everybody liked her," Thelma said.

Her father died in 1935. The funeral was at the small cape house about a mile from the junction of East River Rd. (Rt. 218) with Rt. 126 today. Route 218, unpaved then, was so muddy that time of year cars had to be parked almost a mile away. Mourners walked to the house.

Thelma, whose family never owned a car, has memories of Dr. Odiorne, a Coopers Mills physician, driving around town in his Model T Ford.

She attended the North Whitefield School but did not go on to high school. Her sister Irene took the narrow gauge train to the high school in Kings Mills; Thelma herself never rode the train.

"I hated school. I don’t know why. They (other kids) picked on us. If you wore a new dress, they wouldn’t speak to you," she said.

Following John Newell’s death, his wife and daughters did needlework to earn money, making baby booties to send to a Boston company. Fred, the eldest, raised chickens to sell and the family kept a few to eat, Thelma recalls. Fred also worked for other farmers, and Herbert, the only one of the four to leave home and the first of the Newells to own a car, served in the Air Force. He was stationed in England during World War II.

With the passing of their parents, the Newell siblings led an increasingly reclusive life, particularly after their mother died about 1961. None of them ever married. In the 1980s they were robbed twice by men posing as Central Maine Power workers who overpowered them and stole more than $2000 in cash. After the second theft, Thelma said, "I complained." A sheriff was sent to interview her and take evidence to the court, and the four men were convicted.

Years ago, as the Newells became more elderly and housebound, neighbors Steve and Marylou Smith befriended them. Sometimes Marylou would bring soup. Steve persuaded them to have running water installed and to get rid of an old, unsafe wood stove. Fred was getting too old and infirm to chop and lug wood. The changes would shift the Newells from the minimal comforts of subsistence living to modern conveniences virtually everyone takes for granted. Thelma was initially suspicious and distrustful, ducking out of sight when Steve made his first visits to see the brothers and offer to fix up the house.

One day, Steve left several workers who were dismantling the stove and went to get sandwiches for lunch. When he returned, the guys were on the lawn. One of them yelled, "She’s wilder than a hawk! She threw us out!"

But Thelma "came around," Smith said, and she loved the improvements, especially the indoor bathroom. Once when the toilet plugged, Smith reminded her there was still an outhouse standing ready to be used. Thelma listened as he related this story during a recent visit to Cove’s Edge. "Remember what you said to that, Thelma?" he coaxed with a laugh.

Her mouth creased in a slow affectionate smile as she recalled the occasion. "‘No way!’" she declared.