By George Carey
Just off the main route south of Tenants Harbor, there’s a left turn which leads down Hart’s Neck road. Nearly every summer of my life, I’ve made that turn, following as the road winds along through dark woods dotted here and there with a few sturdy little cottages. A bit further on it passes a simple frame structure, shingles grayed by weather and age, its two windows, enormous and many paned, looking blankly out onto the road. Once upon a time, this was Uncle Daniel Holbrook’s store in the tiny town of Elmore. But, like the farmers who mowed the meadows which have now grown up to spruce and the fishermen who once traded here, Elmore no longer exists. The building where Uncle Daniel once held court may retain the earmarks of a retail business, with its wooden counter and heavy glass candy jars, but the last sale here occurred in 1918.
Relatives of mine who frequented the store near the end of its existence remember a large potbellied stove and, in the back, barrels of rice and sugar, salt and fish. Behind the counter was Uncle Daniel, a tall, angular man well into his seventies.
In the latter part of the 19th century, when Holbrook’s store was in its heyday, [the locality that became] Elmore was an active sea-faring community of more than 200 people. It had a school, a dance hall, a ship’s chandlery, and two general stores. Uncle Daniel had competition. A local newspaper, Town Talk, published across the way in Tenants Harbor, reported the doings in Elmore:
“November 17, 1886: Mrs. Melvina Wall was taken seriously ill Thursday evening. She is under the care of Dr. Woodside.”
“December 29, 1886: Mr. E.T. Hart is finishing up the story entitled ‘Clam Digger’s Revenge,’ which he intends to have published soon.”
By 1901, Elmore rated a post office of its own, which is how the town got its name. When the postal authorities in Washington decided this seaside community had enough people to deserve a mail outlet, they sent along three possible names for the residents to choose from. Elmore, I’m told, was the least offensive.
Some of the villagers who made that choice lived in a cluster of houses in and around this narrow, dead-end dirt lane. I grew up hearing stories about their lives, although by my time they, too, were mostly gone. The Murphy family, who dwelt in a small red Cape with a connecting barn near the end of the line, provided the community with 17 children, nearly a tenth of its entire population. Up the road from that brood lived Uncle Daniel’s son, Orris. Another son, Charles, visited from time to time and entertained the villagers with his yarn of the sinking of the Hattie Dunn. He’d been master of the schooner in World War I when the Germans torpedoed her. The German commander ordered everyone ashore before the scuttling, so Charles lived to tell the tale.
Nearby, Kate Bickmore shared a house with her son. In my day the story ran that young Bickmore had been institutionalized at an early age after he threatened his mother with a carving knife. He had partially recovered in the asylum, people said, and returned to Elmore, where he was deemed harmless. Still, he retained a strange habit common to certain mental disorders: As he walked down the road he would occasionally stop and pause, and then he would take a step or two backwards. Local children were fascinated to watch him, especially when he got into a rowboat and proceeded to row three strokes forward and one backward.
These were some of the people who shopped at Uncle Daniel’s store. But in the 1890s the face of Elmore began to change. The hamlet was discovered by summer rusticators.
First on the scene to beat the steamy heat of Boston was William Richardson, known to his intimates as “Will Dear.” Will Dear had made a small fortune when he invented the clothing snap, the popular forerunner of the zipper, and with some of his money he built Seawoods, a 13-room house that faced the ocean. Richardson’s sister-in-law married Thomas Bailey Aldrich, the editor of The Atlantic Monthly, and soon his large rambling cottage, The Crags just to the north of Seawoods, was drawing to Elmore such literary luminaries as Mark Twain and Sarah Orne Jewett. Richardson also lured my great-grandfather to this corner of the coast and he in turn built a summer home called Munasca, an American Indian term meaning “place that we love.”
It was my grandfather, Philip Lees (P.L.) Smith, however, who engineered the greatest changes in Elmore. P.L. inherited Munasca in 1912 and began to buy up all the surrounding fishermen’s homes and saltwater farms until he held a family summer compound of 14 dwellings ranging along more than a mile of coastline. The deal my grandfather offered local residents—the sale price of the house plus a lifetime residency —must have seemed manna from heaven for people like Kate Bickmore and Orris Holbrook, who lived on marginal incomes. The year-round population of Elmore gradually shrank to less than 100, and by 1918 Uncle Daniel’s store had become more of a hobby than a going enterprise.
The 20th century had caught up with Elmore. On November 15, 1923 the Elmore post office closed.
This is an edited version of a piece titled “Afternoons in Elmore,” that ran in the March 1994 issue of Down East Magazine. George Carey, a folklorist and professor of English at the University of Massachusetts, lived full time in Tenants Harbor after his retirement. He provided clients with tree work and bush hogging services all over St. George until his death in 2013.