Happiness is a state of mind

By Paul Putnam | Sep 15, 2012

My parents never discouraged my ambition to go to college, but they did very little to encourage it either. As a fairly intelligent kid, I realized that they had done their part when they raised me, and if I wanted more, it was up to me to go after it the same way they had done. They had certainly given me all the education and skills I needed to do as well as they had done. They were happy, healthy and comfortable enough. Why would anyone want more?


Camden is a small town, but when I was growing up in the 1930s and 40s it was a really small town of about 3,500 people. We still had not completely adjusted to the automobile, and society was still in a horse and buggy mentality even though not many people had one. Many of the older homes had a barn that could accommodate a horse if need be, and it was not very unusual to find a chicken house in the back and maybe even a pigpen. It was a time of transition and most kids were strongly influenced by the older generations of parents and grandparents. What was good enough for them was good enough for us.


For my dad a job in the Knox Mill as weaver was a very suitable alternative to staying on the family farm down on Buttermilk Lane. He lived in town, walked to work, owned his own home with a big garden in the back and a small flock of chickens that provided fresh eggs and fertilizer for his garden. I guess when he bought a good used car so he and mother could go home to visit their parents regularly, and then bought a cottage at the lake for $1,200 and a boat and trailer so they could go fishing with friends, they had about everything they had ever dreamed of having.


A major part of the truth of that was that all of the ingredients for being happy were there in the local area. For some years they didn’t need a car because every thing they needed was within walking distance or available in the Sears and Roebuck catalog. We could even get a fresh supply of live chicks by mail from Sears, and I believe you still can. Most every need was available at stores in town, whether it was groceries, furniture, hardware, clothing or whatever.


Perhaps for the same reason, neighborhood stores were common. We still have the Megunticook Market by the river at the corner of Gould and Washington streets in Millville, but when I was a kid I would walk past two more neighborhood stores on my way to and from school, Felton’s and Bishop’s. The Megunticook Market was Bob Hopkins’s store in those days and later became Thomas’s. Across town was Grinnell’s on Limerock Street and Trask’s on the corner of Pearl and Park. That was in addition to about five grocery stores downtown.


The town was self-contained and folks needed to have a reason to go anywhere else. My father grew up in South Thomaston and Rockland was a familiar town to him, and we occasionally would go there on a Saturday night to browse through the stores, but they didn’t do much heavy shopping there. Some people would take a boat to Boston to shop until the Boston Boat stopped running in 1935. After the Bath Bridge was built in 1927 it became more common to take a train to Portland to shop. My mother grew up in Deer Isle and her family was used to going to Ellsworth or Bangor to shop, so we also went there occasionally. Although the streetcars in Knox County stopped running the year I was born, in 1931, I did get to ride those in Bangor before they shifted completely to buses.


My point is that Camden then was different from Camden today, not necessarily better or worse, but different. Most folks were content then without all the modern progress. They were happy to find some niche in the workaday world where they could earn their living and afford a comfortable home with its nice back yard with room for a garden, a fruit tree and a chicken house. They enjoyed leisure even if their work was not too exciting.


That seemed to change when men and women came back from the wars with more of a worldview and an ambition to have some of what the rest of the world had. I’ve often said it was the war that caused the change, but as I write these stories and notice the differences, I see that the change was already well underway with the advent of the automobile and trucks, better roads and bridges, and better communication.


It’s an age-old desire in mankind to see what’s over the next hill, to make a better mousetrap, and to go where none have ever gone before. The world wars brought all of that into focus more quickly and the young people of today are no more content with what made me happy than I was with what made my father happy.


Camden is not the same Camden I grew up in, and never will be again, but there are basic ingredients for happiness that have little to do with creature comforts. Helen and I learned that when we spent 10 years in northern Canada in a community farm with no electricity or running water and lived more like past generations than present or future ones. Happiness is a state of mind, not a set of creature comforts.


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