The Story of the Perham Rebellion Recalled

Prepared by Michael J. Davis

From Harvard’s Butter Rebellion of 1766, the first recorded student revolt in the United States, to Fryeburg Academy’s Scholar Rebellion of 1855, in which the detestable Headmaster Boody was hanged in effigy before Webster Hall, the early annals of New England private education are rife with fantastic accounts of pranks, revolts, student protests, and yes, even the odd rebellion.  These outbursts are typically brought on by outrages which now look trifling and barely-comprehensible to the modern reader, but we must remember that theirs was a different time, and for as humorous as we now see these incidents they were in their day very serious matters.  In our experience these short-lived revolutions typically number amongst the most interesting though often overlooked incidents in our region’s past, and we are proud to here provide the story of Bridgton’s own addition to this checkered history. 

Bridgton Academy, which has existed in our village for over two centuries, has seen countless numbers of students pass through her halls, and in all that time she has seen her fair share of boyish pranks and irreverent revelries committed in the course of education.  But of all the “sheep in the belfry” and “cannon in the church” stories in her past there are none quite so great as the infamous Perham Rebellion; that strange episode so quaintly addressed in the Academy History with the lines: “In the midst of all this orderliness of school life and richness of educational fare, a crisis threatened and Perham’s Rebellion burst upon the school.”  While Mr. Stevens does follow this with an admirable summary of the conflict in his Brief History of Bridgton Academy, recent discoveries in the newspaper archive of the Portland Public Library have enabled us to at last relate “the Graphic Story of the Odd, Exciting Affair” in its complete form, as detailed by Mr. Charles O. Stickney, that pre-eminent New England essayist who in his youth had numbered amongst the hale and hearty throng which assembled under “Captain Perham” and marched in protest against Bridgton Academy.

From the Portland Sunday Telegram of July 21st, 1901, we now present Mr. Stickney’s story of “A Dramatic Episode at Bridgton Academy in which Eminent Men of Portland and Elsewhere Took Part.”

Bridgton, July 19. – I have an odd and in some respects unique story to tell, in which a number of men now eminent in Portland and elsewhere took part.  It is a story of school life long ago at Bridgton Academy, an episode which perhaps has had no exact parallel in the whole history of school and college escapades and riotous performances on this continent.  It was a rebellion, which assumed a military character and came near reaching a point that would have landed some of its participants before the courts, and maybe behind high walls and grated windows.  The writer was one of the “rebels,” and he vividly remembers it in all its details and peculiar ramifications.  It was an affair in which nearly all the male students took part, and there was a large number of them that term.  This sensational tale of real life – this whilom, vain-glorious, serio-comic performance, this mighty tempest in a usually quiet burb, may not inaptly for reasons to be shown, be denominated the “Perham Rebellion.”

To begin with, it may be observed that school life, is school life the world over, the same central story, with slight collateral variations, whether ancient, medieval, or modern.  And moreover, whenever we open the volume of the reminiscent, there is found sentimental charm to that which pertains to the long ago, or is seen through the glamour of years, that comes not to the student of recent time.  Not that the eternal past was better than is the living present, but, in the words of Stoddard:

There are gains for all our losses,

     There are balms for all our pain,

But when youth, the dream, departs,

It takes something from our hearts,

     And it never comes again.

We are stronger and are better,

     Under manhood’s sterner reign;

Still we feel that something sweet

Followed youth with flying feet

     And will never come again.

This sentiment applies in a more or less degree to each and all of the old-time alumni now living, who attended Bridgton Academy in the epoch marked by the “Perham Rebellion,” when William M. Baker was its principal and Simeon C. Walker (brother of Judge Walker, of Bridgton,) his assistant. 

And now on looking back through the long nita of years upon that youthful performance, I realize how vastly important it looked to us then as viewed through spectacles green!  At that bright, adolescent age we felt we were contending for a great principle.  In short, we resolutely objected to an admission fee to any academic show, even though the open sesame of the miserable pittance of 12½ cents might bring many times its equivalence in actual pleasure.

But this was not all we fellow students of the masculine persuasion objected to.  You see, there was to be an innovation, in the manner of a musical exhibition, to climax the close of this particular term, given by Miss Philena McKeen, the accomplished teacher of music and drawing at the academy, and her pupils.  The latter had attained excellent proficiency, and a rich program was prepared.  Such a show of itself was all right and proper, and a packed house would unquestionably have greeted the performers but for reasons hereby explained.

To make the scholars pay to see their own show, was something new under the North Bridgton sun, and caused much dissatisfaction, but the worst feature of the case was, that after the scholars who were booked to take part in the dialogues, recitations, etc. had prepared their assignments, lo and behold, what did Mr. Baker do but ruthlessly sweep the whole thing from the board and formally announce to the school that Miss McKeen and her scholars would give a concert for the purpose of raising money to buy a new carpet for the music room.  Admission a ninepence, and no deadheads.

Following Mr. Baker’s proclamation arose a storm of imagination among the students, in which some of the citizens mentally joined. “We’d let old Baker and his fellow extortionists understand that we as freemen, ‘knew our rights, and knowing, dared maintain them.’ ”

The crisis soon came.  The popular feeling needed only actual leadership to assume tangibility.  Every great crisis in the world’s history brings to the surface its champions and leaders, and our patriotic movement evolved a standard-bearer.  Our Peter the Hermit of this modern crusade was Roswell C. Perham, son of a Windham clergyman.  He was a handsome fellow – well-built, dark-complexioned, with good features, and a wealth of black, curly hair worn rather long and falling in poetical mass upon the back part of his coat-collar.  He was of positive temperament, impulsive, energetic, daring, – in fact somewhat after the General John C. Fremont style.  Next to him in executive importance was Tom Cordis of South Bridgton.  A third compatriot who took a leading part in our rebellion was A.J.C. Osgood, then of Yarmouth, a brother, if I mistake not, of the well-known Col. Henry S. Osgood of Portland, who was also a student at the academy at that time, and hailing from Yarmouth.  The other chief ring-leaders in the revolt were George Gage, son of Dr. Gage of Waterford, now a leading educationalist of the west, located at Minneapolis; the cousins John and George Patten of Bath, representatives of a leading wealthy and social family of the Shipping city; I.S. Webb and Wm. Foster of North Bridgton and Will Hasty of Scarborough.  These Washingtons, Patrick Henrys, Hancocks, Adamses and Franklins of our school regime actively fanned the flames of resistance, until they were presently at a white heat.  We as a mass were earnestly in sympathy with the movement and only asked the privilege of following withersoever Perham, Cordis, et als. might lead.

But there was no time to lose, as the concert was very soon to be given, and a brief war-council of the chief conspirators ended in a unanimous plan of the campaign.  As to the rank and file, it was (Tennysonically) –

Our’s not to make reply,

Our’s not to reason why,

Our’s but to do and hie

Into the rally of right –

Almost a Hundred!

“now, fellows, everything is ready for business!” said “Captain” Perham, as he stood, with coat buttoned to the chin, his military bearing enhanced by a Kossuth hat, with jaunty ostrich feather – for that was when there was such a furor throughout the land over the great Hungarian exile, who had recently visited our shores.

It was a striking scene.  In the darkness and silence of night, we stood marshalled in column, by twos, at our appointed rendezvous in the eastern part of the village, near the lake, with no light but the twinkling stars, and no spectators save a few boys whom curiosity had drawn to the spot.  “Captain” Perham near the right of the line, and “Lieutenants” Cordis and Osgood on the flank, while at the head, ready for service was the sturdy figure of that famous muster-time musician, Stephen Tibbetts, who recently died in Harrison at the age of nearly 100 years.  We had hired him to play for us in our nocturnal parade, and he intended to blow the fife, but a sore finger prevented so doing, so he substituted the snare drum, at the playing of which he was very expert.

In that gallant army of Perham were not a few who afterward made their mark in the world.  Among those embryo nobilities I recall the names of several; Hon. Edward F. Brown, LLD., the eminent lawyer and educationalist, now of New York; a brother of his, recently deceased, who attained distinction in the West; Samuel B.W. Brown, a wealthy businessman of Madison, Wisconsin; Gardner Cram, now of Brunswick, and his brother Nelson P. Cram, who died in the Civil war; Lieut. Wm. H. Foster, another war veteran, already mentioned; the late Albert Gould; Prof. Charles E. Hilton, the prominent educationalist, who died at Washington some years ago, an ex-Principal of Bridgton Academy, – all North Bridgton boys; Hon. Darius H. Ingraham, of Camden, ex-Mayor of Portland, and ex-United States Consul General at Halifax; Horace Maxfield, of Waterford, of newspaper fame in connection with his intimate friend and whilom business associate, “Artemus Ward;” Prof. Edward S. Morse, of Portland, now of Salem, Mass., the world-famous scientist and Orientalist; Col. H.S. Osgood of North Yarmouth, now of Portland; Captain and Judge Enoch Knight of Lovell, now of Southern California; Prof. Isaac Bassett Choate, of Naples, now of Boston, writer, literateur and teacher, and ex-Principal of Bridgton Academy; James L Rackleff, of North Bridgton, now of Portland, businessman, and formerly U.S. Collector of Internal Revenue; the late Mason M. Robinson of Waterford, a prominent New York lawyer; the late Dr. Oscar Rogers, of North Bridgton, of Hillsboro, Oregon, learned, wealthy and of archeological fame; the late Hon. Almon A. Strout, of Bridgton, a well-known Portland and Boston lawyer; Hon. Andrew R.B. Smith, of North Bridgton, of North Whitefield, a prominent lawyer, politician, etc.; George W. Gray of Sebago, now treasurer of the town of Denmark; Charles W. Pickard, business editor of the Portland Transcript; Generals Charles and Cyrus Hamlin, of Hamden, sons of the vice-President; Hon. Edwin B. Smith, speaker of the Maine house, U.S. Assistant Attorney General, an eminent New York lawyer, etc.  Of my townsmen who were privates in Perham’s army were Charles B. Walker, Hon. Charles E. Gibbs, Frederick J. Littlefield, Esq., Aldana T. Ingalls, John Ward, and the Browns, Baileys, Brighams, Carsleys, Carters, Freemans, Fosters, Frisbies, Gibbses, Goulds, Hazens, Hicks, Hiltons, Libbeys, Morses, Riggses, Savage brothers, Smith brothers, the Thorps, Whitman, and Webbs, of North Bridgton.  And there were many others in that patriot student band from near and afar.

And now for action! – “action, action, action;” according to the modernized and modified Athenian idea.  “Music to the front!  Attention battalion!  Forward, march!” rung out in clear, sharp tones from the stentorian lungs of commander Perham.

And “music” it was, with a vengeance!  The air was full of it.  The way Uncle Tibbetts put in the fancy licks was a caution; and his two associate drummers, students Isaiah S. and Edward C. (“Harry”) Webb, with snare and bass, made up in volume what they lacked in science.

Our rallying and starting point was by that castle-looking building, the old “Merchant Andrews” stone store, close by Long Lake.  To the wild roar of drums, the column, in double file, moved up Water street, up Main street to the northern portion of the village; countermarched to Bailey & Sons’ machine shop, thence up the long and steep academy (now Chadbourne) hill; wheeled in good order, and, like the King of France, marched down again; then northward to the hay scales at the junction of Sweden and Main streets, where the parade was dismissed.  We had broken up the concert and there was nothing more for us to do but seek our homes or boarding places and rest in our laureled beds.

The starting of the procession was purposely times simultaneous to the opening of the concert.  The concert began – and abruptly ended.  That brilliant piece of carpet-getting fireworks went up a rocket and came down a stick.  The carpet knights in this case were of the feminine persuasion; the gallant knights of the masculine sex were marching elsewhere – were keeping step to anti-concert war drums.  The concert, like a certain “Grandfather’s Clock,” stopped short.  With the tumultuous parade of the rebel host the whole scheme went down never to rise again.  When our temple of Orpheus donned a new carpet, it was paid for, and properly too, out of the academy fund.

That usually quiet North Bridgton, not excepting the small number gathered in the academy, were thrown into a high state of excitement, goes without saying.  And right here a bit of secret history, illustrative of the feeling existing between the school authorities and the rebels.  Preceptor Baker having stated that if the threatened parade was attempted, he, with proper help, would intercept it and arrest the participants on the route of march, a bag of feathers from a certain bedroom, and a six-quart pailful of tar, secretly abstracted from Bailey & Sons’ shop, were deposited early in the evening in the basement of the church, ready for use in clothing the corporeal form of the principal should he interfere as threatened.  But happily, there was no occasion for such high-handed act.  The carnival of students was no-wise interrupted.  But it proved a nice trick of legerdemain getting that tar back into Bailey’s barrel through the bunghole.

But quickly the retributive lightning struck.  However we might feel ourselves aggrieved by the summary overthrow of our fond exhibition, our practical demonstration was too flagrant a violation of the letter and spirit of school rules and discipline to be passed unnoticed.  So the next day a meeting of the trustees and the principal was held in the recitation room, and the ringleaders were duly summoned before them.

The sight which confronted them was enough to appall the rebel heart.  There, in solemn conclave, were the officials who controlled the business department and real destinies of the academy, now clothed in judicial ermine.  The full board consisted of the following gentlemen; – Rev. Joseph P. Fessenden, President; Rev. John A. Douglass, vice-President; Dr. Moses Gould, secretary; Marshall Cram, treasurer; Rev. L.W. Harris, Stephen Beman, Richard G. Bailey, Thomas A. Mead, David Fowler, Luke Brown, Algernon S. Howe, Deacon Asa Gould, Enoch W. Woodbury, Dr. Nathaniel Pease, Harrison Blake, of whom today only Mr. Harris alone survives.

The bevy of arch conspirators were duly arraigned, and the hearing commenced, but at this junction the door opened, and the tall, familiar figure of “Judge” Samuel Riggs appeared to the astonished gaze of the tribunal.  He, it seems, believed that under the circumstances our rebellion was justifiable, and his kind heart and love of justice prompted him to attend the secret “executive session” and act as council for the respondents.

The result of that trial was, the respondents were expelled, they to a man refusing to repent and ask to be reinstated.  But the powers-that-be soon afterwards relented and invited them to return to the fold and sin no more.  They all accepted the olive branch, I think, except Cordis, who shook off the dust of his feet forever on his “persecutors;” and things resumed their wonted channel.

I would remark, personally, that I always liked and respected my teachers of that time, Mr. Baker, Mr. Walker and my drawing teacher, Miss McKeen, and cherish toward them naught but the kindliest memories.  All are dead.  Miss McKeen was for many years the honored principal of Abbot academy, Andover, Mass.

I now look upon the concert scheme as a gross blunder, and on the other hand our performance as carrying out too far a spirit of retaliation.  We should simply have stayed away from the entertainment and kept still.  However, we builded better than we knew, for the exhibition has prevailed uninterrupted thereafter, as it had done before from time immemorial.

Some years after when on a visit in Boston I went to see “Perham’s Mirror of North and South America,” a magnificent panorama, which was nightly attracting great audiences.  The “distinguished lecturer,” who fluently, graphically described the scenes as they came into view, was a youngish, dark-complexioned man with an abundance of black, curly hair.  Every now and then he punctuated his remarks with a dash – by making a gentle volley of tobacco juice at the center of the best shots of “Buffalo Bill,” or “Diamond Dick,” he scoring the bull’s eye every time.  The lecturer somehow had a familiar look, and “the more I gazed the more the wonder grew,” until shortly a flash of recognition pierced the clouds of uncertainty and I knew it was my erstwhile doughty captain of the Academic Commonwealers, Roswell C. Perham.  His uncle was the proprietor of the panorama, which explains how our romantic hero came to act in a platform role.

But as I gazed with rapture on that portion of Perham’s “Mirror” depicting scenes and life in New England, I couldn’t help feeling that there was a missing link.  To my mind in order to make the thing complete it ought to have portrayed that immortal scene connected with the alma mater of Governor Andrew, “Major Jack Downing,” Major-General Ingalls, and other famous alumni.  In short, Perham’s “Mirror” should have depicted the evening march of Perham’s Rebel Battalion as it swung from Main street around meeting house corner to storm the heights of academy hill!”

© 2020 by the North Bridgton Historical Society