By D. Allan Kerr
Life is a series of sequels – there really is no such thing as just one story. We’re all part of one long, never-ending story.
I was reminded of this last month after giving a talk in New Hampshire before the New Castle Historical Society about the brave surfmen who kept mariners safe in the early days of what we know now as the U.S. Coast Guard.
Just a couple days before the appearance, the Seacoast Sunday newspaper ran a piece I wrote about Charles Abraham Hand, a station chief who served in 1920 at Wood Island in Kittery, Maine, who responded to a boating accident and discovered one of those lost was his own son-in-law.
Sherman Parker, a World War I Army veteran who married Hand’s daughter Ada just six months before, died tragically at the age of 20.
I was fascinated by this story because it highlighted the perils of this dangerous profession during that time, as Parker was also a Coast Guard surfman stationed at the neighboring Isles of Shoals.
I was also frustrated by my failure to locate photos of either Hand or Parker, and curious to know what happened to the poor young widow Ada.
Enter Portsmouth, New Hampshire, resident John Connors.
After the talk at New Castle’s Old Library Museum one August evening, Connors approached me and introduced himself as Parker’s grandson – a descendant I never knew existed. And Connors, in turn, said he learned things from the article he hadn’t known about his own family.
He proceeded to share an absolute treasure trove of photos and information he had brought along about his ancestors. In the days since, between the two of us we fleshed out a story which in its own small way weaves into the intimate history of this beautiful but once-deadly Seacoast region where Maine meets New Hampshire.
In 1920, Hand was in charge of the Coast Guard crew at Wood Island, a position then designated as the “keeper.”
He was well known in the local seafaring community, which he had served since 1901 when the station was at Jerry’s Point in New Castle and the crew was still part of the old U.S. Life Saving Service.
On the afternoon of May 3rd, Hand and his surfmen responded to the site of a capsized, four-man boat carrying supplies back to the Isles of Shoals during a sudden squall.
Three of the four boatmen perished during the accident; the only body recovered was that of Hand’s new son-in-law, Parker.
Newspaper articles reporting the incident cited Parker’s “splendid war record.” He enlisted in Portland, Maine, in March 1917 and was discharged in April 1919, serving 19 months in France with the 26th Division, according to news reports.
His military assignment was driving a mule team that carried ammunition over rugged and deadly terrain to Allied trenches on the front lines. Parker survived “many narrow escapes,” according to a Portsmouth Herald article of the time, including one when a pair of mules were killed by an exploding shell right in front of him.
“All of the men were well known in this city having been stationed here for some time, and all well liked,” the May 4, 1920, article continued. “They were all young fellows, good seamen, and all have passed a good part of their lives on or near the water.”
But the newspapers didn’t mention Parker’s young widow was expecting a baby at the time of his sudden death. Their daughter, Mary, was born less than six weeks later.
Almost 100 years forward, Mary’s son John Connors was unaware of his grandfather’s war record, or that his body had been recovered. He grew up thinking Sherman Parker was lost at sea. In fact, he knew very little about the ancestor who died before his 21st birthday.
“The family was very quiet about the whole thing,” he said. “I’ve never even seen a picture of him.”
Connors has since learned Parker, who was born in South Lubec, Maine, on September 11, 1899, is buried at the Seaside Cemetery in Cape Elizabeth, Maine, with his parents.
He apparently joined the Coast Guard not long after his return home from the war in France. This would have been a logical choice, as both his father-in-law and his own father, Alonzo, were also surfmen. Alonzo Parker was serving at the Cape Elizabeth station near Portland when his son drowned.
Parker married Ada Hand in Portsmouth’s St. John’s Church in November 1919 and was dead six months later, leaving his wife a widow at just 18 years old.
After Parker’s daughter was born on June 12th, young Mary and her mother lived for a time with Ada’s parents, Charles and Clara, on Manning Street in Portsmouth. Ada remarried a few years later, to Paul Fernald, and had two more children.
As a child, Mary often spent summers up at Cape Elizabeth with her father’s family. She married John Williams Connors in 1940. They had a daughter, Judith, in 1941 and the younger, John Connors, was born in 1950.
The family lived at one point near the corner of Portsmouth’s Newton Avenue and Marcy Street, in the Puddle Dock area, which now serves as part of the Strawbery Banke Museum parking lot.
Connors remembers his father raising the American flag each morning at the liberty flagpole, which still stands at Prescott Park, and even painting the pole.
The senior John Connors served in the Pacific during World War II aboard the Navy aircraft carrier USS Shangri-La. He resumed his service as a Portsmouth firefighter after the war and was with the department for more than 40 years.
Mary worked as a telephone operator and later became a ward clerk at the old Portsmouth Hospital, which now sits near city hall.
The family eventually built a house and settled on New Castle Avenue, just a few houses down the same street as Mary’s mother, Ada. As a boy Connors used to stop by her house to visit, recalling she was a “great cook.” But he never gave much thought to what she must have gone thru as a teenage widow and single mother.
Connors today says his family rarely spoke of his lost grandfather.
“What a terrible thing,” he mused. “I should have sat down with my mother and grandmother and asked what happened, but I never did.”
After reading about his family in the August 11th Herald article, Connors began searching thru old boxes in his home to conduct some research of his own. With all the family treasures unearthed over the past month, he still hasn’t come across a photograph of his grandfather, Sherman Parker.
The career of his great-grandfather, Charles Hand, however, is pretty well-documented.
Hand was born in England on Valentine’s Day, 1877, the son of a Royal marine. He was based at the Jerry’s Point life-saving station in New Castle until 1908, when it was relocated across the Piscataqua River to Wood Island.
He remained at Wood Island thru 1915, when President Woodrow Wilson merged the Life Saving Service with the Revenue Cutter Service to create our modern-day U.S. Coast Guard.
One of the items Connors discovered was the November 1901 letter informing Hand he had been accepted as a surfman at Jerry’s Point.
He started out as the station’s “winter man,” the junior position among the crew.
But Connors also came across the letter Hand received, almost exactly 17 years later, appointing him as the new keeper in charge of the Wood Island station.
Once promoted to keeper, he was traditionally referred to as “Captain Hand” for the remainder of his career, although in 1920 the Coast Guard changed the title from keeper to warrant boatswain.
Hand eventually retired in 1932 after serving at various posts throughout New England.
But 10 years later, after America entered World War II, he returned to service in the Captain of the Port’s office. The Portsmouth Herald chronicled the event with an August 1942 front-page item headlined, “Coast Guard Veteran Thrills to Duty’s Call.”
Connors also recently toured the station at Wood Island, which is undergoing renovation, where his great-grandfather served for so many years, and twice as keeper.
“It was really kind of eerie for me,” he said.
Hand died in 1948, his daughter Ada died in 1989, and his granddaughter Mary died in 1994.
Connors became a public servant as well, as a member of Portsmouth’s police department for 44 years, including 22 years as an auxiliary officer.
He gained a bit of fame in the Seacoast a few years ago as the “whistleblower cop” in the case of a former officer named as a benefactor in a will left by an elderly woman with dementia.
He now works as a security guard at the U.S. Passport Center at Pease International Tradeport – where my wife also works, another illustration of how intertwined our stories can be in the Seacoast.
The Coast Guard eventually returned to New Castle, where it still stands today – its official designation has always been the Portsmouth Harbor Station – and the structure at Wood Island fell into ruin over decades of neglect.
Now a privately funded $4.2-million restoration project is under way at the island. The nonprofit Wood Island Life Saving Station Association (WILLSA) plans to install a maritime museum at the site to preserve the legacy of the brave and hardy men charged with keeping mariners safe.
Now that Connors has brought all these artifacts back to light, he intends to share them with the public thru the museum once it’s built. WILSSA’s Sam Reid said this past week the group is “overjoyed” by the donation.
“This gift will have a huge impact in ensuring the future museum at Wood Island will become a national model, and will form the basis of our permanent collection,” Reid said.
“WILSSA is hopeful that John’s remarkable support of the Wood Island Station museum will encourage others who may have their own collections to come forward so that their family stories can also be preserved and shared with generations to come,” Reid said.
For Connors, the selfless decision was easy – and sensible.
“What good would it be for me to leave it home and put it in a box in an attic somewhere?” he asked rhetorically.
“I think my grandfather and great-grandfather would be proud to have these things out there in the museum. I think this is what they would want. I think it’s the right thing to do.”
D. Allan Kerr is the author of Silent Strength, a book about the men lost aboard the Kittery-built submarine USS Thresher.
(Sept. 23, 2019)