Dennis M. Cleaves, Sr. was 82 years old when interviewed by Kim Storey in 1991.
I don’t recall anything very important from way back. I don’t recall any stories about my birth or as an infant. All I remember is, as a child of five, six, or seven years old how we used to get together in our neighborhood and form baseball teams. There always was a ball game or two in an adjoining field, or we were found throwing an empty can over the house or racing around the block, and so on. Simple games, but always fun.
Now, believe it or not there were forty‑two of we children in four homes ‑ four houses in one area, so it was pretty easy to form baseball. There was always someone crying who had fallen down and hurt themselves. There were four in our family and across the street there was a family of fourteen, the Atwaters. Next to them were the Dyers. They had eight. On the same side of the road was our neighbor, Pooler, and they had sixteen. No one knew what birth control was!
So there were quite a few little incidences that I can recall. The parent would quiet the child down and told them to come into the house. They still kept right on with their daily work. There was always someone crying. We thought nothing of it. We took it for granted. We weren’t all French either! Three families were French and there was one Protestant family across the road that had fourteen. They’re pretty well passed away, most of them. The family of eight for instance, there’s only one left. In the family of fourteen, there are three left. The family of sixteen, the Pooler family, have moved out of state. Some of them have gone back to Canada. So there wouldn’t be over three or four left of them. In our family, I had one sister older than I, Cecelia, and she became a nurse. Another sister was a year younger, Evelyn, and we were very close. In fact, I wouldn’t go to school unless she did, hence, we graduated the same year from high school. My younger sister, Gerry, was born twelve years later and we all adored tier. Evelyn and Gerry died.
1 don’t remember any sad times in my youth. We were like most kids. We didn’t have much, but we were kept clean and well fed. My mother and father worked in Abbott’s Mill (woolen mill) and they’d walk back and forth about 3/4 mile to and from. At that time, those were about the only jobs that were available. We had someone come in while they worked. This I can’t remember too much about, but I know my mother wouldn’t leave. us alone ‑ that never happened. She always had someone in the house looking after us, maybe a relative. She’d compensate them whatever small amount would suffice. It would do the trick.
My mother worked awfully hard. Now, she’d work at the mill at the end of a handloom all week long ‑ that was fifty‑four hours! They’d work Saturdays before noon at the mill, hence, 54 hours. They were nine hour days, you know, not eight hour days. And she’d come home. and get the meals, wash the dishes, clean the house up every night and go to bed exhausted.
She took in washings, other peoples washings. So she’d wash all Saturday afternoon and hang the clothes out. That was boiling the clothes. There were so washing machines back then. She’d turn them over, and keep turning them over and then wring them out by hand‑‑everything was by hand. Then she’d take them out back on the clothesline in summer and winter. Sometimes she’d go out after them in the wintertime and they’d be frozen stiff. She’d thaw them out in the house and then dry them out as best she could. She’d do that all for a dollar‑starch it and everything. A dollar would buy ‑‑ a loaf of bread was a nickel or seven cents, whatever it was. Milk was five cents. Canned soup was a nickel.
Mrs. Abbott, who owned the mill liked to have my mother do her laundry because she was so meticulous with it. One part I can remember the most. I had a little cart. My Dad bought it for a dollar. I can’t remember how old I was ‑ must have been seven or eight. I’d take that laundry over a mile down to Mrs. Abbott. You would think she would have given me ten cents or a piece of candy or anything, but no.
My mother was very fussy about the cleanliness of our clothes and how we looked. She was very conscientious, always. So she put a lot of extra effort that most people didn’t in our looks and so forth. Being the only son my mother took great pride in dressing me in little knickers, a white shirt, black stockings and low shoes. I really think I was her favorite. She spoiled me terribly on most anything I wanted. If I didn’t want carrots served on the table or if I didn’t want to eat them, I didn’t eat them. She’d get something that I did want. I recall my Dad, for instance, would say, “Well try ’em. I’ll give you a nickel.” Well a nickel, that would buy a chocolate bar. Ten cents would go to the movies. I recall trying them once. I must have been five or six. And I gagged. I didn’t like the taste of a carrot. I still don’t care for them, but I eat them.
Then all through my youthful years we just grew up naturally like other kids. I really had no pressures or conflicts except when I had to wheel wood into the shed and pile it. There were always five or six cords of wood each Fall ready to be split, wheeled and stacked for the winter. In my adolescent years, I did become very fond of hunting, trapping and fishing.
In the. summertime, we did help out our parents financially by picking beans, currants, and berries. We did this to help out with buying our clothes. I hated to pick beans and raspberries, currants and gooseberries. We’d pick the berries in the neighborhood where we didn’t have to have transportation. But the string beans … He’d come down after us in an old pickup. There would be five or six of us who would go pick.
Of course, most French people were poor. There were two classes of people then, There were the Protestants, most of whom were in business. Not most of thorn, but a big percentage. They had good jobs. And we poor Frenchmen, we had no education.
We came down out of Canada by oxcart, so I was told. My folks came down by oxcart and the only one that rode was my grandmother. Everybody else walked. They came from Quebec all the way down to Maine. It took them three or five, I think nearer five, weeks. And they camped on the way. No money. Whatever food they needed they took with them. That saved quite a bit. The reason they came down to Dexter and Lewiston and other mill towns was because the mills were running and they were starving up in Canada. Canada was in a depression.
Today of course, I love to pick. Just the. reverse of what it was back then. I love to pick beans. She’ll (his wife) send me after strings beans. I’ll fill three or four bags. These twenty pound bags will hold two and a half or three pecks and I fill them before I realize it. I’ll come home with six pecks, eight pecks, as much as eleven pecks. There are about seven pounds per peck. I love to pick.
I’ll pick raspberries starting at six o’clock in the morning right through ’till she gets peeved at me and gets me into the house. I’m all alone in the. raspberry patch and … the. birds, it’s quite a fight between me and the birds because they eat the raspberries, you know. They’re up in the trees and they’ll chirp away. You find a lot of raspberries half eaten.
So I like to pick today. I had to do it back then, I didn’t have to, but my Dad weighed 250 pounds, 240 pounds. Big man. Jolly big dimples, curly ‑haired man. He’d say “come here!” and if I didn’t he’d grab me by the shirt, hold me up there and say, “Now you mind your mother!”. He’d just hold me there. I was seven, eight, nine years old. I feared him because he could pick me up at any time.
I recall going hunting when I was about fifteen years old. Back then we had Model T Fords. We didn’t own it but I had an uncle who did own it. He was boss of one of these mills. We had a broken wheel. It got into a rut and broke.. They had wooden spokes back then and we always carried an extra wheel and a tire all mounted. So this was a cold, rainy night. We. were going hunting for two or three days into some old camp. My uncle and his two sons were changing the wheel. So it was Dad and I outside and it was cold as … I said, “Come on, Dad. Let’s warm up!”. Then I pushed him a couple of times ‑ pretend punching him and so forth. Finally, he picked me by the front of my shirt and said, “Whata you want?” He put me down and let it go at that (smiling). That’s how strong he was. Powerful!
Because of his size, I guess probably I respected him more.. Hence, I didn’t say “no” too often. We were brought up to obey. We all were in the neighborhood even the small children. The. mother or father would open the door and yell to the kids‑ north, east, south, and west. They’d yell out all f our doors that supper was ready. I’ll tell you, we went. We ran! We ran!
But, I had a good childhood. As I recall, when we’d go to church, we had the front seat. That was our pew. We’d rent those by the year‑three dollars a year , or something, and that was your pew. If anyone else was in it, they weren’t suppose to be in it. We wouldn’t say anything though because we were in church, you know.
My mother was so proud of me. I recall we’d walk to church. It was a mile and a quarter, a mile and a quarter back. It wasn’t too tough for me, but it was for my mother. She wouldn’t complain ‑ never complained. I can recall so many times coming home and her poor legs were frozen. Wintertime ‑ 20, 30 below zero. You didn’t miss mass. Sunday was the Lord’s day ‑ you went to church. Going into church, she’d always take my arm and put it through her arm to help her, or pretend to help. She. was so proud of me.
1 never turned out exactly the way she wanted me to, I’ll tell you. No. She would have had me become a priest. Not that she ever said that, but she wanted me to be a good Catholic boy, that’s all. I was a good Catholic boy. I didn’t dare to do anything different. But, we look back on a lot of things we did and wish we hadn’t, don’t we? I say ‘we’ because we are all human.
My mother was one of the… my mother and my mother-in-law were two of the greatest people I ever knew. Yes, my mother‑in‑law. Now that’s unusual. Grammie Clark‑‑very religious, never talked about anyone, helped the neighbors.
My mother, her name was Nellie … if anything happened in the neighborhood they’d come and get Nellie. She would sit by their side and help them. Now that was all of the neighbors. She knew what to do and didn’t get excited. For instance, they had given my grandmother up for dead. She had pneumonia. My mother had been tending my grandmother, but not continually, not day in and day out. She had work to do, of course. So her doctor, old Dr. Thatcher, came in this particular time that she was there and he talked to her in a gruff voice‑‑You know, like anyone who is hard of hearing. He couldn’t hear, so he had a trumpet. You’d have to shout into the trumpet so he could hear you.‑‑He said, “Nellie, can’t do any more. She’ll be dead in the morning. There’s nothing we can do.”
So my mother went down to old Doc Burgess. He was a … he believes in herbs for medicinal purposes. He’d go into one of his seances, spells. She didn’t tell him a thing about it, but he came out and said. “She’s very sick, isn’t she?”. He was a Christian Scientist. He said, “Come back in an hour or an hour and a half and I will have some medicine for you,” She came back as she was asked to and he said, “Make a poultice now and change it every hour. Never mind about these other remedies. Do this … steep these …… She did. She steeped them and every hour she changed them.
Old Doc Thatcher came in the next morning and he said, “Can’t believe it still alive. What happened?”. She told him and he said, “That’s right. That’s right. You did the right thing, Nellie. That’s right. Thank you.”. And he. walked off. She lived ten, twelve years beyond that. She was seventy‑ two then.
My maternal grandparents lived only a couple of houses from us, so I visited them often. I would run down the. path, cross the road, over to my grandparents house. My grandmother was so loving and always had a cookie f or me. She had a family of ten. But French people didn’t know … you married and you had children. Everyone had ten, twelve, fifteen children. They didn’t do much about not having children. Course they didn’t know anything about medicine then, or the Pill, or the rhythm system, or anything like. that.
One incident that I do remember about my maternal grandfather is that he had a tom turkey that somehow took a dislike for me. When he spied me, he would chase me and peck me until my grandfather would come to my assistance and drive him away.
My paternal grandparents did not live near us, hence, I didn’t see them very often. I do know that they worked very hard in the woods for nine to ten hours each day all winter long for small pay. The pay scale during those trying times was a dollar a day or a dollar per cord of wood.
As a teenager, I was always a little shy, especially if girls were present. Otherwise, just an average teenager‑once a week to the movies. Ten cents was the fare and five cents for popcorn. Of course, we were allowed to go to the movies only Saturdays. Not during the week because of school.
I graduated from high school. All the children in my family graduated from high school. Back then, if you had a high school education it was the equivalent of a college education now . Going to college was utterly impossible. (Now a college education isn’t enough. You have to go beyond. ) Oh yes, the ultimate for most Catholics or most poor people (and most of us were Catholics), the ultimate was to have a high school education. No one understood why you had to have it, but later I realized you had to in order to go into business.
After graduation, unable to find a job, I finally decided to learn how to weave like my Morn and Dad. This I did, but I would lose my hearing each day because of the terrible noise of the looms. But, I would regain it after a nights rest. I decided this was not for me so I informed my boss and terminated my employment. This was a crucial decision for me because I did not know where to find other employment during the depression.
I decided that being successful in a small town required one to go into business. This I did and what little education I had helped me in my business world and all through life. But, back then we had penmanship, geography, history, English, and the basics. Typewriting‑I can still type now. Those were the basics in education which enabled a fella to go into business. It costs so much, you get so much profit, take your overhead out and the rest is yours.
Not too many of us in Dexter had high school educations. They all tried. That’s the reason my mother took in laundry and worked in the mill‑ so we children didn’t have to work and we could go to school. A lot of them didn’t want to go, but they didn’t have a big Dad like I did. No questions, you didn’t argue with him. Not that he was gruff or anything, but just to look at him…But he had dimples, wavy hair, round face. He was handsome. My Dad was handsome.
I’ll tell you one little thing that amazed me the first time. I heard it. My parents bought this house. that we were born and brought up in. Everyone said not to buy it because everyone that hat lived there had died of consumption, I think. Two families had lived there and they all died. They bought it because they could buy it so cheap. We lived there all of our lives and none of us came down with it. And the reason was, as my mother summarized ‑ and she. was right, back then they had cows and back then you didn’t have to have cows tested. The milk they drank was polluted with this particular disease. This cow and the calf that came after her gave milk that had this bacteria in it.
We. lived in that little white house on the hill. There were four children ‑ six of us. I had a back room and two girls slept together. My folks had the big room upstairs. We had a little dining room and what we called a parlor. The best furniture was in that room.
My parents worked all their lives. They both died … I never have. forgotten the grief that one goes through when they experience the death of a loved one. The death of my favorite aunt, Rosie Clukey, was a sad time for me. But the years following my mother’s demise were the saddest times in my life. Mumma died of a cancerous brain tumor when she was forty‑eight years old. Dad died of an enlarged heart caused by some disease. He was sixty-seven years old.
So, I took. the house over when they died. They still owed eighteen hundred dollars, but the payment was eighteen dollars a month. Three dollars was applied to principal and fifteen was applied to interest. The Building and Loan association had the mortgage. So, I had to pay it off, but in the meantime, I had gone into business.
I was making twice as much in the grocery business as they were in the mill, so I know I was getting ahead. So it paid off. I reroofed the house the next year. Painted it. Rented it. I got sick of that and I sold it for twenty‑five hundred dollars. I guess I came out alright. I had too much going on in business. I couldn’t go up there and collect the rent. I could, but I didn’t want to. No money in it, you know. And I was money conscious back then.
I tried to get ahead. Course, none of the Catholic boys got ahead. None of them, not a one of them. They weren’t in business for themselves. I was compelled to go into business for myself because I was fired.
I recall I had graduated from high school and I went along for about three months. My morn and dad had an argument one morning because I wasn’t working. Mumma came up and sat on the side of my bed at about 7.‑30 or 8:00 in the morning.
She said, “Why don’t you go down and look for a job?” I said, “Well Mumma, I’ve tried two or three ……
“Well you haven’t tried”, she said. “You’ve been playing around with the boys and you’ve. been playing penny ante.” If you had six or eight cents that somebody gave you, we’d sit right there and play penny ante. Sometimes you were lucky ‑‑ twenty‑five, forty cents in your pocket. I looked at her. There were tears in her eyes.
She said, “Your father and I have had a few words this morning.”. I said, “Mumma, I heard you.”. There were tears in her eyes and I said “I will”.
So, I went down and I started with John Dyer, who was our neighbor that had eight children. He ran the grocery store and we traded with him because he gave credit. Everything was credit. No such thing as cash. I started there and went down the whole length of the street and up the other side. First National, A& P, the whole of it. Just couldn’t find anything. So I let it go three or four days and then I went and did the whole thing over again.
I hit the First National and he said, “Well, we’re looking for someone. Any experience?”
I said, “No, but I can learn. I can make change. I’ve got a high school education.”
He says, “Alright, come on in. We don’t pay much. Eight dollars a week for fifty‑f our hours.” I t was sixty hours actually, but we were paid for fifty‑four.
I had an advantage. I could speak two languages, French and English. Canuck French, but I can understand it. And I did quite a job there. I was fast. I was young and I was fast. We had people coming in from Guilford and f rom five or eight other places out of town. People had gone to these towns and still hadn’t learned any English. We were doing alright at First National thanks to my two languages.
I asked for a raise of two dollars. Back in the depression, you know. The field manager for First National said, “Denni , I’m right up to my quota. if I allowed you to have two dollars more a week, I’d lose my job. I’d be over my quota. I can’t do it.”
So, I says,”Well, I’ve got to get more money. I pay five dollars for board and I smoke‑that’s two dollars a week, a dollar and a half a week‑ and I don’t have enough money Wednesday to take my girlfriend to the movies.” I said I’d work a two weeks notice.
My girl friend, Dot (his wife now’), would take me to the movies on Wednesday or Thursday. Ten cents. She’d say, “Let’s go to the movies.” I’d say, “I can’t, Dot, I haven’t any money.” She worked all through high school. She put herself through high school. She was one of the few in the town of Dexter who did that. She bought her own graduation dress. She was a clerk and bookkeeper for a fella named Peter Vincent, who had an independent grocery store.
Anyhow … I thought, what the hell willl I do – excuse me – what in the world will I do? So, my two weeks were almost expired and I was going up the street on Friday night and Mr. Vincent came up.
“Dennis, I’ve been watching you lately”., he said. “You’re a good clerk. You speak two languages. Would you work for me?”
“I don’t know. Why?”
“Well, I can’t pay you much. All I can pay you is eleven dollars a week.”
I thought to myself, Oh my God. All I wanted was ten . I said, “Well, let me think about it.”
He says, “Of course, you’ll have to work a two weeks notice.” “I know it. Well, I’ll let you know in a day or two.”
I thought I’d go home and talk with Mumma. No use in talking to Dad. Mumma had more common sense than Dad did. He wasn’t … he was uneducated. He was a hard worker. My mother educated herself and educated Dad too. She taught him how to read and everything before she died.
I went back Saturday and I said, “I can come to work for you Monday morning.”
“Well, you’ve got to work a notice.’.
“Well, I told my boss about it and he said it would be all right to start for you now.” Of course, I didn’t tell him that I had given my employer notice two weeks earlier.
He says, “is that right?” .. Yeah.”
“Well, all right.”
So I went to work for him. I worked there and managed the store for thirty‑seven dollars a week after five years. The economy was gradually coming out of the depression. This is when I first realized I had become an adult‑when I started making decisions on my own. That’s also when I fell in love with a beautiful girl, whom I married and have been very happy with for fifty‑three years. That’s where I met Dot.
Mr. Vincent was in the throws of separation, in fact, divorce. His wife was a well‑built woman‑‑not too good‑looking‑‑well‑built. She. loved to go dancing. He and his wife were arguing all the time
Peter was very special to me. He was very close. He explained the right and wrong of doing business. Honest as … most honest man I ever saw in my life. Dot will verify that. Crackers were run by the pound. We weighed everything. Peas went by bulk. Sugar we’d bulk. Everything was in bulk, but flour. And if it was a cracker that was a little over, he’d bite the cracker in half and eat the other half. He was honest. Honest. And he taught us that. If there was a phone call for you, he’d allow it once and that was it. “Tell them you have to work for a living.”, he’d say.
So he and his wife had been arguing this particular day he came out when I was managing. A Mr Cox, won wasaA … Optometrist, I think…would get drunk once a month and stagger up there. He liked me. He’d stagger up there and say, “Can I have some oysters?” And I knew…Here comes Dr. cox. Oh my goodness. It’s five o’clock and more people will be out and this place will be filled. Now I’ve got him to contend with. I could see him coming. I could look out and I could see him.
“Hi, Dennis!” He’d open the door and never close it. “Hi, Dennis. I want something to eat.”
“Gonna have some oysters, aren’t you, Doc?”
“Yeah. How many do I need?”
“A pint.” I had to tell him. “You need a pint of oysters. Need some crackers?” I’d tell him he’d need a box of crackers‑oyster crackers.
“Yeah. What else do I need?” “Oh, you need some pickles.”
“A pound of pickles.”
“What else do I need?” “You need some milk.”
“Ayuh, he says, “canned milk.”
I says, All right, how many cans?” “Enough for a quart of milk.”
I said, “A can of milk will do it”
Well back then there were twelve ounce cans and a can of milk would make 3/4 of a quart of milk. Well, I just wanted to get rid of him. So I did.
Mr. Vincent came up to me after the Doctor had gone and said to me,”I want you to know your groceries”, he said. “A can of milk makes less than a quart of milk. You could have got an extra sale there.”
“Well, I got rid of him.”, I said. “Well…”
One thing led to another and he fired me. He came to my house two days later and he looked into the window and saw my father, so he didn’t come in. (My father after supper would rock. He would smoke his pipe and rock in the window.) Third day he came up to see me and my dad wouldn’t let me go. My mother would have. She said, “Oh, forget it, Ed.” He said, “No, to hell with it. Don’t go back.” So I didn’t.
So, I was hanging around at my old hangout. The boys still weren’t working. A lot of them weren’t. Never did, you know…
An old fella at the filling station named Fred Dyer wanted to get out of the business. He was in the grocery business, but he was old.
He said, “Dennis, what are you doing?” I said, “Nothing.”
“What are you gonna do?” I says, “I don’t know.”
He says, “Why don’t you buy me out?” “Oh, I haven’t got any money.”
Well, in the meantime, I had a car I had bought and I had it pretty well paid for. An old fella hit me with his car. I was going along on the. road and he tried to cut in ahead of me to go into this garage, and he cut right into me. Fifty dollars damage. Well, that’s the whole side of a car then. It’s like five hundred now. So that check came in those three days I was just hanging around there was fifty dollars. I owed it. I had the car all fixed and I owed it.
So, I thought to myself, well, I have fifty dollars. I can probably buy him out. So I went back and asked him.
I says, “What would you … How … I might be interested if I could dig up a little bit of money.”
He says, “All I want is fifty dollars down and fifty dollars a month. I’ve. got three. hundred dollars of groceries. We can count them.”
And that’s about what he said. I thought to myself, my My God, this is just fifty gollars a month. And so I bought him out. This was a crucial decision in my life. I invested my total savings, which was that fifty dollars, in my first business venture.
In the meantime, George Gerry wanted to know when I was going to pay for that repair job. I says, Well, we’ll finance it. I don’t owe very much. I’m not…”
Oh, wasn’t he. mad! “Well, the agreement was that you’d pay cash.” “Well, I can’t help it. I spent it.” He never liked … he never forgot it.
He didn’t dislike me, but he never forgot that. And I never forgot him. I never liked him after that ’cause he gave me hell. I did what I thought was … I had to do it.
So, in the meantime, Dot was working with me nights. She’d work for Peter days. He was almost across the street from me. And she’d come over and help me at night. And they went along like this for a week or two and finally he said something like this, “Dot, I noticed you’ve been helping Dennis at night and you know we’re competitors. You can’t serve two masters”, or something like that, “why don’t you get through.”
And she says, “Well, I will.”
So she came in to me and said, “Well I’m looking for job. What will you pay me?”
“Five dollars a week.” She was hired.
So, she and 1 went into this together. Thanks to her. She was my right arm. Dot would come over in the evening and we’d look at the empty shelves. We wondered, how in the world are we ever going to get money enough to put groceries on the shelves? So we went along for a couple of weeks and we didn’t know what to do about groceries. We made up our minds we had three weeks worth of groceries left.
We decided to go to Bangor and see if we could see Mr. Lavelle. He was a wholesale grocer and they had grocery stores of their own. We were trying to compete with First National, T & K … He was a fine, thin, very thin, upright, straight, old man. I walked in there first and I told him and… He said (in a very slow, gruff voice), “Why, Mr. Cleaves, do you know what you’re asking for? Five hundred dollars worth of groceries on credit! Why… that’s impossible!”
Well, anyway, I walked out of there, after I’d given my theory of success ‑ how I was gonna do it. I came out of there with seven hundred dollars of groceries. Promised Monday morning I’d have the money for him. So, I got that. And, oh boy, did we open up those cartons and put the groceries up.
In the meantime… we went along a couple of weeks … Another outfit named Chapin were wholesale grocers. Arthur Chapin was a salesman there and he came up every week. He heard about me ’cause they furnished the groceries for the Grange store. So. he came up and allowed me five hundred dollars groceries credit. Groceries were delivered there every two weeks. The week that T & K didn’t come, he’d come. and so I’d pay him ten or fifteen dollars on my old bill and my current orders. And I’d work like the devil, we would. Seven days and nights a week. Sell like the devil all we could. So that was the grocery store…
Those early years were the least enjoyable times in my life.‑‑ working seven days and nights a week for three years without vacation during the depression, and being under‑financed vith no established credit. It was tough.
Then there was the Chevrolet dealership. When Dot’s father died, I bought that out. And then I was having problems, nervous problems. Then I sold out there and then I wanted something else to do. So, in the. meantime, I bought a lot of land up above the house. a couple hundred yards away.
She said, “What are you going to do?” I says, “Let’s go into mobile homes.” She says, “Oh, we can’t.” “Oh, yes we can.”
So, we went into mobile homes and she ran the darn thing and I built a park‑a mobile home park. Fifty‑eight units. Then after twelve years, Sonny (his only son) wanted something to do, and he wanted the (mobile. homes) sales. We practically gave him that. Then I took a year off, and then I wasn’t happy there, and I bought this block downtown and had it restructured. We went all throughout the darn thing. We spent, I don’t know how much, money. And we went into the furniture business. Well, that was a tough one. The furniture business still is tough. Advertising … and so on.
We were very successful in all four ventures – first grocery, second automobile, next was mobile home retailing and the park, and last was the furniture business. After fifty years of retailing, I retired. …Automobile and mobile home shows, meeting with other dealers and listening to their ideas and fallacies … these were all very important to me at this time.
Oh yes, we owned two grocery stores. One on each end. I bought out the other fella up on the other end of town. So, we had them going both. I went in with Uncle Don Brown. I sold out to him. He was too untidy in the business. He was never brought up to be neat. He never had the experience. I took him off the road and he never… He did what he had to, but he was at it thirty‑four years too. As he told me, “That’s the only thing I ever knew how to do.”
The grocery store I owned was on some land along with a filling station. I owned the store. Mr. Mccusick owned the filling station and Lou Shepard owned the land. The land owner sued the fella that owned the filling station. It went to court. He had made no effort to move the filling station, so the court gave the filling station to the man that owned the land He had to make a move and he never made a move. So, this old fella that owned the land was an outlaw, so to speak. He was a scoundrel. And he came and wanted to double the rent. “Well, I can’t do it”, I says. He said, “Well, you’ll have to get out then”, or something like that.
So, in the meantime, there was a railroad station right across from me. A railroad station up by those railroad tracks. So I thought, Well, I’ve got to do something. So, I went to Portland and talked to Maine Central and they sold the depot and the land to me for eighteen hundred dollars. I came home and we got our resources together, whatever we could dig up. We got a carpenter‑the father of those fourteen children across the street was a great carpenter. And he took this big railroad station, turned it around and we built (my Dad and I, he helped me), we built this form for a cellar‑ A cement cellar, you know what I mean. And they turned that building around. ‘Twas sideways to the railroad track and they turned it around like this (motioning), and here was the road. So we took the whole end down and put windows in.
The poor people that owed me, helped me to move that building, and so forth … to move. We moved the groceries on a Sunday and they helped me. I gave them half credit on their store bill and half rent and lights, and whatever personal expenses. In fact, they worked their store bills right down to nothing.
Then I got hard up. I had some bills to pay. I told this Mr. Bucknam down there that gave me credit, “I need a lot of material and I will pay you the. best I can. There’ll be a balance. In the spring, I’ll pay the balance.” So, every week we’d go down with thirty‑five, fifty, seventy‑five dollars on this bill‑‑two‑by‑fours, nails, and everything. We were pretty well done‑ He came up on a Saturday night or Saturday afternoon and he wanted his money‑the balance. So, I said, “Mr. Bucknam, I’ve got fifty dollars for you Monday. The agreement was….. and so on and so forth. No. Got to have his money. Well, don’t you think she and I were a little tiffed. So, we gave him a check‑only $380‑’twas a lot of money then. I told Mr. Bucknam, “if you need the money that bad, you be at the bank at nine o’clock to cash that check. If not, at five minutes past nine, we’ll stop payment on that check, you old son of a B.!” I went down to the bank to cover the check Monday morning, and sure enough , he was number two and I was number three or four. I was going to stop that check just to prove a point.
When I gave him that check, I didn’t know how in the world I was ever … Well, my mother had sixty dollars, so she let me have that. Mr. Prescott had fifty, sixty dollars‑the neighbor across the street, Louise’s father. Will O’Donnell had a weeks wages, seventy‑five dollars. He was across the street. He was an Oakland dealer, Oakland cars then. He said, “Dennis, you can have that.” Anyway, we made it up. I cleaned the neighborhood out.
But, anyway, that’s how hard up I was. So, Mr. Ingraham, from Wilson Company, came in that Monday morning. I had promised him … see credit was tough then. Everybody owed everybody. The grocer owed the wholesaler, the wholesaler owed… you know. So, they had to keep up. So, I had promised him to pay that little bill I owed him. Wasn’t too much‑ eighty dollars. I’d promised to pay some on it and I couldn’t.
He says, “Gee, Dennis, I’ve got to have some money on account. That’s all. Chicago’s pressing Waterville, and Waterville … we’ve just got to have some money.
“Look, I have thirty‑two cents left.” A dollar and thirty‑two cents in change in the cash register. So, I went to the office and I got my coat and keys and I went right by him and he said, “Where you going?”
“I’m going home. You run the damn thing‑ I can’t. I give up.” “Come back here. You know better than that.”
“No, I don’t. I just can’t do it.” I had tears in my eyes. I didn’t know what to do.
“What do you need next week?…”
Well, instead of ordering twenty‑four cases of lard, I ordered twelve pounds of lard, and one box of frankforts instead of two. Something I could pay for Monday. And I’d give him some on account. I’d get it some. way. Come Monday morning, he came in again.
He said, “Well, Dennis, how’d you make it?” “Pretty good.”
“You can give me a little on account?”
I said, “Yes, I can.” So I gave him five or ten dollars, I don’t know what it was.
“Can I have an order?”
“Sure” And I gave him an order and so forth. It went on and I’d give him a few dollars on the bill. Well, I never thought too much about it, but we found out after he died that he went down and paid that bill for me. He drew twenty‑five dollars a week, that was his salary. He. was a salesman and that was his salary. And as I gave him five, ten, fifteen dollars, whatever it was, he’d keep it to pay himself back.
Jim Farley did the same thing. Guy Johnston did the same thing. We paid them all back, but they had to clean up that bill. That had been running long enough. I owed the wholesaler, you know. They went to bat for us. They liked us. And Angelo was the same way. Angelo DiVersi, Waterville Fruit. And Don Brown. He thought the world of us and Don Brown. In fact, we just found out a year or two ago that Deborah, his wife, said that when it came. to Don Brown and Dennis Cleaves he’d say, “Don’t fill that order. I’ll fill it.” And he’d be sure the bananas were just right and the oranges were just right and the fruit … Well, they had confidence in us. They inspired me and guided me. I was fortunate in knowing such fine people.
But not too many people today start out with nothing like Brown and I did. Brown borrowed money from his Aunt Bea.
So, that gives you an idea … That’s about it, thanks to Dot. She wanted me to pay her more money. In order to get away from that, I married her. That took care of that! I want the world to know that!
At age eighty‑two, I look back and think how wonderful the years that the children were at I home. I hope I never forget the happiness of the fifty‑three years of my family life and to always appreciate the love of my mother, mother‑in‑law, wife, and all my children, twelve grandchildren, and thirteen great‑grandchildren. Family gatherings on holidays and birthdays were important to me, especially when the children were growing up. I feel very fortunate in my longevity and quite good health, and for the love of my f amily. My mother and my wife, Dorothy, were the greatest influences in my life.
The biggest stresses of being an adult were trying to keep in good health and trying to make the right decisions that would effect our future as well as the childrens’ financial planning. And, as to mistakes, I’ve made many, but have tried to use them to my advantage in later life . Experience is a great teacher. My inner strength, which got me through it all, comes from Faith and believing. Because of this, I think my life story should be titled, “Have. Faith in Yourself and in God”.
An elderly lady, Sadie Lovejoy, once told me that it’s much more enjoyable climbing the ladder to success than it is after reaching the top rung. I agree with her.