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The Baking-Powder Trick And the Boston Trolley

The Mitchell family was prominent in the affairs of my small town. It was a seafaring town, and an early Mitchell was Cap'n Josiah, who held several records from New York-to-San Francisco with his Hornet. The Hornet was an "extreme" clipper, a clipper ship with an improved hull and sails.

Speed was the purpose of the clipper, and depth of cargo space. On her last voyage, Captain Mitchell in command, the Hornet had hypered through the Straits of Magellan and was well up to the Yankee's West Coast (Chile) when a mate heard something dripping in the hold and struck a Portland Star match to see what it was. It was kerosene. So Capt. Josiah Mitchell was now in command of a lifeboat full of crew and passengers on the Pacific and watching the Hornet burn to the waterline.

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His bringing the lifeboat to the Sandwich Isles, his nearest haven, is a great sea story. He had more people, farther to go, fewer supplies, than did the better-known Bligh of HMS Bounty. Mark Twain chanced to be in Hawaii when Captain Mitchell arrived, and the account Twain mailed back can be found in his works. After his heroic voyage, it took Mitchell three years to hitch-hike back to his hometown of Freeport, Maine.

It's possible, I always thought, that Captain Mitchell's valiant success in this rescue was not considered too important in Freeport, where valiant sea captains were a dime a dozen. Mitchell soon got another vessel and was down to the sea again on a propitious tide.

It was a nephew, perhaps a great nephew, of Captain Josiah, Stephen Mitchell, who was a leading Freeport character in my boyhood. Your attention is directed to Stephen.

He "kept" the last truly general store in Freeport, offering meat and groceries but including paints and hardware, and what he didn't have he'd order for you and it would be in by Tuesday. His "sales" were meant only to amuse his customers. As an example, every fall he'd have a sale on stove lifters. A stove lifter, if you don't remember, was a handle to be inserted into the slot in a stove lid, so you could lift the hot cover to poke the fire or add more wood. If you had one stove lifter, you didn't need another, and a sale on stove lifters was no more than something to smile about.

So once a year, Steve Mitchell would put maybe 500 stove lifters in his front show-window with a sign that said, "Special, this week only, $3 each." Steve had picked up about a thousand of the things at 2 cents each from a jobber who was stuck with them.

Steve masterminded the baking-powder trick on Mary Collins. Next door and in the same building with Steve, Mary and Jack Collins had a restaurant. They both cooked, but Mary did the bread and pastry, and above her casting board she had a big shelf for supplies. Her bakers'-size can of Rumford Baking Powder was on that shelf. So when he had a chance, Steve Mitchell figured out from his side of the plaster wall just where Mary's can of baking powder was sitting, and when he was certain Mary and Jack were out, he made a small hole in the plaster, just big enough for a yardstick.

Then, with a yardstick, he poked through the hole. He heard a clunk, and surmised he had poked Mary's baking powder off the shelf so it landed on the breadboard below. He was correct.

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When Mary returned, she found her baking-powder on the breadboard and put it back on the shelf. Then, every day between breakfast and dinner, or between dinner and supper (while Jack and Mary were resting), Steve would poke down the can and Mary would shortly put it back up again.

At the time, we had an electric trolley line that had tracks up our Main Street, and Mary presumed that a passing trolley car was the culprit. She thought vibration knocked down her baking powder. And Mary, who was versed in epithets, would say, as she replaced the can each time, "That trolley car again, etc.!" Everybody in town knew about Steve Mitchell's yardstick except Mary and Jack Collins.

JUST inside the Main Street door of Steve Mitchell's store, there was a handsome rosewood picture frame. Rosewood was a favorite decorative wood in the sumptuous cabins of a Downeaster, which followed the clipper. The heavy logs came from "Brasil" (as spelt in a ship's manifest). Slabwood and scrap pieces, after milling, were used for frames, cribbage boards, small ditty-boxes, and so on.

This beautiful frame on the wall of Steve's store, prominent to all who came in, held a faded newspaper clipping from the Boston Globe. Attached under the glass was a smaller clipping from our local paper that said our local business man, Stephen Mitchell, had been to Boston buying stock.

The larger clipping said the Boston Elevated Railway had experienced a four-hour cessation of service in the Park Street tunnel when an unidentified thief had taken the controls from a surface car while the motorman's attention had been diverted. The car, the Globe reported, could not be moved until control handles were brought from the Oak Street car barn in Brighton. The handles activated the power rheostat and the air brakes. Interrupted service included that from the Back Bay and North Station lines.

Out back, Stephen Mitchell had a glass case on the wall, containing handle controls for a trolley car. "You see," he'd say, "You couldn't just take the controls from one car and use 'em on another, because then that car would be stranded. I wonder somebody didn't figure that out before I did."

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