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REAL PEOPLE: Mellie Dunham, pitchforks and family history
EAST WATERFORD – David Sanderson was born and raised in Rhode Island, but his family ties to Waterford date back to 1788. Since childhood, he has been drawn to this town and the family homestead he now lives in.
He recently took time to tell us about his life.
Q: When were you born and brought up?
A: I was born on June 27, 1943. The actual birth was in Providence, Rhode Island. At the time we were living in East Providence, which runs along the east side of Narragansett Bay.
Q: Did you have many siblings?
A: I have a younger brother, Arthur and he is living in Saratoga Springs. He became an engineer.
Q: What was it like growing up?
A: We lived in the suburbs and it was in the late 40’s and early 50’s. My neighborhood had a fair number of children, roughly the same age, so we all hung out together.
We are talking about a period when it was not felt necessary for adults to organize children and get them to do things. We were on our own.
We fooled around with baseball and basketball; all the childhood games.
There was a brook that ran down through the neighborhood that was fairly natural, and we were always exploring around it or playing in it. We were always pretty creative.
Our family connections to Waterford have dated back to 1788, and this farmhouse has remained in my family since my great-great grandfather built it in 1850.
When I was a child, my grandparents lived here. We all so loved this farm that as soon as we got out of school, we came to Waterford and would not leave until the absolute latest time to go back.
It was like, our lives were split in two, but I loved my summers in Maine.
We did the normal childhood things in Maine like swimming, hiking and exploring. My grandfather was still farming this place so we would help on the farm.
Farm work was kind of a continuum for me. Each year, as I grew, I also grew into a new job. Being young there wasn’t too much to do, but we would do whatever the adults would let us do. It was always still useful work though; helping milk the cows, using the pitchfork, or when we got old enough, we would drive the tractor so my dad could do the heavy work. Whatever we were doing was of some value.
Q: What did your parents do?
A: He was a junior high school science teacher in East Providence and he managed the testing program for the school.
My mom had been a teacher before she was married, but when she had children, she was a stay-at-home mom. She did some private tutoring and eventually was hired as a special education teacher.
Q: Was there anything you wanted to be when you grew up?
A: No, not particularly. At least there was nothing career wise. If anything, there was a desire to be up here where I was relatively free to go in the woods and explore.
Q: Did you get into mischief or play pranks?
A: I was pretty well behaved. My parents were not terribly strict. We were permitted to make our own decisions within reason.
There were never pranks, and probably the most mischievous thing we did was catch garter snakes down by the brook. There were about six of us, and we filled a bushel basket with them. One time in the winter, we dislodged a large rock and found some snakes hibernating; all wound together about the size of a football.
Q: Where did you go to school?
A: I went to the local elementary school in Rhode Island, which was five blocks away, and everyone walked to school. It was first through fifth grade, and sixth through ninth was in the junior high school, which was maybe a half mile away. We took bikes to school and rode them home for lunch and back.
I graduated from East Providence High School in 1959 and got a BA degree from Brown University in 1963. Actually my brother went there as well.
Once I graduated from college, I attended graduate school in Bloomington, Indiana.
Q: Did you have any childhood jobs?
A: I worked here on the farm, but also got a dollar a day haying for a neighbor.
We got to keep our money and we would go to the movies or whatever, but my father made sure to set us up with bank accounts and to start saving.
Q: Where did you meet your spouse?
A: I met Catherine in graduate school. She had grown up in New Jersey and I believe we were in the same class and connected in that fashion. This was in the late 60s and we were married in 1970.
Q: Once married, where did you live?
A: Catherine had gotten a job teaching at one of the university extensions in Indiana. I got into teaching shortly after she did.
I taught for maybe three years and then we moved back to Newburyport, Massachusetts.
I loved off-highway fun like hiking and had a motorcycle, which coincided with the rapid growth in that activity, and I was hired in 1973 by the New England Trail Rider Association as the executive director. It was a non-profit organization and it was good all the way around because I was willing to work cheap. They rented office space in my house, and I worked for them until the early 80s.
Catherine continued teaching.
I had many various jobs. I spent some time with a local, direct marketing agency, and that developed into a connection that led to a computer software startup company with software designed to handle sales and marketing. I did computer contract work, and I worked in that until about 1999. It was a good time to be doing that in the Boston area. Computers were becoming more and more important, and they were constantly changing and needing upgrades. Sooner or later they all needed help as the companies either didn’t have enough people or enough skills, so they had to hire contract brokers.
Cathy ended up with a job as an assistant dean at Northern Essex Community College and at that point I had had enough of what I was doing.
I ended up working over a period of years for a small outfit that did charitable fundraising. One big client was UNICEF and we did all the record keeping for their direct mail.
Q: Did you visit Maine often?
A: There were times when we would come up, but not for long periods. Eventually it got too painful to leave here. We had a working life in Mass and the life you wish to lead that would only last two days.
We had a small house in Haverhill, and for several years I would actually come up by myself to live. I have just always been drawn to this farmhouse.
Catherine retired a few years ago and that’s when she settled here for good as well.
Q: Do you collect anything or have a hobby?
A: I collect too many things. And living in a farmhouse of generations past, I have gained all of their collections as well.
There are boxes of history in my attic, as it was always a place with plenty of room.
I spend much time organizing and preserving it all. Eventually the process reaches a point where it is appropriate to send materials to institutions. I also make copies or give original photos to local historical societies. In fact, last month I collected all of my father’s teaching materials and so forth and sent two boxes to the East Providence Historical Society. I also have another box filled with memorabilia from his WWII days as an Air Raid Warden.
I have been involved with music since college. I started with the guitar, but I also play the banjo, harmonica and the fiddle. Now it’s mainly playing the fiddle.
I got very interested in the southern Appalachian music and I got very involved in learning about the history of the music. The historical side becomes important; the music comes from the history of the people.
At one point I ran across the name of Mellie Dunham. I read a few articles about him, but never followed up on it until much later in life. In 2003 the Art Festival chose to feature Dunham and celebrate his 150 (th) birthday. I had more time at that point and took on the task of doing research and creating a biography on him. We set up a display at the Weary Club that included the governor’s proclamation on Mellie Dunham Day.
I also did a 20-minute performance impersonating him and telling his life stories between fiddling. He had a very interesting life. He was a champion fiddler in the 1920’s and was asked by Henry Ford to come and play for him. Dunham lived on Crockett’s Ridge and has since passed away.
I had spent much time over a period of years around the Celebration Barn and did a couple of workshops and got interested in comic performances and story monologues. I was a hopeless sucker for that kind of thing and I would do an in-person show on Artimus Ward.
Q: Do you have any children?
A: Yes, we have one son. His name is Stephen and he lives in Amesbury, Massachusetts. He is a financial adviser and sold his business, but works part time doing advising with a friend.
He is contemplating starting a small brewery. By chance, he and his friend entered a brew-off and had to brew a beer that would be like the beer brewed by the Pilgrims. They won and it will be aired on the History Channel sometime this month.
He is married and has no children.
Q: Anyone said you look like someone famous?
A: Well, yes. Mellie Dunham. Other people claim I look like someone; sometimes they are right and sometimes they are wrong.
Q: What is the last book you read?
A: I read a lot less than I used to. I usually have something going and it will pertain to local history. It may not be reading from cover to cover, but I keep a lot of reference books around that I dip into from time to time.
Q: If anyone could walk in right now, who would you most want to see?
A: Probably my grandfather. As you discover family history, there are times when you urgently need to have a conversation with someone from your past that can answer all the questions that you need answers to.