The man in the photo

Walter Welch Colby, born in Moose River, Maine, circa 1890.

By Todd R. Nelson

“We used to come from Moose River,” I’m fond of saying. “Were away for a few generations, and now we’re back.” Sort of. Maine ancestry is a point of pride and privilege. When my Holden, Colby and Churchill ancestors came to the Moose River Valley in the early 1700s, it took fortitude and grit to make a go of it. Of course, in many ways that hasn’t changed. Mainers do whatever it takes to make a go of it.

My great-grandfather, Walter Welch Colby, was born in Moose River in 1861. His father, Spencer, a blacksmith and son of Ambrose Colby, took the family west in a covered wagon following the Civil War. He had served in the Maine 14th regiment. With his wife, Josephine Churchill, and their six children, including a young Walter, they settled for a number of years in Grand Rapids, Mich., and had more children, some of whom later married into local families. Then in 1870 they pushed on to Nebraska, with an older brother, Philander Colby. They were looking for better farm land to make a go of it during the land rush era. Spencer and Josephine had a total of 13 children, which would give me a lot of extant cousins across the country.

They wrote letters from Michigan back to the folks in Moose River in 1869. “I am making maple sugar this spring,” Spencer wrote. “We live four miles from Philander’s. His family is all well and he is making sugar. I have two acres of winter wheat sown and intend to plant four or five acres of corn and a few potatoes. This is a good country for wheat, corn and grass and stock raising and a great place to raise fruit such as apples, peaches, pears, plums and some cherries and most anything you may want to raise.”

Spencer also advised his brother, Helon, to come west. “It will not cost you more than $100 to come out west and look around for a month or so and I think you would conclude not to buy at Moose River. I am rather poor but you could not get me to go back there. I do not say that Michigan is the best place in the world, but you can go into any of the new Western states.”

And that’s exactly what he and Philander did.

They went to Marquette, Neb., had more children, who married other farm families in the area. Spencer revisited Maine in 1913, the year before he died. (Josephine predeceased him by seven years.) He finally lived with Walter’s family and my grandmother would have known him for several years in her childhood. Spencer’s memorial service in 1914 was summarized in the local paper. “The funeral services were attended by the few remaining members of Putnam Post, G. A. R., of which the deceased was a member, who assembled at the hall and marched as an escort in a body. Mr. Colby had been so long identified with the history of Marquette that he had become one of its oldest, remaining citizens, and out of respect the business houses closed during the service.” He’s buried in Richland Cemetery outside of town.

It’s been a long way back. In my generation, we’ve lived in five states and both coasts. This too is an American story, not moving for better dirt and pasture but for professional opportunity. Perhaps they’re the same thing. But in the arc of the greater Colby-Nelson family, we are clearly people who will move. There’s a pioneer strain, and a modicum of settler. And a newfound sense of place in the greater story.

Our family photographic record truly begins with this photo of Walter taken in Nebraska. It’s the earliest photo we own, from any side of the clan. Another Nebraska photo, taken a few years later, shows my grandmother, June Marie Colby, who I knew well, standing with her parents and sister Josephine in their backyard in Marquette. It is circa 1920. Walter’s wife, Minnie Melvina Cudney, came from Iowa.

In another photo, June has a pony. In the 1910 census, Walter is listed as a laborer; Minnie as a nurse. He always has the same gaze, young or old: direct; a stare. He died in 1931, living with my grandmother June in Tonawanda, N.Y., and is buried in the family plot in Marquette, far from the cemetery with his Holden, Colby, and Churchill kin in Moose River. June is married by then, and my father is 1 year old.

I often contemplate Walter’s journey and what he must have seen in his lifetime: from Moose River to Michigan to the land rush frontier and back to industrial Buffalo and a final seven years working at Remington. It’s almost too much to conceive of, in the heady westward expansion of an American century, until you consider the present pace of change, and the photos we’re now sharing with the future.

Todd R. Nelson is a retired English teacher and school principal. He lives in Penobscot.

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