The Saba Islander

by Will Johnson

The Portland Sail Maker

By: Will Johnson

   The following story is taken from a newspaper in Portland Maine from the year 1952. It is followed with a short history of Thomas Hassell the sail maker and his family who were originally from the village of St. John’s on Saba.

    “Her father, Capt. Edward H. Crocker, who then lived on Waterville Street, was Master of the “Randall”, largest schooner of her time. The “John F. Randall” had been built in Bath Maine in 1891. The schooner had a length of 228.9 feet and a gross tonnage of 1.643.5 tons. She foundered off Fire Island on February 3rd, 1902. Captain Crocker’s son Harley was also on board along with ten other crewmen from Portland and Machiasport. Harley had only two more trips to qualify for an engineer’s license. He was in charge of the schooner’s power plant used in hoisting sail, anchor etc. They were last seen the night of February 1st, 1902 off Fire Island, New York, en route from Norfolk Virginia to Portland with a cargo of hard coal for Randall & McAllister. No trace of crew or ship was ever found. And among the last to see them was Thomas Hassell, 82, of Fallbrook Street, who still recollects the episode with anguish. He was Mate on the schooner “Alice E. Clark” of the Winslow Fleet. The “Alice E. Clark”, also a four master schooner, had been built in 1898 in Bath Maine by Percy & Small. Gross Tonnage was 1.621 and a length of 227.4 feet. She was lost on July 1st, 1909 off Coombs Point, Isleboro, Maine. The vessels had left Virginia together. Mr. Hassells craft was behind. He was on watch at the time. Occasionally, he could catch a glimpse of the lights of the Randall. But gradually the lights “just faded out.” “That storm,” he declared ‘It was terrible.”

 Could it be that Sabans were frustrated with life on our little island? So many of them took to the sea that one is reminded of a passage from Herman Melville’s book “Moby Dick” quoted after this.

   “Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, it requires a strong moral principal to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off – then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball. With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ship.”

I recently received a letter from Thomas Hassells grandson Mr. Clifford James Hassell, who lives in Michigan.

He wrote: “Dear Sir.” Could you put me in touch with someone who might help me find out more of my family history? My grandfather Thomas Hassell was born to John and Mary Hassell in 1874. They had at least two other children, John and William. My grandmother was Alantina Kelly. I think that she must have been born on the island also. I think she had a brother Moses. I am not sure of that. All that I ever heard him referred to is “Uncle Modie”. My uncle, son of Thomas and Alantina, Thomas McDol Hassell was also born on Saba. The family left for Portland, Maine USA around 1900. Grandfather left the sea and became a very successful sail and awning maker in Portland. They had four more children, Frank, Leslie, James and Alice. James was my father. My mother and father were on Saba on vacation in the nineteen sixties. I wish they had done more research on the family beginnings. I don’t have any picture of my grandfather and I only have one of my grandmothers. My Uncle Tom had some but they were destroyed in a fire.”

   The information I found for him was that on April 17th, 1895 were married Thomas Hassell (24) and

Allantine Kelly (19). His parents were; Thomas Simmons Hassell and Elizabeth William Simmons, both of whom were already deceased at the time of the marriage of their son. The parents of the bride were John Thomas Kelly (deceased) and Robertina Simmons. The young couple had a son Thomas Macdol Hassell born September 9th, 1895. They had been working a little ahead of schedule if my count is correct for a nine month baby. John Thomas Kelly and Robertina Simmons had other children. A daughter, Rosilla Kelly (22), who on December 21st, 1892 married Amadis Lubencio Barnes (28), and Mozes Kelly born May 1st 1879, and also a son Richard Thomas Kelly born January 7th, 1877. Robertina Simmons died January 28th, 1938 on Saba aged 89. Her parents were Richard Simmons and Ann Rebecca Beaks. Thomas Simmons Hassell and Elizabeth William Simmons also had another son Benajamin Hassell (21) who on March 28th, 1906 married to Rebecca Johnson (21) born on January 8th, 1886. Her mother only is listed and her name was Robertina Johnson.

I regularly get requests for this sort of research and it is interesting to discover who is related to whom and where our Saban people ended up in the world.

Thomas Hassell sailed for the Winslow Lines until he came ashore and worked for Leavitt and Paris Company as a sail maker. When he was refused a raise in pay he left and with credit from the Singer Sewing Machine Company he started his own sail making and awning company.

The Winslow Company had a fleet of 34 schooners, 12 of the Palmer fleet none of which were less than 1200 tons. Winslow already had 22 schooners including 5 six master schooners, several five master and a number of 3 masters. A number of other Sabans sailed for this company. In one of the photo’s accompanying this article the schooner to the right in Thomas Hassells sail loft is the “ALICE E. CLARK” of the Winslow Line on which Thomas sailed before string his sail making business. His sons Thomas McDol Hassell and Frank Oliver Hassell went into business with him and formed Thomas Hassell and Sons at 39 Portland Pier, Portland , Maine. Thomas Hassell never learned to read or write much more than his own name but with the help of the boys ran a very successful business. Common sense and hard work were the reasons behind his success. In 1942 the boys left and went to work for the South Portland Shipbuilding Company building Liberty ships for the war effort. Thomas Hassell decided to retire at that time. His son Leslie Clark Hassell contracted infantile paralysis as a child and was handicapped the rest of his life. That did not stop him from becoming a successful jeweler and watchmaker. He owned his own store. He also had the first car in Maine equipped with hand controls. It was a 1936 Packard with standard shift. He was born in Portland in 1904 and died in 1970. James Clifford Hassell (born Portland 1915 died 1980) was a grocer, married and had two children Clifford James and William John. After the shipyard closed Thomas McDol (born Saba 1895 died Portland 1972) and Frank, went to work in the printing business. Thomas McDol was a compositor and Frank was a bindery man. They also made and installed awnings as a part-time business. Thomas McDol, Frank, and Leslie married but had no children. Their sister Alice married Albert Hanson whose parents came from Norway. They had one child, Ronald Leroy Hanson.

When Thomas Hassell died in 1953 the Portland Press Herald carried the following obituary.

“Thomas Hassell, 79, widely known along the local waterfront, died yesterday afternoon at his residence, 48 Fallbrook Street, after a short illness. Hassell was a sail maker here from the start of World War 1 until 1928, when he opened his own sail making business. He retired in 1942. He was born at Saba, Dutch West Indies, January 20th, 1874, son of John Robert and Mary Hassell and was educated in schools there. He came to this country as a small boy and as a young man worked with the J.S.Winslow schooner fleet. He was a member of the English Church of the Dutch West Indies. Surviving are four sons. Thomas M, Leslie C. and James C. all of this city and Frank O. Hassell of North Windham; a daughter Mrs. Alice C. Hanson, of this city; a sister, Mrs. Constance Robinson of Hamilton Bermuda; three grandchildren, Ronald Hanson, and Clifford and William Hassell, and several nieces and nephews. Funeral services will be at 2pm Friday at 749 Congress Street with interment in Forest City Cemetery. The Reverend Edward Nelson will officiate.”

  There are a couple of mistakes in the death announcement as he was born in 1871 and was 82 when he died. Also he did not go to the United States as a little boy. He was already married with a son. But those are minor details. Point is that as his grandson wrote to me is that even though he could not read and write that he became a successful businessman after doing his time at sea as so many Sabans did at the time.

    “Great are the folk of the land; Greater still are the folk of the sea.”


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