Prolific author Gilbert Patten, used pen name Burt L. Standish
Growing up in Camden, we all knew Edna St. Vincent Millay spent her childhood here and graduated from Camden High School in 1909.
But there was another famous person who summered in Camden and not much is written about him today.
One of the most prolific authors, Gilbert Patten, was born in a small town called Corinna, Maine, "where neighbors still know neighbors and the welcome mat is out for strangers." The town’s location has been described as east by Exeter, north by Dexter, south by Newport and west by St. Albans. The hub, when I visited it a couple of weeks ago, appeared to be a beautiful building built in 1897-98 and known as Stewart Library. It also housed town offices. The unique and impressive building is located within an intersection and had been donated by the wealthy Honorable Levi Stewart.
In riding up the hill a short distance from that building, about three houses above was a white Cape Cod-style home with dormers and an ell. It was there that William C. and Cordelia Simpson Patten lived when their famous son, George William Patten, was born on Oct. 25, 1865. His parents were about 40 years of age at the time.
His mother called him “Willie.” He disliked his name but really hated his nickname. In addition to that, Cordelia wanted him to be a preacher (like her father), and William C. thought he would make a living with his strong hands (like his farmer father). But “Willie” was a daydreamer, who preferred to be called Gilbert. By the time he was 15 years of age, he was already 6-feet tall and weighed only 115 pounds. He was a little rebellious, but was not allowed to fight. How could he grow without fighting other boys, and not be considered a sissy?
He retreated to reading “sinful” books, those dreadful dime novels, and prayed not to be caught by his parents. He attended Corinna Union Academy. “Willie” was caught smoking three-for-a-nickel cigarettes and occasionally got into the hard cider. He would not study and was reprimanded by his parents, so he left home for about six months. When he returned, he told his parents that he was going to be an author. His father gave him 30 days to do so. In a few days he had written two short stories and had received $6 for them, and a note from the editor saying that he had talent.
He returned to Corinna Academy and wrote a long story for $50, then another for $75 and a third for $100. Gilbert had proven that he was an author.
At age 20, he fell in love and married Alice Gardner, who lived not too far from his home. At this time, he could turn out anywhere from 4,000 to 8,000 words in a day, and Alice was there to correct his spelling and any grammatical errors.
By 1888, he started a newspaper, The Corinna Owl, but it lasted only a year. He traveled to Omaha, Neb., so he could write western stories and returned within a couple of days. He then moved to Camden and managed a professional baseball team, an experience that later proved very valuable in writing his dime novels. He was placed in the Maine Baseball Hall of Fame in 1892.
In those novels, his main character was Frank Merriwell, named for the three qualities he wanted in that fictitious person – frank, merry in nature and well in mind and body. His pen name (at that time, it was thought that every author should have one) was Burt L. Standish. Burt L. was from the name Gilbert, and Standish was for Miles Standish.
In 1892, he and Alice were the proud parents of a son, Barr. Traveling to New York and such places were essential for his writing, but Alice didn’t really enjoy cities, and she wanted her son to be brought up in a country environment. In 1884-1896, they seemed to be always leaving for Boston or New York, and spending the winter in Ferdinanda, Fla. Many times he had to travel and be gone from home for weeks at a time.
Gilbert had purchased a small home in Camden for his aging parents and he, Alice and Barr spent summers here on the corner of Limerock and Bay View streets. They named it “Cornercut.” Camden had a population of about 3,000, which was double that of Corinna. He was making money, so they were able to have a maid and Gilbert owned one of the first automobiles in Camden. It was a 1906 Buick touring car. Once they came in from Boston in May, and because of the muddy roads they had to leave the car in Portland for a short spell. He became the Buick dealer in Knox County.
In 1908, he built a larger and very attractive home, still standing today on the corner of Limerock and Bay View streets. The smaller home was moved. But, his mother, Cordelia, died on May 22, at age 82, before the new home was finished. On July 10 of the same year, his father died at age 84. Both his parents’ remains were taken from Camden to Corinna.
Alice wanted to settle down and finally refused to go to New York with him. He gave her an ultimatum, as he was going anyway. He returned to Camden to find that his wife had left for Corinna with their son. There was a note that he could contact her lawyer and that she wanted only support for their child. He was broken-hearted but wanted to continue his fast-moving career.
In his writing, he hadn’t looked ahead far enough for his character, Frank Merriwell, to grow up and graduate from college, thus ending him as the all-American boy. He finally had to come up with a half-brother to Frank, named Dick Merriwell, in order to continue the series.
In the city, he met a woman without any skills or job and convinced her to return home. Soon she was back and he decided to marry Mary. At that time, his imagination was so great that he could pace the floor and dictate a whole book in one day. He hired a local lawyer (who hadn’t built up his practice) to take the dictation and write it. Gilbert found himself driven to work night and day until exhausted.
Movies began to edge out the “dime novel”, so in 1913 he sold film rights to the “Riddle and The Ring”. He received $500, and it was the first and only time his name appeared on Broadway.
Meanwhile, Mary was doing a lot of traveling with her friend Jane. He was not happy about it. But he said for her to go ahead and he would step around with some Broadway “chicks.” He told her not to hurry back. While she was away, he took dancing lessons and upon her return took her out dancing. Where did he learn to dance like that? He told her that he had met two charming ladies while she was away, so she stayed home after that. Mary was not popular in Camden, his summer home, so they went back into their apartment in New York. She spent more time with Jane, and he decided it was time for a divorce, which he did, and then he moved to Greenwich Village.
He met and married Carol, and they had 20 happy years together until she died in 1938. He then lost interest in life, and his finances were not very healthy. He suffered two nervous break downs and died at the home of his son, Havan Barr Patten in 1945. Barr died six years later.
Gilbert Patten was the last and perhaps the greatest figure in the history of dime novels, with the Frank and Dick Merriwell series. The first were titled “Frank Merriwell’s School Days,” followed by Frank Meriwell’s "Chums,” ”Foes,” “Trip West,” “Down South,” ”Bravery,” “Hunting Tour,” ”In Europe,” “At Yale,” “Sports Afield,” “Races,” “Party,” “Bicycle Tour,” “Courage,” ”Daring,” “Alarm,” “Athletes,” “Skill,” “Champions,” “Return to Yale,” “Secret,” “Danger,” “Loyalty” and many, many more.
From his first book in 1896 until 1964, 500 million copies were sold. Many people in Camden enjoyed the company of Gilbert Patten, while he lived here, and the famous author enjoyed Camden and its people.
Barbara Dyer is Camden's official town historian.