My thanks to Robin Rice, of North Stonington, editor of the North Stonington Historical Society newsletter, for publishing in the October issue an account of the life of an indomitable, litigious and habitually arrested gnarly New England root named Lafayette “Lafe” Main who, by the time he ended his earthly provocations of local officials, municipal courts, state legislators and game wardens at age 79 in 1947, had acquired some 4,000 acres of mostly woodlands in North Stonington, Preston and Ledyard and the notoriety to be judged by an early 1900s genealogist: “One of the best known of all these families (branches of Babcock, Miner and Main) and … probably the largest landholder of any in the families.”
This was a man who plagued Connecticut legislators with endless proposals for bills, among which, according to his obituary published on June 6, 1947, on the front page of The Westerly Sun, would have required that “all people be honest” and would have prohibited the sounding of a motor vehicle horn on the highway.
Another would have provided penalties for lawyers who advised innocent persons to plead guilty. Still another, among 24 he proffered in 1937, would have forbidden throwing bottles out of planes, emanating from what he claimed was seeing a bottle drop from a plane over his property and killing one of his ducks, which he proceeded to dress and eat for supper.
Few of these proposed bills went anywhere, but Main did achieve one notable success in getting repealed a $7 fine for permitting wild carrots to go to seed.
These were the days of the Connecticut custom that required a legislator to introduce any bill that a constituent requested.
Born Nov. 25, 1867, in Ledyard, Main spent much of his life in North Stonington and built what was known as Starlight Farm on Swantown Hill, so called by neighbors because of the lights hung in the property’s apple orchard to keep deer away.
Local lore has it that he could be hard on anyone but was particularly a bane to his neighbors, so his acquiring so much land through the years likely afforded him the isolation he apparently deserved.
He told a reporter in an interview a few months before he died that he lived alone on Swantown Hill for 14 years and then married, in 1900, Julia Mather, also born in Ledyard, whom he described as “a poor girl.” (One genealogical source says the 1910 U.S. Census has Julia, at age 27, living in Central Falls, R.I., with one daughter, age 5, but without Lafayette and their two older daughters.) She died around 1940.
The old newspaper clipping reprinted in the NSHS newsletter has no identification, but perhaps was published by the Norwich Bulletin, since the interview took place at the home in Norwich of one of Main’s daughters, where Main had been bedridden with leg ailments. At the time, a few months before his death, he was still battling in court, this time against two estranged daughters over the appointment of a conservator of his estate, as well as the town of North Stonington.
(For the record, his age was given as 83 in the story, but if several genealogical accounts are correct about his birth — 1867 — then his age would have been 79. It must also be said that one genealogy had him dying in 1930.)
“He says that if he never went into N. Stonington,” the reporter wrote, “he would be worth more than a million today. The first time he was arrested was because he drove a horse on Sunday, in violation of one of the old blue laws, and was fined $45.
“Altogether, he has been arrested 56 times and he has fought his own cases.”
The headline for the story: “Old Lafe, arrested 56 times, says hometown is worst in the world.”
In a story published by the historical society years ago, Lucille Rutty, noting Lafayette was pronounced LAY-fayette, wrote about his frequent tangles with game wardens.
“Very frequently he and the game wardens disagreed,” she wrote, diplomatically. “He once boasted he had been arrested more than 40 times but ‘not once was I guilty. Just because I was adjudged guilty doesn’t make it so.’
“There were rumors that Mr. Main’s barn sometimes held hanging cuts of illegal venison,” the story continued. “Once a warden found him tramping along with a gun, beside fresh deer tracks. He said he was hunting dogs who were killing sheep and he was next to the tracks to make sure they were not sheep tracks.”
She concluded her remembrance: “When Mr. Main died there were rumors that he wished his ashes to be spread from a plane over the lofty hills of Swantown. My uncle Charles Hillard very unkindly remarked that he hoped that the wind was not blowing in our direction.”
The epitome of the crusty Yankee curmudgeon, seeking judgments and compensations from the town and townspeople for all manner of alleged affronts and transgressions, Lafe Main, at least in one anecdote, was not without wit.
This from Amelia North, and also published by the historical society. It tells of Main arguing at a town meeting in the 1930s to have his road at Swantown paved before other roads.
“To illustrate his point,” she wrote, “he told a story that went something like this: ‘The other day as I was driving down the road I spotted a hat in the mud. I got out and picked it up. Under that hat was a head! ‘Well, fella,’ I said, ‘you seem to be struck in the mud.’ ‘I would be,’ the head replied, ‘If it wasn’t for this load of hay under me.’
“That brought down the house. I don’t recall which road finally got the nod, but the road to Swantown is now paved, you’ll notice.”
Steven Slosberg lives in Stonington and was a longtime reporter and columnist. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.