Is Truth Stranger Than Fiction? The Minudie Millionaire

Few people today will recognize the name of a once-famous American author, Horatio Alger (1832–1899). A century ago, Alger’s rags to riches novels topped best-seller lists and his name was known world-wide. Over time, his predictable plots about intelligent, hard-working boys who became millionaires, fell out of fashion. The subject of today’s Flashback, Amos King Seaman (1788–1864), is also a rags to riches story; but one with a difference. His life gives new meaning to the old saying that truth is stranger than fiction.

The Seaman family was part of the New England Planter migration to the Tantramar. Amos Seaman was born in Sackville Township on January 14, 1788, the son of Nathan Seaman and Zena Thomas. Little is known of his early life; however, it can be assumed that he did not have a very happy childhood. In 1796 Amos made his escape as a barefoot runaway boy, in an old birch bark canoe with a hole in the bow. The reason for his leave-taking is shrouded in mystery. However, we do know that some family contact was maintained, especially with his mother who had taught him to read and write. Later he was joined in business by at least one of his brothers.

Somehow, the young boy was able to paddle a canoe across the treacherous Cumberland Basin, landing at Minudie. Originally an Acadian settlement, the area was then part of the landholdings of J.F.W. DesBarres. Following the Expulsion, a few Acadians returned and it was one of these families, the local ferryman and his wife, who offered a home to the young stranger. Here he earned his living as a chore boy; developing along the way a keen respect for the Acadian people.

Further evidence of continuing family ties may be found in the fact that as a teenager Amos travelled to Boston. Here he lived with his maternal grandparents and obtained a solid basic education. Seamans independent spirit was matched only by his ambition and entrepreneurial drive. In hiking about Minudie he noticed sandstone deposits in the ledges along the coastline. Others before him had quarried such stone for local use, but it was Seaman who saw the potential for a new industry. By 1810, in partnership with his brother Job, he began selling grindstones in Boston. From this point onward Amos Seaman never looked back.

Soon he had acquired sufficient capital to import goods on return voyages from New England. A store and shipyard at Minudie followed shortly afterward. The latter enterprise greatly expanded his horizons and Seaman was able to tap into the lucrative triangular schooner trade between the West Indies, North America and Europe. On May 12, 1814 Amos Seaman married Jane Metcalf, the daughter of a Yorkshire immigrant to the area. By all accounts it was a happy marriage and they were to have a family of 11 children; seven sons and four daughters.

In common with other aspects of his career, Seaman quickly found his way socially and was totally at ease, whether in the drawing rooms of Boston and London, or on the wharf at Minudie. Of an outgoing personality, he numbered among his friends the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807–82). There is evidence that Longfellows famous poem Evangeline published in 1847 may have had some input from Seaman. Another literary figure, Thomas Chandler Haliburton (1796–1865) was a frequent visitor to the Seaman estate in Minudie. However, the pinnacle of his social success was reached through an audience with Queen Victoria at Buckingham Palace.

Meanwhile his social activities and occasional dabbling in poetry were never allowed to interfere with business. He formed the Atlantic Grindstone Company and by 1843 had 100 men employed in quarrying Minudie stone for the American market. In addition to grindstones, his firm produced fly wheels which provided momentum for many of the early New England textile factories.

Seaman erected the first steam powered grist mill in Nova Scotia and later added a steam sawmill to his vast operations. In dealing with his workers he developed a reputation as a just and fair employer. Something of a visionary, it was Seamans dream to establish a perfect or Utopian community at Minudie. Toward this objective, he built two churches for his employees (one Protestant, one Roman Catholic); and a school which today has been restored as the King Seaman Museum. His great wealth, accumulated in a trading network that eventually spanned the oceans of the world, also enabled him to maintain a second home, a townhouse on Bostons prestigious Beacon Hill.

However, he seems to have preferred his Minudie estate where he lived up to his self imposed nickname Amos King Seaman. As he recorded in his diary his second name Peck was too small and so he substituted King; a not inappropriate name for someone of his enterprise and wealth. Unfortunately, the Minudie homestead or Grindstone Castle as it was called, fell into disrepair following the Kings death on Sept. 14, 1864.

Following a visit to the ruins in the 1940s Will R. Bird described the melancholy scene: We sat by the front of the old house, its doors gaping wide to all weather, the great tiled hall swept by rain and wind, windows gone and visualized the splendor of those long gone days when a dozen thoroughbred horses would be tethered at the hitching rail, and more than twenty guests seated at the long mahogany dining table Gulls hovered low and gave plaintive calls and the wind was fretful.

What happened to the Seaman empire? Was there no successor within the ranks of his large family? Possibly in compensation for his own lack of formal education, Amos Seaman made certain that his children had the advantage of private tutors. Later they were sent to Kings College, Windsor, or to private schools in England. Unfortunately, three of his children predeceased their father, and on Seamans death, his remaining heirs became hopelessly embroiled in controversy and litigation. His will, described as fiendishly complicated was designed to be fair to all surviving children. Instead, it merely increased family tension. Without a clear heir apparent, the Kings business empire soon collapsed.

Unfortunately we do not have an authoritative biography of Amos King Seaman. His life has had to be sketched from a variety of fragmentary sources. Perhaps the best interpretation (appropriate for an aspiring poet) is a narrative poem by Dr. Peter E. Gunther, a one-time member of the Department of Economics at Mount Allison. Based on careful historical research, the work is noteworthy for the incorporation of four poems by the King himself.

Readers who may be interested in learning more about Seamans remarkable career are encouraged to take a drive to River Hebert and follow the highway to Minudie. There you will find the Schoolhouse Museum flanked by St. Denis Roman Catholic Church and the United Church, all dating from the nineteenth century.

On Aug. 20, 2000 the museum was officially designated by the government of Nova Scotia as a provincial heritage property. The same weekend also saw the Blessing of the Crops Festival and a special mass at St. Denis Church. This event may be traced to the old Acadian village of Minudie when parishioners gathered annually to give thanks for the harvest. A note of appreciation is extended to Roberta Morrison for suggesting todays topic.