Time for Coons

Lewiston 1896

Lewiston 1896

Lewiston Saturday Journal March 14, 1896


Maine’s Novel Coon-cat Industry That Brings Several Thousand Dollars a Year Into Belfast – How the Shaggy Cat Was Imported – The Romance of the Yellow Lothario – A Cat a Day Leaves Belfast By Express.

They’re modest ventures – the Belfast “catteries”- but they do business in their wares even when the loom gathers cobwebs or the sarsaparilla business needs a dose of its own prescription to drive away “that tired feeling”.

Business depression doesn’t pursue the “coon cat.”

No one is prepared to explain how it is that so many people in and around Belfast are dabbling in the cat business nor why nearly every citizen there has at various times been interested on one side or the other of a cat trade. It’s local, legitimate speculation and it excites no more curiosity in Belfast to have cat buyers come on periodical trips from Boston and New York than a visit of Bishop, the horsebuyer, would cause in Waterville.

For Belfast is the Maine cat-center.

It seems to be the natural garden of Eden for the felines with Paderewski hair. If any household in Belfast harbors a cat, it’s a coon-cat, be sure of that. The great, puffy fellows sit in every window and lick their paws and smooth their tousled locks; they sun themselves at sheltered backdoors and if the visitor hears a high-pitched, starry-night-for-a-ramble song beneath his chamber window he must be careful to throw something soft, for the singer is some long-haired pride of a Belfast family whose death would cause a municipal sensation.

Belfast people talk of cats with as much interest and copiousness of detail as jockeys in other places employ in describing horses. If you have looked on a cat merely as a domestic hanger-on, entitled to a saucer of milk twice-a-day and a general commission to watch the family mouse-holes, you will get new light on the cat subject in Belfast.


The Cat

in that city appears to occupy an enviable social position. The average, domestic Tom will survey admiring strangers with a haughtiness and dignity of demeanor that will make even a foreign diplomat feel that he lacks repose.

Yet beside the aristocracy of Belfast catdom, the family treasures, the old blue-blooded stock of felines, there’s a steady supply of cat emigrants from Belfast.

I do not think that I ever rode away from that city either by boat, stage or train that there were not from one to ten cat-passengers aboard. The local express agents informs me that at least a

Cat a Day

on the average leave the city, so the traveling public generally is always reminded that the Belfast catteries are in active operation. Some cats travel in boxes by express, exclusively if not comfortably. The commercial travelers are constant speculators in cat-flesh and have plenty of commissions to secure good specimens. It’s a dull day when one doesn’t hear a cat yowling disconsolately through the cover of a basket tucked under a car-seat:

“I am going far
away, far away
to leave you now.”
•      •      •

Local tradition has it that the reason why Belfast is the home of the coon-cat is because one of her sea-captains brought home some Persian cats once upon a time. These cats took kindly to the general surroundings of Belfast and though of the aristocratic lineage of the East, did not disdain to woo the plain, “straight” Tabby-cats that were then busily engaged in holding down the mouse supply of the city. The result was that the Persian cat, as a specimen, disappeared and all the bewildering variations of color, size, markings, disposition and general cat characteristics followed this blending of Persian and State of Maine feline blood.
Belfast tradition is probably correct for Mr. D.M. Bird of the Belfast Water Co. informs me that his father, Capt. H.G. Bird of Rockland, brought home half a dozen white Persian cats to Rockland many years ago and started the propagation of coon-cats in that city.Belfast3k

Mr. Bird is a cat-fancier as was his father before him and has had forty shaggy cats at a time. His stock is rather reduced just at present as he sold a dozen or so in a batch to a Portland speculator a few days ago. The cats have already been sent to the city markets.

Mr. Bird says that the Maine name,


may not be so entirely an appellation called out by the mere appearances of the animal as many suppose. He has seen shuggy cats that so closely resembled the raccoon that it was scarcely possible that the type could be a variation of the Persian species.

The probability is that the first shag-cats in Maine were crosses between the tame cat and the raccoon. Later came the Angora species but the earlier name has embraced all the long-haired varieties.

The first Persian cats to arrive in Belfast created quite a sensation in local cat-dom. The astonishment of the short-haired natives gradually changed to undisguised admiration. It is related that one slit-eared, yellow, Belfast cat with a generally out-at-the-elbows and disreputable air,

Sat On the Fence

of the sea-captain’s back-yard almost constantly for a month, and discordantly and at the risk of his life, wooed the most beautiful White Persian in the little band of foreigners who took their airing in the yard. The stranger felines appeared to be deeply impressed with the facility with which the yellow cat dodged missiles. His persistent and daring devotion won the battle, too, for the beautiful Angora eloped over the fence one day, in spite of the family’s vigilance.

The crossing of the strains of cat blood in the years since then has produced such multiform types that undoubtedly among all the hundreds of Belfast cats, one could not find two alike to-day. The producing of rare types isn’t regulated by any rule. Among a family of kittens, two may be shaggy, and three may be the most common-place of straight cats. The breeding of coon cat with coon-cat isn’t successful. The cross of coon and “straight” produced the best results so far as length of hair and size are concerned.

Most of the catteries in and around Belfast, that is to say, the farmers and others who raise a few dozen kittens each year, take the pussies as they run, figuring it a matter of luck if the proportion of coon-kittens runs large. The sale of them is chiefly a matter of speculation, depending on the anxiety of the customer and how the hair and markings strike the fancy. Therefore there are no fixed prices in the Belfast cat-mart.

Ten dollars is called a good price and five is fair. The fancy values are tacked on when the cat gets up to the city or when some family gets hold of the animal. For instance, there are cats in Belfast that couldn’t be bought for $50, simply because besides being “coons”, they are pets.


When Justice Harlan

of the United States supreme court was in Belfast a while ago he fell victim to the usual cat-fever that overcomes the visitors to that city of the apothesis of Puss – and bought a cat for which he paid ten dollars. He afterward wrote to Mr. J.D. Tucker, of whom he purchased the cat, described the animal’s state of health and general tone, and added that money couldn’t buy it.

•      •      •

The only cat who finds the Belfast atmosphere anything but cheerful is the cat that so closely resembles a skunk that she has been shot at three times on suspicion of being Mephitis Americana himself. She has driven innumerable pedestrians off the sidewalks o’nights, as, being a cat of an affectionate turn of mind and desiring to form acquaintances, she has chased home many a Belfast burgher, who has fled as from the plague.

Dr. Brooks’ Sambo probably deserves the name of the giant of Belfast coon cats. He was black and white, with an eye whose cold hauteur kept off hands that itched to pat his fluffy back. His weight was over 18 pounds. Sambo has now passed over the river into the cat paradise, but his life-size oil painting hangs in Dr. Brooks’s drawing-room.

The adornment of Belfast parlors with

Oil Paintings of Cat Favorites

is extremely popular in that city, and Artist Sanborn says that he has painted more than two hundred Belfast cats. His cat pictures are great successes, and if you are uncharitable enough to think that getting a life-sized cat on canvas in such a manner as to please the family that owned her, isn’t a feat worthy of Raphael, you ought to spend your term in Purgatory posing wiggly, snarly cats who want to go out and play instead of sitting for their pictures.
Of course the artist must work in the cat’s expression or the picture has no interest for the folks who order it. Mr. Sanborn has satisfactorily painted several hundred cat faces, no two alike – from kittenhood to the senility of felinity.
He says that it is rather aggravating work but that he likes it. Sometimes he has bothered hours before the cat would assume the proper pose; for a cat is as graceful as a graceful woman and deserves to have her characteristics studied as attentively if the picture is to be a success.

•      •      •

The Maine coon-cat pines outside her native state. She isn’t a hardy animal at best. Even when she gets only as far as Boston the air doesn’t seem to agree with her. In southern latitudes under her winter ulster she absolutely refuses to survive. Her nature is timid, she fears strangers and she doesn’t care to rove about out of doors much.
The fact that the Maine coon cat is short-lived in the city is of course tough on the hearts of the purchaser but it keeps the Belfast market in a healthy condition and visitors stream away, each with an apprehensive cat tucked under an arm.
Another circumstance besides a frail constitution conspires to make the coon-cat a poor insurance risk. She manicures herself with her tongue and absent-mindedly swallows little bunches of the long hair gleaned from her coat. Post-mortem examinations of deceased felines have shown that this

Appetite for Hair

is suicidal.
The Belfast cats require but little care during their kittenhood and preparation for market. A little milk and a little meat, judiciously varied with fresh fish from the bay keep them healthy and hearty.
The only drug in the cat’s medicine chest is cina for fits and worms and an occasionally wisp of catnip, an herb which peculiarly hits a cat “where she lives.”
She will roll on it, rub it between her padded feet, nibble it and have a regular catnip-spree whenever her portion is dealt out.
As I stated above, besides the cats carried away, the express agent’s books show that one cat on an average leaves Belfast each day during the year, journeying by herself in a box along with a frugal repast of mush and milk. Cats have been sent from Belfast as far as Denver, Minneapolis or New Orleans. In cases where the tour is so extended, plenty of food is stored in a second compartment of the cat’s box and the express agents along the way are instructed to issue rations. But even the hardiest, after a trip of that sort, can, at the best, have not more than eight lives left.
Belfast has, beside those who raise cats, at least half a dozen persons who make considerable money bringing them up in lots and sending them away. Searsport sends in many and all through Waldo county the “coon”is plenty. The ones sought after are the large and handsomely-marked males, and Belfast people have recognized in some of the proud prize Tabbies at the city cat shows, some of the kittens that were torn from their early homes beside Penobscot bay.


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