Up and down the Kennebec Valley: Agriculture – Part 2

The Hubbard Free Library in Hallowell, built in 1800.

by Mary Grow

The Vaughans

Last week’s essay was about early farming in the central Kennebec Valley, as reported in local histories, with emphasis on Samuel Boardman’s chapter on agriculture in Henry Kingsbury’s Kennebec County history. This week’s work describes one important farming family and detours to talk about Boardman and another historian who contributed to Kingsbury’s opus.

Boardman wrote that as more people moved into the area and economies diversified, many farms became specialized. Farmers found resources and time to develop specific kinds of crops and of farm animals.

Preparing the truck crops in the 19th century.

By 1892, when the Kennebec County history was published, Boardman could write about orchardists, dairymen, hay farmers and those who “breed a particular kind of cattle, or fine colts of a fashionable family.” Others specialized in raising what he called “truck crops” to sell to urbanites.

“The orchard farmer lets another make his butter, and the dairyman purchases his apples and often his hay of his neighbor,” Boardman wrote.

Specialization was profitable. Boardman wrote that a farmer in 1892 could earn more cash for “a few acres of early potatoes” sold in town on July 1 than from “the marketed crops of his entire farm” two decades earlier.

The first two names on Boardman’s list of leaders among the men “to whom the agriculture of Kennebec county owes so much for its early improvement” are Benjamin Vaughan (Apr. 19, 1751 – Dec 8, 1835) and his brother Charles Vaughan (June 30, 1759 – May 15, 1839), of Hallowell. (The Vaughn brothers were featured, with their brother-in-law John Merrick, as patrons of music in the Aug. 31 issue of The Town Line.)

Boardman wrote that the brothers’ inherited land in Hallowell ran for a mile along the Kennebec and extended west five miles to Cobbosseecontee Lake.

He continued: “They had extensive gardens, established nurseries, planted orchards, imported stock, seeds, plants, cuttings and implements from England, and carried on model farming on a large scale.” (Some of the imported stock was “selected by a skillful English farmer from the herds of England,” James W. North added in his Augusta history.)

They built “miles” of walls on the farms, and built public roads. They sold trees and plants they raised (sometimes as much as $1,000 worth a year); “they also freely gave to all who were unable to buy.” They shared information and their “stock, plants and seeds” with farmers in other towns.

The potato harvest in 1888.

The Vaughans raised “apples, pears, peaches, cherries, and many kinds of nut-bearing trees.” They brought a mechanic from England to set up “the largest and most perfect cider mill and press in New England.”

Charles was more the hands-on manager, Boardman and North agreed, while Benjamin pursued “studies and investigations” (Boardman). Charles’ responsibilities included making sure each “breed of stock or variety of fruit, vegetable or seed” was “carefully tested and found to be valuable and well adjusted to this country” before it was shared. The farms provided year-round employment for “a large number of workmen.”

Benjamin, Boardman wrote, was active in the Massachusetts Society for Promoting Agriculture, founded in 1792. Many of his articles were published in the society’s reports, usually signed “A Kennebec Farmer.”

North included background information on Charles Vaughan, writing that he was heavily involved in business development in Hallowell and farther south on the Kennebec in the 1790s. By 1802, he was bankrupt, whereupon he devoted his attention to the family farmland “with his wanted vigor and activity.”

Here are North’s summaries:

Benjamin Vaughan “was benevolent and kind; and was greatly beloved and respected by all classes of citizens for his great usefulness, exalted worth and many virtues.”

Of Charles Vaughan, North wrote: “It was his greatest pleasure to do good, and never was he more happy than when he conferred happiness upon others.”

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While this series of articles has detoured south to Hallowell, from which Augusta separated in 1797, it seems appropriate to mention one more contribution the Vaughan family made to that town (now a city).

According to the chapter on Hallowell by Dr. William B. Lapham, in Kingsbury’s history, the first library in Hallowell was organized Feb. 5, 1842, with a total of 519 volumes. In 1859, the library received donations from John Merrick’s heirs and from George Merrick’s library (George was one of John and Rebecca [Vaughan] Merrick’s sons).

About the same time, Lapham wrote, Charles Vaughan (the first Hallowell Charles Vaughan named his second son Charles) gave the library “a brick store.” The tenants’ rent was to be spent to buy books, and when the store was sold, the money was to be used to create a permanent fund to support the library.

Lapham continued the story after the Merrick/Vaughan involvement: a new granite library building was dedicated March 9, 1880, and by 1892 the collection was almost 6,000 volumes, “many of them rare and valuable.”

Hallowell’s library is now the Hubbard Free Library. Its website calls the 1880 building “the oldest library building in Maine built for that purpose,” and says architect Alexander C. Currier designed it “to resemble an English country church.” The building has been on the National Register of Historic Places since Oct. 28, 1970.

Vaughan Woods in Hallowell

Vaughan Woods and Historic Homestead, in the southern part of Hallowell, preserves the Vaughan family house and some of the family land. Bounded on the north by Litchfield Road and the south by Maple Street, the property combines a house/museum, listed on the National Register of Historic Places since Oct. 6, 1970, and a nature preserve protected by the Kennebec Land Trust.

The main part of the large two-story white house, with its generous windows and broad, tall brick chimneys, dates from 1794, when, Wikipedia says, Charles Vaughan built it as a summer home. In 1797, Benjamin Vaughan made it year-round.

By the late 1800s, the article continues, much of the Vaughan property had been sold off and cleared. In 1890, William and Benjamin Vaughan started buying back and reforesting the land. The present area is almost 200 acres, with Vaughan Brook (also called Bombahook Brook) winding through them from Cascade Pond to the Kennebec.

Information on programs and public access is on line.

Contributors to Kingsbury’s history

More than a dozen of the 47 chapters in Henry Kingsbury’s Kennebec County history were written by people other than Kingsbury. The authors include Samuel L. Boardman, who wrote the chapter on agriculture, and Dr. William Berry Lapham, who wrote the history of Hallowell.

Boardman had apparently published his own Kennebec County history years earlier and had been involved with at least two local agricultural newspapers.

In the chapter on the newspaper press in Kingsbury (written by Howard Owen), Boardman is named as agricultural editor of The Maine Farmer, founded in January 1833, for 10 years, from March 1869 to March 1879. Owen added that as of 1892, Boardman was “now employed on the editorial force of the Kennebec Journal.

In Rev. Edwin Carey Whittemore’s history of Waterville, S. L. Boardman is mentioned twice: as the author, in 1867, of a history of Kennebec County; and 20 years later as editor of an agricultural newspaper called The Eastern Farmer.

Henry C. Prince, author of Whittemore’s chapter on the Waterville press, wrote that The Eastern Farmer began life in Augusta and in 1887 moved to Waterville under the auspices of Charles O. and Daniel F. Wing, of Waterville, and Hall Burleigh, of Vassalboro. “The paper lost money steadily,” Prince wrote, and after 30 issues the owners sold its subscription list in April 1888 to The Lewiston Journal.

The on-line text of The Maine Genealogist and Biographer lists Boardman as a member of the standing committee of the Maine Genealogical and Biographical Society in 1875 and 1876.

Lapham (Aug. 27, 1828 – Feb. 22, 1894), who authored Kingsbury’s chapter on Hallowell, is described in an article provided by the Bethel Historical Society to the on-line Maine Memory Network as “[o]ne of Maine’s most prolific 19th century historians.”

Main sources

Kingsbury, Henry D., ed. Illustrated History of Kennebec County Maine 1625-1892 (1892).
North, James W., The History of Augusta (1870).

Websites, miscellaneous.

Up and down the Kennebec Valley: Music in the Kennebec Valley – Part 5

by Mary Grow

Two musical Hallowell families

In the course of reading about the history of music in the central Kennebec Valley, specifically George Thornton Edwards’ 1928 Music and Musicians of Maine, your writer came across two intertwined musical families who lived in Hallowell, before and after Augusta became a separate town in 1897.

Both were from England. Edwards, James W. North (in his 1870 Augusta history) and Henry Kingsbury (in his 1892 Kennebec County history) paid attention to:

  • Benjamin Vaughan, M.D., LL.D. (April 19, 1751 – Dec. 8, 1835), son of Samuel and Sarah (Hallowell) Vaughan;
  • His younger brother, Charles Vaughan (June 30, 1759 – May 15, 1839); and
  • John Merrick (April 27, 1766 – Oct. 22, 1861; or 1862), husband of Benjamin and Charles’ sister Rebecca (1766 – July 1851).

Benjamin Vaughan

Benjamin Vaughan was born in Jamaica, educated in Britain (including Trinity Hall, one of the Cambridge colleges, from which he did not graduate) and earned his medical degree at the University of Edinburgh.

He was interested in science and politics, a combination, Wikipedia says, led to his friendship with Benjamin Franklin. He and his wife, Sarah (Manning) Vaughan (April 29, 1754 – 1834), whom he married in 1781, also knew other leading families in the new United States, including the Washingtons, Adamses and Jays.

Vaughan was a participant in the negotiations to end the American Revolution. In 1786, he was elected a member of the Philadelphia-based American Philosophical Society.

In 1792 Vaughan was elected a member of the British Parliament. But his politics were out of step – he had supported both the American Revolution and the 1789 French Revolution – and he left Britain for France in 1794. He moved on to Switzerland; in 1795 (probably; other sources say 1796 or 1797) to Boston; and a year or two later to the family property in Hallowell – Hallowell because the Vaughan brothers inherited land there from their mother’s family.

Here, according to the on-line Maine An Encyclopedia, Vaughan practiced medicine for the first time, serving the poor and “usually supplying medicines as well as advice without charge.” He helped manage the family land and advised other landowners.

Maine An Encyclopedia says that in Hallowell, “he built houses, mills, stores, a distillery, a brewery, and a printing-office, and established a seaport at Jones’s Eddy, near the mouth of the Kennebec.”

He brought with him a library, the same source says, almost as big as Harvard’s (2,000 books smaller, an on-line source says), and spent much time researching and writing articles on politics and science. Harvard gave him an honorary LL.D in 1807, Bowdoin in 1812.

In addition to Benjamin Vaughan’s many business activities, an on-line source says in 1820, the Maine legislature asked him to design a seal for the new state. He recommended the farmer and the mariner, symbols of work; the moose, for nature; the pine tree, for timber resources; and the north star overhead.

Charles Vaughan came to the family property in Hallowell a few years earlier than Benjamin, according to Edwards and others (but Kingsbury said a few years after Benjamin, whose arrival he put in 1796). One on-line source dates Charles’ arrival 1790, another “around 1791.” Sources call him a merchant instrumental in Hallowell’s economic development.

Benjamin and Sarah Vaughan had at least seven children. Charles and his wife, Frances Western Apworth or Apthorp (1766 – 1818, or Aug. 10, 1836, or May 15, 1839), had three or four children.

John Merrick (who often has “Esquire” after his name) was born in London; Edwards said he was “of Welsh origin.” North said he studied for the ministry, but did not pursue it. At some point he “became a tutor” in Benjamin Vaughan’s family, and when the Vaughans moved to America in the 1790s, he came with them.

In 1797, North wrote, he went back to London, where in April 1798 he married Rebecca Vaughan, bringing her to Hallowell in May. North listed six Merrick children.

North, who had known Merrick at least casually, and Edwards both speak highly of him as a man and a civic leader. North wrote that Merrick “was a gentleman of thorough education, refined tastes, high intellectual and social culture, benevolent, public spirited, kind, courteous, and gentle…just in all his dealings, of excellent judgment and practical good sense, a good citizen highly esteemed and beloved by his neighbors and friends….”

Describing Merrick in his 90s, showing a companion where a recent Kennebec River flood had cut around the Augusta dam, North wrote: “His form…was erect, his step elastic, and his flowing long locks of a snowy whiteness resting upon his shoulders gave him an imposing and venerable appearance.”

Edwards added that Merrick was well-informed about “astronomy, navigation, mathematics, and surveying.”

Among Merrick’s civic roles the two authors listed were trustee of Hallowell Academy (from 1802) and board president in 1829; member of Bowdoin College’s Board of Overseers (1805); Hallowell first selectman “for many years” (North) and overseer of the poor for 10 years; and cashier of the second Hallowell and Augusta Bank from 1812 until it failed in 1821.

In 1810, North wrote, Massachusetts Governor Christopher Gore appointed Merrick a member of an expedition charged with exploring a possible road from the Kennebec to Québec. During the six-week expedition, “he camped out twenty-one nights, seventeen of which it rained.”

Edwards devoted considerable attention to the musical side of the Vaughan and Merrick families. He summarized: “The Vaughans, the acknowledged leaders of all social events in Hallowell, were liberal patrons of the arts, and they and the Merricks were responsible in no small degree for the prestige which Hallowell was destined for nearly a century to enjoy as a musical center, and for the musical advancement of the towns along the Kennebec River.”

Music was important in both families, Edwards continued. Both sets of parents provided for their children the best available “instructors in piano, violin and flute.”

Merrick was one of the tutors in the Benjamin Vaughan family; their French teacher was a violinist. Charles and Frances Vaughan’s son, Charles, born in 1804, became a flutist and cellist; their daughter, Harriet, was a pianist and singer.

(Benjamin and Sarah Vaughan also had a daughter they named Harriet, the first-born of their seven children. Born in 1782, she died in 1798.)

Charles and Frances Vaughan’s daughter Harriet, born April 15, 1802, married children’s book author Jacob Abbott (Nov. 14, 1803 – Oct. 31, 1879) on May 18, 1829. Harriet Vaughan Abbott died Sept. 12, 1843.

Jacob and Harriet had several children. Another on-line source provides a brief biography of their oldest son, one of Charles Vaughan’s grandsons. He was Benjamin Vaughan Abbott, born in Boston June 4, 1830, a Harvard Law School graduate (1852). He is recognized primarily for his many collections and digests of court rulings and other legal records, work with which his brother, Austin Abbott, helped.

Merrick, in addition to tutoring Vaughan children, was a talented musician and leader. Edwards wrote that his musical taste was “exquisite.” He was known as a cellist, singer (Edwards quoted a description of his voice as “a very sweet and highly cultivated tenor”) and music critic. Linda Davenport, in her Divine Song on the Northeast Frontier, included a quotation saying Merrick “could play on any instrument.”

Locally, he led outstanding choirs at Hallowell’s Old South Church (called the best in New England in his time) and the Gardiner church, Edwards said. He also sang in the old South Church choir, as did Jacob Abbott.

When the Handel Society of Maine was formed in Portland in February 1814, Merrick was its first president. Edwards described the group as an ambitious state-wide effort that probably lasted only a few years, holding twice-yearly meetings at Bowdoin College. Its short life he attributed to the many other demands on members’ time, their limited resources and the difficulty of travel in Maine in the early 1800s.

Handel Society of Maine program from 1883.

Edwards listed one more of Merrick’s musical accomplishments: he wrote that when Samuel Tenney published The Hallowell Collection of Sacred Music in 1817 (second edition 1824), Merrick and (future) Chief Justice Prentiss Mellen, from Biddeford, “two of the ablest men in the state,” assisted.

Davenport analyzed the history of The Hallowell Collection in more detail, pointing out that although it is attributed to Samuel Tenney, he is not named “on the title page, in the notice about the copyright deposit, or in the introductory advertisement.”

Merrick and Mellen did endorse the collection, Davenport said, in their capacities as president and vice-president of the Handel Society. She disagreed with the suggestion that the Society published the book.

In Davenport’s opinion, “A more likely possibility is that Merrick and possibly Mellen may have served as musical advisors to the book’s publisher, Ezekiel Goodale, a Hallowell printer who was not known to have been musical.”

Merrick, because of his education and his experience leading choirs, she believed probably guided the choice of mostly-European music and wrote the “theoretical introduction, portions of which are more detailed and erudite” than in other contemporary collections.

Mellen could have contributed from Biddeford. Tenney might have helped, Davenport wrote, and almost certainly used the book when he opened his singing school for sacred music late in 1817.

Main sources

Davenport, Linda, Divine Song on the Northeast Frontier Maine’s Sacred Tunebooks, 1800-1830 (1996).
Edwards, George Thornton, Music and Musicians of Maine (1928).
Kingsbury, Henry D., ed., Illustrated History of Kennebec County Maine 1625-1892 (1892).
North, James W., The History of Augusta (1870).

Up and down the Kennebec Valley: Music in the central Kennebec Valley

The 1866 Hook organ at the South Parish Congregational Church, in Augusta.

by Mary Grow

After the frustration of finding only scanty and random information from local historians on how central Kennebec Valley residents cared for their destitute neighbors, your writer decided to continue frustrating herself on a more cheerful topic: music.

There were music and musicians in central Maine before the Europeans’ arrival. Music historian George Thornton Edwards provided a bit of information on native American music in his Music and Musicians of Maine.

The early European settlers, too, enjoyed and appreciated music, Edwards wrote. At first it was mostly sacred and mostly vocal.

An 18th century Viol.

The usual accompaniment to a church choir was a bass viol. Portland’s Second Parish Church seems to have been a leader in expanding use of instruments. Edwards wrote that the cornet and clarinet (or clarionet) had supplemented the viol before 1798, when the church acquired the first church organ in the city.

Augusta wasn’t far behind. In 1802, according to Edwards and to James North’s Augusta history, residents of the North Parish raised $35 to buy a bass viol and build a box for it. Stephen Jewett played the viol; Edwards commented that “ultra conservative” residents no doubt disapproved.

North included a reference from 1796, when Hallowell Academy, opened May 5, 1795, celebrated the end of its first year with public student recitations. North quoted from the May 10, 1796, issue of the Tocsin (Hallowell’s second newspaper): the public presentation included “vocal and instrumental music, under the direction of Mr. Belcher the ‘Handel‘ of Maine.”

(“Mr. Belcher” was Supply Belcher [March 29, 1751 – June 9, 1836]. Born in Massachusetts, he fought in the Revolution; moved to Hallowell in 1785; and in 1791 settled in Farmington for the rest of his life. He published in 1794 a collection of his sacred compositions called The Harmony of Maine.)

North borrowed from Edwards’ history a description of another series of musical events that started in early 1822, when a group of musically-inclined South Parish Congregational Church parishioners brought to the town “Mr. Holland,” a professor of music from New Bedford, Massachusetts. (Your writer has failed to find Mr. Holland’s first name or dates.)

Holland began a new method of teaching “psalmody” (the singing of sacred music, especially in church services) and gave piano lessons. His singers joined the church choir, and the ensuing interest led to raising money to buy a $550 British-made organ, the first organ in Augusta. It was installed on Sept. 4, North said.

The next Sunday, “Mrs. Ostinelli,” Sophia Henrietta Emma Hewitt Ostinelli (May 23, 1799 – Aug. 31, 1845), played the organ. She was the daughter of Boston composer, conductor and music publisher James Hewitt, and the new wife of Italian-born violinist and conductor Paul Louis Antonio Ostinelli (1795 – 184?). An on-line source calls her “pianist, organist, singer, and music teacher.”

Edwards wrote that her husband was described as a violinist “without a peer in America at that time.” He was also an orchestra conductor.

On Sept. 19 and again on Sept. 25, Holland directed “an oratorio of sacred music,” held, Linda Davenport wrote in her Divine Song on the Northeast Frontier, at the church. The concerts were benefits, the first for Holland and the second for the Ostinellis.

Music was provided by church members – the church did not seem to have its own “ongoing musical society,” Davenport wrote – plus choir members from Hallowell’s Congregational and Baptist societies. At one of these concerts, maybe both, Ostinelli played violin solos.

Davenport reprinted the program of the Sept. 19 concert. Each of the two parts began with an organ voluntary, followed by vocal music, both chorus and solo. Seven of the 15 pieces performed were by George Frideric Handel; one was by Franz Joseph Haydn.

North wrote the Holland concerts were the last time such “first class concerts” were presented in Augusta until June 1859, when Ostinelli’s daughter Elise, Madame Biscaccianti, sang.

Holland moved back to New Bedford in September 1823, Edwards wrote. “It is said that his influence on the musical life in Augusta is felt to this day (1928).”

The same year Cyril Searle was “temporarily located in Augusta and he continued the excellent work which had been started by Mr. Holland.”

North devoted three pages to Searle – not to his musical career, but to a description of the sketch he did of Augusta, probably in 1823 (definitely after Maine and Massachusetts separated in 1820, and before a building he included burned on Nov. 8, 1823).

When Augusta’s first Unitarian church, called Bethlehem Church, was built in 1827, it had an organ, North wrote. This church, according to Henry Kingsbury’s Kennebec County history, was on the east bank of the Kennebec, where the Cony Flatiron Building (formerly Cony High School) stands today. Since most of the Augusta Unitarians lived on the west side of the river, a new church was built only six years later on State Street, about a block north of the present Lithgow Library.

In later descriptions of new church buildings, North occasionally mentioned an organ; apparently by the 1830s, they were common enough not to be worth noting.

An event he described that will remind readers of the old saying, “The more things change, the more they stay the same,” and in which music played a minor role, occurred in 1832.

By then Maine’s capital had moved to Augusta. The legislature, meeting in secret session, discussed a controversial proposal to cede land to Great Britain to resolve the conflict over the Maine-Canada boundary (a conflict that led to the Aroostook War of 1839 – see the March 17, 2022, issue of The Town Line).

An anonymous source sent information on the secret deliberations to Luther Severance, publisher of an Augusta newspaper, who printed it. Legislators demanded to know the source. Severance refused to answer committee questions and was threatened with a contempt citation, but was apparently never prosecuted.

Enough of Augusta’s elite sympathized with Severance to organize a dinner in his honor, at which speakers denounced legislators, praised the free press and, North quoted from Severance’s newspaper, enjoyed “an excellent dinner, moistened with the best old Madeira, and accompanied by fine music.”

* * * * * *

There were also privately run singing schools, Edwards wrote. Millard Howard wrote in his Palermo history that schoolhouses were one place singing schools met. He added that by the late 1800s, schoolhouses were also sites for “some rowdy dances with frequent fights.”

Edwards’ history includes names of people, mostly men but some women, who ran singing schools. One was Coker Marble, whose singing school in Vassalboro operated for more than 20 years in the period from 1836 through 1856.

An on-line Marble genealogy provides limited information on not one but two men named Coker Marble. The genealogy starts with Samuel Marble (Oct. 23, 1728 -?) and Sarah Coker (June 21, 1735 -?), who married in 1754 in New Hampshire. They had at least three children: Hannah and John, both born in 1755, and Coker Marble Sr. (Sept. 28, 1765 – Aug. 30, 1823).

Coker Marble Sr., married twice, according to the on-line genealogy. He and his first wife, Polly Mason, whom he married about 1796, had at least one daughter.

On Jan. 1, 1801, in New Hampshire, he married Rhoda Judkins (1776 -1864). The oldest of their six children was Coker Marble Jr. (Feb. 8, 1802 – Sept. 10, 1882), who was born in Vassalboro.

In his chapter on Vassalboro in the Kennebec County history, Kingsbury named Rev. Coker Marble as pastor – presumably the first pastor – of the Second Baptist Church, organized at Cross Hill in 1808 with 37 members but, Kingsbury said, “probably…no church property.” From the dates in the genealogical information, this pastor must have been the senior Coker Marble, who would have been in his mid-40s in 1808.

Grave marker for Elder Coker Marble Sr., left, and his wife, Rhoda, on right., at the Cross Hill Cemetery, in Vassalboro.

Vassalboro cemetery records show that Coker Marble Sr., named as Elder Coker Marble, and Rhoda are buried in Vassalboro’s Cross Hill cemetery, with the two youngest of their four daughters.

(Your writer also found on line a biography of a Massachusetts doctor named John Oliver Marble. The biography specifies that he was the son of John and Emeline [Prescott] Marble and the grandson of Rev. Coker Marble. Dr. Marble was born April 26, 1839, in Vassalboro. He graduated from Colby in 1863 and received his medical degree from Georgetown in 1868.)

Coker Marble Jr., married Marcia Lewis (March 19, 1806 – Dec. 17, 1881) on Aug. 31 or Oct. 20, 1824, in Whitefield. Between 1825 and 1853 Marcia bore seven daughters and three sons. The sons were named Arthur, Edwin and Henry.

From the birth and death dates, your writer concludes that it was Coker Marble Jr., who ran the Vassalboro singing school, probably beginning when he was in his early 30s. The genealogy lists two of his and Marcia’s children as born in Vassalboro, in 1837 and 1841, and two others in Hallowell, in 1839 and 1845.

The on-line site says the younger Coker Marble lived in Pittston in 1870 and Skowhegan in 1880; Marcia is listed in Pittston in 1870 and in Milburn in 1880 (Milburn might then have been part of Skowhegan). Both died in Bath (another site says Coker Marble died in either Bath or China) and are buried in Bath’s Maple Grove Cemetery.

Main sources

Davenport, Linda, Divine Song on the Northeast Frontier Maine’s Sacred Tunebooks, 1800-1830 (1996).
Edwards, George Thornton, Music and musicians of Maine: being a history of the progress of music in the territory which has come to be known as the State of Maine, from 1604 to 1928 (1970 reprint).
Howard, Millard, An Introduction to the Early History of Palermo, Maine (second edition, December 2015).
Kingsbury, Henry D., ed., Illustrated History of Kennebec County Maine 1625-1892 (1892).
North, James W. , The History of Augusta (1870).

Websites, miscellaneous.

Up and down the Kennebec Valley: Taking care of paupers

Bidding out was done at town meetings, where officials and voters discussed each needy person or family publicly by name. Residents bid for a poor person, asking a specific sum from the town for a year’s room, board and care, in the pauper’s home or the bidder’s home.

by Mary Grow

The earliest settlers in the Kennebec Valley, as elsewhere in New England, were for the most part able-bodied and self-supporting. But within a generation or two, a settlement would be likely to have residents who were unable to support themselves.

Some might be physically or mentally disabled. Older people might lose their ability to do manual labor and outlive their resources. Children might be left without a caring family.

A bad economy might send people into poverty. Different historians mention the near-destruction of export-dependent businesses (lumbering, for example) and the dramatic increase in prices of food and other necessities caused by the embargo during the War of 1812. Bad weather was another factor; farmers lost crops and income in 1816, the Year without a Summer.

Whatever the cause, if someone was a pauper and had no supportive relatives, caring for the poor was a town responsibility, as evidenced by the expression “going on the town” – becoming dependent on local taxpayers for the means of existence.

An on-line source says going on the town was a last resort and a humiliation. The writer gave three reasons: paupers lost the right to vote or to hold office; town officials might have authority to sell paupers’ property to fund their care; and townspeople looked down on those whom their taxes supported.

Maine towns had at least two ways of caring for their poor. One system was called “outdoor relief:” paupers were either supported financially on their own properties, or bid out to live with more prosperous neighbors.

Bidding out was done at town meetings, where officials and voters discussed each needy person or family publicly by name. Residents bid for a poor person, asking a specific sum from the town for a year’s room, board and care, in the pauper’s home or the bidder’s home.

An alternative was for voters to leave placement decisions to town officials. Officials for this purpose were the selectmen, whose titles included, and in many Maine towns still include, overseers of the poor.

The other option for a town was to buy a piece of property for a town poor house or poor farm, where paupers would be housed and cared for. “Farm” was almost always literal; the residents helped raise crops and tend livestock.

In her history of Sidney, Alice Hammond listed another method a person or family who owned property but was facing insolvency could use: the property could be deeded over to the town, on condition that the town would care for the donor(s) for life. Hammond mentioned real estate records showing Sidney had thus become owners of several farms that town officials later sold.

Town officials were careful not to spend their residents’ tax money on other towns’ paupers. Local histories occasionally mention lawsuits between towns to settle which is responsible for a person or family.

The following paragraphs will offer more specific information on how municipalities in the Central Kennebec Valley area took care of their poor before the present era of homeless shelters and homeless encampments.

This topic is one for which your writer’s self-imposed restriction to secondary sources available in books or on line (you’ll remember that this history series started early in the pandemic, when visiting town offices was discouraged) is limiting. Not all towns’ records are available on line, and some town historians wrote nothing about paupers. Others, however, provided enough information to intrigue your writer and, she hopes, her readers.

* * * * * *

At Augusta’s first town meeting, on April 3, 1797 (after Augusta separated from Hallowell in February 1797 and briefly became Harrington), Kingsbury reported that voters approved spending $1,250 for roads, $400 for roads and $300 for everything else, including supporting the poor.

The first poor house was approved at a March 11, 1805, meeting, according to Kingsbury and to James North’s Augusta history. Selectmen were not to spend more than $300. Voters at the annual meeting in 1806 elected George Reed or Read as its first superintendent.

Kingsbury described the location by 19th-century landmarks: north of Ballard’s corner (probably the current intersection of Bond and Water streets), and just south of the Curtis residence in 1805, and in 1892 marked by a “well on the east side of the road and an old sweet apple tree.”

By 1810, according to North, municipal spending had increased in the three categories Kingsbury listed in 1897: the appropriation for roads was $1,500, “payable in labor”; for schools, $1,000, and for everything else (both historians lump the poor “and other necessary charges”), another $1,500.

In 1833, North wrote, Augusta voters authorized selectmen to decide how to care for paupers. Neither he nor Kingsbury explained why there was evidently dissatisfaction with the poor house.

A special meeting in January 1834 made the authorization more specific: after the current contract with David Wilbur (the poor house superintendent?)) expired, town officials were to consider whether to buy a farm, contract or think up “some other mode.”

The five-man committee created to carry out this instruction reported at an April 21 meeting that while the legislature was in session they had talked with people from other parts of Maine and found unanimous support for “thePoor House system, both as regards economy and comfort and the prevention of pauperism.”

This committee recommended a second committee be appointed to look for “a suitable piece of land.” Charles Williams, from the first committee, and four new members of the second committee agreed with the first in advising that the farm be “near the village”; they recommended a third committee to buy a suitable property.

This third committee, which consisted of John Potter from the second committee and four more newcomers, reported to a Sept. 9 town meeting an agreement to buy Church Williams’ farm for $3,000. Their action was approved and yet another committee, chaired by Potter, appointed to build a house on the property.

The building went up by the end of 1834, North wrote. By 1870, he said, it had been “enlarged from time to time to the dimensions of the present commodious and convenient almshouse.”

A century after the building was finished, an on-line report on the Depression-era New Deal’s Federal Emergency Relief Administration’s work relief project describes repairs planned in 1934 and done in 1935. The writer said they were much needed: “Very few people realized the condition of this building and the unsanitary conditions and the inmates were living in.”

By then the building consisted of four floors over a large basement, “all of which were deteriorating rapidly.” Early steps were to reinforce a ceiling and put a partial new foundation “to keep the kitchen and range from falling into the basement.”

“The entire building was so infested with cockroaches and bedbugs that a special machine had to be hired along with an operator to exterminate these insects. All beds and bedding including blankets, mattresses, pillows and sheets were destroyed and replaced.”

Interior walls were replastered or repapered or painted; plumbing and heating systems were totally updated; the building was completely rewired; all the stairways were replaced, as were 20 doors and about 75 windows. A laundry was added and equipped, and a shed converted to a well-stocked store from which “the town truck delivers food daily to the city’s poor.”

The work crew consisted of 21 men. Total cost in labor, supplied by the ERA, was almost $5,400; the City of Augusta provided about $5,000 worth of materials. Work began Jan. 24 and was finished June 6, 1935.

The undated on-line site adds that the building had since been demolished and the Augusta public works department had moved onto the property.

* * * * * *

In Sidney, immediately north of Augusta on the west side of the Kennebec River, historian Hammond wrote, in the context of official town business in the 1790s, that “A problem right from the beginning was how to provide for the poor in town.”

She found an (undated) record of an early incident: the town constable “was ordered to serve notice on at least 25 families [presumably poor families] who had moved into town without first seeking permission.”

Town clerk’s records show that the constable carried out his orders, but, Hammond said, there is no proof the families were equally obedient; instead, some were still in Sidney years afterwards.

In addition to bidding out paupers, Hammond found Sidney town meeting voters repeatedly appointed a committee to buy a poor house or poor farm – and at the next meeting rejected the committee’s recommendation.

In 1867, she wrote, “the town actually purchased a working farm, hired a superintendent and moved paupers to the house.”

This poor farm was on 100 acres where Town Farm Road runs west off River Road (now West River Road) to Middle Road, in the north end of Sidney. The 1879 Kennebec County atlas shows the farm in the northwest corner of the three-way intersection; some of the land, then or later, was on the east side of West River Road (see below).

In 1869, Hammond wrote, voters directed selectmen to lay out and fence a cemetery on the town farm.

The 1877 town meeting warrant included an article Hammond quoted: “To see if town will vote to build suitable places at the poor house on the farm so as to be able to control the unruly poor.”

She also quoted the voters’ decision: “That it be left with the overseers to put them on bread and water if they see fit.” (Note the plural “overseers,” – by 1877, taxpayers were paying more than a single superintendent to staff the farm.)

This farm was a working farm, as Hammond’s information from what she called a typical inventory in the February 1895 annual report showed. The farm then had 28 hens; a dozen sheep; four cows and two yearlings; and two pigs. There were stockpiles of hay, straw, potatoes, turnips, oats, beans and beets.

The inventory further listed ham, pork, flour and butter; vinegar, pickles, molasses, spice and salt; and 80 gallons of cider and one pound each of tea and coffee.

Town officials and voters continued to debate whether the farm was the best arrangement, Hammond wrote. They agreed to lease it to different people, and eventually closed and sold it in 1919 to Mrs. Clara Wilshire for $3,000.

Hammond wrote that the sale did not include “the gravel bank on the east side of the River Road.” J. J. Pelotte later bought that parcel for $1,000. (Sidney’s 2003 comprehensive plan, found on line at the University of Maine Digital Commons site, lists the J. J. Pelotte gravel pit.)

Main sources

Hammond, Alice, History of Sidney Maine 1792-1992 (1992).
Kingsbury, Henry D., ed., Illustrated History of Kennebec County Maine 1625-1892 (1892).
North, James W., The History of Augusta (1870)

Websites, miscellaneous.

Gaslight Theater’s 2023 season continues

Gaslight Theater’s 2023 Season of Laughter continued in April and May with Peter Shaffer’s Black Comedy, directed by Lucille Rioux. The show will be produced at Hallowell Cithy Hall Auditorium, at 1 Winthrop St., in Hallowell, over two weekends, including Sunday matinees, April 28, 29 and 30, and May 5, 6, 7. Friday and Saturday shows start at 7:30 p.m., and Sunday matinees start at 2 p.m.

Gaslight Theater announces audition dates for Black Comedy

Gaslight Theater announces audition dates for their upcoming show, Peter Shaffer’s Black Comedy, directed by Lucille Rioux. Auditions will be held 6:30 p.m. on Sunday, March 12, and Tuesday, March 14, at Hallowell City Hall, located at 1 Winthrop Street, in Hallowell.

Black Comedy is a one-act farce by Peter Shaffer, first performed in 1965. The premise of the piece is that light and dark are transposed, so that when the stage is lit the cast are supposed to be in darkness and only when the stage is dark are they supposed to be able to see each other and their surroundings. A young sculptor and his fiancée have borrowed some expensive antique furniture from a neighbor’s flat without his permission to impress an elderly millionaire art collector. When the power fails, the neighbor returns early, other people also arrive….

Show dates are the weekends of April 28, 29, 30 and May 5, 6, 7. All shows take place at Hallowell City Hall Auditorium.

Please bring proof of Covid-19 vaccination to auditions. This is a one-act play with parts for three women and five men. Auditions are cold readings.

Details on the parts:

BRINDSLEY MILLER – a young sculptor, mid-twenties, intelligent and attractive, but nervous and uncertain of himself.

CAROL MELKETT – Brindsley’s fiancee. A young debutante; very pretty, very spoiled, very silly.

MISS FURNIVAL – a middle-aged lady. Prissy and refined. Clad in the blouse and sack skirt of her gentility, her hair in a bun, she reveals only the repressed gestures of the middle-class spinster — until alcohol undoes her.

COLONEL MELKETT – Carol’s commanding father. Brisk, barky, yet given to sudden vocal calms which suggest a deep alarming instability. It is not only the constant darkness which gives him his look of wide-eyed suspicion.

HAROLD GORRINGE – the bachelor owner of an antique-china shop, and Brindsley’s neighbor, Harold comes from the North of England. His friendship is highly conditional and possessive: sooner or later, payment for it will be asked. A specialist in emotional blackmail, he can become hysterical when slighted, or (as inevitably happens) rejected. He is older than Brindsley by several years.

SCHUPPANZIGH – a German refugee, chubby, cultivated, and effervescent. He is an entirely happy man, delighted to be in England, even if it means being employed full time by the London Electricity Board.

CLEA – Brindsley’s ex-mistress. Mid-twenties; dazzling, emotional, bright, and mischievous. The challenge to her is to create a dramatic situation out of the darkness is ultimately irresistible.

GEORG SAMBERGER – an elderly millionaire art collector, easily identifiable as such. Like Schuppanzigh, he is German.

For more information check www.gaslighttheater.org or call 207-626-3698.

EVENTS: Gaslight Theater presents 2023 Season of Laughter

Gaslight Theater proudly presents its “2023 Season of Laughter” starting with Love is Murder in February. Love is Murder, a comedy by Tim Kelly, will be directed by Gaslight Theater’s Matthew McLaughlin, at Hallowell City Hall Auditorium, at 1 Winthrop Street, in Hallowell. The show will be produced over two weekends, including Sunday matinees, February 10, 11,12,17, 18, 19. Friday and Saturday shows start at 7:30 p.m., and Sunday matinees start at 2 p.m. Tickets are $15 for adults, $12 for students and Seniors, cash, check and credit card accepted at the door. For more information visit Gaslight Theater online at www.gaslighttheater.org.

We all say we don’t read them, but we do. Every now and then, we sneak one, just to be able to say how terrible they are. They’re Romance Novels, and they’re everywhere! This spoof of the satin-and-lace literature industry will keep audiences in hysterics. Valentina Velour, the Queen of Romance Fiction, opens Honeymoon House to a television program. Unfortunately, someone has left a dead man in the closet and a wacko called The Rose Killer is bumping off the love scribblers. Confusion and madness abound as vitamin fanatics, cops, literary agents and writers collide. The whole madcap mess concludes with the exposure of Valencia’s arch-enemy and an affirmation of her philosophy, “Romance will be here when men and women no longer walk the earth!” Love Is Murder is presented by arrangement with Concord Theatricals on behalf of Samuel French, Inc.

In Gaslight Theater’s production of Love Is Murder, Valentina Hart is played by Kathleen Brainerd, of West Gardiner, a seasoned actor with Gaslight Theater. The ditzy housemaid Effie is played by Alícia Belmore, of Gardiner. Tom Burns the ‘fish out of water’ butler is played by Matthew Ferrin, of Augusta. The weaselly publishing agent Lydecker is played by Mike Clements, of West Gardiner. TV producer Leon Ketchem is played by Henry Quintal, of Augusta. Gothic novelist Jane Err is played by Tamara Lilly, of Woolwich. Western novelist Calamity Lovett is played by Marcia Gallagher, of Hallowell. Oriental novelist Pearl Sweet is played by Wendi Richards, of Fairfield, another seasoned Gaslight Theater actor. Dr. Wintergreen is played by Randolph Jones, of Augusta. Ed Fish the detective is played by Melvin Morrison, of Hallowell. Director Matthew McLaughlin lives, in Augusta.

Up and down the Kennebec Valley: Kennebec River floods – Part 2

Hallowell Merchants District, 1896.

by Mary Grow

After the great freshet of 1832, with which last week’s article ended, Augusta business leaders went ahead with their plan to build a dam across the Kennebec River to power mills; and a Fairfield company dammed part of the river there.

The idea of an Augusta dam was by then about 50 years old. An early settler left a record predicting a dam in 1785, according to Augusta historian James North; and around 1818 Ephraim Ballard was quoted as saying he could build one for $25,000.

At the beginning of 1834, an Augusta group petitioned the Maine legislature to form a corporation to build a dam. Despite opponents’ concerns about effects on fishing, river transportation and upriver communities that might be flooded, a legislative majority created the Kennebec Dam Company in March 1834.

Work started in the spring of 1836. Expanded plans and time constraints meant the middle of the dam was left open through the winter of 1836-37; the ends survived freshets in November and December 1836 and April 1837.

In March 1837 the legislature renamed the dam company the Kennebec Locks and Canals Company and doubled the amount of capital stock it could issue, to $600,000. Work resumed in June; the 600-foot-long dam was closed Sept. 27; and the lock that allowed boats to pass opened Oct. 12, in a ceremony that was followed by a celebratory dinner.

In Fairfield, according to the Fairfield Historical Society’s bicentennial history, sometime between 1835 and 1840 the Fairfield Land and Mill Association dammed the west channel of the Kennebec between downtown Fairfield (then Kendall’s Mills) and Mill Island. “This earthen and timber dam had a short life as an [undated] unusual surge of high water washed it away.”

Its (undated) replacement a short distance downriver “was ingeniously unique in having a hinged bulkhead at its downstream end that swung open to release the pressure when the flow of water became excessive at flood stage.”

North described the solidity of the 1837 Augusta dam in detail, with illustrations, talking about ballasted timber cribs, thick planks, granite walls, cement, cast iron and iron strapping and similar substantial materials. The project used 800,000 cubic feet of granite, 2.5 million feet of timber and 25 tons of iron, and cost the full $300,000, he wrote.

The river continued to flow through a canal along each bank. North’s sketch shows the lock on the east end, between the dam and the canal.

A May 1838 freshet brought high water and giant logs that damaged the west bank, and a January 1839 windy rainstorm damaged it again (and covered Hallowell’s Water Street four feet deep in icy water). Nonetheless, Locks and Canals Company directors promptly started seeking proposals to build mills to use the water power, and by late May 1839 ten mills were almost built.

Then came, North wrote, “one of those catastrophes which mock at human foresight and defy human energy to resist.” After several days of rain, about 4 a.m. Friday, May 30, water began to go over the west side canal and through the damaged bank.

People “assembled in great numbers” to try to repair the leaks, but when the canal itself began to give way, they fled. The dam held; the river made a new channel about 500 feet wide around the west end, taking out two houses in the process (one, North said, was about a tenth of a mile from and 100 feet above the former shore).

An effort to blow up the mills to prevent their doing damage downstream failed, and one by one they were lifted off the dam, the last one floating away late Saturday afternoon.

Thus ended the first attempt to use the Kennebec to power Augusta industries. The dam stood blocking the river; the new channel was unnavigable; and during the summer of 1839 merchandise had to be unloaded from one boat and carried to another on the other side of the dam, “which was frequently piled high with various descriptions of goods in the process of transit.”

Businesspeople were annoyed. The company corporators had lost their investment. The legislature in March 1840 repealed the company charter effective Aug. 1, unless by then the corporators promised a rebuilt dam within two years.

North credited General Alfred Redington with saving the situation. Redington said if he were given a mill site, water power, “the materials of the old mills swept away in 1839” and as much money as people could come up with, he would build an improved dam and put a sawmill atop it.

The dam was to be 400 feet long, “upon a ledge, in shallow water, and not so high as the old dam” and Redington thought he could do it for $10,000.

Beginning with an Aug 1, 1840, public meeting, he did it. North wrote that work started Sept. 5, 1840, and was apparently finished promptly. Redington’s mill went up “during the following winter” (1840, or 1841?).

(Although both North and Henry Kingsbury, in his chapter on manufacturing in his Kennebec County history, referred to “rebuilding” the dam, what they described as actually built was a 400-foot addition to the 600-foot dam, extending it across the new channel the river had carved on the west end.)

Another sawmill opened on the east end of the (original?) dam, and a machine shop, in 1842. In 1845 and 1846 there was a burst of expansion: cotton mills, a flour mill and half a dozen sawmills.

Kennebec floods tried the rebuilt dam repeatedly. On April 28, 1843, a “southeasterly storm” raised the river to within four feet of the 1832 level. Four and a half days of rain that began Friday evening, Oct. 31, 1845, brought more than four inches of water. Logs, lumber and remains of upriver buildings were carried on “a magnificent sheet [of water] of great depth” over the dam.

The dam was undamaged both times. North gave credit to the width of the “wasteway,” almost the entire width of the dam, and the way the road bridge just downstream narrowed the waterway to 440 feet, divided by the central bridge pier.

The remains of the Hallowell-Chelsea Crib bridge in 1870.

The result, he explained, was the water level below the dam rose faster than the level above it and the force diminished. Normally, the water below the dam would be about 15 feet lower than in the pond behind it; during the 1845 freshet the difference was reduced to five feet.

This flood damaged two Augusta wharves and swept away the basement framing for a new block of six sawmills.

The river breached the new dam at the end of March 1846, when several days of rain following a normal spring rise as snow melted brought down “floating ice…intermixed with logs.”

The rebuilding had left a stone pier (the west end of the original dam, 400 feet from the west shore) as a connector between old and new sections “rising like a tower unprotected above the top of the dam.” An ice cake knocked it down, and in following days the adjoining area washed away; by Saturday, April 11, 1846, there was a 150-foot opening.

Repair work started Monday, April 13, North wrote, and despite a couple more freshets was finished “in about ten weeks,” for about $13,000.

The next damage was from fire, not water: in September 1853 most of the industrial buildings on top of the dam burned. The dam was quickly “repaired, improved and strengthened.”

In June 1855, part of the 1846 repairs failed. About 100 feet of the dam were swept away; repairs cost about $20,000.

North wrote these repairs were tested by a major flood before the derricks used in the work had been taken away. An estimated five inches of rainfall between Friday evening, Oct. 12, and late Saturday, Oct. 13, raised the river level 21 feet by Sunday afternoon, “within eighteen inches of the highest point of the great freshet of 1832.”

The dam was unscathed.

The next major floods North described occurred in October 1869 and January and February 1870. The southeaster that began pouring rain on the Kennebec Valley Sunday morning, Oct. 3, 1869, was expected to be fairly harmless, because the river was low at the time; but it did major damage from Skowhegan south (and through much of New England).

Logs that lumber companies had harvested over the summer and left floating were carried downriver to create jams, notably one at Hallowell, that raised the water behind them. At Water­ville, the Ticonic toll bridge was torn from the banks and floated downriver.

(This bridge, Edwin Whittemore wrote in his Waterville centennial history, dated from 1835. It had been damaged in the 1855 flood and quickly repaired. After it washed out in October 1869, a new free bridge was built for $32,000, mostly paid by Waterville taxpayers; it opened Dec. 1, 1870.)

North wrote that to prevent the Ticonic bridge taking out Augusta’s railroad bridge, “A locomotive was despatched with ropes and a crew of men, who met it in Vassalborough and fastened it to the shore.” The part that came loose and went over the dam was not solid enough to do damage.

This October 1869 freshet damaged warehouses on Augusta wharves and swept away piles of logs and lumber.

The following months, North wrote, were “generally mild,” but with occasional cold spells that froze the river to a considerable depth. After Christmas came another warm spell “which started the buds on trees in favorable exposures” and was followed by rain on Jan. 3, 1870.

The rain caused a freshet; the freshet broke up the ice over rapids in the Vassalboro area; the ice came down and jammed above unbroken ice in Augusta, Hallowell and Gardiner. In Hallowell and Gardiner, North wrote, water started backing up during the night; town officials had bells rung to notify Water Street business owners to rescue merchandise from their basements.

A cold spell added more ice to the jams. From Feb. 18 through 20, 1870, rain and wind moved more ice downstream, until, North wrote, the river was one continuous thickly-layered jam from near the Kennebec Arsenal (on the east bank a bit downriver from old Fort Western) to Hallowell. In places the ice-layers were 15 feet thick; in places they rested on the river bed.

This barrier made the river rise six feet in 30 minutes, until the water levels were equal above and below the Augusta dam. “The dam was completely flowed out, a slight ripple only marking its place,” North wrote.

He described in detail – probably from personal observation – 175 feet of the wooden railroad bridge (built in 1857, according to Charles Nash’s chapter in Kingsbury’s history) breaking away, turning upside down from the weight of the track on top and floating toward the already damaged road bridge, “a huge battering ram.”

When the upside-down floating bridge crashed into the stationary one, one end dipped under and came up on the downriver side, leaving 20-foot-long “legs” sticking up on either side. The mass wriggled until it bounced out and continued downriver, to the “joyous shouts and cheers of many anxious spectators.”

Nash wrote that 160 feet of the Augusta dam went down the river, and commented this was the fourth major damage since 1837. The dam was rebuilt “in a more elaborate and expensive manner than ever before” by the end of 1870; the road bridge was repaired; and a new iron railroad bridge was built “immediately.”

In Hallowell, North wrote, the bridge was carried away and some stores were moved from the east (river) side of Water Street to the west side. An on-line source estimated damage at more than $1 million, including loss of two bridges (road and railroad) and walls torn off buildings by the ice.

This 1870 freshet, North wrote as he concluded his history of Augusta, was the fiercest yet; the water level was two feet higher than in 1832.

Main sources

Fairfield Historical Society Fairfield, Maine 1788-1988 (1988).
Kingsbury, Henry D., ed., Illustrated History of Kennebec County Maine 1625-1892 (1892).
North, James W., The History of Augusta (1870).
Whittemore, Rev. Edwin Carey, Centennial History of Waterville 1802-1902 (1902).

Websites, miscellaneous.

Up and down the Kennebec Valley: Kennebec River floods – Part 1

Hallowell flood of 1870.

by Mary Grow

When this historical series started in the spring of 2020 as a way to distract writer and readers from the Covid-19 pandemic, part of the plan was a survey of historic local disease outbreaks and other disasters. The latter have come to include weather, floods, fires and other destructive events, man-made or a combination.

January in Maine seems like a good time to talk about weather, including floods. Some local historians collected a lot of information on the topic; others paid it little attention. Here is your writer’s proposal to share some past events.

Of great importance along the Kennebec River were – and still are – the frequent floods, often called “freshets.” Kennebec River freshets, interrelated with human attempts to control the water and sometimes including tributary streams, will be the first topic.

(Wikipedia: “The term freshet is most commonly used to describe a spring thaw resulting from snow and ice melt in rivers located in upper North America.”)

Then there is the famous “Year without a summer,” 1816, for a second topic.

Other weather-related events that have distressed central Kennebec Valley residents over the years, were recorded and have not been covered under the prior two topics will be a third topic.

* * * * * *

To the Kennebec Valley’s Native American inhabitants, the Kennebec River was a main source of transportation and communication up-river and down; a barrier, though one that could be overcome in various ways; a source of food; and a recreational resource. Early European inhabitants further counted the river as a natural dividing line, for example when Waterville was set off from Winslow and Sidney from Vassalboro; and a source of power for industry. To everyone, it was sometimes a threat.

Your writer found two books especially good sources of information on the river’s interactions with the Europeans who settled along its banks. The older is James North’s history of Augusta, published in 1870; the newer is Ernest Marriner’s 1954 Kennebec Yesterdays.

North mentioned the Kennebec in the first sentence of his book, when French explorer Sieur de Monts visited the mouth of the river in 1604. Marriner’s first chapter is titled Our Lady Kennebec; he described the river as a “gracious lady” who intermittently loses her temper and wreaks havoc.

After Europeans discovered the mouth of the river, exploration extended upstream. A series of land grants from the British monarchy authorized settlements, starting with the Plymouth Colony in Massachusetts. (Your writer has avoided trying to untangle the history of early land titles in the Kennebec Valley.)

The Plymouth settlers started trading with Kennebec Valley Native Americans, especially for furs. Their first three trading posts, established around 1628, were at the mouth of the river; in the Richmond/Swan Island area; and at Cushnoc, on the east bank of the river in what is now Augusta.

Trade was broken off in the 1650s. The valley was mostly devoid of Europeans, mainly because of opposition from the Native Americans and their French supporters in Canada, until Fort Halifax and Fort Western were built in 1754.

By the Feb. 19, 1763, Treaty of Paris, the French abandoned their claim to northern North America (they kept Louisiana until President Thomas Jefferson bought it in 1803). Without French backing, Kennebec Valley Native Americans moved north to join other tribes.

British settlers quickly replaced them. North listed about 100 families around Fort Western by 1762. On April 26, 1771, the Massachusetts legislature incorporated the towns of Hallowell, Vassalboro, Winslow and Winthrop.

(Later boundary changes took Augusta, Chelsea and most of Farmingdale and Manchester out of Hallowell; divided Sidney from Vassalboro, and Waterville from Winslow, separated by the river; and took Readfield from Winthrop.)

Hallowell residents built their log houses and laid out early roads on both banks of the Kennebec, which they apparently crossed at will. North wrote that the 1773 annual town meeting began on March 15 in a house on the west shore; after the first decisions, voters adjourned until March 16, when they reassembled in a house on the east shore.

Henry Kingsbury’s Kennebec County history has the earliest mention of a freshet, not on the Kennebec’s main stem but on Bog – later Hastings – Brook, which flows in from the west in what was then Vassalboro (now Sidney). (This brook was in the southern part of town; it might have been the one now called Goff Brook.)

An early settler named John Marsh built a sawmill and a grist mill on Bog Brook, between the road (the present West River Road, also Route 104, approximately follows this road) and the river. Both mills “were carried away by a freshet and an ice jam in 1774.”

Kingsbury wrote that another early settler, Thomas Clark, had two bags of meal in the grist mill. He rescued one; saying his family needed the second bag, he went back into the mill “just as the resistless torrent bore it and him to destruction.”

North’s first mention of a Kennebec flood was in April 1789, after an April 7 rainstorm. Apparently a minor flood, it nonetheless set a destructive precedent: a six-month-old bridge over Bond Brook (formerly Ballard’s Brook), which enters the Kennebec from the west at the north end of Water Street, was washed out, and Ephraim Ballard’s house and dam were damaged.

On Feb. 3, 1791, North wrote, Hallowell residents experienced “the greatest freshet…since the settlement of the country.” After bare ground and an ice-free river at the end of 1790, the river froze and a foot of snow fell by Jan. 4. There was more snow at the beginning of February; it changed to rain as the wind blew from the southeast.

Again the area around the mouth of Bond Brook was hard-hit. A store was flooded, and the house where Martha and Ephraim Ballard’s son was living was knocked off its foundation by four feet of water carrying cakes of ice.

Hallowell flood of 1896.

During the winter of 1794 – no specific date – and on Feb. 5, 1795, North wrote that ice jams in the river led to brief flooding. In February 1806, a combination of rain and ice-jams raised water levels, in Bond Brook early in the month and in the Kennebec in mid-month.

The week of March 21, 1826, began with thunderstorms and ended with “torrents of rain” falling on almost two feet of ice on the Kennebec. Saturday morning, March 26, North wrote, the ice broke up, floated down to Hallowell and jammed against Brown’s Island, creating a barricade that brought the river 20 feet above normal high water in Augusta by Sunday (while downstream in Gardiner the level was below normal).

This flood took out parts of bridges in Norridgewock and Waterville. In Augusta it damaged a mill on Bond Brook, floated away stockpiled lumber and flooded cellars. Buildings on Hallowell’s Main Street had first floors as well as cellars water-filled, and much merchandise was ruined. “Capt. Wyman’s sloop was driven into Mr. Elias Bond’s garden”; other ships were carried downriver to join the jam at Brown’s Island.

Late Sunday afternoon, March 27, the jam let go. A “compact mass” of ice, trees, logs, lumber and five schooners” tore past Gardiner and hung up again a mile or two south, raising the river “to an unprecedented height” at Gardiner.

The next year, 1827, Augusta was chosen as the capital of Maine, which had become a separate state from Massachusetts in 1820. The Maine legislature began its first session in the new state house on Wednesday, Jan. 4, 1832. In May 1832 occurred what North, Edwin Carey Whittemore in his centennial history of Waterville and Marriner agreed was the worst flooding Europeans had seen on the Kennebec to that date.

North wrote that central Maine got a lot of snow in the winter of 1831-32, and spring was late – the ground was still frozen early in May. A sudden warming beginning May 8 started melting the snow. After rain, at first moderate and then “in torrents” from Thursday night, May 17, through Tuesday morning, May 22, “the Kennebec was swollen to an unexampled height.”

North listed damage as including destruction of two bridges in Waterville (part of one came downstream past Augusta); all but one of that town’s sawmills knocked off their foundations; on Bond Brook, a “valuable fulling-mill” and – again – the bridge swept away.

He wrote: “The Redington saw mill [from Waterville] came floating along, upright and high out of the water, being buoyed up by lumber piled in it. The formidable looking mass as it rapidly approached was expected to seriously damage if not remove the [Augusta] bridge. It struck, stopped for a moment, the gable of the building was crushed, and it sunk down into the water and passed under” without harming the bridge.”

However, the water damaged the east end of the bridge enough so that it was unsafe for carriages for two weeks.

Whittemore dated the Redington mill and the dam on which it stood to 1792. The bridge that sailed downriver was the Ticonic bridge, a privately-constructed wooden toll bridge dating from the early 1820s. It had been damaged in the “great freshet” in March 1826 and promptly repaired.

To Whittemore, the 1832 “great freshet” had not been equaled when he finished editing his history in 1902.

Kingsbury wrote that the bridge across the Sebasticook in Winslow was also taken out. A private company replaced it with a toll bridge in 1834; in 1866, the town bought it for $2,500 and abolished the tolls.

Marriner described his Lady Kennebec in May 1832 (and again in 1936) as a “demon of wrath” who did millions of dollars in damage. Much of his description of the flood is based on an 1891 report by a Winslow-born engineer named Timothy Otis Paine, employed in the interest of the Hollingsworth and Whitney Company to date high-water marks.

Paine, born in a house uphill from the Sebasticook River and Fort Halifax and eight years old in 1832, remembered watching the Kennebec cover Lithgow Street and continue rising. He knew other people who measured subsequent floods by how close the water came to 1832 levels, as recorded on riverside trees and other features.

Why, Paine asked, did the river rise so dramatically in 1832? He discounted two theories: the rumor that a dam holding back Moosehead Lake had breached, because there was no dam at the foot of the lake in 1832; and an elderly resident’s theory that the persistent northeast wind had blown water out of the lake to supplement the rainfall.

Marriner wrote that Paine decided the flood was so bad because large logs being floated to sawmills got jammed in Fairfield, against the foundations of “the three bridges between Fairfield and Benton” and around Bunker Island. When the jam broke and moved forcefully downriver, pent-up water followed in a series of waves, each higher than the one before.

This information does not match the Fairfield Historical Society’s bicentennial history. That book contains a single reference to the 1832 flood, a quotation from the Dec. 17, 1901, Fairfield Journal saying the Dec. 16, 1901, flood was “the worst freshet since 1832.”

The Fairfield history dates the first dam across the west channel of the Kennebec, between downtown Fairfield (then Kendall’s Mills) and Mill Island, to the late 1780s, but there is no reference to a dam in Marriner’s account of the flood. The Fairfield history also says the bridges linking Fairfield and Benton were built in 1848, so they could not have held back logs in 1832.

Marriner retold an odd story from Paine. He wrote that a flock of sheep pastured on the east bank of the Kennebec “just above the Pond Hole,” with “an old flat boat turned bottom up” as their shelter, lived through the flood.

In the course of trying to find out how they survived, Paine decided the “Pond Hole” was neither a pond nor a hole, merely a piece of very rough ground. Why that interpretation saved the sheep, Marriner did not explain.

Main sources

Fairfield Historical Society, Fairfield, Maine 1788-1988 (1988).
Kingsbury, Henry D., ed., Illustrated History of Kennebec County Maine 1625-1892 (1892).
Marriner, Ernest, Kennebec Yesterdays (1954).
North, James W., The History of Augusta (1870). Whittemore, Rev. Edwin Carey, Centennial History of Waterville 1802-1902 (1902).

Websites, miscellaneous.

Up and down the Kennebec Valley: Augusta fires & fire departments – Part 1

The 9-ton steam powered fire engine was a revolution in its day, they were built by the Amoskeag Steam Fire Engine Company, of New Hampshire, late 18th century, and cost $7,000.

by Mary Grow

A consequence of building buildings, like those described in Augusta’s downtown historic district (see the February 2021 issues of The Town Line) and the ones described recently in Waterville’s downtown historic district (see the August and September 2022 issues, ignoring the two irrelevant articles) is that they catch fire.

The next three articles in this series will talk about fires and the development of fire-fighting in Augusta. See also the issue of Aug. 27, 2020, where fires in China, Fairfield and Palermo were described; and the issue of Feb. 4, 2021, for Augusta’s great fire of September 1865.

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James North’s year by year history of Augusta, published in 1870, records several fires before the 1865 disaster. The first he knew of was in 1785 (when Augusta was still the northern part of Hallowell): “Elias Craig’s Hatter’s shop” burned on Dec. 1.

Craig (Sept. 27, 1756 – May 6, 1837) had been an army private during the Revolution; he was 23 years old when he moved from Massachusetts to Fort Western in 1779. North called him “the first hatter in this region of country.”

His house and shop were on the west side of the Kennebec at the intersection of Bridge and Water streets. Charles Nash, in his 1904 history of Augusta, listed the places Hallowell town meetings were held between 1771 and 1792. The majority were at Fort Western in 1771 and 1772 and in the town meeting house after 1783; in between, voters assembled in three different inns, a barn and several houses, including in 1782 three times in Elias Craig’s house.

The house was of so little value that the assessors did not count it in 1784, North wrote. Indeed, he said, they counted only 38 “dwelling houses” for a population of 682 white people and 10 black people. Realizing the disparity, they explained that many families still lived in the “log cabins or camps which they first built,” which weren’t worth listing as taxable.

The 1784 assessors’ report listed 21 varied commercial holdings. Craig’s was one of five shops, and his stock in trade was valued at 50 pounds.

Craig rebuilt the shop after the fire, and enlarged the house at intervals. When that corner was rebuilt as a commercial block, the house was moved to Jefferson Street.

North wrote that Craig “possessed the confidence of the settlers, many of whom were welcomed to his house upon their arrival” before they moved to their new homes.

In 1792 one of his house guests was James Johnson. On May 31, he and his brother Samuel were firing celebratory cannons “probably on account of some recent news from France,” and one cannon exploded, injuring the two men. They were brought to Craig’s house, where midwife Martha Ballard attended to them. Apparently both survived.

Craig’s first wife was Hannah McKecknie (Sept. 28, 1766 – April 12, 1790), daughter of an early settler, Dr. John McKecknie. They were married in December 1788, and had a daughter, also named Hannah. On November 28, 1793, Craig married again, to Olive Hamlin or Hamlen (Nov. 2, 1770 – Sept. 25, 1848); they had three or four children.

Craig was a selectman in Hallowell, first elected in March 1795. He was among the 161 residents petitioning the Massachusetts legislature to create the separate town of Augusta in May 1791. The request was approved in February 1797, and a town named Harrington was organized; in June of the year, its name became Augusta.

Criag was elected selectman again at the first meeting in Harrington, in April 1797, and later was an Augusta selectman. North wrote that he served a total of seven years in the three successive towns. In 1806 he was the local coroner, according to Nash’s history. He moved to Fayette before his death on May 6 or May 7, 1837.

Leathern fire bucket.

North recorded the earliest fire department in the central Kennebec Valley, a “private fire company” formed in the 1790s in Augusta (then still Hallowell). The “principal citizens” who started the company wrote a charter requiring each to have on hand “two leathern fire buckets, and a canvas bag for the removal of goods at fire.” An on-line fire department history says insurance companies formed such associations to protect their members’ property.

The buckets, North explained, had been in use in the American colonies since the 1600s. They were oblong with leather handles, “very durable and convenient to pass water.” Association members put their names on their buckets.

On March 11, 1799, North wrote, two years after Augusta separated from Hallowell, town meeting voters appointed six fire wardens (Elias Craig was one of them). Later in the year town officials bought a fire engine and appointed firefighters (North said 13, Kingsbury’s Kennebec County history names 12, the online site names 14). The firefighters were called “engine men”; they were instructed to create an organization and make regulations “not repugnant to the constitution of the Commonwealth [of Massachusetts]).”

North did not mention the firefighters when he reported briefly on the Feb. 11, 1804, fire that burned a building whose tenants included Peter Edes’ printing office, where the Kennebec Gazette was published (the paper resumed publication March 23).

Nor did he describe any suppression efforts when the Hallowell Academy building burned on Jan. 29, 1805. Opened in 1795, it was in the area that remained Hallowell after the 1797 division. (See the Sept. 16, 2021, issue of The Town Line for more information on the two Hallowell academies.)

More than once North credited Hallowell with helping put out Augusta fires. He wrote that on Jan. 8, 1808, an old and a new blacksmith shop on Water Street burned down, and Nathan Weston’s old building beside them was “pulled down to prevent the flames from spreading.”

He continued, “The Hallowell engine arrived early and afforded great assistance in subduing the fire.” Total damage was $900; residents contributed $600 “to the relief of the sufferers.”

Hallowell came to the rescue again during a more serious incident a little more than three months later. The spring of 1808 was the period of the uprising of squatters against local government sometimes called the Malta War (Malta was an early name for Windsor, Maine). Public officials were attacked, and there was concern that public buildings, like the Kennebec County jail in Augusta, would be next.

A chaotic scene in early America when a house caught on fire. Bucket brigades were usually the main method of fighting fires. The whole community would pitch in, or risk the spread of fire.

Around sunset on March 16, 1808, North wrote, “a sudden alarm was given that the jail was on fire. The fire was discovered in the upper story. It rapidly spread, enveloping the building.”

The jailhouse was destroyed. The prisoners were evacuated, and North recorded that because of the unstable times, the jailer had already moved out essential records.

North wrote and quoted (probably from the March 18, 1808, issue of the Kennebec Gazette): “The citizens of Hallowell attended in great numbers ‘with both their engines,’ and were entitled to ‘much credit’ for their ‘prompt and spirited exertions.'”

The same evening, incendiary devices started a fire upstairs in the courthouse, but it was noticed in time to be put out before there was much damage. At 10 p.m., two local judges asked Major-General Henry Sewall to call out the militia, and Sewall immediately ordered the Augusta Light Infantry to guard the courthouse and the prisoners’ temporary accommodation.

Later, it was determined that the jailhouse fire was started by one of the prisoners, a tavern-keeper named Edward Jones, jailed for stealing. The courthouse fire probably was set by some of the rebellious settlers; North gave no names.

Jones, according to the Oct. 21, 1808, Kennebec Gazette (cited by North), was sent to the state prison to serve two months in solitary followed by nine years’ hard labor for arson. He was also convicted of stealing; that sentence (whether concurrent, North did not say) was 15 days’ solitary confinement and a year at hard labor.

And what, readers may wonder, did Kennebec County do with no jail? The answer is that county officials had a new one built; and North recorded its progress.

Right after the fire, he wrote, the county sheriff had a temporary wooden building put up near the county courthouse, and in April 1808 the Court of Sessions accepted it.

Court officials appointed a local man as superintendent of the interim jail and also charged him with cleaning up the old site, where they directed a new stone jail be built as soon as possible. Meanwhile, they paid good money to keep prisoners guarded in the “insecure” temporary quarters.

The court levied an $8,000 county tax for the new jail. North wrote that Massachusetts legislators cut it to $5,000; and in April 1809, they added back $3,000 to finish paying for the work. The building was in use by December 1808.

North described the new jail as a two-story building with walls of “large blocks of rough hammered stone fastened together with iron dowels.” Each floor had two blocks of cells separated by a central hall.

The ground-floor cells were for “the worst criminals,” and “were lighted and ventilated by openings in the walls six inches wide and two feet long.” The second-floor cells were for debtors and minor criminals; each cell had a grated window.

North wrote that the new jail “was much in advance of the prison accommodations of that day, and was considered a very expensive and secure structure.”

However, by 1857 the county commissioners were ready to replace it. North quoted their justification: the building was “wholly unfit for the purposes for which it was intended and used; more especially on account of the want of sufficient warmth, light, ventilation and cleanliness; it was inhuman, dangerous to life, and detrimental to health and good morals to imprison persons therein.”

The new Kennebec jail was built close to the courthouse and the old jail, at a cost of about $60,000, with preliminary study beginning in the spring of 1857 and the building ready for a well-attended public inspection on Feb. 1, 1859. A four-story stone and brick building, it had 54 regular cells and eight “privilege rooms.”

The regular cells were eight feet square, except for a dozen tiny ones, three feet 10 inches wide, on the second floor. The privilege rooms, which North also classed as cells, were eight feet by 19 feet.

The building evidently accommodated jail staff, as North listed eight “sleeping rooms,” a kitchen, eating and bathing rooms and “a parlor, sitting-room and office.”

Main sources

Kingsbury, Henry D., ed., Illustrated History of Kennebec County Maine 1625-1892 (1892).
Nash, Charles Elventon, The History of Augusta (1904).
North, James W., The History of Augusta (1870)

Websites, miscellaneous.