Friday, April 18, 2008

Found: Local History

High: 75° F
Low: 40° F
Conditions: Warm, calm, and clear.
It’s currently 72°F here in Central Maine. That’s a few degrees shy of the record temp for today (79° F), but it’s awfully close. It’s certainly warm enough for me and Ari to head outside for an afternoon of quality caninaturalism.

In spite of the amazing warmth today, there’s still a surprising amount of snow left in the woods. We limited our exploration, then, to some of the sunnier environs in our town forest. Luckily, there was lots to see—especially where human ecology is concerned.

Our sleepy little village of 800 once had a population over triple that size. Back in the mid-1800s, it was a booming hinterland economy that supplied butter and ice for the eastern seaboard and the Caribbean. Each week, farmers would load up their carts with timber or cream and take these wares down to the port city of Belfast. There, dock workers would unload schooners, divesting them mostly of sugar and then reloading them with inland goods. The sugar went to a distillery near the docks—one of the largest in all of New England, and one which produced a rum known more for its potency than its quality. Inland farmers and ox cart drivers were often paid for their services in kegs of rum, and the Belfast Historical Society has records of drunken cart pile ups involving upwards of 70 ox carts (and their drunk drivers).

The rise of train transport decreased the appeal of little towns like ours, and they fell into a slow decline by the turn of the 20th century. The Great Depression only worsened things and ultimately began a migration that would send over half the town westward, looking for better opportunities. Most of the deserters left their farms and houses still containing all but their most prized possessions. In time, the houses collapsed leaving only foundations and a few clues about the lives once led there. The land remained abandoned until the town, with the help of the Civilian Conservation Corps, reclaimed and replanted it as official town forest in the late 1930s. Today, these 200 acres provide much of our civic revenue: just about every telephone pole in Turkey came from our little plot of land.

This time of year is a great one for exploring the abandoned homesteads tucked in the forest. Most of the year, the thick understory hides them from view. But each spring, as the snow melts and the leaves choose to wait a few last frosts, ghostly apparitions begin to appear in the town forest--like this disused cemetery, where tombstones date back to the early nineteenth century.

Learning to interpret other potential archeological sites can be tricky. We rely heavily on a wonderful book called Reading the Forested Landscape by Tom Wessels. He offers great pointers for divining previous land use patterns, like this stone wall.

Some of these structures were built deliberately to contain livestock. Others were simply convenient spots to unload some of the ubiquitous glacial till that makes farming in northern New England such a challenge. The right angles and precision in this wall suggests it was probably used for the former.

An old grist mill used to contain a good part of this waterfall.
If you get close enough, you can still see the beveled bolt holes that secured it to the bank. In general, caninaturalists will probably recommend against this kind of micro-investigation. Raging water is not nearly as interesting as squirrel nests stuffed in the trees around it.
Dozens of foundations such as this one exist in the town forest.
Caninaturalists are particularly adept at finding them. They can also lead you to disused domestic tools, like this basin and mug.
Said caninaturalists will undoubtedly be disappointed to discover that neither of these disused dishes contain cheese or chicken breasts. Hearing that they once did will be little consolation. Still, when pressed, canine investigators will admit there are few better ways to spend a warm afternoon. I agree.


Sandpiper said...

A nice history lesson and great pictures to go along with it. It sounds like spring is springing there! It hit 82°F (28°C) here in Connecticut today! I'm happy!

Island Rambles Blog said...

Hi there ari and kathryn, glad it looks warmer there.. love the history part of your walk about..I like learning about how early pioneers survived in the past and am fascinated with it..even if ari is NOT!!! cheers!

Me & my puppies said...

I am so glad to hear some of the warmth of spring has reached you. (Before you know it we'll all be complaining about the heat!!) That's the time to look over our current posts. Thank you for the history lesson, interesting as always.

Lorenza said...

Do I understand well and you live in place with only 800 persons??
We live in a city of 1000,000 and almost zero history!
Thanks for sharing it!
Kisses and hugs

Khyra The Siberian Husky said...


It was warm on Friday in my part of the world - 82 BUT Mom's Xterra temp on the way home showed Xterior temp MUCH higher than that!

Once again, you did a nice job showing us YOUR lokhal sights!!

We did have some frosty nights earlier this week so Mom/Dad PF had to do some serious huddling!!!


John Theberge said...

Thanks for the little history lesson, it's always interesting to find out something about Maine's past. A 70 ox cart pile up, that must've been funny to see, they had to be drunk if they crashed an oxen cart that isn't moving very fast. Also, thanks for the tip on Bon Pyle, I'll have to check out the Orion Magazine website.

sugarcreekstuff said...

What great photos on your beautiful day. How did you end up living in such a place?

Marigold said...

72 degrees? Does the thermometer go that high???

Gunner said...

Ari, it sure looks nice there, reminds me of where we lived in Nevada County, CA....

My mom really misses it and thinks you and your ma are really lucky to live some place that's beautiful and has all that history.

Cheers, Gunner

The Daily Echo said...

Woo - 70s and snow! How does that happen? Mom says if she can't have a blizzard, 70 degree temps will do.

Holly said...

How sad that the town has come to that, but very cool all the history surrounding the area! What a wonderful time that would be, to explore it all!


Pippa said...

Mistress likes to take master and I on silly history rambles. I hope yours are more interesting than mine.


Turbo the Sibe said...

It's always sad when you don't find cheese!

Gus and Louie said...

Wow our Dad would love it there. He loves to metal detect and we bet he could find some awesome stuff there. He also like old pottery. He used to go dump digging as a kids...

Big Sloppy Kisses
Gus and Louie

The Army of Four said...

I really tried to pay attention to your town history, but once the words "snow" and "butter" were used, I sort of got lost. Mom enjoyed it, though.
Play bows,

Kapp pack said...

Great history lesson!

Woo woo, Kelsey Ann

brucesc said...

Fascinating stuff--I'm surprised that all the artifacts haven't been taken away already. Our town is twice as big as yours.........LOL.

Eve said...

That was a fun trip this morning too Ari!
I too enjoyed the drunken pile up!!! Give a human booze and wheels and you know something bad will happen!!! But what I want to know is were they sharing with the oxen????
Hope the weather holds up! Oh if you have time I have a question...Do you have to drive to get to the forest or just walk out the back door?? I'm thinking the latter.
Have another good day!