Sunday, December 16, 2007

First Post: Great Farm History:

In April 2006 my partner Aimee and I became the proud owners of a 3.5 acre plot of land in Jackson, Maine, upon which stands the third Great Farm farmhouse, built in 1900.

The original 2000-acre Great Farm, of which our land is a tiny fragment, was a showcase farm begun by a trio of Boston merchant-adventurers in 1806. Messrs. Sears, Prescott, and Thorndike were wealthy men who had been active in all kinds of businesses. Israel Thorndike was possibly the most famous, having been a privateer captain against the British in the Revolutionary war, and delegate to the convention that ratified the Constitution in Massachusetts. It was Thorndike that became the proprietor of the Great Farm, and it his name that is on the original deed for the much larger area of land that contained what is now our small farm. Thorndike and his partners first acquired by foreclosure, then disposed of by mortgage sales to new homesteaders, about 100,000 acres of early Maine, taking over a colonial land grant that was called first the Muscungus and then the Waldo Patent. The trio opened a land office in nearby Belfast, Maine. Most of the land they sold was mortgaged, the mortages held by the three proprietors, and one way purchasers could work off their mortgages was by working on the Great Farm, hence its grandeur and prosperity. Eventually the farm was sold, and then broken up bit by bit, until it became a more manageable family-scale enterprise. This link goes to a history of "The Wrights of Jackson, Maine" by Robert Lindsey, with details of the Great Farm period I found on the web. It gives a good idea of the resolute and independent way that Jackson inhabitants have probably always had to proceed in life, particularly in winter.

Thorndike and Sears are memorialized in the names of towns in Waldo County, hence Thorndike, Searsport, and Searsmont, which presumably these men founded.

The first Great Farm house was truly great. It was essentially a mansion, albeit in the relatively plain Bullfinch architectural style then in vogue in the northeast. It had many rooms and piped water, a huge luxury for the times, and was associated with an impressive demonstration farm boasting a 500-tree apple orchard, showy bloodstock including the then-novel Merino sheep, and a barn so huge it was called "Egypt." Wealthy visitors came up from Boston to summer in fine style at Thorndike's mansion. This original house burned in the 1880s.

Thorndike himself must have been the model of the gentleman farmer. His other business enterprises were quite vast, and he remains one of the "50 wealthiest Americans" of all time, according to The Wealthy 100 by Michael Klepper and Robert Gunther. One of his business enterprises is detailed in "The Lords and the Mill Girls" a historical essay by Maury Klein. According to Klein, Thorndike aspired to model exceptionally enlightened business practices, and had a great regard for the well-being of his employees. Some of his relatives made Jackson and neighboring Brooks, Maine, their home, and one nephew in particular became the overseer of the Great Farm and the proprietor of a factory in Brooks. Photographs of the nephew's home, known as "Thorndike Farm", are in the Brooks Historical Society Museum.

Built after the original burned, the second Great Farm house still stands, and is also in the Bullfinch style. It has been renovated and is the fine home of our neighbor Jean Richards, who has lived there for many decades. Her grown children Hamilton and Kelly are close by, in much newer dwellings, the fourth and fifth such dwellings to be built in the original Great Farm area, which has become what the British would call a small rural "hamlet." Our common road is "Great Farm Road," the brook is "Great Farm Brook," and other neighbors include the "Great Farm Rifle Club." The memory of Thorndike's Great Farm is well-preserved in te current map of Jackson, Maine.

The third, most modest, house was to be built on the site of the Great Farm when two brothers named Amsden came into ownership of the house and remaining acreage in the later 1800s. Apparently, Emery fell out with Perham Amsden, who went across the road about 200 feet and built a whole new house so he wouldn't have to live with his brother any more. He built a basic farmhouse with four rooms downstairs and three up in 1900. It almost burned soon after and the scars of this fire are clearly visible in the attic. Local legend has it the fire was deliberately set by Emery. The house appears to have been built in two stages. First a crude cabin seems to have been built on dry-stone foundation walls with no cellar. Cost-cutting measures are clearly visible in this structure. The sills of this cabin were square hemlock, but the joists were pine logs 29 feet long, one side having been flattened by broad axe to accommodate floorboards. The walls had properly dimensioned rough-cut 2 by 4s, but the attic joists were of odd dimensions and spacing, indicating the use of cheaper off-cut lumber. The second phase included a more conventionally fitted out two-storey farmhouse 21 feet by 24 feet, with a full cellar. In the second phase of building all boards used were milled to the correct dimensions according to the carpentry standard of the time. Niceties such as a tin ceiling in the "parlour" and a maple hardwood floor were included, but the upper floors were never finished except to put linoleum over sub floor boards.

Along with Perham's new house was deeded a smallholding of 3.5 acres, essentially enough land for a garden and potato patch, and possibly enough to graze a buggy horse in summer. This land was all contained within an older dry stone wall, still clearly visible. Because of this wall, its close proximity and relation to the original house, and some terracing that still is apparent, we can guess that our 3.5 acres might have once been a paddock or a garden patch, or both, close to the home place. When the brothers fell out, this was the obvious building site. Based on the various metal items we found in the dirt, we guess that there were barns, stables and chicken coops here from time to time, either before or after Perham's house was built, and the traces of what must once have been an important roadway for the original Great Farm are clearly visible at the northern boundary of the smallholding. As the land slopes away to the south, there are many elm trees, children of the original avenue of elms that led to the Great Farm, and dozens of apples that possibly date back to the original orchards. The aspect is the best feature of the land, situated on a slight knoll, with southern exposure and terracing, it was made for a gardener.

Aimee and I bought Perham's 1900 house from the Vancough family estate. The most recent owner, Dottie or Dorothy Vancough, had passed on, after a period of illness in which everything fell into neglect. We began the job of rebuilding much of the house and restoring the homestead land to productivity. We also took a lease on some of the surrounding former Great Farm acreage, owned by the Wartel Trust, an absentee owner with 225 acres of the Great Farm. This lease expanding the land available to us for agricultural and forestry purposes to 15.5 acres. We fenced and built a barn, stocking these facilities with sheep and chickens. We made a garden. We started clearing land and identifying trees for cutting or conservation, especially the elms, which are now rare, thinning out less interesting or desirable trees like "popple" or poplar. We have a collection of quite large elms, and hope to protect them from Dutch Elm Disease.

We have a lot more to do.

This blog is the story of our adventures on this land, and is accompanied by pictures taken as we went. This summer, 2007, after living here for a year, we made our first modest harvest, taking vegetables and meat, apples, eggs, and firewood from the land. Our neighbors Hamilton and Andrea also planted a large garden and made a nice harvest on their family land close by. Hamilton is a keen hunter and patrols the neighborhood vigorously.

Too soon to tell, but it seems like the Great Farm might be becoming a farm again. At the very least, it remains a site for "proper" rural lifestyles and pursuits, albeit perhaps not quite as grand as Captain Thorndike intended. Watch this space to find out more as time passes by.

Excerpt from

A History of Jackson, Maine
A Gazetteer of the
State of Maine

By Geo. J. Varney
Published by B. B. Russell, 57 Cornhill,
Boston 1886

Jackson is situated in the northern part of Waldo County, 15 miles N.N.W of Belfast. It is bounded on the east by Monroe, south by Brooks, west by Thorndike, and north by Dixmont, in Penobscot County. In dimensions it is 5½ miles in length from north to south, and 5 miles wide from east to west. The surface is very much broken; and in the north-western and southern part are many hills. The principal streams are the Hadley Brook, and its tributary, Moulton Brook, which form a branch of Marsh River. The manufactures consist of long and short lumber (two mills), a carriage factory, etc. The village is connected with Belfast by a stage-line.

The first settlement in this town was made in 1800 by Benjamin Cates, of Gorham, from whom Cates’ Hill has its name. Joel Rich arrived the next year, and settled on a hill which has since borne his name. Other early settlers were Nicholas Hamlin, Benjamin Skillings, John Cates, George, Elisha and Ebenezer Morton, and Nathaniel Knight, most of whom were from Gorham. First Minister, S. Warren.

The town was a part of the Waldo Patent. Gen. Henry Knox, who soon after the Revolution became proprietor of this patent, sold a few lots to settlers, then disposed of all that remained to Israel Thorndike, David Sears and William Prescott. Thorndike was a citizen of Boston, but, having a taste for agricultural pursuits, he cleared up and cultivated a large farm near the centre of the township, which he stocked with horses, kine, sheep and poultry, and set out an orchard of 500 apple trees. The place was long after his death known as “Great Farm,” but has since deteriorated.

The plantation was organized in 1812, and incorporated as a town in 1818. It was probably named in honor of Geii. Henry Jackson, a soldier of the Revolution. Ezra Abbot, D.D., LL.D., was a native of the town.

The Congregationalists and Free Baptists each have a church in town. The number of schoolhouses is ten; and the value of the school property is $3,000. The valuation of estates in 1870 was $176,604. In 1880 it was $159,315. The population in 1870 was 707. In 1880 it was 682.


  1. I read with interest the history of your farm, which dovetails into the history of my farm located just over the Jackson/Thorndike line. (Johnson's)If you are truly into history and would like to learn more about the Amsden's in Jackson Maine I encourage you to talk to my Grandmother, who was originally an Amdsen. She is well versed in family history, and she has artifacts and family history "by the tons" and enjoys talking about her lineage (as do I). At 84 years old, and of failing health, I encourage you to talk to her soon though :(

    You might be interested to know too, that the Amden's are not without their own unique history. Thomas Amsden is said to have come over on the Mayflower when it landed at Plymouth Rock. Our family has also had prominent soldiers in the French and Indian War, The American Revolution,the Civil War and others. Because my wife's family has been in Maine a long time as well, and has lineage in the American Revolution, our daughter is automatically entered into the Daughters of The American Revolution, due to both set of parents have kin in that conflict.

    Incidentally my wife came across your blog not because of the family connection, but because we plan to raise sheep soon. Your sheep came up on a search and then history was taken from there.

    If you ever get the chance (and want to) feel free to visit us. As a Johnson I have a vast history in Jackson/Thorndike as my Great Grandfather (Fredrick Johnson) was a vast potato farmer here as well. There is a lot of history not to be shared.

    Travis S Johnson

  2. I was interested in the Great Farm, because my Grandfather's brother Abbot Warren stayed there for a while in the 1870's with his maternal Grandmother Phoebe dorcus Abigail Abbot Warren Carpenter. He and his sister later stayed with Silas Warren in Jackson. I have a drawing of the Great Farm house when Abbot was there, drawn by him and given to my father

  3. anonomous was/is Richard Warren Grant, ie, but could only send the message "anonomously"

  4. great site
    my 4X grandfather was Israel Thorndike

    glad to see his name out there!

    Louis Thorndike Roth
    Pacifica CA


Welcome to our Farm Blog.
The purpose of this blog is for Aimee and I to communicate with friends and family, with those of our students, and other folks in general who are interested in homesteading and farming activities.

The earliest posts, at the very end of the blog, tell the story of the Great Farm, our purchase of a fragment of that farm, the renovation of the homestead and its populating with people and animals. Go all the way to the last post in the archive and read backwards from there to get it in chronological order.

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