Sunday, May 19, 2013

A historical surprise

One of the unexpected pleasures of running a weblog, if anyone still uses that term, is that people, out of the blue, sometimes contact you about things that you're interested in. In this vein, the other day I received an email from an older gentleman who apparently lives not far away in Brewer, Maine, who grew up in our rural hamlet, known as the Great Farm. His name was Perry Amsden, short for Perham, and he was the son of the original Perham Amsden, whom we had originally believed to have been the builder of our home.

Perry provided us with clues to some historical mysteries that are of more than just passing local or regional interest.

I should explain a little, for newer readers. As we mention in the sidebars, this isn't A Great Farm Diary because we actually believe our humble agricultural efforts to be such a great example of farming (although said efforts are used in agriculturally-related classes at Unity College).

The rather grand name name of our blog comes instead from the original name of the property on which our small house sits, the Great Farm of Jackson, Maine, which in its heyday, probably around 1810 to 1830, was a major center of agricultural excellence and a byword for elegant living. The humble rock-wall enclosed area of 3.5 acres that comprises our farm or smallholding was probably a paddock, orchard or vegetable plot close by a very large mansion house, which itself was the summer home of one of America's Revolutionary War heroes and early industrial magnates, a fascinating character called Israel Thorndike.

In addition to being a privateer during the war, and one of the earliest American adopters of the factory system, Thorndike was one of the original Gerrymanderers, inventors of the devious system for manipulating congressional districts to sway the vote, in this case for the Federalist Party, and an agricultural improver or experimenter on a grand scale. At one point he owned pretty much all of Waldo County, Maine, along with his two partners, Messrs Sears and Prescott, having bought out Revolutionary War general Henry Knox's interest on a mortgage repossession of the original colonial land grant, the Waldo Patent.

Thorndike took part of his share of the land and had it cleared up for a giant farm, two thousand acres in all, where he built a mansion, said to have had a large number of rooms and even piped water, an unheard of luxury in post-revolutionary Maine. The buildings that the current, much more humble denizens of what is still called the Great Farm occupy sit amid the grassed-over foundations of Thorndike's mansion and outbuildings. It's our collective efforts to interpret this ruined landscape that were aided by Perry's email. Although the foundations of the mansion are clear to see, we've struggled for some time to locate the sites of the original barns.

One such barn was so large that it went down in local legend. The settlers, of whom a large part were Revolutionary War veterans, nicknamed it "Egypt," a strange name for a barn. An important historical work, Liberty Men and Great Proprietors, provides a clue to the naming. The revolutionary rank-and-file soldiers were largely late colonial-era working men and small farmers, whose philosophy of liberty was only slightly modified from that of their ancestors in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. They were in a word, levellers, British Revolutionary soldiers from the lower rungs of colonial American life whose ethos was egalitarian, anti-aristocratical, anti-monarchical, and linked closely to their low-church Puritan or Presbyterian protestantism. Thorndike's barn, which they were expected to fill with produce as means of working off their mortgages, could have been so named because Thorndike himself became to them a kind of Pharoah, an oppressor. We'd love to know where "Egypt" sat, but we have very few clues. We still don't know, but Perry provided a few more clues, and gave us some glimpses into life on the Great Farm in the first few decades of the 1900s, long after Thorndike's demise, but fascinating nevertheless.

Here's the photo of the second Great Farm farmhouse in the late 1930s that Perry sent us. Perham is the man seated on the porch step. The original Thorndike mansion burned down in the 1880s. This is a more modest replacement, and it looks much the same as it does in the photo. Our neighbor Jean Richards lives there now. Her son Hamilton and I are the ones who are trying to figure out the history of the property. You can see a lean-to shed directly to the right, which Perry says was a tool-room and outhouse, and another obvious barn to the right of that.

But is this the famous barn called Egypt? Or a newer building?

And here's what Perry said,
"It was with some interest that I stumbled onto your 2007 blog about the Great Farm. Since I grew up there as the only son of Perham Amsden (my name is Perham, also. I have a different middle name). I was born in 1927 and we lived there until 1938 when my folks purchased a farm in Belmont, ME.

There are a few things that stand out in my memory that you may not be aware of. My grandfather, William Amsden, moved from Fort Fairfield to Jackson in the early 1900's - probably around 1907. He passed away in 1923.  I have no recollection of when Perham and Emery divided the farm. Since Emery was older and was married with 5 children, it was probably less of the brothers having a falling out than of necessity for more space. My Dad and Mother were married in October, 1923, so that may have been a contributing factor, too. My recollection is that their relationships were amicable - at least in the early and mid '30's. It was probably around 1935-36 that Emery purchased a farm in Detroit and moved his family there - or at least those that were still living at home. Emery has one surviving son, Raymond, living in Lewiston.

Both farms had a barns that were very close together and formed an L. Emery's barn faced East, Dad's farm faced South. Emery's barn was essentially empty, but Dad's barn stored his pair of horses, some cows, lots of hay and grain, his farming equipment and tools. I forget the date, but it was about 1937 that Dad woke up to find both barns ablaze. He always believed that the new owner of Emery's house, a Mr. Gilmore, set the fire to collect the insurance. No proof, however. That was what brought Dad's move to Belmont."
So what we see in the picture is Perham's barn, since it faces south.

This more or less confirms what we knew about the Great Farm ownership in the early 1900s. Perham and Emery were the sons of William Amsden, who bought the land from Eugene Fletcher, who got it from an Ezra Carpenter in 1894. Ezra got it from his father Nathanial, a Civil War veteran. There were two prior owners, then Thorndike himself. The date on William Amden's deed is actually February 20th, 1909, but he may easily have moved here earlier in 1907, as Perry recollects.

Perham and Emery formally subdivided what was left of the Great Farm in 1929, and we have that deed too. At that point our small three-and-a-half plot became a separate property for the first time, although it had been clearly delineated as a separate field or paddock for some time.

Was one of these barns the famous "Egypt?" It seems unlikely. But take a look at this aerial photograph:


Although you can't clearly see a barn still standing to the east of the main farmhouse, you can see a long, light-colored rectangular plot. 

To make this a little easier to see, I've circled the outlines of what may have been Perham's south facing barn and Emery's east-facing barn, making an "L".

There's a faint shadow, so these may be the actual buildings, and if so they are obviously before the fire, which dates the photo to before 1937. Given that our house is about 50 feet from north to south, Perham's barn, if it is the longer, north-south oriented one, may have been as much as 75 feet long.
Comparing the other distances with those in the photograph above, in the aerial photograph, the door of Perham's barn is about 150 feet from the front porch of the main house. If the rectangular shape is Perham's barn, then the background of the photograph must be optically foreshortened a little, because it looks a good deal closer.

Perry's email suggested it was certainly far enough that the house wasn't at risk in the barn fire incident, so I find the possibility of foreshortening the best explanation so far.

If these are the Amsden era barns, neither is big enough for "Egypt." Also, Perry says that his father was too young to have been involved in building our home, which is "officially" dated to 1900. So, the mystery continues, and deepens. But it's nice to have more information and a picture we've never seen before!

In particular, it's pleasing to me to learn more about how the land and buildings were used to make homes and grow food. barns in particular are the heart of the farm, and the primary mechanisms of farm fertility, if used properly for collecting and cycling bedding and manure. I've built three barns now in my life, and I'm very fond of them. I'd rather be in a barn than just about anywhere else, expect perhaps a field or a garden.

One final nugget: perry says that Daniel Webster, another of the "Boston Associates," came to the Great farm in its heyday, and fished in the brook!

I hope he had better luck than I do.

Having said that, I'd better get to some farm work. It's past 7am and daylight is burning.

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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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