Exploring Local History
Migrating birds have been looking over my property for nesting places. I’m trying to persuade tree swallows to take up residence in the houses I built for them overlooking my lower field, but they’ve declined so far. Phoebes, however come back every year in places I’d rather they didn’t, like under the eaves on my porch roof. Lately they’re over my wife’s new hot tub, and when the babies are big enough, they’ll hang their rear ends off the the side of the nest and let go on the cover. She’s in the hot tub several times a week, but I join her only once in a while now. I bought a four-wheeler this spring and I’m out on it often. She joins me only once in a while.
I also bought old maps of every county in Maine and New Hampshire. Studying old maps of the western Maine region, it’s evident that early settlers in the steeper hill country around here searched out hidden valleys to set up households the way birds do each spring. They’d clear some land, build a house and barn, and raise families. Cutting roads into the more remote regions with only hand tools and animal power must have been daunting, but they did it. I spent half of my Easter vacation exploring some of the remotest and steepest areas around here and I can only marvel at the work ethic they obviously possessed. I can barely access these places in the 21st century, and I can only imagine how hard it was in the 19th or the 18th. It also helps me understand why they abandoned their homesteads after two or three generations and migrated west.
David Crouse, publisher of Cold River Chronicles, informed me a few weeks ago about historical USGS maps scanned and published online by UNH. Some go back as far as the 1890s. I’ll print out a map for each area I plan to explore and take along hard copies of 1858 maps published by Saco Valley Printing in Fryeburg. The maps show who lived in the houses which where only cellar holes are left. Depending on the region I explore, I can have maps from 1858, 1909, 1941 and 1962. I drive my pickup in as far as I can, then unload the four-wheeler to venture in further. When the terrain is too difficult even for that machine, I go on foot the way the early explorers did. Still, some of the old roads are difficult to make out even in the spring when there’s little foliage to camouflage them. My respect for the pioneers who first carved a home from these areas goes up with each exploration.
While I was in the middle of writing this column Crouse emailed me with a link to aerial photographs of western Maine taken within the last five years or so. They’re published by the Maine affiliate of Global Information Systems (GIS). Clicking on these, I could zoom in closely enough to identify the back roads I’d just traveled on last week in Stoneham, Lovell, Waterford and Sweden. They’re detailed enough to make out existing houses and even individual white pine trees if they’re big enough. I found my house and my neighbors’ houses too. I could see where large parcels were cut over more recently than neighboring large parcels. A definite grid pattern emerge when you see the country from high up.
Crouse sent me the GIS link because I’d just emailed him with the news that the Lovell Historical Society’s Bob Williams and I found what we strongly believe is the actual site of Calvin McKeen’s murder in 1860, about which Crouse and Williams are planning a presentation June 27th at the library here in Lovell. Exploring the area in the spring, I could see features like an abandoned roadbed which provided an additional reference point and made the old maps suddenly understandable. Crouse zoomed in on the aerial photo of the area and saw evidence of the old roadbed.
Exploring further into old West Stoneham neighborhoods puts me in the White Mountain National Forest. There are several abandoned communities even further in that I’m salivating to explore, but the WMNF gates are closed in spring - the best time to look around. Having just written a hefty check to the federal government earlier this month it chaps me that, while private landowners don’t fence me out, “public lands” are off-limits until summer when foliage will hide most of the historical evidence I’m looking for. I’ll also have to pay an additional fee to park and hike in, without my four-wheeler, which is banned.
The birds are still free to fly in there. The early settlers were able to cut roads and build houses in there without government assistance or regulation, but I, a member of the “public,” am not.