Wednesday, March 29, 2006

A Long Ago Killing

This is the best time of year for exploring lost neighborhoods. The snow has melted and no undergrowth has leafed out yet. Last fall’s leaves are flattened down by the snow pack, though not as much as usual after a mild winter. One can see far into the woods in early spring, and the stone walls, the cellar holes and abandoned roads are least concealed.

Finding old roads can be difficult. Not only are they overgrown, but many have also been used for logging at least once, and sometimes two or three times. Landings were bulldozed and skidders dragged hundreds of twitches along and across them. In some cases, the roads were improved for logging trucks, but not necessarily along the original routes. Conscientious loggers preserved some old roads by constructing water bars at regular intervals where they’re steepest, thus preventing washouts by spring runoff and summer thunderstorms. Trouble is, the water bars are sometimes too big to drive my truck over and I have to hike in with my aging legs. This may be the year I finally buy a four-wheeler.

Stonewalls have been breached in some places by skidders or bulldozers or just plowed under. Cellar holes have been filled in or buried in slash and cemeteries damaged. I ran into all these problems while exploring the abandoned neighborhood on the Lovell/Stoneham town line where Calvin McKeen was killed by John Coffin in 1860.

My first information about the incident came from the August, 2000 edition of “Cold River Chronicle.” It’s an old, but familiar story. Two men were drinking more than they should. One, McKeen, had a reputation as a hothead. The other, Coffin, had a gun. There were rumors that McKeen’s wife was involved with Coffin, an occasional boarder in the household. Over a bottle of rot gut rum, things got out of hand. McKeen evidently went after Coffin with a butcher knife. Coffin, a blacksmith, caved his skull in with a hot iron and then shot him. After a highly-publicized trial, Coffin was found guilty of manslaughter and served five years at the Maine State Prison in Thomaston.

Coffin was defended by Attorney David R. Hastings of Lovell whose photo appeared in Cold River Chronicle. Knowing his descendant and namesake, attorney and current Maine State Senator David R. Hastings III of Fryeburg, I was struck by the strong resemblance between the two though they’re separated by a hundred forty years and however many generations. Coffin’s sister later married the son of Maine’s governor Garcelon and they built an impressive mansion on the opposite shore of Kezar Lake from the abandoned neighborhood which still stands.

David Crouse, publisher of “Cold River Chronicle,” included a map of the old neighborhood. Looking around last spring, I ran across a solitary gravestone. It seemed out of place all by itself on a knoll beside an old road. There was no other indication that a cemetery ever existed there - no fence, no other gravestones, nothing. And it was not a primitive stone. It was innately carved marble on a granite pedestal and inscribed: “Caroline” most prominently, and beneath that was: “wife of William Sawyer. Died June 8, 1882 AE 65 yrs. 5 mos. 11 ds.” Caroline and William Sawyer lived in the house closest to the murder scene and were the first people informed on the night of Calvin McKeen’s death by both his widow and his killer.

Carrying 1858 and 1963 maps of the area as well as a DeLorme Atlas, I found several cellar holes and roads, but so far I’ve been unable to determine for certain which ones belonged to Calvin McKeen and Caroline Sawyer. Using the bridge over Cold Brook as reference point, I was thrown off. It’s a modern bridge and quite elaborate for what is now a sparsely-populated area. I asked Lovell’s John Chandler if the bridge was rebuilt on the site of the one it replaced and he told me it was. Exploring further, I found stonework upstream that may have been part of an older bridge. After the mud dries a little more, I’m going back in there and hopefully reach some conclusions.

But for cellar holes, stone walls, cemeteries and obscured roads, nothing is left of a 19th century neighborhood with at least two schools, a mill, two shops, and many farms. A few camps and houses have sprung up in the past few decades but most of the land is now part of the White Mountain National Forest.

Cold River Chronicle’s David Crouse and Robert Williams of the Lovell Historical Society are offering a program on Calvin McKeen’s murder at the Charlotte Hobbs Library in Lovell June 27th at 7:00 pm.


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