Sunday, April 08, 2007

Abandoned Neighborhoods in Maine

I’m not sure if we’re following an urge to escape from the modern world, but for a few hours each weekend, my wife and I have been exploring abandoned neighborhoods around our home in Lovell. In the eastern and western corners of town, networks of dirt roads, lined with old stone walls, snake through thick forest. Recently, we started exploring the old Patterson Hill neighborhood in east Lovell.

The older I get, just thinking about how much work went into building these roads makes me long for a nap. Using only hand tools and draft animals, the settlers hacked and smoothed roads that climb steep hillsides, then maintained them through winter frosts, spring floods and mud, and summer thunderstorms. They also cleared forests, built houses and barns, planted and harvested crops, raised animals, raised children, and just plain lived. In the pristine forest settlers first met, the trees towered well over a hundred feet and were often up to six feet around at the trunk. Consider what it took to chop through an oak that massive with an ax! Then, once the trees were down, they still had to be cleared to make way for crops. The huge stumps were often left in place for the first few harvests, leaving them to be dealt with after a house and barn were built. Again using only hand tools and draft animals, the stumps were pulled to the edges of fields to serve as fencing. Some old-timers around town still use the expression “ugly as a stump fence”—once to describe the wife of a former Post Office clerk—which is something less than politically correct in these enlightened times.

Recent theory has it that the stony New England soil was not a problem for that first generation of farmers. The topsoil on the hills, though thin, was still adequate in most places for plowing and planting without hitting underlying rocks. However, because the duff - layers of leaves and pine needles - was plowed under and the topsoil eroded, it could no longer insulate the ground, so frost penetrated deeper, and the glacially-deposited stones in the mineral soil beneath were pushed to the surface. It was the second generation of farmers who had to deal with stones, moving them to the sides of fields to replace the stumps, which by then had largely rotted away.

The emergence of those stones—some of them the size of Volkswagens--may have been what caused the second generation of settlers to abandon the Patterson Hill area. Lovell’s history, “Blueberries and Pusley Weed,” indicates that area families began to move on shortly after the Civil War. In 1858, there was a schoolhouse there with 19 students over behind little Dan Charles Pond. I had driven right past the site of the so-called Dresser School countless times without ever spying a trace of it. Evidently, it was abandoned not too many years after it was established - when area families decided to become pioneers once again, moving to the great American west and starting over.

Such was the pattern in many Maine and New Hampshire towns. The first settlers were given land as payment for their military service in the French and Indian War or, later, in the American Revolution. These veterans and their families carved a farm out of the primeval forest and passed it on to the next generation. The population of rural northern New England continued to grow in this way until peaking in 1861, after which it declined drastically as many families abandoned their farms and moved west. Their houses and barns collapsed, leaving cellar holes and stone walls which were eventually hidden from sight as forests reclaimed the fields.

It appears that at least two generations of forest have grown over the fields and pastures of Patterson Hill since it was abandoned, perhaps even three or four. At the very top of the hill, however, a field has been reclaimed, revealing a breathtaking vista of the New Hampshire mountains to the west, and a well has been drilled. However, there’s no electricity anywhere nearby, since the whole area was already uninhabited long before Franklin Roosevelt’s Rural Electrification program in the 1930s. Here and there on Patterson Hill, faded surveying tape is evident, and I noticed a few small campers, but redevelopment does not appear imminent. Patterson Hill seems likely to remain wild for a while longer.

I wrote a column a few weeks ago about the solitary grave of 17-year-old Marion Abbott next to Union Hill Road near the Stow/Lovell line. John Chandler of Lovell told me he knew where the grave was and had heard that Marion was killed by a bull. He knew of nowhere that that information had been written down; it’s just what people always said about how the young woman under that lonely stone marker protected by a little fence had died 144 years ago.

First published May, 2004

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