Out of Our Past

Boothbay's Lost

Wed, 01/22/2020 - 7:00am

I wrote the following article in 1989. Any updates are within bracketed sentences.

We've all lost or broken family heirlooms. When it happens, it seems a trust is broken and that the link with our ancestors is weakened or cut off. The likelihood grows that eventually it will be as though our forebears never lived for the past is swallowed up in an instant by the present. Towns too lose their heirlooms and the continuity snaps between past and present—a public, not just a private, loss.

In reading Greene's 1906 history closely, occasionally his sources are stated. Of course we can't go to the living people Greene relied upon for information, people like William Kenniston or Deacon Paul Giles, but the papers Greene saw could still be around. It would be great to go to them but this cannot be done with most manuscripts—they're just gone.

1757 Map, 1700s Diary

One item missing since Greene published his region history in 1906 is a map he mentioned on page 129. A 1757 map of 700 acres at Back River by Jonas Jones, one of the Kennebec Proprietors surveyors, is no longer to be found. There are tens of Jones' maps in Portland, most covering Georgetown, but not this one. Maybe a descendant of the 1906 owner, Albert R. Matthews of Back River, now possesses it. I am at a loss as to how to find it now, except through this column. [John Welsh III of Dover knew which house that map was in at Back River and found that the seasonal owner would donate it to the historical society. In 1991 he and I walked down that long snow-covered driveway on a frigid day and got it from that equally frigid house.]

Of the things Greene saw that have never turned up, saddest to me is the apparent loss of the diary that Greene writes about on page 479. John Leishman was a major housebuilder in the region, arriving about 1764 in the area and his diary records his work concerning the houses he built and when the work was done. The Leishmans were also leading citizens in town, so details of town management and family life were probably in the diary as well; as Greene says,"his diary contains many valuable facts." But now, 83 years later, the diary is nowhere to be found. Hoping to track it down, I followed three leads which, unfortunately, came to nothing.

Breakup of the Towns

Because 1989 is Boothbay Harbor's centennial year, I set out to finally understand the details of the division of the towns in 1889. As many know, Boothbay Harbor broke off from the rest of the town for the express purpose of gaining a water system to protect itself from fire and to modernize some houses with piped water. At the time it was felt that the rest of the town would continually vote down the expensive proposal, and that the harbor would consequently "die on the vine." So strong was the sentiment for separation that the whole legal process from beginning to end took place in a mere three months—the legislature worked with winged feet. Once free, the Harbor felt it could now act for its own good to develop commerce, unimpeded by opposition. "Prosperity" was the watchword of the 1880s and it looked as though the Harbor was on the bandwagon.

But water did not come. Not that year, or the next, or the next, and so on—not for another six years. It was on the warrant year after year and dismissed every time. It appeared that the Harbor was not of one mind after all. Was it the perversity of human nature or the shadowy water companies causing mistrust? Water companies then had the same degree of respect that fly-by-night condominium developers have today. Had the separation been railroaded through by the local business leaders with the bulk of the taxpayers still unwilling to lay out money for improvements for just a tiny portion of the town? That seemed likeliest. I set out to see what the Register had to say. The 1880s Registers were full of articles on the controversy; the 1890s should have covered it well also.

However, there are nearly no Registers from the 1890s. The historical society has 30 out of the possible 520 that might have been published during the decade. [Since 1989 we’ve gained 22 more, many from Bob Barter.] There are none at the library, none at the Register office, none at the courthouse, and none at Maine Historical Society. Obviously I was not going to find a blow-by-blow of water being continually turned down. The lack of those papers punches a big hole in our towns' past for the week-to-week record of a presumably accessible decade has practically vanished.

Reuben to the Rescue

Reuben McFarland and I have spent time together talking about the past, and I recorded a video of his memories of North Boothbay. When I last saw him a couple of weeks ago, I was delighted to get from him a copy of a 1894 Register. We had none from that year—now we have one, thanks to Reuben. Perhaps other people have copies of issues from the 1890s that they would be willing to share with the society, or the library, or the Register. It's possible that a fairly complete collection could be built up if attics are checked. After all, a couple of years ago Don Kenniston gave us Dexter Hodgdon's bound Registers, as complete a collection of the 1880s as is possible; there must be more around. Anyone who has an old 1890s issue could do the whole region a favor by making it available to others by giving it to us.