Friday, March 24, 2023

Raymond waterways at center of 19th century logging operations

By Ernest H. Knight

March is the end of winter, more or less, and the start of spring, more or less. At least when we know the weather has been bad, we can have hopes as to what might be forthcoming, anything that is better.

Waterways were the most efficient method to transport logs
in Maine to the sawmill in the 19th century and the town of
Raymond was a primary destination for loggers and logging
drivers seeking to move their products to markets for
shipping out of state. COURTESY PHOTO  
Appropriate for this time of year in Raymond, however, is the timber harvest of the winter, when logs were readied for their trip to the sawmills.

Before the days of skidders and tractors, the hauling of logs in and from the woods was performed by oxen and horses; before the days of the chain saw, all cutting was by axe and crescent saw; before the days of good roads and trucks, these logs were transported to the mills by water.

And along with all the ‘before the days of” mentioned, there must be recognition of the various environmental, water quality and conservation agencies that today determine policies and practices. For better or worse, free enterprise is no longer free.

At most local sites there was a sawmill, mainly designed for lumber for local properties. But much of the log harvest went further downstream to the bigger mills that supplied the markets of cities along the coast long since stripped of their forests.

All through the winter logs were hauled from the woods on sleds and unloaded in rows on the ice. When the ice melted, the logs floated and with wind, current and headworks ready to travel. Their route was down Great Rattlesnake, through Tenney River into Panther Pond on through Panther Run and sluiced through the dame on Mill Street into the Jordan River and into Jordan Bay on Sebago Lake.

Mills then had to be at natural falls or dam improvements where water wheels could provide the necessary power for the up-and-down and circular saws.

With melting snows providing flowage and helped by prevailing winds down the lake, the logs could reach Panther Pond without difficulty and cleanup crews of drivers could easily free those caught along the shores or in backwaters.

But in Panther where logs could go far astray because of its width and bays, they could use booms and headworks. The headworks was usually a raft about 10 or 20 feet square on which was mounted a capstan, around which men walked pushing on capstan bars to draw the boomed log floe to it.

The headworks would then be towed ahead in the desired direction and one or more anchors set, the boom pulled up to it and the process repeated as many times as necessary.

In Jordan Bay, the logs would again be boomed for their journey to the Presumpscot, except that in the latter 1800s, the capstan headworks was replaced by steam towboats for the longer and more difficult stretch. As late as into the 1910s, there were times until mid-summer on Jordan Bay from Sam’s Point (now Brown’s Point) to Deep Cove that was solid with logs waiting for transport and with drivers still bringing strays down from Panther.

There are still evidences of the log drives to be found. In the cattail-covered marshlands along Route 302 there are long lost boom logs with their short connecting chains where they were stored when not in use, waiting for the next drive which will never come.

Two steam headworks, named Dupont No. 1 and Dupont No. 2, used by the last operators of the powder mills at Gambo, were abandoned tied up at what is now Indian Point Trailer Park on the Jordan River and their sunken parts dredged up when the boat dock was improved and dumped in back of the campgrounds. All along the route, especially in the shallows of Panther Run and Tenney River, can be seen logs that became sinkers and were left behind. While appearing messy on the outside, the condition is only skin deep and internally, they are in perfect condition for salvage.

Logging practices had to change as the use of our waterways was taken over by summer vacationers for sporting uses, state laws enacted to protect water quality and trucks became available to transport logs directly to mills. Large gangs of woodchoppers and teams of horses and oxen have been replaced by a few men with mechanical equipment who can haul massive loads of logs.

Lost forever is the colorful log driver of years past with his calked boots, pikepole and peavey. <

This article was written by the late Ernest H. Knight, one of the founders of the Raymond-Casco Historical Society and contained in his book “Historical Gems of Raymond and Casco.” It was submitted by the Raymond-Casco Historical Society and articles about Raymond history from the historical society will appear regularly in The Windham Eagle newspaper. To find out more about the Raymond-Casco Historical Society, call Frank McDermott at 207-655-4646.


Friday, March 17, 2023

Amateur historian uncovers lost Windham history

By Walter Lunt

The metal detector started emitting a healthy series of alerts, and it was music to Al Farris’ ears as he slowly swept the Minelab Equinox 800 back and forth over the leaf and stick clutter in woods on Libby Hill in East Windham. According to long-time residents of the neighborhood, the area was once home to generations of farmers, and Farris was hopeful about locating some interesting ancient treasures.

A shoe template is shown, before and after. 
Artifacts uncovered at a cellar hole in East
Windham indicate Gideon Libby may have
been a cordwainer, a maker of shoes.
After a brief dig, Farris came up with a round, coin-sized object thickly coated with years of decomposed forest floor. A delicate brushing with preservation tools revealed what he later learned was a ‘braided hair cent,’ an 1857 penny. Now highly motivated, Farris continued exploring and metal detecting the land surrounding four cellar hole sites on Libby Hill for two more years. To date, he has uncovered dozens of intriguing items both above and below ground.

Farris grew up in Windham. Upon viewing many hours of the reality show “The Curse of Oak Island,” he was inspired to uncover simple treasures close to home. Local residents told him about ancient cellar holes on a hill off Falmouth Road near Little Duck Pond. Over the course of nearly three years, Farris was rewarded with an array of fascinating artifacts that he hopes will be identified and authenticated by experts. Most of his own research has been accomplished using on-line sources.

Early on, Farris sought research guidance from the Windham Historical Society. Old maps confirmed the cellar holes were the site of a family named Libby, and genealogical records revealed the time period, occupations and even military service of at least three generations of the Libby family.

John Libby emigrated from England to America on the ship Hercules during the winter of 1636-1637, eventually settling in Scarborough. His direct descendant, Arthur Libby, born in 1760, married Mary Allen of Falmouth and purchased hillside farmland in Windham. He built a house in 1802; records show the structure, now gone, was still standing as late as 1915. Two of his 10 children, Gideon and Isaac, also settled on the hill.

Farris particularly enjoys finding what he calls “important storytelling artifacts.” He has recovered several shoe templates for making colonial footwear, ranging from child to adult sizes, “and even one for someone with a foot condition. I’ve…restored a few of the templates to bare metal to bring them back to life after a couple hundred years.” Farris speculates Gideon was a cordwainer – someone who makes shoes – as opposed to a cobbler, who repairs them.

“The things I find each tell a small portion of their lives: Oxen shoes, suspender clips and buckles, bathtub claw feet, a World War I general infantry button, a harmonica reed, an 1817 “large cent,” and an 1863 Civil War Union Army token. But the most intriguing item appears to be “a Native American medallion with a wigwam hand punched into it, which suggests that the Libbys lived alongside natives and traded with them,” Farris said. He hopes to one day meet with an archeologist to help him date and verify his finds.

Al Farris is committed, or perhaps obsessed, with uncovering all that can be known about the 200-year old history of Libby Hill, and it is perhaps just a bit ironic that a television show with “curse” in the title provided the inspiration. But as he put it, “All of their (the Libbys) history would be completely forgotten if I hadn’t stepped in to save it all, and I’m absolutely not giving up until there’s nothing left to know…once the snow melts.” <

Friday, March 10, 2023

Forgotten art form adorns Raymond church sanctuary

By Ernest H. Knight

If, as some ancient philosopher is supposed to have said, a picture is worth a thousand words, we do have a scroll of a sorts, long hidden in the Raymond Village Community Church.

When the church was built in 1878 and 1879, the minister of the congregation was an Englishman by the name of Rev. William J. Twort, who had been credited with the interior decoration of the church sanctuary.

The restored sanctuary at
Raymond Village Community
Church includes a painting
in trompe l'oeil art style of an
open bible and reading 'The
word is truth' done in the 
19th century.
But the nature of that decoration was lost to sight at the turn of the century by the application of paperboard panels in the plaster walls, held in place by battens over the joints nailed to the laths, the purpose being to cover defective plaster rather than to hide the decorations.

Many years later someone who remembered had removed a panel in the arch restoring to sight an open Bible with the words “Thy Word is Truth,” which has been before everyone ever since.

Whatever graced the other walls was solved by the removal of two panels of the paperboard. Removal of more or all of the remaining panels as part of needed sanctuary renovation is under consideration.

The owners of many old houses in Maine are proud of their preserved examples of stenciled plaster wall decorations, Rufus Porter murals of trompe l’oeil (trick of the eye) of ornamentation or converging lines of structure or scenery.

The owner of a mid-1800s house in Portland, all of whose rooms were decorated with this trompe l’oeil artistry, has been greatly impressed by what has been revealed at the church and urges further exposure toward eventual restoration of what she calls flat wall trompe l’oeil type painting without the intention of depth perception.

The now visible wall painting is in the form of a large rectangle, like a picture frame of lines of varying width and color (blue, buff, gray, yellow and maroon) with enlarged corner meetings of horizontal and vertical elements.

Considering the now visible open bible, words and lines only clairvoyance can predict what else may yet be hidden.

The basic wall paint on which these paintings were superimposed was an unattractive gray, which may complicate final decisions on restoration.

While the paintings may be of little significance or importance compared to older or more skilled work discovered elsewhere, they are located right here in Raymond and are the handiwork of our ancestors left for us to appreciate and protect. <

This article was written by the late Ernest H. Knight, one of the founders of the Raymond-Casco Historical Society and contained in his book “Historical Gems of Raymond and Casco.” It was submitted by the Raymond-Casco Historical Society and articles about Raymond history from the historical society will appear regularly in The Windham Eagle newspaper. To find out more about the Raymond-Casco Historical Society, call Frank McDermott at 207-655-4646.

Friday, March 3, 2023

A matter of historical record: prosperous and tragic, historic gunpowder mills of Windham-Gorham, now subject of documentary

By Walter Lunt

As a kid, Patrick Bonsant spent countless hours indulging his curiosity and fascination with nature.

“I would spend hours and hours just walking through woods, roaming, exploring, observing…I just loved doing that.”

This grainy photograph from the late 19th century was taken
of staff and mill workers in front of the 'Old Stone Mill' on 
the Windham side of the Gambo Powder Mills at Newhall.
A carpenters' shop and foundry was located here to support 
infrastructure needs of the powder mills. OUTTAKE FROM
After acquiring a degree in Communications and Media from the University of Maine, Bonsant said he combined his fascination of nature with his creative interests and, utilizing video and sound, began showcasing the great outdoors and its forgotten stories. His latest production is titled “The Gunpowder Mills of Gorham-Windham, Maine,” a documentary that chronicles the 81-year history of the storied Gambo Powder Mills of South Windham and Gorham.

Much has been written in books and articles about the mills, however Bonsant’s work is the first to document the story with moving images and spoken words.

The mill site, located on both sides of the Presumpscot River at the end of Gambo Road at Newhall in Windham, first produced gunpowder in 1824. The operation proceeded through several owners until about 1905, manufacturing the explosive product for military and sporting firearms and for blasting. It is estimated that 25 percent of all the powder used by the Union forces in the American Civil War was produced at the Gorham-Windham mills.

In his acclaimed 1985 book “The Gunpowder Mills of Maine,” author Maurice Whitten explained that the Gambo Mills were the first, the largest and the longest running powder mills in Maine, and the fourth largest in the nation for many years.

Raw materials necessary for producing gunpowder were potassium nitrate (saltpeter) imported from India, sulfur (brimstone) from Sicily, and charcoal manufactured on site from alder or poplar wood “baked” in cast-iron retorts. The imported ingredients arrived by boat on the Cumberland & Oxford Canal which ran adjacent to the mills. In his book, Whitten quoted medieval philosopher Roger Bacon, “Take 7 parts saltpetre (old spelling), 5 parts hazelwood charcoal, 5 parts sulfur, and you can make thunder and lightning…”

Tragically, some explosions occurred unintentionally during the manufacturing process. Over its 81-years of operation there were several accidental blasts causing loss of life and extensive property damage. Despite an abundance of caution, oversights, inattention and errors were inevitable. Over eight decades of operation, 25 explosions claimed the lives of 47 men.

In one exceptionally horrific blast on Oct. 12, 1855, seven workers were killed while loading powder kegs onto a canal boat. Among the casualties were Franklin Hawkes of Windham and Samuel Phinney and John Swett, both of Gorham. The next day, Portland’s Eastern Argus newspaper headlined the explosion as a “Frightful Accident.”

Whitten reprinted the journalist’s graphic description of the scene: “Phinney, after the explosion, walked several rods, until he met a man who spoke to him, and he instantly fell dead. Swett was thrown nearly a quarter of a mile. Hawkes had his bowels blown out, and one side of his head blown off. A cart, to which a yoke of oxen was attached, was shattered to fragments, and the hair was burned off the oxen almost entirely. A buggy wagon was also blown to pieces, and the horse driven, like a wedge, into a pile of lumber.”

Bonsant says he hopes people will take away several things from seeing his film.

“I wanted to create an understanding of a little-known chapter in Maine (and local) history, particularly, Maine’s connection to the Civil War,” he said. “It’s the story of hard-working men sacrificing to support their families, as well as the hardships (for families left behind) after the loss of the breadwinner.”

“No matter where we go history is all around us. We’re often walking on hallowed ground where great stories happened. I hope this film helps to raise the curiosity in people as they travel around.”

Bonsant is the executive director of Saco River Community Media but characterizes the documentary as a “two-year no budget labor of love.” And, he said with an air of pride, “(the documentary) has been accepted by Maine Public Broadcasting and will be aired soon as part of their Community Film Series.”

Bonsant said that “The Gunpowder Mills of Gorham-Windham” was a collaborative effort made with the help of several local historians and dedicated assistants. It is dedicated to Maurice Whitten “for the reverence and respect he deserves, without which this documentary couldn’t have been made.”

The public is invited to a viewing of the documentary at Windham’s Little Meeting House at 1 p.m. Saturday, March 11.

The event is free. Refreshments will be served and donations to the Windham Historical Society are appreciated. <