Sometimes you read a book and it changes the way you think about your environment. I had such an experience Sunday when, sitting on the shore of Rangeley Lake as the kids swam, I read Luann Yetter’s Remembering Franklin County – Stories from the Sandy River Valley. The book provides glimpses into life in Farmington, Maine and nearby communities over the last 235 years. I came away from that short read (I read it in one sitting – only 128 pages) with a new appreciation for the community in which I live, and a better sense of its history.
Really, you might ask? A 128 page beach read did that?! Histories of Farmington have been written (and were cited by Yetter), and I’m sure if I took the time I’d find them fascinating. As a journalist, however, Yetter has the instinct to “find the story” and paint an image succinctly yet effectively. My mind could see early log cabins, the first frame houses, the paths, roads, and people. Driving through town my mind thinks about how things once looked, and seeing names like “Knowlton Corner road” I wonder if its the same Knowlton who did not want a unified Farmington in 1794.
I could envision the people, the buildings, and the sense of excitement and apprehension in leaving the civilized coast to venture into Maine’s forest. She describes the early settlers — like the Titcombs and the Belchers — and what it meant to move into the wilderness. With it now so easy to hop on highway 27 to head down to Augusta, it’s hard to fathom the idea that the Kennebec river was so far a way that you had to be a subsistence farmer to survive out here, and that early on travel was rare and often impossible in winter.
I also found the people fascinating. Though they worked immensely hard, the core New England values of pragmatism, community and education could be seen. These weren’t rogue settlers who couldn’t make it in elsewhere, but educated and civilized New Englanders realizing if a new community were to take off, they’d be in the center of the action, profiting.
A few stories stuck out. Farmington became a town in 1794 by act of the Massachusetts legislature (Maine was part of Massachusetts then). They wanted to have the right to raise taxes to build an infrastructure so the town could grow and profit. I was a bit surprised by the fact they still used British Pounds as currency. Supply Belcher, the man who would represent Farmington at the legislature also managed to publish music he’d been writing — apparently he was a very good composer, though his work to create a new town kept him from writing much music after that. He was also opposed by people living in what is now Chesterville and Farmington Falls, who had seen the balance of power shift to the east side of the Sandy River, a few miles down. Belcher won; if not, where I live now wouldn’t officially be in Farmington!
I also never knew about the contested election of 1879 when Governor Garcelon tried to essentially steal the election for the Democrats from the Republicans. He discounted results in many locations, and in Farmington that shifted the election to the Democrat, Louis Voter. Voter, however, decided integrity was more important than partisan victory and refused to go to Augusta, helping derail the plans. I also thought the old tradition about the winning candidate buying a barrel of rum for a raucous victory celebration was cool — perhaps that could be brought back (are you reading this, Lance?)
I was moved by the story of the Croswell store in Farmington Falls. In part, it helped show just how the region developed. It started catering to subsistence farmers, dealing in things they couldn’t produce themselves, often less in currency than arranging trades to Hallowell (the nearest trading center, including what is now Augusta). Then it grew, expanded to carriages, changed with the times, weathered panics and depressions, but finally had to close in 1958. That, and the profiles Yetter gives of interesting personalities such as Julia Eastman showed that even though we may now be living in a time for transformation, every generation has seen their world change.
My favorite story connects with where I work – the University of Maine Farmington. It traces its lineage back to the Farmington Academy, begun in 1807. At that time they bought a bell from a Boston Silversmith named Paul Revere. Revere (not yet immortalized in poetry) would complain about non-payment as an economic crisis hit and the Academy lacked funds. He ultimately got paid, and the Academy went through a few incarnations and name changes before becoming the University of Maine Farmington.
Yetter’s description of the change from the virtually inaccessible harsh early days on the Sandy River to the growth of the town and connection via roads and trade to the outside world illustrates dramatic development. I’d been told when we bought our house that where we live — now forested — had once been farm land. You can see it from the trees, which are clearly young despite their height. Farms ultimately became unprofitable, with the ‘big boom’ after World War II bringing modernism and change to this region.
Yet now I see things in this town I didn’t before. It’s not just a pretty New England town I got lucky enough to find a job in, it’s alive with history and personalities, I feel a bit more connected. I also understand why I’ll always be “from away.” Those here grew up with the town and are connected to it. Yet the original settlers also came from away, and there is a commonality. The Ingalls who settled in South Dakota and endured hardship were of the same kind of stock as the Titcombs and Belchers. The notion of leaving comfort and security to set out to build a new life is a common American story.
Joni Mitchell’s song “Both Sides Now” has a line that came to mind as I thought about this: “Something’s lost but something’s gained by living every day.” We’ve gained a lot since then. We have all the modern conveniences, ranging from grocery stores to easy delivery of mail and goods purchased on line. We’re wireless, connected and prosperous beyond imagination. Even the poor amongst us have it pretty good when compared to most of the rest of human history. Yet we’ve also lost something, we’ve become dependent on conveniences, and few would undertake the risk the Titcombs took bringing children and a young baby into the barely explored forest to start a new life with no guarantee of success (to be sure, even their families at the time thought it a bit foolhardy).
We don’t have that option. Life is organized, controlled, under surveillance, and kept safe. Risk has become something to be avoided at all costs, due to both government regulations and the fear of law suits. In my modern persona I would not want to live back then — I wouldn’t know how to navigate what it would take to survive, let alone thrive. I’ve been spoiled by modernity. Yet part of me wishes I could have had that chance.