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New Portland: Bridging the Past to the Future

New Portland: Bridging the Past to the Future

A historical town narrative

Text by Kate Hall & Amanda Pingree

Images from New Portland Historical Society and Maine Historical Society

1808 Plan of the Town of New Portland
1808 Plan of the Town of New Portland

Item Contributed by
Maine Historical Society

When describing the town of New Portland to any other Mainer, locals will often say, "You know New Portland, it's the town with the bridge." Hearing this, the stranger is usually reminded of the Wire Bridge, one of the most distinguishing local landmarks. This structure stands with two shingled towers, cradling a bridge made of steel cables. The Wire Bridge is a physical landmark, but the real appeal of this town is the people, past and present, that define the spirit of this rural Maine town.

New Portland is itself a bridge, of sorts, for three villages: the North, the East, and the West. The three villages are distinct from the other, but are connected by a strong and unwavering bond of community. It appears that three villages were established thanks to three bodies of water that run through New Portland. Lemon Stream is found in the West, the Carrabassett River in the East, and Gilman Stream in the North. It was tough to get between villages before vehicles and roads were constructed. After settling happened between the different rivers and streams, people were happy to be where they were and stayed there. Each village had at least one church, a post office, schools, and multiple businesses. Even though each village has its own features and businesses, residents almost always have community ties in the next village. With so many bridges to join them together, New Portland is a singular town, with one beating heart.

New Portland is a tract of land six miles square, whose center is about five minutes south of the forty-fifth parallel of north latitude. This town is located in Somerset County of the State of Maine. It is bordered on the north side by Kingfield and Lexington, and on the east by Embden. On the south it joins Anson and New Vineyard and on the west it is bordered by Freeman. The west line, also a part of the south line of New Portland, is the county line between Franklin and Somerset counties.

David Hutchins, originally from Massachusetts and a descendent of English emigrants seeking religious freedoms, was the first settler of New Portland. He traveled up the Seven Mile Brook (today known as the Carrabassett River) by canoe late in the fall of 1783. He headed an adventurous family that for some reason chose not to settle in Bloomfield, (now Skowhegan) Maine, but chose to venture further up river. Hutchins, armed with an ax, felled trees and cleared a lot in the East Village. He built a log cabin and became the first resident, living one mile from his brother Samuel who settled in Embden.

Living a short distance from David Hutchins were a group of Norridgewock Indians, led by Chief Pierpole. The records show that the few interactions between the two groups were friendly, except for an occasional misunderstanding. Occasionally the two groups traded goods since the availability of products was scarce at this early time of the town.
Many of the settlers who came after Hutchins were given land in New Portland as pay for their service in the Revolutionary War. After a fire in the town of Falmouth (now Portland) in 1775, Falmouth citizens were given plots of land in New Portland to replace their loss. Later, on March 9, 1791, the town was named New Portland in honor of the people from Portland that were given the land here. The name "New" Portland was thus due to its roots to the original Portland. People came to live there in 1783, but the town was officially incorporated in 1808, just twelve years before Maine separated from Massachusetts and became its own state.

Another of the early settlers to New Portland was Captain Josiah Parker. Captain Parker was a soldier in the Revolutionary War and came to the area once the war was over. Parker is noted as the second settler in town, building a home and farm in the East Village. He was a respected member of town and always welcomed people in his home. Evidence of this comes from when he held the first town meeting at his home in 1804. Captain Parker had some resources and owned the first plow, harrow, and brick kiln in the area. He continued to be a man of firsts and was the first person in the area to be married in 1789. He lived a long life in the area, having many children and impacting the early settlement of the area. Captain Josiah Parker died in 1858 at the age of 93, and is buried in the East New Portland Cemetery.

Main Street West New Portland
Main Street West New Portland

Item Contributed by
New Portland Historical Society

Early life came heavily ingrained with religion. New residents needed a house of worship to call their own. According to the 1902 register of H.E. Mitchell, Captain Parker's residence housed the first church in New Portland sometime around 1809. Before that, most New Portland residents attended church in Anson, but they chose to create their own parish. The Union church is listed as the next church to organize in West New Portland about a year later. Two churches were also built in 1838; the Free Will Baptist Church and the Universalist Church. North New Portland saw the creation of the Congregational Church in 1862.

New Portland is a land rich with natural resources such as water and wood. However, the beginning of agriculture in New Portland started out slow. 1808 is known for the scarcity of crops and hard times for all. Some say that this happened due to the immaturity of crops and the hard life of settling in a remote area. The cost of seeds was high, as high as $1.00 for a peck of seed corn, and people had to travel a great distance to purchase such products. Sheep were a very common animal in New Portland. Shortly after families used their agricultural skills for survival, they began to expand these skills to business levels. Agricultural items got to market by a horse drawn tote wagon.

There were few paying jobs and that meant little money available for families to purchase items necessary for farming. Between 1812 and 1816, the population of New Portland declined when many people left to go out West. However, things turned around and the town really began to grow in 1816 when the residents had a season of plentiful crops. At this time, the land was more mature and yielded better produce. New Portland was continuing to develop and more people came to the area. From 1816 to the Civil War, the town saw a steady increase in population. Businesses flourished, schools were instituted, and the people seemed to be doing well. All of these factors attracted new residents. It is assumed that by word of mouth the news of the thriving town spread and family members and friends of those living in New Portland came for part of the prosperity.

Bridge Under Construction East New Portland
Bridge Under Construction East New Portland

Item Contributed by
New Portland Historical Society

Agriculture wasn't the only business New Portland folks cared to venture into. General stores were around as early as 1792. There were sawmills, the first built in 1803, salt factories, shoe factories, carding mills, blacksmith shops, and ice houses. John Elliott built a mill on Lemon Stream at the Great Works in the West Village in 1803, taking advantage of the abundant forests. He sawed long and short lumber, shingles, clapboards and other products in this mill. Mr. Elliott was not the only person with ideas of sawing, and many others took advantage of the local lumber, with all three villages housing mills. Another item related to sawmills is that of ice houses which provided a home for the large blocks of ice needed to keep food cold in the days before electricity. An ice house was often located near the sawmill in order to take advantage of the sawdust, and employed drillers, saw-men, oxen teams, and delivery people.

Wars and economic times impacted New Portland as in other areas. The Civil War caused a drop in population thanks to the great number of people serving their country, yet the giving and thoughtful spirit of the people stayed. A schoolteacher in Lexington named Mary Greenleaf did her part to help the soldiers. Regardless of whether they were from New Portland or not, she knit and sent warm socks to the soldiers. Many letters exist today written to Ms. Greenleaf, thanking her for her generosity. One is from an Augustus Vaughn who was from the area, and expressed his gratitude for her gift. He noted how her letter had cheered him and reminded him of home instead of the fighting. Ms. Greenleaf taught during 1863 – 1864, and most likely other years around this time. She had a class of twenty-three students ranging in ages from four to twenty-one, and earned $3.00 for a school year of thirty-three days.

Someone who made his way to the front during the Civil War was a Mr. Charles Knapp of New Portland. During his time fighting, he earned many promotions, the highest becoming Captain of the E Company of the 8th regiment of Maine on October 19, 1863. Once he returned to the area, he became the postmaster of the North New Portland post office in 1869. Later he became a justice of the peace. Mr. Knapp found opportunities to serve his country on both the battlefield and at home.

World War I and II had an adverse effect and the population stayed the same or increased slightly. The mills were running full blast at this time, with plenty of work for everyone. That is not to say that the people of New Portland forgot about the people fighting in the wars. New Portland always supported the war and the troops. With the men away fighting, women would take over work in the mills and raise the children alone.
Economically, the Depression affected the townspeople the same way it did others. Even though there is no recorded information on this topic, discussions by people who lived through it note that times were hard. Many people stayed in the area and no real change in the population occurred. At other times in the town's history, the economy of the town typically follows the trends throughout Maine as a whole, and the United States. If things are going well elsewhere, New Portland will see the impact, and if things are going poorly, the town will feel those effects as well.

New Portland has some people who are remembered due to their accomplishments and contributions to the town. Kenton E. Quint purchased the New Portland and Eustis Telephone and Telegraph Company in 1929. This business organized in 1889 and had a switchboard at Clark’s store in the North village. As time progressed, the business grew and was named the Somerest Telephone and is now known as TDS Telephone Company. The Clark family ran Clarks Mill. Warren Clark had the first automobile in New Portland around the 1900’s. Herbert W. Kennison owned and ran a drugstore in the North Village. He invented a wooden coat hanger that was very different than other hangers at the time. He also was very involved in the town’s music activities, playing the bass, violin, and horn. The Bartlett family owned a lot of property and a mill in the North Village. After a fire in 1912, H. C. Bartlett rebuilt the wood turning plant, equipping it with a new water wheel to power the mill. Lester Henderson was influential in business and town government. He owned two sawmills, one of them being the Haywire; he was town selectman, road commissioner, and a member of the school board. All of these people had a hand in creating the town of New Portland. They helped it grow, employed townspeople, and made use of the resources found in the area.

Metcalf Hill, New Portland Circa 1900
Metcalf Hill, New Portland Circa 1900

Item Contributed by
New Portland Historical Society

As more and more people joined the town, organizations and entertainment became important. People needed a time to get together to talk, get to know each other, and most notably, to help others. Organizations such as the Lions Club, which still operates, worked to raise money to help people in need, not to forget their importance in running the New Portland Town Fair. Other groups included the Odd Fellows, the Fernwood Grange, the Farm Bureau, and the Willing Workers. Bridge Clubs were also popular. Houses were cleaned from top to bottom in order to prepare for club meetings. Card tables were set up and large groups of people would show up to join in the games. The Chase Hall in town also served as a place for people to gather. Movies were shown here, and dances were held almost every Saturday night. Often times, an orchestra played for the dance. New Portland had many orchestras, the first dating in the late 1800’s. May baskets were hung on doors every single year. There was a drama club that would perform at Chase Hall a couple of times a year. The local school would put on Christmas and spring shows, sometimes taking stage at Chase Hall. The spirit of the town appears in the types of activities the inhabitants took part in.

Today, the people of New Portland come from a variety of experiences and backgrounds. Some people can trace their heritage back to the early settlers of the area, others make their way here from out of state, while others put down roots thanks to the caring and thoughtful people who already call New Portland home. Most of the inhabitants are descendents or friends of families that have lived in New Portland for a long time. Many of the people of the town enjoy keeping the traditions of the past alive. Many families tap trees in the spring and make maple syrup; many others keep a large garden and spend time during the summer canning, freezing, and storing their harvest. Numerous people sew, quilt, and crochet, many times using their items to help those in need. Some people are carpenters and woodworkers, while others make wedding cakes, take pictures, write books, and create works of art.

Recently, the town has seen another decrease in population. One of the causes seems to be a lack of jobs. Due to changes in lifestyles, the needs of the people have changed. The sawmills and wood product producers that once thrived have closed due to foreign competition and a poor woods market. Central Elementary in the North, the last school in town, closes at the end of the 2009 school year. Job opportunities are few and far between due to a stumbling economy and few working businesses. However, the town of New Portland and its people are very unique. They are a caring community that is supportive and looks out for each other. They also know that all towns go through bad times, only to see good times once again. The town history proves that this town, comprised of three villages and various waterways, is resilient and will employ a spirit of ingenuity and hard work in order to create a thriving town yet again.

References

Foss, Roland E., (1977). A history of the New Portlands in Maine (2nd ed.). Farmington, ME: Heritage Printing.

Mitchell, H. E., (1902). New Portland Register, 1902. Kingfield, ME: W. P. Watson.