Two Weeks in North Bridgton:  Summer 1859

A Correspondent's Traveling Sketches

Prepared by Michael J. Davis

In the spring of 1859 a travelling reporter for the Cambridge Chronicle took a trip “up to Maine,” wishing to report on the state of the countryside as a vacation destination for weary Massachusetts city-dwellers.  His monthly reports, published under the tagline “Sketches from the Country,” were issued throughout 1859 and 1860, when he at last returned to Cambridge.  This reporter, writing under the name “Correspondent,” spent roughly a month in North Bridgton, and though he was nominally on a tour of towns and supposed to produce only one letter per village, he was so taken by North Bridgton’s charming scenery that he ended up writing two reports on the village, which appeared in the Chronicle of July 30th and August 20th, respectively.  Following a note on their existence from the Bridgton Reporter of August 26th, 1859, and owing to the generosity of the Cambridge Public Library and the wonderful archivists at their Special Collections desk, we are here delighted to present a walk through North Bridgton, as it looked 160 years ago.  To those familiar with our village, it will doubtless warm your hearts to learn that in many ways, that which our guide praises can still be found here today.

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From the Cambridge Chronicle of July 30th, 1859

North Bridgton, Me., July 24, 1859.

To the Editor of the Chronicle,

Escaping from the heat and dust of the city, I am sojourning for a season in this quiet little village, where I wish my friends were enjoying with me the beauty of its scenery and the hospitality of its people.  It is a delightful retreat from the vexatious cares of business, and has been a favorite resort for those who were more desirous of securing health to their families than wasting it in the frivolous amusements of fashionable watering places.  But since the building of the Atlantic and St. Lawrence Railroad, the route of travel to the While Mountains has been changed, and consequently the facilities for reaching here are fewer and accommodations for strangers insufficient, while more pretentious but less interesting localities on the railroad are thronged, to which the sweltering denizens of the city frantically rush, seeming to prefer a crowded hotel at a railroad terminus to a cool and pleasant retreat like this, far and free from the noise and hustle of business, and surrounded by some of the finest lake and mountain scenery.

This village is picturesquely situated at the head of Long Pond, a beautiful sheet of water, nine miles in length, dotted with islands and skirted with field and forest, through which the neat white farmhouses glisten In their emerald setting, like pearls in the coronal of nature.  It is separated from the more ambitious, but less pleasant village of Harrison,—nestling in a pretty cove on the opposite shore, —by a wooded promontory from which on moonlight evenings the North Bridgton Brass Band discourses its enlivening music for the entertainment of the inhabitants of both villages; the soft notes stealing across the water and reverberating along the shore as if a thousand mimic bands were echoing one strain.

Summer tourists regret that the little steamer, Fawn, is withdrawn; for none who have traversed these and the adjacent waters, but remember with delight her pleasant trips, and desire again to follow the sinuous Songo, through which she was so skillfully piloted,—a sluggish and crooked stream, more tortuous in its windings than even the serpentine Charles.  But want of enterprise and patronage has stopped her wheels, and she lies a neglected and rotting hulk, emblematic of the decay of business visible in the closed hotel, stores, and silent streets. 

The people here have manifested a commendable foresight in planting shade-trees; their principal thoroughfare being lined with noble elms that now afford a grateful shade, and will yield delight when those who planted them are forgotten.  It has seemed strange to me, in passing through other villages, that so little care is bestowed in their rural adornments, when so little labor and expense are required to render them attractive to citizen and stranger.  Some villages look like an arid waste, without tree or shrub or flower to relieve the dreary aspect, except where kind, prolific Nature spares her plants.  I wonder children are not more discontented when parents neglect such simple means of beautifying their homes.  The forest may surround, all nature encompass us with her wealth of beauty, but it does not afford the gratification; does not draw out the affections and kindle the love of home like a pet plant by the window.  It is what we do for ourselves, not what nature does for us, that makes us happy.

From the pond the village gradually rises in gentle swells or ridges,—from the highest of which is a beautiful view of both Long and Crotched Ponds, towards which the well cultivated farms slope to the water's edge, and speak well of the farmers' taste and toil.  The road is smooth and level, and a drive over this sightly ridge is delightfully cool and pleasant.  On the first ascent stands the Academy, one of the oldest incorporated institutions of the kind in the state, and one of the best.  In front is a fine grove of elms, planted by successive classes of students, that partially hide the Academy-building from the street, affording a classic retreat for the student.  Though not boastingly advertised, no similar institution enjoys a better reputation for thorough and practical training in the essential as well as ornamental branches of education, and certainly no place could be selected freer from the temptations which beset the student and alienate his mind from study.

But little business is transacted in this village, most of its people living in the ease and retirement to which their exertions in early life entitle them; hence the absence of the busy activity which pervades the town.  It seems as if the place itself, like its wealthy citizens, was taking an afternoon nap, from which no calls of business disturbed it.  One accustomed to the noise and confusion of the city would become weary with the monotony, were it not for the pleasant rides, and fine scenery which delight the eye und rejoice the heart in every direction.  

So enclosed are we with hills, that the sun is up and dressed before lie makes his appearance in the morning, and looks as rubicund and resolute as a smooth shaven king giving audience to his courtiers.  The gorgeous drapery of clouds with which he wraps himself as he emerges from his watery couch or flings around him as he sinks again to repose, are missed in this hilly region, for which, however, the joyous gush of music from the song-birds amply compensates.  Who can sleep with such a symphony of sweet sounds lading the air, —who would sleep if he could?  "A little more sleep, a little more slumber" will not do where Nature's feathered choir sing their matin songs.

Berries of all kinds are plenty in this vicinity, to be had for the picking. I have eaten to satiety of strawberries, which taste far more delicious gathered fresh from the green hill-sides than when garden grown.  Nature is no cheat; she gives you all she promises.  There is not a layer of fine berries at the top, and inferior ones beneath, as is often the case with those bought at the markets.  But the good and poor are exposed to view, and you are invited to partake only of the best, which she bountifully provides; the hill-sides and fields in many places being red with them.  But their season is passed, and raspberries have taken their place, of which there is also great abundance, and to many palates they are quite as inviting; but I must declare my preference for the season's first and most delicious fruit.

Notwithstanding the backwardness of the season, crops are now looking finely.  Corn has grown wonderfully the past three weeks, and potatoes are looking well.  Hay is more abundant than usual, which the farmers are now busy in harvesting.  What more animated and pleasing sight than the fragrant hay-field, where old and young, and in some instances both sexes are jubilant with their labor!  It speaks of primitive simplicity and happiness, and is a rustic pleasure as well as toil.  I almost envy the farmer his broad acres und healthful employment; his honest independence and jovial heart.  Rain, rain is now the cry,—the parched earth is thirsting for the rain.  But a single shower has fallen during the past three weeks, and farmers are fearing a drought.

Save a few warm days, the weather here has generally been delightfully cool and comfortable, and I have improved it in rambling over the mountains and through the fields and forests.  Here I can roam at will, with no "warning to trespassers" staring me in the face, and like a released school-boy, I enjoy the freedom from restraint, I begin to feel again the bounding pulse of health, the glow and warmth of nature's vital fluid.  What can give buoyancy to the spirits, elasticity to the step, sparkle to the eye, and joy to the heart, like strolling through the green lanes of the country, free from the horrors of routine!  O ye galley slaves of toil, come up to the mountains!  Forget the world and its cares for a season, and revel in the beauties of nature.  Here you may find the true elixir of life, the fountain of perpetual youth; snatch a brief respite from labor, and come to the mountains.                                                                                                      – C.

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From the Cambridge Chronicle of August 20th, 1859

North Bridgton, August 6, 1859

To the Editor of the Chronicle,

Since my last I have been on various pedestrian excursions in the neighborhood, previous to giving a description of which I wish to trouble you with another letter from this pleasant village. 

Being a firm believer in the primitive mode of locomotion, I do not spare my nether limbs the rightful discharge of their proper functions, but with umbrella and glass (spy-glass I mean: the ghost of the Maine Law still haunts the cupboards: the "perturbed spirit" has no rest) saunter along at leisure; with no shying nag to divert attention from the scenery and rob travel of its chief pleasure.  I can leave the dusty highways at will, and wander through the fields, plucking berries and wild-flowers, climb the hills and " view the landscape o'er," or turn into the cool by-paths of the forest—how deliciously cool the retreat from the fierce rays of the sun, how dreamy the sound of the whispering leaves and murmuring pines and twittering birds, mingled with the low gurgle of the purling brook and mellow cadence of the distant waterfall.  How in contrast with the blaze and glare, the rush and roar of the town.  Truly, "God made the country, the Devil the city," where it seems the chief pursuit of man to "buy and sell and get gain." Yet a necessary dependence exists between them, and while Heaven holds the balance neither may kick the beam.

Scattered at convenient intervals along the roadsides are the district school-houses, —those little sentry-boxes of knowledge from which the ignorance of the world is challenged,—posted like lone watchers on bleak hill-sides, sweltering on the blazing ledges, or buried in hot sand-baths, but seldom nestling in the grateful shade of trees, as if it were really designed to inure the children to the hardships of the camp, rather than fit them for the social amenities of life.  Yet I never pass one of these buzzing hives of knowledge, however dilapidated the building, but bright eyes peer curiously out and curly heads toy with the playful breeze, and I involuntarily doff my hat to the future Websters laboriously conning their tasks; for among those barefooted urchins how many embryo geniuses may be gathered, "unknown, unhonored, and unsung," awaiting the fullness of time to astonish the world by their advent.  Indeed, I had the temerity to visit one of these “peculiar institutions" of New England a few days since, taught by a veritable "schoolmarm," who ruled with a mild sceptre her loving subjects, receiving their dutiful homage, but manifesting none of those pugnacious propensities proverbially attributed to pedagogues.  Who would not wish to be a child again, to scour the field and the forest for flowers to present to the mistress, given and received with such kindness, with the unblushing affection of innocence, or proud to cling to her hand in returning home from the school-room, a mark of preferment impartially given, all sharing the love of the teacher!  The school I visited was small, but the house larger and better than most of its class, seemingly built with reference to the prospective rather than the present wants of the district, the benches being far more numerous than the scholars, and arranged opposite each other, as if lo allow the boys and girls to enjoy a stolen pastime when the teacher's back was turned.  Better for the teacher and more profitable for the pupils were the seats fronting the desk, that the sty roguery might he seen and the real offenders punished instead of their innocent dupes.  Vexatious indeed is the task of the teacher, exacting her toil and disheartening her trials; but great her responsibility, noble her chosen vocation; for who has the listening ear of soft, impressible childhood has an avenue to the richest soil of the heart in which to sow the seeds of virtue and knowledge ere the tares of doubt and distrust have choked the frail plant of confidence.

The attention of the stranger is arrested by the little enclosures by the wayside in which the white marble sentinels keep watch over the sleeping members of the household, most of the inhabitants of farming towns living so remote from the villages that almost every estate has its own burial place, where are deposited the precious jewels torn from the casket of home.  Secluded from the rude gaze of the thoughtless, the stricken mourner here may weep, with Heaven the only witness of her tears.  The flowers planted by affection are not ruthlessly plucked, nor the hallowed ground carelessly trodden by the stranger, but the birds, the angel messengers of Heaven to alleviate the woes of the wretched, flooding the soul with music that assuages the pangs of bereavement, they come with their brilliant plumage and songs of enlivening cheer, chanting their matins and vespers at the lone grave of the departed, over which night flings the mantle of silence and drops its dewy tears of sympathy.  How happy they who sleep among the loved scenes of their youth—ay, it is happier to die among our friends and be received to the bosom of the earth we loved as our early playground! 

A few weeks ago the people of this village were enjoying their yearly carnival of pleasure.  The old homesteads were ringing with the joyous laugh of returning wanderers, on pilgrimages to their early homes, and strangers were partaking the generous hospitality of their hosts.  The closed blinds of spare parlors and north bed-rooms flew open, as if the dwellings were suddenly awakened from slumber, and bewilderingly opened their eyes, while the hall doors gaped wide with astonishment.  The village was aroused from its lethargy, and the gay season was inaugurated with pic-nics and parties, fishing and fowling excursions, and riding and rambling everywhere.  But it has now assumed more than its usual primness as, if ashamed of its late excess. The chord of sympathy which vibrated to the touch of pleasure now responds to the accents of grief.  The merriment has ceased; the hidden guests have departed; an unbidden guest has entered to two mourning households.  In the bloom and pride of youth two young men have "passed on” to their rest, and the voice of gladness is exchanged for the wail of lamentation.  The vases that furnished flowers for the feast supply garlands for the grave.  Such are the contrasts of life, such God's inscrutable providence.  The old toil on and are weary, the young exult and are gone; fathers bury the sons who should live to bury their fathers.  The slow-lolling bell sounds solemnly, the mourners go sadly through the streets, the church is crowded with villagers, dust receives its native dust.  Not like the city, where the tide of humanity ebbs and flows with the same unceasing regularity, bearing silently to the sea of forgetfulness the wrecks of happy homes; not like the great maelstrom of business in which so many go down to destruction, more intent on saving themselves than of cheering or helping others, but thoughtful of neighbors in sickness and sorrow, relieving their wants and assuming their cares, are this kind and considerate people.  To the "stranger within their gates" as well as citizen at their doors is extended the hand of kindness and welcome.  Though in the small communities of the country unpleasant gossip sometimes abounds, yet it is better to suffer from the impertinence of the curious than the neglect of the indifferent.  "Sickness makes cowards of us all," and we crave the sympathy which in health we despise.  Our independence like our strength is gone, and we greet the smile of friendship as the drooping flower looks up and blesses the rain and the sunshine.

Passing along the roads that stretch like great arteries from the villages into the farming districts, the attention is often arrested by the neat collages embowered in shrubbery, with clean-swept dooryards and blooming flower-gardens, that give an air of cheery comfort lo the home.  Not always the best constructed dwellings are the most inviting in appearance, but glare in their prim whiteness at the stranger, with scarcely the greensward to relieve their cold repulsiveness, while the weather-beaten brown cottage, with its neat garden and climbing vines and fragrant exotics clinging to the window-ledges, warms the heart of the dusty traveler who seeks a draught of cold water from the "old oaken bucket that hangs in the well," for the old well-sweep is not entirely superseded by the new-fashioned pumps, but creaks as musically as ever from its lofty perch.  No snarling curs or growling mastiffs forbid approach, and you find within the cleanliness and comfort foreshown without.  Not large and luxuriously furnished apartments, fresh from the hands of the upholsterer, nor walls hung with pictures selected and arranged by the artist, but snug, cosy rooms embellished by the fair hands of the inmates.  Each article of furniture has its history,—was bought with the price of labor, and thought about and talked about long before it took its place in the niche assigned it.  The few crayons that adorn the walls have been wrought at intervals of leisure, the books have been purchased with care and read with profit and pleasure, while newspapers are scattered around like leaves from the tree of knowledge.  I would love to linger in such rural retreats through the burning days of the summer, and I feel reluctant to leave the homes of the friends who have welcomed me.  But the call of labor is imperative: he who would thrive must toil.

Of strawberries and raspberries I have had my fill, and am now feasting on blueberries, which here grow very large and sweet, and are gathered in great quantities and sent to Portland, where they command a ready sale and good price.  With milk and berries — and such milk, rich and creamy,— milk which would tempt the gods from their nectar, and perhaps arouse even the slumbering consciences of city milkmen,—such are the luxuries in which poor city mortals may indulge who fly the miasma of dog-days and seek the cool shade of the mountains.  Blackberries, too, are beginning to ripen, and soon their glistening clusters of cone-shaped fruit will reward the hand of the gatherer.  So bountiful nature spreads her constant feast, ever fresh and tempting, inviting who will to partake without money and without price.  Yet the boys in the field often look askance at me, as if I were an unwelcome intruder, surreptitiously appropriating their coveted treasures; but their jealousy is appeased when I offer to buy their berries, by picking which they strive to earn an honest penny.  But though easier to purchase than pick them, the pleasure of eating is lessened, for what so sweet to the taste as the berries plucked fresh from the bushes, plump and hard as nature has formed them!  Though there have been several refreshing showers of late, yet vegetation is suffering for moisture.  Corn in some localities looks feeble, but generally promises a good yield.  Without this valuable cereal what would the farmers do, especially as they will be deprived of their usual supply of pumpkins, whose tender vines were nipped by the early frost?  I imagine the fervent laments that will go up on the day of Thanksgiving, if the place of the old-fashioned pumpkin-pie is usurped by some contrivance of modern cookery.  What is the gathering together, the grasping of hands and exchanging of greetings, if this cement of the golden union is wanting?  How will mischievous urchins pass their long winter evenings, if they can make no pumpkin-shell lanterns to frighten bewildered swains returning late from their wooings?  O, many are the uses as well as abuses of the favorite vine of New England,— a vine whose fruit intoxicates only the hearts of the household, which reel to and fro with gladness, with the wild delirium of joy, when the time-honored feast of the fathers is laid in the ancestral mansion!                                                                                 – C.

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