A forgotten town is remembered through the eyes of a former schoolteacher.
- By: Jane Lamb
Relaxing on my California deck in the late summer sunshine, I thought I heard a dog sneeze. I looked up to see not a neighbor’s pet on the other side of the fence but a little black-tail doe nervously peering into the redwoods beyond. It was a dainty little “sneeze” that took me back more than sixty years to 1947, three thousand miles to the east, and the deeper alarm note of a bigger startled deer, a Maine white-tail whose snort in the alders in the cold autumn twilight changed the course of my life.
It was 1947. I had just graduated from Colby College. A lifelong outdoor girl, I was recruited by a classmate, Mary Ellison, to undertake a North Woods adventure. The newly hired principal, math, and history teacher of Flagstaff High School, Mary needed a teacher of English, French, and a few other subjects to complete the faculty of two. Our two classrooms shared a substantial building and its gym with the two-room elementary school. I signed on for the handsome salary of two thousand dollars (a year), which included a hundred-dollar bonus for frontier duty. And it did seem like frontier. From the back windows of the little house we rented, the view stretched across a field to the river and the flood plain beyond to the Bigelow Range, majestic and lonely in the distance. In the other direction, Flagstaff Pond reflected a wilderness of forest and lesser mountains.
It was certainly a learning experience for me, if not for the student body, which fell away from the original dozen as several of them dropped out or moved away over the school year. Besides English and French, I taught what might generously pass as fourth grade chemistry, as well as art and music. I coached boys basketball, with a couple of eighth graders helping to make up the team. Mary, a strong athlete, coached the girls. I knew even less about sports than chemistry. Needless to say, the boys won no games. But we enjoyed ourselves nonetheless.
On one memorable trip with our students, we crossed the pond to climb Flagstaff Mountain with Captain Cliff Wing aboard the barge on which he had ferried crews to logging camps and sports to hunting lodges in earlier days. The kids climbed the ancient fire tower, probably in defiance of all state laws, but we all got back to town safely enough. In the fall we took the traditional day off from school and all went to the “World’s Fair,” as the North New Portland Fair was locally known. In the spring the students hung May baskets on our door, a new experience for us sophisticates. We were learning about “the real Maine,” unknown territory to college girls from out of state.
We teachers were welcomed at Saturday night dances in the Masonic Hall above Dutchy Leavitt’s General Store and Post Office. In between the waltzes and foxtrots, we danced the Virginia reel, the Boston Fancy, and Lady of the Lake, an unbroken tradition long before the folklore revival rediscovered contradancing. We quickly learned not to go out for “a breath of air,” lest we be courted futilely by local swains (though I admit I did climb Bigelow Mountain with one of them, a fire warden). We went ice fishing on the pond and watched log trucks crossing it on a red-flagged trail. I remember snow banks so high the trucks’ big loads were invisible as they passed through town.
At first, neither of us teachers had a car. To travel “down river” we rode the Stage, Milton “Monty” Young’s pre-war Hudson that carried the mail to North New Portland and passengers, groceries, and miscellany to destinations along the way. Come spring, I acquired wheels, and we got stuck trying to navigate through bottomless mud and had to be hauled out by a big truck. The road was paved through town and only a mile or so beyond in either direction. You couldn’t get to Stratton or Eustis in a car for a couple of weeks.
Captain Wing, otherwise known as “Snide,” was the senior village sage, known for his ingenious inventions and wry humor. He took Mary and me under his wing (no pun intended), instructing us on local customs, history, and gossip, offering timely advice, and guiding us (with well-concealed amusement, I now suspect) on snowshoe hunts on sparkling winter mornings. We bought .22 rifles, and I prowled the autumn woods on Jim Eaton Hill where I flushed a partridge or two. Although I grew up at the edge of the suburbs, I had roamed the fast-vanishing woods nearby and had gone camping with my family from the age of four. I had explored old logging roads around a remote farm in upstate New York with my woods-wise, Bangor-born grandfather. I was by no means a city girl,except, of course, in the eyes of my new neighbors.
I spent many an after-school afternoon hiking beyond the village, pretending to be a hunter. It was just before dark on that cold November evening, as I was heading homeward across the frozen bog on the Main Inlet of Flagstaff Pond, that I heard the deer blow in the alders. Shortly afterward, I ran into old Al Wing, Snide’s brother, who asked if I’d seen anything. “No, but I just heard one blow back there,” I innocently replied, using the appropriate term. Whether Al Wing was deaf or it made a better story, the crowd of regulars in Dutchy’s store, the hub of Flagstaff social life, would never believe I knew what to call a deer’s snort. It was not long afterward that I was sought out by a handsome young game warden in a red jacket who wanted to meet “the schoolteacher who’d heard the deer growl.” To my romantic soul, the red jacket called up visions of Mounties to the rescue and other such folklore. My fate was sealed. We were married the following spring.
The next year, as a young wife and striving English teacher, I watched a part of Maine history slowly slip into oblivion as families whose forbears had founded Flagstaff sold out, packed up, and moved away. After the Long Falls Dam was completed and the floodgates closed in 1949, the water began to creep over the barren flowage. The pond, the Main Inlet, the remnants of the town itself, and miles of Dead River Valley farmland and forest, were covered by the huge expanse of Flagstaff Lake created in 1949 to store water for Central Maine Power hydro-electric operations downstream. These days I often have to explain that there was once another Flagstaff besides the one in Arizona. The only thing they had in common was a flagpole, with a tree cut for the purpose. Arizona’s in 1880 marked a railroad stop; Maine’s was erected a century earlier at a riverside campsite of Benedict Arnold’s famous campaign in 1775. A Captain Timothy Bigelow was sent up the mountain that bears his name to scout for the ramparts of far distant Quebec City. A commemorative flagpole and plaque stood in roughly the same spot since the town was established in 1845.
The original Flagstaff Pond was a natural lake. Its short outlet, known as the Mill Stream, flowed into the Dead River a few hundred yards to the south. A small dam had been built in the 1840s by Miles Standish (an enterprising descendant of the old pilgrim) to furnish power for a grist and lumber mill. In the town’s
last days, both the dam and mill were still in use.
The mill had passed into the hands of the Rogers family, longtime settlers, and in 1915 Arthur Rogers began running a small, water-powered generator and wired the village for electricity. Its output was limited and townspeople cheerfully lit their kerosene lamps when it was diverted to the school for night basketball games and dances. Harry Bryant purchased the mill from Rogers in 1926 and added a diesel generator to supplement the waterpower in dry summers and operate a busy lumber and dowel mill. By the time I arrived in 1947, the old generator was giving out and oil lamps were back in style. The following spring, when the population was swelling with loggers cutting flowage to clear the forest that would become lakebed, the town acquired a new big diesel generator. The engine’s roar resounded throughout the once-peaceful valley. For me, uninterrupted power wasn’t a happy trade-off for quiet, old-fashioned lighting.
In the spring of 1949, before the school closed forever and I departed for points south, I witnessed the last generation of local woodsmen working the final pulpwood drive on the Dead River. Along the Eustis Road, stacks of lumber were piling up, cut from the harvest of tall pines being cleared for flowage. I still have the engraved invitation I received to the last Flagstaff High School graduation, June 3, 1949, a solo appearance for the only remaining senior, Gladys Bean.
And that was all I remembered of Flagstaff until that little California deer jogged my memory and aroused my curiosity. I had taken quite a few photos, but kept no journal — apparently too busy living in the moment to record it.
During a bumbling online search sheer good luck turned up Mary Henderson, president of the Dead River Area Historical Society. She sent me copies of fascinating newspaper stories by former Flagstaff residents and put me in touch with Duluth “Dude” Wing, Snide’s son, at his home in Eustis. Dude is a stalwart of the society and unofficial Flagstaff archivist. In a memorable hour-long phone conversation he told me more than I’d hoped for.
I learned about the huge fire on the flowage in the fall of 1949 that I’d never heard about though I was living only a hundred miles away. He said Dutchy Leavitt had built a new store near the Cathedral Pines in Eustis. Since he died some time ago, it has become Pines Market, more a convenience store than the typical old general store it once was. Dude asked if I had “our book,” There Was a Land, a collection of Flagstaff memories, written by twenty-seven former residents, that I had been searching for in vain. “I’ll sell you one for thirty-five dollars,” he offered congenially, and the check was in the next mail. It has proved invaluable; full of facts unknown to me or incorrectly recorded in my hazy memory.
Duluth Wing had graduated shortly before I came to Flagstaff High School, and I never knew him, but he knew who I was. He eagerly brought me up to date on my former students and gave me phone numbers and addresses. I have talked with Anna Bean Smart, Betty Safford Wyman, and former grammar school teacher Ruey Stevens Baldwin. All consider Flagstaff and the Dead River area home. A few live nearby in Stratton or Eustis. Several have built camps on high ground around the big lake. They get back for family holidays with local relatives, and they all count on getting together for the annual Flagstaff Reunion in August at the Flagstaff Memorial Chapel in Eustis. It stands beside the graveyard that was at the foot of Jim Eaton Hill, moved there along with the old flagpole and its plaque.
October 21, 2009, will be the sixtieth anniversary of the last mail postmarked in Flagstaff. Every building was salvaged or torn down. Only the foundation of the school building that was once a center of learning and community events remains high and dry and crumbling on its hill overlooking the waters that conceal a lost piece of Maine’s rural history.
- By: Jane Lamb