A Maine Ghost Town
There's a lot of abandoned past in the Maine countryside — cellar holes overgrown with lilacs, once busy roads now just ruts among towering pines, overgrown family burying grounds marked by crumbling rock walls and headstones washed blank by centuries of weather. Freeman Township, south of Kingfield and north of Strong, has more than its share of old memories and ancient markers tucked back among the trees and along its gravel roads.
Freeman was originally created to ease the pain of a war's victims. In the late eighteenth century it was one of two remote townships the state of Massachusetts granted to the survivors of the burning of Portland — then called Falmouth — during the Revolutionary War. Settlers started moving into the area in the 1790s, and by 1803 they had been incorporated as the town of Freeman, in honor of a local landowner, Samuel Freeman, according to the 1881 Gazetteer of the State of Maine by George J. Varney. By 1840 some 838 people called Freeman home, and townsfolk had cleared thousands of acres of land for some of the largest sheep farms in the state. It was the home of Israel R. Bray, a local farmer and wool merchant reputed to be one of the richest men in Maine.
Those were the glory days. The Civil War, "Ohio Fever," the lure of the cities, and finally the Great Depression wore away at a town where keeping the forests from reclaiming its lost land was a constant battle. A century later, the 1940 census found only 202 residents, so few that the town dissolved itself back into an unincorporated territory that year.
Comparatively speaking, Freeman's heyday was a flash in the pan, farms and barns and fields appearing and then disappearing back into woodland in less than two hundred years. "Most of those old farms have fallen by the wayside these days," says Freeman resident Meldon Gilmore, a former county commissioner. "You walk out through the woods today and you can still find the old stone walls running as straight as an arrow, with trees three feet in diameter next to them. That's how long it's been since they were active farms."
Gilmore says Freeman residents live a little closer to the past than most people because of all the remnants of once-active homesteads moldering in the forest and collapsing under the pressure of sprouting trees and strangling bittersweet vines. For the most part, the names of the families that lived in them are long forgotten, although they're likely included among the headstones in the township's fifteen cemeteries.
"We have a lot of little cemeteries up here," Gilmore comments. "Every church had one, of course, and we had a lot of churches at one time. Plus there's at least two or three family cemeteries scattered around." Israel Bray rests in one of the larger burying grounds, his grave marked by a distinctive obelisk. So does Elizabeth Dyar, who reputedly helped disguise the rebels who mounted the Boston Tea Party.
These days most Freeman residents commute to jobs in Farmington or Kingfield or elsewhere. There's even been a mini-boom of new construction as the township attracts seasonal residents drawn by the nearby ski areas at Sugarloaf and Saddleback. Freeman's latest crop is second homes and ski chalets. "We're prospering right now," offers Gilmore's brother, Bill, who also lives in Freeman. "There are some real nice new homes going up around here."
Some of those new irregular residents can look out their windows and see the collapsing remains of the homes built by those who came before them. A few of them might even realize that, in any conversation about the past or the future, the Maine forest always has the last word.