The Heart of Cherryfield
Located midway between Ellsworth and Machias, the self-proclaimed Blueberry Capital of the World is a small town that wears its history on its streets.
Royal Montana has generously painted his late 1700s Colonial house burgundy, and we do mean generously. The clapboard siding, the window trim and muntins, the wide storm door that stands open in a welcoming gesture, even the fence and garden trellis wear the same deep shade of red. The monochromatic scheme is at once elegant and bold, which is what a house has to be if it's going to get noticed in the town of Cherryfield.
The competition is fierce, you see. One of Maine's most splendid collections of historic homes, many of them dressed to the nines with cupolas, towers, and bric-a-brac, is clustered right here, arising unexpectedly among the blueberry barrens and coastal woodlands of Maine's poorest county. The houses suggest an audacious streak in this sleepy village's past and, for that matter, its present: Who built such ostentatious displays of wealth and style in what must have seemed like the middle of nowhere in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries? Who keeps them now, choosing to live in a town that is, if no longer remote, then certainly well off the beaten path?
Royal Montana does, for one, though no one is more surprised about that than he. The firstborn of a local girl and an Amish boy who came Down East to rake blueberries in the early 1950s, Montana grew up here and "all I wanted when I finished school was to get out of Cherryfield, out of Maine." He grabbed his sitar (he'd learned to play as a teenager) and headed for India where he taught English, math, and Sanskrit folk songs off and on for three decades. It was on a visit home nearly four years ago that he happened upon the Colonial.
"They were going to tear it down to build apartments," Montana recalls. "I was getting ready to go back to India, and I was sitting on the weedy lawn watching the Narraguagus River go by. I said, `If I buy this place, I can look at this pretty river every day.' I stayed. This house completely altered my life."
"Royal's Folly," his friends called it, and Montana couldn't argue. "It looked like someone had pulled a pin from a grenade and threw it in the door. The parlor ceiling was full of holes. In some rooms the lathe held not one bit of plaster. There was no running water, no heat, nothing."
He moved in that January and set up a tent in the living room, where every night he and his cat, Grace, "would sit and freeze." Come morning he'd break the ice that had formed on the buckets of water he'd collected for washing and chores. Working room by room, advancing his tent with each little victory, Montana re-plastered the entire place in four months. He rebuilt the stairway he found dismantled under a second-floor sink, and he made peace with the crooked floors (one bump "the size of a skate park" is hidden under his bed) after he was warned that jacking them might snap the wooden pins joining the post-and-beam frame.
Along the way he discovered tantalizing clues to the lives that passed through the narrow, low-ceilinged hallways: a small boy's britches, school chalk still in the pocket; whalebone corsets; pieces of fine china; letters to one of the house's earliest inhabitants, Justice of the Peace Caleb Burbank; and, on a ledge above an attic window, "the coolest thing of all," the business card of Warren Wass, captain of the Nellie Chapin that carried 158 Maine pilgrims on a widely ridiculed attempt to colonize Palestine in 1866.
Today, Montana makes his living managing a four-hundred-acre dairy farm, selling organic eggs from his own turkeys, geese, and chickens (the brood includes a sensitive rooster that Montana, a vegetarian, keeps caged in the kitchen during wet, chilly weather), and caring for a disabled man. He has no regrets about his life's sharp turn. "Can you imagine tearing this place down?" he asks. "My gosh, it blows my mind! Many of the big houses in the town have similar stories. People came along and said, `Not acceptable. You can't tear this down.' Cherryfield looks better now than it ever did."
Midway between Ellsworth and Machias in western Washington County, the self-proclaimed Blueberry Capital of the World is named for wild cherries that once grew abundantly along the banks of the Narraguagus. "They are different than bunch cherries," says Kathy Upton, president of the Cherryfield-Narraguagus Historical Society. "They are single cherries on a stem and they're bright red. They make the most delightful jelly if you have the patience to pick them. They still grow here, but they are not as plentiful as they used to be."
The town's biggest employers are Cherryfield Foods, Inc. and Wyman's, but blueberry growing and processing jobs, like the wild cherry trees, "are not what they used to be," Upton says. "We're mostly a bedroom community for Ellsworth and Machias now, and there are people who work for themselves in carpentry and construction." Many do like Royal Montana, cobbling together two or more jobs in traditional Down East fashion.
Neither blueberries nor cherries attracted the early settlers. "There were acres and acres of tall, straight white pine," Upton says, "huge expanses of forest that nobody had touched. Lumber was king." Harvested logs were floated through the village along the Narraguagus, where they were sluiced through a series of dams - nine at the industry's peak, at each one a couple of mills. "This was a booming community," Upton says. "There were nearly two thousand people here in the late 1800s."
Today 1,157 people, 22 percent of whom live below poverty level, call Cherryfield home. The most activity the Narraguagus sees is the aerial dance of bald eagles and osprey as they dive for alewives and salmon in spring. Less than a tenth of a mile wide, the river seems to knit the village together rather than divide it. Shade trees and roughly thirty handsome houses built by lumber barons and mill owners more than a century ago line its banks, which are linked by two bridges a mile apart. The Lower Corner Bridge carries Route 1 up Campbell's Hill, where there are a dozen or so more antique homes.
These buildings, along with several others on side streets, form the Cherryfield Historic District, which was entered into the National Register of Historic Places several years ago. The nomination prepared by the Maine Historic Preservation Commission noted the range of popular nineteenth-century residential styles, in particular the concentration of Second Empire dwellings, such as the flamboyant three-story William M. Nash house. With its center front tower, mansard roof, and ornamented dormers, the Nash house could be a stand-in for Anthony Perkins' spooky Psycho manor if it were not so well-maintained. The house is said to have started out as a Cape Cod, which was replaced by a Federal, which in turn was radically redesigned by Cherryfield architect Charles Allen. "The missus wanted something as fancy as the house across the street," says Kathy Upton's brother, Larry Brown, who has worked on the house and seen all three foundations, one inside the other. "The Nashes made their money on lumbering and stores. Along with the Campbells, the Stewarts, and the Rickers, they owned everything in town. The only things they didn't own were the workers' houses up to the barrens."
Brown and Upton acquired their interest in local history from their mother, the late Marjorie Brown. Cherryfield's town clerk for many years, Mrs. Brown held office hours in the family's 1809 home on Willey Hill, named for first settler Ichabod Willey. "People would come into our kitchen for licenses, and they would start telling stories about their houses," Brown, a school custodian and carpenter, remembers. "Then, when I got big enough to go out and work, I started helping the next-door neighbor with her storm windows, and all the while she'd be chatting about who lived where and when. After I got out of the service, I started doing bottle gas deliveries for my dad, so I was in old people's houses again, listening to stories. I tried to remember all I could." It's
Brown who told Royal Montana that his bedroom was once occupied by a bedridden woman who painted the walls black after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. They remained that way until she died.
John Brace lives at the top of Campbell Hill in a rambling Federal period house built by his great great grandfather, General Alexander Campbell. A train enthusiast, he has laid out a large-scale railroad circuit in the big yard, and, every September, members of the Washington County Railroad club converge to ride atop knee-high locomotives next to the house that is believed to be the oldest structure in Cherryfield. Campbells have lived in it continuously since 1790. "It has never been vacated," Brace, a retired University of Maryland mathematics professor, says proudly. "Lots of family have been in and out of here. It was my grandmother's house, and I began coming summers in 1961. To my children, this is home."
It's also a living museum, with original details and furniture from the various periods in which the house grew. The oldest section of the house has interior Indian shutters and iron LH hinges on its countless doors - even small rooms have as many as four portals. One bedroom closet holds a stack of porcelain chamber pots that Brace's ancestors didn't have the heart to discard, and an upstairs bathroom is outfitted with the technology that replaced them in the 1800s - a wooden high-tank toilet. Brace uses vintage light fixtures dating back to when the house was wired in the 1880s, putting it on the cutting edge of modernity. "When my grandmother went to Smith College, her friends teased her: `Don't you know how to light a gas lamp?' " Brace says. "She told them, `No, we have electricity.' "
Perhaps the most prominent citizen of Cherryfield in his day, General Campbell is best remembered for negotiating the Treaty of 1794, which conveyed 23,000 acres in Washington County to the Passamaquoddy tribe in exchange for their surrender of all land claims in Massachusetts, of which Maine was then a part. He had built his reputation during the French and Indian War and the Revolutionary War. As payment for his services, he was granted three hundred acres around Cherryfield, where he set up a lumber business and brought in the settlement's first blacksmith and tanner.
As the Campbell family grew and prospered, they built more homes on the hill, among them the eye-catching Frank Campbell house, a heavily ornamented Second Empire-style dwelling designed by Charles Allen with a curving porch and a tower with a bell-cast mansard roof. Next door to the general's place is the 1883 Colonel Samuel N. Campbell house, a peach-colored Queen Anne replete with semi-circular stained glass windows, scalloped shingles, and Allen's signature sunburst design. The house, whose third floor was originally a ballroom, reflected the colonel's ambitious plan to become Maine's governor. He lost the election, however, which may have given Brace's grandmother a measure of schadenfreude. "She was mad as hops when my great uncle built it because it blocked her view of the river," Brace says.
Given the town's size, it's not surprising that Cherryfield's prominent families would intermarry, creating deeply entwined genealogies. Consider the stories that unfolded within the Archibald-Adams house: mill owner and merchant Thomas Archibald built the Federal foursquare-style home on a bend in the Narraguagus River for his new bride, General Campbell's daughter, Hannah. Years later, after Hannah's death, their daughter, Elizabeth, married lawyer Joseph Adams, and the newlyweds stayed in the house to help Thomas care for his seven other children. After having one child of her own, Elizabeth died, leaving the two widowers to raise the children on their own. Within a few years Joseph took a new bride - Nancy Campbell, the general's granddaughter and Hannah's niece.
"We've speculated that Thomas Archibald hired an architect to design this house because there are very few like it around here," says Kathy Winham, who with husband Peter bought the painstakingly restored house a few years ago and opened the Englishman's Bed-and-Breakfast (Peter is the Englishman). "The scissor staircase, or good-morning stairs, are quite rare."
Professional archaeologists who have worked digs in places like Deadwood, South Dakota, the Winhams have a keen interest in their house's history.
"What really intrigues us most is that Joseph Adams was a distant relative of the Adamses - John and John Quincy," Kathy says. "He must have been very well respected because he was an elected representative who would travel by horseback to Boston to serve in the legislature."
A justice of the peace, Adams held court in the parlor, where he married couples, settled neighbors' disputes, and meted out punishments for crimes like public cursing and cow theft. The parlor, too, is where local leaders met in 1816 to name their newly incorporated town Cherryfield.
As Cherryfield's lumbering industry began its long, slow decline in the late nineteenth century, blueberry harvesting picked up, aided by the timber harvesting that had opened up barrens on the north side of town. But blueberries never quite filled the void left by the disappearing dams and mills, and Cherryfield slipped into inactivity.
These days, though, that very quiet is part of Cherryfield's appeal, and, slowly but certainly, people are coming just to watch the hawks flying over the Narraguagus and to stroll past grand old houses that are testaments to a town's enduring pride.
The Cherryfield-Narraguagus Historical Society has prepared a walking guide to the Cherryfield Historic District. For information, write to the society at P.O. Box 96, Cherryfield, Maine 04622.
- By: Virginia M. Wright