History Matters: Reading Rural Landscapes by Robert Sanford

Reading Rural Landscapes by Robert Sanford


History matters. And we’re losing too much of it. I was reminded of this last year when Linda and I visited the new library on Swan’s Island for one of my book talks. The Island librarian lamented that their old library burned and they’d lost a lot of valuable historical items and records.

I was reminded of this again when I recently spent an hour with Adam Fisher at the Maine State Library, where Adam is doing a superb job of collecting and digitizing old books, brochures, photos, and other records from long-gone Maine sporting camps. Adam had suggested I have a look at these items for the book on sporting camps I am writing for Down East Books.

Maine once had over 300 sporting camps but we’re down to about 3 dozen now of the traditional camps with a lodge serving food and separate cabins for sleeping. Too many sporting camps are not even distant memories, but Adam is doing all he can to collect and save brochures and other information about them. I was amazed by some of the items in his collection.

In Mount Vernon, Linda and I are surrounded by history, starting with our home that was constructed in 1796. At one time there was a dam on Hopkins Stream, beside our house, with a box factory on one side and a leather factory on the other. It’s been fun to dig up old pieces of leather there.

The Penobscot Indians once visited our stream every year, camping downstream from our house, to gather grasses and make baskets. Later, a commercial cranberry business was established along the stream where we still pick cranberries every fall.

An old gentleman who lived in Auburn used to visit us every year. He’d been born in the “borning room” that’s now at the end of our living room. He’d tell me stories about growing up here and I’d write them down. Adam Fisher has inspired me to get these digitized and safely stored. I’m also going to advocate for doing the same thing at our town library which has a lot of historical information and records.

I just finished a fascinating book, Reading Rural Landscapes, written by Robert Sanford and published by Tilbury House in Thomaston. Sanford is a professor at the Muskie School at USM and the book is billed as “A Field Guide to New England’s Past.” Essentially, Sanford tells us how to interpret the things we see all around us, from cemeteries to cellar holes.

I was particularly enthralled by his chapters on stone walls, posts, and other fences. I’ve found barbed wire embedded in trees on my woodlot and learned from Sanford that, “Wire fences were not used in northern New England until the advent of barbed wire and the demise of ready sources of wood for rail fencing. Barbed wire was patented in the early 1870s and quickly found its way into New England pastures soon after.” So, my woodlot used to be pasture. Also, thanks to Sanford, I now know that I’ve got to get out there and actively maintain the stone walls on our property.

He offers lots of ways to figure out the history of our rural landscapes by the types of trees and other vegetation growing there. But I was most interested in his chapter on bricks and brickyards. I learned so much about bricks, including how to tell when they might have been made.

Many of the bricks used in houses and other buildings in our area were made in the woods right beside our house. The forest floor is covered in rejected bits of bricks and even some that are whole. Apparently there is a good bit of clay there, at the outlet of Minnehonk Lake. Sanford reported that, “The very earliest brickyards were at the site of the clay deposits and used a covered outdoor firing process rather than a kiln. Even if there was a kiln, it seldom survived unless the brickyard continued into modern times.”

Now, I can stop looking for a kiln out there in the woods. I thought I had found it, but now I think that spot is really a dump pile of “klinkers,” rejected bricks that “may have settled over the years and have some hardy plants and trees growing on it, but it may still be a mound.” That’s exactly what I found.

You may be surrounded by history too. Are you doing enough to capture and preserve that history?

George Smith

About George Smith

George stepped down at the end of 2010 after 18 years as the executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine to write full time. He writes a weekly editorial page column in the Kennebec Journal and Waterville Morning Sentinel, a weekly travel column in those same newspapers (with his wife Linda), monthly columns in The Maine Sportsman magazine, two outdoor news blogs (one on his website, georgesmithmaine.com, and one on the website of the Bangor Daily News), and special columns for many publications and newsletters. Islandport Press published a book of George's favorite columns, "A Life Lived Outdoors" in 2014. In 2014, George also won a Maine Press Association award for writing the state's bet sports blog. In 2016, Down East Books published George's book, Maine Sporting Camps, and Islandport Press published George and his wife Linda's travel book, Take It From ME, about their favorite Maine inns and restaurants.