HARPSWELL – There are numerous towns along the coast of Maine that have a very interesting history. Unfortunately, in some cases it is not easy to find a good account of them, as no book has been written on the subject or objects have not been collected and placed in a historical society for you to see them. However, some of these towns have been blessed with people who have an infinity for their town’s history and do all they can to make sure that it is preserved for future generations. One such person is David Hackett of Harpswell, who has been saving history almost as long as he has been alive.
Harpswell consists of Bailey’s, Orr’s and Sebascodegan Islands and was incorporated in 1758. In the late 1700s and early 1800s the town voted against separating from Massachusetts, but this was reversed in 1819. Another contention within the town was to connect the major islands (Bailey’s, Orr’s and Sebascodegan) with a bridge and this was constantly refused. Finally, in the mid-1800s a bridge was built by Orr’s Island residents, but the town refused to maintain it. A few years later the bridge was accepted, but a couple of years after that it was destroyed. In the 1880s a steamboat wharf was built on Orr’s Island and the first steamer to use it was GORDON, Capt. James Long. Soon after the mail for the island arrived from Portland via the steamers. With tourism growing more steamers, from different lines, called at Harpswell, Bailey’s and Orr’s Islands.
Since the late 1700s, Harpswell has built numerous vessels, just over 225. There were many small schooners used in coastal trade or fishing. The largest vessel built was the 1,200-ton ship JOHN L. DIMMOCK built by George Skolfield in 1853. Several had notable careers sailing to all corners of the globe. Unfortunately, many ended their life due to shipwreck, fire or being abandoned at sea. Others were captured like the BETSY in the War of 1812; bark ALBION LINCOLN was captured and bonded in the Civil War, but the brig PAUL C. ALEXANDER was not so fortunate as she was captured and burned; and HAMILTON was the last stone sloop from Chebeague Island.
Numerous master mariners came from or lived in Harpswell over the years. Going through the cemetery opposite the Historical Society you will find: Ezekiel Alexander, Henry Alexander, William Barnes, Charles J. Bishop, John Bishop, John Blake, Joseph Clark, Angier H. Curtis, David Curtis; Paul S. Curtis, Andrew Dunning, James Dyer, Charles Johnson, Stephen D. Johnson, Matthew Martin, Alcot S. Merriman, John Merriman, Silvester S. Merriman, Wanton Merriman, Henry A. Merryman, Hudson B. Merryman, James Merryman, John Meryman, Thomas Meryman, Walton Meryman, Henry Orr, James Orr, David Perry, John Reed, Clement Skolfield, Robert Skolfield, Thomas Skolfield, and James Stover. These were captains from the age of sail and made voyages all over the world.
The Harpswell Historical Society is located at 929 Harpswell Neck Road. They have four buildings at this location, but also are responsible for the East Harpswell Baptist Church and the fishermen’s memorial statue at the southern end of Bailey’s Island.
David added, “The Historical Society, which was founded in 1979, and I was the first vice-president. When we had our first public meeting over to Library Hall on Bailey’s Island. I think Thurlow spoke, but at the end of it we had refreshments and a woman walked over to me and said, ‘Your name is Hackett, right?’ I said ‘Yeah.’ She said, ‘Are you any relation to Perley Hackett?’ I said, ‘Yeah, that was my grandfather. She said, ‘My God,’ and storms off. She goes over and talks to her husband and he is looking at me giving me a dirty look and he comes over and he says, ‘Your grandfather was selectman for a long time, wasn’t he?’ I said, ‘Yeah, 36 years.’ He said, ‘You know he stopped us from building the Bailey Island bridge for damn near 50 years,’ and I said, ‘Yeah, I know that.’ He looks at me like he didn’t know what I was going to say, and I said, ‘It would be kind of nice here without any cars, don’t you think?’ The two of them looked at me with draggers in their eyes and then they started laughing and we had a good conversation after that.”
David and my focus were on the maritime related items in the Museum. The first he explained was two portraits of Captain Charles Bishop and his first wife Sophie, who died when she was 25. He would be David’s great grandfather on his father’s side.
On another wall is a primitive-looking painting of the bark G. M. STANWOOD, which was built by Daniel Brewer in 1879. David explained, “That is the last big square-rigger built here in Harpswell. A man named Farr came in one day and he said would we like to have it. He kept apologizing, saying it’s a primitive, it’s not very good. The story is even better than the painting itself is that on a voyage to the Indian Ocean they were becalmed for two weeks. Captain Webber decided he was going to paint a picture of the vessel so he plucked a number of hairs out of the back of his neck to make a brush and the canvas is ship’s canvas they had onboard to repair the sails and the paint is paint they had onboard to paint the ship and the frame was stuff that was in the carpenter shop to do repairs to the ship. When I got it, one of the things is how do you know what you know for sure, so I took it to a marine art dealer friend, Terry Geaghan and I sat it on an easel and said what can you tell me about it? He looked it over and the first thing he said was that is ship’s canvas that is not canvas an artist would use. Then he looked it over a little bit more and he said that paint is house paint or boat paint. That is not paint an artist would use. Well, that kind of confirms it. It is the story that goes with it that is one of the best parts of it.”
On another wall is a couple of old half-hulls. One is a small schooner built at the Allen yard. She was skippered by John Toothaker and the family gave the model to Dane Allen, who later passed it onto the Museum. Unfortunately, this vessel struck a ledge in thick of fog and went down in Portland Harbor.
The other half-hull is of the brig MATANZAS built in Harpswell in 1849. She worked in the West Indies trade taking down lumber and returning with rum and molasses. She was registered until 1876, when it is noted that she was lost. David’s great grandfather David Henry Hackett sailed in this trade for several years. He added, “He went to church one Sunday morning in the spring and came back down, sat on the front doorstep to take his shoes and socks off and had a heart attack and drop dead.”
Capt. Hackett sailed on some of the Skolfield vessels, several times with Capt. John Bishop on the brig HATTIE S. BISHOP built in Harpswell in 1864. David said, “He was mate on her and I don’t know when Captain John stopped being captain of her. He was captain of her the end of her life. He had a house in Bath like a lot of captains did and he had land here in Harpswell. He built the house that I live in in 1884. Being frugal Yankees, they decided to tear down a couple of old houses to get lumber so a lot of the moulding in my house and doors are about 200 years old rather than the age of the house.”
In the front room there is a barometer. David explained, “That was Captain Dunning’s, but I am not sure which Dunning, it’s father and son. When Clement Dunning died, I expected everything in his attic to come to the Historical Society but his daughter had other plans and everything was auctioned off. I thought we didn’t have funds enough to go and buy much at an auction, but one of my neighbors called me from Hawaii and he said, ‘I just saw the auction notice. I am going to send you $6,000, buy what you can.’ When I went to the auction, there seemed to be one man in particular I was bidding against and he had much deeper pockets than I did. There was a breakdown in the loud speaker at the auction, so they had to stop the auction for a few minutes and a woman, that I did not know, grabbed me by the shoulder and said, ‘Do you know that man?’ pointing to the guy that I was bidding against. I said, ‘No, I don’t.’ She said, ‘Well, you are about to meet him.’ She took me over and introduced me and he was a Dunning and that was why he was interested in the stuff. He said to me, ‘How much money do you have?’ I said, ‘Well, $6,000,’ and he said, ‘When you run out of money let me know and I will buy whatever you want.’ Shortly thereafter this barometer came up and I had been watching the audience to see what interest there was in it and I didn’t see much. I thought $2,500-$3,000 would be a fair price and the auctioneer said there is an outside bid and I thought, ‘Oh, god,’ and the outside bid was $5,000. I thought ‘No, I can’t do that’ and then I thought, ‘how many chances are we going to have to get a barometer from a Harpswell ship that has been around the world?’ I spent $5,050 and we had it, but there were a lot of trim pieces missing off of it and some of the glass was missing. Ten or fifteen minutes later this man comes up and says, whoever bought that barometer there’s the rest of the glass and trim pieces so we have everything.”
Also in the front room is Elcot Stover Merriman’s writing desk, which David was able to get an auction house to donate to the Museum; Stephen Decatur Johnson’s writing desk that came from the meeting house; and John Bishop’s sextant, which came in one Sunday afternoon when an older lady came in and said, ‘David this belongs here.’ After she left David opened the box and said, “I could see it was a very nice English sextant with an Ivory handle on it with a sterling silver plaque that says, ‘Presented by the British Government to Captain Bishop of the U. S. Ship JAMES SOUTHARD of Richmond, Maine’ in acknowledgment of his kindness to a portion of the crews of the brigs LYRO of Nova Scotia and the ALBION of Maryswith in February of 1868.”
Upstairs where they host the Subsistence Workshop, where they work with school kids, mostly from the Coastal Academy. David teaches them to build moccasins, 3-legged log stools and knapsacks. When they are sitting and working on these projects, they are sitting on the stern pieces of the schooner BOWDOIN. David said that they would like to paint an ocean mural on the wall saying, “There will be a few boats in the mural and one of them will be Elroy Johnson’s boat. Elroy had a dog, Bruin, and he used to say that was the smartest dog in the State of Maine. He’s out hauling in the wintertime; they are out Half-Way Rock and weather gets kind of sloppy. Then the bait boxes start tipping over so they decide to come back in and the wind is picking up, snow is coming down and they get almost into Jakish and they realize the dog is not with them, The dog fell overboard and nobody noticed and so he turned around and headed back out. The wind was getting worse and the snow was getting worse and they found the dog. He was paddling along in the breaking seas, by then 2-3 footers and the dog was swimming, about 2 miles in freezing water. Elroy grabbed him by the collar, hauled him onboard, and he shook himself off and he was fine. I think painting that into the wall is a story the kids need to know.”
David told another story of Elroy Johnson. He said, “They are out on the Grand Banks, this is 1917 or 1918, it’s a blowy day so they can’t set the gear. They got the staysail set, wheel tied down and they are down in the forecastle and all of a sudden he hears this big clunk, clunk and he figures one of the ice cakes has come loose in the hold, so he decides to go up and check it out. There were ten vessels there, nine of them right together and they were about two miles off and in between them was a German U-boat. They had surfaced and were forcing everybody off the vessels and putting dynamite chargers onboard to blow them up. They were aimed exactly at the submarine so they couldn’t see that they had hoisted sails, but when they dropped off into the wind, the German’s could see that they were trying to get away. They fired at them a few times but fell short. They put up everything they had and got the engine running and they headed for Stellwagen Bank in the shoal waters. They kept that up all day and night and got into Portland Harbor safely and the other vessels I think were all sunk or a majority of them were.”
When asked what the most noted shipyard was in Harpswell, David said, “Skolfields, the Skolfield yard is right on the town line and local politics and local finances have changed the town line from time to time. It used to be said that the Skolfields built their ships in Brunswick and launched them in Harpswell.”
As for other builders, David added, “The Allen’s, on Allen’s Point. They built mostly brigs in the 1860s and 1870s and then they moved the yard up in the cove in the ’80s and started building fishing schooners.
There were also a number of boatbuilders over the years. When asked about Henry Barnes, David said, “I used to be in his shop when I was five years old. His shop was a couple miles up on the left. There is a nice little house that John Bishop built that he lived in. Captain John’s son built that house. That was what was always called ‘the chicken coop’ and that is where they built the boats. The chicken coop never had any chickens in it because it belonged to a rum runner and that is where he stored rum. Henry and Herman (Morse) to me had kind of an ideal life, they built boats in the wintertime, went fishing in the summertime, and always had big gardens.”
“Herman was a big man. My first recollection of Herman, I was probably four years old, and I was in what is now the Museum, at the time was a store. Herman comes in and when he walks in the doorway, he fills the doorway right up. I am standing by the meat counter by my mother and he comes over and he bends down on one knee and then he bends down just as low as he can and he still towering over me and he says, ‘You wanna wrestle?’ ‘No, no! I don’t want to wrestle.’ Herman and Henry Allen, Allen’s Seafood, used to hang out together when they were young. They used to go to Grange’s when they had dances and they were at Topsham Grange and Herman found somebody to dance with and Henry didn’t so Henry went down to the front of the Grange where all the young fellas were drinking. He bet three of them they could not take Herman off the dance floor and this is the guy he rode up with. The three guys go in and tackle Herman on the dance floor and Herman grabs them by the gruff of the neck and the seat of their pants and throws all three of them out. They are going home and Henry is feeling a little bad about this so he takes half of the money and sticks it in Herman’s pocket and Herman says, ‘What’s that for?’ Henry says, ‘Don’t ask.’”
David has been around the area fishermen all his life, adding, “I started raking sea moss when I was 8. I fished all through high school, a couple years after that. I went with Dane (Allen) mostly. I never had traps of my own, I was always stern man. We went dragging in the winter, musseling and shrimping. He had a boat called STRUGGLE, which was built in Portland Harbor in 1918. She was a water boat, built to carry fresh water out to ships. When Dane got a hold of it, it was pretty tired. She was 32 feet long, double-ended and the guys used to say it had a bow like the TITANTIC and a stern like an Old Town canoe. He rebuilt her into a dragger. Shrimping was big at the time, this would be ’67 or ’68. I was fishing with him in high school and it was the end of November he says, ‘I have some traps down the Mink Rock you want to come out and help me bring them in?’ I said ‘Sure.’ So, Saturday morning we go down to Mink Rock. At the time he had a boat called the MISS X, which was a nice wooden lobsterboat. Abner Lowell pretty much built her. It had a 400 Pontiac engine in it, but it didn’t have a fuel filter. So, when we were hauling traps four or five times the engine would die. He would get out a hammer and he called it his ‘hammer dance’ and he’d bang on the carburetor and the float would come unstuck and start up and away we would go. So, we were out by the Mink Rock and it’s blowing a little bit, three-foot chop got one trap onboard and the engine dies. Mink Rock is not a nice place to be especially if your engine is not running. So, he beat on it and thrashed on it and had the battery almost flat. He said, ‘I think you better clean the carburetor.’ He’s trying to decide whether we are dragging or not as we are sitting on nine traps for an anchor and not far from shore. I took the carburetor back aft, took it all apart and cleaned it. I get it all put back together and he is ranting and raving at me and I thought, ‘I’ll get you.’ There was a periwinkle sitting beside me, I picked the periwinkle up I put it in my hand and started really looking at it and he’s staring back at me. I said, ‘You know, I don’t think we need this’ and I threw it overboard. Periwinkles if they land just right make a big splash. I put the carburetor back on and she started right up and we hauled the traps and off we went.”
Like anyone who hangs around the water when they are young with no money, they learn how to make repairs. When asked who he had worked with, David said, “Royal Lowell, Carroll Lowell, I worked with both of them quite a bit. Danny Lowell as well. I learned a lot from them but a lot of it has just been self-taught. I always had fast cars when I was in high school which meant I drove like an idiot and blew up engines and transmissions. I had to fix them.”
David said that boatyard dynamics has changed over the years. He added, “The idea of the boat shop and that is all you do year around in my world hardly existed. When I went to work over to South Freeport for the Bakers in ’74 maybe and there’d be six or eight people working there in the summertime because of the docks, but in the winter time there’d only be the Bakers, the general manager and two of us working in the shop. We mostly did projects for them. I remember the work boat, which I re-decked one winter and rebuilt the engine in her another winter.”
Getting back to the Historical Society, David said, “This is a pretty nice little place. I hope in the future there’s going to be a lot more to it. Raising money is not easy, no matter how good of an operation you have.”
David’s commitment is second to none so one knows that he will always do what he can in collecting the items that should be in the Museum and making sure the Museum is moving in the right direction. Next time you are heading to Harpswell make it a point to visit their Historical Society and get David to tell more of his stories.