A History of Whitefield

Written by Marie Sacks for inclusion in the Whitefield Comprehensive Plan.

(This is an abstract of A Brief History of Whitefield 1760-2004, available through the Whitefield Historical Society.)

The Town of Whitefield, incorporated on June 19, 1809 as the 177th town in the Province of Maine, began as the western half of a frontier settlement known as Ballstown Plantation. The eastern half of the plantation had split off in 1807 as the Town of Jefferson. The land was owned by the Kennebec Purchase Company, one of a group of speculative land companies from Boston that laid claim to vast tracts of land in Maine in the eighteenth century.

Although the forests of Ballstown were logged for years, and white pine trees suitable for masts for the King’s Navy were marked, settlement did not commence in earnest until after the end of the Indian Wars in 1760. Most settlers were not wealthy; they were looking only to establish homesteads for themselves and their children. Some settlers obtained legitimate grants from the proprietors, but many did not get legal title to their lands until after the courts had resolved difficulties with the Proprietors in 1815.

The political organization of the Ballstown Plantation is somewhat obscure. Apparently never incorporated under Massachusetts law, plantation meetings were not recorded until 1791. The plantation was named for Samuel Ball, who, with his son John, moved north from Alna in about 1770. Samuel and John mined limestone and ran a limestone kiln on the road to Weary Pond until about 1781 when they left town. John served in the Revolutionary War.

Not everyone came simply to establish a homestead. Some saw the wilderness as a place for gaining wealth from land speculation, lumber and mill operations. Mill sites on the Sheepscot River were actively sought out, not only by would-be settlers, but by investors, some of whom never lived here. The present three village areas of Kings Mills, North Whitefield, and Coopers Mills originated at the sites of the most important mills.

Great Falls (Kings Mills) was the first important mill location. A sawmill was erected in about 1774 by Jeremiah Norris. In the 1780s it became the property of Abraham Choate and his sons who added a grist mill. Benjamin King and his sons acquired the mills in 1801.The grist mill was used to generate electricity for the Ford brick house next to the mill until electric power came to Whitefield in the 1930s. The grist mill was destroyed by Hurricane Edna in 1954.

At Clary Lake, once Pleasant Pond, a mill complex built after 1791 provided a center for the North Whitefield settlement. At one time there were four mills at this site. At least two mills on the Sheepscot River at the foot of Grand Army Hill were operating in the early 1800s. Later a clothing mill, a carding mill and a shingle mill operated on this site. North Whitefield was known as Turner’s Corner for many years.

The other main mill site was at Coopers Mills, north of where the road now crosses the river. The first mills, one on each side of the river, were built about 1804. The mill on the east side of the river was acquired by Jesse Cooper of Newcastle whose son, Leonard, ran the mill and from whom the name of the village is derived.

Besides the Ball lime kiln on the Weary Pond Road, other early industries were granite mining and brick making from clay gathered from the river. A brickyard was located on the banks of the Sheepscot River in Kings Mills at the intersection of Head Tide and East River roads.

Granite was used as the foundation stone for many houses. The Jewett Quarry located southeast of Weary Pond operated from 1850 to 1914. Blacksmith shops were scattered about town. Peter King, the son of the mill owner, was an ax grinder and had a shop near the mills. Gold was discovered on a farm on the Town House Road about 1881. Although a mine was dug and ore analyzed, it never provided the expected return and was abandoned. Gravel mining, originally carried out in small pits dug by hand, blossomed into a major industry, especially after World War II.

From earliest settlement and for at least 100 years, Kings Mills Village was the political center of the town. From Abraham Choate, Jr., in 1791 to Lore H. Ford in 1934, the town leadership always included a Choate/King/Ford family member. The political clout of the mill owners is apparent in the ruling of 1805 that no dam could ever be built upriver which blocked logs from reaching Kings Mills. There had been two mills about a mile upriver, the Turner/Preble mills dating to about 1775, which burned in 1803. These mills were never rebuilt after this ruling.

Their distance from the seat of government in Kings Mills prompted the residents of the Hunts Meadow and the Coopers Mills settlements to petition the state of Massachusetts in 1819 to redraw the northern boundary of Whitefield to make those settlements part of Malta (Windsor). The petition was opposed by the town and denied by the state. Again in 1843 when the Town House was built halfway between North Whitefield and Kings Mills, the Coopers Mills and Hunts Meadow people felt excluded from town meeting and voting. This building was relocated in 1989 to a site near the present school. It sits atop a new foundation where the Town Office is located. The 1843 structure now houses the Whitefield Historical Society. Voting is still held in the old Town House, although the town meeting has been held in the Whitefield Elementary School in North Whitefield for many years.

Many of our early settlers, especially around Kings Mills, could trace their roots to the Newburyport area where they or their parents had been touched by the preaching of the Reverend George Whitefield, an English evangelical Calvinistic minister who preached throughout the colonies from the 1730s to 1770. When the town was incorporated in 1809, it is likely that this group of settlers were instrumental in choosing a name that would honor George Whitefield. Although the First Baptist congregation built a meeting house in 1804, the location is not certain, probably at the corner of Hollywood Boulevard and Head Tide Road.. It burned in 1868.

While the majority of Ballstown settlers came primarily from a Protestant and English heritage, Irish Catholic immigrants began arriving here about 1800. About 1820 Rev. Denis Ryan came to serve the Whitefield Irish community. The first Catholic Church, a wooden structure, was built in 1822 and named St. Denis to commemorate the French priests who first served the Catholic population of Maine. In the 1850s the present brick bell tower replaced the original wooden one. St. Denis Church is the only structure in Whitefield listed in the National Register of Historic Places. In about 1873, a convent for the Sisters of Mercy was built across the street from the church. The nuns also ran a school, St. Denis Academy, and later an orphanage. The convent burned in 1922 and was rebuilt as the present Parish Hall.

About 115 Revolutionary War veterans were living in Ballstown by 1800. In the War of 1812 nearly 100 Whitefield residents served. This war had a lasting effect on Whitefield’s economy because it devastated the maritime activity of the port of Wiscasset through which Whitefield lumber and wood products were shipped to overseas markets. Whitefield sent 117 men to the Civil War. The Spanish American War found several adventurous Whitefield men volunteering for action. Whitefield has also contributed its share of citizens to World War I, World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Gulf War, and now the Iraq War. A Memorial was erected in Kings Mills in front of the Whitefield Union Church after World War II that listed all those who had served and died in that war. In 1993, a Memorial Park was established behind the Town House that honors the veterans of all wars.

While social interactions in Whitefield have traditionally revolved around church, neighborhood and farm interests, after the Civil War, benevolent societies aimed at improving local life sprang up. The Union veterans of the Civil War established an organization known as the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR). In about 1869, about 40 Whitefield veterans formed the Erskine Post #24 of the GAR. The GAR Hall in North Whitefield was completed in 1885. It also housed a free high school and has been important in the social and intellectual life of the town. The Whitefield Grange #101 was organized in Kings Mills in 1875. The Arlington Grange #528, was chartered in 1914 and met in North Whitefield in the GAR Hall, which it acquired in 1919. The hall is now known as the Arlington Grange Hall. In 1969,the Whitefield Grange merged with the Arlington Grange which continues to have suppers and programs today.

In 1899, the Whitefield Fish and Game Club was established as a conservation society pledged to care for the fish and game in the river and forests. The club joined forces with the Whitefield Grange to build the Whitefield Union Hall in Kings Mills in 1900. The Fish and Game Club was famous for its annual game suppers. It continued in operation until 1972.

Women also carried out benevolent activities. The Helping Hand Society at the Whitefield Union Church, organized in 1909, raised money by ice cream socials and “fancy” work (crocheting, hand-sewn articles, embroidery, etc.) The Willing Workers Club, organized in the Plains section of town in 1904 by eight women, raised enough money by sewing quilts and aprons to start a Sunday School, and eventually built a two-story chapel. After the fire departments were organized in the 1940s, the Women’s Auxiliaries held suppers and fairs to raise money.

The Gov. Kavanaugh Council, Knights of Columbus, was founded in 1909 at St. Denis Church. In 1956 a hall was built just below the church on Grand Army Road where game suppers were held. It was moved in 1998 to North Whitefield Village where it was remodeled into the Country Farm Restaurant. The Lions Club was organized in 1954 and is located in a remodeled schoolhouse in Coopers Mills. It provides a scholarship to Whitefield students and contributes to many community projects. The latest organization is the group known as the Senior Men who have generously responded to requests for help.

There are also three volunteer fire departments, one for each village. The North Whitefield Fire Volunteer Department was organized in 1944, the Kings Mills Department in 1947. After a devastating fire which wiped out the general store and post office in North Whitefield Village in 1948, a volunteer fire department was also organized in Coopers Mills in the 1950s.

The health needs of the community were met by home remedies and common sense. There are no doctors listed in the Ballstown records. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, doctors were available from Gardiner, Jefferson, Richmond and Alna, as well as in Whitefield. Among the beloved country doctors were A. R. G. Smith and Joseph E. Odiorne. In 1923, a dedicated local nurse, Katherine Morse, began a hospital at her home on the Town House Road, known as the Cottage Hospital. It was mainly for obstetrics and minor injuries and occasionally housed a few patients with mental illness. An addition was built for an operating (labor) room. In the 1990s the addition was detached and moved back from the road to house the Sheepscot Brewery, which is now located on Hollywood Boulevard.

Perhaps nothing demonstrates the influence of outside forces on Whitefield’s evolution more than the changes in population over the years since the earliest settlement, shown in the graph below. After about 60 years of rapid in-migration, Whitefield experienced a decline in population which continued for nearly 100 years. The Erie Canal and the mechanization of farm equipment favored large western farms and drove farmers to leave their farms all over New England. Some Whitefield farmers went west; others left for industrial centers where they could earn a living in the textile and paper mills or shoe factories. Even the Gold Rush claimed a few. The Whitefield farmers who remained survived by adding a variety of activities that brought in needed cash: wood products, such as barrels and shingles; leather tanning and shoe making. This diversification brought about a change in rural architecture, from free-standing houses and barns to the more efficient connected farmhouses that accommodated a variety of activities.

The arrival of the Narrow Gauge Railroad (the Wiscasset and Quebec, then the Wiscasset, Waterville and Farmington) in 1894 provided a welcome boon to the Whitefield economy. Lumber, milk and other farm products, barrels and eels trapped in the river were shipped to Wiscasset and then on to larger markets. Although heavily supported by the town, the railroad was always in financial trouble. The finishing blow was a derailment just below Whitefield station in Kings Mills in 1933. Although the tracks were removed to pay debtors, the route of the train through Whitefield is still visible from the surviving rail bed, now used by snowmobilers.

During the depression and after World War II, a slow trickle of people began to return to Whitefield. Some became dairy or poultry farmers. The broiler industry collapsed in the 1970s. Only several dairy farms exist today.

The sharp rise in population which began in 1970 coincides with the movement of “back-to-the-land” city dwellers, who began buying and restoring Whitefield’s abandoned farmhouses or who built houses on large tracts of former farm or forest land. Many of these were non-farmers whose work took them out of town but who maintained some relationship with the land. Some became sustenance farmers and developed crafts as a way of earning a living. The population rise over the last decade or so coincides with the continuing decline of farming and rapidly rising land values which have encouraged people with large holdings to sell their land. More and more farmland is being sold off in small parcels and fewer and fewer people earn their living in Whitefield. Social patterns are no longer dependent on neighborhood or farm interests. Not since the beginning of settlement, when the aboriginal forest was cut down and land cleared for farming, has there been such a potential for profound changes in the physical and social landscape of the town.

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