SNIPPETS OF ISLAND LIFE
ISLAND CARETAKER PARKER HARRIS BLEN
ISLAND CARETAKER MARION FITCH BLEN with FREDDY
SKOW DELIVERING ISLAND JEEP TRUCK
“SWANEE” the PASSENGER BOAT
SWAN ISLAND LIFE, 1960’s
In the summer months, Grampie would be required to pick up groups of visitors at the Richmond State Landing for the Steve Powell Wildlife Refuge Island, transporting them back over in the flat-bottomed, snub-nosed boat named Swanee to the Swan Island dock. In addition to being a wildlife refuge, an island legend boasts of an Abenaki Princess named Jacataqua who escorted Aaron Burr on the Benedict Arnold march to Quebec. Often groups of biologists from the State Department of Agriculture would visit with their clipboards and paperwork, leaving with their pictures of deer, fox, ducks, geese or of fields of rye and wheat, or the old homesteads (or architectural elements of them) to take back to their offices. Steve Powell kept meticulous records on these visits following his model for keeping records on the duck and geese population in his biological research.
Grampie tried to follow in those footsteps by keeping his log of daily planting, monitoring and haying the fields and tracking the changing deer population. Boxes of records were handed over from Steve’s son, Bob Gleason to Dr. Charles Burden and Richmond historian, Jay Robbins for safekeeping, documenting, and donation to the Maine State Archives in Augusta back in the early 2000’s.
During my stay on Swan Island, (named Sowangen by Abenaki natives, later Swango by Dr. Hebbard for his island spa), an old school bus was sometimes used to transport larger groups of people for the tours but normally, visitors sat in the back of the green, flat nosed Jeep on hard wooden benches, bouncing along while Grampie let me give tours of the interesting attractions along the route to the campground. I had heard his narrative of each point of interest so many times I was a fairly good substitute.
Most visitors only stayed for a couple of hours, took lots of pictures, and they wanted to return quickly to predictable civilization. Beginning the tour narrative, I told them about the house with the heavy, hand-carved paneling upstairs, fashioned like the captain’s quarters of an old multi-masted schooner. Some of those ships were actually built in one of two shipyards that once existed on the island. One of the thick, dark colored wall panels secretly slid sideways to allow a tightly squeezed three or four people to hide under the eaves of the roof before it is glided quietly back into place. What a mystery all that was for me as a small girl who had not even heard of such things! I had hidden (if only for a moment) many times in the same spot just to see what it might have felt like to be frightened and quietly hidden in that there. One house had a hand-painted mural spreading all around the room in a continuous scene of a fox hunt, with dogs, fox, men on horses and lots of willow trees. I could not imagine being quiet enough to remain hidden for very long.
I was told the spot was created to hide women and children from Native attacks but I suspect it might have been utilized during the Underground Railroad days when African-Americans were smuggled up the Kennebec River.
Next stop on our tour was the Curtis Cemetery, where some of the very first settlers were buried. One gravestone, the sole stone listing Perkins as the place of death, belongs to David Reed who died in 1881. We continued onward, stopping briefly for visitors to peer upward to see the huge eagle’s nest in a big rotten old tree, passed the old corn-crib with it’s slatted, outward slanting walls which housed field corn drying for livestock feed in earlier days.
Grampie would stop at the edge of the field where the early Abenaki burial mound exists down by the riverside. In 2010, I appreciated the opportunity to guide historians from Richmond, Dresden, and other historians from the State of Maine who have documented the mound and have now extended trails to the location where they have posted a prayer wreath on the site. The Abenaki burial site is now included on island hiking trail maps, although barely visible now due to erosion.
As the rattle-y Jeep rolled slowly along the dirt surface of Swan Island’s Main Street, my lecture included talking about the blacksmith shop with the huge leather-covered bellows I had explored as a kid when I had a chance. Holding out my hand, I showed the visitors some of the crudely shaped square rusty nails I found made there, surprising them all. I often drew my fingers to my lips making a shhhhhh sound as I pointed to deer standing in the trees, ever so still just off the side of the road watching us as we drove past. Most visitors were excited to realize that the deer had been there all along, or that I had known they were hiding there.
The stained glass windows with bubbles and other inclusions in the glass windows at the Powell house fascinated me. A vow I made to myself way back then was many years later realized when I relocated to Richmond and opened Reflections of ME, a stained glass studio on Main Street where I created some of my favorite windows. American Peace Dove was commissioned by the Maine Veterans Home in Augusta on Cony Road, now a permanent installation in an interior wall.
I presented a pegged window frame filled with Dragonflies Over the Kennebec to the Annabella’s Bakery-Cafe in Richmond at the bottom of Main Street hill facing the river when they celebrated their first year anniversary. Dragonflies are their business logo and the multi-colored blue and purple background come alive when kissed by the first magical rays of a morning sunrise.
Visitors at the Portland Flower Show a couple of years ago saw two of my faerie windows built into a rock wall display in 2010. In addition, my home showcases antique pegged wooden window frames filled with designs taken from nature.
A Richmond business that has helped many enjoy restored health is INNOVATIVE PHYSICAL THERAPY & WELLNESS CENTER, located on Route 197 just outside of Richmond Village, who contracted with me to produce their logo!
The brick houses on Swan Island were built with bricks from the kiln found farther down the island. A tall brick building named the Hathorn Block on the corner of Main and Front Streets in Richmond still standing today includes bricks made on this island. Les Fossel is in charge of the antique restoration of the building, which he plans to convert inside to condo’s and apartments. The birthing chair found in the Tubbs-Reed house, which looks like a strange kind of lounge chair, and the spinning wheel I played with and several odd rocking chairs are still inside another house. The bust of a woman sits in the front window of the Lily-Wade house, frightening passersby, the piece formerly perhaps guided a sailing ship through salty seas, ending up at the home of Wade men, the craftsmen who built the original Balmy Days in their little boatyard down across the lawn from the house at the Kennebec Riverside.
The Steve Powell house, located where Little Swan Island looks near enough to touch, had a special feature in the large farmhouse kitchen called a dumbwaiter. It was a small elevator-type mechanism, which transported food from the kitchen via a square shelf about three feet wide with rope and pulley system. When hand-pulling the rope over the pulley, the shelf, and contents raised trays (somebody’s midnight snack or breakfast in bed?) up to a bedroom from the kitchen. Such a unique, clever way to save running up and down the steep and narrow stairway from what might have been the maid or cook’s bedroom to the kitchen below. A smaller room next to the kitchen had a solid panel that slid aside something similar to a takeout window used for passing food or drink or empty dishware back and forth to the kitchen. Some of the visitors to the island stayed overnight, camping near the Dumaresque saltbox house in the Adirondack style log lean-tos across from Little Swan Island.
Back then, I felt privileged to ride in the cab of the truck with Grampie every day when he made his rounds to feed the deer their supper grain down in the sick pen, located beside the Lilly-Wade house. The area, about a two-acre plot surrounded by a high chain link fence with a gate, was named the “sick pen” being where injured deer were kept until they were well enough to fend for themselves. The pen is also where “Jerry the moose” lived until being shipped in a wooden crate to the Bronx Zoo where he lived until quite old.
The sick pen really gained its name when the State of Maine conducted the caribou project. It was only then (early 1960’s) discovered that whitetail deer and caribou do not cohabitate in a healthy way. Wooden crates brought the caribou from Baxter State Park by helicopter, landing at the Swan Island dock in Richmond where they were transported over the river on Grampie’s barge. I’m not certain why the helicopter didn’t land on the island but suspect it was due to not wishing to cause anxiety or chaos for the other animals. I stood safely out of range, up in the back of the Jeep watching the frightened, wild-eyed snorting caribou being set free in the island fields. When the Game Wardens first slid the front door of the crate up, the caribou, still timid and shocked by the trip, had to be coaxed out of the crate. As soon as their caribou-eyes got accustomed to the natural light, they hesitated enough to sniff the island air then sprinted off, leaping high across the field. The deer they came in contact with first made them very sick, eventually killing them all off completely due to a parasite. The sick pen was also where Jerry the famous moose lived until being shipped to the Bronx Zoo for many to visit for years.
The narrow, winding dirt road was lined with cedars and evergreen trees. I saw so many types of mushrooms and green moss covering the roadside, the forest seemed enchanted to me. I carefully made fairy-houses there by the side of the road while waiting for Grampie one day. On our very next trips down the island, I couldn’t help admiring them, thinking that I had secretly prepared houses for those wee forest fairies to stay dry on rainy days. Probably the idea of tiny folk came from hearing stories of leprechauns while visiting my Irish Gramie Molly, who lived in an apartment in Gardiner.
Years passed until this particular day, my face turned into the chilly wind, tightly closed eyes, I pulled the red shawl around my shoulders that grandmother had crocheted. Gramie would have loved to see me still wearing it today. My mind is flooded all at once with memories of living here, of the loneliness I thought as a child, was “the pits.” There were happy times, as well. I learned to read by using Reader’s Digest as a textbook, learned to cook in a woodstove oven, learned the proper way to wash clothes in a hand-wringer washing machine, mastered swimming without a life jacket in the little frog pond, and learning how to drive on a standard shift vehicle, a one-ton International stake-body truck.
Sitting on my reflecting rock on this day, these thoughts raced through my mind as fast as my heartbeat. Slowly, a smile kissed my lips and I was swept back into the past. I remembered churning ice cream. The sweet smell of Gramie’s molasses beans baking in the woodstove oven made me suddenly salivate, the whitetail deer appearing like clockwork at the kitchen window each morning where they patiently waited for the stale bread and potato or apple or carrot peelings I fed them. Scowling, I noticed I was doing it again — that habit of twisting my mouth to the side with the end of my tongue sticking out like a cherry tomato, just like when I did homework by the light of a kerosene lantern at the kitchen table. The memory of a smoky-scented wood fire that I woke up to many mornings flooded my mind like the warm blood in my veins. I had made this very same trek numerous times throughout my childhood — across this matted dry grass, through the blueberries, across the field to sit on my reflecting rock.
The tiny cars were still there, like so many times before but on a different bridge then. I imagined they would still be filled with tiny people, just outside of my reach, crossing the green swing bridge that connected the towns of Richmond and Dresden. A giggle escaped just for the moment as I remembered the crazy game where I pinched the tiny cars between my thumb and forefinger and pretended to pluck them off the bridge to bring over to the island to play. Since the State of Maine took over the island by eminent domain, we were the only family on the island. In those days, I lived with my grandparents following the doctor’s grim diagnosis of a terminal and rare bone disease. My grandparents decided they had more free time to invest than my young parents to manage my weekly multiple doctor and chiropractic appointments, and would be able to provide the consistency of nightly olive-oil massages on my brittle knobby hands, elbows, knees, and ankles. They believed they could make a difference in my life, help out their son and his wife, possibly even reverse the calcifying process while on the island. Back in the nineteenth century, Dr. John Hebbard advertised his health resort, SWANGO as a healthy, wholesome retreat for people with any kind of illness. Swango was advertised in Ballou’s Pictorial newspaper in the 1800’s. I would not succumb to the disease before the age of ten if my grandparents could do anything to prevent that outcome!
Sitting on the massive rock, I sensed my grandparents’ arms engulfing me for just a fleeting but strong squeeze. I envisioned their wry smiles, felt their loving approval of my decision, felt the rapid hummingbird flutter of my heart, and then only calm. Communication felt that way between them, like the warm olive oil massages I received from them as a child. I knew then that my decision was right; they would proudly approve. Taking a full breath of pure island air, I was filled with hope again and caught myself smiling back at my own strong reflection in the calm water below the rock.
This day I was sitting on my reflecting rock once again, a boulder much larger than a Volkswagen Beetle on the riverside. “How about that!” I thought for a moment, taking in a healthy gulp of fresh air and holding it. “If we had believed the diagnosis when I was three, I wouldn’t be sitting here today. I’ve beaten the odds at least once, huh Gramie?” It was not uncommon for me to speak right out loud to my grandparents or great-grandfather, although I didn’t pretend they were here in person. There is a fine line of communication still open between us, like microwaves bouncing off a satellite dish, a sort of spiritual cellphone to the grandparents I feel are responsible for my survival.
I paddled my bright yellow, birthday kayak across the Kennebec River from the Richmond dock to the island on this particular morning. My loving grandparents had long since passed away, but the island is the place I feel closest to them. Whenever visiting this place, I feel their comforting “presence” as strongly as the ray of sunshine that washes over the crown of my once thick auburn hair, now silvery white, shining as brightly as the surface of the water. Sitting there allows me a spiritual experience; I have done it many times, consider it my own form of meditation. Pleased to visit my special place on my birthday, intense thoughts flowed through my mind, churning like the turning tide in the river. Enjoying the eagle’s squawk to reprimand their young eaglets, my nose wrinkled at the raw earth scent exposed only at low tide.
Historic research into the families who once lived here has taken many hours, days, weeks and months, uncovering ice harvesting, shipbuilding, blacksmithing, brick and glassmaking during the height of Perkins. My journey has taken me to search Maine newspapers, visit archival libraries, attend lectures on the history of Maine, comb through bookshelves lining often hidden, independent bookstores throughout Maine, eventually purchasing books of historical accounts, from before and after Maine had parted from Massachusetts. I regularly pore through ancient, badly handwritten, and faded journals, peruse copies of Plymouth Company letters, sort through pencil sketches or faded black and white pictures. I am insatiable. Meetings with historians from Dresden and Richmond, the two towns surrounding the island, are lengthy but ever so beneficial, providing details I could not have otherwise known. Visiting the Curtis Cemetery again provided a photo opportunity of the gravestones belonging to people whose journals I have read. Richmond’s historian hosted a “reunion” of several individuals who had lived on the island. During that reunion, I met the Wade sisters, Josephine and Patricia. Delighted to share several opportunities for lunch or share tea with Wade sisters who lived on the island as young girls, made my summer one to remember. Hearing them recount personal family stories, hearing Jo read from a journal written by a relative about her island experience, precious moments I treasure.
The idea had been incubating in my mind all along; the time to act has arrived! As soon as I returned home that day, I began to write the book I hope will inspire someone to revive some part of the island, perhaps as a wellness retreat or at least offer the history via an on-island information center, my legacy.
NOTE: Swan Island in the Kennebec – Journey to Sowangen, Island of Eagles, the first of the Swan Island trilogy published in fall-2018 by GOOSE RIVER PRESS of Waldoboro, Maine.
CHURNING ICE CREAM
Ice cream was a rare commodity on the island game preserve where I lived with my grandparents during the late 1950’s – 1960’s. The mention of making ice cream got Gramie excited, thinking about gathering enough ice and digging the bag of rock salt out from its hiding place in the corner of the woodshed. On the island, refrigerated ice was scarce, so making ice cream was a really big deal. The icebox in the small gas refrigerator was about the size of a small loaf of bread; it would not keep anything really frozen for very long, certainly not ice cream, even for half a day. The necessity of searching for ice was rather odd, given that in the history of Swan Island there had been three huge ice warehouses that loaded multi-masted schooners with ice for transport to the West Indies, Africa and other parts of the world! The sailing ships would load up approximately 100 tons of blocks packed either in sawdust or hay. They endured four months in order to travel over sixteen thousand miles, crossing the equator twice on their mission to deliver the pure Kennebec River ice blocks to London and on to other exotic places like Calcutta.
Making ice cream was a special event, the promise of a family celebration. A lot of loving preparation went into taking turns with the churning. Done usually on someone’s birthday or holiday, many people were around. Rarely was there any ice cream left over from the dessert feast.
Churning ice cream for us was mostly done in the winter when it was fun to gather long thick icicles hanging down from the roofline of the house. Grampie would stick them like giant pencils into a pail of snow, to be packed around the container and layered with rock salt comprising the freezing components of the ice cream. The ice cream churn consisted of a wooden bucket with a wide steel belt around the outside. On the top sat a tight-fitting lid with a hole in the center, sitting above a separate stainless steel cylinder inside where the actual mixture that would become ice cream would be poured. The lid of the inside container had a hole to receive the crank mechanism connecting to the paddle arm inside the cylinder. When cranking a handle on the outside of the wooden bucket, it turned the paddle, freezing the mixture. The turning of the handle was the churning part of the operation. The circular motion kept the sugary milk and cream mixture agitated until it produced the frozen ice cream treat, the reward for all that hard work.
The exercise involved the entire family taking turns for the duration of the freezing process. Churning constituted cranking a handle on the outside of the wooden tub, taking about an hour until the sweet liquid in the container got slushy and turned firm or until you felt your arms were about to fall off. Gramie’s part of the project offered up the very best selection of toppings: homemade maple syrup made in the spring in Grampie’s syrup hut behind the shed, pineapple jam, butterscotch, previously frozen juicy raspberries, chocolate jimmies, mini marshmallows, a chunky sweet topping she made from frozen strawberries, and of course, hot chocolate syrup made from scratch.
The job of the churner was to ensure a constant turning movement of the handle, accompanied by a lovely assistant who would ensure that there was at least a ¾ measure of layers of snow, ice chunks and rock salt melting between the wooden bucket and the stainless container. The churning continued until it was so difficult to turn the crank you just knew that ice cream was nearly a solid mass inside that cylinder drum. There had to be more than two or three people doing this as the time required depended on the air temperature, as well as the temperature of the sweet melting mixture. The whole process took place inside the big oblong black kitchen sink in a commendable effort to avoid splashing salty water all over the kitchen floor.
The ingredients for making the ice cream were heavy cream, milk, vanilla, table salt, eggs and any special flavoring one might want; the possibilities were endless. We normally made plain vanilla but dared to experiment with blueberry, (nobody liked eating the hard little BB’s), strawberry (pretty good if you mash the fresh berries first) and raspberry from berries fresh-frozen in season, (we should have strained out the seeds), chocolate or peach flavor. We even made peanut butter and grape jelly ice cream once! Of course, being such a special occasion, everyone was invited to go back for several helpings and each would involve experimenting with a different topping.
The stainless tank was removed from the outside wooden bucket of slush and plunged deep into the nearest snow bank to stay frozen, keeping perhaps only one more day. Grampie’s walking stick marked the spot where the cylinder was buried. When the lid was next opened, the mixture inside would have turned to an icy block of the hard frozen sweet treat, which then needed to partially melt off before one could even scoop any out into a dish. The second time around, however, was never as good, perhaps because it merely involved stepping outside the shed door to retrieve the cylinder. The excitement of the preparation was what made the task. The teamwork of numerous anxious people doing all that churning built anticipation to a peak!