Stories from the Eye of the Barn

At the top of a lane in South Bridgton, Maine, sits the homestead of the Peabody-Fitch family.

A pioneer settler of Bridgton, William Peabody married Sally Stevens on August 14, 1797, in Andover, Massachusetts. She was the daughter of Jacob Stevens, a ranking member of the surveying crew who came to Bridgton in 1766 to survey the plots of land. He returned in 1768, under contract with the proprietors to develop water power along Stevens Brook and make it serve early settlers.

William built this house in 1797, just three years after Bridgton was incorporated. The house was 30 x 45’, 2.5 stories with a center chimney and six fireplaces: 3 up and 3 down. The Peabodys had ten children, though four died at a young age.

Their fourth daughter, Mary, married George Fitch of Sebago on Dec 21, 1823, and in about 1828 the Fitches took over the hilltop farm. At the time of their marriage, William was in his late 50s and Sally not well. That meant that the house needed to accommodate two families: Mary’s parents and three of her younger siblings, plus Mary and George and their growing brood.

George Fitch added an ell with a new kitchen, larder, pantry and two bedrooms. A shed and carriage house were also included.

By 1856, George Fitch owned 80 improved acres and 128 unimproved acres. The farm produced wheat, Indian corn, oats, buckwheat, maple syrup butter and cheese. In addition, he had a stand of mulberry trees for silk worms. The cocoon, when unraveled, can be spun into silk.

A 40 x 60’ barn was built by Mr. Fitch and friends beside an already existing 40 x 40’ barn to help house his two horses, six milk cows, six working oxen, six other cattle, sixteen sheep and one swine. Hay would have been stored there as well.

The lore of what’s always been known as the Temperance Barn, is that it was supposedly constructed during prohibition without the usual swigs of rum for all who helped in the building process. Following a blog post I wrote in December 2018 about this very property, a granddaughter of Margaret Monroe who gifted the property to the historical society in 1987 wrote the following message: “Hi – I am glad you enjoy my grandmother’s property. A heads up that there is no written documentation from the period re: the barn actually being built without alcohol. My grandmother was prone to making up history. I want to give respect to hardy native Mainers: Monroes were largely summer people. My grandmother also said sherry wasn’t alcoholic and would drink a big glass of it every night before dinner, Lark cigarette in her other hand. Rebecca Monroe.”

But it was the granite foundation that drew part of our attention today. Apparently, when Mr. Fitch first built the barn, it sat upon a two-foot foundation, but he later raised it by eight feet, perhaps to store manure below.

To take a look at where the granite came from, I headed up the trail behind the house, which is owned by the Bridgton Historical Society, to Loon Echo Land Trust’s new Peabody-Fitch Woods that surround the farm with companions Marita, Mary and Steve. Along the way, we saw numerous delicate Purple Milkworts still in bloom.

And really, we took a detour because we wanted to first honor another granite structure that has long stood upon Fitch Hill.

According to an August 17, 1963 article in the Bridgton News, “Enoch Perley, early settler of South Bridgton, built his first house in 1777 and brought his bride to their new home in 1778. (Five Fields Farm location)

As Enoch acquired livestock, he was much troubled by depredations from bears. He built a bear trap on the hill back of his first home . . .

Tradition says that four bears were caught in this trap–not enough! So Mr. Perley later had an iron bear trap made which took care of eight bears. Without a doubt, many were disposed of by him personally. A story is told that in an unarmed encounter with a bear and two cubs beside a wood road at dusk, Mr. Perley allegedly strangled the mother bear with his garters . . .”

The article continues, “The bear trap is built of stone. A large stone door is suspended and as the bear takes the bait, he trips the lever and is caught in the stone enclosure.”

Hiking back down the trail to our second destination located along a spur, we were stopped by an anomaly on a White Pine. An individual Pine Tube Moth caterpillars bound together 10 – 20 needles with silk to form a hollow tube. Though we couldn’t see it, we could see by the evidence that it had moved up and down the tube to feed on the tips of the bound needles, which were much shorter than those that were free. Eventually, the caterpillar will eat itself out of house and home, and move to another set of needles to repeat its tube-making, needle-feeding behavior before it pupates within one.

Our second destination was to a quarry we’ve all visited periodically over the years. This was the spot from which the foundations for the barn and other buildings were quarried so long ago.

Spaced about six inches apart are the drill marks made by Mr. Fitch and perhaps hired hands. Today, I asked a hand modeler to kindly provide a sense of depth for the drilled holes.

After a brief pause at what we now think of as Quarry #1, the four of us bushwhacked around the side of the hill, following my nose to the next location recently discovered by Jon Evans of both Loon Echo Land Trust and the Bridgton Historical Society.

Quarry #2 was much bigger and deeper.

We poked around and found old drill marks on slabs still in place.

Perhaps one of our favorite finds was a stone that slightly resembled a keyboard, the holes only two or three inches apart.

At a ninety degree angle, they continued down the side of the same stone. What made us wonder the most was the curve in the rock–usually they follow a straight line in the grain, thus giving the stones a uniform shape. This one did not. Maybe the Temperance story really is a legend.

And then we spotted another beauty.

Again, the hand modeler showed off the depth and width of a much wider hole, created with a much deeper and wider instrument.

Below the quarry, we found two slides of rocks and between, what might have been a “roadway” used by oxen pulling sleds in the winter to haul the stone out. We followed it for a few minutes because we thought we’d spied the Narrow Gauge Train Track below, but realized we were fooled by a few patches of reindeer lichen that were lighter in color than the surrounding woods, thus mimicking an open route. One of these days, we’ll explore further. The question remains: Was the rock quarried here and used to support the rail track at certain points along the way, or was it shipped out via train to other destinations?

We didn’t know the answer, but did spy a few of my pet species, including Rock Polypody Ferns growing upon granite as is its habit.

The underside of its fertile fronds were still decorated with mounds of sporangia. While many other ferns feature a membrane covering the sporangia during development, this one does not. Each tiny bubble within the larger “mound” is packed with spores, waiting their turn to catapult into the air.

After a couple of hours, we returned to the field and my companions, Marita, Mary and Steve, kindly posed with Narramissic in the background.

In the end, we departed knowing that there’s much more to the story of this land that perhaps only the eye of the weathered barn board knows as it peeks out from behind fringed bangs, gray from watching all that has taken place for almost two hundred years. If only it wood share those stories.

Bear to Beer: Peabody-Fitch to Bear Trap

Our bear to beer tour was supposed to last a year, but here it is February 18, and we’ve already completed three of the treks. I think my guy really likes this Christmas present.

If you aren’t aware, for Christmas I gave him a small box I’d decorated with hiking stickers. Inside were thirteen pieces of paper (actually bobcat prints post-its) upon which I’d written the name of a trail where I thought we might find what we call bear trees for they are trees with bear claw marks, plus a place to grab a pint after the hike.

Because it was snowing today, we decided to stay closer to home and visit a property we hope Loon Echo Land Trust will soon own. It surrounds the Bridgton Historical Society’s Narramissic Farm and is one of our favorite places to wander in any season.

Rather than cross through the field as we usually do, I suggested that we follow the former road (current snowmobile trail) behind the barn. At the first stone wall, we passed from the Narramissic property on to what we hope will become the 252-acre Peabody-Fitch Woods that Loon Echo will own once they reach enough dollars to make the purchase.

Another part of my guy’s Christmas present was a donation toward said purchase, which an anonymous foundation will match. It seemed like a win-win deal when I sat down with Thom Perkins, former executive director of LELT to discuss the property proposal. And then last month I co-led a walk along part of the route we followed today and had the joy of learning more about it from Jon Evans, Loon Echo’s Stewardship Manager, and Matt Markot, LELT’s new executive director.

Not far down the snowmobile trail, we turned left at a stone wall, the same as we had during the LELT walk in late January. I was sure this was a route new to my guy, but it turns out it used the be the snowmobile trail and so he knew it. Right away, as we hobbled over and pulled up some downed trees, we began to see a variety of mammal prints muffled by the morning’s snow. Both prey and predator make their homes there and the property’s importance as part of the animal corridor was obvious.

Eventually, the trail swung around and rejoined the snowmobile trail. We followed it for a bit, then turned off at the blue arrow for that was our chosen way for today. It appeared that someone had an eye on my snowshoes.

We’d no sooner started along the trail when I heard the rat-a-tat drumming of a male hairy woodpecker. Of course, I needed to pause and watch him for a few minutes. And wonder about the purpose of his drumming. Was he establishing territory? Trying to get a date?

My guy was patient with me, but our mission was about more than the birds, and so we journeyed on. Mind you, we kept looking at the trees along the way, but suspected we’d find bear evidence on our return trip when we planned to go off trail. In the moment, we were eager to get to the quarry and find lunch rock.

It was buried, but my guy in his chivalrous manner, wiped the snow off and we each ate a slice of cold, homemade pizza and drank some water.

Behind lunch rock, plug and feather holes served as reminders of an earlier time–much earlier than either of us remembered. The quarry was the source of the stone foundations for Narramissic, the Peabody-Fitch Farm, which dates back to 1797.

With lunch under our belts, onward and upward we hiked until we reached a certain stone pile.

Mind you, it’s located a tad from the proposed Peabody-Fitch Woods, but still, we love to visit bear trap and imagine the past.

I’ve quoted this before, but it’s worth sharing again.

How did the bear trap come to be? According to an August 17, 1963 article in the Bridgton News, “Enoch Perley, early settler of South Bridgton, built his first house in 1777 and brought his bride to their new home in 1778. [I believe this was at Five Fields Farm.]

As Enoch acquired livestock, he was much troubled by depredations from bears. He built a bear trap on the hill back of his first home . . .

Tradition says that four bears were caught in this trap–not enough! So Mr. Perley later had an iron bear trap made which took care of eight bears. Without a doubt, many were disposed of by him personally. A story is told that in an unarmed encounter with a bear and two cubs beside a wood road at dusk, Mr. Perley allegedly strangled the mother bear with his garters . . .”

The article continues, “The bear trap is built of stone. A large stone door is suspended and as the bear takes the bait, he trips the lever and is caught in the stone enclosure.”

In a December 1954 issue of the Bridgton News, a brief article states: “The old stone bear trap on the mountain in South Bridgton known as ‘Fitch’s Hill,’ unused for more than one hundred years, has been reactivated by Dr. Fred G. Noble and Gerald Palmer and put in readiness to capture a bear.” As the story goes, they never did succeed.

In honor of the Perleys, Peabodys, Fitches, and the bears, we’d brought along a growler, a Valentine’s Day present from my guy to me.

We each enjoyed a few sips and then peered inside the trap to see if anyone had taken up residence. Perhaps we should have done that first! Thankfully, no one was home.

Eventually, we headed back to the trail, but didn’t spend long on it.

Instead, we began looking for bear trees. To test your visual acuity, can you spot my guy?

I couldn’t always see him for we split up for about an hour and zigzagged our way from one beech tree to another. I found one that gave itself a hug.

There were those with false lines. Well, they weren’t really false, but they weren’t caused by a bear either. Instead, surrounding saplings blowing in the wind had scratched them.

Then there was the tree that seemed to have stitch marks on the outside of its wound. Unfortunately, the stitches didn’t help.

One of my favorites was the beech that made me think it was a deer bending over as if to take a bow.

That made perfect sense in these woods where the deer did dine.

And at least one rubbed its antlers.

Suddenly, from a distance I heard my guy call to me. He thought he’d found what we sought. A bear tree. The growth at the top certainly leant itself to that assumption.

I’m not one hundred percent sure that he was right, but there were some marks that looked consistent with bear activity–a bear with a very big hand.

Closer to the trail, we did find another tree with bear sign–left behind by Teddy Bear and K.F., whoever that might be.

About three hours after crossing through the stone wall behind the barn to enter the future Peabody-Fitch Woods, we did the same at the far end of the farm field.

And in the end, even if our bear tree wasn’t exactly that, we’d still had a bear sighting–in the form of the trap. Today’s brew was Double C.R.E.A.M. Ale from Bear Bones Beer Brewery. Bear to beer possibilities: Peabody-Fitch to Bear Trap.

Babe in the Woods

This morning dawned bright and brisk and offered a brilliant background for a journey through the almost Peabody-Fitch Woods that Loon Echo Land Trust hopes to add to their holdings. The 252 acres of the proposed project surrounds Bridgton Historical Society‘s Narramissic Farm.

Jon Evans, Loon Echo’s Stewardship Manager and board member of the historical society had asked me to join the walk that would highlight the Peabody-Fitch Homestead built in 1797 and introduce Loon Echo’s new executive director Matt Markot. In the morning light, we circled the house as Jon shared some of the farm’s story.

On the northern side of the house, we paused to enjoy the view, including Pleasant Mountain just beyond the trees to the left of the field. The land trust also owns and protects over 2,000 acres of the mountain that defines this area of western Maine.

Measuring the effect of the cold on the hike’s participants, Jon chose his stop points, where he shared his keen knowledge of the farm and the lands that surround it. For me, it’s always a joy to tramp with him because his connection to the land is personal, and this particular piece even more than most for Jon’s family long ago farmed an adjacent acreage and he grew up traipsing through the very woods we snowshoed today. (And this photo includes Margaret Lindsay Sanborn, mother of Matt Markot, LELT’s new ED who stands to his mom’s right.)

As we circled behind the barn I shared with Jon a bit of knowledge that adds to the lore of what’s always been known as the Temperance Barn, supposedly constructed during prohibition without the usual swigs of rum for all who helped in the building process. Following a blog post I wrote in December 2018 about this very property, a granddaughter of Margaret Monroe who gifted the property to the historical society in 1987 wrote the following message: Hi – I am glad you enjoy my grandmother’s property. A heads up that there is no written documentation from the period re: the barn actually being built without alcohol. My grandmother was prone to making up history. I want to give respect to hardy native Mainers: Monroes were largely summer people. My grandmother also said sherry wasn’t alcoholic and would drink a big glass of it every night before dinner, Lark cigarette in her other hand. Happy Holidays! Rebecca Monroe

It turns out that wasn’t the only story that had more to offer than I’d originally thought to be true. As we were about to pass through a stonewall behind the barn, my eyes cued in on debris below some trees. Certainly it was the work of woodpeckers and I stepped onto the wall in search of scat. Nada.

Looking up at the pin cherry tree, I found not pileated works, but the incisors of another that gave a clue.

And below, pigeon-toed tracks. Between the incisor marks and tracks I knew the creator, but it didn’t make sense to me, for though I find hemlock twigs below such a tree when a porcupine has clipped them, I couldn’t recall ever seeing bark chips below a porky tree. In my brain, the rodent ate the bark as it sought the cambium layer within. I dismissed it as a lesson to be considered and we moved on.

Jon led us along a colonial road from the historical society’s property to a stonewall that delineated the Peabody-Fitch Woods. We turned onto a trail I’d never traveled before and made our way along another farm road. Periodically, Jon, Matt, and I bounced off of each other as we shared our knowledge about the trees and forest succession that had occurred since the farm was last a working land. We also spied a few mammal tracks, including those of a bobcat.

At last, we circled around and found our way back toward the border between the P-F Woods and farm.

Close to the Temperance Barn again, porcupine tracks crisscrossed to the stonewall where we’d seen their activity at the start of our journey.

Near the parking lot and Blacksmith Shop, more porcupine works made themselves evident–by their tracks and the debarked trees.

Incredibly debarked trees. I’m always amazed by the fact that porcupines, given their size, can find support on trees and limbs that seem so flimsy. I’ve been told that they’re known to have many broken bones and it makes sense given the precarious choices they make to seek winter nutrients.

Once again, there was bark debris. In the past I’ve always said that beavers leave wood chips, but porcupines eat the bark and cambium layer.

The evidence was obvious given the prints and comma-shaped scat. But the bark debris proved me wrong today.

And I loved that. When Jon first introduced me as a Maine Master Naturalist, he asked how long I’ve been such. “Six years,” I said. And though I’ve spent my sixty years wandering and wondering in the woods and along the coast of southern and northern New England, it was the Master Naturalist class that taught me how to take a closer look.

Do you see the green of the cambium layer? And those incisor marks–how they are at opposing angles? Those I recognized.

But . . . the porcupines taught me something new today.

Six years–I’m still a babe in the woods.