As one approaches our town on Route 15, one rounds a bend along the shoulder of the ‘mountain’ and drives past a grove of beech trees, barely changed in my lifetime (but for the addition of an unfortunate steel storage building), that marks the beginning of the downhill descent to the village. After a long road trip, it is the moment that one knows one is home. At the left is Mountain Road, and on each corner an early house. The uphill corner is occupied by an elegantly conceived cape with an octagonal entry porch, and dormer with arched window above, the down hill corner by an old yellow farmhouse, now the headquarters of the local land trust, stewards and protectors of the front slopes of the mountain above.
|The road downhill from Mountain Road to the village, c. 1900|
This yellow house, also unchanged in my lifetime, is happily kept so by the Trust,an admirable echo of their policy on the 5,000 acres of land they steward on our peninsula. But appearances can be deceptive, and the house, which appears at first glance an ordinary Victorian farmhouse, is actually much older, a remodeling of a tiny Federal era house, and it holds several secrets.
It was built around 1815, on what would then have been a lonely bare hillside, by a housewright named William Carleton. Built into the slope, its lowest level is thought to incorporate an 18th century cabin already on the site. This space contains an early kitchen, unused and barely touched for most of the 20th century, in effect a time capsule, shreds of mid-19th century wallpaper clinging to the simple red-painted sheathing underneath. The 1810’s were a moment of prosperity in the hardscrabble 19th century history of our village—several of the elegant, Federal style houses there, with their lovely doorways were built in these years—but it is clear that Mr. Carleton did not share in this prosperity.
|In an early building contract, Mr. Carleton agrees to finish two rooms and upper and lower halls of a house for $34.53.|
Early photographs of Mr. Carleton’s own home bear evidence of a hard New England life—-one thinks immediately of Ethan Frome, or the poorer villagers and farmers of William Dean Howells or Sarah Orne Jewett novels.
This first photograph probably dates from the 1880s, and shows a house untouched by time, already old, faded, worn.
It is interesting (to me at least—you the reader will either have to ride along or jump out of the car now) to zoom in closer and contemplate the many details in this next picture. At the windows hang simple panels of fabric, one drawn up to let in light and air. There is no screen at the open window.
In front of the house, stands an elderly man, likely either Mr. Carleton or his son, wearing the costume of more than half a century before, tricorn hat and homespun jacket. Behind him sunflowers grow in front of the small-paned windows with wavy glass. To the left of the vestibule, a complicated homemade gutter is seen, ending in a wood spout whose high placement suggest that a rain barrel would have been placed below it to collect water.
There is a huge woodpile stacked in anticipation of a long Maine winter.
The small shed at ground floor level harbored a secret, quite unlike anything else I have ever seen in an early house. Down a flight of stairs, to underground level, on finds oneself in a tiny chamber. The walls are blocks of rough cut granite, the ceiling a granite slab which would have been the floor of the shed above, perhaps once used as a still room or buttery. The floor of this underground underground chamber is another slab of granite, with a hole in the center, giving access to an underground spring. However utilitarian its purpose, this cool, damp, quiet space is as mysterious as a Druid cave. (and for the life of me, I cannot at the moment find my photo of it, lost somewhere amongst the thousands).
In the early 20th century, the rise of photography made many things possible, and ‘real photo’ postcards of one’s home, printed directly from glass negatives, were very popular. Miss Kate Carleton, the spinster daughter of the house posed for her postcard, sitting in a Model T with an unidentified gentleman. Against the shed is a buggy, soon to be obsolete, and beside them, a horse, clearly contemplating the new contraption that will soon render him obsolete.
When we zoom in on this photograph, we find that Miss Carleton, aunt of the village doctor, holds a large plump cat in her lap. One doubts that the cat remained for the drive, and the wild expression on the man’s face could be interpreted either as madness or ‘let me out, of here, neither the old lady or the cat know how to drive and she’s got a gun’. In these two photos, 20 or 30 years apart, we have spanned a century from Mr. Carleton in his tricorn hat to his granddaughter behind the wheels of a mode of transportation that he could not even have imagined when he built the house.
Footnote: The town’s first settled minister, Jonathan Fisher, also worked as a surveyor to supplement his meagre pastoral stipend. This is his survey of the Carleton property. Interestingly, no structure is shown, raising the question whether it is not true that there was an existing 18th century cabin, or if it was thought so insignificant as to be not worth indicating.
Photographs from the collection of the Blue Hill Heritage Trust