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Skowhegan Community History

A Brief History of the Skowhegan Area

by Lee Granville

Near the border of Skowhegan lies a fertile piece of land along the Kennebec and Sandy Rivers. It was on this piece of land that the Norridgewock Abenakis established a village. The Native Americans of this tribe had for generations past roamed the wilds of this region from Merrymeeting Bay to Moosehead Lake in peace and security. Their cruel and tragic end was a bitter irony considering the moral teachings of the Puritans that the New England people were supposed to exemplify. There now can be seen a monument on the site in the present town of Madison and it is here at Old Point that the unfortunate event occurred in August of the year 1724. The story of the Norridgewocks is a long and sad one in light of the fact that these people fought and lost a battle for their very existence on land they had called home so many decades before the coming of the white man.

The tribes east of the Connecticut River were called the Abenaquois and this name was confined to the valley of the Kennebec River. The Norridgewocks were part of this greater tribe and were the last to remain in this region. This tribe first began to feel great losses as early as 1607 when the Popham expedition came to the mouth of the great Kennebec River. This coming of the settlers marked the destruction of the home of the native tribes. For the English sought to obtain ownership of lands and were not highly concerned with the methods used in achieving this.

The French too were interested in lands of this area, but were largely content to trade and in some cases convert the native peoples to Catholicism. The religion of the French was more appealing to the natives as opposed to the strict Puritan Church that held little likeness to these people of nature. The Catholic Church with its bright symbols and colorful rituals held the attention of the native people and they came to love the faithful Father Rasle sent to them from Quebec, Canada. It was his love and affection that created a bond broken only by the brutal massacre. Father Rasle counseled the Abenakis on matters concerning diplomacy and represented them many times at conferences with the English. For 29 years he remained with the tribe and during that time he built a chapel, wrote an Abenaki dictionary and served as their spiritual advisor in all areas of their lives. When the formal notice was given to the tribe to leave lands that the English considered theirs under threat of war, Father Rasle urged his people to stand firm. The first attack on the village occurred when father Rasle was in the forest. His home and library were burned and items were stolen. The tribe felt justified at this point to take their revenge by attacking settlements in the southern part of the state. The conflict escalated to the point that the English placed a price on Rasle’s head and attempted three times to capture him. The final attempt brought victory to the English.

On the day that Captain Moulton and Captain Harmon led their troops once again to the scenic village along the Kennebec, the weather was mild for it was August and not bitter cold and snow that had hindered their previous attempts. The troops divided and attacked the village the day after they had overtaken a scout, Bomazeen, who was keeping watch in order to warn the village of any approaching enemy. The people of the village were shot down in cold blood as they ran to the river in attempt to escape the flying bullets. Father Rasle was shot dead and his scalp taken to Boston for display. Thirty natives died that day and half that many were wounded.

It is fitting to begin with this event for it took place close to the lands that eventually became known as Skowhegan. They were the ancestors of this land and not merely creatures that roamed in a time referred to as “pre-history” by the white man.

In 1629 King Charles I of England awarded the Kennebec Patent to the Plymouth Colony of Massachusetts. This patent included 3 million acres of land and a 15-mile strip along the Kennebec River. After the Abenakis were driven from the area, the proprietors offered lots to any family showing that they could successfully homestead on these lands in the northern area of the Kennebec.

The first families, the Westons and the Heywoods, were farmers who traveled up the river in 1771 from Massachusetts. They arrived in the spring with three teenage boys and 20 head of cattle. They built a small cabin on an island that had been cleared by the Abenakis. Here they planted corn and potatoes. In the fall of that year, Joseph Weston, Peter Heywood and one of the boys returned to Massachusetts to bring the remaining family back to the homestead. Two young boys aged 12 and 16 remained all of that winter alone in the small dwelling. They trapped and hunted in order to survive and were much relieved when the family arrived the following summer.

The next significant event that occurred in this area we call Skowhegan was the great expedition to Quebec led by Benedict Arnold in 1775. They were attempting to take control of the fortress at Quebec City then held by the British. The trip was doomed from the beginning as boats were ordered only two weeks prior to the journey and the bateaux constructed from this wood were leaking and extremely heavy to maneuver. Heading up stream in the fall of the year had its difficulties. The weather was frigid by October and provisions were diminished by the time they struggled to haul the boats up over the Skowhegan Falls. The casks that contained dried fish, peas and other staples were cracked open and the water caused much of the food to spoil. They had to repair the leaky bateaux and continue on to experience disaster after disaster as they trooped through the wilds of Maine. However, as they passed through the town of Skowhegan, they enlisted the help of Joseph Weston. He gladly helped them move their equipment over the falls and he proceeded to guide them further up the Kennebec. As fate would have it, Joseph returned to the village not long after only to die from exposure. Thus it is that the first early settler died for his country.

Most settlers were of English and Scottish ancestry and many were Revolutionary War veterans. There were 450 people living in Skowhegan by the year 1790. Life for an early settler in this region was harsh and unforgiving in that they survived at the subsistence level. The rocky land was not easy to farm but they managed to grow rye, corn, beans, potatoes and other vegetables to survive. In addition to farming, they would hunt and trap. Most new settlers chose hardwood areas to clear as their titles required them to clear at least five acres. Trees would be burned allowing land to be cleared for the planting of crops and the building of a homestead. Spruce logs were mortised together for cabin construction and hand hewn cedar shingles were used for roofing. Everything from furniture to sleighs were made from the different types of wood growing nearby.

In 1788, the town of Canaan, what is now known as Skowhegan, was incorporated. The town of Bloomfield was established in 1814 and it lay south and west of the area of Canaan. The town of Milburn, east of the Kennebec, was separated from Canaan in 1823. Lots belonging to the established town of Norridgewock were connected to Milburn as the village developed. All of these towns, for economic and social reasons, eventually combined to form Skowhegan, the Native American name for the falls and the island.

As time went on, manufacturing became an important part of Skowhegan’s economy. In 1790, one of the first settler’s, Peter Heywood, established a gristmill and a sawmill on the Skowhegan Island. Soon after this, a fulling and carding mill was constructed to process wool. Waterpower generated from the middle channel of the sluiceway supported these mills. In 1811, a milldam was built making it possible for an increase in industry. A tannery was constructed soon after this along with a foundry and a “pot house” where an early family, the Philbricks, crafted cream pots, bean crocks, molasses jugs, milk pans and other vessels from the red clay of the nearby riverbanks.

In the 19th century, other local products were manufactured including those made from steel and iron including cider mills, axes, scythes, and other tools. Wood products including window sashes, caskets, shovel handles continued to be manufactured making use of the abundant hydropower generated from the Skowhegan falls. The major industries emerging by the close of the 19th century were shoes, paper and wool. Manufacturing remained the base of economic growth in Skowhegan up until the 1970’s. Today, the mills no longer operate on the island leaving only the Weston hydroelectric station formerly owned by Central Maine Power.

One natural resource that has always been, and remains today a major economic force is wood. Skowhegan, being central in its location along the Kennebec, draws from the forests of both western and northern Maine. It has become a major manufacturing center for a variety of wood related products. In the 17th century the British Navy required masts constructed from the massive pine trees of Maine. Later, after the American Revolution, the cutting, sawing and transporting of enormous amounts of both pine and spruce boards began. Logging crews would cut wood in late summer and by winter roads were cleared for the dragging of logs to the river's edge. When the ice went out in the spring of the year the logs were dumped into the Kennebec where they floated to the mills.

Because of key players Abner and Philander Coburn, who assisted their father in surveying most all of the woods of northern Maine, Skowhegan became the hub for the logging industry. The Coburns purchased more than 400,000 acres of woodland cheaply from the state of Maine and by 1866 they employed more than 850 men to harvest 24 million board feet of lumber. Abner Coburn, who also served as Maine's 30th Governor in 1863-64, was additionally president of the Kennebec Log Driving Company. By 1853 this company processed more than 128 million feed of logs. The river drive in later years transported great quantities of long logs, and later pulp, from far in the northern forests around Moosehead Lake, down to the lumber mills of central Maine. The last drive was in 1976, and huge logging trucks have replaced the river in the transporting of logs to the mills.

Thus concludes a glimpse of Skowhegan’s rich and colorful past. There are many other interesting events and outstanding individuals who have contributed to the history of this small town in central Maine. The following sources are highly recommended for those yearning to probe more deeply.

Skowhegan on the Kennebec by Louise Colburn
History of the Old Towns: Norridgewock and Canaan by J.W. Hanson
Black Robe on the Kennebec by Mary Calvert

Skowhegan Community
In partnership with the Maine Memory Network | Project of Maine Historical Society