Norumbega: Camden's castle

By Barbara Dyer | Aug 09, 2014
Courtesy of: Barbara Dyer A view of "Norumbega" in 1897,the year after it was built.

Many of the so-called summer cottages are located on and just off High Street, under the mountains. Probably the best known of these is the “Norumbega,” that is a story in itself. Many refer to it as the “castle” and it is probably the most photographed place in town.

It was built in 1886 by Joseph B. Sterns. We do not know if he named it for the legend about the land of Norumbega. It seemed that the only thing that early mapmakers agreed upon seemed to be that a place called “Norumbega “or “Orumbega” existed. Most of the early maps had it in the Penobscot Bay region, but some had it extending as far south as Florida. Gastaldi showed the river of Norumbega to be the Penobscot River in his 1553 map. Legend has it to be the home of Bashaba, chief of the Penobscot tribe.

The original story was attributed to David Ingram of England, who shipped from Europe with Sir John Lawkins, noted for being one of the most notorious slave-traders of his time. The Native Americans turned on them and young David escaped. They say he journeyed far by foot, and finally was picked up off the coast of Maine by a European fishing vessel. He spread the story of the land of Norumbega, where the streets were paved with gold; rubies, emeralds and diamonds were for the taking. He said the women, who inhabited this place, were beautiful, dressed in animal skins and gold in their ears. He claimed to have lived with these people. David was known for consuming many tankards in the taverns, before expounding on this story. Sir Humphrey Gilbert believed him, but lost his life at sea, looking for the land of Norumbega. Explorer after explorer came searching without success, until Samuel Chaplain explored and dispelled the myth.

Joseph B. Stearns was born to a working Maine family. At age 18 he became very interested in telegraphy. It was in 1867 that he gave the world his invention, the duplex system of telegraphy. This he patented and sold the rights of the United States and Canada to Western Union. He soon traveled to England, France and Italy selling them royalties that made him a very wealthy man. Although he had traveled extensively all over the world, he considered Camden to be the most beautiful place of all.

He purchased a tract of land (25 acres, with 900-feet of shore frontage) on Belfast Road and built the magnificent stone house, Norumbega, from his own design. It was constructed by George Glover and D. A. Withington in six years. It was heavy and asymmetrical. On one side was a heavy port-cochere, and on the other side was a turret that ran from ground to roof and wide enough for bay windows. The main entrance had stained glass windows and the first floor finished in golden oak paneling. Over the port-cohere were shelves where he kept his rock collection. In the attic was his dark room for photography. His home had nine master bedrooms, library, living room, dining room, butler’s pantry and kitchen. He lived there until his death on July 4, 1895.

After that, there were various owners, including one a summer resident, from World War I until 1941. When it was owned by the Pitman family, they generously allowed the Camden Women’s Club to hold a tea open to the public. I believe it cost $1 to attend the tea and many people came because they had never been in the “castle.” Money received was donated to “Hands of Hope.” For a while it was owned by Hodding Carter, who referred to it as his “rock pile.” For 20 or more years it has been a bed and breakfast, with both a water view and a mountain view with seven lovely bedrooms, each with period furnishings and a private bath.

A long-time dear friend of mine, Genie, and I decided we would like a “fantasy vacation.” We did not go even two miles from home, but went to Norumbega. It was in November, and beautifully decorated for Christmas and no one else was booked as a guest. We said we were not tourist; always lived in Camden, but dreamed of living in Norumbega for a couple of days. They showed us all the rooms (off season rates), and I said, “We would love to have the third floor suite that overlooks the water.” They said, “We can arrange that. We shall get the fireplace ready and what would you like us to fill the bar with?” Genie and I looked at each other for a moment. I think they were shocked when she said, “I like milk,” and I replied that I liked ginger ale.

It was a wonderful quiet vacation from the telephone ringing. She read the book, ”Come Spring.” I wrote my Christmas cards. We went to dinner and we were waited on like royalty, as there were no other guests. It was delightful, and the nicest vacation I ever had, never leaving Camden.

There are rumors of ghosts in the “castle.” But houses in Camden that have ghosts may be another article.

Barbara Dyer is Camden's official town historian. While she has officially retired from writing "Who's Who," she still occasionally offers columns about Camden history and landmarks, saying "just one more."

Comments (10)
Posted by: Bill Packard | Aug 18, 2014 20:12

Nobody else researched  a story or wrote it, but they certainly got their pantyhose all knotted up about the porte chochere.  God bless em.

The Pittmans lived their when I was growing up and it's always been an interesting property in Camden.



Posted by: Barbara Dyer | Aug 18, 2014 18:22

I called the Norumbega and the rock collection is over the porte-cochere in a room now called the library .  I did, however, make one mistake and spelled porte-cochere incorrectly.  I have been invited to breakfast in the "castle" so I could see where his rock collection was.

Barbara F. Dyer

 



Posted by: Catherine Cooper | Aug 13, 2014 15:26

My Mom always wanted to stay at the Norumbega.as she lived in Camden and passed it often. I am glad to see the Inn restored and appreciate Barbie's stories on the history of Camden.



Posted by: Kendall Merriam | Aug 13, 2014 12:12

Ms. Dyer: You seem to be confusing the porte cochere with the stately front entrance with the peaked roofline and half-moon window, inside of which are shelves, etc. If you look at photos of the porte cochere, or the porte cochere as it is today and was in the 19th C., there is a very narrow roofline into which there is no shelving.



Posted by: Victoria Bucklin | Aug 12, 2014 15:00

One windy day in March in the mid 70's, I met two young men on the Outer Banks outside Ocracoke, NC. When they learned that I was from Camden, they each took out a piece of paper on which they had pledged to meet at Norumbega 10 years hence. At the time they had made the pledge, Norumbega was vacant and not in great shape. I always wondered if they saw the "castle" revived and maybe spent a night or two there.



Posted by: Barbara Dyer | Aug 11, 2014 14:04

When I found the history of the castle, I assumed the shelves over the port cochere was inside the building, but I was not there in 1886, so only know what I researched..

Barbara F. Dyer



Posted by: Maggie Trout | Aug 10, 2014 15:24

Excellent story that also illustrates that a person need not go far to get a change of scene and have a new experience without leaving immediate environs.  I'd still like to spend a week in one of Moody's cabins, and I appreciate such things as The Whitehall Inn's good restaurant discount for local Maine residents.

 

PS "Over the porte cochere were shelves."  Besides, there are such things as nooks and crannies in stone structures.  And carports are not remotely an apt comparison.  Back to the story being a fine one of interest to many people.



Posted by: Willaim Spear | Aug 10, 2014 12:39

In south Florida a porte cochere is called a carport.



Posted by: Kendall Merriam | Aug 10, 2014 10:07

A porte cochere is an open-sided, roofed extension of a structure over the driveway which protects people from the weather as they descended from their carriages or later, their vehicles, into a home or a public building. One would not be able "to keep a rock collection" in the porte cochere unless one somehow burrowed horozontially into the roof and viewed their collection in a prone position.



Posted by: DONNA BELYEA | Aug 10, 2014 07:13

I loved the story and am glad to find extra details of a wonderful building I have admired all my life here in Midcoast Maine ....Thanks so much.



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