Norumbega: Camden's castle
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."